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The Thousand and One Nights of Brittany

Much has been written about the legends and old folktales of Brittany. Indeed, the region is often still described as a land of myths and legends; a place where the distinction between the natural and the supernatural did not really exist until the last century.

I do not propose to relate these Breton tales here; there are scores of books in French and Breton and dozens available in English that tell well the tales and legends of yesterday. Instead, I hope to offer a brief survey of how and when the rich folklore of Brittany was mined and brought from the Breton hearth before a global audience.

Myths, legends and folk tales are the cornerstones of oral literature; they can, at times, coalesce but are distinct. Legends are usually anchored in a reality whether it is a specific locality, an event or actual person. In the oral tradition, the legend was recounted as a witnessed testimony or told by a trusted source such as a loved one whose sincerity was accepted. Legends often attempt to explain natural phenomena and the world around us, cautioning against particular dangers, or highlighting a way out of a predicament; they provide an easy if simple edification. Thus, it is the theme of the legend that is of more importance than the story wrapped around it. Legends are temporal and, over time, recast with characters and heroes who are more familiar to the storyteller and his listeners.

In a folktale, the listener is transported into the realm of fantasy and fiction but a tale can be far more than mere fireside entertainment and is often a vehicle to express and transmit thoughts and ideas, even ones that might be frowned upon were they not couched within the cloak of fantasy. Other tales possess a strong initiatory character, pointing to the transition from childhood to adulthood, or serve to underpin societal norms. Within tales, we can sometimes glimpse suggestions of long-dead beliefs that have left no other traces.

Tristram and Ysonde - Breton folklore
Tristan and Isolde or Tristram and Ysonde of Breton folklore

In recognising the broad scope of legends and folktales, we must not lose sight of the mythic tales which are sometimes dressed as legends or have morphed into common folktales. Myths are often highly symbolic, making no pretence to be anything other than fantastical but grey areas abound. A good example might be the characters of King Arthur and the sage Merlin found in the ancient lore of Brittany, Wales and Cornwall. While there is no firm evidence that these people actually existed, they are alluded to by ancient tradition as genuine historical characters, lingering as real figures in the collective folk memory, rather than obvious characters in a folktale. When hearing stories about people whose historical existence is doubtful we therefore need to consider whether we might be dealing with a veiled folktale or possibly a distorted myth.

Some Breton tales contains characters, plots and motifs found in the old tales of other parts of the Celtic world and far beyond. While such tales might have been collected by folklorists in Brittany, they are not all any more Breton than Welsh or Romanian but the tales do possess a strongly distinctive Breton colour and offer some insights into the customs and manners prevalent in Brittany at the time the tales were set down. If, as some have suggested, there really are no completely Breton tales, certain categories of tales such as religious tales often featuring the deeds of local saints, certain motifs such as the stick of Iann he vaz houarn (more popularly known as John the Bear) and certain characters, such as the Ankou (the Breton personification of death) and the korrigans are uniquely Breton.

Breton folklore
The Ankou and other fantastic creatures of Breton folklore

Perhaps the earliest examples of a collection of tales common in Brittany were collations of the exempla used by medieval preachers, such as St Vincent Ferrer, to emphasise moral conclusions.  While these bear the indelible imprint of their ecclesiastical origin, some examples sit somewhere between common tale and popular legend and feature identifiable characters and distinct locations. Others contain stories, some quite fantastic, about the lives of Breton saints not found in the hagiographies but were clearly commonly known.

The first widely available compilation of common French folk tales was published by Charles Perrault in his 1697 book Histories or Tales from Past Times with Morals or Tales of Mother Goose. A bestseller in its day, the collection, only partly derived from traditional folk tales, included such stories as Sleeping Beauty, Cinderella, Little Red Riding Hood, Puss in Boots and Bluebeard. The extent to which these stories are original creations, taken from earlier folkloric traditions or based on stories written by earlier writers such as Boccaccio and Basile remains a matter of some debate. Whatever the genesis of these fantastic tales, the significance of Perrault’s collection is that this was their first appearance in an easily accessible popular form.

However, the popularity of Perrault’s tales did not immediately lead to a wave of imitators or stimulate fresh research into traditional folk tales. In France, interest in such stories waned significantly, particularly in the year’s following the death of King Louis XIV in 1715.  Not until the so-called Celtic Revival of the late 18th century, did people start taking a serious look at popular culture in Brittany. With a nod to Perrault, Jacques Cambry in his Travels in Finistère (1795), briefly notes a few of the Breton folk tales encountered on his tour through Lower Brittany, such as; the lost city of Ker-Is, the malevolent korrigans, King Portzmarc’h with his horse’s ears and even a Bluebeard in the form of Count Conomor.

Bluebeard from Brittany - Conomor - Breton folklore
Bluebeard or Count Conomor?

With the notable exception of an Arthurian romance, the old folktales and legends of Brittany were not really set down in writing until the boom in interest in regional folklore took hold in France in the early 19th century. This was a time when interest in traditional folk tales across Europe was heightened by the publication of Children’s and Household Tales by the brothers Grimm, in ever expanding editions, between 1812 and 1857, and Hans Christian Andersen’s Fairy Tales in 1837.

It was therefore natural that eyes would fall on Brittany, a relatively isolated part of France (only since 1536) where French speakers were in the minority; a region considered by outsiders as one seeped in mystery and its Celtic past. There was an expectation that the region’s old folk tales and legends would possibly bear witness to the ancient beliefs of the Celts. However, this interest in examining Brittany’s old beliefs and customs was unwelcome for some who had already faced the anti-Breton prejudices of France’s metropolitan elite such as Jean-Jacques Le Maguérèze who wrote in his Ethologie Bas Bretonne (1840):

“… banish from your mind the superstitions which are the daughter of fear and ignorance … remember well that the time of fairies has passed and that we live in the nineteenth century which must regenerate the world … This harsh truth will no longer be said of you: that the children of Armorica are four centuries behind in civilization.”              

The main difficulty in accurately identifying echoes of past beliefs in folktales lies not only in peeling away the layers that generations of storytellers have added to the core tale but also the neutral veracity of the compiler and collector of such tales. Too much editing or modernising of tales taken from a primarily oral tradition can lead us to infer a past that existed only in the mind of the compiler or even his publisher.

Théodore Hersart, vicomte de La Villemarqué, published a ground-breaking collection of traditional Breton folk tales, legends and ballads in 1839 under the title Barzaz Breiz (Ballads of Brittany); a seminal work that was initially greeted with widespread popular acclaim. However, within a generation, Breton scholars were questioning the legitimacy of much of the collected works, claiming that the language used was not the authentic language of the common people who were said to have provided La Villemarqué with his source material. Further, they accused him of having overly enhanced the original stories and even of fabricating some of the tales and ballads himself.

La Villemarqué’s work is now widely accepted to have strong historical legitimacy but it is impossible to accurately affirm precisely how much of his published work is authentic folklore and how much his own creation. Even a comparison with the work of his fiercest contemporary critic, François-Marie Luzel, provides little real illumination as his work contains only a few of the ‘originals’ featured in the Barzaz Breiz. Whatever the degree of artistic licence employed by La Villemarqué, his work on Breton folklore cannot be ignored for there is much to commend it and after all it was he who introduced the legend of the lost city Ker-Is and the antics of the korrigans to the wider world.

the korrigans fairies - Brittany - Breton folklore

Building on his 1835-37 publication, The Last Bretons, the versatile author Émile Souvestre published a collection of Breton folktales in The Breton Hearth in 1844. Containing a large number of local folktales and legends including the phantom washerwomen of the night, the book was a contemporary counterpart to the Breton tales and legends of La Villemarqué’s Barzaz Breiz and, illustrative of Souvestre’s ambitions as a writer, a collection of tales he considered The Thousand and One Nights of Brittany.

The strong groundwork laid by La Villemarqué and Souvestre was built upon by François-Marie Luzel who spent over forty years researching, collecting and cataloguing folk tales and legends in Lower Brittany. Despite his frustrations over the disdain for true popular culture then prevalent in Parisian intellectual circles, he persevered in his efforts to highlight native popular culture as a worthy field of study. His Breton Tales (1870), Christian Legends of Lower Brittany (1881) and Folk Tales of Lower Brittany (1887) have rightly become classics, remaining in print to this day.

A key difference between Luzel and his predecessors was his development and adherence to a systematic and methodical cataloguing and classification of his sources and collection. In his preface to Folk Tales of Lower Brittany (1887) he notes:

“All my tales were collected in the language in which they were told to me, that is to say in Breton. I reproduced them, under the dictation of the storytellers, on the graphite pencil then I ironed them later in ink, finally, I set them down and translated them into French, filling the small gaps of inevitable form and abbreviations, when writing a spoken narrative. I kept all my notebooks, which demonstrate the fidelity that I tried to bring in the reproduction of what I heard, without taking anything away and above all adding nothing to the versions of my storytellers.

Breton storytellers are usually quite verbose and often like to give themselves a career, believing to increase the interest of their stories by introducing episodes borrowed from other tales. I have almost always followed them, in these detours, preferring here fidelity to the pleasure of a literary and well-deduced composition. The critics will later sort out and will be able to restore the elements that belong to each fable.”

This methodological approach was subsequently taken up by others, including his life-long friend, Anatole Le Braz. The two Bretons worked together on Folk Songs of Upper Brittany (1890) before Le Braz focused on fieldwork centred on gathering legends and superstitions surrounding Breton beliefs regarding death, the afterlife and the relationships of the dead with the living. In just a few years, within a narrow geographical region of Lower Brittany, Le Braz collected around a hundred legends, many of which have no parallels in the stories published by Luzel. His book The Legend of Death in Lower Brittany (1893) was met this widespread acclaim and offered the wider world many new insights into the character of the Ankou and the Anaon (the community of the dead).

legends of death - Breton folklore

Luzel also influenced another prominent Breton, Paul Sébillot, whom he first met in 1875, encouraging him to collect local folk stories and to employ a methodological approach to their curation. Initial results appeared in The Folk Tales of Upper Brittany (1880), a well-received collection and the first in a long series of related publications such as Traditions and Superstitions of Upper Brittany (1882) and Christian Legends of Upper Brittany (1885). Sébillot’s importance as a cultural anthropologist and ethnographer was cemented by his monumental Folklore of France (1904-7).

Elvire de Preissac, comtesse de Cerny, hailed as the doyenne of French folklore by Sébillot, was one of the first women to collect and publish stories gathered from both Upper and Lower Brittany. Her excellent Saint-Suliac and its Traditions (1861) was one of the first ethnographical works to focus, in depth, on one narrow specific region. Having abandoned her writing during her period of marriage, her most famous work, Tales and Legends of Brittany, was published posthumously in 1899.

For a number of reasons, popular interest in the old Breton tales and legends waned markedly in France and Brittany for much of the last century. However, new collections of folk tales continued to be published in the years prior to WW1 but appetites faded further during the period between the two world wars. In addition to changing tastes, a rather contemptuous attitude from Paris towards Brittany and its language on the one hand and a resistance from the populist Breton movement, who viewed the emphasis on old rural folklore and traditions as perpetuators of an outdated image of Brittany, on the other, being significant contributors.

Breton folklore

One of the last collectors of folk tales from the Breton oral tradition was Jean Le Page who published in Breton journals under the pseudonym Yann ar Floc’h until his death in 1936; his tales were subsequently compiled and published as Tales from Ster Aon (a region in central Brittany) in 1950. The similarly named Iwan ar Floc’h, a weaver from Carhaix, who knew and could recite some sixty local folk tales, was plucked from obscurity in the early 1980s as ethnographers learned of his tales from Jean Rolland, a man then living in a rest home in central Brittany who recalled clearly the tales told by ar Floc’h before his death in 1925. Iwan ar Floc’h is said to have explained the origins of his collection of Breton tales thus:

“According to the ancients, all these [Breton] tales had been invented by a woman who had married a man who did not want to have a child and had told her that if she expected one, he would kill him. When she realized that she was pregnant, she said to herself ‘I am going to tell him a long story, a little bit each night so that he wants to know the rest and no longer thinks about the child’. In due course, the child was born before the story was completed but the man found his son so beautiful that he no longer wanted to kill him.”

While the parallel to A Thousand and One Nights is clear, it is less clear how and when that collection of stories came into the orbit of a Breton speaking weaver but the absorption and metamorphosis of stories across regions and even continents is quite common, sometimes with little substantive changes to the main characters or locations. Despite its transfer from one area to another, the story remains similar to itself and this can cause problems for the folklorist.

Breton storyteller - Breton folklore

A difficulty highlighted by Paul Delarue in his The French Folk Tale (1957), an unfinished catalogue of folk tales from across the Francophone world, Delarue questions whether many of the tales he has recorded are the original tales that inspired Perrault or are modified versions of Perrault’s. This shows the profound influence of Perrault’s tales on folklore: it is now almost impossible to determine which tales are the original ones and which are Perrault’s own. For instance, the tale of The Sleeping Beauty is now widely considered part of folklore but it was originally a literary tale and, through Perrault and the Grimms, it became part of popular tradition.

Luzel wrote, in 1887: “I was the first to give exact and perfectly authentic versions of our tales; I have searched a lot and found a lot; but there will still remain, after me, many interesting discoveries to be made on the subject, and I can only engage and encourage the young Breton folklorists to try the test by assuring them that their pain will not be lost.”  Luzel felt compelled to write this as, at that time, many thought that there were no new discoveries to be made in mining the rich vein of folklore that runs deep through Brittany and he was proved right. Who knows, despite the intervening years and the demise of popular storytelling there may still be the occasional nugget to be found that is not a fashionable meme or prefaced with a hashtag.


Published by Bon Repos Gites

Enjoying life in Kalon Breizh - the Heart of Brittany.

30 thoughts on “The Thousand and One Nights of Brittany

  1. Thoroughly researched, well-written and informative as always. Enjoyed reading it. 🙂 But can I voice a thought that kept recurring as I read the post? Why this preoccupation with ‘authenticity’ while talking folklore? How ‘authentic’ can a tale from an oral tradition be considering the additions and alterations by generations of tellers? I’m no folklorist. It’s just a thought that occurred.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Thank you so much for saying so. it’s very kind of you. As for authenticity, I agree with you! How truly authentic can any traditional folk tale be once its told? Tales would be modified from place to place and from family to family.
      On the other hand, works of fiction tend to remain fairly static because they were written down but the water gets muddy when stories like Sleeping Beauty are absorbed into the collective conscious 😉

      Liked by 1 person

  2. A fascinating topic. It’s also important (in general) to take into account a translator’s possible additions and omissions. The choice of words can change meaning significantly, and translators aren’t always above choosing a meaning based on their own beliefs and preferences. I think you need to read or hear many versions of any story to start getting a hint of a kernel of the original meaning.

    Liked by 2 people

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