The Magic Rose
Breton fairy tales are often a mixture of Roman Catholic, Celtic and other pagan elements that blend together providing mystery and romance with more than a hint of danger and darkness. The story presented here is a retelling of a Breton folktale called The Magic Rose from Legends and Romance of Brittany by Lewis Spence (1) and tells the rather sombre tale of the transition through life of its protagonist, La Rose. In many ways it appears to be a traditional fairy tale and like many fairy tales it is not quite what it seems for there is a hidden secret.
The story begins in Brittany where an aging married couple had two sons. The older son had a more adventurous and outgoing personality and went off to Paris to find his fortune. The younger son, whose name was La Rose, had a more cautious and shy personality and remained at home, preferring to live with his parents much to their discontent. His mother and father were beginning to feel their age and began to worry about their son. They wanted him to take a wife to ease the burden on them.
To begin with he would not listen to their appeals but eventually he gave in and found a young woman he loved greatly and they married. To begin with all was well but after few months sadly his wife fell sick and died. La Rose was heartbroken and every evening he would visit the cemetery and weep beside her grave into the night.
The Spectre and the Magic Rose
One evening while he knelt at his wife’s grave he became aware of a tall dark spectral figure standing before him as he wept. Looking up in shock at the ghastly figure which pointed at him and said in a rasping voice, “Tell me! Why do you weep?”
“I weep for my dead wife!” answered La Rose.
“Would you have her alive again?” asked the spectre.
“Indeed, I would! I would do anything to have her back again!”
“Then listen now!” said the spectre, “Come back to this place tomorrow at the same time. Bring a pick-axe and some clothes for your wife and you may see your heart’s desire.” With that the dark spectre dissolved into the night.
The next evening at the same time La Rose went to his wife’s grave at the cemetery with a pick-axe and clothes, just as the spectre had said and knelt and wept over her grave. As he wept he became aware of the dark spectre looking down at him. “Strike the grave with the pick-axe and you will see the earth peal aside to reveal the body of your wife wrapped in her shroud,” said the spectre.
He then handed La Rose a small silver casket saying, “This contains a rose. When your wife is free of earth pass this under her nose three times. She will then awaken as if from a long and deep slumber.”
La Rose watched in awe as the spectre dissolved into the night. Quickly he struck the pick-axe into his wife’s grave and immediately the earth peeled back and revealed her lying in her shroud. Following the spectre’s instructions he took the rose from the silver casket and passed it under her nose three times. Just as the spectre had told him and to his astonishment and absolute joy, his wife sighed, sat up and said, “Why I seem to have had such a long deep sleep!”La Rose gave his wife the clothes he had brought and she quickly dressed and they returned home. His parents were overjoyed to see their daughter-in-law whole and well again.
The Passing of his Parents
His father was not a well man and he had reached a great age and sadly he fell ill and passed away. His mother was heart broken. She too was of a great age and the grief of her husband’s passing was too much for her and she too expired. La Rose wrote to his brother informing him of the sad news and requesting him to return home to receive his share of the family inheritance. Unfortunately his brother wrote back saying he could not return to Brittany but would give no reason. Reluctantly, La Rose decided to travel to Paris to sort out the family affairs with his brother.
His wife did not want him to go and he was reluctant to leave but feeling he had no choice he told her he must go and promised that he would write to her everyday. When he arrived he found his brother to be seriously ill and in need of intensive nursing which he delivered himself day and night. Because of the seriousness and intensity of this he forgot to write to his wife as he had promised and she had no news whatsoever of events in Paris and his brother’s health.
Days passed and weeks turned into months and still La Rose forgot to write to his wife. All this time she remained in Brittany worrying and fretting. She had no idea what could be wrong and she dreaded that some courier should appear on her doorstep with bad news. Every day she took to sitting by her window weeping while looking out hoping to either see him coming down the road, or the dreaded sight of a courier.
The False Captain
It so happened that a regiment of soldiers were posted to the town and the captain was lodged in the inn directly over the road from the home of La Rose and his wife. The captain was a handsome young man whose curiosity was aroused by the sight of a woman weeping through the window. He was saddened and intrigued by the sight of such a beautiful woman in such grief and set about to learn more about her. The more he learned and the more he saw her weeping in the window the more he desired her.
Learning about her husband’s absence in Paris he wrote a letter falsely informing her that her husband had died and had it delivered by courier to her. On reading it she was grief stricken. In this vulnerable state the captain wasted no time in insinuating himself into her affections. After an appropriate period of mourning he proposed marriage to her and she accepted. The wedding went ahead and they became man and wife. Shortly after the regiment was sent to another town and she accompanied her new husband there.
La Rose Returns
Shortly, after her marriage, the brother of La Rose recovered from his life threatening illness. Now being free of the burden of providing his nursing care La Rose remembered his wife and his promise to her. At last, able to complete his family business with his brother he rushed back to Brittany eager to see his wife again. Can you imagine the shock he had when he discovered the door of his home locked and barred and the house empty? He went to see his neighbours who told him about how his wife had grieved for him. They told him of how a courier had arrived with a letter informing her of his death and her subsequent marriage to the captain. La Rose was devastated and spent many days moping and weeping for his wife. Eventually he pulled himself together and resolved to go after her and so enlisted in the same regiment as the false captain in the hope it would place him near to her.
He was a talented scribe and soon the quality and finesse of his handwriting brought him to the attention of one of the lieutenants who made him his secretary. Although he had hoped to catch a glimpse of his wife he was yet to do so to his disappointment. Then one day the captain who had married his wife visited the lieutenant on regiment business. He noticed the quality of the handwriting of La Rose who was working at his desk and asked if he could borrow him for a few days to help him with paperwork and correspondence.
A False Accusation
It so happened that while assisting the false captain he saw his wife but she did not recognise him at all. La Rose of course knew her and now he knew who her new husband was. Nevertheless, he refused to let it show and kept his identity from them. The captain was delighted with the service La Rose had given and as a reward invited him to dine with him and his wife one evening.
The false captain had a servant who was dishonest and had stolen a silver dish. Fearing the theft was about to be discovered he secreted the dish into one of La Rose’s pockets. When the silver dish was missed the servant then accused La Rose who was searched and the stolen item found. Although La Rose protested his innocence he was court marshaled and sentenced to be shot and taken to prison to await his execution.
Père La Chique
As you will understand La Rose was feeling miserable and despondent at the way of the world. An old veteran of the regiment named Père La Chique would bring him his meals and seemed friendly and kindly towards him. This cheered and encouraged La Rose greatly and he made friends with him. One day, knowing his execution would be soon he said to La Chique, “Père, my friend I have two thousand francs that I am sure you could use to the good. If you will promise to do something for me when I am gone you can have them!”
Père was a man who liked his liquor and was always short of money so he readily agreed. La Rose reached into his pocket and pulled out the little silver casket that the spectre had given him so long ago. Handing it to Père he said, “After I have been shot and they have buried me bring a pick-axe and strike it in the ground over my grave. The earth will peel back and you will see me lying there in my burial shroud, dead. Pass the rose under my nose three times and I will wake as if I have been in a very deep slumber. Make sure you bring me some clothes to wear.”
Père agreed and took the money and the rose. Soon after La Rose was taken out and shot. Père now with a pocketful of money set about his favorite pastime in style. He went from one inn to another drinking and merrymaking with his friends. Now and then he remembered his promise to La Rose but only for a short time. However, after a few more drinks he either forgot again, or thought to himself that La Rose was surely better off dead than suffering the grief and weariness of the world and carried on with his drinking.
Of course with so much money in his pocket many of his old friends appeared and he found himself surrounded by new ones whom he spent his money on. When all of the money was gone they all disappeared and left him to reflect on his behaviour. Feeling ashamed he again remembered his promise to La Rose.
Finding himself a pick-axe and some clothes for his dead friend he went to the cemetery to carry out his promise. Striking the earth with the pickaxe the earth peeled back, just as he had been told. When he looked in the grave and saw his dead friend wrapped in his shroud his nerve failed him and he ran off. After a stiff drink he summoned the courage to return. Taking the rose from the silver casket he passed it under the nose of La Rose three times. La Rose sat up and yawned as if he had been in a deep slumber just like he said he would. Hastily, he took the casket and the rose back and dressed himself and the two of them left the cemetery.
After his resurrection, without money and no roof over his head, La Rose was obliged to look for ways to earn a living. He took many menial, low-paid jobs to make ends meet and one day while wandering the streets looking for work he heard the beating of a drum. He followed it to the town square where the Town Crier stood on the steps of the town hall about to make an announcement.
The Crier told the crowd that had gathered that the King was looking for men to act as guards for three nights at the local chapel and was prepared to pay handsomely for suitable recruits. Naturally, this piqued the attention of La Rose thinking it sounded too good to be true. Indeed it was for the Crier went on to explain that the King’s daughter had been transformed into some kind of terrible monster and was imprisoned there.
Nevertheless, La Rose was desperate and decided he would apply, which he did and was accepted. The captain of the guard then warned him that all those who had guarded the chapel between eleven o’clock in the evening and midnight had never been seen again and no trace of them had ever been found. Naturally, La Rose was dismayed and thought about quitting the post but decided he would give it a try anyway as life to him at this time seemed not worth living.
The First Night
The guard duties were duly allotted to the new recruits and it fell to La Rose that he take the third turn at guarding the chapel. The first guard went on duty on the first night and was never found in the morning. On the second night it was the same with the second guard. The third night came and La Rose fearfully took up his post in the sentry box at the chapel. As time wore on he could feel fear creeping up on him and again he thought of running. He was about to do so when terrible voice called him by his name. He froze to the spot as the voice cried, “La Rose! La Rose! Where in the world are you now, La Rose?”
“Who is it that is calling my name?” answered La Rose trembling .
“Listen to me carefully and you will come to no harm! Very soon the most terrible beast will leap out of the chapel and it will look to kill you. At the stroke of eleven place your musket against the sentry box and climb on top of the box and the beast will not harm you.”
When he heard the chapel clock strike eleven he placed his musket against the sentry box and climbed on top. Just as he had done so he heard a terrible howling and the most fearsome beast leapt out of the chapel with flames issuing from its mouth and nostrils, crying, “Sentry, sentry, sentry, where are you, sentry? I will devour you when I find you!”
As it cried out it seized the musket in its teeth and tore it into a thousand pieces and then vanished. La Rose looked down from the top of the sentry box terrified. When the beast had gone he climbed down to look at the crumbled remains of his musket.
He was the only sentinel who had ever survived one night guarding the chapel. When the news was given to the king he was delighted and full of hope. He knew that to break the spell that held his daughter the same sentry must survive three consecutive nights at the chapel between the eleven and twelve o’clock at night.
The Second Night
The next night La Rose took up his station at the chapel equipped with a new musket. Time passed and again he heard the same voice he had heard the night before. This time it told him to place his musket against the door of the chapel and hide behind the sentry box. La Rose did exactly as he was told. At the stroke of eleven the beast leapt screaming from the chapel and grabbed his musket and bit it into thousands of pieces and then quickly returned to the chapel leaving him unharmed.
The Third Night
The third night came and once again La Rose heard the voice. This time it told him that when the beast issued from the chapel he should run to the back of the building. There he would see a leaden tomb which he should hide behind. Behind the tomb he would find a small bottle. When the beast came for him he was to throw the contents of this over the head of the beast.
When the clock struck eleven he heard the dreadful scream of the beast as it burst through the chapel door. Standing to one side La Rose waited until it was clear of the doorway then darted behind it through the door and ran to the back of the chapel. Just as the voice had advised him he found a leaden tomb which he hid behind and behind the tomb he found a small bottle and pulled out its stopper.
The beast quickly turned and gave chase and was about to leap over the tomb when La Rose stood up to face it and threw the contents of the bottle over its head. The beast howled horribly and thrashed and writhed on the floor. The chapel shook but eventually everything calmed down and stood before him was the most beautiful princess.
The King’s Daughter
La Rose then took the princess to the Old King who was delighted to have his daughter back. He was so grateful that he begged him to marry his daughter which La Rose was also pleased to agree to. So La Rose married the Old King’s daughter and a little while later the Old King decided he would retire and abdicated making his son-in-law the new King.
The New King
It came to pass that one day as the new king it was his duty to inspect the regiments of his army. As he inspected the regiment that he had served in he found it was the false captain standing at the head of the lines of soldiers who were all stood to attention in his honour. As he inspected the lines of soldiers he told the Colonel that he thought someone was missing. The Colonel admitted that there was indeed one man missing but told him that the missing man was an old veteran who really was not much use for anything. It was thought he lowered the tone of the regiment so he had been left behind to clean the barracks. La Rose told the Colonel that he would like to see him and Père La Chique was brought before him trembling. He then ordered the false captain to step forward and ripped the epaulettes from his shoulders and placed them on the shoulders of Père La Chique making him the new captain.
Then he ordered that a great fire was to be set around two stakes. Then he ordered the false Captain and his wife who he deemed had so easily forgotten him to be tied to the stakes and they were burned alive together. Perhaps this may seem a rather harsh treatment for his first wife who La Rose had once loved, resurrected and then forgot about and indeed, maybe it was, but it is not what it seems. Nevertheless, La Rose as the King and together with his Queen, lived a long and happy life thereafter.
You see the thing about the world of fairy tales is that there maybe magic and there may be love but the world inside the tale grotesquely mirrors the world outside which also has magic and love. It also has pain and grief and injustice and somehow we all have to deal with what the world gives us, face our demons and rise again, which is also mirrored in the folktale, but that is not the secret. You see, only the reader can find that and it is a powerful secret to know once it is understood.
© 23/10/2018 zteve t evans
References, Attributions and Further Reading
Copyright October 23rd, 2018 zteve t evans
(1) CHAPTER VI: BRETON FOLK-TALES – The Magic Rose – Legends and Romances of Brittany – by Lewis Spence –