The Real Dance of the Dragons

The Welsh Prophecy of the Two Dragons, attributed to Merlin, is the foundation myth of Britain and may have a factual basis.  From a 15th century copy of Nennius' Historia Brittonum.
The Welsh Prophecy of the Two Dragons, attributed to Merlin, is the foundation myth of Britain and may have a factual basis. From a 15th century copy of Nennius’ Historia Brittonum.

 

In George R. R. Martin’s magnum opus, Songs of Fire and Ice, the latest published volume, A Dance With Dragons, as well as in the similarly named episode of the television series, makes passing reference to a curious tale about a young knight who attempts to slay a dragon by using a polished shield, thinking the dragon will see only its own reflection; the young knight is burned to a crisp for his efforts.  It turns out that this short tale is but part of a much larger fictitious history, called “The Dance of the Dragons, A True Telling” relating to a previous civil war in the realm of Westeros between members of the previous dynasty, the Targaryens.  It turns out that there are various versions of both the knight’s tale and the happenings alluded to in the referenced (non-existent) book.  Although at present a minor part of Martin’s fantasy mythos, the referenced history itself provides a foundational understanding to the later happenings of the realm that Martin has clearly modeled on medieval Great Britain.

As with other elements in his historical fantasy, Martin has borrowed story elements and motifs from actual British history and rewove them into his sub-creation which has now become a best selling phenomenon.  Although it plays but a minor role in his epic, it is not hard to see that it is heavily influenced by the semi-legendary real foundation myth of the Britain.  As one of Martin’s characters relates, the dragons (actually personifications of the warring members of the Targaryen dynasty) are not really “dancing” so much as warring with one another.  In this regard, the allegory is much closer to its British archetype than I think either fans of Martin, or academic historians of Dark Age Britain, may be willing to concede.

In Nennius’ Historia Brittonum and Geoffrey of Monmouth’s Historia Regum Britanniae, after the massacre of the Elders of Britain and uprising of the Saxons, the discredited monarch Vortigern retreats westward fearing both rebellious subjects and the mutinous Saxons and decides to build a castle with his remaining loyal followers at Dinas Emrys in Wales.  However, the masons are continually thwarted, as whatever they construct during the day is mysteriously undone at night.  Vortigern’s “wise men” tell him that a human sacrifice is needed to undue the magic spell cursing the site where he is trying to build a stronghold.  A boy born without any human father must be killed and his blood sprinkled over the site.  In due course such a child is found, but as he is about to be slaughtered he astounds the King and counselors with his own prophetic vision.

Another medieval illustration of the "Dance of the Dragons" as rendered in Nennius.  Egerton 3028 BM ms.
Another medieval illustration of the “Dance of the Dragons” as rendered in Nennius. Egerton 3028 BM ms.

The wunderkind proclaims that only he can solve the mystery of the collapsing castle.  He instructs the kingsmen to dig into the ground, where they uncover a pond; he then instructs them to drain the pond, where they uncover two dragons, red and white, who proceed to duel one another.  The astonishing vision is explained by the prophetic child as symbolic of Britain: the Red Dragon represents the Welsh, the white one the Saxons and the two “dragons” will fight for possession of the land of Britain until the Red Dragon at last vanquishes the White, but not after much bloodshed and destruction.  Such, in short is the tale, although Nennius, Geoffrey of Monmouth and others disagree on a number of details.

Not surprisingly, historians have dismissed the story as utter nonsense, labeling Nennius’ entire history as “pseudo-history” and Geoffrey’s—well they never did have much faith in Geoffrey of Monmouth as a historian anyway.  While clearly framed in mytho-poetical terms, the story relates some basic historical realities, albeit much disguised and distorted; however, that is beyond our main point here.  The Prophecy of the Two Dragons as related by Welsh tradition is in fact the basic foundation myth of Great Britain and as such transcends whatever historical realities which may be disguised in the story.  In later times it would be referenced again and again to cite one faction or claimant’s legitimacy, or lack thereof.  Not surprisingly, when Henry Tudor (or to give the Welsh spelling, Twdwr) fought at the Battle of Bosworth Field, he carried not the English St. George’s cross into battle, but rather the Red Dragon of Wales as his battle standard.  So as not to leave any doubt about his partisanship for the Welsh cause, Henry (in English terms Henry VII) named his first son Arthur, so that, as the ancient Welsh prophecy foretold, Arthur would once day rule again over a united Britain.  Unfortunately, though Henry VII ended the English Civil War—the War of the Roses—Arthur did not become king again, and the Welsh prophecy remains to be fulfilled.

It is easy enough to dismiss the Prophecy of the Two Dragons as pure fantasy, like George Martin’s works; but Welsh legends and myth generally have a factual basis, if one is willing to spend some time unraveling the entangled truth (most academics are not so inclined) and, more importantly, this legend has had a far deeper cultural impact on British history than any historical details which may be gleaned from it.  At a later date I may detail the historical background underlying the Legend of the Two Dragons, although it is convoluted and bound to stir disagreement as to interpretation; but for now let us just appreciate the foundation myth as myth and George R. R. Martin’s creative appropriation of it

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British History and the Game of Thrones

Songs of Fire and Ice series of books by George R R Martin were the basis for the hit HBO series Game of Thrones.
Song of Fire and Ice series of books by George R R Martin were the basis for the hit HBO series Game of Thrones.

In honor of the start of the latest season of the popular sword, sex and sorcery television series, Game of Thrones, we will depart from our regular agenda of discussing what some regard as the equally fabulous Age of Arthur, and discuss the relationship between George R. R. Martin’s best selling novels and actual medieval history.  He has, with some justification, been labeled “the American Tolkien.”

Martin has acknowledged that much in his violent series of books is modeled on British history, although he has obviously tweaked the fantasy elements quite a bit—but even here he has borrowed more generously from Celtic British folklore and myth as well.  George actually comes from a Sci-Fi background, having won numerous accolades for his legitimate Science Fiction work.  Upon a time, the aficionados of Sci Fi and those of Fantasy never met: the science geeks looked down on the sword and sorcery bunch, priding themselves on basing their works closely on scientific theory.  Indeed, it often turns out that Sci Fi writers have been hard put to keep ahead of scientific fact, so rapidly have the speculations of fiction writers been turned into mundane science.  Perhaps that may have motivated the veteran Science Fiction writer Martin to turn to the “dark side” (so to speak) of Fantasy.  At any rate, with millions of fans hungering for more books to come out in the series, no one these days is complaining about his having betraying the “purity” of Science Fiction writing for Medieval Fantasy.

 

While we can’t cover the entire spectrum of Martin’s fantasy world, we will touch on one or two motifs and elements which are clearly borrowed from British history.  Obviously, the civil war which absorbs most of the series emulates the later medieval conflicts such as the Baron’s War and more closely the War of the Roses.  The similarity of the “House of Lannister” to the House of Lancaster virtually goes without saying, although not necessarily their sadism and incest.  The bloodthirsty course of the wars and the often equally violent acts of the subsequent Tudor dynasty are scarcely less replete in gore than their fictional counterparts.

One chapter which stunned television audiences in particular was the episode known as “the Red Wedding.”  For reasons best known to George, his wedding scenes tend towards the murderous and the Red Wedding is one aptly named, as drenched in gore as it is.  While others may take issue with me on this score, I cannot help seeing in this episode a strong reflection of an event famous in Welsh history, although English historians prefer to believe it never happened: the Brad y Cyllyll Hirion, translated alternately as “The Treachery of the Long Knives” or “The Massacre of the Elders of Britain.”  The incident occurred when Vortigern, the first ruler of a united Britain after the departure of the Romans, had come to become dependent on a mercenary army composed of German barbarians—the Saxons.  As was typical in the fifth century AD, their leader, Hengist, had ingratiated himself with the sovereign, to the point where Vortigern married Hengist’s daughter, Rowena, and become a virtual puppet ruler.  The Britains, unlike the Romans on the continent, however, did not meekly submit to barbarian domination.  Ambrosius, a Romano-British general, had revolted but was defeated and forced into exile.  Meanwhile, Vortigern, ever the skilfull politician, had cobbled together a compromise, reconciling Celt and Saxon.  The compromise was to be celebrated at a feast, which tradition holds was held near Amesbury.  However, at a pre-arranged signal, the Saxon warlords, ostensibly unarmed, drew knives from under their cloaks and attacked the Celtic “Elders”—the Senate that governed Britain under the elected sovereign.  Only a handful of native British leaders escaped the massacre and the Saxons followed their treachery by widespread pillaging, looting and rape.  Such, at least, is the Welsh version of the story.  Every since, any act of political deceit or treachery on the part of the English against the Welsh has been figuaratively referred to as the Brad y Cyllyll Hirion.  It does not take too much imagination to picture the treacherous massacre of the Red Wedding as borrowed in substance from Welsh historical tradition.

Also borrowed from Welsh lore is the central role of the Raven in the epic series of books: communication over vast distances is done by ravens, not messenger pigeons; likewise, one of the stark boys is called Bran, which is Welsh for raven, a bird with strong supernatural and prophetic ties in Welsh myth and legend.  We shall delve more deeply into Bran and his antecedents in a futrue essay, but for now, suffice it to say, the name strongly suggests supernatural powers of second sight and prophecy.

 

Peter Dinklage plays Tyrion Lannister for the television adaptation.
Peter Dinklage plays Tyrion Lannister for the television adaptation.

Well, a new season of mayhem, murder and naughtiness is upon us.  I leave one and all to enjoy Game of Thrones and await George R. R. Matin’s latest offering in print

 

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