The Books of My Numberless Dreams

Breton Folktales

Posted on: September 1, 2007

In the past I expressed a wish to read a collection such as this when I read “Gode’s Story” in A.S. Byatt’s Djinn in the Nightingale’s Eye, originally published in Possession. It was a creepy, haunting tale and I wanted to read more from a region that produced something so…well gruesome.

The book I have before me is a bit different from what I expected. The folktales are less mysterious than Byatt’s version and transparently Catholic; a thoroughly Catholic worldview that is mixed with what I take to be regional pagan elements like giant relatives, ogres, dangerous forests and a cursed princess transformed into a snake. It’s important (for me) to note that the dominant moral manner is not clumsily handled. It is naturally incorporated into the stories rather than awkwardly masked in a fantastical setting. It reads rather charmingly. In “Peronnik, the simpleton” holy water improves a snare’s efficiency when an evil wizard’s dwarf guardian needs to be restrained, and a quick sign of the cross tightens rope knots on greedy lions. (I’m less appreciative of a Muslim woman representing the plague.) A poor beggar reappears after death as a saint in “Mao the fortunate” after living (what I guess was) an exceptionally hard life and promises help to Mao who aided his heavenly ascent, going so far as to bring in the Virgin Mary at the climax to judge over the sharing of a babe; Solomon must have been reluctant to repeat a classic.

I don’t mean to sound patronising when I describe this feature as “charming”: the stories convey a very simple, child like morality in what often strikes me as an over-the-top fashion, amusing fashion. Take another Mao, this time “Mao Kergarec or the pact with the devil”. In order to save himself from eternal damnation Mao must reunite with his criminal son, a brigand, to learn the route to hell and confront the devil, with a heavenly sent white staff for protection. An angel did literally fly down from heaven with the staff, but I think I can be forgiven for assuming that the son’s criminal doings were the wealth of his evil knowledge, and perhaps the father had to be some kind of apprentice to gain a similar evil insight. Not so. The son leads him to “a cave deep in the forest” — forests are never good places in these stories — that is a direct entrance to hell. It’s obvious that such portals must exist all over Britanny for the devil pops up in the flesh ready to tempt or be rebuked on a regular basis. Other religious influences are revealed in the apple, a fruit one must always refuse when offered for it will do you no good, more likely to send you to a grave digger rather than a doctor, and parables similar to one of Joseph’s dreams — he of the technicolour coat — when he was in Egypt.

(I am curious about the origin of the name “Mao”. I thought it was Chinese and was prepared, after reading the title, for a distasteful conversion story.)

Besides religion there are other unifying features. Marriage is held above all as the apex of happiness. Every humble, adventurous, religious, quick-minded and unfortunate fellow is rewarded with a beautiful princess or heiress, a castle, and riches beyond anything. This is interesting because in Possession the adapted Breton folktale is connected with Christabel LaMotte, a Victorian writer who, at the time Gode told the story, was single and pregnant. Academics also thought her to be a lesbian. (Like Ivy Compton-Burnett and Sylvia Townsend Warner she lived with a female companion for a significant number of years.) “Gode’s Story” is radically different from the stories I read so far. It isn’t a quest but a thwarted love story in which a sailor, truly in love with the miller’s daughter, out of shared misunderstandings and pride decides to marry the smith’s daughter instead. It ends with the miller’s daughter, haunted by the sight of a dancing baby out among the grass, eventually following it over a cliff. It’s a sad, creepy, horrifying tale, make no mistake, and though one or two of the Breton folktales I’ve read so far have had disturbing touches, like the girl who had her arms cut off, they are no match for creepy dancing babies in the middle of the night. The father of LaMotte’s child is married and was during their affair. *shudder* So “Gode’s Story” has no happy marriage and thought it has a religious element as well, it’s not nearly as predominant or cheerily protective. Unfortunately none of the titles in the tableofcontents suggest that it belongs to the same story.

Forests are uniformly the place for conjured hallucinations, entrances to hell and havens for evil giants who can smell a Christian from a mile away. (I always chuckle when some villain makes that remark. Where on earth did this concept of distinctive religious aroma come from?) It would be great to read on how such associations changed over the years and how they varied in different countries. I know that negative connotations existed in at least some parts of pre-Christian Europe, but I assume that the current take on pagan beliefs, with a more positive view our leafy brethren, had roots in a similar past as well. We have the former paradise of Adam and Even with mild lions and carefree lambs. Some contemporary fantasy authors work with the idea of the forest as a source of the strange and otherworldly, of good things and others more sinister ( Winter Rose, The Last Light of the Sun). In Mythago Wood, Robert Holdstock gives a more Jungian perspective and makes primeval forests the collector/source of a people’s collective myth. The Breton stories remind me more of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s fiction, The Scarlett Letter and “Young Goodman Brown”, a short story in which a puritan goes to attend an initiation in a kind of coven, taking place deep in the forest, and meets Satan on the way. Basically, I have a lot of jumbled thoughts about this and wouldn’t mind a book to help me sort them out.

A significant part of what makes these stories pleasurable is the humour. I may be wrong but some of the stories are written in a wry, even witty style that helps to keep one interested in each hero’s trial if the prospect of him being trampled by card-playing ogres isn’t enough. The story of Mao’s rise to fortune begins with his gift of 3 silver pennies, all the money he had in the world, for the burial of a poor beggar whose body lay by the door of a priest who refused to bury the chap without payment.

The bad priest was told the news; he took the three pieces of silver, gabbled the prayers for the dead in as short a time as a courier’s horse gets to eat his oats, and lowered poor Stevan into a hole in the ground; then he went off to see if the sucking pig that was roasting for his lunch was well done on both sides.

OK. Tell me that that’s not funny. Maybe the proper reaction is to be horror stricken at his lack of respect for his holy office, but the “sucking pig” line after the horse and oats simile was too good. Right up there with Diderot’s effortless equation of monks and nuns to everything immoral in Jacques the Fatalist and his Master. (You should read it if a fun, intellectually deft 18th century novel sounds like your thing. In some ways it’s not unlike a shorter, French Don Quixote.)

I can’t say much for the quality of the translation. It seems good enough for a general reader like me, but it was translated from a German translation, not the original French. (Or rather Breton?). I’m halfway through the “Folktales” section and am looking forward to “Legend”. The next one is “The story of Christic who became the Pope in Rome”.

3 Responses to "Breton Folktales"

[…] takes us to Brittany on the other side of the Atlantic when she reviews a collection of Breton folk tales at The Books of my Numberless […]

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Many Breton folk tales teach how to earn money realistically (not by the murder of giants and theft of their goods) and how to prevent riches from turning one’s head. I also enjoy the wry humour: instead of “they lived happily ever after”, a typical Breton tale finishes with “they lived for many years as happily as can be expected for a married couple”.

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