Separating myth from fiction

Tome I: Rise of the Red Dragon

WARNING: Before you continue reading this section, please be advised that it contains spoilers about the story and the plot of the novel Rise of the Red Dragon. If you have not red the book as of yet, please click here instead to get your own copy.

  In Samuel's first adventure, our favorite hero is transported to ancient Britain, where the Britons, led by King Vortigern, are fleeing from the Saxons, who are invading the island that will become Great Britain as we know it today.


  To put an end to his flight, Vortigern decides to build a fortress on the hill of Dinas Ffaraon (which will be renamed Dinas Emrys). Unfortunately, every morning, the King finds the previous night's work reduced to rubbles, as the hill shook every time the sun went down.


  After discussing with his advisors, Vortigern sends his men to find a boy birthed by a virgin mother, and they bring back a child named Myrddin Emrys, better known by the name of Merlin. Vortigern had planned to spill to blood of the boy on the hill, but Merlin instead told him a story, in which Lled Llaw Eraint, hero of Welsh mythology, buried two dragons in a pond under the hill. He also revealed to the king that the white dragon, representing the Saxons, was currently winning his battle between the two dragons, but soon, he would be defeated by the Britons' dragon, with scarlet red scales.


  Of course, in the novel, Samuel plays an important role in the Britons' victory, but let's examine what belongs to the original myth and story, without the embellishments of your favorite authors!

The origin of the legend

Statue of saint Gildas

  Details surrounding the Saxons' arrival on the island of Britain were first recounted by Gildas, an ecclesiastic and historian who lived in the 6th century, in his work entitled De Excidio et Conquestu Britanniae (On the Ruin and Conquest of Britain). It is a sermon considered to be one of the most important sources for the history of Great Britain during the 4th and 5th centuries.


  However, saint Gildas never identifies Vortigern as the one responsible for the Saxons' conquest of the island, referring instead to "the proud usurper". We must wait for the Historia Brittonum (History of the Britons), an anonymous work most likely dating back to the 9th century, before we learn the identity of Vortigern.


  Finally, it is only in the writings of Geoffrey of Monmouth, a cleric and historian from the 12th century, that we learn the legend of the dragons. His tale, included in the pages of his Historia Regum Britanniae (History of the Kings of Britain), tells the story of a young boy, named Myrddin Emrys, and how he revealed to Vortigern the presence of the two dragons under the hill of Dinas Ffaraon.


Anonymous, 15th century

  Did Vortigern really exist, and is he truly responsible for the arrival of Saxons in Britain? Here is a question no one as the answer to. The sources telling his story are all vague or incomplete, and their interpretation varies from one expert to the other. What's more, some even think that Vortigern could be a title instead of a name, which generates even more confusion about him.


  In all probabilities, there was a man of certain importance who lived in Britain between the Roman occupation and the arrival of the Saxons, and he may be responsible for the latter's conquest of the island. Was he really or was history embellished by the historians of the 9th and 12th centuries? We may never find out.


  In my novel, the character of Vortigern is based on the description of Geoffrey of Monmouth. He labels the king as unfortunate, rather than a usurper, and depicts him as a man followed by misfortune. What's more, in the original tale, Vortigern does not meet his doom swallowed by a dragon. Instead, he gives the hill to Merlin or Ambrosius Aurelianus, depending on who tells the story, and then he leaves the area. Some believe he then became mad for having invited the Saxons on the island of Britain.

Myrddin Emrys

Merlin, illustration from the Middle Ages

  What can I say about Merlin, or Myrddin Emrys, that hasn't been told already? This famous character from Arthurian mythology is certainly one of the most popular among fans of fantasy novels, and his name is synonymous with adventure and glory by the sword.


Merlin's popular description first appears in the work of Geoffrey of Monmouth and his Historia Regum Britanniae, previously mentioned. He seems to be based on a mix of famous heroes, including the mad bard Myrddin Wylit, and the historical warlord Ambrosius Aurelianus.


At first, his character's name tends to switch from one tale to the other, which created some confusion as to his original identity (or identities). Sometimes, Merlin is even called Ambrosius, and other times, the latter is a completely different character.


The legend of Vortigern and the two dragons is one of the first stories introducing Merlin, while he is still a child. According to the source of this tale, Geoffrey of Monmouth, Merlin was born of a virgin mother, and conceived after the intervention of an incubus, a demon who preys on women in their sleep.


For my novel, I decided to stay with Geoffrey of Monmouth's interpretation and to base the character of Merlin on the historian's version. However, that Merlin was raised in a monastery by Master Blaise is from a poem by Robert de Boron, simply entitled Merlin.

Ambrosius Aurelianus

King Arthur, by Julia Margaret Cameron

Ambrosius Aurelianus (sometimes called Aurelius Ambrosius) is probably the most historically authentic character of the novel. His existence is attested in many stories, and he is one of the rare people named by saint Gildas in his work, De Excidio et Conquestu Britanniae. Many believe that Ambrosius Aurelianus was the true King Arthur.


Portrayed as a warlord by Gildas, Ambrosius is believed to have won an important battle against the Anglo-Saxons during the 5th century. The historian also tells us that Ambrosius was of aristocratic birth and that he "wore purple", which could mean he was from a military Roman family.


It's only in the work of Geoffrey of Monmout, the Historia Regum Britanniae, that Ambrosius is identified as the son of Constantine III, and the brother of Constans II and Uther Pendragon. It's also according to Geoffrey of Monmouth that Ambrosius and Uther left Britain after the murder of their brother, which is historically improbable.

Uther Pendragon

Uther Pendragon, by Howard Pyle

Father of the legendary King Arthur, the character of Uther Pendragon is particularly enigmatic. Portrayed more elaborately in Geoffrey of Monmouth's Historia Regum Britanniae, Uther is the youngest brother of Constans II and Ambrosius Aurelianus.


The epithet Pendragon was given to him after Uther saw a comet in the shape of a dragon, while he was accompanying Merlin to Ireland to bring back stones for Stonehenge's construction. The name means "chief of warriors", and it's only in Geoffrey of Monmouth's work that its signification becomes "dragon's head."


Uther Pendragon was considered a just and righteous king, defender of the people. After the dead of his brother, Ambrosius Aurelianus, it's Uther who fought back the Saxons and put an end to the war against the invaders.

The Welsh Dragon

Welsh Dragon Memorial, Mametz Wood

Also called Y Draig Goch, the red dragon is Wales' emblem. The most ancient tales mentioning the dragon date back to the 9th century, in the anonymous work Historia Brittonum. It is also believed that it was King Arthur's emblem, as well as many Celtic warlords.


In the Manibogion (or the Four Branches of Manibogi), a collection of poem preceding the work of Geoffrey of Monmouth, one can find the first story telling about the red dragon's origin. This tale describes how Llud Llaw Eraint, legendary hero of Celtic mythology, buried two dragons in an underground pond under Dinas Emrys, at the time called Dinas Ffaraon.


On each first day of May, during the Beltane festival, a fearful shriek would echo across the entire island of Britain. This scream made the men lose their strength, the women miscarry their babies, and the young men and maidens go mad. After he found the origin of the scream, Llud had a pit dug close to Dinas Ffaraon, lowered a cauldron of mead at the bottom, and covered the hole with a satin sheet. When the red and white dragons fell to the pit, their strength drained by the battle they waged, they were shrouded in the satin sheet and plunged into the mead, which they drank until the fell profoundly asleep.


Llud Llaw Eraint's men carried the two dragons under Dinas Ffaraon, where they buried them until Vortigern dug them out once more.

Dinas Emrys

Dinas Emrys, formerly known as Dinas Ffaraon, is a small wooded hill near Beddgelert, in the Gwynedd region, in Wales. The top rises to almost two hundred fifty feet above the floor of the Glaslin river valley.


The ruins of habitations and fortifications are still present on the hill, and the construction of most of these structure dates back to the Middle Ages. However, some of the oldest vestiges date back as far as the 1st or 2nd century, which indicates that several Celtic tribes had probably build a camp on the hillock.


An artificial pool was dug around the 5th century and stands amid the ruins of several habitations, and it could very well be the pond to which refers the legend of the red dragon. Also, some signs on the remains of the structures indicate that the construction was started over several times, which most likely inspired the original legend.


Another legend claims that Merlin buried a treasure in a cave under Dinas Emrys. It also states that the one who will find this treasure has blue eyes and golden hair. When this chosen one will stand close to the hill, a bell will ring to invite him to take possession of the treasure, after a hidden door to the cave magically opens.

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© Martin Rouillard