24 November 2016 by Roy Preece
The night was very dark. I was driving along the motorway with a Chinese friend. We had been sailing all day on the sea and were quite tired, and now we faced a long drive home. As we reached the top of a hill we could see the next hill rising in front of us. Up and down the hill hundreds of lights were moving. ‘Oh! See that,’ said my friend, ‘It looks like two dragons; a red dragon and a white dragon’.
‘Ah!’ I said, ‘You Chinese, unlike the English, see dragons everywhere. I would say the lights are like two rivers, or maybe like two snakes. But you have reminded me of an old story I read when I was very young. It was in a beautiful book and I have not seen the book for more than fifty years, for I am not young now. I can’t remember the story exactly, but I will search for the book and find it if I can. And then I will tell you the story. But I do remember the story was about a red dragon and a white dragon. It is a very famous story and all English children used to learn it.’
At last, in an old box in my loft I found the book, ‘Legends of Old Britain for Children’, and I sat down to read the story again after half a century.
“There once was a king called Vortigern … .”
Now already I must pause and tell you who Vortigern was so that you can understand the story. King Vortigern was an Ancient Briton or Old Briton. This doesn’t mean that he was old, but that the Britons were an ancient people. They were already living here when the Roman Empire conquered Britain 2000 years ago, but because they had no writing their story is a mystery. We know they made beautiful things of gold and iron, and mysterious patterns and magic spells, and were very clever at taming horses. The Romans were a more practical people, but once they had conquered the Britons the two peoples got along very well for about 400 years.
Then the Romans had to leave and Britain was invaded by another group of people called Anglo-Saxons. Little by little these Saxons took over the whole country except the Western Mountains where the Ancient Britons thought they were safe.
“King Vortigern, then, was a king of the Ancient Britons. Just now he was very depressed and angry. He was depressed because he had lost a big battle with the Saxons, and he was angry because he thought he had an agreement with the Saxons that they wouldn’t fight any more.
‘What can we do?’ he asked his wise men, ‘These Saxons will take over the whole country.’
‘We must find a strong place in the mountains and build a great a tower and there we shall be safe from these Saxon invaders,’ his advisers said.
So Vortigern’s people searched the Western Mountains; and in a land called Gwynedd at a place known as Eryri they found the perfect spot. Then Vortigern ordered that all the necessary stone and wood and materials should be brought there ready for building his great citadel. But it seems that some evil force was at work to prevent the building. There are three versions of the story. One says that as soon as all the building materials were brought together they disappeared mysteriously at night and this happened three times. Another says that building was started, but that all the new building work vanished each night. And a third simply says that whatever they built just fell down again in the night. This last version seems to be the most realistic since no magic is involved. Whichever is true, it appeared that the wise men’s idea was a failure.
What to do? The wise men decided on a rather cruel solution to their problem. The Romans sometimes mixed the blood of animals with the mortar used for foundations of buildings because they thought this would make the buildings strong and guard them against evil. But for special buildings, best of all was human blood.
‘We must find a young boy who has no father and kill him and mix his blood with the mortar,’ said the wise men, ‘Then the building will stand.’
So Vortigern’s people searched the land for a boy with no father, but they couldn’t find one anywhere. Then as they rested one day at a place called Bassalleg they saw two boys fighting and heard one boy taunt the other with having no father. The men asked around and discovered that no one knew the boy’s father, although his mother was a noble woman who lived with nuns in the city. So Vortigern’s men took the boy back to Eryri and told him to stand in front of the king.
‘My wise men tell me that you must be killed and your blood mixed with the mortar so that my building shall not fall down,’ said Vortigern.
‘My name is Merlin,’ replied the boy calmly, ‘And your wise men are fools and liars. I ask you, bring them here and I shall show you.’
When the wise men were brought Merlin questioned them. ‘Who told you that my blood was necessary to make the king’s building stand?’ The wise men had no answer. ‘And do you know what really makes the building fall down?’ Again they had no reply and they began to feel afraid that this boy would make them look foolish in front of the king.
‘Can we go to the building site?’ said Merlin. King Vortigern was intrigued by now and agreed at once, hoping to find out at last why he could not build there. It was such a good place for a strong citadel. When they arrived at the building site Merlin asked the wise men again, ‘Do you know what is under the ground that makes the building fall down?' Again the wise men had no answer. ‘Then dig down,’ said Merlin, ‘and you will find a pool of water there. The pool must be drained of all its water and filled with stone and then you can build.’
So some of Vortigern’s men dug down and found the pool just as Merlin had said. The king was delighted of course. At last he could build a strong refuge and defy the Saxons. But Merlin had still more questions for the wise men. ‘Now,’ he said, ‘tell us what lies under the pool?’ But the wise men could only shake their heads. ‘Drain the pool then and you will find two very large jars; and in the jars are two sleeping dragons.’ Vortigern ordered the pool to be drained and sure enough there were the two jars. ‘Now watch,’ said Merlin.
So the king and Merlin and the wise men and the men who did the digging all watched as something very mysterious happened. Out of each jar crawled a sleepy dragon. One dragon was red and one was white. At first they yawned sleepily, but when they had opened their eyes properly and saw each other they began to fight. The white dragon seemed to be strongest at first and he drove the red dragon right to the side of the pool. But the red dragon fought the white dragon back to the centre and began to push him to the other side. Then the white dragon drove the red back to the edge a second time. Again the red dragon fought back. But the white dragon forced him to the edge a third time. Then finally the red dragon fought so fiercely that the white dragon was beaten to the edge of the pool and ran away and disappeared completely.
‘Now,’ said Merlin to the king’s wise men, ‘can you tell us what this means?’ But the wise men could not.
‘Do you know the meaning of this dragon fight?’ Vortigern asked Merlin.
‘Yes, and I will tell you now, for its meaning is both good and bad. The pool of water represents the whole land of Britain. The red dragon represents the Britons and the white dragon the Saxons. These two peoples will fight over the land for many years. But eventually the Britons will win and drive the Saxons out of the land of Britain completely, even as the red dragon drove out the white one.’ ”
We can learn a lot about England from this old legend. Because legends often tell of magic events which could never have happened, people used to think the legends were all untrue. But now scholars think the legends were based on real stories and can help us to understand history, and even the magic bits are elaborations of true events. Perhaps Vortigern, who was a real king, did try to build on a place that was too wet to support his building. Many old buildings, such as the beautiful cathedral at Winchester were built on poor foundations, and the cathedral nearly did fall down.
The Saxons, who were later called the English, did conquer the whole of Britain except the mountains in the west where the Ancient Britons held out for hundreds of years and called themselves the Welsh and their country Wales. Some went to the western parts of France where the province is still called Brittany and these people share many legends with the Welsh. Perhaps the Britons added the magic story of the fighting dragons to cheer themselves up to keep on fighting and not give up. But even the prophesy was not true, for seven centuries later the English conquered Wales and made it part of Great Britain so that now the two peoples live together as part of one country. But still the Welsh have their own flag which is of course a red dragon.
You should know too that dragons are not at all as important in Western culture as they are in China; dragon stories are quite rare and the dragons are usually unfriendly and dangerous. Roman armies sometimes showed dragon heads on their banners when fighting, but these were just to make the soldiers look fierce and to frighten the enemy; the soldiers did not expect any help or advice from dragons. After the Romans had left Britain the Britons sometimes copied the Roman practice of showing dragon heads on their banners.
The story reminds us too of how the present day English are a mixture of many races. Even before the Ancient Britons came to our land there were other people living here. Then the Romans arrived and their soldiers who came from all over the Roman Empire often settled here when they retired. The dominant people were the Anglo-Saxons, but there were also Jutes and Danes from Europe. Next the Anglo-Saxons were conquered by French speaking Normans from France, but in a few hundred years these two cultures grew into one. Later there were refugees from persecution in Europe, such as the French Huguenots and Jews from Germany. This explains why the English can look so different from each other, with many hair colours and eye colours, and perhaps why they are so open to new ideas.