Merlin and the Giant’s Dance: The Victory of Art over Strength

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By Blaeu, J (Atlas van Loon) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

According to Geoffrey of Monmouth in History of the Kings of Britain  Merlin was an advisor, prophet and magician of kings.  One of his greatest feats was to dismantle a huge stone circle known as the Giant’s Dance situated on Mount Killaraus in Ireland and bring it across the Irish Sea to Britain where he installed it for King Aurelius Ambrosius as a monument to the victims of a Saxon massacre of leading Britons.  What follows is a retelling of the story of how and why Merlin brought the Giant’s Dance from Ireland to Britain beginning with the return of Aurelius and his brother, Uther.

The Return of Aurelius Ambrosius

While the usurper King Vortigern had been misruling Britain in violent times, the true heirs to the throne, Aurelius Ambrosius and his brother Uther had been sent to  Armorica by opponents of the king being too young to rule and to protect them from him.As Aurelius grew up  he entered many of the royal tournaments around Europe and fought for Armorica in many of their battles. He gained a fearsome reputation as a formidable warrior and leader of men.

As he and Uther had come of age, with the help of the King of Armorica, they prepared for their return to Britain.  They intended to, wreak vengeance on Vortigern and defeat Hengist and the Saxons and reclaim their rightful inheritance.   They built a great fleet of ships and filled them with warriors and sailed across the sea to disembark their troops at Totnes.  News of their arrival spread like wildfire.  The remaining warlords of the Briton flocked to their cause making Aurelius the King of Britain.  After a series of battles they defeated their enemies killing Vortigern and Hengist and succeeded in driving out the Saxons.

As he had marched to battle King Aurelius had been appalled at the damage and suffering the Saxons had caused.  Now victorious, he called a council of his lords and clergy to discuss and plan the rebuilding of war-ravaged Britain.  He brought back the old laws and returned lands to those that had lost them to the Saxons.  Where there was no living heir he divided these lands among his loyal followers.

The Treachery of the Long Knives

He travelled through many towns and cities and eventually arrived in Winchester. Then he traveled to Kaercaradduc, now known as Salisbury and at the instigation of Bishop Eldad visited the monastery of Ambrius.  This was the place where the murder of the British lords and nobles took place at the instigation of Hengist.  This event had scarred the psyche of the Britons and became known as The Treachery of the Long Knives. Aurelius visited the burial place of the victims and was overcome with emotion with the terrible event that happened there.  He began to think about an appropriate monument to remember and honour the victims by so that Britons should never forget the treachery wrought by Hengist and the Saxons

Seeking inspiration he brought together the best masons, carpenters and artisans in Britain  telling them to design and build a fitting monument.   After much deliberation these worthy men went to King Aurelius and told him despite their skills and craftsmanship they could not between them come up with a fitting design.  Then the archbishop of the City of the Legions, stood up and said,

“If any one living is able to execute your commands, Merlin, the prophet of Vortigern, is the man. In my opinion there is not in all your kingdom a person of a brighter genius, either in predicting future events, or in mechanical contrivances. Order him to come to you, and exercise his skill in the work which you design.” (1)

Merlin had gained fame when he had revealed to Vortigern the  two hidden dragons that  were hidden in a pool that caused building work on a new stronghold to collapse.  He also predicted the arrival of Aurelius Ambrosius and his brother Uther with an invasion force to take back the crown of Britain.  Merlin also forewarned Vortigern that he saw two deaths for him: one by Aurelius and the other by the Anglo-Saxons.  It so happened that Aurelius reached him first and burnt him to death in his stronghold.  Merlin also predicted there would come a king who would drive out the Anglo-Saxons from Briton and create an empire in Europe and that would be Arthur.

Merlin’s Advice

Hearing what was said, Aurelius sent messengers to find and bring back Merlin.  The messengers traveled to all parts of the country and eventually found him.  The message was given and Merlin was escorted to the court of King Aurelius Ambrosius.  Aurelius welcomed Merlin warmly and made it clear he was very pleased to see him.  He was genuinely curious about him and his prophecies asking many questions concerning them. Then he requested that he make a prophecy there and then.  Merlin declined saying,

“Mysteries of this kind are not to be revealed but when there is the greatest necessity for it. If I should pretend to utter them for ostentation or diversion, the spirit that instructs me would be silent, and would leave me when I should have occasion for it.” (2)

Others present urged and encouraged him but he flatly refused. Aurelius, respecting Merlin’s answer changed the subject and told him of his idea to built a fitting monument to those who died during The Treachery of the Long Knives.   He explained how the best craftsmen and masons in Britain could not think of a suitable design and requested his opinion  on the matter.  Merlin replied,

“If you are desirous,to honour the burying-place of these men with an everlasting monument, send for the Giant’s Dance, which is in Killaraus, a mountain in Ireland. For there is a structure of stones there, which none of this age could raise, without a profound knowledge of the mechanical arts. They are stones of a vast magnitude and wonderful quality; and if they can be placed here, as they are there, round this spot of ground, they will stand for ever.” (3)

King Aurelius Ambrosius was bemused and laughed out loud thinking he was not serious saying,

“How is it possible to remove such vast stones from so distant a country, as if Britain was not furnished with stones fit for the work?”  (4)

However, Merlin was very serious and told him sternly,

“I entreat your majesty to forbear vain laughter; for what I say is without vanity. They are mystical stones, and of a medicinal virtue. The giants of old brought them from the farthest coast of Africa, and placed them in Ireland, while they inhabited that country. Their design in this was to make baths in them, when they should be taken with any illness.

For their method was to wash the stones, and put their sick into the water, which infallibly cured them. With the like success they cured wounds also, adding only the application of some herbs. There is not a stone there which has not some healing virtue.” (5)

Then Aurelius and all those present fell silent at the words of Merlin.  Aurelius discussed the proposal with those present and it was agreed that such a monument to the dead would be fitting.  The king’s younger brother, Uther was appointed command of an army fifteen thousand strong.  He was to travel to Ireland to Mount Killaraus and bring the stones back to Britain using any means necessary including force.   Merlin was also sent with him as his advisor and to direct the work in uprooting and transporting thèm from the legendary mountain back across the sea to Britain and then to their final destination at Ambrius.  Once there, he would set them up exactly as they had been in Ireland.   A suitable fleet of ships was built to carry the stones and the army under the leadership of Uther, with Merlin as his advisor, set sail for Ireland.

The Taking of the Giant’s Dance

The King of Ireland was a young man named Gillomanius.  When he heard of the landing of an army of Britons  upon the shores of his kingdom be wasted no time in mustering his own warriors to counter the threat.  On being told the motive for their presence he laughed long and loudly.  He poured scorn and derision on them saying,

No wonder a cowardly race of people were able to make so great a devastation in the island of Britain, when the Britons are such brutes and fools. Was ever the like folly heard of? What are the stones of Ireland better than those of Britain, that our kingdom must be put to this disturbance for them? To arms, soldiers, and defend your country; while I have life they shall not take from us the least stone of the Giant’s Dance.” (6)

Gillomanius ordered his army into defensive positions around the stones.  Uther, seeing the Irish intent to defend the Giant’s Dance and with his mission and goal clear commanded the army of the Britons to attack.   The Britons forced the Irish to scatter preventing them from uniting. Gillomanius was routed and forced off Mount Killaraus leaving the stones to the Britons.

When at last they stood on Mount Killaraus before the Giant’s Dance, Uther and the Britons were full of admiration for what they saw and stood in awe looking at them.  Then Merlin came among the army of the Britons and challenged them saying,

“Now try your forces, young men, and see whether strength or art can do the most towards taking down these stones.” (7)

Taking up the challenge the soldiers went to work work trying all sorts of levers and pulleys with great lengths of ropes and cables.  They pulled, pushed and sweated and strained  but no matter how hard they tried they could not move a single stone one inch.

After watching their efforts for some time in quiet amusement Merlin then took command of the project.   He showed them how to construct engines he had designed and under his watchful eye and supervision the stones were taken easily from the ground and transported to the ships and placed safely on board.  When all the stones were loaded the fleet set off under a fair wind to Britain where Merlin supervised their transport to the site prepared at Ambrius.

When messengers brought the news of their arrival in Britain to King Aurelius Ambrosius he was overjoyed.  He summoned all of Britain’s noblemen and clergy to celebrate the feast of the Pentecost at the monastery of Ambrius to formally dedicate the monument to those fallen in The Treachery of the Long Knives.   The celebrations lasted for three days and in front of the whole assembly and with respect to all royal protocol, Aurelius placed the crown of Britain on his head.  Then he sent for his servants and insisted they join with the nobles and clergy in feasting as thanks for their excellent and loyal service.

The Victory of Art over Strength

He then attended to all necessary business matters and appointed bishops to the vacant sees of York and the City of Legions, known today as Caerleon.  He gave York to Sanxo and the City  of Legions to Dubricius.  After he had settled other affairs of his realm he commanded Merlin to reconstruct the Giant’s Dance around the graves of the victims of the Saxon treachery.   Merlin used the same arts and techniques he had used on Mount Killaraus to quickly install the Giant’s Dance on their new site exactly as they had been in Ireland.   Once erected the Giant’s Dance proved to be a most fitting and enduring monument as King Aurelius had intended and answered Merlin’s challenge proving “the victory of art over strength” 

When King Aurelius Ambrosius died he was buried in the Giant’s Dance and his younger brother Uther became King of Britain.  When Uther died through treachery he too was buried there and today the Giant’s Dance still stands as a monument to the victims of treachery and betrayal.

© 21/11/2017 zteve t evans

References, Attributions and Further Reading

Copyright November 22st, 2017 zteve t evans

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Merlin and the Prophecy of the Star and the Fiery Dragon

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Waldemar Flaig [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

King Aurelius Ambrosius

The legendary Merlin is one of the best known characters in Arthurian legend and romance and many remarkable feats are attributed to him.  In The History of the Kings of Britain (Historia regum Britanniae) written about 1136 by Geoffrey of Monmouth he was an advisor, magician and prophet of kings.  Presented here is a retelling of one of his prophecies inspired by a comet that reveals the death of the King  of the Britons, Aurelius Ambrosius.   He predicts his younger brother Uther would take the crown and from him would come a king who would be the hope and inspiration of the Britons and a daughter who would beget a line of kings.  The story begins after Ambrosius had driven out the Saxons and pacified the Picts on the borderlands to establish himself as undisputed King of the Britons after a long hard fight against powerful enemies.

Uther

Even the great and the good can fall sick and Aurelius Ambrosius, the King of the Britons  fell seriously ill.   At this time,  Pascentius, a son of his old enemy Vortigern and Gillomanius the King of Ireland both bore him a grudge and plotted together against him.  Gillomanius hated him for commanding his younger brother Uther and Merlin to bring back the Giant’s Dance from Mount Killaraus in Ireland at any cost.  Consequently Uther fought the Irish king in battle over the stones and defeated.  Then Merlin used his arts to uproot them and transport them to a new site in Britain. Pascentius hated him for killing his father the former king and defeating him in an earlier battle and because he believed he should be king.  They  joined forces and landed with a powerful army at Menevia.  With the king lying in his sick bed, Uther, the younger brother of Aurelius, took it upon himself to defend the kingdom against the invaders and with Merlin to advise him led his troops to meet the foe.

The Star and the Fiery Dragon

On their march to battle, Uther and his army were amazed to see in the heavens a star of such brilliance it not only lit up the night sky, but could be seen plainly in daylight. Never had Uther or any of his men seen anything like it before.  They were astounded by it and also frightened.  From the star there sprang a single ray of light that formed into a shape like that of a fiery dragon. From the dragon’s mouth two rays were emitted.  One stretched out reaching across Britain and across the sea and into Gaul. The other stretched across the Irish Sea and divided into seven smaller rays of equal length.  The whole display could be seen across all of Britain and beyond.  The people were filled with fear and awe not knowing of its meaning and fearing it portended some terrible event and Uther called upon Merlin for an explanation.  Merlin, who had foretold the death of Vortigern the previous king and made the Prophesy of the Two Dragons and other predictions looked upon the spectacle and then cried out,

“O irreparable loss! O distressed people of Britain! Alas! The illustrious prince is departed! The renowned king of the Britons, Aurelius Ambrosius, is dead! whose death will prove fatal to us all, unless God be our helper. Make haste, therefore, most noble Uther, make haste to engage the enemy: the victory will be yours, and you shall be king of all Britain, For the star, and the fiery dragon under it, signifies yourself, and the ray extending towards the Gallic coast, portends that you shall have a most potent son, to whose power all those kingdoms shall be subject over which the ray reaches. But the other ray signifies a daughter, whose sons and grandsons shall successively enjoy the kingdom of Britain.” (1)

Although Uther was also in awe of the spectacle he doubted Merlin.  He was now within half a day’s march of Menevia and Pascentius and Gillomius and knew he could not return to Winchester and allow them to move inland with such a great army.  Therefore, he decided to confront them as quickly as possible and pressed on.

Uther’s Victory

Pascentius and Gillomanius soon became aware of the approach of Uther and ordered their own troops into battle formation and moved to meet the Britons.  As soon as the two sides met battle commenced. No quarter was asked and none given by the Irish or the Britons and the fighting was bloody and fierce with much loss of life on both sides.  As the day wore on the Britons gained the upper hand killing both Pascentius and Gillomanius.  With the deaths of their leaders the enemy broke and scattered giving Uther absolute victory.  He chased and harried the enemy back to their ships killing any that that were caught.

The Death of Aurelius

With the enemy flying before him Uther rested and savoured his victory but soon there came a messenger from Winchester that brought the sad news of the death of King Aurelius Ambrosius of the Britons.   The messenger told him Aurelius had received a fitting funeral conducted by the most celebrated clergy in the land.  They had deemed it proper that he be buried with all royal ceremony inside the Giant’s Dance.  This had seemed the most fitting burial place for him having been obtained and built at his instigation as an everlasting memorial to commemorate the victims of the The Night of the Long Knives.

Uther is Crowned King

Although Uther had enjoyed his victory, the death of his elder brother grieved him greatly.  This made him more determined to see through the great events they had been through together.  With his brother dead, Uther was now the rightful heir to the kingdom of Britain.  Calling together all the clergy and nobles in the land with their unanimous agreement and support he was crowned King of Britain.

Uther Pendragon

Taking inspiration from the rayed star and the fiery dragon he had seen before the battle and from Merlin’s prophecy he commanded two statuettes of solid gold to be made.  One he gave to Winchester Cathedral, but the second he kept for himself. From that time onward it was carried with him in all of his battles and this is how he came to be called Uther Pendragon, meaning head of the dragon.   From Uther Pendragon would come a son who was destined to be the great hope of the Britons.  His name would be Arthur Pendragon and he would drive out the Saxons pacify the Picts, Gaels and Irish and build a great empire.  He would also have a daughter whose children and grandchildren would rule Britain fulfilling the Prophecy of the Star and the Fiery Dragon by Merlin, the prophet of kings.

© 08/11/2017 zteve t evans

References, Attributions and Further Reading

Copyright November 8th, 2017 zteve t evans

(1)  [PDF] History of the Kings of Britain – York University – Page 138

Waldemar Flaig [Public domain], via Wikimedia CommonsWaldemar Flaig [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Lludd and Llevelys and the Three Plagues of Britain

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Cropped image of Two Dragons from History of the Kings of Britain by Geoffrey of Monmouth – Public Domain

King Lludd

King Lludd appears in the Mabinogion in the story of Lludd and Llevelys as King of Britain.  This is a tale that tells how with the help of Llevelys, his younger brother, he overcome the Three Plagues of Britain that had caused his people great anxiety and fear.  It is thought that Geoffrey of Monmouth in the History of the Kings of Britain refers to him as Lud and it may be the case that the Mabinogion tale owes much to Geoffrey.

After the death of his father Beli the Great, as his eldest son, Lludd became King of the Island of Britain.   Lludd was a great and generous king and a mighty warrior and leader of men.  He was generous in giving food and hospitality to any who sought it from him and cared for the welfare of his lords and subjects.  During the reign of Lludd the island of Britain prospered greatly.  Lludd rebuilt the city of London that Brutus the Trojan, the legendary first King of Britain was said to have founded.  He surrounded it with strong walls with many towers to defend its citizens and called upon his subjects to built fine houses within those walls and London became the finest and richest city on the island of Britain.

King Llevelys

According to the Mabinogion, Lludd had three brothers and the youngest named Llevelys was his favourite. He was extremely fond of Llevelys who grew up to be a very wise and discreet man whom he could always trust.   It so happened that when the King of France passed away and having no male heirs to the throne he had left his kingdom to his daughter.  Llevelys sought her hand in marriage and after a successful courtship  married her and became the ruler of France.   He was to prove to be a good and just ruler who governed with great wisdom for many years and had a long and happy life.

The Three Plagues of Britain

The island of Britain ruled by Lludd continued to prosper as did France ruled by Llevelys.  There came a time in Britain when the situation changed for the worse and the people grew fearful and troubled.  Three plagues had descended upon the island of Britain that caused the people great distress and anxiety.   The first of these plagues was a people called the Coranians, the second was an unearthly Shriek heard throughout the land and the third was the theft of Royal provisions.

The Coranians

The Coranians were said to be a race of dwarves who had the power to hear anything and everything the wind touched.  No word could be spoken anywhere without them instantly hearing it.  They could hear every word that was uttered upon the island of Britain and so could never be attacked unprepared.  In some texts they were said to have settled near the Humber and allies themselves with the enemies of Britain.

The Shriek

The second plague came every year on the eve of May Day when without fail the most unearthly and terrifying shriek was heard throughout the land.  It was such an awful and terrifying sound that it would pierce the hearts of the people causing such terror that grown men turned pale and maidens lost their reason and cause animals, trees and the very earth to become barren.

Theft of Provisions

The third plague was baffling and annoying.   However much of the King’s food and drink was prepared in the Royal courts from morning to nightfall the next morning it would be discovered to have vanished overnight without a trace.

Lludd Seeks Counsel

Of these three plagues Lludd had more hope of being cured of the first than the other two because he knew the cause of the first, whereas with the other two the cause was a mystery.  Lludd called together the princes, the nobles and his wise men of his realm to discuss and set out a course of action.  After much debating and arguing they had to admit they were all baffled not knowing the cause so not knowing a remedy.  In the end it was decided by all that Lludd should travel to the court of his youngest brother Llevelys to ask his advice and most  being the wisest person and most trustworthy they knew.  All further preparations for the voyage were done in silence in case the Coranians heard of the venture. So it was that in silence and secrecy a fleet of ships embarked from the island of Britain bound for France to seek out the counsel of Llevelys.

When tidings of the fleet reached Llevelys he was puzzled at the meaning of the ships not knowing his brother’s reason for them.  Llevelys then assembled his own fleet and sailed to meet him.    When Lludd saw his brother’s fleet he immediately ordered all ships save the one that bore him to hold back while he sailed to meet his brother.   On seeing this Llevelys immediately did the same and the two brothers met together and embraced in love,  friendship and joy at their reunion.

Defeating the Coranians

Brass tube of Llevelys

Levely flushes out the Demon – Public Domain

After Lludd had explained the cause of his visit Llevelys said that it was good that he had come and that he could help and advised they go below ship out of the wind lest the Coranians should get word of their meeting.   Llevelys ordered the making of a long brass tube that they could use to talk through to one another without fear of the Coranians hearing.  This was done but when they spoke to each other through the tube the only words the hearer could hear from the speaker were all words of anger and hostility.  Llevelys realised that the horn was possessed by a demon of some kind that was deliberately twisting their words into anger.  He washed it through with wine which because of the goodness of the wine the demon to flee.

When at last Llevelys and Lludd could talk freely and naturally to each other Llevelys told his brother that he would provide him with insects and teach him how to crush these in water to create a mixture that would rid him of the Coranians. He would also teach him how to breed them should the Coralians ever return.  He instructed Lludd that he would need to throw the specially prepared mixture over the Coranians and they would be destroyed but not harm any of the people of Britain that the mixture might fall upon.

The Two Dragons

Two Dragons

The Two Warring Dragons – Public Domain

Then Llevelys turned his attention to the second plague and said,

“The second plague is caused by a dragon within your realm that is fighting a foreign dragon in a life or death battle.  The dragon of your realm is making the fearful shriek and here is what you must do.

When you return home you must have the length and breadth of the island of Britain measured from this you must work out the exact center of the island.  There in the very heart of the island you must have a deep pit dug and place a cauldron filled with the best mead in the land to be placed in the bottom of the pit.  Then, cover the cauldron with a sheet of satin and there you, yourself must remain to watch for the warring beasts which will appear in the form of two terrible animals.  These will fight each other but eventually they will rise into the air and take the form of two dragons.  These will continue to fight furiously in the air until they grow tired and will transform into pigs and drop out of the air into the cauldron onto the satin covering and fall through sinking to the bottom of the cauldron and drink up the mead.  This will cause them to fall asleep and as soon as they are asleep wrap the around in the sheet and then place them in a stone kistvaen and transport them to the strongest place of your kingdom and bury them.  While they remain buried in that place no plague shall again trouble Britain.” (1)

Mighty Man of Magic

Mighty Man of Magic

Mighty Man of Magic Stealing the King;s Provisions – Public Domain

Llevelys then told his brother that the cause of the third plague was a mighty man of magic who was using his magical arts to send everyone to sleep while he stole the food from Lludd’s court.  To prevent this Llevelys advised that it would be necessary for Lludd himself to stay awake to guard the store and confront the thief.  He told him to ensure he stays awake he should keep a cauldron of cold water at his side to splash over his face should he begin to drowse.

Lludd Frees Britain of the Plagues

Thanking his brother Lludd returned to Britain where he summoned the whole of his people along with the Coranians to a great meeting.  He had previously crushed and prepared the insect mixture as his brother had taught him and when all were assembled he threw the concoction over the Coranians killing them but leaving the Britons unharmed.    In this way through the advice of Llevelys the Coranians were defeated and the plague ended.

After this Lludd had his servants measure the length and breadth of Britain to determine the center of the realm and decided this was at a place now known as Oxford.  In that place Lludd had a pit dug and placed a cauldron of mead at its base.  He then covered it with a sheet of satin as his brother had advised.  On the eve of May Day he set himself to watch what events should unfold.

That night he witnessed the appearance of the two warring beasts who immediately set about fighting each other just as his brother had foretold. He saw how they rose into the air and transformed into great fighting dragons.  He watched as they battled each other and eventually overcome with exhaustion fell from the air into the cauldron of mead which they then drank and fell into a deep slumber.   Seizing his chance Lludd wrapped them in the satin sheet and placed them into a stone container and transported them to Dinas Emrys, which was the strongest part of his kingdom at the time.   This action ended the fearful shrieking that had plagued and terrified the entire island of Britain.

After this, Lludd resolved to deal with the mighty man of magic who had been plundering his stores.  He ordered a great banquet to be prepared  and setting himself on watch with a vessel of cold water beside him he awaited the arrival of the thief.  In the dead hours after midnight he heard many wonderful songs and many curious things and found himself sinking into a dreamy slumber.   Rousing himself he splashed his face with old water from the cauldron. He found he needed to do this often battling to stay awake.

As he fought against the slumber he became aware of the appearance of a huge man clad in the armour of a warrior and armed with a sword.  The giant proceed to gather all the food and drink and place it in a huge hamper.  Lludd sat still and watched for a while in wonderment and was further amazed that the hamper never overflowed with all that was being placed inside.  At last he decided enough was enough and jumping up and cried, “Stop! stop! You have insulted me enough!  Stop now or face my sword!

Ludd and the Mghty Man of Magic

Lludd Fights the Mighty Man of Magic – Public Domain

With a mighty roar the giant threw down the hamper and rushed at Lludd with his drawing his sword.  Lludd rushed to meet him and they fell together in deadly combat.  Fire flew from their swords and after a hard fight fortune gave the victory to Lludd.  As he threw down his foe to the ground and had him at the mercy of his sword he asked,  “Should I spare thee for all the wrongs you have done me?”

“Spare me and all that I have taken shall be returned in equal amount and from this day on I will be your faithful servant,” replied the giant. Lludd quickly reflected upon this and accepted and the Mighty Man of Magic served him faithfully and fully as he had promised.

The Two Dragons Reappear

So it was that Lludd rid Britain of the three plagues and from that day on his realm bloomed and prospered in peace and security and so the story of Lludd and Llevelys ended.  However, part of the story was to reappear many centuries later in the time of King Vortigern when the two dragons resurfaced to hinder the construction of a fortress Vortigern was building. This event was to see the emergence of a young Merlin who prophesied the coming of Arthur who would unite Britain under his banner and become King of Britain and drive out the Anglo-Saxon invaders at least for a time.

© 12/07/2017 zteve t evans

References, Attributions and Further Information

Copyright zteve t evans July 12th, 2017

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

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