Breton Folktales: The Grateful Dead and the Man of Honour

Breton folktales often have magical and supernatural elements interwoven with death and tragedy in the story line which creates a dark, sombre but compelling story.   Death is ever present in the world and there are many chilling tales of the evil or resentful dead but there are also some that tell of the grateful dead.  These are the dead who return from the afterlife to help a living person who helped them in some way after had they died. How can the living possibly help a person who is dead?   In answer to this question, presented here is a folktale from Brittany that is a retelling of a story collected by Lewis Spence (1) and tells how a living man was repaid for paying off the debts of a dead man as well as paying for his funeral to ensure he received a Christian burial.

The Man of Honour and the Grateful Dead

The story begins in a coastal town in Brittany with a maritime merchant who traded with many foreign ports so successfully that he built up a massive fortune.  This merchant had a son named Iouenn who also wanted to make his way in life in the same way his father had.   His father was delighted and set him up with a trading ship and filled it with all kinds of valuable merchandise from Brittany.  He gave his son plenty of good advice and Iouenn sailed off to foreign ports to trade and make his fortune and then return home with his profits.

The ship had a safe voyage and after many days sailing docked at a port where Iouenn intended to sell his goods.  He went ashore carrying letters of introduction from his father and very soon sold his merchandise at a good profit and found himself in possession of a large sum of money.  He decided to spend a few days in the port looking around and sightseeing and one day as he strolled through the narrow streets he came upon a pack of stray dog such as are often seen roaming the streets of many towns and cities unchained.  They appeared to be snarling and growling and biting and pulling on an object that was laid in the street.  Curious as to what they were doing he cautiously approached and was horrified to see they actually worrying at the corpse of a man.

This shocked Iouenn greatly and he went round making inquiries about the fate of the unfortunate person.  He was told that the man had died owing a great debt and as there was no money to pay for a good Christian funeral and burial the custom in those parts was that the corpse be thrown into the streets for the dogs and other beasts to scavenge.  Iouenn was shocked that such a terrible indignity could be inflicted upon the dead and after chasing the dogs away, out of the kindness of his heart he paid the debts and for a proper Christian burial.

The Black Ship

After this he resolved he would not stay in the port a day longer and bid his captain make the ship ready for voyage and sailed for home.   They had not sailed far when one of the sailors cried out the presence of a strange ship on the horizon heading their way and from it they hear a terrible wailing of many souls.  The ship was attired all in black and had a most sinister appearance prompting Iouenn to remark to his captain,

“This is a most curious vessel!  Why is all attired in black and why are those on board setting up such a wail.”

As the black ship approached Iouenn hailed it asking those on board what troubled them.

“Sir, we are charged with a most grim and unhappy task. There exists not far from this spot an island occupied by a gigantic serpent.  For seven years our people must have had to pay an annual tribute of a royal princess and her you find us in the process of transporting yet another poor victim to her doom!”

Iouenn was shocked and said,

“Where is the royal princess you speak of?”

And then a great wail went up from all aboard the black ship as the royal princess stepped on deck.  She was in a terrible way wringing her hands and sobbing uncontrollably.  Iouenn was struck by her beauty and his heart went out to her and he vowed he would never let her be sacrificed to the monstrous serpent.   He made discreet inquiries with the captain of the black ship and learned that if a sufficient bribe was offered then the captain would hand the princess over to him.   He gave over the last of the money he had made from his trading and the Princess was passed over to his ship and he sailed on home with her aboard.

He had a safe and uneventful voyage home and his father was delighted to welcome him home.  That delight turned to anger when Iouenn told him of how he had spent the money he had made from trading the merchandise his father had given him.  His father refused to believe that the lady who he had brought back with him was in any way a royal princess and told him he was fool spending money on a dead man’s debts and banished him from his home.

Iouenn Weds the Princess

Many angry and bitter words were exchanged between the two, but nevertheless, Iouenn left his family home and married the Princess.  She presented her husband with a fine gold chain and cross to wear around his neck as a wedding present and together they set up a small humble home and were very happy together.    As time passed the couple were blessed with a son and then Iouenn had a stroke of luck.  One of his uncles who was also a merchant trader doing business overseas asked him to take charge of cargo ship full of valuable merchandise he wanted to trade in the eastern lands.  Iouenn was glad for the opportunity to increase his family’s fortunes and readily accepted.   Soon the ship was ready and he embarked on the voyage in fair weather and high hopes taking with him a small portrait of his wife and their son which he kept on a shelf in his cabin.

Iouenn and the King

The winds were favourable and soon his ship reached the city of his wife’s birth and where her father still ruled and had grown very old.   As is the custom in many ports the harbourmaster came aboard to check the ship and its cargo.  While on board he noticed the portrait of Iouenn’s wife and recognized her immediately as the Princess of the city and daughter of its present ruler.   Completing his business on board he went straight to the King to tell him what he had seen.  On hearing this news the King went immediately to the harbour and boarded the ship demanding of Iouenn knowledge of his daughter. Iouenn not knowing who his daughter was could not tell him anything.   The king flew into a rage and ordered that he be flung in jail and the ship be burnt and the cargo seized and impounded

While languishing miserably in prison Iouenn made friends with the jailor and told him the story of how he had met his wife.  On hearing this, the jailor went to the King and told him the story. The King was overjoyed to hear his daughter still lived and after seeking a pledge from Iouenn to bring his daughter home he ordered that a new ship be commissioned and fitted out for the voyage back to Iouenn’s home port and that he would return again with his daughter.  As a precaution the King sent two of his ministers to accompany Iouenn should he decide to renege on the agreement.   The ship sailed in a fair wind making good progress across the sea and soon made Iouenn’s home port and docked.

The Evil Minister

Iouenn took the two ministers to see his wife and their son who were safe and well and explain to them what had happened.  Now the Princess was familiar with one of the ministers for he had loved her and sought her hand in marriage of old.  She knew the devious and evil nature of his character and fearing he plotted some act of treachery she asked her husband to remain at her side during the voyage.  However, Iouenn loved to be on the bridge with the captain watching and learning of the operation of the ship.

One starry evening he stopped to lean against the side of the vessel and gaze in wonder at the night sky.   Lost in thought he did not hear the stealthy approach of the evil minister who grasping his two legs quickly flung him overboard into the foamy sea. Deliberately waiting a few minutes the devious minister then let out a cry of

“Man over Board!”

The captain ordered the ship to sail back looking for Iouenn but the clouds now covered what starlight there was and nought could be seen in the black of the night and the victim was not found.   The Princess now convinced her husband had perished was distraught and stayed in her cabin wailing and grieving.  It so happened that despite the shock of finding himself submerged in the cold water Iouenn quickly gathered his wits and began swimming and luckily he was a strong and excellent swimmer.  Despite having no idea which way to go he kept calm and decided to strike out in one direction and hope for the best.

Having given up all hope of finding Iouenn the ship turned around and the captain set course for the port of the Princess’s father.  When the ship finally sailed into the harbour there was great joy and festivities at the return of the Princess.  Her father was so pleased to have her back he readily gave his consent for her marriage to the treacherous minister who he credited fully for her return.  However, the Princess was still devastated by the loss of her husband and kept finding excuses to keep putting the wedding off.  Deep inside her some vague  flicker of hope remained and she remembered her husband’s body had never been found.

Marooned

Indeed, her husband with little other choice had struck out swimming in one direction and just as his strength was failing had come across a single small bare island of rock which he scrambled upon.  The only shelter on this barren place was a small niche in the rock which he could squeeze into in times of bad weather which were frequent.  For the next three years marooned on the island he lived on shellfish and the  occasional fish the sea would throw into one of the rock pools, which he would gladly consume raw.

During those three years his beard and hair had grown long and matted and all of his clothes had rotted from his body leaving him naked, cold and wildly unkempt and he roamed round and round his tiny kingdom like some wild and strange mad man.   All that remained of his past life was the gold cross and chain he wore around his neck.

One lonely night as he sat in his rocky niche eating a meager supper of shellfish when he was startled to hear the eeriest sound he had ever heard in his life that cut through the silence like a knife.  Crouching low and peering out over the ocean he heard the terrible sound again and then his blood ran cold as he realized there were words in that unearthly wailing and it was calling his name.  Surely no human could have uttered such ghastly words but he found himself listening to the weird voice in horror.

The Corpse

‘Iouenn! Iouenn! Iouenn! Cold, cold, cold!”

wailed the voice again and again,

“So cold!”

before dying out in a horrible groan and starting up again.  This continued through the night to die out just before dawn.

The next night the same terrible voice was heard again and although he was no coward he dare not show himself or answer the voice.  The third night as the voice began its wailing he determined he would do something so stepping from his hideout he cried out,

 “Who is it that disturbs my peace? Show yourself!”

From out of the sea and across the rocky shore a hideously naked man came crawling wailing his ghastly cry,

“Cold, cold cold, so cold,”

the ghastly man wailed and fixed Iouenn with a glassy stare.

‘In God’s name who are you?”

cried Iouenn

The man let out a ghastly laugh,

“So you do not remember me, but I remember you too well, Iouenn.  I am the wretch you drove the dogs from and so kindly gave a Christian burial to.  You paid my debts and saved me and now I come to save you.  Do you wish to leave this rock?”

rasped the man as blood and poison oozed from wounds on his body.

“That I do as God is my witness!”

replied Iouenn.

“Then you need to know that against her will your wife is to marry the minister who threw you overboard.  If you are quick you can stop this and I will help if you promise to give to me a share of all that belongs to you and your wife.  This must be handed over within a year and a day.  If you accept now I will carry you to the King’s palace in time to stop the wedding.  Do you accept?”

Iouenn agreed immediately and the living corpse told him to climb upon his back, which he did.  Immediately it ran into the sea and began swimming at great speed with him on its back.  Very soon they reached the port where his wife’s father had his palace and the corpse set him on shore.  The corpse looked at him through glassy eyes and said,

“One year and one day!”

and plunged back into the sea and was gone.

Iouenn at the Gates

Such was the terrible state of neglect endured by Iouenn during his lonely stay on the island he was now in an unrecognisable state and looked barely human.  In the morning when the King’s gatekeeper opened the palace gate he was shocked to find something that resembled a wild animal crouching forlornly outside begging for help.

Calling the palace servants to see what he had found they threw him scraps and crusts of bread which he ate ravenously.  One of the ladies-in-waiting was passing by and seeing the strange wild looking thing that Iouenn had become she went to the Princess and told her of the wild man at the gates.   The Princess with her curiosity aroused went down to see for herself.  On seeing the wild thing before her she immediately saw the gold cross and chain around his neck and recognized it as the wedding present she had given Iouenn and knew him to be her husband.  Iouenn and his wife embraced with great joy and she led him into the palace and fed him and bathed and clothed him in fine clothes.

The Lost Key

This being the morning that the Princess was due to marry the evil minister great preparations had been made for the much awaited event.  The Princess went down to the assembled company to speak to them and asked them for advice.  She asked whether it would be better to look for an old key which had been lost which fitted a the lock to her treasure chest or instead make use of a new key which was available but did not fit.  Of course the treasure chest was her heart and the keys were her husband and the evil minister.

Unanimously they agreed that it was better to search for the key that fitted.  With that she introduced her husband who stepped forward now arrayed in fine clean clothes saying,

“Here is the key I lost and I have found!”

The evil minister trembled and turned pale as a sheet but the King, her father thumped the table in rage and cried,

“Build a fire for this vagabond and cast him upon it!”

The Princes and Iouenn were shocked and dismayed and all present stared in shock as they thought he meant Iouenn, but the King stood and pointed to the evil minister whose guilt had been revealed by the Princess.  As the company stood and applauded the King’s command his guards rushed to obey and the evil minister was led off the fire.

The Grateful Dead

So it was that Iouenn lived with the Princess in the palace in joy and happiness.  There was one event that spoiled this and that was the death of their young son.  However, their grief was quickly assuaged with the birth of a second baby boy and once again they were happy.   In his happiness Iouenn had completely forgotten about his time on the island and the debt he owed to the dead man who had saved him.   Then one grey November evening while he and his small family were sat happily around the fire together they were disturbed by three loud knocks struck upon the door.  Upon the third the door flew open and in strode the awful form of the living corpse that had saved Iouenn from the island.  It stood before Iouenn with dead glassy eyes and in a rasping voice said,

“Iouenn, do you remember our pact?  I have come for payment!”

Iouenn, although trembling and in shock remembered the pact he had made with the living corpse and asked his wife to bring him the keys to their treasure chest so that he may pay his dues.  As she handed the keys over the dead one sneered and waved her away in disgust.

“It is not your treasure I have come for, Iouenn it is this!”

he rasped pointing at the baby boy in his cradle  sleeping sweetly.

“Not my baby! You cannot have him!”

cried the Princess.

“Are you a man of honor, Iouenn?  A man of honor pays his debts.  Remember your promise on the island, remember your debt!”

“Yes, it is true I promised but remember how I saved you from the dogs!”

cried Iouenn.

“All I ask is what I am owed, and I am not asking for all the infant, just a share!”

“Have you no heart, wretched thing?  As honor with me is above all things I will grant your wish!”

and he undressed the infant and laid him naked and helpless upon the table as the dead thing directed.

“Now with your sword cut off the portion you believe is my due,”

rasped the corpse

“Wretch, it would have been better to have been left to perish alone on the island than endure this!”

He raised the sword to strike and was about to bring it down when the corpse raised its hand and stepped forward commanding him to stop.

“Stop, do the child no harm!  I can see clearly that you are a man of honour and have not forgotten your promise.  Neither have I forgotten you saved me from the dogs and paid for me to have a Christian burial.   Through you I now live in Paradise only because you paid for me my debts out of the goodness of your heart which allowed me to a proper burial.  Clearly you would honour your promise but in gratitude for the service you gave me I say that we are even and the debt is paid.  Now, I say goodbye until we meet again in heaven!” and with that the corpse walked out of the door and was gone.

From then on Iouenn and his wife and son lived very happily and when the old King died and because of the respect the people had for him as a man of honour he was made King.  So it was that Iouenn’s act of kindness which allowed the soul of a person he had not known to enter Heaven was repaid to him in his lifetime by the grateful dead themselves.

© 02/08/2017 zteve t evans

References, Attributions and Further Information

Copyright August 2th, 2017 zteve t evans

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Bisclavret The Werewolf And The Beastliness of People

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Bisclavret (The Werewolf), is a Breton lai, by a medieval female writer and poet known as Marie de France.  It is one of twelve narrative poems known as The lais of Marie de France. Many of the lais were derived from Breton folklore and legends with Celtic influences and elements of the supernatural all interwoven together. She claimed the lais were based on ballads she had heard from troubadours and minstrels.

In the poem translated Judith P. Shoaf, Marie explains that  Garwalf is the Norman  name for a werewolf and Bisclavret, the Breton name.  However, Bisclavret, although still a werewolf, is significantly different from the Garwolf, displaying more restrained and disciplined behavior than the wild savagery  usually associated with such beasts. (1)

Marie’s lais tell stories that move in and out of the supernatural and real world exploring complex emotions and morals that wreak havoc in the human condition.  The lai of Bisclavret tells of a shape-shifting baron whose perfect world is marred by what he deems to be a terrible and shameful affliction.  To hide his shame and in a sense to protect his own humanity from the perceptions of others, he keeps this a secret. This work presents a discussion of what it means to be human and then provides a version of the story concluding with a discussion on the humanity and “beastliness” shown by the main characters.

Human or Beast?

The shifting of human to beast amid the dark, tangled forest explores some of our primal fears, challenging our concept of humanity.  Is it just the clothing we wear and the adornments, the accessories, and jewelry and the paraphernalia that we think give us status and make us attractive and carry with us that make us human?  Or is it our behavior, our manners, the way we conduct ourselves and the way we treat and think of other people that make us human or worthy of love, respect, and acceptance?

Marie de France lived in medieval times in medieval society with medieval culture and philosophy. Her lais utilize legends and folklore  of her time skilfully woven into narrative poems that tell stories that explore and challenge our understanding of the human condition and reflect the ethos of her times.  But that world of Marie has passed and we now live in the modern world with all its trappings, culture, and philosophy.  What can we make of Bisclavret (The Werewolf) by Marie de France today?

The Story of Bisclavret

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There was once a most honorable and cultured baron who lived in Brittany many, many, years ago.  He was a great favorite of the king and was great friends with all the other barons and lords of the land and they all held him in high esteem.  He had a most beautiful wife who he loved dearly and she also loved him dearly.  All, in all he would seem to be living a perfectly happy and fulfilling life but unbeknown to anyone else he had a most terrible secret.

Although she was very happy with her husband and her marriage his wife had one small concern about him that she did not understand and it worried her greatly.  For three days in every single week, he would leave home and disappear completely from the household and no one knew his whereabouts or what he was doing.  To begin with, she just accepted it as being part of their life together thinking he must have important business somewhere else, after all, he was  baron with land and responsibilities.  As time passed these absences began to worry her greatly thinking maybe he was seeing another woman.  At last, she decided she must ask him where he went to and what he did.

One day after he had returned from one such outing she decided she could bear it no longer and confronted him.  “I have something that is preying on my and I need to ask you something but I do not want to make you angry.  It is for this that I am reluctant to ask,” she said.  He looked at her lovingly and took her in his arms kissing her tenderly.   “Make any request of me that you desire and surely if it is in my power to grant then I will grant it. How could I ever be angry with you?”

“I ask that you place your trust in my love for you and  I beg you to tell me where it is you go  during the days you spend away from me.  I fear there is some trouble you are in and my mind is taken up with worrying about you when you are gone!  Have you another woman you are seeing? Please, please tell me where you go and what you do – I cannot bear it when you are gone for so long, please will you not tell me?”  She looked at him with imploring eyes as tears ran down her cheeks.

He was shocked and pushed his wife away from him.  “For the love of God do not ask of me to reveal this to you. It is a burden I alone must bear and no one can help me.  No good can come of me telling you this it would only cause evil and destroy your love for me bringing eternal damnation and sorrow to me. Do not ask what you do not understand!”

“ It is a cruel joke – do not joke with me I mean what I say in all seriousness. Unless I know where you go and what you do I can never again have peace of mind until I know!” she cried.

He was greatly discomforted by this and was torn between keeping the secret from her or revealing all.  He decided he could not tell her and that she would just have to be satisfied with that. His good wife, however, was a determined woman and did not give in easily. Every time he returned from one of his absences she would approach him with tears in her eyes and beg he tell her where he had been.  Again and again, she begged of him to lay his trust in her love for him and tell her.  At last one day, he returned home and she was waiting for him and again begged him, “My husband please tell me where you have been, please trust my love for you.  Surely you are seeing another woman!”

This time the baron worn down by her persistence and thinking that he could indeed trust her love told her to sit down and prepare herself for a great shock and looked into her eyes and said,“The reason I have to be away for three days every week is because I have to go deep into the forest where nobody goes.  I take my clothes and off run naked.  I kill and eat wild animals and plants and go like a beast in the woods where no one can find me.  I am Bisclavret!”

And as she looked into his dark eyes she saw herself reflected in his eyes and as she listened his good wife turned white with horror and shock as he spoke and sat staring aghast at him.  She would have preferred him to tell her he had taken a lover than this for she knew as all Bretons knew that Bisclavret was the werewolf.  Eventually, she recovered herself and became determined to learn the full truth no matter how terrible about his fearful transformation.

“My husband I know I cannot conceal from you the shock and horror I feel but you know I have never done anything to hurt you and never done anything to make you lose your love and trust in me.  Therefore, I implore you to tell me everything there is to know.  Where do you keep your human raiment when you transform into a werewolf?”

“Do not ask! Do not ask this question!  I can never reveal the place I hide my raiment!  If I am seen taking it off, or if I lose it I must forever remain Bisclavret!  Never could I ever become a man again until it is returned – never! Please do not ask this of me!” he replied shaking and turning white.

His wife hung her head and turned away distraught, “So you do not love me or trust me enough to tell me this secret.  I am your loving wife and what have I ever done to earn such distrust? You no longer trust me, no longer love me?” she cried. “Alas, alas that I have forfeited your confidence! Oh, that I should live to see such a day!” and she fell to weeping bitterly.  The baron looked at his weeping wife with love in his eyes and began to feel ashamed at what he had said.

At last, to ease his wife’s misery, he sat his her down beside him and told her everything. She sat and listened quietly and intently but avoiding his eyes as he revealed the full horror of transformation he went through and the secret place he hid his raiment.  When he had finished he turned and left her but as he was leaving he could not see the fearful look in her eyes as he departed.  Now he had told her his terrible secret his wife’s love for him had died.  She was now terrified of him and began to think of a way to release herself from this cursed husband.  The terrifying thought struck her that he might transform one night while they lay together and as well as fearful she was also revolted at the thought of lying with such a strange unnatural man or was he a beast?

At length, as she pondered about how she had come to this terrible situation she remembered a handsome Knight from her past who had once been her suitor.  He had pleaded for her hand in marriage telling her he loved her more than anything and would do anything to please her.  She had rejected him to marry the baron and he had been heartbroken.

So she went to him and apologized for her past rejection and promised him faithfully if he would help her she would give him her body and soul.  She looked deep into his eyes and told him all about her husband and his terrifying affliction and begged his help.  Realising he still wanted her as he looked into her eyes he readily agreed to help her. That night she gave him her body.  The next day she took him and showed him where Bisclavret hid his raiment when the transformation took him and begged him to steal it and bring it to her.

And so the day came when the baron went off into the forest alone to endure his lonely transformation as he usually did but this time he never returned. His wife, putting on an act of concern, called on their friends and neighbors asking if they had seen him or knew of his whereabout but none did.  Search parties were sent out but no trace of the baron could they find.  They searched for a year and a day and then finding no trace of him abandoned the search.  The lady went into mourning and after an appropriate period married the knight.

And the wheel turned, months passed and the King happened to be hunting in the forest not too far from the lost baron’s castle.  His hounds picked up a strong scent and began baying and yelping and so the King ordered that they should be unleashed.  They sprang upon the trail and were soon locked in a crazed pursuit of some wild beast.  The King or his huntsmen had no idea of the manner of beast his dogs were in pursuit of but followed on behind for many hours.  Eventually, the dogs cornered their quarry and were about to tear it to pieces when a very strange thing happened.

The exhausted beast turned to face the baying, snarling, pack and seeing the King ran to his horse and knelt before it clasping his great paws in supplication and prayer. He looked with pleading eyes into those of the King and its great maw moved as if struggling to speak but no words came out.  The King was astounded.  As he saw the beast in supplication before him and looked into its dark eyes his heart was touched for there was something familiar about the beast and yet unfamiliar and the sight of it making  such a human gesture made him curious.

“Huntsmen, leash your dogs!” he cried, “for this is a beast I have never seen the like of before and will not kill such a wondrous thing.  We will take it back to the palace alive and learn about it!”

So the dogs were leashed and the King and his party returned to the palace with the forest beast following tamely behind the King.

When they returned to the Court the beast was a source of fascination for one and all.  It was friendly and playful and had the most gentle and benign nature.  It followed the King everywhere he went and was like a great friendly playful dog with him.  The King for his part grew to love the beast and would not be parted with it and it would sleep in the King’s chamber at the foot of his bed. A more remarkable beast the Court had never seen or heard of.

The beast turns

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The day came when the King held a great feast and all of his liege lords from all of his dominions attended and among them came the knight who was now the husband of Bisclavret’s former wife.  As soon as he saw his wife’s husband Bisclavret turned from a gentle docile creature into a raging beast and launched a savage attack on him. Fortunately for the knight, the King intervened and ordered Bisclavret to stop.  Reluctantly he obeyed ending the attack and ran behind the King.

Bisclavret made two further attempts that evening to attack the knight requiring the King’s intervention on both occasions.  The King and all the of his courtiers were shocked and puzzled at Bisclavret’s behavior as had only ever seen him like a big playful, friendly dog.   Nobody could understand the sudden change and some assumed that the knight had done something that had threatened Bisclavret but none knew or could say what.  Things calmed down and the evening wore on and the Knight was the first to leave the feast.

Some time later the King went hunting again in the same part of the forest where he had first encountered Bisclavret, taking him with him as he had grown exceedingly fond of the strange creature.  As the evening drew in the King decided they would stay at one of his hunting lodges nearby for the night.   Hearing of the King’s presence not far from her home Bisclavret’s former wife decided she would take a present for the King.

When she was shown into the King’s chamber immediately he saw her Bisclavret changed  from a gentle docile creature into a savage beast.  Leaping upon her he bit her nose off completely mutilating her beautiful face permanently.    If the King and his servants had not intervened he would undoubtedly have torn her to pieces.

Although the King loved Bisclavret and did not understand the change in him he could not allow such savagery to  continue and would have had him put to death. Fortunately one of his wise councilors spoke up, “Wait for surely  something in the past has happened to it that has caused it to react in such a savage manner.  Why is it that the very sight of  these two – this husband and his wife – has caused this usual affectionate and gentle creature to become a raging, savage beast?   Let these two be  brought before you to explain why should it bear them such hatred.  The woman was once the wife of one of your best and loyal barons.  Someone you were greatly fond of who has not been seen, seeming to have disappeared from the face of the earth.  Have them brought before you that you may question them of their knowledge of this matter honestly.”

The King listened to his counselor and thought about what he said.  He could not understand why the creature should have reacted so savagely and he was genuinely very fond of it and did not want it killed unjustly.  “Bring them to me and I will question them as you suggest and we will see what they have to say.”

So the two were brought before him and he questioned them long and hard and they continuously denied any knowledge of a reason why the creature should attack them.   But the King was no fool and as he continued to probe them with questions he could see they were holding something back.  Nevertheless, he persisted determined to get to the truth and at last the woman confessed.

She told the King about her first husband who became Bisclavret and how she had become terrified  and revolted by the thought of him possibly transforming while he lay with her.  Then she told him how she had persuaded Bisclavret  to reveal the secret place where he hid his human raiment when the transformation took him. She confessed she had approached her former suitor to beg his help in stealing the raiment so that he could never again return to human form while she had them and told them that the reward for his help was his marriage to her.   Tearfully she told the King that this Bisclavret was certainly her former husband the baron who had been his great friend.

At last, the King understood and now demanded she provides the raiment that had been stolen and be returned that Bisclavret may dress  in them and once again become human.   The hiding place of the raiment was revealed and they were brought and laid before Bisclavret.  To everyone’s surprise, the beast completely ignored them as if they did not exist.

Once again it was the King’s wise councilor who spoke saying, “Can it be wondered at that he refuses to put them on in front of everyone here.  He cannot surely return as a man without feeling great shame and embarrassment at what he has endured.  Surely we cannot ask him to do this in front of us and I counsel you, Sire, that he be taken to your private rooms where he may put on his human form in his own time, in privacy, away from all eyes.”

The King agreed and took Bisclavret to his private room and left him alone.  He later returned with two of his lords to see how Bisclavret was doing.  On entering the room found him returned to the man who he had loved so much and sleeping soundly in his bed.

The King was overjoyed to have his friend back and roused him from his sleep.  When the baron was ready he told his friend the King all about his affliction, the great shame he felt and all that had happened to him.  The king was delighted to have him back and returned to him all that had been taken from him and gave him much more besides.  As for the woman who betrayed him and her lover they were banished forever from his realm and it was said that many of the females in their family line thereafter were born without a nose and so ended the tale of Bisclavret.

Humanity and Beastliness

There are many different interpretations of the story by many different people.   Some are concerned that it paints women in a poor light even accusing the author, Marie de France, of hating women.   Nevertheless, there are many other interpretations and many see it as addressing the suppression of the beast within the human being and it is not certain that humans come out of it looking too good.

It is worth noting the twists that each of the main characters performs which bring out their “beastly” side.  The wife originally portrayed as beautiful  and loving reveals the “beast” in her by betraying the baron.  Although it is understandable to feel fear and be revolted by his condition she does not attempt to come to terms with the “beastly” side of her husband.  Instead, she sells herself by persuading the knight to steal her husband’s clothes knowing this would trap him in the werewolf form, promising her body and marriage in return.  By accepting the proposal and carrying it out he allows his “beastly” nature to get the better of him while condemning the baron  to remain Bisclavret running naked and beast-like in the forest .

The good King is taken very much by the humanity shown by Bisclavret in his wolf form and becomes fond of him breaking down the barrier between beast and human.  The wise counselor although saving Bisclavret and urging the King to put faith in him lets his beastly side come to the fore by advocating torture to Bisclavret’s ex-wife.  The good King by assenting to this allows the beast in himself to come out.  But it is the terrible act of vengeance, the violent disfiguring of his ex-wife and generations of females in her line to come after Bisclavret bites off her nose that emphasize the difficulty of keeping the inner beast in check.  This, surely, is a terrible act of vengeance even though he had suffered so and after he had displayed such humanity in his wolf form.

The days of Marie de France are long gone and here we are in the modern world and as we look around us we may wonder if there is indeed hope.  Can we keep the beast within hidden and in check by fine clothing and good manners and  behavior and all the trappings of the modern digital world, or is it all an act that will eventually reveal itself when the opportunity arises?

What do you think?

© 21/09/2016 zteve t evans

Reference and Attributions

Copyright September 21st, 2016 zteve t evans

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

The Breton legend of the drowning of the city of Ys

According to Breton folklore there once was a beautiful and famous city named Ys, which was also known as Ker-is, or Is. A legend tells of the fall of this once great city through the pagan practices of a princess named Dahut and her followers.

The legend of Ys

There are many versions of the legend. Most have Gradlon, or Galon as the king who built the city. The oldest versions say the city was originally located in in an area of the Bay of Douarnenez that was just above the waterline and was built 2,000 years before King Gradlon. But by the time of King Gradlon’s reign the land had become so eroded that the sea was inundating the city at high tides. To keep the sea at bay huge walls were built around it with massive gates placed in them to control the flow of the sea.  Read more