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


What’s the Matter with the Matter of Britain?

Dueling scholars engaged in "close textual analysis"
Dueling scholars engaged in “close textual analysis”

What’s the Matter with the matter of Britain?  I dare say quite a bit, apparently.

While stories of King Arthur, his knights and various and sundry other personalities from fifth and sixth century AD Britain have been circulating for a millennium and a half now, there is no more consensus as to what happened, how and in what order than when scholars first started to seriously study the period.  While I have been interested in the subject since boyhood and have delved into the scholarly literature dealing with the period for more than a score of years, I am remain what would be classed in the category of dilettante scholar.  Of course, such an appellation might justly be applied to a number of other scholars who have worked beyond the pale of academia, such as the esteemed Edward Gibbon, Sir William Flinders Petrie, or, more relevant to the present discussion, Geoffrey Ashe, to name but a few.

While it may be flagrant hubris on my part, in this and following entries on this site I will try to straighten out the Gordian Knot which the period following the Roman occupation and prior to the ascendant period of English hegemony has become.  In the words of the late great President Lyndon Johnson, the time has come to take the bull by the tail and face the situation.

Sub Romans engaged in mortal combat.
Sub Romans engaged in mortal combat.

If this blog rattles a few academic cages in the process, so be it; if we succeed in shedding fresh light on the history of the era, so much the better.  I certainly cannot foul things up any worse than the present state of scholarship in the field seems to be.  This is not to imply that there are not many brilliant minds at the work in the field, men and women who have forgotten more about the subject than I shall ever learn and whose credentials to weigh in on the issues far outshine mine by light years.  It is just that since the mid seventies, there has been no genuine progress in our overall understanding of the era’s history, no coherent model around which one many organize the myriad facts and artifacts.  There is not even a consensus about the chronology of the era.

This is not to say there have not been many excellent technical studies, monographs and narrow focus analyses done in that time; moreover, there has been a great deal of progress in the archaeology of the period, as techniques have improved and some false a priori assumptions been discarded (at least by some archaeologists).  But archaeologists require an agreed upon chronology and coherent historical model upon which they may organize their voluminous finds.  This was a situation which plagued Near Eastern archaeology for many years, until Egyptologists finally straightened out the chronology of the successive pharaonic dynasties and the concomitant material culture associated with them, which in turn allowed Syro-Palestinian and Mesopotamian archaeology to also get their affairs in order.  To be sure, there is no shortage of putative chronologies floating about; every book on fifth century Britain, or dealing with King Arthur (or denying him) has one.  As a rule, no two writers share the same chronology, nor are any of these putative chronologies reliably tied to the better known and more certain chronology of continental Europe at the time, the crucial century which witnessed the fall of the Roman Empire.  Like I said, a mess.

As an symbol of how contentious the Matter of Briton has become, there is also no consensus even when it comes to what to name this period.  Now nomenclature is really the least of the problems, but it is symptomatic of the divisiveness which plagues the study of the era.

Dark Age Britain would be good; except that many scholars argue, with some justification, that the period following the Roman occupation was not dark at all, only our knowledge about it.  Still, I find the term of some use, since it leads us to compare the situation in Britain (and Europe) to other periods which have suffered analogous political and economic downturns which lasted for extended periods.  That such periods of contraction often set the stage for subsequent periods of fluorescence in no way diminishes the usefulness of the concept.

How about Sub Roman Britain, a term much favored by the minimalist school, among others?  Well, first off, sub means “below,” so, was this period which following the Roman era below or above?  Certainly in the archaeological record, the stratigraphy of finds from this period (assuming archaeologists are willing to recognize them) would be above those of the Roman era.  Historically, the era is also after the Romans, so how is that “sub.?”  So, if anything, logically it should be the Supra Roman era.  Moreover, Sub Roman Britain has an implied connotation of inferior, which, if you are down on Celtic culture and history in general, as many minimalists seem to be, might be appropriate the people living in the British Isles after the Romans (ostensibly) left really a “sub” species of the human race, as the term implies?.  I do not.

Then there is the less pejorative Post Roman Britain; fair enough, if you want ignore the great amount of continuity from Roman Britain in both material culture and society that many scholars argue for the era.  It is certainly better a term than Sub Roman, and for the majority who eschew the historical reality of Arthur, it is a convenient circumlocution.

With mention of He Who Shall Not Be Named, we come to the most hotly debated, yet most appropriate, name for the era: The Age of Arthur.  Arthur is the central figure of the era, tales of whom have been told and retold for some fifteen hundred years.  Arthur as a historical personage is problematical, no question; yet he dominates the era, rightly or wrongly.  But one historical school, led by one dominant historian, whom I gather has extraordinary talents in the area of excoriation and ridicule, as well as linguistics, has written, ex cathedra it would seem, that the leading personality of the age is to be banned from the history books.  He has succeeded in making Arthur an anathema—and the previously respected Welsh historian John Morris with him.  Archaeologist Leslie Alcock has been spared Morris’s fate only by retreating into “agnosticism” (as one writer described it).  If we obey this excommunication by one historical school, then Arthur of the Britons—and The Age of Arthur—must be “rejected from our histories.”  Ring the bell, close the book, snuff the candle: Arthur is officially a non-person.

So what should we call it?  David Dumville and his minions would prefer to wipe the slate clean, as it were, and just leave the fifth century—or most of it–a blank.  Failing that, they prefer to refer to the period as Sub Roman.  As I gather their attempt at chronology, nothing much happened until the 440’s and precious little after and then came Gildas and the sixth century.  Of course by focusing in on negative assertions, they neatly avoid having to prove any assumptions of their own, some of which are quite dubious when analyzed.  Celtic sources in general and Oral tradition and folk memory in particular are to be ignored and only the “reliable” texts of the period not on the proscribed list to be used—mainly, I take it, Gildas and the Anglo Saxon Chronicles.

If this period is indeed “Sub Roman,” then Sub-Britons, by extension, must be those Celtic speaking untermensch who somehow skulked about the Roman ruins for a time, grubbing for worms and slugs or picking grains of wheat out of horse dung for food, occasionally coughing “gollum, gollum,” during that nondescript interlude between the exit of the Romans and the time when “real” civilization began again—i.e. the English history of the English people.  After all, doesn’t Bede virtually say as much?  There was no Arthur, no Celtic revival—but then also no educated upper class Briton named Patricius who brought Christianity to the Irish, who in turn revitalized Western Civilization in the ensuing centuries.

In fairness, the minimalist do have a legitimate point; the Historia Britonum, Skene’s “Four Ancient Books,” and above all Geoffrey of Monmouth, not to mention the innumerable hagiographies and lesser texts bearing the on the period, all are unreliable or faulty in some fashion.  But if one were intellectually honest, so too are the Minimalists’ favored texts, Gildas and the Anglo-Saxon Chronicles.  None of the written sources relating to the period should be regarded as truly reliable.  We will go into specific sources in later blogs, but suffice it to say that the surviving texts are all copies of copies that were written a minimum of a century or so after the events described—and often poorly at that—not to mention the authors’ agendas, stated or implied, and so they are all bound to be problematical to some degree.

For the fifth century AD, there is really only one known document which actually survives from Britain: the Virgilius Romanus, now residing in the Vatican Library.  Although at least one scholar would like to posit it to the eastern Roman Empire, most academics, I think, are willing to concede it is of British origin.  It is a copy of the Virgil’s Aenead—and while it has some nice pictures which are of some use insofar as costume and technical aspects of the era, it contains no text relevant to the history of Arthurian (excuse me, Dark Age/Post Roman/Sub/Supra ) Britain.  To give you an idea of how bad the situation is for the Arthurian era, compare it with Assyriology.

In Assyrian history, by contrast, there survives a virtual mountain of texts, written contemporaneously with the events they describe, carved in stone or written in indelible baked clay, even including the personal correspondence of the kings in question.  That there has not been a major synthesis of Assyrian history since Olmstead is not for reliable lack of source material, more’s the pity, just lack of will.

A Savage Rabbit doing away with a rival thesis at a scholarly conference.
A Savage Rabbit doing away with a rival thesis at a scholarly conference.

Another phrase to describe the period after 410 AD has come to my attention as well and while it is not widely used, it too has its merits.  The Brittonic Period encompasses that period after the withdrawal of Roman authority to the final triumph of the Saxons toward the end of the sixth century.  Chirs Snyder (Snyder 1998) has suggested this term, not only because it lacks the pejorative sense of the others but also because it focuses our attention on the Britons, who otherwise get lost in general surveys of Roman and medieval Britain. The period between 410 and 577 is not a void and it should not be treated as such.  While there is much to recommend Chris Snyder’s term, it has yet to attain widespread usage.  Hopefully this may change.

Perhaps, to paraphrase a former head of the Federal Reserve System, maybe we should “call it a banana.”  I think not, however.  In following blogs I shall alternately refer to the era under consideration alternately as the Brittonic Era or Period, Post Roman Britain, Dark Age Britain or the Age of Arthur, or perhaps a few other terms as I see fit.  Perhaps none of them is entirely accurate or correct, but they will do for now.  I am, in any case, more concerned with chronology than nomenclature.

In following articles on this site we will try to bring to bear approaches to the Matter of Britain that have either been rejected or ignored to elucidate the fifth and early sixth centuries.  This may include varieties of comparative approaches, using methods has by political scientists (for example Brinton Crane), anthropologists (Robert McAdams) and Orientalists (Henri Frankfort, Thorkild Jacobsen) who have previously used those techniques to illuminate aspects of other periods and cultures, some highly literate, others proto-historic.  In surveying much of the historical argument about Arthur and the few written sources for the period, scholars seem to be singularly sequestered within their own bailiwick.

Similarly, events transpiring within the Roman Empire during the same period are not irrelevant in assessing events in Britain.  Analogy to contemporaneous behavior within the empire I believe are relevant in assessing later traditional accounts relating to fifth century events in Briton by both the Britons and their enemies.  There was a small body of water separating Post Roman Britain from continental Europe, not an ocean; yet to judge by the works of some English historians of this period, one would think the Atlantic intervened between the two bodies of land.  Other criteria which lately seem to have been more observed in the breech than the observance are worth employing in regard to studying the “Matter:” common sense, for one; Occam’s Razor for another.  More of that anon, however.

This is all a bit rambling, admittedly, but in trying to establish a general framework within which we shall discuss future topics, some summarization is warranted.  Future entries will hopefully be more specific and narrower in focus.  We aim to sort out at least some of the issues in these entries.  I have been working on several longer studies relating to the Age of Arthur, one dealing specifically with chronology, and others dealing with other neglected but important aspects of the period.  One would hope that, in time, those specialized studies will find proper venues in print.  If not, so be it; the reader may have a good laugh at my expense.

CKC Hic Fecit

Copyright © 2015