Archive for November, 2012

Last time I continued the tale of the great wizard Merlyn and his connection to Arthurian legend. As court wizard to Uther Pendragon, king of Britain, Merlyn devised an ambitious plan to form the Table Round. He envisioned ideals of justice; it didn’t quite work out that way.

After Merlyn had build the table for Uther, the monarch invited many nobles and knights to join the Table Round. One who accepted was Gorlois, the king of Cornwall. At the inauguration ceremony, Gorlois brought with him his wife, the beautiful Igraine. Uther fell in love at first sight, but Gorlois didn’t like all the attention the British kind was paying to his queen. He took Igraine and departed in the night, seeking refuge in his castle at Tintagel.

Uther was furious. Not only was it a grave insult for a guest to flee his host, but he had been deprived of Igraine’s longed-for company. He forgot all about the Table Round and declared war on Cornwall. Many battles raged. Although Britain’s eventual victory seemed certain, this was all taking too long for Uther. The king summoned his court wizard and demanded help.

Merlyn used his magic arts to transform Uther into an exact copy of Gorlois. Uther then rode right into Tintagel Castle and immediately made his way to Igraine’s chamber. Meanwhile, Merlyn directed Uther’s forces where to ambush the Cornish troops. Gorlois was killed in the fighting.

Word reached Igraine the following day, after Uther had already left Tintagel. She knew something was terribly wrong, since “Gorlois” had been with her the previous night, but she did not suspect Uther’s duplicity when he immediately arrived to console her. They married soon after, a handy way to consolidate two realms, but then Igraine discovered she was pregnant with the imposter’s child.

Fearing Uther’s wrath, Igraine told him of her condition. She thought she was bearing a bastard child, disaster for a virtuous queen. Rather than being angry, Uther was delighted. He explained the whole situation and gladly claimed the child as his own.

Nothing is said of Igraine’s feelings on the matter, only that she was relieved to have a legitimate child after all. Personally, I’d think such a cruel deception would cast the entire relationship in  a very different light. Likewise, the story doesn’t say what Merlyn thought about the unravelling of his grand idea for justice in Britain. However, some say that Merlyn had foreseen all of these events and considered them part of a greater good.

Or maybe he wasn’t perfectly forgiving. It turned out there was a price for his part in the impersonation scheme. I’ll go on with that story next week.


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Last week I related how a young man “born of no father” revealed to King Vortigern that a battle between red and white dragons was destroying his fortress at Dinas Emrys. The boy’s name? Merlyn — by many accounts the greatest wizard in all history.

Following his success at Dinas Emrys, Merlyn became Vortigern’s court wizard. Vortigern himself apparently ruled only a short time before being supplanted. As is often the case, there are several versions of the legend. One holds that Vortigern was a usurper, put down by two brothers named Pendragon and Uther (or in some cases Ambrosius and Uther). Another version says that Vortigern, Pendragon and Uther were brothers, in that order of birth, and they followed each other to the throne of Britain.

The last of the three to hold power was Uther Pendragon, who paid tribute to his brother by taking his name. You probably recognize Uther’s name as the father of the ultimate figure in British folklore, King Arthur. However, Uther stands on his own as a minor figure of myth. He appears in stories from the great Welsh collection The Mabinogion, from the Fifth Century, and in several other Medieval histories.

His surname, Pendragon, is something of a puzzle. It doesn’t belong to any one language, but rather has passed through several tongues to the form we now know. Suggested translations include “chief dragon” and “dragon head.” From Uther’s position as ruler, it seems that Pendragon may have been a title applied to the strongest leader and/or chief warrior in any given area. The fact that he inherited the title from his brother adds credence there.

Whichever variation you prefer, Merlyn remained as court wizard under all three brothers. Among other feats, he transported a group of huge stones from Ireland to England; today we know the grouping as Stonehenge. Actually, Merlyn’s powers are associated with a number of standing stones, including a large array at Carnac in Brittany. The tale goes that Merlyn turned a Roman legion into stones, and that is why the ancient pillars stand in such perfect order.

But let’s get back to Wales and Uther Pendragon.

When Uther came to power, Merlyn advised him to win the people’s love and loyalty by becoming a champion of justice. To do this, Merlyn  constructed a huge, round table where the rulers and knights of the age could sit side by side, with none set above the others. Uther followed Merlyn’s instructions and invited those he deemed worthy to join him at the Table Round.

Alas, due to human frailty, this noble effort led to war. Come back on Thursday to find out where it all went wrong.

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Last time, I retold a tale from the Mabinogion, where King Lludd imprisoned two dragons beneath the hill of Dinas Emrys in Wales.  There they stayed for hundreds of years, locked in agelong slumber.

But it is told in Historia Brittonum, which was written in the early 800s, that King Vortigern decided to build a castle upon Dinas Emrys. Vortigern was a king of Britain, driven from his home by Saxon invaders. The castle in Wales was intended to be part of his final defense. To Vortigern’s frustration and dismay, everything he built would be destroyed the followinig night. Walls, foundations, you name it — all was flattened by dawn. Nobody ever saw how this happened.

Vortigern summoned his mages and advisors, while told him that he must find a young man with no natural father, and sacrifice him to appease the unquiet spirits of Dinas Emrys. After long searching, Vortigern did find such a boy, who was held to be a great wizard (and by some accounts the son either of Satan or a Pagan deity).

Upon learning why he had been brought there, the boy scoffed at the counsel the king had received. He told the king to dig down and reveal the cause of the destruction. Vortigern did so; the red and white dragons at once flew out and resumed their furious battle. It was their underground struggle that had brought down the castle walls.

After a long fight, the red dragon emerged victorious and killed the white dragon. The boy then told Vortigern that the red dragon symbolized his people, and the white symbolized the Saxons. By this portent, he predicted Vortigern would triumph over his enemies. Indeed, once Vortigern was able to complete his fortifications, the wizard’s prophecy came to pass.

Nothing more is said of the red dragon, although its likeness became a national symbol first for all of Wales. As for the young wizard, he went on to become immensely powerful. Next Tuesday, we’ll follow his trail forward in time.


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In the Mabinogion, a Medieval collection of Welsh folk tales, it is told that a white dragon had invaded the territory of a red dragon. The two beasts fought a terrible battle for many days. Their roars made animals die of fright, rendered fields infertile, and caused pregnant women to miscarry. (Some versions of the tale state that this was an annual battle, taking place each year on the pagan festival of May Eve, April 30th.)

King Lludd was the ruler of Wales, where this horrific combat took place. Seeing the devastation of his kingdom, he went to see his brother, King Llefelys of France, who was reknowned for his wisdom. Alas, King Llefelys knew of no way to kill either dragon. He did suggest a strategy, however.

King Llefelys advised his brother to dig a pit, fill it with mead, and disguise it with cloth. Returning home, King Llud followed his brother’s instructions. Once the trap was set, he withdrew to watch and wait.

Lo and behold! That much mead was enough to distract both dragons from their battle. They drank and drank. (In some versions, the dragons transformed themselves into swine so they could reach every bit of mead.) Eventually the two dragons fell asleep at the bottom of the pit. Llud ordered that they be tied up in the cloth, then buried the site under a mountain of earth. The mound became known as Dinas Emrys.

History tells us that the red dragon is a symbol of Wales, and the white dragon stood for Britain, which was attempting to conquer Wales. Dinas Emrys stands in Gwynedd Province, the last bastion of Welsh resistance.

But the tale of Llud and Llefelys is only the beginning of a remarkable saga. Come back on Friday to find out what else the red and white dragons got up to.

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Writers are always being told that we should blog. We must build our platforms and spread our fame. Many writers retort that we don’t have time, or we don’t have enough to say, or it will distract us from what we really want to write. All these things may be true.

Today I want to share that I got something really unexpected and good from writing this blog: I inspired myself.

A few weeks ago, I was researching and writing for a post on a famous Greek dragon myth (Perseus and Andromeda), and what do you know? I got an idea for a story! Better yet, it was a short story idea. I hardly ever get short story ideas. When I do try to write a short story, it often turns into the first three chapters of a novel. Which then has to be put on hold, because I’m always — I mean always — already in the middle of a novel.

But this idea stayed short. Not only that, it dovetailed with a contest I’d just learned about. So I took a break from The Grimhold Wolf, where I was floundering, and managed to finish my short story and enter it in the contest.

Entered a contest? Big deal. Well, yes. Any time you finish a story is a big deal. And my point is that Perseus and Andromeda and the sea-dragon Cetus weren’t anywhere on my radar. I would never have had this idea if I wasn’t writing the blog.

Not that I’m joining the chorus exhorting every writer to also be a blogger. My point is that any kind of reading is good for writers. Whether than means encountering new tales or taking a fresh look at old ones, you owe it to yourself to fit in a few great stories along the way.

You just never know where inspiration will come from.

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I have one more ramble left before I can let poor Hydra rest in pieces. When a story is as long-lasting as that of Hercules vs. Hydra, it seems to me there’s something deep in it that resonates with people — in this case, resonates over millennia. That’s the threat of futility embodied in this myth.

If you consider Greek myth as a whole, futility plays a part in an awful lot of the stories. The most terrible crimes, directly punished by the gods, have significant elements of futility. Tantalus is up to in his neck in a water, yet unable to drink. Sisyphus is condemned to roll a huge boulder up a hill, only to have it roll back down so that he must start over. (Sisyphus is actually quite an entertaining character, despite his wickedness. If only he had something to do with a dragon, I could tell you all about him!)

So Hercules battles Hydra, and every time he cuts off one of her heads, two more grow back. Not only that, but the original story cycle gave Hercules just ten labors. That’s right — ten, not twelve. When King Eurystheus realized Hercules was about to finish his labors, he tacked on a few more. Success was snatched away.

Don’t we all feel that way, sometimes? Like whatever we do in life, fate intervenes to reverse it. If (and I flatter myself here) you noticed that I missed a post last week, it was because I too suffered in the throes of futility. My son is skipping school, my car mysteriously refuses to start, the three characters in my novel are going in six directions at once. Some days, it just seems like I can’t win. Futility!

Well, in the end, Hercules does finish Hydra off. (Mostly.) He succeeds at all twelve labors and atones for his crime of infanticide. The big lesson, if you will, is that, with enough determination and effort, you can overcome those obstacles in Real Life.

So I tell myself as I wait, yet again, for my mechanic to figure out what’s wrong with my car.

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As I noted last post, November of National Novel Writing Month for many of my friends and writers. In that spirit, I’d like to highlight a prime writing lesson that’s illustrated in the legend of the Lernaean Hydra.

That lesson is about plot arc, and tension. We writers often struggle to keep our plots moving, and our stories gripping, so let’s look at how the ancient Greeks handled the same problem.

The legend begins when Hercules is given a task: kill Hydra. Off he goes, with his trusty nephew, Iolaus. When he gets there, he discovers this is no ordinary beast. She’s a giant water snake with a whole bunch of heads. Not only that, she’s extremely poisonous.

Does Hercules quit? No, and neither should your character. Hercules covers his mouth with a cloth, to protect against the poison, and takes Hydra on. At first, it might appear easy. Hercules dodges several attacking heads and cuts one off.

But, oh no! Two more heads grow in its place. The harder Hercules hits, the more heads Hydra has to kill him with. This is going to be a lot harder than it seemed.

Does Hercules quit? No, he can’t quit. This task is a punishment from the Gods. Luckily, Iolaus hits on the strategy of burning each stump with a torch, so that Hydra can’t regenerate those heads.

Well, this changes things. Slowly, Hercules and Iolaus manage to slash-and-burn Hydra down to size. Or so they think. Hera is watching this battle, hoping Hercules will lose, and when things aren’t going that way, she intervenes by sending a giant crab to harrass Hercules.

Again, Hercules might think about giving up. All these dragon heads, and now a giant crab? But he does persevere, and in the end he kills both Hydra and the crab.

So what can aspiring writers learn from the tale of the Lernaean Hydra? The lesson is in it’s structure. Those long-ago story tellers used a technique called Escalation, a.k.a. “things get worse.” Whenever it looks like Hercules is winning, some new factor comes into play that stops him from winning so easily.

It might seem like this is just the writer jerking people around, dangling success in front of both character and reader. In reality, the writer uses Escalation to keep the reader interested. Every time things get worse, tension grows. The reader worries more about the character, and the ultimate victory is sweeter as a result.

In addition, the Greek story tellers had a very interesting structure of villains behind villains in this legend. Hercules is fighting Hydra, the overt villainess, but there are others behind her. King Eurystheus, who assigned him this task. And behind Eurystheus is Hercules’s true foe, Hera. If you think about modern thrillers, like the Bourne series, a lot of the action is simply about peeling back layers to reveal the real enemy.

So as you forge ahead with your NaNoWriMo project, keep these two words in mind: Escalation and Layers. And keep on writing!

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