Breton folktales: The Cursed Comorre

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Breton Folktales

Breton folktales have much in common with other European folktales and yet still retain their own unique characteristics.  The rugged forests and heaths with the mysterious standing stones and the ancient towns and villages, the wild sea coast, the church and paganism all bleed into one another creating incredible stories of morals to live by, adventure, life and death passing through wildness and darkness into light.

This is a folktale from Brittany I have curated, edited and adapted from a number of sources but the major influence has been Folk Tales of Brittany, by Elsie Masson, [1929], and the story of The Castle of Comorre a Breton folktale which she collected.  It tells of the plight of Tréphine, the daughter of the King of Vannes who had the misfortune to marry Comorre, also known as Conomor a Breton nobleman with an evil reputation.   Comorre is thought to one of the original sources of the Bluebeard character in folk tales.  Although the story is clearly fictional  the main characters do have a degree of historical basis.  Tréphine was a semi-legendary saint and the daughter of Waroch I who was the King of Vannes, who was a contemporary of Comorre, so there is so historical basis to the story though it has been embellished and exaggerated over the centuries and this is my version.

The Cursed Comorre

The King of Vannes daughter

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Pixabay – ClkerFreeVectorImages – Public Domain

There was once a king who ruled over the land of white corn and lived in his castle in the town of Vannes in Brittany. He had an only daughter that he loved with all of his heart.  Her name was Tréphine and called the white dove and she was the most beautiful princess in the whole of Brittany.  She was as pure as snow and had never, ever committed a mortal sin.  To her father she was everything and he would have given away all of his riches, castles and land and everything he owned rather than see his Tréphine unhappy.

There came a day when messengers came to him from the nearby land of the black corn that was ruled by a rich and powerful Count by the name of Comorre.   The messengers bowed low and presented the King with many gifts of honey and fine cloths, animals and jewels and then solemnly informed the King of Vannes that the Count Comorre desired the hand of his daughter, the Princess Tréphine, in marriage.  They told him that when the last festival was held in Vannes the Count had disguised himself as an ordinary soldier and mingled and mixed with the people of Vannes as they celebrated.  During those celebrations he had see the Princess Tréphine for the first time and had fallen deeply in love with her.

Count Comorre

The King of Vannes was devastated and filled with grief for although he knew she would one day marry, he hoped it would be to a man she loved.  Count Comorre although rich and powerful had a bad reputation and known for his cruelty and found joy in doing evil.  Even as a child his cruelty was legendary and when he was going into the town his own mother would ring the castle bells to warn the townsfolk he was on his way. The older he got the more cruel and evil he became. He rejoiced in wickedness of all kinds and his subjects were terrified of him and hated him, always avoiding him for fear he should pick on them.  When he grew into a young man he had four wives in quick succession each of whom he quickly tired of and were found dead in strange circumstances.

So when Count Comorre’s messengers stood before the King of Vannes asking for his daughter’s hand in marriage the King was filled with fear for his daughter. He did not want her to marry him of all men.  The King politely told the messengers that he thought his daughter much too young to marry hoping this would be enough.  Count Comorre’s messengers were prepared for such a reply and had received their orders from the Count himself. Roughly and rudely they told the King that permission must be granted immediately and the Princess Tréphine was to return with them to the Count without delay or a state of war would exist between them.  They warned him that  Count had assembled a vast and mighty army and would fall upon Vannes and take the Princess Tréphine for his wife and the crown of the city too.  Then they taunted the King telling him to refuse if he dared.

War is threatened

Now the King of Vannes knew Count Comorre was not bluffing and that his army was no match for such a fight,  Nevertheless anger flared in his heart and he bravely refused the request defying the evil Count  Comorre.  The messengers turned and rode furiously back to their lord with the King’s reply.

Three days past and then news came to the King of Vannes that a vast army led by  Count Comorre was approaching the city to attack.  The King mustered his knights, cavalry and foot soldiers and marched out to meet him.

Saint Gildas

Saint Gildas the Christian holy man, saw this and was alarmed at the sight of these two armies preparing to make war and slay each other.  The cloak the saint wore had once covered the boat that had brought him over the sea to Brittany and the staff he carried was made from its mast and a halo glowed around his head.  He went looking for the princess and found her praying and he begged her to stop the battle. Fearfully he told her that many men from both sides would die unless she agreed to the marriage and she could save many Christians by marrying Comorre despite his evil ways.

“If only I were a beggar girl I could marry any beggar of my choice,” she cried, “this tyrant will surely kill me like he has killed all his other wives!”

“Have no fear,” said Saint Gildas, “ I will give you this silver ring and it will warn you if there is a plot against you for it will turn as black as night.  Take it and save your fellow Christians from death!” He told her.

The wedding

So to save so much death and bloodshed she took the ring and consented to marry Count Comorre.  Saint Gildas rode at once to the battle and riding between the two armies he stopped them before the fight had begun, telling Count Comorre and the King of Vannes that Princess Tréphine had consented to the marriage.  The King  was devastated and would gladly have died rather than allow it.  Comorre was ecstatic and promised the King that his behavior would change for the better and that he loved Tréphine with all his heart. At last the King agreed and the wedding went ahead.  The most lavish wedding and feast was given and Comorre carried off his innocent young wife back to his castle like a hawk may carry a pure white dove in its talons.

During the first few months of marriage a great change came over the Count and he grew gentler and less wicked.  His dungeons were emptied and not once did he put anyone to death.  His subjects were surprised and pleased commenting at the change and thinking it would not last, but those who knew waited and kept their tongues.  Tréphine went to the chapel every day to pray on the burial vaults of his four previous wives.  She prayed to God for them and for herself not to suffer their fate.

Comorre leaves for Rennes

It was at this time that a messenger came to the Count telling him that all the rulers of Brittany had been summoned to a meeting in Rennes and he would be expected to attend as was his duty.  Comorre did not really want to go but felt compelled by his position to attend.  Just before he left he called Tréphine to him and handed to her the keys to the entire castle and told her to go and do as she liked within the castle. With that he left for Rennes with a retinue of his best knights.

Comorre returns

Comorre was kept at Rennes for six months and during that time thought of Tréphine constantly and missed her greatly.  On his return he hurried up to her chambers and entering her room was shocked to find her making a satin hood which she was embroidering with silver thread for a baby. When he saw what she was doing he grew pale and asked, “And whose child is that for?”

Tréphine looked up from her work and smiled thinking he would be pleased and said, “Why ours of course for I am with child!”

The ghosts of Comorre’s wives

Cormorre glared at her darkly and turned and abruptly left the room without another word.  Tréphine felt a strange sensation on her finger and looked down at the ring and to her fear saw it had turned as black as night.  Terror entered into her heart and she knew she was now in mortal danger.    As silently and stealthily as she could she made her way to the chapel and there prayed beside the burial vaults of her murdered predecessors. Hiding herself between the vaults she knelt in prayer while the chapel clock struck the hours and after what seemed like an age midnight struck  As the last stroke struck and to her terror she saw four black wraiths rising from the vaults.  Tréphine backed slowly away but the ghosts advanced and in fear she dropped to her knees.

alexandre_iii_28dictionnaire_infernal29The ghosts speak

One of the ghosts pointed at her and in a voice from beyond the grave said, “Beware, lost creature, Beware!  Count Comorre seeks your death!”

“But what have I done to deserve death?” Tréphine said trembling.

“You will be the mother of his child very soon and the prophecy foretells that the son of Count Comorre will destroy his father!” Answered the deathly voice.

“God above, is there no escape for me!” She cried.

“Return to your father in the land where the white corn grows,” replied the ghost.

“But how could I ever get across the courtyard with those great guard dogs Comorre has on the loose at nights?”

“Give the dogs this poison that killed me!” said the wraith handing her a vial,

“And how am I to get over the castle wall?”

“Use this rope that throttled me!” said another ghost handing her a rope.

“How will I find my way in this black night?”

“Use this fire that burnt me!” said the third.

“And how shall I walk so far when I am trembling with fear?”

“Lean on this staff that broke my skull!” said the fourth placing the staff in her hand.

Escape

So with the poison the rope, the fire and the staff she made her way to the courtyard. Throwing the poison for the dogs to devour she then made her way across the dark courtyard using the fire  and climbed over the castle wall using the rope.  Once over the wall she made off down the road towards her father’s city of Vannes using the staff for support.

The search for Tréphine

Commore had spent the night brooding about the prophecy and in the morning sent his servants to fetch Tréphine to him.  They searched high and low but no trace of her could they find.  Furious, Comorre ran to the top of his highest tower and looked out to where the four winds blew. Towards the midnight he saw a raven.  Looking towards sunrise he saw a swallow flying.  He looked toward midday and saw a seagull soaring so he turned towards sunset, There he saw a white dove fleeing and he knew it was Tréphine and where she was going.  Running to the stables he quickly saddled his horse and calling his servants to follow with hounds rode off in pursuit.

The shepherd’s hut

Tréphine had reached the edge of the forest that surrounded Comorre Castle but seeing the ring on her finger had turned black she knew Comorre was in close pursuit.  Running across a moor looking for shelter she came across an old shepherd’s hut.  Tentatively she knocked on the door but when no answer came she softly opened the door and looked in. All she could see was an old magpie in a cage on a shelf on the wall.

Tréphine stayed in the hut for the rest of the day but when night fell she left the hut and made her way across fields of flax guided by the fire and aided by the staff that the wraiths had given her.   For two days Comorre searched high and low but could not find her along the road.  Finally he found the shepherd’s hut and saw the old magpie and heard it imitating Tréphine’s voice crying and praying and he knew she had been there.

A baby is born

Telling his servants to loose the dogs they soon picked up her scent and ran yelping after her.  Leaping on his horse Comorre followed them with his servants coming along behind. With fear driving her on Tréphine ran for her life knowing she was nearing Vannes, her father’s castle but the exertion of the run was telling on her now and she knew she had to rest.  Finding a glade in the woods she stopped and rested and there to her absolute joy the most beautiful baby boy was born.  She named him Trémeur and he would live to be a holy saint and a great king but her time on earth at that moment was not so certain.

The falpsm_v51_d613_rough_legged_hawkcon

As she rested in the glade with the baby boy in her arms she saw a falcon swoop down and perch of on a nearby branch. Seeing it wore a ring of gold on one foot she knew it to be one of her father’s and she knew it by name and called it down to her. The bird flew down to land close beside her. Taking off her silver ring she gave it to the falcon who took it in its claw and she said, “Take this to my father as swift as you can.  Give it to my father and he will know my life is in grave danger.  Guide him back to me quickly for I fear my life will be ended as soon Comorre finds me!”

The falcon understood and flew like an arrow straight to King of Vannes.  The King was eating breakfast with Saint Gildas and the falcon flew in through the window  and dropped the ring into his drinking cup.  The king seeing the ring and knowing it urged the falcon to lead him to his daughter.

The death of Tréphine

But at that moment in the glade one of Comorre’s hounds picked up her trail and yelped and Tréphine knew her time was short.  Wrapping the baby boy in her cloak she hid him in the hollow of a tree and stepped back into the glade to face Comorre.  The dogs came yelping into the glade and Comorre followed on a great black horse.  Seeing her he cried out in anger and spurred his horse forward and sweeping out his sword cut her head off with one blow.  Riding round her headless body with a smile of satisfaction on his face he then turned and spurred his horse for home.

The King finds his daughter

Back in the castle in Vannes the King saw the ring and told the Saint that something terrible was happening to his daughter and they had to hurry to save her.   Telling his servants to raise his knights and saddle their horses he begged Gildas to come with him.

Gildas readily agreed and the company followed the falcon to the glade.  There the King of Vannes saw the terrible sight he had feared.  Lying in the glade was the headless body of his daughter.  Dismounting and falling to his knees the king cried and mourned for his daughter and all the rest of the company formed a protective ring around their king and his dead daughter. Gildas called them all to be silent and the sound of a crying baby was heard.  H went to the hollow tree and brought out the baby giving it to the King.

Gildas resurrects Tréphine

“On your knee and pray with me!” commanded Gildas and the entire company dropped to their knees in prayer.  When he had finished he motioned for them to stay kneeling and he rose and placed the severed head of Tréphine on to her neck and again prayed and then commanded, “Rise up whole,”  and to everyone’s surprise and delight she returned to life whole and one.  Tréphine rose and Gildas then gave her the baby and told her they must now return to the castle of Comorre for there was a task that had now to be done.

Tréphine was given a horse and she carrying the baby rode at the head of the company to Comorre.  The company rode like thunder but none could overtake Tréphine and her son and they soon reached the castle of Count Comorre.

Comorre had seen them coming from afar and had ordered that the drawbridge be brought up.   The company stopped outside the gates unable to enter and Gildas now rode to the head.  He dismounted and stood before the gates and cried, “Comorre!  See, I bring you back your wife and son that God in his grace has given you!  Will you take them back?

The prophecy is fulfilled

But no answer came from the castle and Gildas repeated the words twice more.  Still no answer came from the castle.  Then Gildas took the new born baby from Tréphine and placed  him standing upon the ground and a second miracle was seen.  The child strode towards the edge of the moat stooped and taking a handful of sand threw it against the castle and then raising his hands and looking up to heaven he called out “Justice shall be done!”  Instantly the skies resounded like thunder and the walls of the castle cracked and the walls disintegrated into a heap of rubble before their eyes and the once mighty stronghold of Count Comorre was reduced to ruin burying him and all those who followed him under rubble.  With Comorre and his followers now dead the King of Vannes took his daughter, Tréphine and his grandson with Gildas back safely to his castle now glad of heart that evil had been vanquished.  So the great fear of the prophecy that drove Comorre to kill his wives finally caught up with him and was now fulfilled by his own son.

© 26/04/2016 zteve t evans

References and Attributions

Copyright 26/04/2016 zteve t evans

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4 thoughts on “Breton folktales: The Cursed Comorre

  1. Wow. I didn’t know this story. There’s so much to it. Magic and treachery and cruelty and a kind of redemption (but not for the wicked). It’s a great tale, Zteve!

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