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 practice 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.
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.
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.
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
- History of the Kings of Britain – York University
- Dinas Emrys Gwynedd, Wales. – Vortigern Studies
- The Mabinogion: The Story of Lludd and Llevelys
- History of the Britons (historia Brittonum), by Nennius
- Caer Guorthegirn on Yr Wyddfa / Snowdon, Gwynedd, Wales.
- The Holinshed Texts (1587, Volume 2, p. 83) – English Faculty projects
- File:Cotton Claudius B VII f.224 Merlin Vortigern.jpg From Wikimedia Commons – By Unknown illustrator. Per Nigel Morgan Survey, probably London, 1250 or earlier. Style of Matthew Paris, but not him. [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
- File:Vortigern-Dragons.jpg From Wikimedia Commons – Illumination of a 15th century manuscript of Historia Regum Britanniae showing king of the Britons Vortigern and Ambros watching the fight between two dragons. – Author: Unknown: Public Domain