Presented here is a retelling of a Breton folktale called The Foster Brother. It was believed to be set in the old cathedral town of Tréguier a port of the Côtes-d’Armor, formerly Côtes-du-Nord, a department of Brittany in France.
The Foster Brother
When the old Lord of the Manor passed away he left behind his youngest surviving daughter named Gwennolaïk. She was only eighteen years old, exceptionally fair of face with the sweetest of nature and her friends and those who loved her tended to call her Gwen. In years gone by she had lost her two elder sisters who had succumbed to an illness that ravaged the area and passed into the next world. Not long after her own mother also fell ill and joined them.
Afterwards her father had remarried twice out living both wives. From those marriages she had an older foster brother named Nola whom she had loved dearly. At a very young age they had spent many hours playing together and promised each other they would one day be wed. However, when he came of age he began to have strange dreams. He would find himself in strange places that he had never seen before and could hear words whispered into his ear telling him he should leave home and find his fortune. At first he took no notice but gradually those words wormed into his head and he decided he must prove himself, see the world and find his fortune and took a ship to foreign shores.
It was indeed grievous to witness the fair daughter from a noble family in such sadness and despair. Everyday she could be found sitting on the steps of the ancient manor with tears in her eyes. There she sat gazing out to sea desperately hoping to catch the first glimpse of the sails of the ship of her foster brother returning to her. It was her one big comfort – her only hope of salvation – that he would return and save her from an unhappy life of misery and drudgery.
Gwen, although distraught at his going, gave him a ring that had belonged to her mother to remember her by. His leaving left her alone and all this daughter of a noble family had left was a cruel stepmother. She missed him terribly and longed for his return both for his love and to save her from her unhappy home life.
Therefore, her eyes rarely left the horizon hoping against hope for that welcome glimpse of white sail. It had been six long years since his departure with no word of his whereabouts or his safety and she began to fear the worst. Her stepmother was forever scolding her and kept her hungry and in rags forcing her to work among the servants. Seeing Gwennolaïk gazing at the horizon made her angry and she would shout, “Get out and do some work! Go down to the marsh and call the cattle home and earn your living. You will get neither food or drink if I catch you staring into space one more time. Go and call the cattle home. Go!”
Her stepmother had always hated her and she resented the relationship Gwennolaïk had with her foster brother who had been born to her predecessor. Maybe it was jealousy that caused her stepmother to treat her with such cruelty and unkindness, but maybe she was just a wicked person. It was she who had whispered worm words into the ear of her stepson as he slept. These wormed their way slowly into his head causing him to want to leave home and see the world and now he was long gone.
Every morning through the winter it was Gwen’s task to build and light the fire and sweep the hearth before her stepmother rose. Woe betide her if there was not a roaring fire waiting to warm her stepmother. While it was still dark and frosty she would be sent outside in the cold to the brook to bring water and was given a cracked jug and a leaking bucket for the task.
Early one cold dark morning she went down to the brook and seeing the water was muddied looked around for the cause. To her surprise she saw a knight in armor sat upon a fair horse. His visor covered his face but he greeted her courteously saying, “Good morning and may you have long life!” as was the custom and then asked, “Are you betrothed?”
Gwennolaïk was a shy and unsophisticated girl and more than a little rustic and this confused her. She replied, “That, sir, I do not know now.”
The knight persisted saying, “Fair maid, I beg you to tell me the truth. Are you betrothed?”
Gwennolaïk replied, “God bless you sir, I am not betrothed.”
The knight then said, “Here, Take this gold ring to your stepmother and tell her you are now betrothed to a knight from Nantes. You must advise her that there has been a battle at Nantes and that many have been slain including the squire of your betrothed and that he himself is badly wounded by a sword cut. Tell her that in three days time I will arrive at the manor and claim the fair Gwennolaïk as my bride.”
Having said this they said their farewells. He turned his horse and quickly rode off and she ran back home. As soon as she was free of her stepmother and in a safe place she took out the ring and looked at it. She was excited to see it was the ring she had given her foster brother before he left and realized the knight was Nola.
Three days passed but to Gwennolaïk’s intense disappointment the knight did not return. One week passed and then two and then three, but he still did not come as he had promised. Her stepmother came to her and told her, “I have decided you must get married and I have found you the perfect husband who was just made for you!”
Gwennolaïk was horrified by the idea. It was not that she did not like the idea of marriage, she did, but to the right man and secretly yearned for Nola. She explained to her stepmother how he had returned and she had met him at the brook saying, “Please have mercy on me stepmother. I only desire my Nola, my foster brother as a husband. He has returned and I have seen him. See he has given me this ring which he took with him when he left as a token to you that he will come back and marry me. It is my wedding ring and he will return soon to wed me.”
But her stepmother snarled angrily, “Be silent, stupid girl before I beat you with a stick! You are dreaming again he will not be back for you. I have decided you will marry Job, the stable boy,he will be plenty good enough for the likes of you.”
Gwennolaïk protested saying, “But, I cannot marry Job, Oh, if only my mother was here now. Surely, I will die of a broken heart!”
Her stepmother replied angrily, “Get out of the house and go and weep in the stables! I am sure Job will be glad to comfort you. Let me tell you now, no matter how much you weep and wail, in three days time you will marry Job and that is all there is to it! ”
To be fair to Job he had not wanted the marriage, however, he had been beaten by Gwennolaïk’s stepmother and told he would lose his position if he refused. Therefore, he reluctantly agreed.
What neither Gwennolaïk or her stepmother knew was that as they had spoken the Crier was on his way around the village ringing a doleful bell with the following message,
“It is my sad duty to pass on the news of the death of a most noble knight. He was brave and valiant, gentle and kind, a generous and good hearted man who did his duty. Tragically, at the recent battle of Nantes he was mortally wounded by the thrust of an enemy sword and has now gone to God. Therefore, pray for him today and tomorrow at sunset his funeral watch begins. The following morning he shall be carried to his tomb in the White Church.”
The day of the wedding of Gwennolaïk to Job came around and the guests were sad and subdued. They all were feeling sorry for the fair Gwennolaïk pitying her that she should have to marry a man she had no love for. Alas that such things were once not uncommon in those days, though mercifully society has progressed.
However, poor Gwennolaïk had to find a way to come to terms with the situation as did Job. The parish priest stood talking soothing words to her and many people offered their sympathies rather than congratulations, which emphasises the straits she was in. In the church during the ceremony every man and woman had wept for the situation except for the cruel and hard hearted stepmother.
After the ceremony they had all returned to the manor where celebrations were being held in the dubious honour of the event. The musicians struck up a merry tune but the merrier they played the sadder and more depressed Gwennolaïk became. Her friends tried their best to comfort her and led her to a quiet table where they sat trying to reassure and cheer her, but to no avail.
She would not dance or partake of any food or drink and when the time came for her to be led to the bridal chamber she jumped up, tore off her bridal veil and threw away her flowers. Pulling the wedding ring from her finger she threw it away as far as she could. Before anyone could stop her she ran from the celebration so fast no one could catch her and none could say where she went.
They searched in vain but she could not be found.
Gwennolaïk had run into the woods and hidden herself in a thicket. There as night descended she fell asleep weeping to herself for the harshness of the world. At the midnight hour she was awakened by the sound of someone or something moving towards her through the thicket. She was cold and shivering with fever and jumping up in alarm cried,
“Who is there?”
“Gwennolaïk my love, it is I Nola, I have come for you.”
“Can it really be you, my love, can it really be she?” she sobbed.
She looked into the darkness and she saw coming towards her the knight on the fair white steed, “Come, climb up behind me and we will go together to your mother,” he said reaching down to help her up. She caught his cold arm with her own pale hands and she was up behind him in a second. “Now we will go together,” he told her as she pressed her face against his cold, cold shoulder.
“My, how fast we go, my love, my love, my love. …. We must have travelled a hundred leagues already. … Oh, how happy, I am to be with you, you, you. I cannot remember ever being so happy. … Is mother’s house far?” she asked.
“Hold on my darling, hold on and we will soon be there!” he replied as the horse sped forward racing silently over the earth faster than the wind.
“How bright your armor? How fast is your steed, it flies through the air faster than an arrow! How tall and handsome you have grown my love. … Is mother’s house much further?” she asked faintly.
“Hush, now my sweet, we shall soon be there.” he replied.
“My love, your body is of ice, your hands are like winter, you are chilled to the bone. I fear thou hast caught cold,” she said.
“Hold on my darling. Hold on we are nearly there. Listen, can you not hear the sweet music that joyously greets us on our wedding day?” he told her.
With these words, his horse stopped and Gwennolaïk soon saw they had crossed the sea somehow and were now on an island. All around young lads and maidens danced and frolicked joyfully. All around were gorgeous flowers and the trees were laden with ripe apples. Behind them the sun was rising and before them was a bubbling brook of pure water. The knight lifted her down and cupping his hand took water from the brook and offered it to her and she drank deeply.
These waters were the waters of life and those that drank of it were made whole and life and vitality flowed through their bodies. They left behind their tired, mortal frames to live in health and happiness. Among the dancers Gwennolaïk saw her mother and her two sisters and she ran to them in in joy and they welcomed her happily.
The White Church
Back at the manor as soon as it was light the weeping wedding guests had gone out searching for Gwennolaïk. As the sun rose a sad procession was seen carrying the body of Gwennolaïk from the woods to the White Church where they gently laid her to rest beside her foster-brother in his tomb.
© 22/05/2019 zteve t evans
References, Attributions and Further Reading
Copyright May 22nd, 2019 zteve t evans
- The Foster Brother – Legends & Romances of Brittany by Lewis Spence
- The Foster Brother – Folk Tales of Brittany, by Elsie Masson,  – Sacred Texts
- Image . Otway Cannell (Illustrator), Lewis Spence (Author) [Public domain]