"A storm was coming, but the winds were still, and in the wild woods of Broceliande, before an oak, so hollow, huge and old it look'd a tower of ivied masonwork, at Merlin's feet the wily Vivien lay. . . ," wrote Victorian poet Alfred, Lord Tennyson in Idylls of the King. Drawing upon Malory's Morte d'Arthur and older Arthurian sources, Tennyson created his epic poem of Arthur, Merlin and Camelot -- including the story of Merlin's fatal seduction by a fairy enchantress. In Tennyson's version of the tale, Merlin is a grey-bearded old man seeking solitude from Arthur's court in the forest of Broceliande. Vivien (in other versions called Nimue) is the beautiful fairy who follows him there, intent on doing the old man harm and "fancying that her glory would be great according to the greatness whom she quenched." Tennyson's Vivien is a wicked creature who succeeds in trapping Merlin within a tower built of his own strong spells -- not because he ever quite succumbs to her erotic charms, but because he is old, tired, underestimating the danger she presents.
There's a very different version of the tale that comes from Broceliande itself, an ancient forest that still exists in the Brittany region of France. According to this legend, Vivien is the daughter of a fairy and a Breton lord: lovely and intelligent, with her mother's penchant for magic. Merlin meets her by the fairy fountain in the forest and is charmed by her beauty and her wit. They spend a year and a day together, then Merlin returns to Arthur's court. But he is a prophet; he knows it is his fate to end his days imprisoned by love. In resignation he goes back across the English Channel to the Breton wildwood. Once again in Vivien's arms, his passion is rekindled, and he teaches her the spell that will bind them together forever at the heart of the forest.
British author Robert Holdstock has taken inspiration from Tennyson's more sinister version of the tale in Merlin's Wood, a contemporary novel that weaves together Arthurian lore with older Celtic legends. Setting his story on a present-day farm near the Forest of Paimpont (on the site of Broceliande), he creates a haunting picture of the timeless struggle between enchanter and enchantress -- and its effect on all who live too close to the shadows of the wood. A.S. Byatt is another modern writer who works with ancient Breton tales in her extraordinary novel Possession, winner of the Booker Prize. The novel makes use of the legend of Melusine, and of the Drowned City of Is, but it also touches on the Merlin story and its place in Breton tradition.
"Today the storytelling begins," writes Byatt (in the voice of Sabine de Kercoz, a young woman in an isolated village on the coast of Finistere). "Everywhere in Brittany the storytelling begins at Toussaint [November], in the Black Month. It goes on through December, the Very Black Month, as far as the Christmas story. . . . My father told the tale of Merlin and Vivien. The two characters are never the same in successive years. Merlin is always old and wise, and clearsighted about his doom. Vivien is always beautiful, and various and dangerous. The end is always the same. But my father, within this framework, has many stories. Sometimes the fairy and the magician are true lovers. . . . Sometimes he is old and tired and ready to lay down his burden and she is a tormenting daemon. Sometimes it is a battle of wits, in which she is all passionate emulation, a daemonic will to overcome him, and he is wise beyond belief and impotent with it. Tonight he was not so decrepit, nor yet so clever -- he was ruefully courteous, knowing that her time had come, and ready to take pleasure in his eternal swoon, or dream or contemplation. . . ."
Reading Possession and Merlin's Wood, as well as the older tales they draw upon, gave me the strong desire to see the land of "Little Britain" myself (as the early Celts called Brittany) -- particularly as it lies just a ferry ride away from my Devon home. I phoned Rob Holdstock in London for advice, remembering that he had traveled there in preparation for writing Merlin's Wood. "Broceliande will disappoint you," he warned. "There's not much of it left anymore. Go if you must, but then head south to Carnac, for the standing stones. And west to Finistere -- that's where you'll find enchanted forests." I filled my old car with books of Breton tales, sketch pads, paints, Celtic music tapes, and caught a late-night ferry from the south of England to St. Malo in Bretagne.
By morning, my travelling companion and I were on the road to the Forest of Paimpont, a forest of twenty-seven square miles that is all that remains of legendary Broceliande. In December, the oak and hawthorn were leafless; the winter sky the silver-white of old pearls. Rob had been right. Unlike the vast forest he'd conjured in his novel, the actual remaining wood of Broceliande was not particularly impressive; it seemed small, thin and spindly compared to the deep, tangled woodland of Dartmoor back home. And yet. . .it was a haunted place. Quiet and still in the morning light. I thought of the tales I had heard of this wood: White deer who were fairy women in disguise; to hunt them was to court one's own death. Infants brought to the fountain in the wood to seek the fairies' blessing. Sir Roland of Brittany had vowed not to touch a woman's lips with his own -- until he came across a strange chateau in the depths of Broceliande. A lady of dazzling beauty invited the knight to come and rest till dawn. She enticed him with food, wine, and music, until finally he could resist no more -- but as he bent down to kiss her lips, the sun came over the woodland. The chateau transformed into an oak grove, its furnishings into moss-covered rocks, the lady into a hideous hag, furious at losing her prey.
The Chateau de Comper still sits at the edge of the forest, partially inhabited and partially in ruins. This was where Vivien is said to have been born, and where she raised Sir Lancelot, and where she gave Arthur his sword (in her guise as Lady of the Lake). Not far from there is Merlin's Tomb, two slabs of stone in a holly grove where the old enchanter's body still lies imprisoned, according to some legends -- or asleep with Vivien faithfully at his side according to others. The Val sans Retour (Valley of No Return) is one of the sites most steeped in magic. A footpath leads to a small hidden lake, beautifully set in the folds of the hills. It is said that on certain moonlit nights the waters will reflect the face of the man or woman whom one is destined to love. Morgana, Arthur's sorceress sister, enraged by the faithless love of a knight, once cast this valley under a spell preventing anyone who had done wrong from finding their way out again. Indeed, the whole of the Forest of Paimpont seems to be under a subtle spell, an eerie, misty timelessness. We found ourselves driving in circles, although the wood was small and our map well marked -- lost despite my companion's usual infallible sense of direction. . . .
Finding our way out of Merlin's wood, we headed south for the Morbihan coast, which contains some of the most mysterious pagan monuments to be found anywhere in the world. Brittany is a Celtic land where pagan traditions lie just beneath, or entwined with, the Christian ones that followed after. Celts arrived in the area sometime before the 5th century BC, naming the country Armorica (country of the sea). With the coming of Caesar in 56 BC, the land fell under Roman rule; later, in the 5th to 7th centuries, a new Celtic population arrived. They came from Wales, Devon and Cornwall (primarily the latter, judging by the similarities between the Breton and Cornish languages), driven from their own countries by the Angles and the Saxons. Although the independent Duchy of Brittany has long since been swallowed up by greater France, the Breton people still retain a language and customs all their own -- and the land remains a vital stronghold of Celtic storytelling, music and traditions.
The famous megaliths of Brittany are thought to be pre-Celtic, but (like Britain's Stonehenge) their origin is not precisely known. Although megaliths can be found throughout the Breton countryside in astonishing numbers, the Morbihan gulf holds the greatest concentration of menhirs, cromlechs, dolmen and tumuli. The district around the village of Carnac alone contains more than three thousand standing stones, arranged in westerly parallel lines ending in a semi-circle surrounding the hamlet of Menec. Some legends say the stones were erected by the Korrigans -- a dwarf-like creature common to Breton folktales. Others say they were used for pagan astronomy, rites, or divination. A local Christian tale attributes the stones to Carnac's patron Saint Cornely: Attempting to convert a pagan tribe, he found himself faced by an angry mob. Calling upon heaven for aid, the pagans were instantly turned to stone, and still stand guard on Carnac's coast against the old religion's return. The effectiveness of this guardianship seems dubious when we look at the local practice, still extant in this century, of rubbing one's flesh against certain stones, at certain times of the waning and waxing moon, to aid fertility, childbirth, or to cure any number of ills. One night a year (generally Christmas night) these enormous stones walk down to the sea to bathe, dance and refresh themselves -- but great misfortune falls on anyone who would dare to witness the scene. They say there is treasure under the stones, but those who succeed at plundering it are dead by morning, or find that it turns to dust and leaves in their hand.
From Carnac we travelled west along the coast, past reedy shores, through fishing villages, and up through the old Forest of Carnoet. This wood too was full of legends -- of saints, supernatural ferrymen, werewolves and spectral huntsmen. Here was the castle of the Bluebeard of Cornouaille, who put his first four wives to death, for he had heard a prophesy that he would die by his child's hand. When his fifth wife gave birth, she was able to save her child's life with the aid of the murdered women's ghosts. The cruel man eventually found his son and had him beheaded, but the boy tucked his head under his arm, threw a handful of dirt at the castle walls, and the castle collapsed, burying his bloodthirsty father alive. Also in Carnoet was the ruins of a tower where once a tragic young woman was imprisoned, walled up by the wealthy and jealous old man to whom she'd been given in marriage. She did not conceive an heir, to the old man's great frustration, and her beauty faded as she pined away. One night a hawk flew to her window, and turned into a beautiful young man -- a lord of Cornouaille, drawn to the tower by the sound of her sad songs. He returned to visit her nightly and the two soon became lovers. . .until her husband discovered all and had the window hung with swords and knives. The hawk, mortally wounded, returned to his own castle to die. Pregnant now, cast out by her husband, she followed a trail of blood to her lover's home. With his dying breath he gave her the ring by which their son, when he grew to manhood, could claim his father's throne.
Marie de France elaborates this tale in her popular lais of the 12th or 13th centuries (the date depending on which account you read). Born in France, Marie spent the greater part of her life with the English court, where she became famous as a poetess composing chivalric romances -- many of them set in Brittany, and drawn from Breton sources. Also dating from the 12th century is the romance Tristan in Brittany, written by "Thomas the Anglo-Norman" and available in an excellent edition translated by Dorothy L. Sayers (better known for her mystery novels). The story is part of the Arthurian tradition and most of it takes place across the English Channel in Cornwall; but Tristan himself (whose name means "child of sorrow") is Breton-born, and it is to Brittany he returns in the end. There, he marries Iseult of the White Hand although his heart still longs for the other Iseult, married to his uncle, the Cornish king. Ile Tristan (Tristan Island) lies off the western coast near the town of Douarnenez; it is here Tristan is said to be buried in one grave with Iseult of Cornwall.
The Ile de Sein in the Baie des Trepasses is another island with legendary associations. It is believed to have been the high seat of the Celtic religion, and a place of oracular magic. Nine druid priestesses, known as the Gallicenae, inhabited the island, with the power to raise the wind and sea, to turn themselves into animals, to cure wounds and diseases, and to see into the future. In Celtic times, the dead were sent to the women of the Ile de Sein; from there they traveled on to the summer lands of an Earthly Paradise. The Baie des Trepasses is one of the many locations given for the famous Drowned City of Is (also called Ys, or Ker-Ys in Breton tales). According to legend, Is was the capital of Cornouaille -- a city so beautiful it inspired the name of Paris (Par-Is, "like Is"). Built by the sea, the city was protected by a dike, locked with a golden key. The king of Is had a daughter, Dahut -- headstrong, proud, and wild. Dahut was seduced by a daemon or a fairy, who took the form of a beautiful young man. As proof of her love, he asked her to open the seagate at night to let him in. She stole the key while her father slept, opened the gates, and the sea flooded in. They say on certain moonlit nights you can still hear the bells of Is ringing from far under the waves.
Being a coastal nation with treacherous waters that have cost many lives, a great number of Breton tales involve fairy creatures who live in the waves, seducing human men and women, luring them to their deaths. The Morgans of Finistere were sea fairies who lived in the shallows and seaside caves; it was unlucky to walk the shore alone at night lest a Morgan be encountered. Mary Morgans were sirens who particularly liked young, strong fishermen, pulling them under the waves to live lives of ease in palaces of coral. The famous Fairy Melusine was part sea-serpent and part woman. She was happily married to a human nobleman, and even bore him several sons -- until he spied the fairy at her bath in her true, half-serpent guise. Off the Pointe des Espangnols near Brest a fisherman was given a cup of sweet-smelling nectar by a mermaid. In it was a magic potion that would cause him to forget his sweetheart back on land, and follow the mermaid forever. Just as he brought it to his lips, he heard the sound of the church bell toll and he dashed the cup into the sea. The love potion spread over the waves, which is why the sea tastes salty today.
Inland from Brest is a moorland region that reminded me of Dartmoor back home -- an empty land of windswept hills, blanketed with heather, crowned with granite tors. This region had its fairies too: Korrigans, and ghostly Nightwashers (similar to Irish banshees), and household Lutins who helped or hindered with the chores according to their whim. Many Breton supernatural tales concern the doleful, wandering souls of the dead, travelling the earth doing penance for any harm they caused in life. The story of the Ankou was one of the most pervasive throughout Brittany. He was the spirit of death: tall, white-haired, in a black flat hat and a long black coat, dragging or riding a wooden cart in which he gathered his crop of souls. To hear the terrible creak of the Ankou's cart was a warning that death was near -- as was the knock of an owl at the window, a magpie on the roof, or a crow at the door.
In Morlaix, a beautiful old town of the region, Korrigans lived underground where they hoarded stolen coins, beat noisily on basins, and were generally a terrible nuisance. More sinister were the Teurst, who appeared in Morlaix in the guise of domestic animals. They delighted in doing wicked deeds, causing household arguments, and shrieking so horribly the sound curdled milk and turned beer sour. We heard neither Teursts nor banging Korrigans on the night we spent in the town of Morlaix, but listened instead to Breton music in a bar where an open pit fire threw heat onto ancient walls of cob and timber. Breton folk music is a form of Celtic music, similar to that of the Irish and Scots, but it has a distinctive sound of its own in the droning pipes, the Celtic harp, the lyrics sung in old Breton and French. Like Irish music, it has seen a strong revival in the last two decades, and many good recordings are available in the World Music sections of well-stocked stores. (Look for Alan Stivell's classic Renaissance de la Harpe Celtique, as well as recordings by guitarist Dan Ar Braz and the bands Kornog, Tri Yann, An Triskell, and Lyonesse.) The sound is stirring and primal, evoking the old Celtic spirit of the land.
Our journey ended at Tregastel-Plage, where pink granite boulders tumbled onto the beach and piled into islands out to sea. The rocks were magical, carved by the wind into faces, figures, fantastical shapes. In the shelter of these rocks lived the Margot-la-Fee, peaceable fairies who spent their time raising children, tending herds of fairy cattle and sheep, and sunning themselves on the broad pink stones. If you asked them politely for bread or wool or milk, they were more than likely to oblige you. They were heard more often than seen, for they were shy of human eyes.
As the sun set over Trestle, the sea became a sheet of silver. The tide turned and the winter wind swept long pink clouds across the sky. I fancied I could almost see the isle of Avalon on the horizon, where Arthur slept, attended by Morgana and her court of fairy maidens. The Bretons say that Avalon lies off the coast just off Tregastel-Plage. Sitting there, the line between story and fact seemed as vaporous as the clouds. It was indeed an enchanted land, enchanted by its natural beauty as much as by many centuries of stories -- passed from mouth to mouth, family to family, enduring as the rocks. The sun sank low and I despaired, knowing no words of mine could conjure a fraction of the magic to be found in the simple lines of sand, sea and stone. Nor, in just a few column pages, could I begin to convey the wealth of tales to be found at the heart of the Breton folk tradition: tales of saints, sirens, and sinners; of tricksters and devils; of wisemen and fools. . . . Far better to send you to the tales themselves, and some modern adaptations of them:
Folktales of Brittany by W. Branch Johnson and Legends and Romances of Brittany by Lewis Spence are two excellent English-language sources, while Katherine Briggs, Thomas Keightley, W.Y. Evan Wentz, and Nora Chadwick all include sections of Breton material in their various works on Celtic fairy lore and mythology. Modern fiction based on Breton tales includes the Holdstock and Byatt books mentioned above, Jack Vance's epic novel Lyonesse, the "Broceliande" stories in Sylvia Townsend Warner's Kingdoms of Elvin, and Evangeline Walton's beautiful story "The Judgement of St. Ives" (published in Elsewhere, Vol. I). Dorothy Sayer's translation of Tristan in Brittany can still be found in good libraries, and The Lais of Marie de France are available in several editions.
As we left Tregastel, heading for the ferry that would take us back to England again, I decided that I was inclined to prefer the second version of the Merlin story -- the one where Merlin voluntarily gave Vivien the spell to entrap him forever. I could easily believe he would choose to spend eternity in these dream-haunted hills. . . . I'd favor the hills of Brittany myself, if I had to make such a choice. . . .
Art: "The Beguiling of Merline" by Edward Burne Jones, 1873
About the Author: Terri Windling is a writer, artist, and editor, and the founder of the Endicott Studio and the Journal of Mythic Arts. For more information, please visit her website for more information.
Copyright © 1996 by Terri Windling. This article appeared in Realms of Fantasy magazine in 1996. It may not be reproduced in any form without the author's express written permission.