British History, 407-597, by Fabio P. Barbieri

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Appendix 6: More about the legend of the Fortress and the Dragons

Fabio P. Barbieri

There are many important features of the legend of the wondrous boy, the fortress, and the dragons, which I have not covered in the main text, because they are not relevant to the study of the historical Vitalinus/ Vortigern; but which ought to be covered in an appendix, to clarify the connection between the two legends, remove possible red herrings, and enlarge our understanding of Celtic culture and "religion"[1].

The story does not actually begin in the time of Vortigern and Emrys, but in an earlier age: that of Beli and Lludd, two legendary early kings of Britain who seem identifiable with pagan Celtic deities, Nodons/Nuada and Beli Mawr.  Both of these seem to represent minor or "maimed" form of royalty, and they may be identifiable with each other, or at least closely connected.  Beli, as we have seen, was a mythological figure of the class of teyrnedd or tyranni, which, in the earliest Welsh tradition, are the lesser kings, monarchs of small groups which carry a sort of permanent defeat and subjection in the very nature of their royalty, always being defeated by "Roman" heroes like Maxen and Ulkessar/Julius Caesar.  Nuada was the roi fainéant of the Tuatha De Danann, the human[2] gods of Ireland, who accepted their subjection to the demonic Fomoire and was positively irritated when Lug, the shining divine hero, turned up in The fate of the children of Tuirenn to start a war of liberation; in a different account, he lost an arm in the same war of liberation, thus disastrously handing the kingship over to the wicked Bres.  Nuada is probably the same as Elcmar, whose characteristic in several tales of gods is to be overcome, either by the Dagda - one of the three supreme gods, type of the great ancestor, paternal and kingly - or by the Dagda's son, Oengus.  To the Dagda, he loses his wife (and what that means in terms of maimed power and royalty in a Celtic perspective can clearly be guessed); to Oengus, son of the same woman and of the Dagda, he loses, with the Dagda's active help, his own seat - exactly like that favourite Roman target, Beli.  The name Elcmar means, by common consent, "the envious one"; and we are reminded of the ambitious and immoderate character that goes so well with natural defeat in the class of teyrnedd and tyranni[3].

In the story Lludd and Lleverys, Lludd is a good king of Britain, subject in spite of himself to three plagues from whom he asks his brother Lleverys - who lives overseas as king of a "France" which, in the story, has one or two things in common with Fairyland - to rescue him by his wise advice.  Lleverys has been identified, on philological grounds, with Lleu, that is Lug; and it is notable that, in Ireland, it is Lug who rescues Nuada and his people from the grasping oppression of the Fomoire.  The oppression of Lludd and his people is just as grasping and just as supernatural, but it is threefold: the presence of a magical race (called the Coranyaid) who can overhear any conversation within the kingdom of Britain; a terrible scream that resounds every May Eve, depriving men of their strength and women and the land of their fertility; and the mysterious and continuous theft of the king's provisions, which, each time, leaves only enough to be consumed in one night.

Thanks to Lleverys' wisdom, each of the threats is met and defeated.  The Coranyaid are destroyed with a magic dust; the thief of the royal stores - a mighty wizard - is met and wrestled down by king Lludd himself, in spite of a powerful sleeping spell; and the source of the shriek is tracked down.  Following Lleverys' advice, Lludd has the whole island measured, and finds that its centre is in… Oxford (a geographical enormity which Oxford men to this day will gladly endorse); there he has a hole dug in the ground, traps the two dragons in a single vat of best mead, wraps them in a silk coverlet, and, removing the vat from the hole (it is not clear whether the dragons were above or below the ground as they fought, but they fell into the vat when they were wearied), finds the "strongest place in his kingdom" and buries them there.  The place in question is Dinas Emrys in Eryri; and yes, the two dragons are the same ones that Vortigern and Emrys are to meet much, much later...

The story is one of foundation of royalty as the capstone of civil society.  The very basics of human life and of human living-together are being assaulted.  The terrible scream strikes at the kingdom's generative force; the thefts strike at the produce already assembled, which the king is to redistribute; the Coranyaid’s mastery of communication makes ordinary human intercourse (which, because of the Celtic redistributive exchange system, has its centre at the royal court) impossible, or at least fraught with danger.  Thus the kingdom is in effect disarticulated and destroyed at every level of human activity from primary production to enjoyment, for the all-hearing tribe assault the safety of individual relationships which form part of the whole social network.  This is not therefore, in Dumézilian terms, a second-function, military threat, nor a first-function one to law and sovereignty – nobody challenged Lludd's actual right to rule – but a threat against the peaceful functioning, the economic activities, the fertility, and the simple living-together of men; all of them third-function concerns, for the ordinary living-together of men belongs to the third function.  The Roman third-function god is Quirinus, co-uiri-nus, the lord of men-together, co-uiri; the Germanic third-function god, Freyr, is the veraldar goð, the god of men-though-generations, ver-ald. 

Lludd resolves the three threats by carrying out three actions of a king.  Firstly, he convenes an assembly of all the people in his land, and it is at this assembly that the Coranyaid are shrivelled by magic dust.  The convening of an assembly, what the Irish called an Oenach, was a natural part of the work of a Celtic king, reasserting annually the unity and identity of his people; and it is perhaps a part of the symbolism that the feast that celebrates the natural connection of men – encounters, talk, law (at the Oenach, existing laws were read out and new laws proclaimed), commerce and general human contact – also witnesses the destruction of the Coranyaid’s unnatural and damaging mastery of human communication, whose very perfection disrupted normal human intercourse in the kingdom.

The King’s struggle with an intruder is part of his warrior duties; and the fact that everyone save himself is cast under a spell of sleep by the thief raises echoes in the closely connected Latin culture, where the Vestal Virgins ritually warned the King: Ugilasne, Rex?  Uigila!  Dost thou watch, O King?  Be watchful!  Uigilare means being watchful in the night, when everyone else is asleep.  The king is he who watches when all others sleep; but he only does so by supernatural sanction.  Lludd receives is instruction to watch over the goods of his kingdom by Lleverys, that is Lug; the Latin King, by the Virgin Vestals[4].  Finally, the measuring out of all his kingdom, which includes the discovery of its central point, has to do with something we have already encountered: the Celtic conceptions of territorial kingdoms as permanent entities, whose frontiers are as stable and as fixed as anything in the realm of enduring realities.  To reckon its size and boundaries, therefore, is to make oneself acquainted with, even to reveal, the enduring truth of this one individual object, the kingdom of Britain, a truth that abides across time.

The assembly of all the men in the kingdom and the measuring out of all the land in the kingdom indicate that the establishment of order, protection and sanity has to do with bringing together the whole kingdom, or seeing it as a totality.  All the land has to be reckoned and measured before the two dragons are found; all the men of the kingdom have to come together before the disastrous Coranyaid are removed.  The settings of the story are also part of its analytical nature: the king’s protective activities take place, one among human beings, one in the context of the size and shape of the kingdom – that is, of the actual material land itself – and the third, the tale of the thieving wizard, in the context of the products of the earth, food and drink.  That is, the kingdom is analyzed in terms of its human population, its geographical extension, and its produce.  It is perhaps worth noticing that the two terms land and produce, together, constitute what we would call wealth; and it follows that the Celtic mentality did not regard the land as wealth in the same way as we do, marketable, transferable, liable to ownership.  As a component of Lludd’s kingdom, it is a unit, bound to him and clearly separated from the produce, the food and drink – and, one supposes, the timber, building stone, minerals and other goods produced from the earth - which alone are liable to change hands.  This is probably the ideological ground of the redistributive exchange system we analyzed earlier.  The land is regarded as a unit, not to be parcelled or sold, married to the King alone; and it follows that all its increase, though it can pass through many hands, must inevitably start from his.

From the point of view of the story, this means that that the wizard’s assault on the King’s stores must involve as much an idea of totality, of an aspect of the whole kingdom, as the others.  The threat to the redistributive function of the Celtic king involves his military power (and therefore must be met by the strength of the King’s good right arm): if wealth cannot be protected in the fortress of the king, it cannot be protected at all.  But the reason to meet it with all possible power is that the thief is assaulting all the products of the land, for the whole kingdom.  It is not only the king's ability to give banquets that the mysterious thief assaults, but the exchange of wealth for all the kingdom, and with it its social structure and its network of obligations.  Or rather, the king’s own ability to give these banquets is itself a manifestation, even an inextricable feature, of this wholeness of wealth; which explains the importance we have seen them to have.  If the assaults are repeated, it is because the products of the land are renewed: an assault on the totality of human life on the island (such as the Coranyaid’s) need be carried out only once, but an assault on the fertility of its land and people, to be comprehensive, has to be as regular and repeated as these things themselves are.

This is the same kind of analytical narrative thought we encountered when analyzing A; but while this is also an analysis of royalty, it works at quite a different level.  The core of A is the mutual obligations of lower and higher levels of royalty, with the highest royalty – that of the Romans – establishing a legal relationship of suzerainty over the monarchy or monarchies of the Britons and incurring the corresponding duty of defending them from the hordes of chaos (that is the Picts and Scots), in whom no proper monarchy can be perceived at all.  A takes Royalty, as such, for granted; what matters is the relationship of British with Roman monarchy, i.e. of tyranni and rectores, of teyrnedd and gwledig.  Here, however, there is no higher or lower monarchy: what matters is to establish monarchy itself as the element of sanity, reunion, protection and delimitation in the existence of a single kingdom.  The element of challenge to the royal power of redistribution, as a feature of the king's whole majesty, is particularly clear in the showdown between the king and the wizard-thief, a man of immense stature and formidably armed, who is however defeated by the valiant Lludd, after which he makes submission to him, promising to be his man and to restore all his losses.  The restoration of the king's wealth is at one and the same time the restoration of his majesty - including over this new subject.  In other words, this legend refers to the nature of monarchy at its most basic level.  This is its connection with the third function; while the monarchical aspect of human society is itself one of the highest, this is a third function within the monarchical aspect of human society.  No wonder that the legend cycle dates it to before the arrival of the Romans.

Not only is this story is an antefact to the tale of Vortigern and the dragons, it insists on the fact that it is one.  Now what is interesting is that the Irish cycle of Conn, Art and Cormac also has somebody called Nuada turning up at the edges of the Irish legend, and near its earliest beginnings.  The father of the unfortunate Ailill the earless was the Munster patriarch Mug Nuadat, "Slave of Nuada"; and the Nuada whom he served was supposed to be a druid who ordered - what a coincidence, eh? - the building of a royal fortress.  This is the royal fortress of Leinster at Almu, the Hill of Allen[5], later the residence of Finn and the Fianna.  Now, according to F.J.Byrne, the synchronism between Eogan Mor (a.k.a. Mug Nuadat) and Conn is a late invention, probably, he feels, derived from a derogatory northern name for the south of Ireland, and specifically for Munster - Leth Moga, the slave's half.  Eogan Mor, without any Nuada or any slave name, is certainly the patriarch of the dominant tribes of Munster, the Eoganachta; the insulting name Mug Nuadat must have been imposed on him by partisans of the northern supremacy of the Ui Neill.  That is, Munster tradition proper can have known nothing either of (a) a “slave” king building a royal fortress at the command of a druid, or (b) the name Nuada.  The synchronism between Mug Nuadat and Conn was probably worked out to bring Munster into Ui Neill dynastic mythology, and then exploited to shove the guilt of Mag Mugrama away from Conn and on to the hereditary enemies to the south.

Therefore these elements - the name Nuada, and the building of a royal fortress by a king commanded by a druid - may be separated from the legend of Eogan Mor.  They do not belong in Munster or Leinster, but in Ui Neill legend.  Therefore they are clearly an antefact of the woes of the Ui Neill patriarch Conn.  Mug Nuadat, whoever he was, built the fortress for Nuada Necht, who, under the guise of a druid, was in fact the ancestor deity of Leinster; which makes Mug Nuadat and all his descendants inferior to, "slaves of", Nuada's Leinster.  Leinster itself, in the brothers Rees' scheme of interpretation, takes the place of the third function, the lowest freeborn rank of society, in a cosmography in which Connachta - the province of the descendants of Conn - is the royal, first-function land, and Tara, the seat of Conn himself, the centre of Ireland.  In other words, the attribution of Nuada, the roi fainéant god who loses his throne to Lug, to Leinster, is quite in keeping with the secondary nature of Lludd, Beli, and Nuada Airgetlam.

Conn took the royalty of Tara from a fading roi fainéant from Leinster called Cathair Mor.  According to The songs of the house of Buchet[6], Cathair had proved unable to restrain his many sons, who had abused the hospitality of the professional guest-receiver Buchet (ancient Ireland knew a category of rich free men whose profession, or rather social position, was to receive and entertain guests; obviously a third-function preoccupation) till Buchet was forced to complain in the name of the ancient laws of Eriu - only to find that the king was unable to restrain his sons and the only advice he could give him was to leave.  There is an internal collapse within the royal function in that the giving of banquets – which, as we have seen, ought to be a major feature of the royal function itself – is actually impeded by the king’s many and greedy sons.  That the king has many sons should be good news, and certainly it does not reflect badly on his fertility (we should remember that his successor, Conn, has only two); but the fertility has grown rank and overgrown, and started feeding, effectively, on itself.  When Conn marries Buchet’s beloved, beautiful and just daughter, he takes to himself the better part of the third function that his predecessor had abused.  The marriage of Conn with Ethne Thoebfota was remembered as an ideal union, the lady being as noble as she was fair, and coincided with the noontide of Irish monarchy, when the magic of the king’s sexual lordship gave the island three harvests a year, rivers full of salmon, and trees ever-groaning with fruit.

Every Irishman, hearing the story of Conn and Buchet, would instinctively have compared Conaire Mor’s many and greedy sons with Conn’s tiny and ill-fated, but heroic, brood of two.  This reminds us that, according to my analysis, the core of the legend is in the crisis of succession from Conn to Art to the illegitimate and unrecognized Cormac, which begins with Conn’s having only one son to succeed him.  In other words, this is another aspect of the Ui Neill legend, radiating outwards from the great central shock of the near-extinction of the Connachta, to embrace Conaire.  Conaire is represented as everything Conn is not: fertile indeed, but without the strength of a true king, so that even his fertility runs against him.

This surely represents another Connachta/Ui Neill slur on another province’s great hero, like connecting Eogan Mor with the insulting name Mug Nuada and – before the chronological discrepancy was realized – with the horrors of Mag Mucrama; Conaire Mor was a Leinster hero, claimed to have been High King of Tara and all Ireland.  Ui Neill fingerprints are visible everywhere; this, no less than that of Vortigern, is, in every respect, a family legend.  Its purpose is to identify the destinies of the dynasty with that of the country itself (I repeat that I do not for a minute believe that its insulting, reductive views of Eogan Mor and Cathair Mor had anything to do with the way these heroes were seen in Munster and Leinster) and its triumph in later tradition, erasing or modifying any competing accounts, is a function of the political success of the Ui Neill.

This is actually unlike what we find in Britain, where there is no indication whatever that any Vortigernid branch ever recovered the national power of their (supposed) ancestor.  The success of the Vortigernid version of history is one of the most remarkable phenomena of British history, and to be frank, I am at a loss to explain it.  The seminal position of Nennius, whose work soon spread across Europe - let alone Britain - may have something to do with it; but it is also possible that it was due to a certain lack of competition.

Such a story, I mean, would not have been told of just any royal house, in a culture where kings were a dime a dozen; or, if it had, it would not have been believed.  A story that welds the destinies of a dynasty with those of the whole island, Ireland or Britain, must depend on a good dynastic claim to have just such a position - high kings, whether challenged or not, of all the country.  And how many dynasties, in Britain, could or would make such a claim?  As dynasties?  Only the Ambrosiads come to mind.  Now, the traditions of the successors of Ambrosius seem to have been destroyed during Arthur’s revolution, and anyway there are indications that they tried, until quite late, to maintain a Roman tradition of political and legal writing; in other words, they would not have had house bards to work their dynastic claims into a purely Celtic picture of history.  The Ambrosiad recovery testified by Gildas cannot have lasted long; what is more, to judge by the distribution of Ambres- place-names, the centre of its dynastic power must have been in central south Britain - an area which fell to the English early (570-590) and totally.  As for Arthur, he seems, first, to have risen from a quite unimportant position, and ,second, to have left no heirs; it follows that his dynasty before him would not have seen any chance of identifying their destinies with those of their country, and that after him there was no dynasty to do so.  No dynasty other than the Vortigernids, so far as we can see, ever claimed sovereignty over all Britain; and therefore no other dynasty would have the occasion or interest in creating a national pseudo-history with themselves in the centre.

The elements of the story are of course earlier than their dynastic use; they represent an interpretative legend of royalty that would naturally attach itself to any house whose ultimate royal title was evident and enduring.  The story started with the god of the lowest level of kingship, Nuada/Nudd/Lludd, interpreted as the basic picture of a king, endowed with all the basic duties of a king; and it develops from there until it reaches the point of separation of the various levels of kingship - at which point historical reality begins to obtrude.  But the use of continuing plot threads - such as the story of the dragons - leads the story back to its prehistoric, supernatural origins.  After all, this is what it is meant to do: explain the contemporary power (or claims) of a particular royal house in terms of the eternal realities of kingship.  Indeed, most of the elements of Lludd’s struggle against the destroyers of kingship and society reappear in the tale of  Vortigern’s fortress.

It would seem that only one of Nudd’s three plagues has any relevance to what was to follow; but it is not as simple as that.  The Nennian account conflates rather clumsily two of the three: the building materials vanish overnight from the place where they are gathered.  It is a non sequitur to connect this, as Nennius does, with the two fighting dragons; how could the fighting of two dragons could make wood and stones vanish?  The episode this reminds us of is the thieving magician.  Geoffrey, who had another source, says that the building materials would collapse into the earth.  This is a good bit closer to the closest legend in the Irish – that of Lugaid's bad judgement, in which it was an already built wall which collapsed under the weight of the king's injustice – except that here it precedes the bad judgement.  But the similarity of Nennius' overnight supernatural theft to Lludd's third plague forbids us to think that Nennius simply made up this feature; rather, it strongly suggests that elements of Lludd and Lleverys were already in existence when the sources of Nennius and Geoffrey were first written down, and that the disasters to befall Vortigern's fortress were in some way connected with them.  It is possible that more than one disaster may have struck it, directly modelled on an earlier version of Lludd and Lleverys.

On the other hand, there is no doubt in my mind that, despite its evident archaic features, Lludd and Lleverys as we have it is quite late.  Casswallawn has already become a standard part of the legend, Oxford is in existence (and already, in some people's view, the centre of Britain), the kingdom of France (which did not begin to be a permanent entity until the 900s) is an immemorial part of the landscape.  In short, we would be very bold to date the form of the story as we have it to any time before the twelve hundreds.  There is even a clear Galfridian influence: the author had to explain that apart from the standard three Galfridian sons of Beli (Geoffrey's Heli) there was a fourth, to wit Lleverys.  The reason to underline this is obviously that this fourth son was unknown to Geoffrey.

It follows that we cannot trust Lludd and Lleverys' statement that Lludd captured the two dragons and removed them from "Oxford" to Eryri.  If such a late story places the original home of the dragons in the centre of Britain and far from Eryri, only to move them there at its end, then we may freely suspect that it was intended to account for a discrepancy, and that a tradition existed that placed the dragons not in Eryri at all, but in the centre of the island. It is frightening to think how much Welsh tradition seems to have been lost.  Time and again, we come across evidence for otherwise unknown alternative accounts of legends.  The importance of this one is that it would bring the Welsh legend that much closer to the Irish: both in that both would turn out not only to be stretched out across several generations - the Welsh from Lludd to Vortigern and Ambrosius, the Irish from Conn to Cormac – but also to be placed, not on an eccentric mountain-top "at the furthest ends of the kingdom", but in its geographical and cultural centre.  The Irish tale centres on the possession of Tara, the centre of Ireland; the Welsh, on the possession of a fortress “at the extreme ends of Vortigern’s kingdom”, in Snowdon.  This description is in clear contradiction with the emphasis on Tara that is at the heart of the Irish legend (whose Ui Neill sponsors had every reason to want to play up the national importance of Tara); and does not clearly agree, either, with my view that Vortigern’s “very protected fortress” represented the height of sovereign power, that the Saxons never could seize, and which is always represented in Ireland by Tara.

Tara as royal centre has more than one parallel in Britain.  Lludd and Lleverys assures us that the geographical centre of Britain is Oxford – which is nonsense geographically if not culturally – but Lludd was also said to have founded London, the island's capital, that is its centre in another way.  Now London and the setting of the Burial of the Dragons share a common mythological role: they are two of the three places where "fortunate burials" occurred, which, had they not been unburied, would have magically protected the island from Saxon invasion for ever.  The head of Brân the Blessed was buried in London (on a so-called White Hill), looking towards France; the two dragons were buried in Dinas Emrys (or rather, as I suggested, in Oxford).  These two Fortunate Burials are certainly part of the same legend cycle, since Brân, as we have seen in Appendix I, was an essential basic element of the great story of monarchy.

Now the third Fortunate Burial concerns none other than Vortimer, Vortigern's heroic son, figure of empire.  His bones were buried in the principal ports of the island, to form a magical barrier against the Saxons; but, out of love for Ronwen, his own father unburied them.  So says the triad of the Three Fortunate Burials[7].  This, compared to Nennius, is a startling novelty - Nennius simply says that his followers disobeyed his last words, and did not bury him in a sea-harbour (a later gloss makes them bury him in Lincoln).  Even Geoffrey does not charge Vortigern with the heinous unburial of his son: according to his account, Vortimer was to be buried in "the port where the Saxons usually landed", but his followers disobeyed his orders and buried him in London instead.

The vagueness and contradictions in the story of Vortimer's failed burial suggests misunderstanding or mistransmission.  We have seen that the story of Vortigern and his heroic son must have come into existence before the final end of Gildasian Britain, in a Britain already partitioned with the Saxons but still largely dominated by the British.  We notice therefore that the parallel Irish story, told of Patrick’s opponent Loegaire, buried standing up and facing the country of his enemies, concerns land borders and have to do with enemies coming "thus far and no further".  Loegaire himself was hardly unconnected with the Connachta/Ui Neill legend of monarchy: he was the heir of the great Niall himself, and a part of the process by which the crown of Tara became identified with the Ui Neill.  He was buried upright to face prospective enemies from Leinster, which was the kingdom from which came the High King – Conaire – which his ancestor Conn was said to have superseded; and clearly, a threat to Ui Neill overlordship from rich and fertile Leinster could be perceived.

I think that the legend of Vortimer was conceived in the sixth century, its role within O was to appropriate to the imaginary Vortigernid hero of heroes, the Vortamo-Rix, the fundamental aspects of Ambrosius’ own claim to the gratitude of latter days.  Part of that is his title as guarantor of legal land sharings (from which Pascent’s own land title is said to come).  I suspect that Vortimer was said to have marked a land border to hold the Saxons for ever, thus coming ahead even of Ambrosius’ role as land sharer. This legend would be typical of the sixth century in that it saw the Saxons as unwelcome but defeated and restricted to one limited territory from which they do not stray; it would lose its significance in the seventh, when the whole notion of imposing a settlement on the barbarians failed, with borders falling again and again, and the only solution to the Saxons must have seemed to try to drive them from the shores of Britain altogether.  Vortimer’s legend, therefore, was shifted to the seashore or to the ports, to imagine a permanent magical prohibition to barbarian settlement in Britain; and a reason would have to be found for the failure of this magical burial – obviously, that he had been unburied, or that his instructions had been ignored and he had not been buried where he wanted.  But the legends could not agree on the revision, which is why Nennius, Nennius’ glossators, Geoffrey, and the Triads, all contradict each other.  Of the various places proposed for the tomb of Vortimer, Lincoln seems much the likeliest (not for the first time, anonymous glosses contain interesting and credible information); it is known to have stood at the border with the Saxons, and to have resisted them for a long time.

A parallel for the invention of Vortimer – not for the legend itself, but for the attitudes that led to its invention – would be the Ulster legend of Maccuil Dimane (see Appendix V), in which St.Patrick is placed in a position, with respect to Maccuil, higher and earlier even than Baptism.  There is no evidence in the legend of Vortimer that he was ever regarded as responsible for the sharing of land within the borders of unconquered Britain, but if he was identified with the borders imposed on the Saxons, then he would be responsible for the shape of the new Britain even ahead of and above Ambrosius.  In both cases, the authors of the new legend would be trying to stake a superior claim to a role or territory, preceding and as it were encompassing the existing claim: Conindrus and Rupilius had baptized Maccuil/ Maughold, but Patrick was his spiritual master even before Baptism; Ambrosius had freed Britain and shared her land (including Pascent’s portion) but Vortimer had first fought the Saxons, and, by his Fortunate Burial, had set limits they could not pass – a more fundamental land sharing.  A similar kind of vaulting over previously fundamental claims, seeking an even higher position of founder, would be N’s response to N1, placing Archbishop Guithelinus upstream of the founder Constantine himself, let alone Ambrosius.

We are in the maddening situation of having a story, that of Vortigern and Emrys, clearly grounded in fifth- and sixth-century politics, and whose first version known to us belongs to the ninth century, but clearly built to mirror a story which must be earlier, including two archaic characters identified with pagan gods, but which is found in its entirety only in a thirteenth-century tale.  However, what does seem acceptable is that the three places of the Three Fortunate Burials all share features of Tara as sacral and political centre of Ireland.  London is, as Tara claims to be, the political capital; it was in Roman times, and again when the Triads and Lludd and Lleverys were compiled.  Oxford, like Tara, is the centre of the island; and the place of Vortimer’s burial, Lincoln or wherever, has in common with Tara that it is the place where a great king of the past (whose name designates him as “the highest of kings” of the island) was buried facing the enemy, so that they should not prevail over his people and that monarchy should not pass away from his family.  The Leinstermen menaced the Connachta people and the Ui Neill supremacy; the Saxons threatened the British people, but we must also remember that Vortimer, with his imperial name, incarnates the Vortigernid self-image and hopes of imperial restoration.  In short, it seems possible (though terribly nebulous) that at the start of this multiplication of fortunate tokens and burial places there was a threefold division of the idea of a central place of the country containing one or more fortunate burials which insured the country for ever.  Its qualities were shared between three separate locations, London - founded by Lludd and protected, according to which version you choose, either by Bran's head or by Vortimer's bones - the "centre of the island", where the dragons were originally buried, and the burial-place of Vortimer, wherever it was.

The great fortress of Dinas Emrys is not part of this central triad; and it is worth remarking that it has, in this, an exact Irish equivalent.  The fortress that Mug Nuadat dug for Nuada at the Hill of Allen is not in any way identifiable with Tara.  When Lludd, whose name is the same as Nuada’s, transfers the two dragons from Oxford to Eryri, he is moving them away from one of the three central places and forming a separate place in the far lands of the kingdom.  The site is to be kept in reserve until the kingdom’s uttermost need, when Vortigern will resort to it to thwart the Saxon plan to destroy him.  This connects the primordial legends of Brân, Beli and Lludd with the much later period (within the mythological time-table as much as within actual history) of Vortigern, and places Vortigern and, consequently, Vortimer, within the mainstream of the royal legend of Britain; therefore the burial of Vortimer is indeed connected, not only by triadic convenience, but by narrative structure, to the royal legend of the island.  We must therefore consider its elements as part of its larger flow.

The fortress of Nuada corresponds to the fortress of Lludd and Vortigern in certain general terms: in being dug by order of the royal founder Nuada, or Lludd – the name is the same; in not pertaining to the one centre of the island (Tara), and in having something to do with the uttermost ends of the kingdom.  For it was the fort of the Fianna[8], an independent band of young warriors whose commander had the rank of King and who were particularly connected with the High King of Tara.  The Fianna was an opposite term both to the settled societies in Ireland and to the world of the family and blood-kinship, to which they opposed a world of elective affinities based on similarity of age (what we might call all boys together). They were given as their own competence such lands as are unsettled, unconquered and wild, outside existing territorial lordships: the wild lands and the sea, "her cliffs and her estuaries, her mast and her "sea-fruit", her salmon, her hunting and her venery", leaving to the territorial lords "her wealth and her treasure, her cattle and her fortresses".  Therefore, “their” fortress had something to do with the unsettled world beyond the normal run of fortresses, and with “the uttermost ends of the kingdom”.  It is still part of the kingdom, in that the Fianna are a part of Ireland – indeed, they are particularly connected with its high king; but though it is not anywhere near its outer edge, it nevertheless pertains to it by its association with all in the kingdom that is uncultivated, unsettled, wild.

This suggests a reason why Vortigern’s great fortress, rather than the triad of centres of the country (whatever those were), is the setting for the story of the wondrous boy and the dragons, whose Irish parallel takes place at Tara: that in a situation where a dramatic collapse had left no resources in the normal societal provinces of the three functions, the king might resort to this outer world, to the realm of unsettled things, what Dumézil would have called an extra-functional area, and Dr.Nicholas Allen would call the fourth function.  In Ireland, the Hill of Allen had no such role in extreme royal distress, but the existence of the independent Fianna was supposed to be a support for the High King, though legend had it that they were destroyed by another High King.  Though, as I said, nowhere near the ends of the island (it is close to Kildare) its location, a hill standing in the middle of a desolate bog, certainly suggests isolation and wildness.  In actual history, Allen was never a fortress; it was a cult-place, and there is good reason to believe that Finn himself was originally an object of worship, a god if you will, with a special connection with arcane wisdom[9].

Taken together, all these factors suggest that cultic reasons might ultimately lurk behind the very divergent views of this site.  Neither the Hill of Allen, nor indeed Dinas Emrys in Eryri, were actually at the extreme ends of their respective countries; but Dinas Emrys in Gwynedd is described as such, and the Hill of Allen is attributed to a militia that is otherwise regarded as altogether outside the regular world of Ireland.  It would be typical of cult places connected with such ideas to be, not actually impossible to reach, but separated in some way from normal territory, and both the Hill of Allen and Dinas Emrys are in unpleasant and difficult regions, Dinas Emrys on Snowdon, the Hill of Allen in the middle of a bog.  The close connection of these isolated places with the royalty of the island is part of the ground-ideas of the legend complex.

It is no use to try and reconstruct an “original” version of the two legends, for it is clear that it simply represents a number of ideas that must have been applied timelessly, again and again, with variations.  Both in Ireland and in Britain, we find it applied very definitely to a family which is historically connected with a claim to the crown of the whole country, the Vortigernids, the Ui Neill (and the Connachta upstream of them).  It is therefore pointless to try and imagine what shape the Irish group of narrative ideas had before the house of Conn arose in the West at some point between Ptolemy’s informants and the day of Niall; nor what it had in North Britain before the house of Vortigern and Pascent felt the need to place in a comprehensible frame its rivalry with the Ambrosiads, its claim to royal status, and the shadow of the Saxons.  The origin of this narrative is in a time beyond our reach; perhaps in the Central European hills from Burgundy to Bohemia, where the Celtic ethnos can first be perceived; perhaps even earlier, in an Indo-European past that can only be imagined from the marks it left on later cultures.

But though variation is the norm, it is variation within a group of fundamental ideas.  To the question: why should it not drift away from its roots until it is no longer recognizable and no longer makes sense in its original terms?, the answer is: these things happen, but so long as the story is used within the context of certain ideas, and, what is more, of certain direct political needs, such as to understand and validate certain definite institutions , its function guarantees that the story will remain within certain parameters.  Kings and those around them need to have their own understanding of the role of monarchy within human society, and, indeed, of human society itself: hence, a “history” of monarchy begins with the establishment of monarchy as the centre of sense and stability.  As this is concerned with the effect of monarchy looking downwards, to the mass of the people and to the physical basis of human life, rather than upwards to the higher levels of society and of existence, this level of monarchy is inevitably connected with the third function, the lowest function of the free world, the function of fertility, wealth and material life.  On the other hand, as soon as monarchy is established, the problems arise of the relationship between monarchies and of the place of monarchy in the dimension of the sacred or of wisdom; and that is why the next stage involves clashes between monarchies, the establishment of upper and lower levels – with one supreme level set off from all the rest – and the appearance of great sages; in other words, it moves to the second and to the first functions.  This is an inevitable effect of the existence of certain social institutions – monarchy, bardism, a priesthood of sages, a supposedly free population bound to the soil, redistributive exchange – and of a certain set of basic ideas about them, from which, time after time, successive royal groups will draw their self-explanation and their self-justification.

The cycle of legends reaches its climax with the manifestation on earth of a wondrous child, who can be one of two things: either the rightful king, who has lain unnoticed all this time, or a sage of supreme holiness, whose word is the word of truth itself.  Both the Irish and the Welsh story show this variation in different ways.  In Ireland, the boy sage and the boy king, Segda and Cormac, are manifested one after the other, in successive generations; in Wales, they turn up in different versions of the same legend.  In Nennius, the wondrous boy is the future king elected by Fate; in Geoffrey, he is a sage who, in the course of exposing the whole picture of the truth, shows that Vortigern is doomed.  If he will escape the Saxons, he will fall into the hands of the sons of Constantine.

In the Welsh legend, the two young heroes are distinguished very clearly by the quality of their word.  The word of the boy Merlin does not by itself affect political conditions: rather, it reveals the hidden (or hypocritically concealed) patterns of the world, and shows to Vortigern how and why his death is inevitable.  In a sense, this ought not even to be regarded as a moral condemnation, since the death of every man is in fact inevitable, and the sage who is questioned simply reveals how, and where, the inevitable will take place.  In the case of Vortigern, his fate is tied up with his two great crimes, having usurped the throne and having called in the Saxons; but even the most blameless heroes (except for those who vanish from the world and are never seen again) have their own fates, which awaits them at a particular time and place.  Merlin does nothing at all to further the fate of Vortigern, let alone to inflict it; in the words of another epic wizard, “That is not my doing.  I merely foretell”[10].  The word of Emrys in Nennius, on the other hand, is directly effective: he takes the crown from Vortigern and orders him to find a lesser, and, as soon as he says it, it is done.  Conversely, the only truth he reveals is the truth which is to do with Emrys himself: when he reveals the struggle of the dragons under the fortress, as we have seen, he reveals the struggle of Vortigern’s house and his.  Merlin stands entirely outside, taking the role which Pythagoras taught was the loftiest among all human roles – the role of the beholder[11].  What Merlin’s word affects is the druids of Vortigern’s household, whom he shames to their faces.  The Irish character whom we must regard as his counterpart, Segda, has an even more radical effect on the druids: his mother decrees their death by hanging.

Except for the common ground of a failed High King and a wondrous boy whose appearance decrees the king’s fate, there is little in common between the Welsh and Irish stories.  The Irish story ignores the Hill of Allen altogether, and both the failed sacrifice of Segda and, much later, the self-revelation of Cormac, take place within Tara; it is the walls of Tara, not those of the “uttermost fortress”, that collapse under the weight of royal untruth, while the Hill of Allen simply continues as an unnoticed sort of shadow parallel to the great royal fortress, developing its own almost separate mythology in the persons of Finn and the Fianna – which, however, comes back to the heart of Ui Neill dynastic legend in that they are intimately connected with Cormac.  Although it is difficult to tell whether it was the Welsh or the Irish story that deviated from a core idea, in the direction of greater or lesser connection of the “fortress on the outer edge” with the central legend of the kings, it seems clear that the Welsh story is affected by history.  It is under the threat of Ronwein's Saxon kin that the fortress is built in the uncomfortable surroundings of Eryri.  The corresponding threat, that of the hosts of Beine Brit, comes much later in the Irish story and involves no fortress at all.

Conversely, I feel sure that the two boy characters have suffered heavily in the development of the Irish legend.  Segda, whose position designates him as the parallel of Merlin, says nothing whatever except for his repeated demands that the king of Eriu be obeyed; it is his mother who takes the role, revealing the nature of events and shaming the druids.  If we can judge from the existence of a Welsh parallel (which, however, would be expected to come closer to any Welsh than to any Irish story, other things being equal), her sentence of death on the druids is also surprising and excessive: in the story of Taliesin shaming the bards, which is flagrantly similar to that of Merlin shaming the druids, the boy hero degrades but does not destroy Maelgwn’s court poets.  Indeed, we would not expect him to, given that the point of the story is teaching bardism, not destroying it.  It is possible to suspect, here, the results of Christian animus against the pagan priesthood; on the other hand, it is true that in other Indo-European cultures there were stories of duels of wisdom whose stake was the life of the loser.  Òðinn and the giant Vafþruðnir question each other until the giant is asked a question he cannot answer, and admits that he is about to die[12]; and Homer was said to have died when he was asked a riddle he could not answer[13].

There are however obvious traces that a good deal of significance has fallen out, not from any non-existent archetype, but from the legend of Conn as it was told earlier, through what can only be described as Ui Neill censorship.  In particular, we have no idea to what tribal realities the miracle of the one-legged creature fighting and defeating the twelve-legged one alluded to, though it certainly signified the victory of a single High King over a tribal confederation. And while Wonderful Judgements are attributed to Segda’s grandfather Fergus Fialbrethach, the only truly Wonderful Judgement in the story is performed by the boy Cormac when he reveals his royal nature by correcting Lugaid’s invalid judgement about the sheep.  As compared with the Welsh story, the Irish seems almost to druidize the boy-King, Cormac the wondrous judge with his superhuman insight; which may account for the fading of any individual quality in the other wonder boy, Segda, who cannot, in the story as we have it, be treated as the archetype of a druid.  His mother is certainly a sage and savant, with the insight of a druid – she needs do no more than to cast a glance over Conn’s court to divine the evil hidden in it – and with a capacity for cursing which, in the surviving material, is most often associated with poets; but I suspect that the assertion of Cormac, final term and culmination of the whole story, has tended to rather skew the presentation of other characters.

Another difference between Ireland and Wales is that, in Ireland, the legend of the contending beasts is found not in the Conn cycle at all, but in the Ulster cycle, where it is visibly out of place, since the two figures who contend are connected with Connaught and Munster.  It is possible that this might be related to the otherwise unexplained picture of the one-legged and the twelve-legged birds, and that the story may have arisen when the king of Tara, of Connachta race, was contending with a coalition of, perhaps, twelve (the number is suspiciously round) Munster-led kings.  It is even possible that a trace of this, reduced to farce, may survive in the revolt of nine Munster kings against Medb and Ailill in the Tain, when they realized that Findabair was in love with someone else and that they had been played for fools.

The point is that both stories have a considerable amount of contact with historical reality: "Vortigern" and Ambrosius were historical figures, and whatever the truth of the Battle of Mag Mucrama, the house of Niall of the Nine Hostages certainly represents one of the most massive historical facts in Ireland.  The fact that the British legend has something to say about a hot political potato of the time – Ambrosius’ legitimacy and, above all, the legitimacy of his father – seems to correspond with the fact that some decidedly political features – the struggle of the two birds, and the rise of Cormac himself to power – do seem to be preserved in the Irish legend, though we can no longer discern their significance.  Ambrosius' eventual revelation that he is the son of a Roman noble makes his mother a liar and, in my view, may show some rewriting.  The myth of the discovery of a boy without a father is found elsewhere in the Indo-European world for a type of the "first man", hinting that the legend may originally have seen him as a first ancestor.  This, of course, would not be in keeping with the Ambrosiad view that his father had nimirum worn the purple; and it is worth remarking that Geoffrey's pseudo-genealogy of the House of Constantine preserves the notion that Ambrosius was a legitimate king, which this equally legendary account denies.  Indeed, the notion that Ambrosius "has no father" has no correspondent in Ireland, where the paternity of the wondrous boy is carefully established.

This seems to me to show the traces of a titanic battle of the books (and the bardic songs; the Vortigernid legend of the two dragons probably formed in bardic circles loyal to what was by then a Northern, Celticized dynasty) of educated circles loyal to Vortigernid-Pascentiad interests, against supporters of the Ambrosiads such as Gildas.  The house of Ambrosius vanished in the English catastrophe; the first redactor of N in the 630s found out that Ambrosius was the son of kings, but not what kings, and tied him up with the "founder" of independent Britain, Constantine the father of Constans.  On the other hand, there was a continuity on the Vortigernid side, almost certainly connected with the survival of the dynasty, which means that a body of legends about Vortigern survived, though increasingly influenced and blackened by the rise of the black legend of Vortigern, corresponding with the growing realization of the unbreakable nature of Saxon victory.  The legend of the two dragons concerned, originally, a dynastic catastrophe, a loss of power among British dynasties; its Saxon element, which originally framed it, became its core.

Whatever the truth of my various political guesses, however, what is clearly at the core of this cycle of legends is a lengthy, analytical account of the origins of royalty from the god of lower royalty, Nuada/ Nodons/Nudd/Lludd, through various stages of development, until myth and analysis come to touch history in the establishment of reigning dynasties – or dynasties who, in the case of the Vortigernids, wish they were reigning.  It does not descend to the contemporary times of the storytellers themselves; in both cases, such historical figures as feature at the climax of the legend-cycle, Vortigern, Cormac, are long in the past as compared with the earliest known existence of their legend.  I have shown evidence that the literary and intellectual level of the first author of O is close to that of Gildas, and therefore at least a century after Vortigern; our earliest possible accounts of Conn are even later.  But these kings are foundational: they stand at the beginning of “things as they are” in the time of the storytellers, and therefore their legend is the last stage of the development of monarchy on Earth.  After them, things were established in a given pattern, of which they were the originators; at the point where legend crosses over into history.


[1]I am coming to feel that it is entirely wrong to use the category of "religion" to describe the cultural activities of pagan Celts, up to and including sacrifice: this would imply a distinction between the sacred and the profane, the divine and the human, and above all between religious and non-religious wisdom or learning, which seems to me entirely alien to the Celtic mind.  The highest classes - druids, bards and seers - were not delegated to any specific care of the gods: they were "the wise" - the meaning, according to current philology, of druid: *dru+wid, "the intensely wise" or "intensely seeing" - and what set them apart was simply wisdom, learning, knowledge.  A druid knew; you could go to him and question him about anything, and if he did not answer, it was not that he did not know, but that he did not want to tell you.  And his answers were, in fact, rarely connected with the gods; they could relate to times and seasons, to the past and future of people, to places and acts to avoid.  Conversely, I do not think that a specifically religious sphere can be defined in the Celtic mind: the divine is so closely kin to the human that the gods can come and rule as kings in Wales and Ireland, and the things and powers which we would define as supernatural or divine are most often simply a part of the mechanism of the world, without the actual will (numen) or intervention of any personal divine power, so that a good king may directly cause good crops - not by the command of God, but simply in the nature of things - and that certain days are "good" for certain things, up to and including giving birth to a glorious king, not because the gods, or even the fates (unlike Greek and Germanic culture, Celtic culture does not seem to have a distinctive group of Fates), have decreed so, but because it is in the impersonal nature of things.  The druids and associated classes were simply "the wise"; and what we should be talking of is not "religion", but simply "wisdom" - or, if you will, "traditional wisdom" or "traditional learning".

[2]In a future study I intend to deal with the exact status of the Tuatha De Danann and their invasion of Ireland, and contest the very notion of euhemerism.  Here I can only put on record my view that the element of confusion, learned speculation, and Christian interference is infinitely smaller than scholars seem to believe, and that what we have is, roughly speaking, as sound a set of pagan Irish stories as we have of their Greek, Roman and Icelandic equivalents.

[3]MACKILLOP, Dictionary op.cit., s.v. Elcmar; O hOGAIN, op.cit., 136 and sources and authorities quoted in the notes.  It will be seen that I do not accept O hOgain's historicizing interpretation of Nuada.  Another story apparently said that the fortress of Alma was wrested from Nuada by Finn - another episode of dispossession! - MIRANDA GREEN, Dictionary of Celtic myth and legend, London 1992, s.v. Nuada; in yet another, it is CuChulainn who mutilates Nuada - MACKILLOP loc.cit.  Finn and CuChulainn are both avatars of Lug.

[4] In Heur et malheur du guerrier, Georges Dumézil has found other Celtic parallels for the ritual relationship of the King with the Vestals.  The call to the King to be vigilant when all others sleep, made by a semi-supernatural female particularly connected with his royalty, in a context in which something particularly precious has been taken from him, is also found in a fable of the Brothers Grimm, The three little men in the woods, which has a few other archaic echoes.

[5] MACKILLOP, Dictionary of Celtic mythology, Oxford 1998, s.v.Allen.

[6] AGRATI-MAGINI, Saghe e leggende dell’antica Irlanda, Milan 1993, 559-565.

[7] BROMWICH, Trioedd op.cit. Triad 37.

[8] A. & B.Rees, Celtic Heritage, 62-69.

[9] O hOGAIN, op.cit., 118-127, and sources therein quoted.

[10] J.R.R.Tolkien’s Saruman.  The return of the King, 2.8, “The scouring of the Shire”.

[11] In a famous apologue in Iamblichus’ About the Pythagoric life (Peri tou Pythagorikou biou)..  GIAMBLICO, La vita pitagorica, ed.&tr. Maurizio Giangiulio, Milan 1991, pp.182-185.

[12] The lay of Vafthruthnir (Vafþruðnismal), in LEE M.HOLLANDER, The Poetic Edda, Austin, Texas, 1962 (though there have to be better versions!).

[13] The poetic competition of Homer and Hesiod (by a Roman-age anonymous): Anonimo: Omero ed Esiodo, la loro stirpe, la loro gara, (S.Rizzo, trans.) in ESIODO, Le opere e i giorni, L.Magugliani trans., S.Rizzo ed., Milan 1979, 204-227, esp.227.

History of Britain, 407-597 is copyright © 2002, Fabio P. Barbieri. Used with permission.

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