Book of the Three Dragons

Wednesday, February 15th, 2012

John Rateliff calls Kenneth Morris (1879-1937) one of the great forgotten fantasists of the twentieth century and praises his Book of the Three Dragons:

“[T]he ancients did not posit omniscience or omnipotence
as qualities of those whom they called the Gods:
they saw evil in the world, and were logical….
[T]he Gods were the great generals and battle-captains
in the eternal war against evil:… they… stood
in need of us as a general stood in need of his… soldiers.
… So the effort would have been, not to obtain help
from the Gods, but to give help to them.

— Kenneth Morris, Preface to The Fates of the Princes of Dyfed (1914)

Obscure even in his own time and almost forgotten today, Kenneth Morris (1879-1937) is one of the great forgotten fantasists of the twentieth century. He wrote only three novels — the first, The Fates of the Princes of Dyfed (1914), published under a pseudonym (“Cenydd Morus”, the Welsh version of his name) by a theosophical press the month after World War I broke out, when the world had grimmer things on its mind; the second, Book of the Three Dragons (1930), released in a cut version by a publisher who lopped off the final third of the story and then tried to market what was left as a children’s book; and the third, The Chalchiuhite Dragon, not published until fifty-five years after his death (i.e., in 1992) — plus some forty short stories (including juvenalia and short-shorts), all of which appeared in theosophical journals and almost all under a weird array of pseudonyms (Quintus Reynolds, C. ApArthur, Sergius Mompesson, Wentworth Thompkins, Fortescue Lanyard, Aubrey Tyndall-Bloggsleigh, et al.). Ten of his best tales were collected by Morris into The Secret Mountain (1926), a superb collection from a major publisher which was remaindered within a year; not until 1995 did The Dragon Path, his collected short stories, appear. This neglect would not matter much if Morris were only a minor talent and an interesting footnote in the development of modern fantasy, but in fact Book of the Three Dragons is perhaps the single best fantasy adaptation from a real-world mythology (in this case, the Welsh Mabinogion), and the best of his tales (e.g., “The Saint and the Forest-Gods”, “The Last Adventure of Don Quixote”, and perhaps “Red-Peach-Blossom Inlet”) are among the finest fantasy short stories ever written.

“Who shall say where history ends and myth begins?
What is the dividing line between them? All these heroes
I doubt not were living men as well as everliving principles,
or rather they were the former and represented the latter.”

— K. Morris, “The Epic of Wales” (1899)

The Mabinogion and Welsh Fantasy

It is said that the Welsh have given two great legends to the world. The first is the King Arthur story, which has inspired countless authors through the centuries and is still going strong today. The second, unknown until rediscovered and translated into English in the 1830s and 1840s, is The Mabinogion, a collection of eleven medieval Welsh tales that preserve what little remains of the lost mythology of the Britains. [1] It is these elusive myths, and his own imaginative re-construction of the ancient pantheon that underlay them, that inspired Morris to create his masterpiece: Book of the Three Dragons. This was typical of his fantasy, almost all of which was myth-based. In fact, his short stories are remarkable in that rather than build up a sequence of linked tales practically every other story in The Dragon Path draws on a different mythology (Norse in “The Regent of the North”, Chinese in “The Eyeless Dragons”, Moorish in “The Night of al-Kadr”, Hindi in “The King and the Three Ascetics”, Christian in “The Last Adventure of Don Quixote”, Greek in “A Wild God’s Whim”, or his own fantasy pantheon for “The Saint and the Forest-Gods”, etc.). His final novel, The Chalchiuhite Dragon, unpublished until a generation or more after his death, was inspired by the Mesoamerican legend of Quetzalcoatl (“chalchiuhite”, by the way, simply means “jade”). But by far his two greatest sources of inspiration were his own Theosophical faith[2] and Welsh legend, in particular The Mabinogion.

“In the Welsh Mabinogion, as in books of Eastern legend,
the ancient story of the soul is told.”

— K. Morris, “The Epic of Wales” (1899)

“It was Morris’s belief that the great theme of the world, of its philosophy
and its mythology, was the evolution of the soul of man”

— Douglas A. Anderson, Introduction, The Dragon Path (1995)

In his duology made up of The Fates of the Princes of Dyfed and Book of the Three Dragons, Morris recasts the plot from parts of the Mabinogi into a story all his own. His is not a novelization of the old tales or an attempt to retell the same stories in a more modern idiom — for that, see Evangeline Walton’s quartet Prince of Annwn (1974), The Children of Llyr (1971), The Song of Rhiannon (1972), and The Island of the Mighty (1936, 1970). Nor is it a re-enactment of one of the Mabinogi stories in modern times, like Alan Garner’s The Owl Service (1967). Instead, Morris chooses to create a new story that takes its characters and rough outline from the traditional tale (especially the First Branch, with parts of the Second Branch and Third Branch woven in as well) but has a plot and emphasis essentially new, enabling him to overlay a theme of his own creation upon the old legend. And in the process, he deftly transforms mythology into fantasy. He does not, however, depart so far from the originals as Lloyd Alexander, whose Chronicles of Prydain — The Book of Three (1964), The Black Cauldron (1965), The Castle of Llyr (1966), Taran Wanderer (1967), and The High King (1968) — take characters, names, and elements from the Mabinogi stories but change them drastically to fit the demands of a wholly new plot set in a completely imaginary world, so that the result bears only a passing resemblance to their source, Morris’s story, while greatly changed in places, is still recognizably the story of Pwyll, Rhiannon, and Manawyddan.

“It would be an ill thing if wonders were for the seeing,
and we without the seeing them.”

— Pwyll, Prince of Dyfed, The Fates of the Princes of Dyfed

The Fates of the Princes of Dyfed

The first of the two books, The Fates of the Princes of Dyfed, takes the plot of the First Branch of the Mabinogi, “Pwyll, Prince of Dyfed”[3] and infuses it with cosmic significance. In Morris’s hands, the events of the old tale become more than just an evocative sequence of wonders that befall the hero. As in the original, Pwyll accidentally offends the ruler of the Underworld (Arawn, lord of Annwn) and, to make amends, agrees to take his place for a year. After returning to his own land, he meets and woos a supernatural lady (Rhianon), winning her after overcoming many challenges and obstacles. Unluckily, disaster strikes and their infant son is stolen away, and he cannot save her from undergoing years of undeserved penitence before their child is restored to them. From these lean bones, Morris spins an ornate tale that expands upon the original more than tenfold, delighting in its own extravagance all the while. More importantly, he unified all the incidents by imposing a grand scheme upon the whole: In Morris’s book, the gods have decided to elevate a mortal into godhood, and they choose Pwyll as the worthiest candidate. All his exploits — his sojourn in the Underworld, his courtship and marriage to an immortal goddess, and the rest — are here tests whereby they seek to see if he is worthy of deification. In the end, he fails, bringing a curse upon himself and his land. The final half of Fates of the Princes describes the miseries that fall upon Pwyll, Rhianon, and their kingdom until mother and land are redeemed by the deeds of their heroic young son, Pryderi.

Unfortunately, while impressive and elegantly written, The Fates of the Princes is Morris’s least successful book in terms of quality — not quite juvenilia, but definitely journeyman work. (Morris himself later admitted he “piled on the adjectives” and wrote it “in a very Welsh mood”.) Morris delights in rituals and patterns, so that almost every scene contains repetitions of almost the exact same thing happening over and over again. For example, when Pryderi seeks to free one of his mother’s magic birds from imprisonment (one of three very similar quests), he greets and fights a warrior barring him entry; after slaying this foe, he is opposed by ten of his fellows, each stronger than the first; after slaying them, by a hundred mightier than those who came before; after their defeat, by a thousand who are mightiest of all. Sometimes almost identical actions and dialogue are repeated, as when Pendaran Dyfed uses the same trick four times in the same chapter to cow the usurpers into acknowledging Rhianon’s queenship. This method works extremely well in fairy tales, but there’s a reason fairy tales are short; the repetition of patterns becomes wearisome in a novel-length work. Finally, there is the matter of the gods’ testing of poor Pwyll, which starts reasonably enough but continues to the point where it verges on the sadistic (e.g., forcing him to witness what he thinks is his infant son being murdered before his eyes); being gods, they can extend temptations indefinitely, repeating them until at last he fails. But for all these faults, the book is a bold attempt to create a new myth out of the fragments of an old one, and it blazed the way for much better things to follow — chief among them its sequel, Book of the Three Dragons.

Said Manawyddan, “The greeting of the god and the man to you…”
Said the Dragon, “The greeting of the man and the dragon to you…
For what reason have you come here — for fighting or for peace?
It will be better for you to go back to the Island of the Mighty at once,
having exchanged this friendly greeting with me.”

“Lord Winged One,” said Manawyddan, “let more than greetings be exchanged!”

“More than greeting would be fighting,” said the Dragon.

“Of your courtesy and your kindness, fighting let it be,” said Manawyddan.

“Here is the fighting it will be,” said the Dragon. “You will remember
longingly all the battles and torments of your years, and they will seem
to you like quiet sleep and dreaming in comparison with it.”

“Lord Splendor of Heaven,” said Manawyddan, “for the sake
of such fighting as that I came here.”

With that they raised their war-shouts and the fighting began…

— Manawyddan challenges the dragon Gwron Gawr, Book of the Three Dragons

Book of the Three Dragons

With the second book in his duology, Book of the Three Dragons, Morris achieves a stunning breakthrough. Although written around the same time as The Fates of the Princes was published (i.e., circa 1910-1911),[4] the book was drastically revised during the long gap between its completion and publication, allowing Morris to perfect his style and show just how much he had learned as a writer by writing the stories collected in The Secret Mountain. The result is so impressive that it’s no wonder that Ursula K. Le Guin chose an excerpt from this book as one of her three examples of the best that fantasy can offer (along with E.R. Eddison and J.R.R. Tolkien):

“[I]f [Book of the Three Dragons] ever had a day of fame
it was before our time. I use it here partly in hopes of arousing interest
in the book,[5] for I think many people would enjoy it.
It is a singularly fine example of the recreation of a work
magnificent in its own right (the Mabinogion) — a literary event
rather rare except in fantasy, where its frequency is perhaps proof,
if one were needed, of the ever-renewed vitality of myth.
But Morris is also useful to my purpose because he has a strong
sense of humor… I think Morris and James Branch Cabell
were the masters of the comic-heroic. One does not smile wryly,
reading them; one laughs. They achieve their comedy essentially
by style — by an eloquence, a fertility and felicity and ferocity
of invention that is simply overwhelming. They are outrageous,
and they know exactly what they’re doing.”

— Le Guin, “From Elfland to Poughkeepsie” (1973), repeated in The Language of the Night (1979)

With this second part of his story, Morris departs altogether from his model; although Manawyddan is the hero of both Book of the Three Dragons and the Third Branch of the Mabinogi, except for a single chapter adapted from the ending of the Mabinogi‘s Second Branch (“Branwen, Daughter of Llyr”) the plots are completely different. Morris’s story follows the miserable final days of Pwyll until he expiates his failings and is reborn in Ceridwen’s Cauldron as Manawyddan. In the original Mabinogi, Pwyll and Manawyddan are separate characters, the heroes of the First and Third Branches respectively, with their only common element being that they are the first and second husbands of Rhiannon; Morris has transformed them into a Before-and-After portrait of the same person, with Manawyddan being Pwyll as he should have been (an awakened soul, so to speak). Even though it forms a direct sequel to The Fates of the Princes of Dyfed, Book of the Three Dragons is self-contained enough to stand alone; one can read it without having read the earlier book — in fact, since some might be put off by the first book’s shortcomings, I’d recommend reading Book of the Three Dragons first and then going back and seeking out the earlier book.

With Manawyddan’s story, Morris’s art reaches its apotheosis. In all his fantasy he seeks to lift legend up into the numinous; here, as in his best short stories, he achieves it. Rarely has any fantasy been so infused with a sense of the author’s vision. Furthermore, Morris’s is an unusually benign worldview, especially for a fantasist; one gets the sense that he didn’t really believe in “Evil” with a capital “E”. As a result, though his stories feature plenty of villainous characters, they are always drawn so that the reader knows exactly why they do what they do; we have empathy though not sympathy with them. For example, the sorceress Ewinwen, servant of Tathal Twyll Goleu (Tathal Cheat-the-Light, one of the three great thieves who are the chief villains of the story), who has fossilized more than a thousand heroes and is trying her best to similarly petrify Manawyddan, does not think of herself as evil:

“It would be the pity of pities,” she thought , “for such a man
to go roaming free, a mere mortal, in the Island of the Mighty,
when the immortality of stonehood might be put on him,
and he preserved forever in Uffern through my ministrations.”
and, after he defeats her
In pity she sighed, and her tears came near falling; she foresaw
mortal life and death for him through his stubbornness, and
no attaining immortal stonehood. Woe was her, that she
could not save him!

Similarly, Gwiawn Llygad Cath (Gwiawn Cat’s Eye the Sea-Thief) has his own distinct moral code, though it is not the same one our hero espouses:

His conscience began to trouble him sorely, thinking how
shamed he would be if [Manawyddan's magical] shield
were left unstolen… Thinking he was, that there would
not have been the like of it in the world since the days of
… Arthur. And alas, he had never attained stealing [Arthur's
shield]; and whispers had gone abroad to his discredit
over that… “Unwise the man who neglected stealing it:
imprudent he who filched it not from its lord when he might.”

And all this is while he is running full tilt away from Manawyddan with the well-armed warrior in hot pursuit! Some of Gwiawn’s interior monologues are positively Vancean; if Morris’s exceptional Master Thieves owe something to Dunsany (e.g., “How Nuth Would Have Practised His Art Upon the Gnolls”, “The Distressing Tale of Thangobrind the Jeweller”, “The Bird of the Difficult Eye”, “The Probable Adventure of the Three Literary Men”), it seems quite likely that the distinctive conversational style of Jack Vance’s The Dying Earth and Eyes of the Overworld owe something to Kenneth Morris.

Even the zest for battle that marks both books comes across as joyous, not bloodthirsty. (“Opposition I desire, and extreme fighting, and not to go forward until usage shall have been complied with” — Pryderi, The Fates of the Princes; “Lord Dragon,” said Manawyddan, “it was for the sake of enjoyable conflict I came here, if there were anyone with the kind courtesy to grant it to me” — Manawyddan, Book of the Three Dragons) In part this might be because of Morris’s belief in reincarnation — slain foes are described as being freed to seek better lives — but mostly I believe it comes from the extreme politeness with which all parties conduct themselves. One of the outstanding set pieces of Book of the Three Dragons is Manawyddan’s battle with Gwron Gawr, an immortal disguised in dragon form, which though extremely violent — the two fight from dawn to dusk on three consecutive days, and in the end are reduced to snatching up great boulders and beating on each other with them — has nonetheless to rank as the most polite dragon-battle in all of fantasy: the two exchange courteous greetings each morning before they set to, and equally polite farewells at the end of each day’s battle. The stakes, too, are suitably grand for the most epic of heroes — when Manawyddan is forced to pursue the thief Gwiawn Cat’s Eye through Uffern (a Welsh Hell), he not only redeems and reforms Gwiawn once he defeats him but vows not to depart until he has freed all the petrified souls he has seen and passed during their battle, giving the climax of the book a truly eucatastrophic tone.

In the end, Morris not only created a new subgenre of fantasy (fantasy inspired by Welsh myth, with Walton, Garner, and Alexander as the most notable to follow in his footsteps) but offered up a superb book that transcends its inspiration. His career is proof that even a writer with a small output can achieve greatness if there are gems of the quality of “The Saint and the Forest-Gods”, “The Last Adventure of Don Quixote”, and Book of the Three Dragons among them.

“I think… that we too go upon these adventures”

— Kenneth Morris, “The Epic of Wales”

The Mabinogi and Your Game

Fantasies that have been read by few and unfamiliar myths make prime ground for DMs looking for characters, plots, settings, and magics to enrich almost any campaign. The Mabinogi has all these elements in plenty, and Morris puts his distinct stamp on them as well; his Master Thieves would make a particularly useful addition to a fantasy setting, while his distinctive dragons ennoble the whole concept of wily, powerful wyrms. The sorceress Ewinwen and the armies of petrified men Manawyddan encounters in Uffern would also spice up or creepify an adventure. Hardest, perhaps, to imitate would be his characters’ speaking style, but a DM or player character who achieved it would have an immensely effective roleplaying device. In addition, all who love bards would be well advised to read Book of the Three Dragons, since bards play major roles throughout the story, both in casting spells and even more importantly in breaking enchantments.

“The only fault I find with him is,
that he does not write more,
and oftener.”

— Talbot Mundy on Kenneth Morris

Bibliographic Note

The Fates of the Princes, first published in 1914 and re-released in trade paperback by Newcastle in 1978 as part of their “Forgotten Fantasy” library, is now long out of print but readily available through online used book services like (sometimes under “Kenneth Morris” and sometimes under “Cenydd Morus”). Similarly, Book of the Three Dragons, released in 1930 and re-issued by Ayer in 1978 as part of their “Lost Race and Adult Fantasy Fiction” series, is woefully out of print but available online from specialty book dealers. Fortunately for those who would like to see what Morris’s prose is like before paying $45 to $100 for a rare book, the first quarter of Book of the Three Dragons is available online at, along with two short stories and a play (The Archdruid).

The final third of Book of the Three Dragons has, alas, never yet published, although the manuscript does survive. I can only echo the words of Doug Anderson, the foremost Morris scholar: “A one-volume edition, containing The Fates of the Princes of Dyfed, Book of the Three Dragons, and the unpublished ending, is sorely needed in order to demonstrate the real scope of Morris’s achievement and to tell the whole story of the Princes of Dyfed and the Family of Pwyll.” (Introduction to The Dragon Path, p. 26). At the very least, since Book of the Three Dragons is so vastly superior to its predecessor, a complete edition with Manawyddan’s confrontation with Llwyd ab Cilcoed (the third of the three Master Thieves) and his reunion with his wife and son restored in their proper place would be a boon to fantasy readers everywhere.

“[T]hey are not only crazy but Welsh”

— Ursula K. Le Guin


[1] The title is actually a misnomer; it should be The Four Branches of the Mabinogi (cf. Patrick Ford’s excellent translation, The Mabinogi and Other Medieval Welsh Tales), but the name “Mabinogion” has stuck ever since it was first used by the original translator, Lady Charlotte Guest (1838), to refer to the contents of the 14th century manuscript known as “The Red Book of Hergest” (itself the probable inspiration for Tolkien’s “Red Book of Westmarch”). It includes the four Mabinogi tales as well as four others (including the oldest and possibly oddest Arthurian tale, “Culhwch and Olwen”) and three Arthurian romances. Ford’s translation omits the three romances and two dream-visions but adds the Tale of Taliesin from another manuscript.

[2]Although Welsh, Morris spent most of his adult life in America, living and teaching at the Theosophical commune at Point Loma, California, from 1908 till 1930, and spending his final years as a Theosophical missionary in Wales, giving lectures and establishing new lodges; he even assigned the copyright of The Fate of the Princes to the head of the Order, Katharine Tingley. It’s fair to say that Morris was as devoted to proselytizing his beliefs through his works as C. S. Lewis was to infuse Xian doctrine in all his own writings, but aside from his juvenalia, Morris was considerably more subtle in how he went about it.

[3]Regarding the pronunciation of the names: Morris provides an extensive section in each book explaining in detail just how each name should be pronounced in Welsh, then ends with the following observation: “[A]n excellent plan is just to decide for oneself what one will call each of the people in the book, and stick to that. Thus if you elected to call Pwyll simply Pwil, and call him that every time his name cropped up; — why, you would get along charmingly, and he wouldn’t mind in the least. It doesn’t sound so nice as Pooeelh perhaps, but then — !” (Book of the Three Dragons, p. xi-xii). The same applies to the names in The Chalchuihite Dragon; readers unfamiliar with Mesoamerican orthography will be surprised how quickly they become used to Toltec nomenclature once they become absorbed in the story.

[4] My thanks to Doug Anderson for providing this specific dating.

[5]Le Guin’s enthusiasm for the book may have been directly responsible for reviving interest in Morris’s work; note that both Fates of the Princes and Book of the Three Dragons were reprinted shortly after her essay (originally circulating in chapbook form) appeared, after decades of neglect. In any case, certainly many readers first heard of Morris’s work through her praise, which led many to check out his writing for themselves.


  1. Buckethead says:

    Isegoria, thanks for posting these. Some of these people I’ve never even heard of. Started reading The Night Lands last night, and it’s pretty sweet.

  2. Buckethead says:

    Interestingly, along the same lines Boing Boing had a post the other day about the sf equivalent, Radium Age science fiction.

  3. Isegoria says:

    I’m glad you’re enjoying these Classics of Fantasy essays, Buckethead. They impressed me when I stumbled across them years ago, and then they disappeared off the Web. I thought someone should rescue them.

  4. Isegoria says:

    I’ve been meaning to get to Jess Nevins’ Victorian Hugos pieces, too, which tackle some rather obscure, but influential, works from the pre-Radium Age.

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