Month of the Dragon is racing right along, and we have arrived at a favorite time of mine, Tell-a-Dragon-Tale Week. It is a time to gather in the mead hall and spin the most fantastic yarns of draconic daring-do. To talk of Dragon books and stories.
This year, prodded gently by my friend Karen Sanderson, I’m kicking off the week with a classic piece of Dragon lore: the tale of Y Ddraig Goch, the Red Dragon of Wales.
There are many stories about this noble creature, though one of the earliest is found in the Mabinogion. In the story of good King Lludd
and his brother, Llefelys. It seems that long ago, Britain was cursed by three plagues, the second of which is to our tale.
Every May Day a terrible scream was heard across the land, from Anglesey to Land’s End, from Dubrae to Caledonia. Worse than a thousand Ban síde, the scream made grown men weep and all manner of creatures, two-legged and four, to go barren. Lludd was at a loss, but his brother, who was wise in the way of the mystical knew at once what to do.
“Dragons! The land is plagued with Dragons.” One very old (the Red Dragon of the Celts) and one a newcomer (the would-be usurping White Dragon of the Saxons and Angles). They were engaged in a terrible battle and it was their terrible screams that cut through the night.The only thing to do was to capture the Dragons and confine them underground at the heart of the land.
Now, to capture two warring Dragons is no easy task, but, with the help of vast quantities of mead (Dragons do love their mead), King Lludd and Prince Llefelys were able to bind the Dragons and bury them deep underground on the southern verge of Snowdonia in Cymru. The mound that kept them contained is Dinas Emrys.
What images this conjures up! Daenerys Targaryen chaining Viserion and Rhaegal in a dungeon under Meereen [Mother of Dragons lost major cred with that move; than goodness Tyrion was wise enough to set them free.]
Then again, was it perhaps an ancient precursor of Yucca Mountain,where lethal forces beyond our control were going to be entombed until – in theory – no longer dangerous? But I digress…
Years later, King Vortigern, a first-class tyrant if ever there was one, wanted to build a castle atop Dinas Emrys. Everytime his builders tried to set the foundation, the earth trembled so violently the stones turn to rubble. His court “magicians” told him to sacrifice a child “born without a father” and sprinkle his blood on the hill. This would stop the tremors and bring him great good fortune, to boot.
So Vortigern searched far and wide until he found such a msyterious child.
The next day the king, his wise men, his soldiers and retinue, his artificers, carpenters, and stonemasons, assembled for the ceremony of putting the boy to death.
Then the boy said to the king, “Why have your servants brought me hither?”
“That you may be put to death,” replied the king, “and that the ground on which my citadel is to stand may be sprinkled with your blood, without which I shall be unable to build it.”
“Who,” said the boy, “instructed you to do this?”
“My wise men,” replied the king.
“Order them hither,” returned the boy.
This being done, he thus questioned the wise men: “By what means was it revealed to you that this citadel could not be built unless the spot were sprinkled with my blood? Speak without disguise, and declare who discovered me to you.”
Then turning to the king, “I will soon,” said he, “unfold to you everything; but I desire to question your wise men and wish them to disclose to you what is hidden underneath this pavement.”
They could not do so and acknowledged their ignorance….
“I,” said the boy, “can discover it to you if the wise men cannot.
And the boy told the king of a great chamber in which two mighty dragons, one red, one white, were engaged in eternal war with each other.
“…the red…is your dragon, but the white…is the dragon of the Saxons, who occupy several provinces and districts of Britain, even almost from sea to sea. At length, however, our people shall rise and drive the Saxon race beyond the sea whence they have come. But do you depart from this place where you are not permitted to erect a citadel, you must seek another spot for laying your foundations.” (Why the Red Dragon Is the Emblem of Wales; W. Jenkyn Thomas)
Red Dragon v. White – Geoffrey of Monmouth’s History of the Kings of Britain
After executing his not-so-wise council, Vortigern took the lad’s advice and built his castle on a neighboring hill. His life spared, the boy grew in fame and power and became know, in time, as Myrddin Emrys, a name later Anglicized as Merlin.
As most of us know, Merlin left Cymru for Cornwall where he offered his considerable services to Uther Pendragon and, later, his son, Arthur, a king who also rode under the banner of the Dragon.
In later years, a much better king than Vortigern, Llywelyn ap Gruffudd, the last king of Cymru, constructed a great citadel atop Dinas Emrys. It was perhaps his reverence for the Red Dragon that made it possible for him to build without draconic interference.
As for Merlin’s vision of the Red Dragon defeating the White, the mage was right for a time. Yet, eventually, as Geoffrey of Monmouth recounted, the White Dragon of of Britain – sometimes Anglo-Saxon, sometimes Norman – did overcome and subsume Y Ddraig Goch.
For the Cymry, though, the Red Dragon remains the soaring emblem of the land on flag and crest, watching over them with all his fierceness.
The English, perhaps recalling the strength of Y Ddraig Goch in centuries past, have not always approved. To which Dragons reply, “Tough talons! We’re here, we fierce, get used to it.”