For centuries, tales of unjustly treated heroines, eventually finding happiness, have featured in the popular traditions of countless cultures worldwide. In Europe, the best known example is probably the tale of Cinderella, first published in the 17th century. Variants of this story abound and one of several versions found in Brittany is the tale of the grey wolf’s wife. This is her story.
Long ago, when the trees were thicker and the rain sweeter, there lived in the heart of Brittany, a powerful baron. Twice widowed, the baron had been graced with three daughters. Some years separated his two eldest children from his youngest who, at times, also seemed separated from his affections. While the older girls were feted at court and wore fine dresses trimmed with lace and silver thread, the youngest always stayed at home and wore only those garments cast aside by her sisters.
The baron was noted for his generous hospitality and an invitation to one of his lavish feasts was highly prized amongst the nobles of the land. With no wife, his eldest daughters fell easily into the role of hosts while their sister was usually to be found in the kitchens with the servants; only venturing out to sit in the corner of the Great Hall’s monumental fireplace to listen to the evening’s entertainment. It was therefore unsurprising that her sisters nicknamed her Luduennic or, in English, Cinderella.
A keen huntsman, the baron would often take his hounds into the vast forest of Quénécan. During one of these excursions, he became separated from his retinue and found himself in the thick of the forest, quite lost. At length, he chanced upon a modest but stout castle; a building previously unknown to him. His curiosity aroused, he dismounted and approached the door, which opened as he was about to strike it. To his astonishment, he found himself in the presence of a large grey wolf. He recoiled in fear but the wolf spoke to him: “Be not afraid. Please come inside, take some food with us and rest for the night. In the morning, we will put you on the right path for home.”
The baron entered the castle with some caution although he had no need to worry for he was treated with every courtesy and ate a wonderful meal in the company of two great wolves, who sat at the table in the manner of men. After a hearty breakfast, the wolves proved true to their word and guided the baron to a track that led out of the forest. Grasping the horse’s bridle tightly, the grey wolf addressed the baron: “Lord of Poher, I have shared my table and shown you kindness, now you must show me the same. I know that you have three daughters; one must consent to be my bride. If not, there is only death for you; my brother and I will devastate your land and its people. Go now, ask your eldest daughter if she agrees to take me for her husband and return tomorrow with her answer.”
Anxious to leave, the baron promised to put the proposal to his daughter but knew, in his heart, that she would never countenance such a wild notion. Arriving at his castle, he first saw Luduennic, who had been watching for him near the gates; her eyes red from crying over his disappearance. As soon as she saw him, she ran up to kiss him but he brushed past her and hastened to go to his eldest who he found, as always, with her sister, busy adorning themselves and admiring one another. “Where have you been, father? You did not return and we were worried for you!” they cried.
“My dear children, if you only knew what happened to me! I was lost in the forest and spent the night in a mysterious castle, where I was looked after by two talking wolves.”
“Talking wolves? Have you lost your mind father? Surely, you had a strange dream.”
“I wish that were the case but alas it is not so. One of the wolves told me that he needs one of my daughters for a wife; otherwise there is only death for me, cold death and the destruction of our lands. What say you, my child, will you take him for your husband?” he asked his eldest.
“What? You have surely lost your mind in the forest, to ask such a thing of me! Me, take a wolf as my husband when there are so many handsome lords wooing me. It is really too much!”
“But, my dear child, what is to become of my life and our lands?” pleaded the baron.
“What will be, will be. You ask for too much from me. I will never be a wolf’s wife!” she said firmly.
It was the answer that he had expected and it was a worried man that rode into the forest early the following morning. Within minutes, the grey wolf stepped out of a dense thicket and stood in front of the baron’s horse before asking: “Tell me my fate; what answer do you bring me?”
“I regret that she thinks that I must have lost my mind to have made such a proposition to her.”
“She said that to you? That is a great pity but I will be married. Go home; make the same proposal to your second daughter,” the wolf responded.
Burdened with grief and not a little fear, the baron returned to his castle and lost no time in summoning his second daughter and submitting to her, the wolf’s offer. “How can you ask such a thing of me who loves you dearly? Ask anything of me, dear father but not that! I am a good Christian and in all conscience, I cannot do this. I will not do this!” his daughter sobbed before running out of the baron’s chamber.
Early the next morning, the baron set out for the forest once again and, once again, his heart was heavy with dread. “What answer do you bring from your second daughter, my lord?” demanded the grey wolf. Squirming uncomfortably in his saddle, the baron could only mumble that his daughter’s rejection had been as firm as that of her sister. “You have twice brought me disappointment. My threat was not an idle one. Go now and ask your youngest girl if she will agree to be my bride.”
Believing all hope lost, the baron returned home and immediately asked his valet to send Luduennic to him in the Great Hall. Tears welled in his eyes as he spoke: “You are of age, my child. I want you to marry.”
“I am willing to serve our house as you think best, father,” replied an astonished Luduennic.
“Good. Thank you! You will marry a great wolf who lives in Quénécan forest.”
“A wolf!” she cried.
“Yes, my sweet child. The day I was lost in the forest, I spent the night in a strange castle where dwelt two enormous wolves. One of whom, a grey beast, told me that he would have one of my daughters for a wife, otherwise there was only death for me and that moreover he would devastate our land. I have spoken to your sisters and both are firm; they will never take a wolf as husband. You are my last and only hope.”
“Oh my dear father, then it must be done,” replied Luduennic, without hesitation, “tell the wolf that I will take him for my husband.”
For a third time, the baron returned to the forest but on this occasion, he felt no trepidation as the grey wolf blocked his path. “What tidings do you bring me today, baron,” asked the wolf.
“My daughter consents to marry you,” replied the baron without emotion.
“That is good. Now, you must waste no time in arranging the wedding. As a token of my esteem, please give these three fir branches to your daughters.”
Nine days later, almost six hundred guests celebrated the wedding of Luduennic and the grey wolf; the dancing and merry-making did not stop until the first light of dawn. Everyone agreed that it was a most wonderful day and certainly the strangest union that they had ever witnessed. The next morning, Luduennic found that her stem of fir had turned to gold, much to the consternation of her sisters who had disdained theirs and thrown them away upon receipt. When the last revelries were over, the baron bade the newlyweds a heartfelt farewell and prayed for his daughter’s happiness.
Married life sat well with young Luduennic; she was kindly treated by her husband and wanted for nothing. Indeed, she was happy and content. After some three months had passed, the grey wolf interrupted her breakfast, saying “Your oldest sister is to be married tomorrow and you should attend. My brother and I will stay at home. Take this gold ring and wear it on your finger. You will not see its equal. When you feel it prick your finger, you must return here immediately, no matter the time or whatever you might be doing.”
The next day, Luduennic attended her sister’s wedding, arriving in a beautiful gilded coach drawn by four powerfully-built white horses. All the guests were dazzled by her beauty and the rich lustre of her fine clothes and sparkling jewels. “Look at the wolf’s wife!” her sisters mocked jealously; for none could compete with her in beauty or dress. They overwhelmed her with questions: whether her husband was well; why did he not attend the wedding; was she happy with him; did he sleep with her like a wolf, and so many other enquiries.
After the wedding feast, the night was devoted to dances and games of all kinds. Sounds of happy laughter filled the night air and Luduennic seemed the very epitome of joy, throwing herself into one dance after another. At midnight, she felt her ring gently pricking her finger. Straightaway, she announced: “I must leave now, my husband is expecting me.” and made her farewells.
“What? So soon? Please stay just a little longer,” her sisters and all those around her urged. “You are having such a good time. Have fun here; you will always have enough of your wolf’s company.” So, Luduennic stayed but within the hour, her ring pricked her harshly. She ran to the courtyard and into her coach, which promptly left with all haste. Arriving at her woodland castle, she found her husband lying on his back in the middle of the courtyard, on the verge of death. “Oh my beloved husband, what happened to you?” she cried.
“Alas,” replied the grey wolf, “you did not come home as soon as you felt your ring prick your finger. Your neglect has brought this trouble upon me.” Luduennic threw herself on her husband and kissed him, watering his noble face with her tears. Revived, the wolf straightened up and the relieved couple were helped to the comfort of their hearth by the grey wolf’s brother.
Some four months passed peacefully before the wolf, over dinner, announced: “Your second sister is to be married tomorrow and you will attend. Take care that you do not stay there overlong. Return to me the instant that you feel your ring prick your finger. If you do not, you will never see me again.”
It was a radiant Luduennic that stepped down from her carriage at her father’s castle the following day. Was it possible, the crowd asked, that the bride’s little sister looked more beautiful than before. Once again, she was showered with questions from her sisters and extended family. They were aghast to hear of her pregnancy and her father feared that she might give birth to a wolf cub. Luduennic simply smiled and responded that only God could know the future and that whatever pleased Him, would happen.
Some of the best musicians in the land had been hired to play at the wedding and their music fuelled dances of all kinds, much to Luduennic’s delight. A little before midnight, she felt a sharp bite as the ring pricked her finger. Anxious not to repeat her previous mistake, Luduennic began to say her good-byes but, caught in the throng of so many well-wishers, she forgot herself again and returned home even later than the first time.
No sooner had she stepped down from her carriage than the air was rent by the long mournful howl of a wolf. Luduennic ran across the courtyard to where the grey wolf’s brother stood over her husband’s prone body. Seeing no sign of life, she flung herself to his side, lamenting: “My beloved, I lost myself again. Forgive me. Wake up! Please, return to me!”
Luduennic’s hot tears fell onto the grey wolf’s face but he remained deathly cold; even after he had been moved to lie in front of the castle’s main fireplace. Holding his body close to her, she rubbed his neck anxiously and was much relieved when, at length, he stirred a little, then opened his eyes and looked at her tenderly. Finally, he spoke: “My misery is complete. You failed my one request of you. You are too late, now I must leave you and you will not see me again. I no longer had to remain in this wolf form: if you had but honoured me, as soon as you gave me a child, I would have recovered a first form, that of the prince I was before. Now, I must go to live on the Crystal Mountain, across the Blue Sea and the Red Sea, and you will not find me until you have worn out a pair of iron shoes and a pair of steel shoes in search of me.”
With that, he threw off his wolf skin; his brother did the same and they were revealed, in their natural state, to be handsome young men with noble bearing. Luduennic was overwhelmed with remorse, she sobbed uncontrollably and cried: “No! Stay! Stay or take me with you. I beg you!” She ran after her husband, shouting: “Wherever you go, I will follow, even to the very end of the world,” but he would not listen to her pleas. Gripping her long, flowing robe, Luduennic gave chase.
In an effort to distract her, her husband threw in her path a perfect ball of gold. Luduennic stopped for a moment to pick up the beautiful orb and continued her pursuit. Her husband dropped a second gold ball, then a third, which she also picked up, without ceasing her run. She was the stronger runner and, feeling her hard on his heels, he suddenly turned and punched her full in the face. Her nose exploded with blood but just three drops splashed onto the prince’s white shirt. He barely looked at the devastated face of his bride before resuming his course. Alas, Luduennic was in too much pain to continue and could only shout to him: “I wish that no one can wipe away my blood from your shirt, until I come to remove it myself!” As the fleeing prince and his brother disappeared from view, Luduennic made a solemn oath that she would not stop walking until she found her husband.
So, she returned home and took her golden frond to the master blacksmith at Gwareg who forged for her a fine pair of shoes made of iron and another crafted in tempered steel. The smith also created an iron ferrule for the new walking stick that she had fashioned from a strong branch of elderberry. With some ill-fitting clothes bought from the blacksmith’s wife, she set out again in the direction in which she had last seen her husband go.
Luduennic walked; she walked night and day, barely taking time to rest. She travelled far; far beyond all lands and languages known to her. Her wooden sabots had perished, so, she wore her iron shoes. Everywhere she asked for news of the Crystal Mountain, located beyond the Blue Sea and the Red Sea, but no one was ever able to give her any indication of their whereabouts.
Eventually, her iron shoes were worn away and she was forced to put on her steel pair before continuing her quest. Months of constant walking took their toll and her steel shoes were also almost worn through, when Luduennic arrived at a desolate sea shore. There, nestled between two gigantic red boulders, she saw a miserable looking hut. She approached it and saw inside a little woman, as old as stone with teeth as long and sharp as those of a rake. “Hello, little one; what are you looking for here?” croaked the old woman.
“I search for my husband, who left me. I have walked for nineteen moons yet I can find no trace of the Crystal Mountain where he said he was going. It lies beyond the Blue Sea and the Red Sea; tell me, does this ocean carry either name?” asked Luduennic.
“Truly, you have travelled far and suffered a lot to come here,” replied the crone.
“Yes but perhaps, sadly, in vain. I have already worn out a pair of iron shoes and the steel ones on my feet are also almost spent. Do you know the Crystal Mountain?”
“You are on the right path, little one, but you still have far to walk and much to endure before you get there.”
Luduennic’s heart dropped at this news: “In the name of God, help me, grandmother, please. Please help me!”
“You do interest me little one and so I shall do something for you. I will call my son; he will take you across the seas Blue and Red and will put you, in no time, at the foot of the great Crystal Mountain.”
Shuffling to the threshold of her hovel, the crone let out a cry so piercing that Luduennic could hardly credit its source. A few moments later, an ominous shadow spread across the sky from the south and Luduennic saw the outline of an impossibly large bird darkening the heavens. It glided towards her, crying, before landing gracefully nearby. The enormous eagle touched the old woman’s feet with its beak and asked her: “Why did you call me, mother?”
“To take this one over the Blue Sea and over the Red Sea and deposit her at the foot of the Crystal Mountain,” she responded.
“Very well. So shall it be,” replied the eagle, “let her ride on my back and we will leave immediately.”
Luduennic sat astride the eagle’s back and clung tightly as the magnificent bird soared high into the air. They flew away from the sun and over the Blue Sea and soon thereafter, the Red Sea. The sun had not fully passed across the sky before the eagle began to descend toward the base of a towering peak: the Crystal Mountain. Having laid his burden at the foot of the mountain, the eagle flew away and was soon out of sight.
Having decided to climb the mountain on the following morning, Luduennic allowed herself a night’s rest. However, the full light of day illuminated the challenge ahead; the mountain’s slope was steep and slippery, and she could not find any trace of a path. It was then she noticed a fox playing nearby with some golden balls, similar to those her husband had thrown at her in his flight and which she still carried in her bag. The fox appeared to be rolling his golden balls from high up the mountain before gathering them all up when they reached the bottom. Seeing Luduennic, the fox spoke in the language of men and asked her what she was doing at the mountain. No longer surprised to encounter talking animals, Luduennic told the fox of her search and long journey from home.
“Of course, of course,” muttered the fox, “You are, no doubt, Luduennic, the youngest daughter of the Baron de Poher? Tomorrow your husband is to marry the daughter of the master of the Castle of Crystal Mountain. It will be a grand occasion.”
“This cannot be,” cried the poor girl, “I must speak to him. In all haste, I must! But how can I ever climb such a mountain as this?”
“Take hold of my tail with both hands, hold tightly and I shall take you to the top,” replied the fox. Luduennic took the fox’s tail as instructed and was able to climb to the top of the mountain, where the fox, before departing, showed her the castle where her husband was living.
As Luduennic made her way towards the castle, she saw a group of washerwomen scrubbing clothes in a steam and noticed that one of them was fiercely working on a shirt with some stubborn stains on it. Clearly unable to remove the stains, the washerwoman held up the shirt to her neighbour, saying: “This thin shirt has only three stains on it but I cannot lift even one of them. I dare not scrub it more as it is fine linen but the young lord wants to wear it tomorrow as it is his most beautiful shirt.”
Luduennic heard these words and, having approached the washerwoman, instantly recognized her husband’s shirt, saying: “If you want to give me the shirt, I think I will succeed in making those stains disappear.” The washerwoman gave her the shirt; she spat on the three stains, soaked the cloth in the water, rubbed it and the stains promptly disappeared. In recognition of this service, the washerwoman invited Luduennic to come with her to the castle, where she could find work for as long as the wedding celebrations lasted.
The following morning found Luduennic seated on a low wall that ran alongside the road upon which the bridal procession travelled on its way to the church. At her side, she had spread a clean white handkerchief upon which sat a beautiful gold ball. The expectant bride did not fail to notice the glistening ball as she passed by; she admired it greatly and sent one of her trusted maids to secure it for her.
“What will you take for your little gold ball?” the bride’s maid asked Luduennic.
“Tell your mistress that I will not sell my gold ball, neither for silver nor for gold,” replied Luduennic.
“My mistress has a strong desire to own it, however,” continued the maid.
“Tell her that if she wants to let me spend tonight with her husband, she will possess it; but for nothing else in the world can she have it.”
“She will never consent to that,” snorted the maid as she hurried back to the castle. After the wedding party had returned, the maid sought out her mistress and recounted her conversation with the owner of the golden ball and the high price she demanded for it. Both agreed it was a most shameless suggestion. However, such was the lure of this golden sphere that the lady reluctantly agreed to the terms offered and to conserve her honour, resolved to give her husband a potent sleeping draught before they retired to bed.
The maid returned to Luduennic and, having secured the gold ball, brought her, in secret, to the castle. The lady, delighted with her bargain and her new husband, was a picture of happiness during the wedding feast and later, while clapping the dancers, she was able to pour some narcotic into her husband’s cup without his noticing it. It was not long before he gladly acceded to his wife’s suggestion to rest awhile before dancing anymore and was guided to his chamber by his new bride.
A few moments later, Luduennic was shown to the room. She threw herself on the prince and kissed him, weeping with joy, saying: “I have finally found you, my beloved husband! If you but knew at the cost of how much trouble and pain. Our baby was lost. I have known only suffering since you left me.” However, he was sleeping soundly and nothing could wake him. The poor girl spent the whole night crying without being able to raise one word from her husband. At daybreak, the princess’s maid came for her and led her out of the castle.
Later that day, the princess was walking in the woods near the castle when she chanced upon Luduennic standing beside a white cloth laid out on the grass upon which sat another gold ball. The princess again coveted the precious globe and sent her maid to buy it. “How much is your gold ball today?” she asked.
“The same price as yesterday,” Luduennic replied. The maid reported the answer to her mistress who, eager to acquire the ball, again accepted the bargain offered.
During the evening meal, the prince, who had been slipped another dose of sleeping potion, fell asleep at the table and had to be carried to his bed. As on the previous day, the pitiable Luduennic spent the whole night with him, weeping and moaning, without being able to wake him.
However, the newlywed’s brother, whose chamber was next door, heard Luduennic’s plaintive cries and was moved to hear her say: “If you only knew of the ordeals I was forced to endure in search of you. I married you when you were a wolf. Neither of my sisters wanted you. I alone loved you and now you receive me this way! I will visit you once more and if you do not rouse, we will never see each other again!”
In the morning, the prince’s brother relayed all that he had overheard and told how Luduennic’s deep anguish had moved him deeply. Suspecting some mischief, he cautioned his brother against drinking anything offered by his new bride; if he retained his senses, he might see Luduennic’s devotion for himself. While the brothers were deep in conversation, the princess was walking outside the castle walls with her sister and was most surprised to encounter Luduennic, sitting outside the east wall with yet another golden ball. A deal, on the same conditions as the first two, was swiftly concluded.
During the evening meal, the prince was careful of what he ate and poured away his drugged drink without his princess noticing. Pretending to succumb to an irresistible sleep, he was carried to his bed by his brother and was wide awake when Luduennic slipped into his chamber a short time later. Weeping with joy, Luduennic told her husband of the many hardships she had overcome and the pain she had carried in searching for him. The prince was touched by her sincerity and believed her earnest declaration that she loved him above all else in the world. So complete was his trust that he vowed to return with her to her country and leave, without regret, his new wife.
Dressed in the manner of the princess that she was, Luduennic was the prince’s guest at dinner on the following evening. Introduced as one of his relatives, nobody recognised this visitor whose beauty commanded the gaze of all present. A most convivial atmosphere surrounded the evening and it was not long before people started to tell tales and sing songs; each vying to be more entertaining than the last performer much to the delight of the lord of the mountain. “And you, my new son, will you not sing us something too, unless you prefer to recite some beautiful story? asked the master of the castle.
“I have little to say, father,” replied the prince. “However, there is one thing that troubles me and on which I would welcome your advice and that of the other wise men present. It is this: I once owned a charming little box, opened by a delicate golden key. I lost this precious casket and had a fine new one made but as soon as I took hold of the new box, I found the old one. Thus, I find myself today with two and one is enough for me. Which of the two should I keep, father – the old or the new?”
“Respect and honour always that which is ancient,” replied the lord, “keep your old box, my son.”
“I am also of that opinion and therefore I must, in good conscience, return your daughter to you. As for me, I will return to the land of my first wife. She is here and loves me more than any other,” announced the prince as he rose from the table. To the total astonishment of all, he took Luduennic by the hand and promptly left the castle.
The two wolves of the forest castle were princes, sons of a powerful ruler to the south. They had been cursed, as punishment for some perceived slight, by a witch to adopt the form of a wolf. Alas, their father died shortly after their joyful homecoming and was, in turn, succeeded by the prince. Luduennic’s father was very happy to see his daughter return but her sisters had made bad marriages. Setting aside all ill will, she forgot their wrongs towards her and called them to her court where she saw them re-married to men who loved them more than their father’s estates. As for the princess of Crystal Mountain; only the storytellers heard of her fate.