Breton Folktales: The Fortune of Périk Skearn

Image by Judith Leyster [Public domain] – cropped

Presented here is a retelling of a Breton folktale called The Hazel Sceptre from Folk Tales of Brittany, a collection compiled by Elsie Masson [1929]

The Eve of Whitsuntide

Périk Skearn was not a family man having no wife and children.   Sure, he loved the ladies and regularly declared is undying love to  the one on his arm, but the one on his arm was a different one each day and he easily forgot them.   He was one of those bold young men who looked enviously on the rich and privileged as they arrived at church on their fine horses wearing their fine clothes.  He too longed to ride up to the church in stately fashion in a fancy coach and horses and would have loved to have dressed in the fine velvet jackets and silk shirts that the great and the good wore with a pretty lady by his side. He strongly believed that he deserved all these fine things and more and had been born to riches  but somehow someone had switched him into poverty. It rankled with him making him envious and arrogant in his erroneous belief and now he desperately hoped to restore the fortune he believed was his due. So why should the likes of Périk Skearn be alone on the the dunes of Efflam at midnight on the eve of Whitsuntide?

It was the eve of Whitsuntide and Périk Skearn stood alone just before midnight on the dunes of Efflam.  His eyes not looking seaward as one might expect instead staring intently at the huge cliff waiting for Saint Michael’s Church to toll the midnight hour. At such a time most good people are at home in bed safe and secure wrapped up in their loved ones with their children sleeping peacefully close by.

The Beggar of Yar

For all of these selfish reasons and many more he was on the dunes of Efflam impatiently awaiting the tolling of midnight by St Michael’s church bell tower. As he waited he dreamed of gold, fine clothes and beautiful ladies and all the other delights the chosen ones of society enjoyed and believed was his due.  He listened to the waves lapping the shore in the moonlight and let his imagination run riot while thinking about what the old Beggar of Yar had told him.

The Beggar of Yar was the greatest sage in all the land of Brittany renowned for his wisdom and ancient knowledge.  He knew the story of the land and its inhabitants – human and otherwise – from long before the time the first acorns grew into the great hoary oaks of Brittany.

Skearn had gone to see the beggar to ask him how he could get the fortune he believed he deserved.  The Beggar had told him that to get the fortune he deserved he must have a clear idea of what he valued and asked him to think of what that was.  As he thought hard, the Beggar had looked at him intently and told him,

“Under the dunes of St Efflam many, many years ago when Brittany was still young there had been a great city whose wondrous sailors sailed the seven seas trading with ports from many foreign countries and making the king of the town very, very, rich.   

The king had a scepter that was in fact a hazel wand which he used to change everything to be as he pleased.  He used it to make himself richer and more powerful but did nothing to help his poor, suffering, people.

Heaven looked down and saw the people were hungry and lived in poverty while the king languished in luxury and idleness doing nothing to alleviate the suffering of the people.  Three times a message was sent from Heaven warning the king to change his ways. Three times the king ignored it.

No other warning was given and Whitsuntide Eve came and a Divine Command was issued and slowly, surely, irresistibly the sea began to rise.  The people escaped but the king used his hazel wand at the stroke of midnight to make a sanctuary for himself, his followers and his treasure inside the great cliffs.  The treasure was so vast it could not be valued. The king had surrounded himself with beautiful maidens which were said to guard him and his greatest treasure the hazel wand which was placed safely in a special room.”

Skearn listened eagerly to what the old man said.  He cared nothing for the suffering of the people, but his heart was pounding and his head spinning at the thought of such treasure just lying there.  The Beggar continued,

The sea rose and drowned the town and then receded.  Where the town had stood was a great mass of sand that later became known as the dunes of St Efflam.  Every Whitsuntide Eve as the bell of the church of St Michael tolled the first strike of midnight the cliff opens up and a passage into the sanctuary of the king of the drowned city is revealed. Anyone wishing to enter the king’s sanctuary must be bold and he must be quick because on the last stroke of midnight the cliff closes until next Whitsuntide.  There is no other way out and it would be a foolish person indeed who dared to take such a chance of death even for the sake of such treasure.”

The Beggar paused and looked keenly at him and then said,

Périk Skearn, there in the cliffs that overlook the dunes of St Efflam and the sea is where the fortune you believe you deserve lies!

So spoke the Beggar of Yar. That is why Périk Skearn was pacing up and down impatiently on the dunes of Efflam awaiting the first stroke of midnight seeking the fortune the Beggar of Yar had told him he deserved.

The First Stroke of Midnight

As the first stroke of midnight sounded Skearn leapt into action.  The moonlight revealed the great cliff was opening and he now raced into the opening and down the passage it revealed.  Inside the cliff he found the passage was short and he stepped out into a colossal cavern lit by an eerie unknown light.  Inside the cavern was like a beautiful palace but he did not have time to stand in admiration and wonder he had to be quick.

The Third Stroke

Running through the palace door he came to a room that was heaped high with silver coins and items of tremendous value but he only gave a quick glance as he ran through.  Next he came to another room piled high with gold coins and artifacts of all kinds, but these were not his goal and ran into the next room.

In this room were thousands upon thousands of beautiful pearls  in finely wrought caskets. There were necklaces, brooches, rings and all kinds of items that incorporated pearls.  He did not stop to look but ran on into the next room.

The Seventh Stroke

This was filled with caskets of diamonds, emeralds, rubies and precious gem of all kinds.  He was sorely tempted but that was not his goal and he ran into the next room. He was counting the tolls of bell as he ran and he heard the seventh strike and knew he had to quickly reach the hazel scepter which was his main to save himself and ran into the next room.  

To his delight he saw the hazel scepter resting on the wall opposite  but standing before it were one hundred beautiful maidens. With the sceptre he could create anything he wanted.  He could have all the treasure and the beautiful maidens and it was almost within his grasp but he had to reach it!

The Tenth Stroke

Each held out one hand beckoning him while the other offered a gold goblet inviting him to drink a strange liquid that flashed and glittered in the weird light. He was stunned and stood motionless in wonder and the ninth stroke of midnight tolled and he did not hear it  He had resisted silver, gold, pearls and precious gems but now all he could do was stand in wonder and stare because each maiden seemed like his very heart’s desire.  He did not want one he wanted all. They all stood smiling and beckoning to him as he could not make up his mind and the tenth stroke of midnight fell but he did not hear it

The Twelfth Stroke

As the eleventh stroke of midnight fell the maidens closed ranks and prevented him moving towards the hazel scepter and Skearn turned and fled. At the twelfth stroke the maidens turned to stone and as the opening in the cliff crashed shut Périk Skearn stopped in his tracks motionless and with his last dying breath understood that this was the fortune he deserved.

© 10/04/2019 zteve t evans

References, Attributions and Further Reading

Copyright April 10th, 2019 zteve t evans


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