Every old country that has won fame in history and built up a civilization of its own, has a national flower.
Besides this, some living creature, bird, or beast, or, it may be, a fish is on its flag. In places of honor, it stands as the emblem of the nation; that is, of the people, apart from the land they live on. Besides flag and symbol, it has a motto. That of Wales is: “Awake: It is light.”
Now because the glorious stories of Wales, Scotland and Ireland have been nearly lost in that of mighty England, men have at times, almost forgotten about the leek, the thistle, and the shamrock, which stand for the other three divisions of the British Isles.
Yet each of these peoples has a history as noble as that of which the rose and the lion are the emblems. Each has also its patron saint and civilizer. So we have Saint George, Saint David, Saint Andrew, and Saint Patrick, all of them white-souled heroes. On the union flag, or standard of the United Kingdom, we see their three crosses.
The lion of England, the harp of Ireland, the thistle of Scotland, and the Red Dragon of Wales represent the four peoples in the British Isles, each with its own speech, traditions, and emblems; yet all in unity and in loyalty, none excelling the Welsh, whose symbol is the Red Dragon. In classic phrase, we talk of Albion, Scotia, Cymry, and Hibernia.
But why red? Almost all the other dragons in the world are white, or yellow, green or purple, blue, or pink. Why a fiery red color like that of Mars?
Borne on the banners of the Welsh archers, who in old days won the battles of Crecy and Agincourt, and now seen on the crests on the town halls and city flags, in heraldry, and in art, the red dragon is as rampant, as when King Arthur sat with His Knights at the Round Table.
The Red Dragon has four three-toed claws, a long, barbed tongue, and tail ending like an arrow head. With its wide wings unfolded, it guards those ancient liberties, which neither Saxon, nor Norman, nor German, nor kings on the throne, whether foolish or wise, have ever been able to take away. No people on earth combine so handsomely loyal freedom and the larger patriotism, or hold in purer loyalty to the union of hearts and hands in the British Empire, which the sovereign represents, as do the Welsh.
The Welsh are the oldest of the British peoples. They preserve the language of the Druids, bards, and chiefs, of primeval ages which go back and far beyond any royal line in Europe, while most of their fairy tales are pre-ancient and beyond the dating.
Why the Cymric dragon is red, is thus told, from times beyond human record.
It was in those early days, after the Romans in the south had left the island, and the Cymric king, Vortigern, was hard pressed by the Picts and Scots of the north. To his aid, he invited over from beyond the North Sea, or German Ocean, the tribes called the Long Knives, or Saxons, to help him.
But once on the big island, these friends became enemies and would not go back. They wanted to possess all Britain.
Vortigern thought this was treachery. Knowing that the Long Knives would soon attack him, he called his twelve wise men together for their advice. With one voice, they advised him to retreat westward behind the mountains into Cymry. There he must build a strong fortress and there defy his enemies.
So the Saxons, who were Germans, thought they had driven the Cymry beyond the western borders of the country which was later called England, and into what they named the foreign or Welsh parts. Centuries afterwards, this land received the name of Wales.
People in Europe spoke of Galatians, Wallachians, Belgians, Walloons, Alsatians, and others as “Welsh.” They called the new fruit imported from Asia walnuts, but the names “Wales” and “Welsh” were unheard of until after the fifth century.
The place chosen for the fortified city of the Cymry was among the mountains. From all over his realm, the King sent for masons and carpenters and collected the materials for building. Then, a solemn invocation was made to the gods by the Druid priests. These grand looking old men were robed in white, with long, snowy beards falling over their breasts, and they had milk-white oxen drawing their chariot. With a silver knife they cut the mistletoe from the tree-branch, hailing it as a sign of favor from God. Then with harp, music and song they dedicated the spot as a stronghold of the Cymric nation.
Then the King set the diggers to work. He promised a rich reward to those men of the pick and shovel who should dig the fastest and throw up the most dirt, so that the masons could, at the earliest moment, begin their part of the work.
But it all turned out differently from what the king expected. Some dragon, or powerful being underground, must have been offended by this invasion of his domain; for, the next morning, they saw that everything in the form of stone, timber, iron or tools, had disappeared during the night. It looked as if an earthquake had swallowed them all up.
Both king and seers, priests and bards, were greatly puzzled at this. However, not being able to account for it, and the Saxons likely to march on them at any time, the sovereign set the diggers at work and again collected more wood and stone.
This time, even the women helped, not only to cook the food, but to drag the logs and stones. They were even ready to cut off their beautiful long hair to make ropes, if necessary.
But in the morning, all had again disappeared, as if swept by a tempest. The ground was bare.
Nevertheless, all hands began again, for all hearts were united.
For the third time, the work proceeded. Yet when the sun rose next morning, there was not even a trace of either material or labor.
What was the matter? Had some dragon swallowed everything up?
Vortigern again summoned his twelve wise men, to meet in council, and to inquire concerning the cause of the marvel and to decide what was to be done.
After long deliberation, while all the workmen and people outside waited for their verdict, the wise men agreed upon a remedy.
Now in ancient times, it was a custom, all over the world, notably in China and Japan and among our ancestors, that when a new castle or bridge was to be built, they sacrificed a human being. This was done either by walling up the victim while alive, or by mixing his or her blood with the cement used in the walls. Often it was a virgin or a little child thus chosen by lot and made to die, the one for the many.
The idea was not only to ward off the anger of the spirits of the air, or to appease the dragons under ground, but also to make the workmen do their best work faithfully, so that the foundation should be sure and the edifice withstand the storm, the wind, and the earthquake shocks.
So, nobody was surprised, or raised his eyebrows, or shook his head, or pursed up his lips, when the king announced that what the wise men declared, must be done and that quickly. Nevertheless, many a mother hugged her darling more closely to her bosom, and fathers feared for their sons or daughters, lest one of these, their own, should be chosen as the victim to be slain.
King Vortigern had the long horn blown for perfect silence, and then he spoke:
“A child must be found who was born without a father. He must be brought here and be solemnly put to death. Then his blood will be sprinkled on the ground and the citadel will be built securely.”
Within an hour, swift runners were seen bounding over the Cymric hills. They were dispatched in search of a boy without a father, and a large reward was promised to the young man who found what was wanted. So into every part of the Cymric land, the searchers went.
One messenger noticed some boys playing ball. Two of them were quarreling. Coming near, he heard one say to the other:
“Oh, you boy without a father, nothing good will ever happen to you.”
“This must be the one looked for,” said the royal messenger to himself. So he went up to the boy, who had been thus twitted and spoke to him thus:
“Don’t mind what he says.” Then he prophesied great things, if he would go along with him. The boy was only too glad to go, and the next day the lad was brought before King Vortigern.
The workmen and their wives and children, numbering thousands, had assembled for the solemn ceremony of dedicating the ground by shedding the boy’s blood. In strained attention the people held their breath.
The boy asked the king:
“Why have your servants brought me to this place?”
Then the sovereign told him the reason, and the boy asked:
“Who instructed you to do this?”
“My wise men told me so to do, and even the sovereign of the land obeys his wise councilors.”
“Order them to come to me, Your Majesty,” pleaded the boy.
When the wise men appeared, the boy, in respectful manner, inquired of them thus:
“How was the secret of my life revealed to you? Please speak freely and declare who it was that discovered me to you.”
Turning to the king, the boy added:
“Pardon my boldness, Your Majesty. I shall soon reveal the whole matter to you, but I wish first to question your advisers. I want them to tell you what is the real cause, and reveal, if they can, what is hidden here underneath the ground.”
But the wise men were confounded. They could not tell and they fully confessed their ignorance.
The boy then said:
“There is a pool of water down below. Please order your men to dig for it.”
At once the spades were plied by strong hands, and in a few minutes the workmen saw their faces reflected, as in a looking glass. There was a pool of clear water there.
Turning to the wise men, the boy asked before all:
“Now tell me, what is in the pool?”
As ignorant as before, and now thoroughly ashamed, the wise men were silent.
“Your Majesty, I can tell you, even if these men cannot. There are two vases in the pool.”
Two brave men leaped down into the pool. They felt around and brought up two vases, as the boy had said.
Again, the lad put a question to the wise men:
“What is in these vases?”
Once more, those who professed to know the secrets of the world, even to the demanding of the life of a human being, held their tongues.
“There is a tent in them,” said the boy. “Separate them, and you will find it so.”
By the king’s command, a soldier thrust in his hand and found a folded tent.
Again, while all wondered, the boy was in command of the situation. Everything seemed so reasonable, that all were prompt and alert to serve him.
“What a splendid chief and general, he would make, to lead us against our enemies, the ‘Long Knives!'” whispered one soldier to another.
“What is in the tent?” asked the boy of the wise men.
Not one of the twelve knew what to say, and there was an almost painful silence.
“I will tell you, Your Majesty, and all here, what is in this tent. There are two serpents, one white and one red. Unfold the tent.”
With such a leader, no soldier was afraid, nor did a single person in the crowd draw back? Two stalwart fellows stepped forward to open the tent.
But now, a few of the men and many of the women shrank back while those that had babies, or little folks, snatched up their children, fearing lest the poisonous snakes might wriggle towards them.
The two serpents were coiled up and asleep, but they soon showed signs of waking, and their fiery, lidless eyes glared at the people.
“Now, Your Majesty, and all here, be you the witnesses of what will happen. Let the King and wise men look in the tent.”
At this moment, the serpents stretched themselves out at full length, while all fell back, giving them a wide circle to struggle in.
Then they reared their heads. With their glittering eyes flashing fire, they began to struggle with each other. The white one rose up first, threw the red one into the middle of the arena, and then pursued him to the edge of the round space.
Three times did the white serpent gain the victory over the red one.
But while the white serpent seemed to be gloating over the other for a final onset, the red one, gathering strength, erected its head and struck at the other.
The struggle went on for several minutes, but in the end the red serpent overcame the white, driving it first out of the circle, then from the tent, and into the pool, where it disappeared, while the victorious red one moved into the tent again.
When the tent flap was opened for all to see, nothing was visible except a red dragon; for the victorious serpent had turned into this great creature which combined in one new form the body and the powers of bird, beast, reptile and fish. It had wings to fly, the strongest animal strength, and could crawl, swim, and live in either water or air, or on the earth. In its body was the sum total of all life.
Then, in the presence of all the assembly, the youth turned to the wise men to explain the meaning of what had happened. But not a word did they speak. In fact, their faces were full of shame before the great crowd.
“Now, Your Majesty, let me reveal to you the meaning of this mystery.”
“Speak on,” said the King, gratefully.
“This pool is the emblem of the world, and the tent is that of your kingdom. The two serpents are two dragons. The white serpent is the dragon of the Saxons, who now occupy several of the provinces and districts of Britain and from sea to sea. But when they invade our soil our people will finally drive them back and hold fast forever their beloved Cymric land. But you must choose another site, on which to erect your castle.”
After this, whenever a castle was to be built no more human victims were doomed to death. All the twelve men, who had wanted to keep up the old cruel custom, were treated as deceivers of the people. By the King’s orders, they were all put to death and buried before all the crowd.
To-day, like so many who keep alive old and worn-out notions by means of deception and falsehood, these men are remembered only by the Twelve Mounds, which rise on the surface of the field hard by.
As for the boy, he became a great magician, or, as we in our age would call him, a man of science and wisdom, named Merlin. He lived long on the mountain, but when he went away with a friend, he placed all his treasures in a golden cauldron and hid them in a cave. He rolled a great stone over its mouth. Then with sod and earth he covered it all over so as to hide it from view. His purpose was to leave this his wealth for a leader, who, in some future generation, would use it for the benefit of his country, when most needed.
This special person will be a youth with yellow hair and blue eyes. When he comes to Denas, a bell will ring to invite him into the cave. The moment his foot is over the place, the stone of entrance will open of its own accord. Anyone else will be considered an intruder and it will not be possible for him to carry away the treasure.
Welsh Fairy Tales
By WILLIAM ELLIOT GRIFFIS