Breton Folktales: Gwennolaïk and Nola

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.

Nola

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.

The Ring

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

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.

The Knight

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.

Disappointment

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.

Death

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.

The Wedding

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.   

Nola’s Return

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.

The Journey

“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.

The Island

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

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Breton Fairy Tales: The Secret of the Resurrection of La Rose

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.

La Rose

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

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Image by PublicDomainPicturesPixabay – CC0 Creative Commons

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.

Broken promises

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.

The Regiment

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.

Resurrection

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.

The Secret

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 – [1917]

Native American Tales: Skeleton Island

This is a retelling of a Native American story from  The Myths of the North American Indians, (1914), collected by Lewis Spence called The Friendly Skeleton.

The Boy in the Woods

Once there was a boy who lived in the woods with his elderly uncle.   Although the boy was free to play in the woods close to the lodge his uncle always warned him that he must not go eastwards.  The boy was always full of life and like most boys filled with a natural curiosity about his surroundings and explored the woods all around his uncle’s lodge except those that lay to the east.  Although the boy often wondered what could possibly lie eastwards he always obeyed his uncle’s warning.

One day his uncle went on a long hunting expedition  leaving the boy alone in the lodge. After playing in the woods north, south and west the boy became bored and he thought about his uncle’s warning not to go eastwards.  The more he thought about it the more his curiosity was aroused and he decided he would go eastwards in the woods but be very, very careful.

The Stranger

He set off to the east through the woods and eventually came to a large lake and he stopped on its shores to rest and noticed there was an island in the middle of it .  While he was resting a strange man approached him and asked him his name and where he had come from and the boy told him.

After he had told him the stranger said, “Very well, now let us fire an arrow and see who can shoot it the highest”  The boy agreed and he shot his arrow much higher than the man did.  Next the stranger suggested they have a competition to see who could swim the furthest underwater without coming up for breath.  Once again the boy won the competition. Then the stranger suggested they sail to the island in the middle of the lake to see the beautiful birds that lived there.

Skeleton Island

The stranger showed the boy his canoe which was most strangely carved and was pulled by three swans.  Two swans were harnessed to each side and one was tethered to the front.  The man motioned the boy to take a seat next to him in the canoe and began singing a strange song.  The swans moved off taking the canoe along with them.  It didn’t take them long to reach the island which the boy now noticed was a considerable distance from the shore and surrounded by deep water making him feel his trust in a stranger was foolish.

Then the strange man ordered him to undress and he took his clothes and got back into the boat and said,  ‘Come swans, let us go home,”  and the swans took him in the canoe back towards the shore leaving the boy naked and alone on the island.

The Skeleton

The boy was angry at his own foolish naivety but as  evening came and darkness fell he began to feel very cold, very miserable and very frightened.  Huddled alone in the darkness to his utter shock he heard a husky voice nearby that appeared to be talking to him.  Looking around the boy was terrified to see lying on the ground next to him a bleached white skeleton.  “I feel very sorry for you and I will help you if you will help me.” With no other choice the boy agreed though he too felt sorry for the skeleton.

The Skeleton then told him, “I will tell you that tonight a man is coming to look for you.  If you make as many tracks as you can all over the island and hide in that hollow tree over there, the man will become confused by so many marks and will not find you.”

The boy obeyed the skeleton and when the man came ashore he had three dogs with him.  Fortunately the boy had made so many tracks going this way and that all over the island that the dogs were so confused they could not find him in his hiding place and the man left empty handed and angry.

The next morning the boy went to the skeleton  who said, “Beware, tonight the man who brought you to this island is coming back to drink your blood.  You must dig a hole in the sand on the shore and hide in it.  When his canoe arrives and he steps onto the island you must quickly jump into the canoe and say to the swans, ‘Come swans, let us go home,” and they will immediately take the canoe back with you on board.  The man will call to you but you must not look back.”

Escape From Skeleton Island

So the boy dug a hole in the sand and hid in it.  Just as the skeleton had said the canoe arrived and the man got out and stepped ashore and began searching for the boy.  The boy jumped in the canoe and said,  ‘Come swans, let us go home,” and began to sing just as he had heard the stranger sing when he had brought him in the canoe to the island.  The man called to him but the boy did not look back and the swans took the canoe back to a cave on the shore of the lake.

The boy found his clothes in the cave and put them on and found plenty of food and he ate his fill.  He then lay down and went to sleep.   The next morning he went back to the island and found the dead body of the stranger lying in the sand.  He went to see the skeleton who told him he must now take the canoe and go eastwards across the lake to look for his sister who an evil man had captured many years ago to be his wife.

The Evil Man

He set off eastwards across the lake in the canoe and after three days he came to the place where the evil man kept his sister which was just a hut.  The evil man was out and he soon found his sister and said, “Sister, Let us go quickly from this place now!”

“I dare not! An evil man keeps me here and he will be back any minute and will surely catch us.   Let me hide you away and in the morning we shall runaway together!”  said she said.  She dug a hole and told her brother to hide in it and just as she had finished hiding him the evil man came into the hut with his dogs demanding his dinner. The boy’s sister had cooked a child for the evil man and put it before him.  He looked on her grimly and said, “You have had visitors while I was out!.”

The girl shivered inside and tried not to let him see this and said, “No one has been and you are the only person I have seen.”  But the evil man said, “I will wait until tomorrow and then I will find and kill him and you shall cook him for me to eat!”  

He knew someone was there by the way the dogs were snuffling about.  He said nothing more and the next morning he left the hut saying he was going hunting to a distant swamp.  However, instead of going hunting he hid himself where he could easily spy on the entrance to the hut.  Presently he saw the boy and his sister leave the hut and make their way to the lake shore and get into a canoe.  Barely had they sat down when they saw him running quickly towards them with a large hook in his hand which he threw and it latched onto the vessel as they moved through the water and he began pulling them back.  The boy reached down into the shallow water and grabbed a stone and smashed the hook with it and the canoe shot forward over the lake.

For a second the man did not know what to do and then he dropped down to the ground and began to drink in the water.   This began to draw the canoe back to him but the boy took aim and threw the stone hitting the man on the head killing him instantly.   This caused the water to gush out of him and back into the lake sending the canoe rapidly on its way.

Return to Skeleton Island

In three days time the brother and his sister arrived back on the island and together they went to see the skeleton to thank him. The skeleton told the boy that it was now turn for the boy to help him as he had promised.  He said,

“Take your sister back to your uncle’s lodge and then return to the island.  There are very many bones laid around the island and when you come back in a loud voice tell them to arise and this will bring them all back to life.”

When the brother and sister arrived at their uncle’s lodge the old man was delighted to see them back safe and sound.  He had come home to find the boy gone and had spent the rest of the time worrying and fretting over his safety.  On hearing about the boy’s adventures he advised they should build a new lodge to accommodate all the people who he would bring back with him.   When the lodge was finished the boy went back to the island and said in a loud voice, “All arise!” and the bones formed into people and he took them back to the new lodge he and his uncle and sister had built for them.  There they all lived very happily together for a very long time.

© 25/10/2017 zteve t evans

Reference, Attributions and Further Reading

Copyright October 10th, 2017 zteve t evans

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