Long ago, after the Roman legions abandoned Britain to defend their city of Rome, a time of turbulence came upon the land, and many men fought for the right to rule. A proud tyrant named Vortigern seized power, making himself High King above all other kings. At first he ruled well, but when he was old and beleaguered on all sides by his enemies, he retreated into the mountains of Wales. Here he planned to build a great fortress and lock himself safely inside, leaving his people to their fate at the hands of the invading Saxons.
Each morning, the workers found the walls they’d built the day before had fallen down, and they had to start again. After many days, despairing, Vortigern called his wise men to him and sought their counsel. They told him to find a boy born with no mortal father and sacrifice him, and only then would the walls of his fortress stay standing.
Vortigern sent his knights out to search the length and breadth of Britain for a boy who fitted this description. At last, they brought such a boy to him, who, when questioned, answered that he had no mortal father, being supposedly the son of a demon. His name was Merlin Emrys. The wise men were about to sacrifice this boy when he asked why they had need of him. On being told that the walls would not stay standing, he informed Vortigern and his wise men that if they dug down into the hill they would find a lake. Vortigern ordered this done, and the wise men found a lake beneath the hill.
Merlin then asked the wise men what was in the lake, but they knew not. So he told them that if they had the lake drained they would find two dragons fighting – one white and one red. The wise men did so, and sure enough, there were the two dragons, fighting. Some of the time the white one gained the upper hand, and some of the time the red one appeared to be winning.
Merlin asked the wise men if they knew what the two fighting dragons meant, but they knew not. So he told the High King that the white dragon represented the Saxons, and the red the British who would eventually, under a great leader, defeat the Saxons.
Vortigern was able to build his fortress and, needless to say, he didn’t have the boy sacrificed. Instead, he named the fortress Dinas Emrys after the boy. And thanks to the High King’s patronage, young Merlin Emrys became the king’s chief advisor and enchanter.
When Vortigern died, a new High King came to power – Uther Pendragon, who was a brave and successful warrior, also, in his turn, advised by Merlin. He ruled for many years from his capital in London, with much strife against the enemies of the British: the Saxons from the eastern seas, the Irish from the western seas and the Picts from beyond the wall.
At Pentecost one year, Uther called together his knights for a tournament in London. Gorlois, Duke of Cornwall, left his home of Tintagel Castle in Cornwall and journeyed to London to take part, bringing his young wife, Ygraine. At the tournament, King Uther fell deeply in love with Ygraine, and seeing this, Gorlois fled with her back to Tintagel.
Uther was angry, and ordered Gorlois to return, but the Duke did not. So, taking his army, Uther marched into Cornwall and fought against Gorlois at his castle of Dimilioc. Desperate to have Ygraine for himself, Uther persuaded Merlin, his enchanter, to help him. Merlin said that he would as long as Uther gave him the child who would result from this union to bring up himself. Consumed with lust, Uther readily agreed, and one night, while Gorlois was engaged in battle at Dimilioc, he came to Tintagel disguised as Ygraine’s husband. Allowed inside by the unsuspecting guards, he spent the night with Ygraine and his son, Arthur, was conceived.
The following morning news came to the castle that Gorlois had been killed, and Ygraine realised she had been fooled by Uther. As the victor, he now took her as his wife, but when her child, Arthur, was born, Uther had to fulfil his promise to give the child up to Merlin as the price he paid for the enchanter’s help.
Merlin took the baby far away to the home of the knight Sir Ector for the boy to be brought up as his own son, step-brother to Kay. And there Arthur grew to be a young man of sixteen. Sir Ector was ignorant of who his young ward was.
King Uther, meanwhile, took a wound in battle that was incurable, and eventually he sickened and died without ever seeing his heir. On his death there was dispute as to who should reign after him, and to settle this, Merlin set up a sword embedded in a stone, with the instruction that whosoever could draw the sword from the stone was the true-born king of Britain. Many came and tried their hands but none could draw the sword.
A tournament was held, to which all the knights in the land were invited. Sir Ector came with his son, Sir Kay, and young Arthur accompanied them as Kay’s squire. On the morning of the tournament Sir Kay realised he’d left his sword in their lodgings and sent his squire to fetch it. On the way, Arthur spied the sword in the stone, and thinking to be quicker, drew the sword and brought it back to Sir Kay. The young knight recognised the sword and asked his father if this meant that he was king, but wise Sir Ector realised his step-son was the one who should be king. The boy was taken back to the stone, and the sword returned to it. Before all the knights in the realm, Arthur drew the sword a second time and Merlin proclaimed him king.
Arthur became a great king, ruling wisely for a long time from his capital of Camelot. Many great knights came to his castle – Bedivere, Gawaine, Agrivaine, Tristan and Percival to name but a few. At length the sword from the stone broke in battle, and riding past a lake Arthur saw a hand rise from the water holding a new sword – Excalibur. Taking a small boat he rowed towards the hand, and took the sword for himself. The hand retreated into the water.
For a wife, Arthur took the beautiful Guinevere, daughter of King Leodegrance, and for a long time they were both very happy. He fought many battles against the Saxons, culminating in his famous Battle of Mount Badon, where he bore the image of the Virgin Mary upon his shield and drove the Saxons back once and for all.
But he had two sisters, born of his father’s marriage with Ygraine: Morgana and Morgawse. And unwittingly, before he knew Morgawse was his sister, he lay with her and the boy Mordred was born. Morgawse married King Lot of Lothian and bore other sons, and eventually these sons all came to Camelot to become knights of the Round Table which Merlin had provided for Arthur.
When Arthur took his army to fight in Gaul, he left Mordred as his regent, and Mordred, knowing his parentage and thinking that the kingdom could be his, seduced Guinevere and took her for his own. When Arthur returned, he and Mordred came to the final battle of Camlann, where Mordred was eventually slain, and where Arthur was sorely wounded.
Dying, Arthur called his faithful knight Bedivere to his side and, giving him the sword Excalibur, asked him to take it to the nearby lake and throw it in. Bedivere went to the lake, but he could not bring himself to throw away so beautiful a sword. He returned to Arthur and told him he’d done as he’d asked. Arthur asked him what had happened, and Bedivere could not say, so Arthur knew he had lied. A second time he sent Bedivere to the lake, and a second time that knight could not throw the sword away, and Arthur knew he lied. Finally, on the third time of asking, Bedivere threw the sword as far as he could into the water and a hand emerged to grasp it by the hilt. As he watched, hand and sword disappeared beneath the surface of the lake. When Bedivere told him what had happened, Arthur knew Bedivere had at last done as he was asked.
The dying Arthur was then carried to the edge of the lakes around the Island of Avalon. Here, a boat bearing three queens came to carry him away from the land of the living to be cured of his wounds and put into a deep sleep from which he would only waken when the island of Britain was in dire need of his help. To this day, he sleeps there still, waiting for the moment when he is needed again.