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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16 thoughts on “Breton Folktales: Yannik, the Mad Thing of the Woods

  1. Pingback: Via Under the influence! Breton Folktales: Yannik, the Mad Thing of the Woods – Fang & Saucer

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