Legends of Red and White Dragons and Merlin
One could expect that the legends surrounding Merlin the Mage in Arthurian legend would contain tales of dragons, and so they do. Merlin’s dragons, in fact, appeared when the Romans first invaded Britain, well before Arthur took over the throne and long before Merlin was born.
The Fable of Llefelys and Llud:
At the time of the Roman invasion there were two brothers, Llefelys the King in France and Llud who ruled in Britain. Llud’s kingdom was cursed by horrible screams, so fearsome that they caused the women and beasts of the kingdom to miscarry. These screeches and shrieks occurred on every Beltane (the modern May Day). Llefelys, who had all the wise men of France at his disposal, told Llud that the screams came from a Welsh dragon trying to defeat a foreign dragon. Llud was instructed to return home and to measure his kingdom lengthwise and width-wise to find the center point. Once this was done, Llud was told to have a cistern, or large well constructed on the spot. The cistern was to be filled with strong mead and covered with brocaded silk. Then Llud himself was to sit by the side of the cistern on Beltane and apply Llefelys’ second set of instructions.
Having followed his brother’s first set of instructions; Llud found that the center point was at Oxford. He constructed the cistern there and filled it with mead then placed a silk covering on top. He was rewarded on the night of Beltane by the sight of two dragons furiously fighting above him in the air. Finally they exhausted themselves, changed into the shape of pigs, and fell into the vat where they commenced gobbling the alcoholic mead. After drinking their fill they fell asleep and Llud was able to wrap the cloth around them and take them captive. From Oxford Llud took the sleeping dragons to the most secure spot in his kingdom: the Citadel at Ffaraon Dandde in Snowdon where he had the dragons permanently imprisoned. From then on Beltane was free of shrieking and the overjoyed people celebrated with true merriment.
Merlin and the Red and White Dragons
After the Romans left Britain the site was re-named Emrys’s Citadel and it was at that time that it entered into Arthurian legend through the exploits of the Wizard Merlin.
About 450 AD the Constantine, King of the Britons was killed by a Pictish assassin and his eldest son, Constans, became King. Vortigern had married Princess Severa, the daughter of Constantine’s predecessor, Magnus Maximus, and from this position he installed himself as the Reagent to the young king. Soon the young King Constans met his untimely end. When Vortigern took over the throne the infant brothers Aurelius Ambrosius and Uthar Pendragon (Arthur’s father) were spirited to safety in Brittany.
Vortigern’s hold on power was shaken when the kingdom was attacked by Picts living north of Hadrian’s Wall. Since he did not have enough fighters to repel the Picts permanently, Vortigern enlisted the aid of two armies of Saxon and Jutish mercenaries from the Baltic, led by the Princes Hengist and Horsa. The Jutes and Saxons were paid with a grant of land between the Britons and the Wall. This proved to be an uwise move when, soon after, the Saxons and the Jutes betrayed Vortigern and attacked the Britons.
The distraught Vortigern called together a council of twelve wise men and asked for their advice. They told him to construct a fortress in one of the remote areas of his kingdom from which he could mount a defence against the Saxons. The place that was chosen for the fortress was Dinas Ffaraon, also known as Ffaraon Dandde, near mount Snowdonia in Wales. Construction began but, no sooner than the material s were gathered and the foundations were laid, the structure crumbled to rubble overnight. Three times Vortigern attempted to build his fortress and three times his efforts were foiled. Again he called on his council and asked them to determine the reason for this failure.
In those times human sacrifice was an accepted practice where infants were sealed up in walls or the blood of the sacrificial victims was mixed into the mortar. When the council of twelve told the King, “You must find a child born without a father, put him to death, and sprinkle the ground on which the citadel is to be built with his blood.” he accepted their advice and sent his servants throughout Britain to find a fatherless boy. One of the servants, Dafydd Goch, discovered a boy called Myrddin Emrys in Bassaleg. Emry’s mother was named Aldan and his father was reputed to be a demon, though it was more likely that the father was a Royal Prince whose name could not be publically revealed, and for this reason he’d acquired the reputation of being fatherless. The boy was brought back to Dinas Ffaraon to be presented to Vortigern as the appropriate sacrifice.
Emrys faced Vortigern boldly, “Why did you have me brought here?”
“To be put to death so that the ground on which my citadel is to stand may be sprinkled with your blood.” Vortigern replied.
“Who advised you thus?”
“The law stipulates that a condemned man may plead for the King’s justice. Bring the council thither that I may argue my case.”
When the councillors were brought before the King the boy spoke, “I will soon reveal everything to your Highness, but first I require that these men disclose what is hidden in the earth beneath this structure.” The King granted Emrys permission to do this, at which point Emrys turned to the councillors, “By what means was it revealed to you that this citadel could not be built unless the ground were sprinkled with the blood of an innocent? Speak without guile and profess your true reasons.”
The councillors exchanged nervous looks and could not give an answer.
The boy with a wry smile then said, “Under us there is a pool if you but delve to find it.”
Diggers were brought and they found the pool, just as Emrys had said. “Now, you who are so wise, tell me what is in that pool.”
They were ashamed and could not reply.
“There are two vessels there.”, and it was indeed discovered that there were two vases joined neck to neck in the pool.
“What is in these vases?” The councillors could not answer this question any more than they could answer the others. “There is a silk tent in them, pull them apart and find it is so.”
By the King’s command the vases were separated and a folded tent was found inside. “What is in the tent?” asked the boy and again they could not speak.
“Inside the tent are two serpents, one white and one red, reveal them and watch what they do.”
The instructions were obeyed and two sleeping serpents were discovered. Once exposed to the air the creatures changed into Dragons and began to fight upon the silk tent. The white dragon raised himself on his hind legs and threw the other into the middle of the tent, then drove him back to the edge. Three times the white dragon assailed the red and three times the red, apparently the weaker of the two, was driven to the edge of the tent. In a turn of events the red dragon recovered his strength and threw the white dragon completely off of the tent and into the pool. Here the pursuit continued and both dragons disappeared into the bottom. Once the dragons were seen no more the boy turned to the councillors and asked them what meaning they put to the actions of the dragons. Perplexed, they again admitted their ignorance.
“The pool is this world, and the tent is your kingdom, oh King. The Red Dragon is the dragon of the Britons and the White Dragon that of the Saxons. At length, however, our people shall rise and drive the Saxons back into the sea from whence they came but you, oh King, are constrained from raising you citadel on this mountain. You must depart and build elsewhere. Emrys also prophesied the defeat of Vortigern at the hands of Prince Ambrosius before the eventual expulsion of the Saxons.
Vortigern, seeing how he had been deceived by his councillors, put them to death and ordered them to be buried in a nearby field. The boy’s life was spared and he became known in later years as the great Mage Myrddin Emrys (Merlin in English) and the mountain which had housed the captive dragons was re-named Dinas Emrys and became his home until he was found by Aurelius Ambrosius, who persuaded Merlin to come with him. Merlin helped Ambrosius become King and, after him, helped his younger brother Uthar Pendragon strengthen the kingdom.
The Red Dragon of this Legend went on to become the symbol of the Welsh people.