“The Legend of Vortigern” by Simon Heywood

A Pre-Arthurian Legend Teetering on Myth

For the world is only a tissue of masks and veils; And when the veils are lifted, in birth or death or the other ecstasies, we look beyond them, and see faces that we already know, but cannot bear to look at for long.

, I finished reading Simon Heywood’s The Legend of Vortigern. The story of a tyrant in 5th century Britain. His story is set in the time-shrouded backstory that framed the tales of King Arthur; It’s in the dimly lit time when Rome vacated Britain.

I’m also reading Christopher A. Snyder’s An Age of Tyrants: Britain and the Britons A.D. 400–600, which overlays nicely with the chaos of Vortigern’s tale.

I’m playing in a Burning Wheel Gold 🔍 game that’s set as the rise of Arthur. Our characters are very much in the middle of the mess that is the time of Vortigern.

The story of Vortigern is the anticedent for the Arthurian myths; themselves a co-mingling of Welsh and Irish pagan myths as well as Christian myths. Want a queer Arthurian legend, look to Patricia Terry and Samuel N. Rosenberg’s Lancelot and the Lord of the Distant Isles or, The book of Galehaut retold. A reminder to me that in the tale of King Arthur, it is Arthur who is the least interesting character.

Vortigern is no hero. He schemes for a throne just beyond his reach, yet he grabs and in so doing breaks ties of friendship and kin. Brittania demonizes him. And as the story draws to a close, this outcast man reviled by all is the father of Merlin.

This was not a story of conquest and success, but of the aspirations and failures of a mediocre white man. Vortigern, a pragmatic opportunist, lacked follow and true bravery to make a lasting change. Instead, his offspring, whom he almost sacrificed to appease the dragons below, would be the counselor to King Arthur.

If you can find a copy of The Legend of Vortigern, give this a read. It’s quick, enjoyable, and touches on deep truths—What is the price you would pay for your ambition?

Whereas Gilgamesh returns to the city, Vortigern seeks isolation; to build their tower and be the king of the mountain. Both stories are bound by the desire of transcending death. Be it legacy or immortality.