The Prophecy of Merlin: The Two Dragons

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Vortigern and Merlin and the Two Dragons – Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

In the Arthurian realm of legend and romance destiny and fate play essential parts in many of the legends and stories.  The practise of some writers from the Romances back to Geoffrey of Monmouth to link to earlier works and legends often gives a sense that the main characters and events are governed by some supernatural force that shapes destiny and fate. Events that happened many years and sometimes centuries earlier, become linked to important events in later legends and stories returning to the fore after lying dormant. One of these events involved two important players in the Arthurian world, both having played a part in shaping the destiny of Britain before Arthur was even born.  These two were Vortigern who usurped the throne of Britain and a young Myrddin Emrys, also known as Myrddin Ambrosius or Merlin.  Vortigern gained infamy and a reputation for treachery and weakness and Merlin became the sorcerer, counselor and soothsayer of the kings of Britain in his time.

Fate and destiny combine in strange ways and an event from the distant past resurfaced to cause King Vortigern a problem he could not have foreseen and the only person who could solve this was the then young and unknown Merlin.  The two were brought together on Dinas Emrys where Merlin was inspired to make one of his most famous prophecies on the fate of Britain.  Sometimes  called the Prophecy of the Two Dragons or  The Prophecy of Merlin, it reveals the coming of Arthur and the future of Britain, making  him the leading soothsayer and sorcerer of his time.

Vortigern’s Fortress

According to Geoffrey of Monmouth, after the Treachery of the Long Knives, when the greater part of the nobility and leadership of the Britons had been brutally and treacherously murdered by Hengist and his Saxons, the wise men of King Vortigern, advised him to seek out a place where he might build a fortress as a place of safety to retreat to.

After searching what remained of his realm for a safe and suitable site he finally chose a rocky, wooded, hill about one mile from what is now called Beddgelert in Gwynedd, Wales, that rises to a height of about 250 feet above the valley of the River Glaslyn.  This hill was once called Dinas Ffaraon Dandde or fortress of Fiery Pharaoh, and later became known as Dinas Emrys which means fortress of Ambrosius.

Thinking he has found a good site Vortigern gave the command for the work on building the walls of the fortress to commence.   His builders worked hard building walls and towers in the daytime but no matter how far they progressed in a day, when they came back the next morning, they would find the previous day’s work in a heap on the ground.  Although the builders used all their skills and knowledge and worked as hard as they possibly could during the day, each morning they would return to find the previous day’s work once again in a pile on the ground. This went on for many days until Vortigern was obliged to seek help from his wise men. According to Nennius, a 9th century monk and writer, his wise men informed him that that he would have to seek out a young boy. “not conceived by a mortal man”. who would be sacrificed and his blood sprinkled in the mortar of the stonework in the hope of appeasing what ever dark power was hindering the construction of the fortress.

Myrddin Emrys

Vortigern sent his messengers out across the land seeking out such a boy.  After many days and much searching, one of the messengers returned with a boy named Myrddin Emrys or Merlin Ambrosius, who was the only boy they could find “not conceived by a mortal man”.

Geoffrey of Monmouth in his book Historia regum Britanniae (History of the Kings of Britain, 1137) says that Merlin was believed to have been the the son of an incubus, or demon and his mother was mortal and was a nun.   With the incubus representing Satan and the nun representing Jesus Christ, or God, he had been born from two opposing powers.  As such he was said to have inherited the wisdom, knowledge and powers of both of these forces.  He was brought before Vortigern who told him the fate he intended to inflict upon him.  Geoffrey says,

“A meeting took place the next day for the purpose of putting him to death. Then the boy said to the king, “Why have your servants brought me hither?” “That you may be put to death,” replied the king, “and that the ground on which my citadel is to stand, may be sprinkled with your blood, without which I shall be unable to build it.”

However, according to Geoffrey, Merlin was not intimidated by Vortigern.  Instead, he spoke with power and authority, demanding to know where he had got this idea from. He then declared to Vortigern he would reveal the real reason why the construction of the fortress was unsuccessful.

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Merlin reads his prophecies to King Vortigern – By Unknown illustrator. Per Nigel Morgan Survey, probably London, 1250 or earlier. Style of Matthew Paris, but not him. [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

The Prophecy of the Two Dragons

Geoffrey of Monmouth then gives the following account of Merlin’s interview with Vorigern and his wise men,

“Who,” said the boy, “instructed you to do this?” “My wise men,” answered the king. “Order them hither,” returned the boy; this being complied with, he thus questioned them: “By what means was it revealed to you that this citadel could not be built, unless the spot were previously sprinkled with my blood? Speak without disguise, and declare who discovered me to you;” then turning to the king, “I will soon,” said he, “unfold to you every thing; but I desire to question your wise men, and wish them to disclose to you what is hidden under this pavement:” they acknowledging their ignorance, “there is,” said he, “a pool; come and dig:” they did so, and found the pool. “Now,” continued he, “tell me what is in it;” but they were ashamed, and made no reply. “I,” said the boy, “can discover it to you: there are two vases in the pool;” they examined, and found it so: continuing his questions,” What is in the vases?” they were silent: “there is a tent in them,” said the boy; “separate them, and you shall find it so;” this being done by the king’s command, there was found in them a folded tent. The boy, going on with his questions, asked the wise men what was in it? But they not knowing what to reply, “There are,” said he, “two serpents, one white and the other red; unfold the tent;” they obeyed, and two sleeping serpents were discovered; “consider attentively,” said the boy, “what they are doing.” The serpents began to struggle with each other; and the white one, raising himself up, threw down the other into the middle of the tent, and sometimes drove him to the edge of it; and this was repeated thrice. At length the red one, apparently the weaker of the two, recovering his strength, expelled the white one from the tent; and the latter being pursued through the pool by the red one, disappeared. Then the boy, asking the wise men what was signified by this wonderful omen, and they expressing their ignorance, he said to the king,”

The wise men of Vortigern had no idea of what any these signs meant and could not hide their ignorance.  With growing confidence Merlin told them their meaning and then made a famous prophecy about the fate of Britain,

“I will now unfold to you the meaning of this mystery. The pool is the emblem of this world, and the tent that of your kingdom: the two serpents are two dragons; the red serpent is your dragon, but the white serpent is the dragon of the people who occupy several provinces and districts of Britain, even almost from sea to sea: at length, however, our people shall rise and drive away the Saxon race from beyond the sea, whence they originally came; but do you depart from this place, where you are not permitted to erect a citadel; I, to whom fate has allotted this mansion, shall remain here; whilst to you it is incumbent to seek other provinces, where you may build a fortress.”

Merlin then explained that the problems with the construction were actually caused by the two sleeping dragons waking up and fighting each other.  He explained the Red Dragon represented the defenders of Britain which although exhausted and appearing defeated would eventually rise up and repulse  the White Dragon of the invading Anglo-Saxons.   He told of the coming of Arthur who he referred to as the Boar of Cornwall which would be the emblem on his banner and prophesied that six kings descended from Arthur would rule before the Anglo-Saxons returned to rule over Britain.

Then Merlin told Vortigern that he was not destined to build his fortress on this site.  He told him that fate had given the ownership of the hill to himself and told Vortigern he must seek elsewhere for a suitable site.  Vortigern followed Merlin’s advice and eventually settled on Cair Guorthegirn whom some scholars think may be Craig Gwrtheyrn, Llandysul, Dyfed, but it is not proven and there are several other candidates. This was to be the place Vortigern met his death when it was burned down by Ambrosius and Uther, two brothers who attacked him out of revenge for killing another of their brothers who had been king.

For the defenders of Britain the prophecy of the two dragons was a momentous event, giving hope and inspiration for those who lived in those times to carry on the fight and was an important moment in the destiny of Britain and he went on to make further prophecies concerning the future of Britain beyond Arthur’s time. However, as with many other important events in the Arthurian world the seeds of this event were sown may centuries earlier before even the Romans ruled by a King of Britain named Lludd Llaw Eraint in the Mabinogion who in Geoffrey’s work is believed to be King Lud.

Lludd Llaw Eraint

The tale of Lludd and Llevelys from the Mabinogion reveals how these two dragons came to be placed in the pool on Dinas Emrys centuries earlier to be found later in Vorigern’s time and inspire the prophecy of Merlin.  In this tale Lludd and Llevelys are two brothers.  Lludd ruled Britain while Llevelys ruled Gaul.   There came a time when Britain was afflicted by three terrible plagues.  The first plague was that of the Coraniaid. The second was the plague of the two dragons.  The third was caused by a giant who would keep stealing the provisions from the royal stores.  It is the second plague that explains how the two dragons came to be entombed in the pool on Dinas Emrys.

The Plague of the Two Dragons

According to the tale they were placed there by Lludd acting on the advice of his brother, because they had caused Britain great fear and anxiety.   The story goes that every year on the eve of May Day a terrible shrieking scream was heard throughout the length and breadth of the realm which was caused by two dragons fighting each other.   One of the dragons was red and the other was white.   When the White Dragon fought the Red Dragon it caused it to make the fearful, shrieking cry.  It was this terrible scream that was heard throughout the country searing into the very hearts of the people causing great fear and anxiety among them.  The scream was so awful it caused strong men to wax pale and fall weak, women would lose their babies, and young men and maidens would become bereft of their senses. Furthermore, all creatures, plants and trees, waters and the earth itself became barren and infertile.  The plague was finally defeated when Lludd following the advice of his brother Llevelys set a trap for the dragons capturing and containing them.  He then buried them under the pool on Dinas Emrys which at the time was deemed to be the safest part of his kingdom.

His brother had advised Lludd that to capture the dragons he would need to dig a pit in the exact center of his kingdom.  After taking measurements from all corners of his realm Lludd determined that the center lay in a place now called Oxford.  He placed a cauldron of mead in the bottom of the pit and covered it with a sheet of satin.  To begin with the dragons took on the shape of terrifying animals and fell about fighting each other by the side of the pit. Then they transformed into huge winged beast and fought each other in the air.  Finally they exhausted themselves and transforming into pigs fell from the air landing on the covering of a satin sheet which gave way and they fell into the cauldron of mead.  Drinking the mead they fell into a stupor and fell asleep. Lludd then wrapped them up in the satin sheet and placed them in a stone coffin and took them to Dinas Emrys where they were placed under the pool on the hill.

Destiny and Fate

Centuries later Vortigern, seeking out a site to build a fortress, chose Dinas Emrys. There he encountered problems securing the foundations and sought to remedy this. According to his wise men he needed to sacrifice a boy “not conceived by a mortal man” and sprinkle his blood in the foundations.   Vortigern found such a being named Myrddin Emrys who made his famous prophecy and was to prove instrumental in ensuring the destiny of Britain unfolded.  This is how destiny and fate often come together to work in strange, unforeseen ways in the legends and romances of King Arthur.

© 05/07/2017 zteve t evans

References, Attributions and Further Information

Copyright July 5th, 2017 zteve t evans

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The Questing Beast and the doom of King Arthur

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Image by Howard Pyle – Public Domain

The Questing Beast in Arthurian legend

In Arthurian legend the Questing Beast was a strange, unworldly creature sought by some of the knights of the Round Table such as Sir Percival, Sir Palomides and Sir Pellinore.   The beast  was so named because of the noise it makes from its stomach that sound like a pack of questing hounds.  Sometimes because of this it was called the Beste Glatisant.  The word glatisant is related to a French word glapissant that means the barking or yelping of dogs.  It was also known as the Barking Beast and the Bizarre Beast.

Just as it was difficult to catch in the hunt it is an elusive beast in Arthurian legend and is presented differently in many of the versions of Arthurian stories at the different times in which it appears.  When it does appear it is usually in a short, symbolic way that prepares the ground for something of a profound or important nature.

The changing beast

The Questing Beast changed in appearance  from its first mention in early French Arthurian romances through various other works of literature through the ages.  The earliest versions described it as being a beautiful, pure white creature, smaller than a fox. The noise that issues from its belly was supposed to be the sound of its offspring that were tearing the insides of the beast apart. In later versions it becomes a very strange and unworldly beast having the body of a leopard, the head and neck of a snake, the haunches of a lion and the hooves of a deer depending on which text it appears in.

The first stories of the beast in Arthurian romance tells that it appeared after Arthur had an affair with Morgause, his half sister, which resulted in the conception of Mordred. They did not know they were related to each other when the incestuous affair began or how devastating the future consequences would prove to be.  Incest and adultery are significant themes in Arthurian legend which crop up in a number of stories.

Arthur and the Questing Beast

Arthur had to fight many battles and defeat many kings before he was acknowledged as overlord of all.  Throughout the fighting he had two invaluable aids that he relied upon. The first was Merlin his enigmatic mentor and trusted councilor.  The second was  his sword, Excalibur which he only drew from necessity.  As his conquests and fame spread knights came to follow him from across Britain.  Knights also came from over the sea such as Sir Lancelot, Sir Palomides and and the brothers Sir Ban and Sir Bors from Gaul.  It came to Arthur’s attention that one of his friends, the King of Cameliard was being attacked and was in dire need of assistance.  He and Sir Ban and King Bors went to his aid.  It was during this time that Arthur first saw and met with Guinevere who later became his queen.  After they had been victorious in the fighting Sir Ban and Sir Bors returned over the sea to Gaul but Arthur traveled to a town then called Carlion that lay upon the river Usk.

A dream of chaos

On his way he stopped to rest from his labors and while he rested he had a strange dream. He saw in this dream a land ravaged and haunted by gryphons, serpents and monsters of all kinds.  They preyed upon the people killing them and making them live in terror and chaos.  In his dream he fought against the monsters and although he finally killed them all bringing order to chaos he was badly wounded in the process.

The hart

He awoke from slumber with a heavy heart for the dream had seemed real and now it troubled him greatly.  In an attempt to drive it from his mind he called his knights telling them they would go hunting and the party rode off into the forest in search of game.  Once in the forest they soon roused a hart and Arthur  gave chase.   The hart ran hard and fast and his horse could not out pace it but Arthur would not give up and chased it all day long. Still he could not gain on it and eventually his exhausted horse died underneath him from its exertions.

The Questing Beast

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Arthur and the Questing Beast – Public Domain

Unable to continue the chase Arthur sat underneath a tree until he heard the sound of a pack of baying hounds coming in his direction. Raising his head to look he was astounded to see that a most strange and unworldly beast was coming through the forest towards him.

The sound of the yelping dogs was coming from inside it.  Never before had he seen or heard of such a creature as this and he watched in silent astonishment as it passed by.

The beast made its way to a nearby spring where it stopped and drank.  While it drank the terrible sound emitted from its belly stopped.  When it had  finished drinking the sound began again and the beast moved off disappearing into the forest.

Pellinore

As Arthur sat thinking about the strange creature along came a knight riding on an exhausted horse.  Seeing Arthur resting under the tree deep in thought he reined in his horse and asked Arthur if he had seen any sign of a bizarre and fell beast. Arthur told him that indeed he had and that it had appeared from the forest taken a drink at the well and then returned to the forest.  He also told him the way it had gone advising that it was probably two miles away by this time.  Curious about the knight, Arthur asked his name and what he wanted with such an unworldly creature.

The knight not seem to recognizing Arthur as king and replied that his name was Pellinore and he had followed the breast for a long time over a great distance.  He said he had ridden his poor horse nearly to death in pursuit of it and would continue still if he could only find a replacement.  In other stories Pellinore nearly kills Arthur who is saved by Merlin and Pellinor becomes a Knight of the Round Table and serves Arthur valiantly.

At that moment one of Arthur’s squires arrived with a fresh horse for Arthur. Seeing this the knight begged Arthur for the horse telling him he had pursued the breast for twelve months and swore that either he would kill it, or it would kill him.  Arthur then spoke to Pellinore and advised that he should let go of the pursuit and he would take it up for the same duration of time that he had hunted it, saying he had done his part and urged him to accept this offer.  Pellinore though would not accept this telling him it was his family’s doom to seek the beast and called Arthur a fool for making such a suggestion.  He told him that no one else in the world could kill the beast save himself and his next of kin, though he was mistaken possibly through his obsession with it.  The beast could only be killed by a few chosen individuals whose qualifications for the task are not revealed, but those who join the pursuit become totally obsessed to the point of derangement with it.

Pellinore then sprang forward pushing his squire aside and leapt upon the fresh horse he led. Arthur shook his head and told him that while he could steal his horse by force while he was unmounted he would like the chance to see which of them was the best horseman with a lance. Pellinore replied that when he wanted him he should come to this spring and there he would always be found. He then spurred the fresh horse in pursuit of the beast leaving Arthur bemused at Pellinore and the events that had unfolded.  Puzzled and annoyed Arthur watched as Pellinore rode off after the beast.  Then he sent his squire to fetch another horse and sat down under the tree again to wait.

Arthur meets a boy

Merlin, Arthur’s councilor and enchanter, transformed himself into a boy and appeared out of the forest to Arthur to his surprise and asked him why he seemed so thoughtful. Seeing only a boy Arthur told him that after what he had just seen he had  a lot to think about as it was the strangest thing in the world. The boy told him that he knew what he had just seen and that he should not let his mind dwell upon it.  He then told him that he knew all of his thoughts and that he knew Uther Pendragon was his father and that the Lady Igraine was his mother. This angered Arthur who demanded to know how he knew what he did not. The boy turned and told him that no one in the world knew him better than he and vanished into the forest.

Arthur meets an old man

Merlin then transformed himself into an old man and appeared to Arthur in this guise and went and sat down by the spring to rest. As Arthur approached to talk to him Merlin asked him why he looked so sad.  Arthur told him he had a lot to be sad about and that he had just met a boy who told him him things about himself that he should not know, adding that he knew the names of his mother and father.   The old man told him that the boy was right and that if he had only have listened to him he would have told him that he had made God angry when he lay with his sister.  From this would come a child that would bring down his realm killing him and his knights.  Astounded and angry Arthur demanded to know who he was he was now talking to.

Merlin’s revelations

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Merlin – Public Domain

The old man transformed into Merlin and told Arthur it was he who had come to him as a boy and then an old man.  He then told him that he knew all things that were to come and explained the origin of  the Questing Beast.

Merlin reveals to him that a human princess had given birth to the beast after she had lusted after her own brother.  A demon had promised to make her brother love her if she slept with it.  She agreed to the bargain but  when it was done the demon manipulated her into falsely accusing her brother of rape.  Her furious father ordered that her brother should be torn limb from limb by dogs.

Just before he died her brother foretold that his sister would conceive a monster that would make the same noise that the dogs made as he was torn apart.  As he had prophesied his sister gave birth to the monstrous Questing Beast.

Arthur’s doom revealed

Merlin then revealed to Arthur his destiny saying that he would die nobly being killed in battle. He then told him his own destiny would be shameful being imprisoned alive in the earth.  While they were talking Arthur’s squire returned with fresh horses.  Arthur and Merlin both mounted the  horses and rode off to Carlion.  When they arrived Arthur sent for Ulfius and Ector who had both known him since birth and asked them the truth about his parents and his conception.  They confirmed to him that Uther Pendragon was his father and Queen Igraine his mother. Arthur then sent for Igraine who came bringing with her fair daughter, Morgan le Fay with her.  Arthur welcomed them both in a way befitting their status and with great respect and Igraine confirmed what he had been told..

Chaos and balance

In this story the appearance of the Questing Beast  can be seen as a precursor to introduce a situation that is not right, or is unnatural, where the combination of wrongs, or even a single wrong, work to influence and manifest in the future.  For Arthur his incestuous liaison with Morgause will produce Mordred dooms him even though both were unaware of their relationship to each other. The beast was born from an incestuous relationship between the princess and her brother that produced the abominable creature. In the Arthurian world incest is against  the natural order creating chaos and unbalancing the human world.  Somehow the balance of nature must be restored and it is Pellinore and others after him who join the quest to kill the beast that tries to restore the balance of nature.

In the Arthurian world sin is not forgotten or cast aside it comes back in later life often with devastating effect and some see the  Questing Beast as a manifestation of the incest, violence and chaos that eventually destroys Arthur’s realm.  The irony is the beast itself is innocent, as was Arthur in the deception that Merlin placed on Igraine when Uther laid with her.   Both are the product of the wrongdoing of others and yet they become the instruments of god, or the gods.

The doom of King Arthur

So when Arthur meets the Questing Beast after dreaming of his own downfall he is told by Merlin about the circumstances  of his own birth.  He is told how he will be the father of the man who eventually kills him and brings his kingdom to ruin through his incestuous affair with Morgause.  Once Arthur had this knowledge he needed to find a way to deal with it which in later stories he attempts to do.  Although he cannot save his earthly life some might say he successfully saved his soul in how he later  eventually deals with Mordred and dies nobly in battle as foretold. Yet there is disagreement over whether he died.  Some accounts say he died while others say he was taken to Avalon for healing. Still others say he sleeps in a cave or waits in Avalon for the time he will return to save Britain from her enemies.

© 11/04/2016  zteve t evans

References and Attributions

Copyright April 11th, 2016 zteve t evans

Legendary Chalice Well of Glastonbury

Cover of the Chalice Well – Theangryblackwoman at en.wikipedia – CC BY 2.5

Chalice Well is a natural spring surrounded by gardens situated at the foot of Glastonbury Tor near the town of Glastonbury in the English county of Somerset.  Today it is managed by the Chalice Well Trust which was founded in 1959 by Wellesley Tudor Pole and is a grade 1 listed building.  In 2009, the the Exeter University School conducted research which revealed the well was fed by an aquifer.

Joseph of Arimathea

According to legend when Joseph of Arimathea came to England He brought along with him the cup Christ used at the Last Supper to serve his followers wine.  Immediately after Joseph had hidden the chalice the waters of the spring were sad to have turned red.   The Holy Chalice became associated and eventually interchangeable with the Holy Grail which originated in Arthurian legends.  Read more Continue reading