Wednesday 31 January 2018

The Advent of Arthur

Rob Floyd, Summer Solstice (2012)


When the Emperor Honorius withdrew the Roman legions from Britain in the year 410, there were many who thought the country's collapse was close at hand. The land was plagued by pirates - Saxons to the South and East, Picts to the North and Irish from the West. How could the Britons survive without the might of Rome to protect them?

Later that year, Rome fell for the first time, while in Britain, Constantine the Strong - half-Roman, half-Briton - was crowned High King at Winchester. He made a new flag for the country - a red dragon on a gold background - and unfurled it for friend and foe to see from the highest tower in the city. He rallied the people, and for thirty years held all  enemies at bay.

But Vortigern, Prince of Gwynned, was jealous. He put poison in the High King's cup and killed him at the royal table. Vortigern was crafty. He had already won the support of a large number of nobles, promising them money and land and an easier life than they had ever had under Constantine.

As soon as the High King slumped face-forward, Vortigern's men drew their swords and ran through the castle, searching for Constantine's two teenage sons, Ambrosius and Uther. But they were nowhere to be seen. It was only on the eve of his coronation that Vortigern learnt the truth. The boys had been spirited away on the night of the murder by a mysterious stranger, a tall young man in a red and blue cloak. They were in Brittany now, already plotting their return. Many leading Britons had joined them there.

Vortigern, his reign barely begin, was consumed with anxiety. Sensing weakness, the Saxons thrust further inland than ever before, harrying Lincoln and the market towns of the East Midlands. The Picts stormed Hadrian's Wall again, while the Irish seized captives galore from the Welsh coast. Vortigern didn't know what to do. He wasn't the kind of leader who could inspire men to fight and die for him. His usual ploy was to offer them gold, but now he had no gold to give as he was spending it all fighting the barbarians and protecting his throne from Constantine's sons.

He withdrew to the mountains, gathered his druids and asked their advice. 'Stay here, O King,' they replied, 'and build a high tower. Call the master builders, pay them well with what little remains, and you will see a tower rise that neither force of arms nor guile can ever overthrow.'

Vortigen followed their guidance. The foundations were dug and the stones laid up. At the end of the first day the tower was halfway built, but the very next morning the builders arrived and found their work in ruins. Blocks and shards of stone lay scattered and strewn all over the hillside. And it was like that every morning for fourteen mornings. The tower was built by day and cast down by night. Vortigern called back his druids and demanded an explanation.

They studied their lore for three days and nights. Then the Chief Druid stood before the High King and said, 'My Lord, the gods require a sacrifice. You must find a man with no mortal father and slay him here in your throne room. Any man will do. The only thing needed is that his father must be immortal. Only then will they permit your tower to be built.'

Vortigen groaned. He didn't believe a word of it, but felt he had no choice in the matter. So he sent his messengers far and wide and was surprised the next evening when two of them returned with a tall young man in tow. He had a thatch of black hair; dark, deep-set eyes; and a hawk-like nose. He stood before Vortigern in the throne room, carrying himself with dignity and pride, as if he were the king and Vortigern the subject. The setting sun slanted in through the high, narrow windows, lighting up the stranger's haughty face.

'Who are you?' growled Vortigern.

'My name is Myrddin Emrys. In my home town, Carmarthen, I am known as Merlin.'

'Why are you here?'

'It is said in Carmarthen that my mother, Rheged of the Red Hair, was visited by an angel nine months before I was born. Some say an angel of God, others an angel of Lucifer. My mother died shortly after my birth so I never had chance to ask.'

'Kill him at once, Sire,' hissed the Chief Druid in Vortigern's ear. 'The gods grow impatient. He is dangerous too. I smell a threat to your throne.' But Vortigern waved him away. He was curious, and greatly struck by Merlin's nobility of bearing and speech.

'Tell me more,' he said. 'Who raised you after your mother died?'

'I was adopted by Blaise the Bald, the Hermit of the Northern Marches, he who lived to be a hundred and twenty and was reputed the wisest man in the Empire. He taught me many things, some of which will be of interest to your person.'

Vortigen leaned forward. 'What things?' he whispered.

'Blaise taught me wisdom,' said Merlin. 'He showed me how to look deeply: how to see beneath the surface of things. I have studied your tower and can tell you that sacrifice will be no use whatsoever. I say this not to save my life but because it is the truth. Come outside with me, order your men to dig  down beneath the foundations, and you will see.'

So Vortigern ordered everyone outside. The tower, which was made of white stone, loomed above them in the sunset, half-finished as it always was at the end of each day. The builders grumbled when they were told to keep working, but it wasn't long before they had dug down past the foundations and not long after that when suddenly there was no more earth to dig. A vast, round cavern opened up below them, with bare brown earth in the middle and grey rocks around the sides. Two mighty dragons lay sleeping on the rocks, a white dragon to the left and a red dragon to the right. 'Light your braziers,' said Merlin to Vortigern's servants. The sun sank, the torches were lit, and straightaway the dragons awoke, rushed together in the centre of the cave and started to fight. They flailed, clawed and belched out fire all night long. The ground shook and the tower trembled. At first the white dragon had the advantage. He pushed the red dragon back to the rocks until, around the third watch of the night, the red dragon turned the tide and thrust the white dragon back in turn. As dawn approached it seemed certain that the white dragon would be killed but somehow he recovered his strength and charged the red dragon until they were locked together furiously in the middle again. The tower fell at last with a mighty crash, and then, once the sound of tumbling masonry had ceased, a bell began to ring, far-away but clear as crystal in the pre-dawn air.

Vortigern knew the sound. It was the bell for Matins at Saint Martin's Monastery in Deganwy, over the mountains and by the sea. At the third chime the dragons turned away from each other, went back to their rocks and fell asleep at once. Vortigern ordered everyone back inside. Merlin stood before him in the throne room once again.

'What does all this mean?' asked the King.

'The fight,' replied Merlin, 'is a picture of Britain under your rule. The land is paralysed. There can be no peace - no victory for either side - as long as you sit on this throne.'

'No peace?' Vortigern interrupted, but Merlin raised his right hand imperiously and carried on talking.

'No peace,' he repeated. 'The white dragon stands for the Saxons, and the red for the Britons. The white dragon cannot kill the red. If it was your destiny, despite your present difficulties, you would find a way to turn the tables and drive the invader back, as far as the Saxon Shore and beyond. But he would only recover his strength, as the white dragon did, and come at you again, waging war for ever in the middle of your kingdom. But this is not your destiny, nor is it Britain's.'

'Destiny?' yelled Vortigern, standing up and towering over Merlin. 'What do you know about destiny - mine or my country's? Who gave you the authority to pontificate like this? Did Blaise teach you to see into the future as well?'

Merlin neither blinked nor flinched. 'Blaise,' he said, 'gave me wisdom, as I have said, but my father, the angel, gave me the gift of prophecy, and this is what I see. Very soon, Ambrosius and Uther will return to avenge their father. You will not escape. They will crush the Saxons, Picts and Irish, and one of them shall father a son who shall be the greatest king this land will ever know. He will never die and will come again in glory at the end of time to save this realm from its gravest peril and prepare the way for the second coming of Our Lord and Saviour, Jesus Christ.'

Vortigern sat back down, shaking his head, a broken reed all of a sudden. He knew, in his heart, that Merlin was speaking the truth.  His words and manner had the ring of authenticity. 'But what about me?' he pleaded. 'What must I do?'

'Repent and pray,' said Merlin softly, and he would have said more but one of Vortigern's men who had been watching Merlin closely stood before the High King and shouted, 'Sire, do not believe his weasel words. He is a traitor and a spy. For I have seen him before. On the night we slew Constantine. For it was this man and no other who shepherded his sons to safety.'

There was an almighty commotion and the King's men rushed forward to lay hands on Merlin, but right at that moment the sun rose outside, arrowing in through the high windows and blinding their eyes. When they could see again, Merlin had vanished - gone entirely - as if he had never been in the room at all, as if his presence and prophecies had all been as insubstantial as a dream.


That was exactly what Vortigern's druids told him. That it had all been a dream. But he had no more faith in them. He went to Deganwy instead and confessed his sins to the monks, repenting of the jealousy that had led him to kill Constantine. But everything fell out just as Merlin had predicted. Ambrosius and Uther landed at Falmouth three days later at the head of a great force. Three days after that and they were in Snowdonia, taking Vortigern's stronghold by storm. The fighting was brief but bloody. Vortigern was killed along with most of his men. Some of his druids escaped to the isle of Ynys Môn but Ambrosius, who was the elder brother, decided that too many lives had been lost already and chose not to pursue them. He was crowned High King at Stonehenge four weeks after, and it was Merlin himself who presented him with the royal and ancient British crown, first worn by Brutus the Trojan in the dim and distant days at the very beginning of our island's long, unfolding story.

From that day forth, Merlin was always by the side of one or both of the brothers, inspiring, guiding and illuminating. But Ambrosius, in truth, did not need too much advising. He knew his own mind very well. He had a silence and stillness about him as well that commanded respect - this lithe, slim figure, with his oval-shaped face and cap of dark hair. He had green eyes that the wise women said were twice as deep as the Irish Sea. He was a far-sighted man, a visionary leader, who meditated deeply on the rumours coming from Rome that the city had fallen for the second time. One more fall, he thought, and that will be the end of the Empire for ever. 'If only,' he told Merlin, 'we can make Britain strong enough so that when Rome falls again we can pick up the torch and restore the Empire here in this land, carrying the light of civilisation forward for generations yet unborn.'

Ambrosius, many believed, was well on the way to fulfilling his vision, but he met his death too soon - on a stag's antlers one crisp January morning while hunting in the Royal Forest. Merlin and Uther were far away, marching through the Wirral peninsula to head off a detachment of Irish. That night, a blazing comet scorched across the sky from East to West, bursting apart into two smaller comets, one of which broke up quite quickly in a spectacular display of fire and light. But the other kept going and going and growing and growing until it passed out of sight at the Western rim of the world, three times bigger, brighter and longer than the original comet. Merlin and Uther gazed up at the sky. Merlin sighed and put his hand on the young man's shoulder. 'Your brother, the High King, is dead. See, the first comet burns in his honour. But good shall come from his passing. The second comet is for yourself. You shall fight like a lion and go down in a blaze of glory. And the third comet is for your son, he whose advent I foresaw five summers ago in Vortigern's throne room, the great monarch who will restore all things for Christ, not once but twice.'

So Uther was crowned High King. But his coronation was a rushed and hurried affair, and he struggled for a while to set his lands in order, for the Saxons, Picts and Irish swooped down once more, hoping that Ambrosius' death had left the country rudderless and adrift.

Uther was as strong as an ox and as brave as any man who ever lived, before or since. But he wasn't as mentally sharp as Ambrosius and he relied on Merlin a lot to help him make the big strategic decisions. But after a few months he was happy enough with his progress to declare a week-long coronation party at Caerleon. He invited all of his nobles together and their wives, and that was the first time he set eyes on Ygraine, the wife of Gorlois, Duke of Cornwall. Uther was impulsive and hot-headed, and he fell in love at first sight, showering Ygraine with attention and gifts. She complained to her husband, and Gorlois took her back to Cornwall and his ancestral seat at Tintagel Castle.

Uther was furious and laid siege to the castle. Merlin counselled against it, as Gorlois was one of the King's best and most loyal generals. His castle was impregnable as well - perched high on the rocks, far above the waves. The only way in was to climb up a long, narrow causeway that only let one man pass at a time. Uther had brought ten thousand men with him but he might as well have come on his own for all the help such strength in numbers gave him.

The siege dragged on for fourteen days and nights. Many lives were lost. Merlin decided to visit the King's tent and urge him, as strongly as possible, to make peace. But as he stepped into the March night he beheld a star shining above the castle which hadn't been there before. It was green and translucent and throbbed and glowed like a ruby or sapphire. Merlin ran his hand through his hair and wondered what it might mean. Perhaps it was a sign? He returned to his tent. Better wait a night or two and see if the star remained. And it was there the next night, and the one after that, and the one after that. Merlin knew then that it was indeed a sign and that the great king to come was destined to be conceived at Tintagel. But how was he to get Uther over the causeway and into Ygraine's chamber?

He pondered the matter deeply. He had been to the castle as a boy with Blaise once, so he knew his way around a bit. He made up his mind and appeared in the King's tent exactly an hour before midnight. 'My Lord,' he began. 'It is time to speak plainly. You cannot win the Lady Ygraine by force. You must try another way.'

'What way might that be?' Uther asked wearily.

'Follow my instructions and I will give you two hours with Ygraine in her chamber.'

'Two hours!' snorted the King. 'I haven't come all this way and lost all these men for a measly two hours.'

Merlin nodded. 'Yet a measly two hours, O King, could lead to many more. Once you make a start and set the ball rolling, none of us - not even myself - can predict how destiny will work itself out.'

Uther threw up his hands. 'Very well. I give up. I can't go on bleeding my army dry, can I? What must I do?'

'Nothing. I will cast a spell and transform you into the very image of Gorlois. I will become the likeness of his right hand man, Briastus, and together, this very night if you wish, we will cross the causeway. No-one will think anything of it, only that Gorlois has left his camp to visit his wife.'

Two hours later, Merlin and Uther were on their way. 'Promise me this,' whispered Merlin as they approached the causeway. 'If by any chance Gorlois should be killed and you marry Ygraine, and if by any chance a child is born nine months after this night, then you will give that child to me and let me raise him.'

'I don't understand,' muttered Uther.

'Surely you have not forgotten what I told you on the night your brother died?'

'No, I have not forgotten. But a child, to be honest, is the last thing on my mind right now. I will do it if I can, but I doubt I will be able to. Gorlois is too shrewd a soldier to get himself killed.'

'Well, we'll see,' said Merlin.

The guards waved them through, and Merlin showed Uther the door to Ygraine's chamber. He withdrew to the courtyard, watching and waiting as the scudding clouds raced across the sky. The star, he observed, was shining brighter than ever, sparkling and twinkling in the raw spring air.

It was a long way back to the camp. When they got there, all the lanterns were lit and everyone was astir. Gorlois, inexplicably, had launched a night raid and had been killed in the subsequent skirmish. Uther was astonished. Gorlois was normally such a cautious general. But there it was, and one hour later Uther was back in the castle, not in disguise this time, but as himself - a conqueror.

He stayed for a year and a day. Ygraine sorrowed grievously for her husband, but over the following weeks and months she grew very fond of Uther and they were married on Mid-Summer's Eve.  He was aware from an early stage, of course, that Ygraine was pregnant. 'It is a mysterious thing,' she told him, 'that at the hour Gorlois was said to have been killed, he himself, or one exactly like him, visited me here in my chamber.' So Uther told her the truth - about the comet in the sky, Merlin's prophecy, and his own promise to hand the child over. Then Ygraine wept again. She had already lost a husband and now she was to lose a son. Yet she marvelled at the same time and wondered greatly at the extraordinary destiny predicted for the boy.


Uther kept his word and handed the babe to Merlin on a frost-flecked late-December night. Ygraine had wrapped him carefully and tenderly in white swaddling clothes to keep him warm. Merlin held him in the folds of his cloak and headed down the sands via a path through the rocks he had made himself and that no-one else knew existed. At the bottom was a cave, which he had carved out of the rock, and in the cave was a pool, and on the pool a wooden boat, which Merlin had spent the last two months building. He stepped aboard, unfurled the sail and pushed out the oar. He was voyaging to a secret place that Blaise had told him of years before, where the wise women who came often to Ambrosius would bring the boy up until the time was ripe for him to appear in the world.

Merlin rowed steadily for five minutes then turned around to look at the castle. It had disappeared into the night. Only the lanterns in the windows and the green star hovering above told him where it was. And as he looked he heard a noise - not with his ears but with his heart - far-away but crystal clear - the sound of falling towers and tumbling masonry. And he knew it was a sign and that Rome had fallen for the third and final time.

He kept looking and the star seemed to grow and expand and change colour, so that it was as big as the sun and not just green any more but green, red, gold, blue and white, all together and all at the same time. It whirled and spun like a wheel of rainbow fire, faster and faster, fizzing and crackling, until it burst asunder into ten thousand shafts of light, a legion of shooting stars, filling the firmament and bathing the world in warm, rejuvenating light. And then, one by one, the spears of wondrous light dipped and fell into the sea - splash after splash after splash after splash, leaving silence and peace in their wake as an almighty hush descended. The silence of the Holy Spirit, thought Merlin - the richest, deepest silence, stillness and peace that he had ever known. 

He held the child tight in the crook of his arm, turned back to the sea and pushed out the oar again. And all he could hear was the beating of his heart, the lapping of the waves and the soft, rhythmic breathing of a new-born babe.


William Wildblood said...

Well, John, that's as good as any Arthurian piece I've ever read. You've captured the characters, mystery and sense of destiny perfectly.

John Fitzgerald said...

Thanks very much, William. Glad you liked it. I hope it helps and encourages people to tune into the great riches of the Matter of Britain.