Story: “Merlinus and Vortigern”

I told this story last Saturday on March 14 for Caid’s wonderful every-two-year Pentathlon event. I always change the narrative during performance to make it mine; this is the bones of the story. I took the original story from the 9th century Historia Brittonum (History of Britain), translated by Robert Vermaat. However, I changed the name of the boy to follow Geoffrey of Monmouth’s 1136 Historia Regum Britanniae (History of the Kings of Britain). 

“Merlinus and Vortigern”

King Vortigern called his twelve wise men to consult with him. They told him, “Retire to the remote boundaries of your kingdom and build a stronghold there to defend yourself. The Saxons that you have received mean to betray you and take the countries you have conquered.” The king was pleased with this advice and departed with his wise men.

He travelled through many parts of his territories in search of a place where he could build a mighty citadel. They travelled far and wide before they came to a province called Gwynedd and the tall mountains of Heremus. There upon a high summit they decided to construct the citadel. The wise men told the king, “Build the city here, for it will always be secure against the barbarians and their attacks.” So the king sent for artificers, carpenters, and stone-masons, and all the materials they would need to build. But after all the construction supplies arrived, the materials simply disappeared during the night. Nothing was left behind. The king had more materials procured another time and again another, but they vanished as did the first one. Meanwhile the skilled laborers were idle. Vortigern asked his wise men why this was happening. They consulted and told him, “You must find a child born without a father, put him to death, and sprinkle the citadel’s ground with his blood. Otherwise it will never be built.”

At this the king sent messengers throughout Britain, in search of a child born without a father. The messengers searched all of the provinces until they came to the field of Aelecti, in the district of Glywysing, where some boys were playing ball. Two of the boys were quarrelling, and one said to the other, “You bastard, you boy with no father, nothing good will ever happen to you.” When they heard this, the messengers found the mother and asked her and the other boys if this son had a father. The mother said he did not. “I do not know how he was conceived because I was, and am still, a virgin.”

And so her son was taken from her and brought to Vortigern the king the very next day. The boy was outspoken said to the king, “Why have your servants brought me here?”

“To put you to death,” said the cruel king, “and take your blood and sprinkle it on the ground of my citadel. It is the only way in which I can build it.”

“Who,” said the boy, “told you to do this?”

“My wise men,” answered the king.

“Order them here,” said the boy. When the twelve wise men stood before him, the boy questioned them: “How did you know that the citadel could not be built, unless you sprinkled the grounds with my blood? Tell me truthfully.” Then he turned to the king and said, “I will explain everything myself,” he said, “but first I want to question your wise men. I would like them to tell you what is hidden under this pavement.” But the wise men had to admit they did not know. The boy said, “There is a pool. Come and dig and you will see it.” And so they dug, and found the pool.

“Now,” said the boy, “tell me what is in the pool.” But the wise men were ashamed for they could not. They remained silent. “I,” said the boy, “know what is in it. There are two vases there. Go and look.” And they did and brought up two vases from the pool. “Now, what is in the vases?” Again they did not know and were silent. “There is a tent in them,” said the boy.  “Break the vases and you will find it.” The king commanded the wise men to break the vases as the boy had said, and there was a folded tent.

The boy then asked the wise men what was in the tent? But they did not know. “There are,” said he, “two serpents, one white and the other red. Unfold the tent.” They obeyed, and revealed two sleeping serpents.

“Watch closely,” said the boy, “at what they are doing.” The serpents began to fight with each other; and the white one, raising himself up, threw down the other into the middle of the tent and then drove it to the tent’s edge; and this it did three times. But then the red one, which had seemed the weaker of the two, recovered its strength and threw the white one from the tent; and chased it through the pool where the white serpent disappeared.

Then the boy asked the wise men what this miraculous omen meant, but they did not know. So the boy said to the king, “I will tell you now the meaning of this mystery. The pool is a symbol of this world, and the tent is your kingdom. The two serpents are two dragons; the red serpent is the beast of Briton but the white serpent is the dragon of the Saxons who have overrun our shores and nearly rule from sea to sea. But one day our people shall rise and drive away the Saxon race from beyond the sea, back to where they came from. But you will leave this place for you are not permitted to build a citadel here. Instead I will live here and built a mansion. You must build your fortress in another place.”

“What is your name?” asked the king.

“Merlinus Ambrosius is my name.”

And the great and bitter king withdrew, and he gave over to Merlinus this great city that was to be and all the western provinces of Britain, for he feared the boy. And although the king left and went far away, and built a city called Cair Guorthegirn or the fortress of Vortigern, he did not prosper there or anywhere. But Merlinus grew and thrived in wisdom deep, and secret.


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