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We’ve been following the deeds of the mighty wizard Merlyn, as intertwined with the fates of the Red Dragon and the great hero, King Arthur. Merlyn had helped King Uther win his wife, Queen Igraine, and unite Britain with Cornwall. Igraine was expecting their first child. Well, it turned out Merlyn hadn’t helped Uther just for nothing. His price: turn the baby over to him.

Merlyn’s reasoning was that Britain was still very turbulent, with Saxons invading and many small kingdoms quarreling among themselves. If Uther died with his heir so young, the realm would be thrown into chaos and someone, sometime, would do away with the child. Uther stood by his word, and Merlyn took the baby Arthur from his parents when he was three days old.

Legends vary, but most agree that Merlyn first took the tiny heir to the magical isle of Avalon. When he was old enough, the wizard then asked a good knight, Sir Ector, to raise the boy to adulthood.  Still concerned for Arthur’s safety, Merlyn did not reveal his true identity. Sir Ector brought up the future king as a modest and humble squire.

While all this was happening, Merlyn’s prediction came true. Uther died, and the realm fell apart as factions fought for control. To prevent complete anarchy, Merlyn placed a sword in a stone with the prophecy that whoever drew it out would be Britain’s destined king. Many knights and would-be rulers tried to draw the sword, but none could.

Until, almost by accident, Arthur did take the sword from the stone and claim his heritage. He went on to a storied career of driving out Saxon invaders and establishing a reign of peace and justice in Britain. His symbol? That very same red dragon whose battle with the white dragon had started Merlyn’s career so long ago.

I had hoped to finish this thread with a story where Arthur himself battles a dragon. I can’t find a one! If any of you know of such a tale, I’d love for you to send me a link or even tell the tale yourself in a comment.

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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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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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I mentioned the movie Dragonslayer in my last post, and that brought to mind another great fantasy movie of the late 20th Century, Willow. Released in 1988, Willow was the brain-child of George Lucas (of Star Wars fame) filmed in collaboration with Ron Howard and a stellar cast.

Like Star Wars, Willow is populated by a set of stock characters who rise above their stereotypes due to enthusiastic performances from the actors. Val Kilmer is perfect as the swashbuckling swordsman; Warwick Davis is the humble dwarf who longs to be a wizard; and Jean Marsh is the wicked queen whose sorcery blazes even through a downpour. I wasn’t so amused by the two bumbling pixies, but who could forget the old wizard, played by Billy Barty, proclaiming “The bones have spoken!”

Did I mention there’s a dragon in there? A mighty nasty one, actually. The twist is that the would-be wizard, Willow, creates this menace himself when a spell goes awry. The dragon is sometimes referred to as “Sisbert” or “Eborsisk” (after a pair of film critics who had given negative reviews to Lucas’s other films). It has two heads, both ugly as sin, and both breathing fire if memory serves. Luckily for Our Heroes, Sisbert can’t fly; it stays in a castle moat and the two heads fight over the body of their victim. Still, it takes an army to keep the dragon busy until Kilmer gets the drop on it.

Willow did not enjoy the enormous commercial success of Star Wars, and was dismissed by critics. In my opinion, it was ahead of its time and thus not fully appreciated. More than 20 years later, this is still a really fun movie. I recommend it for all ages.

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Probably the best known “real dragon,” is the water dragon lizard. These are popular pets all over the world. Lizard fanciers enjoy their color variations — mostly green with yellow, orange or aqua stripes on their sides and throat patches. They also have a pineal gland, or “third eye,” which helps them detect variations and light and temperature.

Water dragons have a more social temperament than other pet lizards, although they still need regular handling to keep them tame. Another helpful aspect is that they only grow to about 3 feet, compared to tegus and iguanas, which can reach four and five feet respectively.

In the wild, water dragons are found from India, all across China, and into Southeast Asia. Laos, Thailand, Myanmar, Vietnam and Cambodia all have native populations. For this reason, you’ll find them in pet stores with names like Chinese Water Dragon, Thai Water Dragon and Asian Water Dragon. They’re all the same critter. Australian Water Dragons are a separate group, also kept as pets but not as well known in the US.

As the name suggests, water dragons are fond of hot, wet, humid forests. They live in trees and mostly eat insects. When threatened, they can run or drop into water and hide there for quite a while until the danger passes.  In cages, water dragons need lots of branches to climb and bask on.

The really great thing about water dragons is that some say they actually have a breath weapon! This Wiki claims that “dragon breath” can be used to put out small fires and fend off burglars. I wasn’t able to find another source to back this statement. I assume that, when threatened, the water dragon can suck in water and spray it at whatever is scaring it.

Not quite the fantasy weapon we all dream of, but it tickles me to know that some real-life dragons really do have a breath weapon.

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