Breton folk traditions
A history and heritage influenced by numerous cultures and civilisations means Brittany is teeming with myths and legends, with inspired storytelling leaving a lasting effect on locals, visitors, and even such notable artists as Gauguin. Whether it’s Romantic tales to stir the emotions or Arthurian adventures to create a sense of passion and wonder in the listeners, there is much to enjoy among the folk traditions.
Into the Enchanted Forest
As Arthurian legends go, the forest at modern-day Paimpont has a reputation like few other regions. The forest formerly known as Broceliande, which covers more than 18,000 acres, was where the Knights of the Round Table set out on their quest to recover the Holy Grail. Under orders from King Arthur, the Knights came across the most famous inhabitant of the forest, Merlin, who himself would first meet the enchantress Viviane in the forest. He constructed a crystal citadel beneath the lake at Concoret, the very same lake where Lancelot encountered the ‘Lady of the Lake’.
Details and legends surrounding the fabled exploits of King Arthur, Merlin, and the Knights of the Round Table have been prominent throughout the ages, and the Church of the Holy Grail at nearby Trehorenteuc is particularly inspired by these stories of adventure.
Saints and sinners
Such was the means of recounting stories orally throughout Brittany, many legends have undergone subtle changes as the centuries passed. Of course, this has not diminished their interest, and many hold particular fascination to this day. Breton legends surrounding the religious men of the Dark Ages, for example, are recounted locally, with the stories of battling demons and wicked villagers among the most renowned stories told to children and visitors alike.
Similarly, tales of woe and suffering maintain a presence among the legends of Brittany. The story of the city of Ys and the tragic tale of King Gradlon is regarded as one of the most powerful, with the supposed construction of a churchless town on the waves ultimately leading to tragedy in the Bay of Douarnenez.
The legend of Ys
Influenced by various civilisations across the centuries, Breton culture is full of stories. Many of these have a religious element, having been inspired by Christian tales: the legend of King Arthur and his Knights of the Round Table is set in the Forest of Paimpont near Rennes, according to French myth.
One of the most haunting and powerful of Brittany’s myths is the story of King Gradlon and the city of Ys.
The origins of Ys
King Gradlon built the city of Ys in the modern-day Bay of Douarnenez at the behest of his daughter, Dahut. The King, a converted Christian, was the keeper of the only key to the city, which was protected by a dyke equipped with floodgates that could only be opened at low tide. It was famed throughout Europe for its beautiful buildings and gardens and acted as a safe haven for pagans to continue their practices in an increasingly Christian world.
The city grew fine and prosperous, and Dahut presided at ceremonies dedicated to the sea, which the people there worshipped. In Christian eyes, however, Ys was a place of debauchery and sin. The saint who had converted King Gradlon begged him to rein his daughter in, but Gradlon adored Dahut and paid no heed.
The arrival of the Red Knight
One day, a handsome knight clad in red rode into the city, and Dahut was soon besotted with him. They became lovers and spent their days eating, drinking and dancing. One night, a great storm broke. The waves crashed against the walls of Ys but, thanks to the strength of the dyke, could not breach them.
The Red Knight, eager for Dahut to prove her love to him, persuaded her to steal into King Gradlon’s bedroom and take the key to the floodgates. Infatuated, she slipped the key from around her sleeping father’s neck and presented it to her suitor in triumph.
The fall of Ys
It was then that the Red Knight revealed himself to be the Devil. He snatched the key and opened the gates of Ys, letting the waves roll in and drowning its people. King Gradlon escaped to Quimper on a magical horse, but Dahut was claimed by the sea, turning into a morgen – a Breton water spirit that lures sailors to their deaths.
Today, a statue of Gradlon on his horse can be seen between the spires of Saint Corentin Cathedral in Quimper. The legend has appeared in several works of art and music, including E V Luminais’ painting, Flight of King Gradlon, and Édouard Lalo’s opera, Le Roi d’Ys.
Storytelling among the Breton people represents a tradition that shows no sign of abating. Whether it’s the star-crossed lovers Tristan and Ysolde, the adventures of King Arthur, or stories of demons and witchcraft, there are legends among the towns and villages of Brittany that are certain to excite and inspire all ages.