Breton Folktales: Yannik, the Mad Thing of the Woods

Presented here is a retelling of a Breton folktale from Folk Tales of Brittany by Elsie Masson, called Yannik, the Fairy Child.

Yannik the Fairy Child

Once in a while – maybe once every one hundred years – someone appears among us who is different and somehow lightens our lives bringing hope and joy and easing our tired minds and aching bones. This story tells how such a one appeared and touched the hearts of all who encountered him. It begins in a time long ago in a village hidden in the woods in the wild, rugged, district of Finistère that is part of Brittany in France.  In those far off days the woods were a dangerous place full of savage bears, hungry wolves and other wild creatures. The villagers were poor and hard working, generous of heart and looked after one another. Life was hard and they lived upon the edge of survival from day to day.  They had no gold, silver or treasure they could use to relieve their poverty but it was in times such as these they were blessed by a different kind of treasure that appeared to enrich their lives.

Yannik

There appeared alone in the woods a feral boy the people called Yannik. Although he was as free as the birds that sing in the trees no sound had ever came from his silent lips until one glorious day, but even then only one word and one word alone would he repeatedly utter.  The villagers were poor but kindly folk and were both bemused and enchanted, not knowing how to treat him. Nevertheless, they grew to love, but never understand him. Sometimes he would appear as if in a world of his own and stand or sit and stare into space and look with eyes that saw right through you.  

Although he could never speak a word of thank you, he would show his gratitude by rewarding his benefactor with a big, beaming, smile.  It was a smile that would light up their lives filling them with love and happiness for this strange, feral boy of the woods. When someone gave him a pair of wooden clogs he walked proudly up and down with a big radiant smile, his fair face simply shining with joy.  Everyone knew the gratitude he felt because his smile was his only language and that said everything that mattered.

He was a  mystery. No one knew who he was, what he was, or where he came from. He was a rare and beautiful thing who ran naked through the woods bringing joy, peace and good fortune wherever he went.  Whether he had become lost, or had been abandoned, no one knew. All they knew was that he was there and they called him Yannik. He was like all joyous things in one, a peaceful presence, a silent soul that communicated by the radiance of his smile and the peaceful aura of his being.  Such was Yannik.

Although he appeared alone in the world anyone of the villagers would gladly have given him a home. Everyone loved him and he came and went between homes at his leisure. He would enjoy their hospitality for a short time and then disappear into the forest to run wild and people would leave him gifts of food and clothing.   Although one night he may sleep in the farmer’s cottage and the farmer’s wife provide a wholesome supper and cradle him until he slept, come daybreak his bed would be empty. They tried to keep him locked in thinking it would be for his own good. With out fail, he always managed to find a way out. Even in the snow season his footsteps would lead back to the forest to be among the birds and animals and the whispering trees he loved, for he was not something that could be confined or possessed.

The Fol Goët, The Fairy-Child

In the wilderness of the forest Yannik knew no fear and none feared him.  The bears knew him and greeted him with affection and the wolf trotted at his side and the birds of the forest perched upon his hand and sang wonderful songs.  Thus it was that in the pathless forest Yannik was sustained and guarded by those who dwelt within.


In the farms and the villages the men called him the “Fol Goët,” or “the mad thing of the woods” but not unkindly, while  the women called him the “fairy child.”  In the little local church the choir would sing and Yannik would carefully and quietly sneak inside to hide at the back listening to their songs with a look of sheer rapture and such joy in his shining eyes. The old priest tried to persuade him to stay with him that he may teach a word or two of speech, but Yannik would not stay.  Nevertheless, he would still come and listen to the singing, his face radiant and his eyes shining.

One summer evening he had been roaming happily in the fields and drawing near the church heard singing and went inside to listen.  It was a feast day and the church was full and the children’s choir was singing a hymn of praise and as he listened to the pure voices of the children dressed in their white robes, their voices took him higher and higher.  He could hear harps and other wonderful accompanying instruments and the children were singing,

“Glory! Glory! Glory!”

Leaving his place at the back with a look of rapture on his face and a big radiant smile Yannik slowly walked up the aisle his  arms stretched out before him as if he was blind. The singing stopped and all fell silent as they watched him approach the altar where he was met by the priest who met his hands with his own. There and then Yannik spoke the first and only word that would ever pass his lips,

“Glory!”

And then he sang over ans over again,

“Glory! Glory! Glory!”

And the children in the choir took up the song and the people in the congregation all sang,

“Glory! Glory! Glory!”

From then on Yannik would always be heard singing “Glory! Glory! Glory!” wherever he went.  When he was accompanying the priest on his rounds visiting the sick and elderly he sang it. When he was visiting one of the local people who were always glad to see him and feed him he sang it.  When he was alone running wild in the woods he sang it. Wherever he went he sang,

“Glory! Glory! Glory!”

And that was the only sound that ever came from his mouth.

Well, the world turned and one summer evening the people were making their way home from a hard day of labor in the fields.  As the smoke from the cooking fires began to rise slowly the air was filled with the music of silver bells and a clear, sweet voice was heard singing,

“Glory! Glory! Glory!”

The people came out of their homes in surprise.  They looked at the beautiful sunset sky and heard the music and the sweet voice and said,

“Surely, it is Yannik the silent boy of the woods and it is the Heavens singing with him!”

In the morning the old priest went down to open the church just as he always did and was surprised to find Yannik lying across the threshold of the door.  Gently and tenderly he stooped to rouse him speaking quiet words so as not to alarm him. As he gently cradled the boy’s head, to his sorrow he realized the sweet radiant smile on his young face had frozen and that life had left the body of the child.

The Church of Fol Goët.

The villagers were full of sorrow at the loss of their treasure and on that spot built a new church.  They built it tall and they built it strong and they added delicate and beautiful touches to show their love for the Fairy Child –  the “the mad thing of the woods”  –and they called it the Church of Fol Goët.

For many years after mothers and fathers would bring their silent ones there to be blessed. They hoped that if they could but speak one word that it might be one that expressed the joy and happiness they found in their children and their children might find in the world and if nothing else came from their lips they might sing,

“Glory! Glory! Glory!”

© 26/02/2019 zteve t evans

References, Attributions and Further Reading

Copyright February 26th, 2019 zteve t evans

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The Arthurian Realm: The Quest for the Sangreal

The Sangreal

In Arthurian romance the mystical, magical quest of the Sangreal is a popular story that has its roots in medieval times, though its seeds may be from much earlier.  It uses allegories to blend together pagan motifs, Christian tradition and political and social concerns of the day into a story of spiritual evolution for the main protagonists who must remain true to the quest.  The Sangreal is another name for the Holy Grail which eventually became conflated with the Holy Chalice.  There are several other versions of its name and in different stories it has appeared in different forms such as stone or wood, or as a cup or dish. The earliest of these romances was Le Conte du Graal by Chrétien de Troyes who died before it was finished but was added to later by other poets.  Other authors also created versions of the story such as Le Roman du Graal, Joseph d’Arimathe, Merlin, and Perceval by Robert de Boron, the Vulgate Cycle, whose authorship is disputed and Parzival, by Wolfram von Eschenbach.  Later, Sir Thomas Malory wrote Le Morte D’Arthur, blending together Arthurian and grail tradition, and it is from this that the greatly summarised version of the tale below draws the most.

Origin of the Sangreal

In this allegorical story set in the time of King Arthur, the Sangreal was the cup that Jesus Christ drank from at the last supper, and the Sacred Spear was the one Longinus, the Roman soldier, used to pierce his side during his crucifixion.  Joseph of Arimathea brought them to Britain and his descendants, the Grail Kings of Castle Corbenic were granted guardianship on condition that each guardian lived a life of purity in deed and thought, dedicated to Jesus Christ.  For many ages, the Sangreal remained a visible, tangible object — alongside the Sacred Spear — that pilgrims came from far and wide to pray before.

Over time, one of its guardians allowed the moral standards that behoved his role to slip, and sought forbidden love. The Sacred Spear punished his weakness, inflicting a wound to his groin that could not be healed, leaving the king maimed and kept alive only by the power of the Sangreal; after this, the Sangreal and Sacred Spear were hidden from the people’s eyes.  In those days the fertility of the land was linked to that of the king, and his realm became a barren wasteland until the time came when he would be healed by the purest knight in the world.

Merlin’s Message

At Camelot, Merlin had not been seen for some time and, worried at his absence, King Arthur sent out knights to find him.  Sir Gawain went out searching, and while travelling through the forest of Brocéliande he heard the sound of someone groaning. Following the sound, he found a column of dense mist that he could not penetrate.  From the mist came the voice of Merlin who revealed that his mistress, Viviane — the Lady of the Lake — had imprisoned him there for all time.  He instructed Gawain to return to King Arthur and tell him of his plight. Yet, emphasizing that nothing could be done to save him, he gave an important message to relay:

“Tell Arthur a great event is now unfolding. The knight is born and ready to begin and accomplish this task for the good of the land and its people.  Now is the time of the quest of the Sangreal.”

Gawain quickly returned and delivered the message to King Arthur, who grieved for his old friend as he turned over the message in his mind.

Pentecost at Camelot

It was the custom of King Arthur to celebrate the feast of Pentecost with all his knights around the Round Table.  Each of the knights had their own seat at the Round Table with their name inscribed upon it, and there was one vacant seat known as the Siege Perilous. As the feast was about to begin a squire brought news that in a nearby river there was a red slab of marble that floated on the water.  King Arthur led his knights to the river to investigate. Fixed firmly within this slab, as if it had been driven in, was a sword upon which was inscribed the following words,

“Never shall I be drawn forth except by he who is the perfect knight and at his side, I will hang.”

Sir Gawain tried to draw the sword but failed, as did Sir Percival and many others, but none could free it.

The Quest of the Sangreal

Having investigated, they returned to the Round Table to eat. While they were eating the windows and doors all suddenly slammed shut.  The candles flickered, went out and then came back on again, and stood before them appeared a very old holy man accompanied by Galahad, the son of Sir Lancelot.  The holy man led Galahad to the Siege Perilous and seated him there.  They watched in awe as the lettering on the seat changed magically to read, Galahad.   King Arthur led Sir Galahad to the floating slab of marble and he easily withdrew the sword to the wonder of all.

Arthur and his knights returned to their feasting and again, the candles suddenly dimmed and there was a peal of thunder.  A ray of light shone down and in the middle of the Round Table there appeared the glowing Sangreal veiled in white silk. Inspired by this miraculous event, Sir Gawain declared he would not rest, day or night, for one year and a day, until he saw the Sangreal fully unveiled.  Arthur remembered the message of Merlin and was full of disquiet.  He knew the others would follow his example and realized there was every chance some would die on that quest, or not return.  In the early days of summer, as one hundred and fifty knights rode from Camelot on the quest of the Sangreal, King Arthur wept, knowing the world had changed forever.

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Himalayan Folktales: Kulloo, the Faithful Dog


Simla Village Tales

Alice Elizabeth Dracott writing in her Introduction to her book,  Simla Village Tales, or Folk Tales from the Himalayas (1906) says,

“Himalayan folk-lore, with its beauty, wit, and mysticism, is a most fascinating study, and makes one grieve to think that the day is fast approaching when the honest rugged hill-folk of Northern India will lose their fireside tales under the influence of modern civilisation.  ….

… From their cradle under the shade of ancient deodars, beside the rocks, forests and streams of the mighty Himalayan mountains, have I sought these tales to place them upon the great Bookshelf of the World.”

The similar sentiments can expressed for the folklore of indigenous people all around the world. Although we cannot hold back time and should not try these stories hold the collective wisdom, hopes, fears and experience built up over many generations, often showing the common traits of different people from all around the world through time.

Presented here is a retelling of a folktale from this collection called Kulloo, A Faithful Dog, helping out his human master.  The theme of Animal Helper appears in different forms in folktales all around the world.  In this case the dog remains faithful even though his master killed him and returns from death to save his life.  There are other themes and principles also at play in the story which are found in stories from other cultures showing that they have much more in common with one another than often meets the eye.

Kulloo, the Faithful Dog

In the part of the world where this story is set a Bunniah is a kind of merchant or trader of various commodities and in this story there was a Bunniah who had a faithful dog named Kulloo who was his best friend.  One day the Bunniah decided he needed a wife and so he married a woman. Together, they traveled to a faraway city taking Kulloo with them. On the way he developed a raging headache so he stopped by the side of the road with his head resting in his wife’s lap.  While he was resting in this way he fell asleep and while he was sleeping a man who passed by on his horse stopped and asked the Bunniah’s wife if she had the means to light his pipe because he fancied a smoke. She told him “I cannot give you a light for your pipe as my husband is resting his head in my lap and I cannot move without disturbing him in his sleep.”

The man was in fact a robber who stole anything he took a fancy to and made a lot of money from stealing many things from many people.

“Slip some clothes under his head and he will not notice,” replied the man.  The woman did this and her husband continued to sleep soundly while she lit the man’s pipe.  Suddenly he grabbed hold of her and throwing her across his horse leapt into the saddle and carried her off.  

Abduction

After a while the Bunniah awoke and found his wife gone but his dog patiently and faithfully waiting by his side for him to awaken.   The dog told his master what had happened and said, “Master, if we become beggars we can go from door to door without suspicion begging for food while seeking out your wife.”

The Bunniah thought this a good plan so dressing in old clothes he and his faithful dog went begging from door to door.  After many days of begging the Bunniah eventually knocked on the door of the home of the abductor of his wife and it was she who answered the door.  She did not recognize her husband or the dog but gave them food and money. However, Kulloo recognised her and later asked his master if he had not recognized his wife when she opened the door.   His master admitted that he had not so and Kulloo led his master back to the house.

Once again the Bunniah knocked on the door and his wife opened it.  This time he made himself known to her and she recognising him and invited him in but she was in a quandary.  Her abductor had forced her to marry him but had given her a very high standard of living. This was, far greater than her first husband could ever have given her  which she had now become accustomed to. Nevertheless, she made a great act of seeing her first husband again and invited him to dinner that evening, telling him that when her abductor had fallen asleep then he would have the chance to kill him and escape with her.

The Trap

The Bunniah agreed and he and Kulloo went off intending to return later for dinner and to complete the plan.  However, when they had gone she called her abductor to her and they made a plan to kill her first husband and be rid of him once and for all.  They made a deep hole in the floor and placed a cover over it that would eventually collapse when weight would was placed upon it. She made sure everything was arranged it so her first husband would be seated over it as he ate.  

They installed spikes into the walls and floor so that as he fell he would be impaled and killed.   When the Bunniah returned for dinner their plan worked perfectly and he fell into the hole as he was eating.  His wife and her abductor went off to bed laughing believing him to be dead.   Although he was impaled on the spikes he was not mortally wounded but would have died had not his faithful Kulloo came and pulled out the pikes with his teeth freeing him and helping him to safety.   Looking around the Bunniah saw the abductor was asleep so he hit him hard over the head killing him and made his escape taking his wife with him.

There was a lot of blood and Kulloo saw that his master left a trail for others to follow so he came along behind lapping up the blood to prevent this.  Kulloo, being a wise dog, knew that his master’s wife was a wicked woman and would never rest until she had gained revenge.

Death of Kulloo

The Bunniah reclaimed his wife but she told him she would not eat or drink until Kullo was dead.  Of course the Bunniah refused to kill his faithful dog but his wife was adamant and began wasting away from lack of food.  The Bunniah implored her to eat but she insisted she would only do so when Kulloo was dead.  As she grew weaker her insistence grew stronger and eventually the Bunniah agreed to kill his faithful dog.

Poor Kulloo, knowing he was to be killed begged his master to make sure he buried him properly making sure his head, which was to be cut off, was buried beside him, because there would come a time when he would return to save his master’s life.  This the Bunniah did and his wife now ate and drank her fill but she was not satisfied and still wanted vengeance on her husband.

Return of Kulloo

She went to the local court and accused the Bunniah of being a robber and a murderer and claimed he had killed her husband and abducted her.  The sentence for such crimes was death and the Bunniah was put on trial and found guilty. Just as the judge was about to sentence him to death the Bunniah thought of his faithful Kulloo and in that second the dog appeared at his side and begged to speak to the judge.   The judge agreed and Kulloo revealed the entire story of how the Bunniah’s wife had been abducted and how she had plotted with her abductor to kill him.  The judge believed Kulloo and dismissed the charges against his master setting him free. Thus it was for the second time that the faithful Kulloo had saved the life of his master but now having completed his task he disappeared never to be seen again.

© 12/07/2016 zteve t evans

References, Attributions and Further Reading

Copyright zteve t evans

German Folktales: Paracelsus and the Spirit in the Fir Tree

Public domain, via Wikimedia Common

Paracelsus was an influential physician, astrologer and alchemist of the German Renaissance.  His real name was Theophrastus Aureolus Bombastus von Hohenheim and he was born in 1493. He was was a medical pioneer of his time and credited with many notable achievements and has  been called the father of toxicology.  The medical movement called Paracelsianism was named after him and followed his ideas.  Presented here is a retelling of a legend called The Legend of Paracelsus from a collection of German folktales called Folk-lore and Legends: German by Anonymous.

The Legend of Paracelsus

Paracelsus was a deep and thoughtful man and wanted to find ways to help people by curing their illness and disease but rarely had sufficient funds for research.  Sometimes he took himself away for long walks to contemplate how he could do this.  One day as he was out walking in a part of the forest where few ever roamed he heard someone calling his name.  Surprised and a little baffled he looked around but could see no one in view. Nevertheless, he could still hear someone calling his name so he followed the sound until he came to an old fir-tree but could see no sign of anyone there. Bewildered he looked all around and walked around the trunk but could see no one but could still hear someone calling his name.  Examining the trunk of the fir tree he saw that deeply embedded within the wood was a small stopper that had three crosses etched into it. It was from here that the voice appeared to be coming from. On closer examination he realized the stopper was imprisoning a spirit in the trunk of the fir tree.

The Spirit in the Tree

The spirit now begged and pleaded with him to remove the stopper and set it free, but Paracelsus was wary.  He thought about this for a while and then said,

“If you will bestow on me a medicine that will cure all illness and disease and also a tincture that will turn everything it touches to gold to fund my research, then I will remove the stopper and set you free.”

The spirit readily agreed and so Paracelsus took out a small knife he always carried and after some trouble managed to pry out the stopper and put it in his pocket for safe keeping.  From out of the dark void that the stopper had filled their crept a most hideous and huge black spider that scuttled down the trunk of the tree to the ground.  As soon as it touched the ground it transformed into the ghastly, thin,  hideous old man who rose up to stand tall, squinting with his red eyes into the surprised eyes of Paracelsus.

The old man led him through the forest breaking a branch off a hazel tree as they went and leading Paracelsus to a high rocky ledge that overlooked vast swathes of the forest.  With the hazel branch he struck the rock wall three times and it opened with a groan. The old man bid Paracelsus to wait and disappeared inside the opening. After a short time he returned carry two small glass phials. One contained a yellow fluid which he handed to Paracelsus telling him that anything the fluid came into contact with would instantly turn to gold.  The second contained a white fluid which he gave to him and told him that this would cure all illness and disease. He then stuck the rock face three times and the opening closed up leaving no trace of the opening it concealed.

The Evil Spirit

As they walked back through the forest Paracelsus began to think about the spirit growing increasingly uneasy in its company.   It told him that it would now travel to Innsprück to wreak vengeance upon the sorcerer who had imprisoned him in the fir tree.  Paracelsus now realized the spirit was evil and feared for the magician and the world for having released it and thought about how he could set things to right.  When they arrived back at the fir tree he said to the spirit,

“Clearly you are a most gifted and magical being!  I wonder if you would mind making a show of your magical gifts by turning yourself back into a spider and crawling into that hole in the tree’s trunk again, purely as an exhibition of your cleverness and magic?”

The spirit was still very pleased at being released and loved to be flattered and therefore readily agreed.  In and instant it had transformed itself into a hideous black spider and scuttled up the tree trunk into the hole. Paracelsus quickly took the stopper out of his pocket and rammed it tightly into the hole trapping the spirit in the tree again.  Quickly finding a heavy stone he hammered the stopper into the wood as tight as possible and then taking his knife cut three fresh crosses into the stopper.

Tricked

Suddenly realizing it had been tricked the spirit screamed and wailed making a hideous noise and shook the tree as if it was in the grip of a hurricane but the stopper held firm. Paracelsus made his way home knowing that the evil spirit would remain safely incarcerated in the fir tree which was high in the mountains and protected by snow drifts and very few people ever passed that way.  

The Two Phials

When he arrived home he tried out the two phials of fluid the evil one had given him and was pleased with their success. It is said that it was largely these that made him one of the most celebrated physicians and alchemists of his day.

© 05/02/2019 zteve t evans

References, Attributions and Further Reading

Copyright February 5, 2019 zteve t evans