There was a time, long before the inhabitants of Britain wrote down their histories for us all to read, that country was inhabited not just by people like you and me, but wizards, ghouls, monsters, dragons, tricksters, and worse, demons. And just as the mythical gods in ancient Greece and Egypt had relations with humans, so did these ghouls and demons, and their offspring had strange magical powers that no other creatures on this earth possessed. It is rumoured that is how Merlin came about, his mother a poor noble woman and his father a diabolical ghoul. One dark, sleepless night a ghost came up to me and told me how a long, long time ago, when he still lived his life as a king in Britain, he made the acquaintance of Merlin the Wizard. This is his story.
My name is Uther Pendragon, and I was the third and youngest son of a great king, Constans. When I was still a young child, my father died, and as a result my life was in danger of death. This is how it came about. My oldest brother, and my father’s heir, Constantius, had spent his youth and early manhood in a monastery. He showed scant interest in affairs of state, tournaments, battles and such knightly pursuits as a king’s son is normally trained for. So by all accounts he was not a very good king when he succeeded my father. My father had fought many battles with invading Danes and Saxons, and had always successfully defended his realm, but these foreign invaders rejoiced greatly after his death, when they heard that Constantius the Monk, as people referred to him, had been crowned king. They calculated they would have more success against him. So it came to pass that they raised a great army and invaded Britain.
Now my father had always enjoyed the full support of a quite brilliant warrior and knight, by the name of Vortigern. When my brother Constantius called on him to help him raise an army to take up arms against the Danes, however, Vortigern sent a message to say he was too old and weak. All the battles he had fought for my father had taken their toll, and he was not half the man he used to be. Or so he claimed.
Constantius did what he could, and he did have the support of many of the barons and knights who had been loyal to my father, but the Danes were too crafty and strong, and they inflicted a heavy defeat on my brother’s forces. Havoc and chaos ensued, the Danes went virtually unopposed in their campaign of rampage across the countryside, killing knights, farmers and peasant alike, taking their women and their worldly goods, and occupying their castles and their homes before destroying them and moving on to the next. So the good barons sent a delegation to Vortigern, as they knew full well that Constantius would never be strong enough to drive the Danes back into the sea.
This Vortigern was not just a good warrior, he was ambitious and crafty, unscrupulous, even. He said he would not lift a finger to fight the Danes on behalf of Constantius the Monk. However, he indicated that if a situation arose where Constantius was no longer in the picture, now that would be a different story.
When the barons received this message they were temporarily thrown into a quandary. But then some of them rode into my brother’s castle and murdered him without further ado. My remaining brother, Aurelius and I were still but children, too young to succeed to the throne, so the barons offered the throne to Vortigern, and he, unsurprisingly, accepted the position and immediately set about organising an army to engage the Danes.
During this time some of my father’s most loyal friends took my brother Aurelius and myself out of the country, and across to sea to Brittanny, or Little Britain as it was then commonly known, in a country which you now know as France. This was done in order to protect us, because these good barons knew Vortigern well, and reasoned that he might well mean to have us murdered so as to stop us laying claim to the throne at some point in the future.
Vortigern eventually succeeded in defeating the foreign invaders, and drove them out of the country. A great feast was organised to celebrate the success of the military campaign, and all the barons and knights who participated were invited to join King Vortigern, as he now was. At this great feast, the men who had killed my father came up to Vortigern, and demanded their just reward for this deed, which had resulted in Vortigern becoming King. But Vortigern reasoned that he could not really afford to reward the murderers, as this might encourage others to do the same thing to him. So he feigned to be indignant and horrified, denying that he, Vortigern, had anything at all to do with Constantius’ death and immediately had the men seized and thrown in jail. The men were charged with regicide and condemned to death. But these barons had very influential friends, and before long an insurrection started against the king.
More and more knights joined in the fight against the king, and in the end, he had no choice but to send a delegation to Henkist, the leader of the Saxons, asking for assistance. Henkist agreed to this request, as he saw it as a way to finally get in foothold in England, and came over with an army of Saxons, which soon quelled all resistance.
All this left Vortigern very unhappy, and he did not feel very safe at all. On one side he feared the English barons who he thought were quite capable of creating problems for him, and on the other side he did not trust Henkist. To strengthen his bond with Henkist, he gave him his daughter in marriage, and to protect himself against his English barons, he decided to build an impregnable fortress.
A suitable site was found on the Salisbury plain, and one fine day workers started digging and laying foundations. But when they returned to the site the next morning, they discovered that all their work had been destroyed. Undaunted by this setback, they started again, with renewed vigour, and by the end of the second day, they had started on the outer wall. You can just imagine their surprise and horror, when the workers returned the next morning to find all their work destroyed once again. This time Vortigern decided that something must be wrong. He was well aware that he had obtained his crown by deception, and thought maybe he was being punished by forces beyond his control. So he sent for his astrologers, and ordered them to find out what caused the disruption to his work.
The astrologers went away to consult their charts and the heavenly constellations, and early the next morning returned to the court to report to the king. This is what they told the king: that some years earlier, a boy had been born in the kingdom, whose father was not from this earth. All that had to be done, was to find this boy, kill him, and scatter his remains over the building site. That would satisfy whatever demonic forces were at work, and the king would then be able to complete building his castle without any further disruptions.
Now this boy did indeed exist, and he was none other than Merlin. His mother had been a poor noble woman, and his father a demon who had come to earth to have a son, who, once grown up, could then help him carry out his evil designs on mankind. But the demon’s plans had been thwarted because the mother had sought the protection of a good hermit, who had baptized the child and trained him to use his unearthly powers for the good of mankind. This turn of events was much to the chagrin of the boy’s demon father, and he used the problems Vortigern had with his castle to send a message to his astrologers, which would result in the death of his useless son.
So it followed that Vortigern sent some of his most trusted men all over the land, looking for a lone mother with a child, but without a husband and eventually two of them came upon the hermit’s abode. When Merlin saw them he immediately recognised that they were looking for him, so he stepped forward and introduced himself. He told the knights that he knew why they were looking for him, and explained to them that it was not necessary to kill him; just take me to King Vortigern, he said, and I will explain the mystery to him.
So the knights took Merlin back to the king’s castle, and introduced him to the king. Vortigern immediately took Merlin to the building site, and showed him the havoc caused by the mysterious forces. After wondering about the site for a few minutes, Merlin spoke to the king: I can see what’s going on here, he said. At the very place where your builders are trying to lay the foundations for your castle, just below the surface, are some large pools of water. At the bottom of these pools are some rather large stones, which act as covers for the hiding places of two enormous dragons, so large, are they, that nobody alive I the world has ever seen any like them! One of these is white as the purest milk ever to be milked from a cow, the other as the deepest red, like the blood shed by your knights on the battle field. These beasts sleep all day long, but as soon as the sun sets, they engage in a terrible struggle, which is ever without a result, for their powers are so evenly balanced, and they have not enough room to manoeuvre. So every night, when these terrible monsters start their furious battle, the walls that your builders put up during the day, are destroyed.
The king was fascinated by this explanation. What can we do about it? he asked.
It’s very simple, said Merlin. Get your men to drain the water from the underground pools, and then have the stones pulled out. You will need some very strong ropes and a large number of horses, because they will be very heavy. But once that is done, the following night, the dragons will have more room, and they will be able to finish their fight, so that after that, you will not have any more trouble and you will be able to build your castle.
Vortigern gav the necessary orders to his workmen, and the immediately set about digging trenches towards a nearby stream, which would drain the water from the pools. When that was accomplished, they set about lifting he stones; this proved rather more troublesome, as they were indeed, as Merlin had predicted the largest stones any of them had ever seen. But after a long and arduous struggle, they managed to do so, and then the assembled workers, the king and all his knights, and Merlin could see there the two dragons lying side by side, sleeping. They were indeed the most horrendous vile looking creatures, of enormous size, one of them, the white one, had two heads , and as they slept, fire and smoke escaped from their nostrils. By now, the sun was setting, and the dragon started to stir. As Merlin had predicted, they immediately commenced a furious struggle, spitting fire at each other like striking lightning, one throwing the other in the air, then the other trying to strangle his opponent, all the time emitting the most fearful bellowing noises. The fight went on for what seemed like hours, and Vortigern and his men watched in fascination, not a little fearful themselves that either one of the terrible monsters might turn its attention to them. But eventually, as the first light of the new sun started to peer over the eastern horizon, the white dragon had got the better of his opponent, and was seen crushing it to death, The red creature fell down to earth with an enormous thud, making the ground shudder, and then miraculously seemed to turn to dust. The white dragon raised itself, and took off into the sky, away from the rising sun. It disappeared amongst the clouds, and since that morning not a single person on earth has ever laid eyes on it again.
King Vortigern was delighted with this outcome. As a reward for his services he offered Merlin the position of chief counseller to the King, which Merlin accepted. For some time all was well, the building of the king’s castle now proceeded at pace, without any further incidents. There were some in the king’s court, however, who were envious of Merlin’s position. They thought it was not right that one so young should have the king’s ear at all times, and often the king showed that he preferred Merlin’s counsel over that of anybody else’s. One day one of these envious knights put it to the king, that as Merlin was such a know-it-all, he should be able to tell the king the hidden meaning of the fight between the two dragons, after all, it was common knowledge in those days that everything had a hidden meaning. So the king, who himself was very curios, summoned merlin and bade him to explain the meaning of the struggle they had all witnessed. Merlin was reluctant to speak on this matter however, and the king got angry. He threatened to have Merlin killed if he did not provide him with the explanation he wanted. The reason Merlin was reluctant to speak of this matter was that he could see that the king was very nervous about his position, and still felt guilty about the actions he had taken to get the crown. But in the end he decided to speak. First, however, he thought he should advise the king that his threats did not mean anything.
My good king, he started, you should know that your threat to kill me is meaningless. You cannot kill me any more than you would have been able to discover the reason for your foundations crumbling by yourself. Because of the powers I inherited from my father, no mortal man can ever harm me. Only I myself can bring about y end in this world. You are curious to know the meaning of the two dragons struggle. I will tell you, but I will tell you now that you will not like it very much. The red one, whom you saw defeated represents yourself, king Vortigern. The white dragon, with its two heads, represents the two sons of King Constans, the princes Aurelius and Uther Pendragon. These two will return from Brittany, with a formidable army, and they will inflict defeat upon you and your ally, Henkist the Saxon. This impregnable castle of yours will be set alight, and will burn to the ground, and all inside it will perish just as the red dragon perished.
As you can imagine, King Vortigern was none too pleased with this prediction, and in spite of what Merlin had told him about him not being able to be hurt by any mortal man, he gave the order that any knight who came across Merlin should kill him forthwith. But Merlin had disappeared, and none could find him, wherever they searched.
And of course Merlin’s prediction came about. As these events were unfolding in Salisbury, my brother Aurelius and I did indeed raise an army and we defeated Vortigern and Henkist, and claimed our rightful inheritance. What happened next is another story, which will take a long time to tell. Suffice it for me to say that Merlin came back to the court following Vortigern’s demise, and proved a faithful servant to me and my family for a very long time.
With this, Uther Pendragon’s ghost disappeared inti thin air, just like the white dragon had done in his fantastic tale. I just hope that my telling of his story does justice to the tale.