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

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  Vortigern Studies > Faces of Arthur > British History > Book VI > chapter 6.2

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Chapter 6.2: The story of Vortigern, Emrys and the two dragons

Fabio P. Barbieri

This seems a good place to discuss the distinction between legend and history.  I have so far been making much of it without really saying what I mean by either; and it is now important to do so, since our view of these two terms affects our understanding of the Gildasian-age mind.

By history I mean the knowledge of actual past events - ruling out of discussion any sophistry as to whether such knowledge, or any knowledge, is possible, or whether events really happen.  I assume that the past is real - or rather, has been real - and that the knowledge of any fact, event or item of information that was real in it comes under the heading of "history".  However much the selection of these events may owe to personal or societal prejudice, to ideology or to the peculiar skills present or absent among the learned of any society, history represents primarily a description of things that really happened, and nothing that is done with it can prescind from the intractable reality of the past.  Such a knowledge is always provisional, always in the expectation of better evidence or better interpretation, and we must never forget that any reconstruction of the past we present is a hypothesis: but as it deals with things that are real, it must as a matter of method treat all its objects - until and unless better evidence turns up - as real.  (Conversely, we must also be healthily sceptical as to what really is real, and what only looks like it! - evidence and proof are the backbone of history, and woe betide the historian who misreads them.)  Debates in this field have primarily to do with the more proper and secure understanding of the past, and only secondarily with the propriety, credibility and intellectual coherence - what is often called "theory[1]" - of its hypothetical reconstructions of the past.

By legend, by contrast, I mean an account of the past that is not so securely anchored to events; one that, even if it incorporates memories of actual events, places them in a structure that is essentially, in terms of fact, false.  Such reconstructions of the past depend on ignorance, either of practically every event (as in Gildas' account of the Roman period) or at least on the mistaken interpretation of a few actual events, which the writer either cannot or does not know how to check against better sources, and which tend to be framed within the writer's own ideas and overall picture of the past (as in Gildas' account of the end of Roman rule and the pre-Saxon period).  For this reason I may speak of "fragments of history embedded in legend" or of "legendary aspects in a historical framework", according to whether the general structure is or is not describing an actual sequence of events.

It is a good question to what extent writing whose every feature is historical can nevertheless be legendary in that every historical fact it uses is made to fit a framework which is largely or wholly unhistorical.  To take one by now uncontroversial instance, there can be little doubt that Motley's history of the Netherlands, once a standard textbook, is as gross an imposture in its own way as Geoffrey of Monmouth, however much actual Dutch history it may incorporate[2].  The same may probably be said of most Marxist-influenced history.  But these subtle matters of interpretation, suited to a more elaborate culture, need not trouble us too much with Gildas and Nennius, where the difference between history and legend is as flagrant as the sun, and the writers' own ideology in interpreting historical facts is clear enough to need no great theoretical apparatus to bring it out.  Gildas is candidly out to prove a point, and the risk is, if anything, that the evidence of his views and attitudes may mislead us into believing that facts reported, like the Saxon complaints before their rebellion, with remarkable fidelity, may be generically attributed to mere prejudice - and cause us to miss important historical points.  Nennius is candidly dependent on largely or entirely legendary accounts, and the risk is that we should dismiss them as simply legendary and fail to examine their import, as legends, on the study of history.

It is important to understand that nobody ever constructed a picture of the past, whether historical or legendary, that s/he did not find credible.  This may sound like a truism, but it includes one very important fact: that is that, while historical accounts are limited by the presence of those stubborn things, facts, legendary accounts depend exclusively on what the writer finds credible, sensible and acceptable.  It is not necessary to assume that the writer is deliberately making up tales to prove a point; rather, that s/he has no real frame of fact to confront his/her assumptions, and that therefore his/her assumptions rule supreme.  And that is the case whether the assumptions are individual or belong to a whole culture - a difficult enough distinction anyway, since every individual assumption has a cultural aspect, and every cultural assumption reaches us through an individual.  But whether s/he accepts them on previous authority or alters and reinterprets them from his/her own views, a writer always reconstructs the past in the way that s/he thinks is most believable, to make the most sense.  In other words, legendary accounts - while not able to prove any fact by themselves - are the best possible evidence for the views of a society and an individual, and of the political, social, religious assumptions of a period.

Gildas, we have seen, does a great deal of both.  He accepts the legendary British account of the conquest of Britain, though slanting it heavily against the British; but when it comes to describing the end of Roman rule and the rise of Vortigern, he tries to interpret and choose among competing accounts and divergent elements, according to what seemed to him reasonable and credible.  In both cases the story tells us more about what he and his time believed than about what actually happened – though careful analysis can also bring out a few items of actual history (such as the installation of Roman dynasties among the over-Wall border tribes in or after 367)..

There is however a second kind of legendary account, which I would call "interpretative legend".  This does not necessarily depend on ignorance of any actual facts, but rather adds to them a more or less invented story that describes what the storyteller sees as their essential meaning.  It is not necessary for this story to be believed as true, so long as the interpretation of the events it presents is held to be valid[3].  This sort of legend is the result of a culture in which storytelling is not separate from abstract analysis, but is an analytical art meant to convey ideas and concepts, as we have seen in the way that A's legend of three Roman invasions of Britain gives an analytical account of three functions of majesty.

A kind of interpretative legend deals with the historical position of great past figures.  We have met one in the story told in Ireland of St.Patrick and in Powys of St.Germanus. This legend describes the arrival and progressive triumph of the Sacred, as carried by one great religious hero, into the land.  We have analyzed its structure, seen how it moves through several stages to the centre of the society, the high king of the island; but it was told of two real historical Saints, and not without reason.  Though not the first Catholic bishop in Ireland, Saint Patrick was indubitably responsible for the successful establishment of the Catholic faith there; and while certainly not the founding father of British Catholicism, Saint Germanus was, according to two contemporary sources, directly responsible for the successful rescue of the Catholic faith in the island.  It is certainly not casual that the same legend should be told of two people who were, in that respect, in the same historical position.  It is a national legend, and it can only be told of a Saint whose work has had a national impact; indeed, the fact that it was told about St.Germanus might be held to be a further support to the view that the Saint was successful in his fight for Catholic orthodoxy in Britain.

So long, therefore, as the same ideological role is fulfilled, the same interpretative legend may be told about two completely different persons in completely different settings.  Myth and legend are the narrative form taken by the ideology of a culture.  Some of the best-known, beginning with eschatology, describe eternal realities, existing not in but above history; but, since they are fundamentally instruments of interpretation, they also intervene in the self-description - in terms of history - of individual groups, such as dynasties and tribes.  In the here-and-now of this world, they are no less in need of interpretation.

That the same legend is told of two separate founding saints, both thoroughly historical, means that a whole class of legendry existed in Celtic cultures exactly to deal with historical reality: to explain, not the origins of the world and of mankind, or their interrelationships through for instance sacrifice - things which, by their nature, must be seen as everlasting - but specific contemporary facts and contingent relationships.  There was a kind of story which was regularly told about heroes, kings and sages of the historical past in order to give them a recognizable and understandable place in the universe, to explain what was known of them in terms of accepted categories.  No doubt each group regarded its founder-Saint as unique, holding a unique position in history; however, the way they placed him depended on the pre-existence of a group of ideas embodied in a story.  In my view, the story is not just the bearer of the message or analysis, but the message or analysis itself; we can see no dividing line between analytical and narrative elements.  And as the story itself represented an analytical setting-out of ideas about what a founding sage or Saint represented to a Celtic nation (and by nation I mean the largest unit of common culture, above not only the local lordships but even the more powerful provincial kingdoms), so it would inevitably apply to the person seen as fulfilling that role.  Two such interpretative legends, I believe, are the stories of Vortigern and Emrys, and of the house of Conn Hundred-battles, an Irish complex of legends connected with three generations of ancestors of the Ui Neill; but the relationship is so complex and multi-faceted that it gives ground for investigation in itself.

We will begin with what, thanks to Geoffrey of Monmouth's genius, is by far the best-known of Vortigern's many legends: the tale of the fortress and the dragons.  Geoffrey was a Welsh cleric who, three centuries after Nennius (1136), wrote a far more impressive compilation of Welsh legendry, the Historia regum Britanniae, "History of the kings of Britain".  (Readers should remember that the adjective for of Geoffrey is Galfridian - we may use it frequently.)  We have already met him, and indeed it is impossible to deal with any aspect of British legend and not run into him sooner or later.  His book shares Nennius’ chronological framework and covers a good deal of the same areas, but is enormously larger, more elaborate, and far more coherent: a stupendous account, written in exemplary mediaeval Latin prose, of ninety-nine kings drawn from all sorts of Welsh genealogical traditions and legends and organized into one continuous bloodline, as ancient as the kings of Judah and consecrated from the beginning to be the royal house of Britain.

Geoffrey’s relevance to our inquiry lies by and at large in his last books.  Previous ones provide a fantastically brilliant conflation of any amount of different legend cycles and wildly pre-dated genealogical lists (for instance, he places Cunedda about 500 years before Christ), whose analysis would provide a vast haul of useful myth, but – without far more knowledge of early Welsh genealogy than I have or am likely to acquire – only a few[4] could even begin to suggest the history with which this study, however deep it has dug into legend, is ultimately concerned.  I intend to draw as many narrative historical data from my texts as sanity and proper method allow, and every glance given to the development, origin and meaning of legends and legend cycles is only meant to establish a sequel of events – a narrative history.

Geoffrey is generally counted among the world’s great forgers; but whether, like James "Ossian" Macpherson, he mostly made up his material, or whether he re-organized existing Welsh legends, has been a matter of debate for centuries.  He claims to have spent a great deal of time thinking about why there was no written record of the great ancient kings of Britain - of which, it follows, he must have heard plenty of oral accounts - until a well-known clergyman of the period, Walter, Archdeacon of Oxford, gave him "a certain very ancient book written in the British language" (=Welsh).  It is curious, though not improbable, that Geoffrey, a Welshman himself[5], should have known no such written account until he went to Oxford (already a meeting-place of scholars, though not yet a university); if such books existed, they must have been scarce and easily exposed to injury in the everlasting wars between Welsh and Normans.

Such a book, if it existed, could certainly be a credible source for all the vast and diverse amount of genealogical, historical and place-name lore that seems to underlie the Historia regum Britanniae.  To quote a description: "...vellum and parchment manuscripts long preserved from destruction in mansions and monasteries in Ireland, Scotland and Wales... are curious miscellanies.  Usually the one book of a great house or monastic community, everything was copied into it that the scholar of the family or brotherhood thought best worth preserving.  Hence they contain matter of the most diverse kind.  There are translations of portions of the Bible and of the classics... lives of famous saints, together with works attributed to them; poems and romances of which, under a thin disguise, the old Gaelic and British gods are the heroes; together with treatises on all the subjects then studied - grammar, prosody, law, history, geography, chronology, and the genealogies of important chiefs[6]".

This can certainly help explain the peculiar form of Geoffrey's masterpiece, in which all the subjects in question - except perhaps prosody! - find a place in an enormously discursive but constantly moving narrative; but it does not prove that the book he describes actually existed.  It is, after all, not much harder to believe that Geoffrey simply acquired his triumphantly successful manner thanks to the influence of one or more such books, but that he made up his own data, as a modern wit might invent a false encyclopędia with all its entries in order, or a false history quoting equally false sources.  Certainly no such book survives: but as Geoffrey's work is older than almost any existing Welsh narrative writing except Nennius and Gildas, and given that he heavily influenced every succeeding Welsh source, it is not surprising that scholars have found it hard to come to any definite conclusion.  What is certain is that the Welsh of his day took to his book like ducks to water - in spite of the grumbles of mostly non-Welsh writers - granting it the value of a standard narrative, soon intruded in the most traditional kind of bardic and triadic material; and one rather doubts whether the learned classes of the Principality would have given it such unqualified welcome unless it incorporated a considerable amount of known material which they could recognize.  And at least from the days of Robert Vaughan – that is, from the earliest days of Welsh antiquarian research – there has been a firm tradition that Geoffrey was no more than a transcriber and compiler of earlier material[7].  The present Books VI and VII hope to take the discussion forwards.

Nennius and Geoffrey tell the two primary versions of the story of Vortigern and the dragons.  I do not call them primary because they originated anything, but because we have no earlier versions, and because they are independent of each other.  Later versions all derive from one or both.

The current view is that Geoffrey had at least one source for the Vortigern legend other than Nennius: Tatlock, the great analyst of the Galfridian labyrinth of traditions, has pointed out that the sudden unheralded appearance of Vortigern's court sage Maugantius in this episode corresponds to nothing in the Nennian account and must come from another version, since Geoffrey treats his name and trade as a matter of common knowledge.  For that matter, Geoffrey attributes to Ronwein a villainous character that is not in Nennius - though it must have pertained to the earliest layer of the story - and makes Ceredic not Vortigern's translator, as Nennius does, but one of the Saxon commanders, the only one not related to Hengist.  These are not the sort of points which Geoffrey loves to pervert for mischief or to prove the utter contemptibility of everyone else and the marvellous how-great-we-are wonderfulness of past British heroes; they have no particular reason to be there, and therefore the reason is that he found them in an earlier source.

In fact, I hope to show through the rest of this study that Geoffrey never read Nennius at all, and that none of his sources was Nennian.  In the case of the present legend, it is all too easy to demonstrate that Nennius' version is is alternative to that of Geoffrey at most points.  The following table will make it clear.  A good few of Geoffrey's variants may be explained by the desire to blacken Vortigern's name further; but by no means all.  The anti-Vortigern alterations will be underlined, while those which cannot conceivably serve the purpose will be written bold.

NENNIUS, Historia Brittonum, 40-42 GEOFFREY OF MONMOUTH, History of the kings of Britain, 6.17-8.1
Vortigern is warned by his "wizards" that the Saxons are about to rebel and - unless measures are taken - will kill him by stealth and enslave "the provinces you love" and the whole people The Saxons are overrunning the country, thanks to Vortigern's stupidity.  He flees to Wales and asks his "wizards" for advice
(This happens before his son Vortimer begins his struggle against the Saxons, and before the Saxons butcher the British elders.) (This happens after Vortimer's struggle against the Saxons has ended with his poisoning by Ronwein, and after the Saxons have butchered the British elders at Mons Ambrius.)
On the wizards' advice, he searches the length and breadth of Britain to find a "well-defended fortress" (arcem munitam), a site both mighty and remote, to build a fortress strong enough to resist the barbarians, so that not all Britain may be overrun Vortigern - who is already in Wales - surveys Wales himself, without advice from his wizards, until he finds a site both mighty and remote, to build a fortress strong enough to resist even if all his other citadels fall.  No mention of Britain’s overall fate.
He finds a suitable site in Snowdon.  The "wizards" confirm that a fortress built on that site will be most securely protected from the barbarians for evermore. He finds a suitable site in Snowdon.  Again there is no intervention from his wizards.
He calls together all the skilled workers needed to build the fortress, and gathers all the materials necessary for the whole building He calls together all the skilled workers needed to build the fortress, and gathers materials. It is not said that there is enough materials for the building
The materials are stolen overnight.  As often as he gathers similar amounts, they are stolen again. The masons start working on the fortress, but every night the earth swallows their work up
The wizards say that unless he finds a boy without a father, kills him, and sprinkles the earth with his blood, the fortress will never be built for evermore. The wizards say that he should find a boy without a father, kills him and sprinkles the earth with his blood, so that the foundations will hold.
A boy without a father is found in the Field of Elledi in Glewissing thanks to the taunts of another boy.  His mother claims to have known no man (this is a quotation from the Blessed Virgin Mary's words in the Gospel[8]), but, as we will find out, she is almost certainly lying out of fear. A boy without a father is found in Carmarthen[9] thanks to the taunts of another boy, who claims that while he himself is of royal blood on both sides, the other lad has no father, since his mother, the daughter of a king of Dyved, is a nun, and he was conceived by a spirit
The boy's wisdom saves his life.  He demonstrates the wizards' ignorance and acts so that the fortress may stand.  It is unstable, he says, because it is built over a pool; in the middle of the pool there are two vases separated by a folded cloth, in which two sleeping dragons will be found. The boy's wisdom saves his life.  He demonstrates the wizards' ignorance and acts so that the fortress may stand.  It is unstable, he says, because it is built over a pool; the pool must be drained, two hollow rocks opened, and inside it two sleeping dragons will be found
Vortigern's men dig, and punctually find the pool which the boy had foreseen; and in it, folded in a cloth between two vases[10], two dragon embryones - who, once discovered, awaken and start fighting.  The white dragon, says Emrys, seems to be losing out, but will eventually drive out the other. Vortigern's men dig, and punctually find the pool which the boy had foreseen; they drain it, and find the two hollow rocks; they split them open, and find the two dragons, which start fighting.  The red dragon, says Merlin, will eventually drive out the other.
The boy then expels Vortigern with no respect for his royal rank, ordering him to seek for another safe fortress elsewhere, since this one belongs to himself; he is none other than Embreis Guletic, Emrys (Ambrosius) the Gwledig. The boy prophesies the future of Britain.  Vortigern, astonished at his courage in speaking out before the King, asks to be told his future: Merlin - for it is he - tells him that he will either die at hands of the Saxons, or of the vindictive two sons of Constantine, Ambrosius and Uther[11].
Vortigern meekly goes, and eventually establishes his own royal fortress Caer Gwrtheyrn, in the region of Gwynessi, said to be ad plagam sinistralem, on the left-hand side, a Welsh usage for the North. Vortigern flees to another castle, in Little Doward, Monmoutshire, at the other end of Wales, leaving his great fortress, so far as anyone knows, to Merlin.

Both these versions show signs of deriving from previous accounts, of reinterpretation, even of downright misunderstanding.  Geoffrey has certainly worked his will, but Nennius isn't exactly innocent of reinterpretation either; and his reinterpretation comes at the most fundamental level of the legend: the level of significance.

What does Nennius want us to understand?  That the two worms/dragons represent Vortigern's kingdom and the Saxons.  But if we had to interpret their imagery with no added guidelines - even taking into account the variations between Nennius and Geoffrey - neither Saxons nor any idea of invasion would enter our minds.  The symbolic system of the legend concerns a struggle within the area of the fortress, not an assault from outside.  What is more, the Saxons are involved in a completely separate capacity, that is as an external menace.  The fortress is built to resist them: neither Geoffrey nor Nennius give any other reason, and no other reason is really necessary.  But in the symbolic language of the legend, placing the Saxons outside the royal fortress - which, according to Nennius, they never will conquer - also places them outside any sequence of events within the fortress.  The symbolic system of a legend should be coherent and explanatory: if the Saxons are the outside threat against whom the fortress is built, there is something very incoherent about supposing that they are, at the same time, an internal force that prevents it from standing up against... themselves?  We are not used to this sort of meaning folding in upon itself: all the legends we have so far analyzed are clear, internally consistent, and vigorously symmetrical.

The fortress itself is not merely built for contingent military considerations.  In Nennius, Vortigern's search for its site is more a mystical quest than just a search for a defensible place.  In this respect, it is just like the search for the fatherless boy; and like the search for the fatherless boy, it is his "wizards" that tell him to find it.  "The King called his wizards to him and asked what he should do.  They said: 'Go to the furthest ends of your kingdom and you will find a well-defended fortress to defend yourself: for the tribes you have taken into your kingdom will envy you, and will kill you by stealth, and will take over all the lands that you love and all your people, after your death.'  So, he went with his wizards to build a fortress, and went through many lands and provinces, failing to find it, [until] they last reached the land called Gwynedd.  And [the king], seeking through the Eryri mountains, at length settled on one place in the mountains which was suitable for a fortress.  And the wizards told him: 'make your fortress in this place, for it will be securely protected from the barbarian tribes for evermore.'[12]"

Every word in this passage matters. The story depends on the most fundamental aspect of Vortigern's legendary character.  He is the man who let the Saxons in; at both ends of the period of darkness, Gildas and Geoffrey of Monmouth blame him for the same reason.  And so, when we hear his "wizards" tell him that "the regions he loves" and their people are all going to be altogether lost to the Saxons, we realize that to build the great fortress is in effect, his patriotic duty, and, even more, an atonement for his sins.  The court sages have seen the Saxon assault - especially its origins in stealth and treachery - long before it happened.  They also know that the only course open to the king is to build an impregnable fortress; which suggests that, except for this fortress, the Saxons are indeed fated to take over Britain.  In effect, Vortigern is trying to save his country.  The Saxons want to kill him, and, according to his wizards, if they once manage that, they will certainly conquer "the regions that you love" and enslave his people: his life is all that stands between Britain and Saxon conquest.  It is to frustrate this future that he must flee to the ends of his kingdom and build the tower: he must not die or be completely overcome, lest the terrible fate strike Britain.

His "wizards" tell him et arcem munitam invenies, and you will find a well-defended fortress.  Arx is frequently used by Nennius, and at least once by Gildas[13], as the word for a royal fortress, a specifically Celtic institution which, as the legends about Tara make clear, is not only a place of contingent political power, but a site of mystical centrality that has existed from all eternity.  Every different invasion or gabail of Ireland has had a name for Tara[14].  Nennius' curious expression here suggests that the same idea is present: that it is not a matter merely of finding a suitable site, but that the site is already in some sense a royal fortress, and all that has to be done is find it: et arcem munitam invenies, and you will find a well-defended fortress.  In material terms, the fortress has to be built, but in sacred terms, it seems to have existed from all time, and to only have to be recognized.

Now the miracle of the dragons is played out entirely within this area of sacred power, the fortress that is to resist the Saxons, according to the "wizards", in aeterno, for evermore.  The whole point is to make the stronghold able to do so - realize in the material world what is true from the beginning and for ever in the higher world of eternal truth - and the question to be solved is how to deal with its mysterious instability.  It is within its own space, indeed under its foundations, that the two destabilizing forces are fighting; and it is because their fighting undermines the basis of the fortress, that it cannot stand and do its proper work - repelling external enemies.

I think it can be shown that both Nennius and Geoffrey have rewritten or even simply misunderstood two earlier accounts, which, to make matters more complicated, were not exactly similar, but expressed similar ideas with different images.  Symbols should express a group of ideas consistently and with no redundancy: when we find that the two vasa or vessels Nennius places near the cloth he claims to symbolize Britain are entirely redundant, or that the pool which Geoffrey claims to have been already drained suddenly reappears as the dragons are struggling, I think there are grounds to believe that a misunderstanding has taken place.

Both Nennius and Geoffrey indicate that the imagery of the underground events is symbolic of Britain; Nennius adds that the pool "is" the world.  This immediately suggests the geographical situation of Britain, an island in the ocean; but then Nennius affirms that Britain "is" the folded cloth found between the two vases, and inside which two dragon embryones lie sleeping.  A folded cloth between two vessels has nothing island-like or Britain-like about it; nor is it said how they relate to the pool - are they at its bottom, do they float on it, are they on an islet?

Geoffrey favours the first alternative: he states that the pool has to be drained for the two "hollow rocks" to appear.  But then, once the two rocks have been split open and the dragons have awakened and started fighting each other, the pool suddenly reappears: the two beasts are trying to push each other into it - the Red Dragon, which according to Geoffrey stands for the Welsh people, laments loudly being driven to the very edge of the water.  Obviously, this stands for the marginal position of the Welsh, pushed to the very borders of the ocean in scattered communities (Geoffrey's time still regarded Strathclyde, Cumbria, Wales, Cornwall and Brittany as branches of one people).  In other words, the dragons are standing on a piece of dry ground that stands for - "is" - the whole isle of Britain; and - as Nennius, but not Geoffrey, had said - the pool stands for the ocean.

The notion that the pool has to be drained[15] before reaching the two "hollow rocks" not only contradicts Geoffrey's subsequent events, but is peculiar to him; Nennius knows nothing of it.  It goes with another Galfridianism: that is, that it is the pool itself - the mere presence of water under the fortress - that is causing the repeated nightly collapses of the fortress' wall.  This has a feel of rationalizing and explaining away a miracle.

Nennius does not explain why the building materials are stolen - his account is different in this respect; but a much later piece of writing, Lludd and Lleverys, may give us a clue.  Its author knew Geoffrey perfectly well and placed the story in an unblemished Galfridian framework, dating it to the time of the three brothers Lud, Cassivellaunus and Nennius, a Galfridian triad that precedes, in Geoffrey's scheme, the arrival of Caesar.  When we find him adding a brother unknown to Nennius, one Lleverys, he clearly signposts that he is adding something.  And as he knew Geoffrey so well, when he deviates from the master, we must pay attention.

Now, Lludd and Lleverys knows nothing of any pool: it is the dragons themselves that are the destructive element.  As in Geoffrey - but illogically, since both dragons are in fact in Britain - there is one "native" and one "foreign" dragon fighting, and the "native" dragon is having the worst of it; so, every year on the magical day of May Eve, its hideous lament rings out - described as a shriek that haunts the whole kingdom, depriving men of strength, making women miscarry, children faint, and the whole land lose its fertility.  This reminds us very strongly of the emphasis placed by Geoffrey on the loud lamentation of the Red Dragon as he is being pushed out into the pool; it is indubitably the same idea, rationalized by Geoffrey away from its magical elements.

This scream of rage echoing across the whole kingdom, the complaint of a wronged party pushed out of its rights, must belong with the dishonouring shouts with which Celtic heroes threaten people who will not give them their desire.  In Cullhwch and Olwen, Cullhwch threatens Arthur's gate-keeper with three shouts, evidently magical, which, like the dragon's shouts, will be heard all over the country, from Cornwall to Scotland and Ireland.  Sometimes the dishonour inflicted by the ritual shouts is such that they amount to a challenge to battle: Lug Samildanach forces the already-wounded children of Tuirenn to send up three shouts from a particular hill, in the full knowledge that three other warriors, the sons of Midcain, will put to death anyone who does.  The Red Dragon is doing both: lamenting his lost rights and challenging his enemy to renewed battle.

Lleverys informs Lludd that the only thing he can do is to magically charm both dragons to sleep - and bury them below the ground "in the strongest place in your kingdom"; which is why they were where Vortigern and the wondrous boy found them.

What this antefact shows is that it must be the enmity of the two dragons that makes the fortress unstable.  And the imagery used by Geoffrey strongly suggests that they were being born in the stone; they are found "in hollow rocks", as if the land below the fortress had itself given birth to them.  Yet we know that their fighting had troubled an earlier age.  Shall we say, then, that they are being reborn - with their enmity - in this new age, just as Vortigern is trying to bring to contemporary reality the existence of the fortress whose truth has always been there waiting to be actualized?  We certainly shall.  There is a close and famous parallel for the reincarnation of two hostile powers, causing war and destruction with every rebirth not only to themselves but to everyone around them: the furious contention of the two divine swineherds who become the two bulls in the Tain Bo Cuailnge.  And it is not exactly surprising to find that they, too, end up becoming incarnate in two enormous and terrible beasts, the two bulls[16] of the story[17].  There is also something visually similar about the way in which their final struggle takes the shape, largely, of pushing and shoving each other till one is finally torn to pieces; the two British dragons also push and shove each other, till one of them is pushed right into the water.

Both Nennius and Geoffrey, of course, claim that the two dragons represent two opposite peoples who contend for the island of Britain; therefore the symbolism must be one of contention over territory, as in Geoffrey one of the dragons seems about to push the other into the pool, i.e. out of whatever piece of dry land they were contending in.

Now, Nennius claims that the island is represented by the tentorium complicatum or folded cloth, inside which sleep the two dragons; but it is exactly at this point that both the process of his narrative and the nature of his symbolism become very murky indeed.  What are those two vases doing there?  Nennius gives them no role at all; but they are clearly parallel to the two hollow rocks in which the two dragon embryones were found in Geoffrey, which clearly suggests that they were gestating inside the vasa.  But Nennius' dragons sleep not - as would be natural to imagine - in them, but inside the folded cloth.

For that matter, where is the tentorium, and what does it mean?  It is said to be between the vases, but the sequence of the story - first the two vases have to be found, then the tentorium complicatum or folded cloth, and then the dragons inside - shows that the tentorium is found after the vases and before the dragons.  The whole procedure has a clear flavour of moving from above downwards and from outside inwards, a progression from the bigger to the smaller, and from outside to inside, till we reach the dragons and reveal the secrets of the land.  First we see the pond; then the two vases; then the cloth; then the dragons.  To place the tentorium between the vases, rather than inside them, is out of keeping with this clear and logical motion.  And if it is the fate, or else the character, of the two dragons, to fight each other: how can they possibly be imagined folded in one single tentorium, especially when we have two otherwise unused containers (vasa) in the same image?

Clearly, to imagine that the tentorium - or rather, two tentoria, one for each dragon - were in fact inside the vasa kills two birds with one stone.  It allows us to preserve the vivid image of the cloth being unfolded to find two snug little dragons inside; and it agrees with Geoffrey, where the dragons were found in two separate containers.  Of course, Geoffrey has no cloth, folded or otherwise; but then all of Geoffrey's imagery is different: a hollow rock is not a vase or vessel.

However, embryones wrapped in cloth - generally silk - and sealed in containers to live and grow, feature in some Celtic legends, such as the birth of Lleu in The Mabinogi of Math ap Mathonwy, and the version of the Breton story of the bird-child (enfant-oiseau) that has somehow strayed into Germany to be collected by the Brothers Grimm as The Juniper Tree.  In both stories, children who are to eventually become beings of enormous power - one of them none other than Lleu himself - undergo magical second births, wrapped up in silk cloths inside wooden containers.  Now vasum can mean any kind of container, including a piece of wooden furniture (vasarium was the compensation paid to Roman governors for the purchase of furniture and crockery).  That it is a second birth that Lleu and the enfant-oiseau undergo, and that they emerge from it with tremendous power, is directly parallel (if we take Lludd and Lleverys into consideration) to the situation of the dragons, who are being reborn inside the common mother - the earth - to new and tremendous power; so is, indeed, the fact that both Lleu and the enfant-oiseau are soon to be the protagonist of individual episodes of vengeance on the most tremendous scale, ending in the complete destruction of their enemies.  The bird's revenge on his murderous stepmother, elaborately prepared and terribly executed, is probably the most magnificent piece of narrative anywhere in Grimm's Fables.

There is therefore no argument against the parallel.  We have two embryones in the process of being born beneath the earth; we have two containers; we have, from Geoffrey, the clear implication that the two dragons are gestating, being born, inside the earth; we have, from Lludd and Lleverys, the suggestion that they are being reborn from a previous existence in which they had also fought each other and in which, also, one dragon had wronged the other and the other had ritually shouted its fury; and we have the close Irish parallel of the Cattle raid of Cuailnge to show that such a process was indeed part of Celtic epic ideas.  There seems to be no reason not to think that the dragons were inside the vases, with, in fact, two tentoria, each inside its vase, and each with its little dragon embryo wrapped up inside.

Finally, where are the two vases exactly?  Geoffrey places the two hollow stones at the bottom of the pool; but even apart from the fact that his imagery is clearly different from Nennius' - his hollow rocks stressing that the dragons are being born from the earth, while Nennius' vessel and cloth stress the process itself of birth or rebirth - the fact is that Geoffrey clearly only introduced the draining of the pool to explain away the fortress' instability, and that the fact that the pool reappears when his two dragons are fighting prove that it was there all the time: nobody ever drained it, because nobody needed to.  Now if it is the pool that stands for the world, and if the dragons are fighting for Britain, then there is one image that - while not clearly present in either of our sources - simply forces itself on our imagination: namely, an islet in the pool, with the two vases (or the two hollow rocks) in it, or standing on it.  What could better represent Britain, which, according to late-Roman geography, was the greatest island in the world (so Procopius and the Cosmographer of Ravenna say), than a single island in the lake of the world?

I have made this comparatively huge analysis of the imagery in our two sources because it is important to realize exactly what it is telling us - and it is neither what Geoffrey nor what Nennius says it is.  It is inside the British earth, beneath its ultimate unapproachable fortress - a fortress designated from all time to be the last defence of the British people against an all-conquering enemy, without which the foe would overrun the whole island - that an ancient hatred is being reborn from the very matter and soil of the land: that two forces, one of which has suffered deprivation and near-expulsion at the hands of the other, are coming into existence again.  Their confrontation makes the fortress unstable, until the wise boy, by allowing them to be born and manifest their hatred until the deprived, outraged force has finally had its revenge, stabilizes the fortress.  It is by revealing the inner conflicts of the land and allowing them to play themselves out - rather in the manner of a modern psycho-analyst - that the young sage allows the fortress to stand.

Some interpretations of this kind of myth - of which there are a number of instances in the Celtic world - have tended to focus on the eternity of the clash, suggesting something like a myth of eternal return, as of two powers that fight for ever at regular intervals; summer and winter being frequently invoked.  However, the point both of the story of the Contending Swineherds in the Tain, and of the Dragons here, is surely not to establish a rivalry that lasts for ever, but rather to root a present-day rivalry in the depths of mythological time.  That rivalry has a decisive and final end, here and now in our world, when one dragon or one bull destroys the other.  Another frequently quoted instance is the supposedly eternal battle of Hafgan and Arawn in The Mabinogi of Pwyll and Pryderi; but surely the point there is that it is only eternal because Arawn, long ago, made the mistake of striking Hafgan twice - once would have disposed of him - and that his ally Pwyll was now to rectify that mistake, bringing the rivalry to an end for good and for ever.  Even the case of the supposedly eternal battle between Gwynn ap Nudd and Gwythyr ap Greidiawl for the hand of Creidylladd, "the most majestic maiden in Britain", has a promised end - on the Day of Judgement.  No surviving Celtic story features a completely eternal recurring battle; the idea is one that scholars have taken to their material, rather than deriving it from it; and surely we should be more courteous to our stories, listening to what they have to tell us rather than informing them, from the height of our wisdom, of what they really meant.

The Nennian and Galfridian statement that the White Dragon relates to the Saxons and the Red Dragon to the British simply does not agree with the imagery.  We have no reason to doubt that the Saxon threat was an integral part of the original account, but in quite a different light: it is the outside threat that conditions everything in both versions, giving the story a peculiar urgency, leading Vortigern to seek all over Britain for a suitable site for a fortress, and then for a boy to be sacrificed.  The role foretold, explicitly and implicitly, for the Saxons, is that they will take over the whole of the island by treachery (explicit), but that the "great fortress" started by Vortigern will give the young hero Ambrosius, favoured by God, the means to defeat them and establish the stability of the kingdom of Britain (implicit).

It is also easy to see that there are two forces in the story itself - Emrys and Vortigern - of which one, after coming in danger of death from the other, prevails definitely and finally.  Vortigern had taken Emrys and intended to kill him; yet the story concludes with Emrys driving Vortigern away from this royal fortress, to build a caer of his own in the north of the land.  (As the house of Ambrosius is to rule Britain, this is as good as to prophesy the future of the island.)  So too in the imagery of the cave, the red dragon prevails at first, but the white will come back and drive it from the land.  And the fortress Vortigern vacates is not just any fortress, but the strongest possible stronghold in the island, chosen ab aeterno to resist the worst Saxon assaults, and built over a pool which represents the position of Britain in the larger world.  It obviously stands for the power and legitimacy of the high kingship of Britain.  Can we doubt that this is a parable or prophecy, in which the realities seen under the ground in the form of dragons then take effect in the real world, our world, in the form of the expulsion of one great power (Vortigern) by another (Ambrosius?)

This is an allegory of the political situation in fifth-century Britain.  Vortigern, threatened by the Saxons, loses the high kingship by the decrees of fate, leaving Ambrosius in charge.  He is compensated with a lesser kingship; shall we say, he becomes a teyrn, acknowledging the supremacy of what Nennius' text calls Emreis Guletic?  His very name Vortigern designates him a teyrn, so that we can see that he is in effect "becoming what he is", according to the Celtic principle that external events fulfil internal conditions - that ultimately they are the same - so that people and things are always becoming more like themselves.  As the fortress always had in itself the unrealized but eternal truth of its stability and unconquerability, so too Ambrosius becomes a high king - indeed, says the text, a gwledig; and he claims to be the son of "one of the consuls of the Roman nation" - the kingly nation.  Being Roman, he is a high king and can give orders to a teyrn, and decide of the rightful and permanent possession of land.  These are familiar categories, and it can be seen that the decrees of fate by the mouth of Embreis Guletic establish each of them (and, it follows, their descendants) in their proper places and categories.  Probably by Nennius' time, certainly by Geoffrey's, the distinction in rank and function between teyrn and gwledig, and the connection of the latter with Roman and the former with British, blood, had been lost; in the story, they are present.  This, therefore, is a Gildasian-age legend, earlier than historical Wales and embodying ideas that it had forgotten.

That the legend assumes Ambrosius' victory to be permanent and to have brought stability, implies that it was already in existence before the final fall of Ambrosian Britain in the 570s.  Ambrosius took over the half-built fortress for good, putting an end (by exposing it) to what had been causing its instability, making it stable.  This is the legend's message.  The temporary victory of Vortigern's dragon over the dragon of the Mild King's house had produced no stability; when the dragon of the house of Ambrosius came back from expulsion, its victory was conclusive - because it was willed by God, or Fate.  And it is probably no coincidence that the image of a single bold young man telling the truth before the whole king's court is very close to something we have already met: Gildas' implicit contrast between Pharaoh's gilded and foolish consiliarii, the silly princes of Zoar giving ruinous advice, and the single uir modestus, the upright, solitary hero who does not share the gilded swagger and ruinous superbia of the usurper's court.

But though the tale glorifies great Ambrosius, Nennius' version has a notably pro-Vortigern tinge.  Once we remove the natural assumption that Vortigern is the villain of the piece, we realize that his actions are consistently honourable and patriotic.  His druids ("wizards") address him as a man who loves the regiones of Britain, and he does.  He is building the fortress for the specific purpose of having one stronghold which the Saxons cannot overcome, working to make amends for his frightful, colossal mistake, the mistake which will go down as a crime in all succeeding legend; and even the almost-disastrous attempt to sacrifice young Emrys-Ambrosius is motivated purely by the need to build the fortress.  Indeed, the whole motor of his dealings with Emrys is his intention to make it safe and stable, so that, when he surrenders it, it is for no other reason than Emrys' wisdom has stabilized it.  Being able to stand, it will repel Saxon assaults; and, by taking it over, Emrys implicitly takes over the defence of the realm.

Now, the standard roles of Vortigern and Ambrosius were "dupe of the Saxons" and "hammer of the Saxons"; if Vortigern, even as he is being duped by the barbarians, begins to build the great fortress, it means that the beginnings of British self-defence and revival are to be attributed to him and not to Ambrosius.  Ambrosius takes it over by the nobility of his Roman blood and the decrees of fate, but Vortigern must be seen as having done his best to repair the harm he had done.  Even as his knife is at the boy's throat, his character remains positive: he is a well-meaning patriot.  And we have to notice that the establishment of Ambrosius, with all that it implies, is the end, and therefore the point, of the story: Ambrosius, the conqueror of the Saxons, owes the power of his reign - exhibited and incarnate in the fortress - to the man he dispossessed.

There are signs that Geoffrey altered his source considerably.  The episode starts with Vortigern defeated and the Saxons rampant; he flees to Wales as a defeated tyrant without resources.  Yet, to find the boy, he is capable of mobilizing the resources of a king, scouring his territory with the assistance of many obedient royal servants, and apparently with no fear of the instability brought by Saxon war and raiding: events take place as if the land was quite at peace.  Then we are told that what made Merlin's flow of speech remarkable is that the period had produced nobody so willing to speak freely before the king.  This is of a piece with Merlin's calling the wizards "lying flatterers"; but it envisages Vortigern as a supreme, unchallenged royal figure in his court, with little Merlin alone daring to tell him the truth.  Does this agree with the image of a defeated usurper, betrayed by those in whom he had put his trust against the hostility of his own people, and fleeing for his life?  Of course not; and it follows that when Nennius places the building of the fortress before the Saxon revolt and the massacre of the elders, he is closer to the legend's original.  These episodes were envisaged with Vortigern as a reigning king: it is in the time of his greatness, before revolt and disaster, that he begins to prepare against a Saxon revolt.

Geoffrey's primary source was not Nennius at all, and most of the places where he deviates from the earlier writer - from the dragons gestating inside hollow rocks rather than vasa, or Merlin's boy enemy claiming to be of royal blood from both sides - have nothing to do with the intention of blackening the usurper's name, but rather show the existence of a definite alternative account.  But the fact that the flight to Wales, and all succeeding events, came after, rather than before, the Saxon revolt, is part of a definite pattern calculated to overturn any positive view of Vortigern.  While Nennius' Vortigern resorts to the wizards and starts building the fortress before the war, Geoffrey only does so when the Saxons, with his active complicity, have thoroughly wrecked his kingdom.  His intention is not to offer Britain a last redoubt, but to have himself a fortress "to which he could retreat in safety if he lost all his other fortresses" (6.17); his sole consideration is his own safety, and the great fortress is not a wise and indeed prophetic precaution, dictated by court sages who could see a coming war not yet unleashed, but the last desperate measure of an overthrown tyrant who has seen his son poisoned by his own fiend-like second queen, and her barbarous kin slaughtering all the elders of Britain (elders who, as we will see, had opposed the call to the Saxons in the first place).

Therefore the sacrifice of a wonderful boy is not the desperate attempt of committed patriots to prepare for a terrible coming time of trial, but the criminal witchcraft of a half-mad tyrant resorting to wizards, like the biblical Saul, after breaking every tenet of law and morality; and the effect of his final expulsion is not to pass the great fortress to a wiser and mystically superior claimant, but to make sure that he cannot "withdraw in safety" to a tower which the Saxons or the avenging sons of Constantine could not storm.  The fortress itself is of no importance at all.  While Nennius takes good care to inform us of its destiny, with Vortigern uncomplainingly allowing Ambrosius to take over, in Geoffrey we never hear of it again.  Ambrosius, Arthur and all the later hero-kings of Britain have nothing to do with it.  The wondrous boy certainly does not take it over - in Geoffrey he is not Ambrosius, king and liberator, but Merlin the sage; and what would he do with a fortress[18]? The only point is that once Vortigern is removed from it, Ambrosius and Uther can reach and destroy him, which is all that matters to Geoffrey.  There is a good modern joke in there: to Geoffrey, building the fortress is indeed patriotism – Dr.Johnson’s patriotism, "the last refuge of a scoundrel".

Finally, that the Saxons - as a single entity, mind you - are said to threaten to take over all of Britain, again as a single entity, corresponds not to sixth-century but to fifth-century fact: that Gaulish Chronicle entry about the Britanniae coming stably in dicionem Saxonum.  By contrast, the English of the sixth and succeeding centuries set up their little kingdoms piecemeal, and never fully established mastery over the whole of the formerly Roman province.  Indeed, until Cadwallon's defeat in 634 - and in British minds, one assumes, even later - their conquest may not have seemed stable or irreversible.

Yet the legend, even as we have it, is about stable and irreversible solutions, to wit Ambrosius' final and conclusive conquest of power - which passed through an equally final and conclusive wresting of the island away from Saxon hands; in other words, we are talking about a period in which both the rule of the Ambrosiads as high kings, and the defeat of the Saxons, seemed permanent facts, as they did to Gildas.  And when we hear that Vortigern "loved" the regiones of Britain, the concept of "loving" a definite piece of territory seems to take us back to the Latin of Gildas and his contemporaries.  More than one contemporary gravestone or memorial inscription praises the person being celebrated as amator patriae; for instance, an inscription from Wales describing one Paulinus, who has been identified as a teacher of St.Dewi who attended the Synod of Llandewi Brefi when already an old man[19].  If this is his gravestone, it comes not long after the period in which I would place the first redaction of the Vortigern legend - the high tide of Gildasian culture, in which the Saxons appeared subdued, and the dynasty of Ambrosius seemed the unchallenged masters of the island.

It is also a part of the story's pro-Vortigern line that the picture of the two dragons implies that the two opposite forces are equally legitimate.  They are equal in strength, and nothing they do does anything to make the White Dragon legitimate, or the Red usurping.  In fact, the problem of the royal fortress is that they balance each other all too well, so that their fighting is particularly bitter and destructive.  It is only by the decrees of fate, not by physical strength, that the white dragon will finally prevail; which is certainly not the view of that unbending Ambrosian Gildas, to whom the infaustus tyrannus is a usurper and nothing else.

But then the legend has little to do with the world of Gildas. It is thoroughly Celtic and indeed pagan, not only in its building elements, but in its spirit; and where in Britain, in an age which Gildas certifies - and A guarantees - as thoroughly Catholic, a class of men could be found to build a royal legend out of consciously manipulated stock Celtic elements, including such things as the respected presence of druids ("wizards") in the royal household and the reincarnation – reincarnation! - of hostile supernatural powers that dictate a pattern of hostility across time? This is a very good question indeed. It is worth noticing that Vortigern, wandering the country until he can find a place to settle, name, and die in, figures as a male version of the largely female name-heroines of Irish and other Celtic traditions, who die somewhere after long wanderings and give their names to the place where they died.

This legend was not only formulated in the Christian sixth century, but it developed at least two variants which consciously employed different images to express the - to say the least - non-Christian idea of the two dragons gestating to be reborn in the womb of the earth, conceived as literally a mother. As we will see in the next section, there is evidence that it pre-existed the historical Ambrosius and the superbus tyrannus, going back to a common prehistoric Celtic store of ideas and narratives, and that it was applied to other kings besides Vortigern; but the way it was applied to Vortigern - who was crowned no later than 428 - by a considerably later generation of storytellers, does show that there was at least one group of educated Britons whose Christianity, if it existed at all, was no more than skin-deep.


[1]I do not think there can be any such thing as a real, general "theory" of history. Scientific research depends on the construction of general or particular theories, to be tested by experiments and verified or falsified accordingly. Such experiments are not and cannot be made in history; historical proof, where it exists at all, is a matter of the existence of written or at any rate physical evidence of past events. History is an essentially reactive sort of study, starting from data which have their own stubborn individuality, and any overall picture it can form must come after the individual pieces of evidence are considered - and never, however bold its speculations, move beyond them. The historian's work is to find, not to form, patterns, and his/her contribution is the analytical capacity common to every moderately intelligent human being; so that even such theories as a practising historian tends to develop only tend to arise from the evidence, coming together to suggest the existence of larger patterns. For instance, in the course of this research it has occurred to me, apart from all the patterns discussed in the text, that two separate Irish legendary cycles - that of Conn, Art and Cormac, and that of CuChulainn - diverge widely from their British parallels, in ways that suggest a parallel pattern of divergence, and which I may investigate in the future. History is a study of individual things, not of generalities; and therefore a general "theory of history", such as Vico’s, Hegel's, or Marx's, is a contradiction in terms.

[2]To come slightly nearer our own time, I am firmly of the opinion that theories which make the fifth-century Catholic British party "pro-Roman", and the Pelagian one "nationalist" (Myres), or associate them with social issues (Morris), do no more than transpose inappropriate twentieth-century categories, unsuited even to understanding the twentieth century, but ten times so any preceding age. Social revolution is almost entirely absent from the history of the Roman empire, except for the very early struggles between rich patricians and ciues oppressed by debt; the reaction of poorer classes to oppression tended to be not to revolt, but to disintegrate.  And whether or not Pelagianism - a movement whose chief ideologue was a Syrian and whose boldest defenders were Italian bishops - ever took any nationalist overtones in its struggle to survive in Britain, it was primarily a religious movement, not a political one. In fact, it was just as easy to be nationalist in politics and Catholic in religion, as we see by the development of the legend of A, which joins rejection of Roman ius with acceptance of Roman power over religious substances - and hence of the centrality of Rome in the sphere of religion.

[3]A variant of this would be Our Lord's parables, or such things as the fables of Rabbi Nachman (MARTIN BUBER; The Tales of Rabbi Nachman, New York 1970): nobody believes them to have literally happened, but they convey with great brilliance and clarity certain fundamental truths of human life. Interpretative legend in my sense, on the other hand, becomes attached to real people and real things. In the modern world, its role is taken by often real events which, however, come to have paradigmatic significance - e.g. the role of a few, exemplary items of political corruption in the universal perception of "sleaze" that doomed the Major Government.

[4]See Appendices 1 and 11 for two exceptions.

[5]Though we know little of Geoffrey's origin, he claims to be Welsh at the end of his Life of Merlin. That he is, as his name says, "of Monmouth", seems confirmed by his obsession with Caerleon-upon-Usk (and other Monmouthshire sites such as Little Doward): GEOFFREY, History, ed. Lewis Thorpe, p.11 (introduction); Life of Merlin, in RICHARD BARBER, British myths and legends, London 1998, 180. On the other hand, we will find plenty of reason to believe that he could not speak, or at least read, Welsh.

[6]CHARLES SQUIRE, Celtic myths and legends, (reprinted) Bristol 1998, p.8f.

[7]RACHEL BROMWICH, “Trioedd Ynis Pridein” in Welsh literature and scholarship, Cardiff 1969, 25-26.

[8]In other words, these words can be connected with the mother being a nun in Geoffrey, since the Virgin is often seen as the model of Christian nuns, and indeed is traditionally shown dressed in something very like a nun's habit.

[9]The replacement of Carmarthen for Maes Elledi is obviously caused by the boy's identity as Merlin (Myrddin) in Geoffrey. Carmarthen sounds exactly like Caer Myrddin, though etymologists tell us that the name has a different origin. So far as it matters in a story that has already indubitably been transposed to the narrower confines of Wales from a broader, island-wide environment, there can be no doubt that Nennius' location is the more credible.

[10]That is not actually Nennius' description; but see below, main text, for my reasons to think that he has misread or misunderstood the story.

[11]Merlin's prophecy in Geoffrey is decidedly anti-Vortigern in tone. On the other hand, a king asking a sage how he will die is a common Celtic topos, and the answer that he is fated to die either at the hands of the Saxons or of Ambrosius and Uther is, as we will see, part of the core of the story. This is therefore not necessarily only an anti-Vortigern variant.

[12]Et postea rex ad se invitavit magos suos, ut quid faceret eos interrogaret. At illi dixerent: "In extremas fines regni tui vade, et arcem munitam invenies, ut te defendas; quia gentes quam suscepisti in regno tuo invidet tibi, et te per dolum occidet, et universas regiones quas amaras occupabit cum tua universa gente post morten tuam." Et postea ipse cum magis suis arcem adipisci venit, et per multas regiones multasque provincias circumdederunt, et, illis non invenientibus, ad regionem quae vocatur Guined novissime pervenerunt. Et illo lustrante in montibus Hereri, tandem in uno montium loco, in quo aptum erat arcem condere, adeptus est. Et magi ad illum dixere: "Arcem in isto loco fac, quia tutissima a barbaris gentibus in aeternum erit."

[13]When he speaks of God's summa caelorum arce tempora cuncta excedente, His "supreme royal fortress of the heavens, that goes beyond all time": God is envisaged as the ultimate in royalty - Celtic fashion - with His own arx towering over space and time.

[14]Lebor Gabala Eireann 5.83.

[15]Geoffrey never says how he supposes this impressive engineering feat to have been performed. Emptying out an underground lake, working from above, would demand a great deal of power and engineering skill, and perhaps the writer does not want to be involved in explanations that may expose him to criticism.

[16]There is a vague tradition of a fighting Scottish bull defeating an English one, "according to a tradition associated with a stone called Clach nan Tarbh, near Loch Lomond" - JAMES MACKILLOP, Dictionary of Celtic mythology, Oxford 1998, 58 (s.v.bull). This is probably a shred of a similar theme, more genuine than Nennius' reinterpreted dragons.

[17]It is also a related point that the struggle between the two bulls also represents the historical struggle between the Ui Neill from Connaught and the kings of Ulster for control of the midlands and of the kingship of Tara, with its supposed supremacy over Ireland. This struggle was decisively resolved with the fall of Baetan in the 580s, which delivered Tara into Ui Neill hands for centuries; which is comparable to the ruin of the house of Vortigern and the triumph of the Ambrosiads. It is probably due to Ulster wishful thinking - ancient and modern commentators agree that the Tain Bo Cuailnge shows a marked partiality for Ulster - that it is the Ulster beast that triumphs, though its triumph is both bloody and ephemeral. The matter is however complicated by the fact that the two supernatural swineherds eventually reborn as bulls were from Munster and Connaught, with no mention of Ulster, and that the recognizable places where they fight - Cruachan, the Sid of the plain of Femen, the rivers Shannon and Suir - are consistently connected with Connaught and Munster. This may hint at the adoption of a previously existing account, concerned with a struggle between Connaught and Munster, as the antefact of the great struggle between Ulster and Connaught; perhaps, in prehistory, it was the two western provinces that remembered a clash great enough to suggest that it had its roots among mythological creatures.

[18]However, a late legend says that after the expulsion of Vortigern, "Myrddin... remained there in the Dinas for a long time, until he went away with Emrys ben-aur, Ambrosius the gold-headed" (JOHN RHYS, Celtic Folklore, 470; quoted in P.C. BARTRUM, A Welsh classical dictionary, Aberystwyth 1993, 249), a form found in the eighteenth-century Welsh divine and poet Theophilus Evans (Drych a pryf oesoedd, 1851 ed., p.71). It is remarkable that as late as John Rhys' nineteenth-century folklore collection, and in spite of the confusing nature of the legends, Welsh folklore was clear that Emrys Gwledig - also mentioned in a letter to Edward Lhuyd as Brenhin Emrys y bunran, "king Ambrosius of the five parts" - was not the same person as the post-Galfridian sage Myrddin Emrys.

[19]SNYDER op.cit. p.64 and n.49 (p.289).

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

Comments to: Fabio P. Barbieri

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