Welcome to Year of the Quest! Throughout 2020 I will be exploring some of the key legends in the Arthurian tradition, starting this month with Merlin’s origin story – at least, one of them. His mother was a mortal woman, named Aldan in Welsh tradition, and his father was an incubus. To quote Bulfinch’s Mythology, incubi are ‘a class of beings not absolutely wicked, but far from good, who inhabit the regions of the air’ because that’s where we’re at in terms of moral high-handedness. Listen, I can name a dozen Arthurian characters who are a hundred percent human and absolutely the worst. (Spoilers: Uther, right up there on the list). Anyway, Merlin’s mother had him baptised with all possible speed, but he grew up with a range of unusual abilities courtesy of his supernatural father.
Meanwhile, there is Vortigern. According to The New Arthurian Encyclopedia, his original name in Welsh is Gwrtheyrn and he was a British king in the fifth century. When the Saxons invaded, the Welsh blamed Vortigern, which is sort of understandable if he really did trade Kent for a Saxon wife. But we are not here to join the argument on which bits of Arthurian legend are based on history and which bits are not, we’re for drama and judgement.
So, this is the situation: for the purposes of this legend, Vortigern is an anxious usurper living in fear that the rightful heirs, brothers Uther and Pendragon, will come storming back and reclaim the kingdom. To prevent this, he is trying to build a fortress in the Welsh mountains. Emphasis on ‘trying’. It is not going well. Three times his workmen have built it up, and three times it has fallen down, and instead of taking that as a sign to build his fortress somewhere else, Vortigern goes to his astrologers for a solution to the problem. They advise him to find a child born without a mortal father and bathe the foundation stones in that child’s blood. I am sure the architect was absolutely thrilled with this insight into structural stability.
Vortigern sends out messengers to find a child that fits the bill and they return with little Merlin, who stands in front of the king and tells him he is absurd. Does he even know why the fortress keeps collapsing? Does anyone know? Vortigern’s advisors admit they do not. Merlin tells them that the site of the fortress is really the den of two dragons and when they fight, the walls above collapse. Vortigern has his workmen dig deep beneath the foundations and Merlin is proven entirely correct: two dragons rise from a pool of water, one white and one red, already lunging at one another. The onlookers wisely flee, all except for little Merlin, who gleefully claps his hands and cheers at the violence. The red dragon falls dead; the white dragon vanishes into the mountain.
Merlin declares that the dragons are living metaphors for the return of Uther and Pendragon, who soon bring an army to Vortigern’s doorstep. They burn down the fortress with him inside it. Pendragon is crowned king and takes Merlin as his advisor, a position that he retains when Pendragon dies and Uther succeeds him. A talent inherited from his incubus father allows Merlin to transform his physical appearance, which is both entertaining and very useful to the monarchs he has chosen to serve. In time, when Uther desires the beautiful Igraine, Merlin will use his power to disguise the king as her husband Gorlois even as Gorlois himself lies dead. This leads to the birth of Arthur and the rise of Camelot.
With an adviser like Merlin standing at Arthur’s elbow, is it any wonder everything went to hell?
There are of course multiple versions of this story, with variation on the details, but I like the imagery in this one. Young Merlin surrounded by men who would kill him for the sake of a castle but without hesitation taking charge; and later, this child standing on the edge of a pit, clapping his hands while two enormous dragons fight to the death. It is a fittingly grisly and powerful beginning to one of the greatest sagas ever told.
Sources: Bulfinch’s Mythology – Thomas Bulfinch (Gramercy Books, 2003), The New Arthurian Encyclopedia – ed. Norris J. Lacy (Garland Publishing, Inc., 1996)