In the folklore of Brittany, fairies are rarely benevolent and when they are, it is usually under the tightest of conditions; the smallest infraction being punished severely. Perhaps aligned to their status as a cursed race, they are immensely powerful but fiercely proud and will not stand to be mocked or ignored. They sometimes appear seductive and protective but when provoked they can be malicious and cruel; to annoy a fairy was to expose oneself to their evil spells. There are many Breton tales of mortals battling against a fairy’s curse, one such is that of Yannick, a humble clog-maker. Here then is the story of The Clog-Maker’s Son.
Yannick could not remember a single day when he had not made sabots or cut the choicest trees from which he crafted them. His father and grandfather had been sabotiers and he knew that his own children would, one day, be joining him in plying this trade. Poor light had put a stop to the day’s labours and so he was heading home for what he hoped would be a bowl or two of hot stew and thick slices of the andouille he had exchanged with the local farmer for a pair of fine sabots last week.
As he approached his makeshift house, he was surprised to see someone leaving his threshold; a decrepit little old woman who seemed to be walking away from him with a speed he would not have credited her capable. His two young daughters ran to him as he pushed the door open, they gripped his legs tightly as he walked the few steps to his wife who sat simultaneously stirring the cooking pot and rocking their baby son’s crib.
“We are lost, my love, totally lost. The groac’h has spoken to the Queen of the Forest and she refuses to yield. She will keep our dear son forever; such was the gravity of your crime,” his wife spoke, her eyes red from crying.
“In the name of God, there must be something that can be done! Something, anything. I will give anything to regain our boy,” pleaded Yannick, “She really had no hope to offer us at all?”
“Alas, none. We could put him to the fire but that would just bring down the wrath of the fairies and I could not bear to lose Gwenaëlle and Alwena too. No, it would be too much. We must accept the fate God has chosen for us, we can do no other. Perhaps we might love him, in time,” his wife said hopelessly.
Dinner was a dour affair, nobody spoke, all seemed lost in their own thoughts and the girls, who did not understand why their parents were so tense, were unusually keen to get into bed and slide the door across to shut out the world that night. His wife busied herself washing the dinner bowls and setting the overnight fire but Yannick was barely aware of her presence; so lost in his thoughts was he. Hanging the spoons from the beam above the table, he caught sight of the little spoon that he had finished carving just two days ago. Two days, he thought; days that seemed like lifetimes.
Suddenly, he knew what he needed to do; he had to do something, he had to at least try his utmost. “I am going to see the groac’h myself,” he murmured to his wife who, roused from slumber, held his gaze with her own and nodded in silent acquiescence.
Yannick could hear the comforting sounds of the midnight bell, carried on the wind from the village four miles distant, as he reached the moor of Kerhoc. Thankfully, there was enough moonlight for him to traverse this desolate place without incident and it was not long before he spotted the copse of chestnut trees that he had been looking for. The moonlight barely penetrated the canopy of these mighty growths and he stumbled twice in the gloom, narrowly missing a cat that ran past him in the darkness.
The one-roomed cottage was cleaner than he had expected, warmer too, for he could feel the heat of the fire on his face as he waited for the old woman to respond. She sat facing him with her back to the fire, a long clay pipe clamped in her bony fingers; she blew lazy smoke rings in the air as she studied his face. “You will waste your family. I have spoken to the Fairy Queen and she will not be moved. She will not. You risk all that you have left for one that is already lost,” cautioned the old woman.
“But I must try to make her see reason. I must. I shall petition her from the heart. I will plead, I will do anything she demands. I will offer my life to her; my life for his,” Yannick replied.
The woman’s face cracked into an earthy smile which exposed her three long teeth and she laughed hoarsely; much to Yannick’s annoyance. “You have understood nothing, nothing! She will not be swayed by you or any childish begging. If she had wanted your life, she would have taken it. She wants only your grief. If you provoke her, she will take your daughters too. She wants you to suffer for your crime. That is why she took your baby and left a changeling in his place; every day you will be reminded of your offence.”
“But I did not know! Please, for the love of God, I truly did not know. I found the tree felled. I only cut two boughs, two! And only so that my family might eat,” implored Yannick in desperation.
“It is of no matter. You cut up her place of birth, her home for two centuries. She will have her vengeance and you must accept that,” explained the crone. “There is nothing to be done. She will no longer be seen by human eyes in this world and I will not chance her ire by imploring with her in the other.”
Yannick was crushed by the woman’s vehemence; the hope that he had kept kindled in his heart these last two days was extinguished. Tears welled in his eyes as he rose to leave. Embarrassed, he hurriedly dropped three sous coins into the woman’s scrawny hand and left. He retraced his steps through the silent wood, his mind unable to focus on anything but getting home and he barely noticed a cat speed past in the shadows. Having crossed the moor, Yannick took the trail that led home and it was in sight when his path was suddenly blocked; a cloaked figure stood before him. “One should never start a new day without hope, my son. So, I will gift you some words of the same; speak to the korrigan who lives under the dolmen of Merzhin.”
“A korrigan?” exclaimed Yannick, “What hope is to be found in such evil? They will take me for sure and drag me to hell. I will be killed or kept in their dungeons and never see my loved ones again. Madame, this is not hope you offer me but cold death.”
“Why so? Men are such stupid beasts; so narrow minded,” said the old woman. “Do not let the stories of old maids and children guide your fears. Men could learn much from the korrigans, if they would only take the trouble to talk but you, you might discover the only way to find the Queen of the Forest.”
“But they will drag me down to their lair and my doom,” Yannick responded indignantly.
“Let them! Alone, you will never gain access to their haunts, for they are well guarded and even better concealed. Nor will they ever invite any man to visit them. So, let them take you to their underground domain. Be not afraid. There is much to fear in the dark places but the unknown is not one of them,” she said and with those words, the witch vanished as suddenly as she had appeared.
It was the night of the new moon and Yannick had used the days since his encounter with the witch to prepare himself for his confrontation with the korrigan. It was nearly midnight as he approached the massive stones of the dolmen of Merzhin but his courage did not fail him. Seeing no sign of movement, he walked around the ancient stones and cautiously entered the chamber. He did not know what he had expected to find within but was as relieved as he was disappointed to find it empty.
Yannick started to sing, not the comforting tones of something familiar but the discordant noise of a drunkard headed for home. He leant against the cold stone as if to steady himself and, singing loudly, meandered his way to the little pond that lay nearby. There, hidden amongst the heather, sat a korrigan who immediately leapt to his feet and began frantically skipping around Yannick’s legs. “We should dance! Such a fine night as this calls for a fine dance. Dance with me!” sang the little korrigan.
“Begone! In the name of the Blessed Virgin and of Saint Anne, begone little man,” Yannick cried. However, the korrigan would not relent and pulled Yannick towards the black waters of the pond and it was then that he saw it; a large gold pendant, glistening brightly through the shallow water. “Take it, it is yours. Take it. It is fairy gold and quite ancient,” urged the korrigan. Yannick was captivated by the gleaming jewel and found himself involuntary drawn closer to it. Tentatively reaching his arm into the water to grasp it, he was transfixed when two strong hands instantly gripped his limb and pulled him into the water as if he had been no more than a child.
He must have fallen into unconsciousness, for when he opened his eyes he found himself in an enormous chamber cut entirely from the whitest quartz; the walls and vaulted ceiling sparkled and reflected into a thousand points of light, that given off by the candles nested in the golden candelabra that stood nine foot tall in the centre of the room. Yannick was struck by the fact that he could not see any doors but was completely felled by the immense heap of silver, gold and precious stones that glistened so much that he thought they could have changed night into day.
Without having noticed where he came from, Yannick was startled by the sudden appearance of the korrigan before him. Small and lean, wearing a dirty canvas smock and holding a large stick, he looked at Yannick as quizzically as a dog watches a kitten. “Why have you come? Did you think to steal my treasure? Are there more of you skulking about up there?” demanded the korrigan.
Yannick explained that he was quite alone and that he had meant no harm, indeed he had come to deliver a gift as a token of respect between neighbours. The korrigan seemed unconvinced; “Respect? It has been centuries since your kind showed mine any decency, let alone respect. Anyway, what could you have thought I needed,” he said mockingly as he turned to cast his stick over his pile of riches. It was then that Yannick noticed his tail; it was perhaps as long as that of a cat but covered in the soft down that boys like to think is the making of a beard.
“I have brought you these,” said Yannick as he reached inside his pocket from where he withdrew a small piece of grubby linen. Unfolding the cloth slowly, he revealed a very small pair of sabots which he set down before the korrigan. “They are made from the antlers of the great stag of Quénécan; a beast so fast and powerful that no huntsman ever got near him, for he outwitted them all.” The old korrigan nodded appreciatively as Yannick removed another package from his pocket, which he unwrapped saying: “I made for you another pair, these I fashioned from the tusks of the giant boar of the Blavet; he was a mighty swine, renowned in these parts for his daring spirit and elusiveness, he having never fallen to a hunter.”
Taken aback by Yannick’s kindness, the korrigan thanked him for his thoughtfulness and the quality of his work. He took off his own sabots to try on his gifts and revealed his cat-like feet. It was now Yannick’s turn to be taken aback but he did not let his shock show; he merely took out an auger and began modifying the little shoes. He worked quickly and soon presented the korrigan with his craftsmanship; the ghost of a smile crossed the dwarf’s eyes as he tried on each pair with complete satisfaction at Yannick’s skill.
Now, Yannick pressed what he hoped was his advantage and extracted a final bundle from his pockets, which he offered to the korrigan who unwrapped it eagerly to expose a fine pair of sabots whose soles were studded with an arc of stout hobnails. After some swift re-working by Yannick, the korrigan put on the sabots and danced a quick jig; the clamour of iron against the stone echoed around the room, much to the dwarf’s delight. “These were crafted from the oak of the Fairy Queen herself. They are unique and always will be, for no more will ever be made from that magical bough,” explained Yannick.
“Remarkable, truly remarkable,” responded the korrigan. “Made from the Queen of the Forest’s tree you say? There is power to be marshalled in these, mighty magic indeed and for which I give you my sincere thanks. Please, as a mark of my gratitude, take whatever item that takes your fancy from amongst my trove. Only one, mark you, but any one.”
Yannick cast his eyes over the dwarf’s treasure; there were diamonds as big as goose eggs, nuggets of gold as big as his forearm, golden torques worn by the princesses of old but the prize he sought was not amongst them. Taking a deep breath, he turned to the korrigan and having bowed lowly, said: “I am honoured that my humble gifts have met with your favour and greatly appreciate your offer but what I desire most is the return of my son, who has been taken by the Fairy Queen. If you know where I might find her or how I might bring my boy safely home, I beg you tell me,” he pleaded.
“You would really turn away from riches that would make you more powerful than the dukes?” asked the dwarf with no little surprise. “Very well then, listen to me and listen carefully. You will need more than courage and cunning to force an audience with the Fairy Queen for there are many hurdles to be overcome and many guardians to pass. You will need to uncover hidden gateways and know which to open and which to avoid. Even if you succeed in standing before her, you need to have something to offer her in exchange for your child and it needs to be far more valuable to her than new shoes,” explained the korrigan.
Yannick listened intently as the old dwarf told him of the rigid etiquette to be followed when speaking to the little folk and of the ways to pass through the realm of the fairies without drawing attention. He often found himself repeating the dwarf’s words, to make certain that he had understood them correctly. Yannick had clearly underestimated the difficulties that lay head but was relieved that he now had an understanding of what to expect and the mind-set that he would need to adopt in order to progress.
“The entrances to the world of the fairies all change on the appearance of the blue moon, so, whatever happens, you and your son must quit those lands by the calends of Giamoni, lest you be condemned to stay there forever. Fortunately for you, the nearest portal is one of the most poorly guarded; it lies within the ruins of the castle of Brobearh and is guarded by a korikaned of prodigious strength who is, in turn, protected by the ghosts of two red monks.
Finally, you must, at all times, be in possession of two mighty talismans; without these, there really is no hope for you,” cautioned the korrigan. “Before setting out, you must, for three consecutive mornings at the first appearance of the sun, drink the milk of a white yearling in which you have boiled the heart of a swallow along with six acorns that have fallen from an oak on which a sorcerer was hanged. Carry this potion with you and be sure to drink of it every morning you are in the abode of the fairies.”
The korrigan paused to make sure that Yannick had understood the importance of this condition before moving on to share the secrets of the sorcerer’s staff. “This is no mere walking stick, so treat it with the reverence it deserves for it will serve you as a wand of great power. You must remove the pith from a branch of elder cut during the sounds of the midnight bell on the night of a full moon. Replace it with a compound made from the eye of a wolf, the heart of a dog, the brain of a sparrowhawk, the tongues of two mating toads and the stinger of a queen bee, all of which must have been dried by the heat of the sun between two parchments of moleskin sprinkled with saltpetre. On top of this, place seven leaves of vervain, gathered on the eve of Midsummer, together with a little powder ground from the type of moonstone found in the nest of a mouse. Lastly, cap both ends of the wand with iron ferrules made by a blacksmith born on a Friday.”
Yannick’s head was reeling with the knowledge of the ancients but his heart was now full of hope and he thanked the korrigan for this most wonderful of gifts. Whereupon, the little dwarf took hold of Yannick’s trouser leg with one hand and with the other, struck the ground three times with his stick. Instantly, they found themselves standing outside the mouth of the dolmen of Merzhin; the sun had set on another day and the moon was lying low in the sky. “Go now Christian, for you have much to do. Remember all I have told you and when you have found the moonstone, keep it with you always. As a man, you will need it and don’t forget what I said about the korikaned. Good luck to you.” And so saying, he vanished.
Having made his farewells and promised to his wife and daughters that he would return within two moons, Yannick finished his last mouthful of andouille as he lay hidden in the long grass, waiting for the sun to set on the castle of Brobearh. He knew timing would be key, he had to reach the gateway to the fairy realm when it could be opened; only while the church bells announced midnight. The distant sounds of the eleven o’clock bells signalled that it was time to act and Yannick stood up to better survey the ruins. He moved quickly through the heather and stopped behind a large gorse bush, breaking off a branch and several flowery stems that he attached to his coat. Taking the moonstone from his pocket, he rubbed his eyelids with it for several seconds before again studying the castle and then he saw them; two tall red monks with long beards and even longer swords but no sign of the korikaned.
Yannick had long steeled himself to be bold; he could be nothing less if he expected to rescue his son, and so, kissing his rosary, he walked straight to the biggest opening in the castle’s wall. “Return and leave the night to whom it belongs!” boomed a voice from the shadows. Yannick lit the candle of his lantern and looked around him saying; “I bring no trouble. I am gamekeeper of yonder estate and am tracking some poachers who would see me and my family without a home, if they are not stopped.”
“The night belongs to the dead. Leave this place and go home,” returned the voice which Yannick could tell was now quite close to him but whose owner was choosing to remain invisible.
“If you come from God, tell me your wish but if you are from the Devil, go your way as I go mine,” challenged Yannick who immediately flicked his small flask of holy water over each of the ghostly knights. Burned by their sins, the red monks recoiled in agony and in retreat seemingly passed into the very rock of the castle itself.
Now inside the castle grounds, Yannick ran towards the inner courtyard and quickly spotted his target; a large hawthorn near the west wall. Hurrying towards the tree, he stumbled over a clump of earth but turning around to look, he saw that it was in fact a hedgehog. No sooner had he noticed, than the hedgehog grabbed his ankle as hard as if a tree had fallen on it. Yelling in pain, Yannick tried to shake off the animal but it would not budge, so tight was its grip. As he struggled to free himself, he was able to press one of the stems of gorse onto the hedgehog’s spines; the animal’s grip weakened and so he impaled two more. The animal lost its grip but instead of rolling into a ball, it straightened into an enraged korrigan; the korikaned gatekeeper. Yannick struck the dwarf repeatedly with the branch of gorse that he had carried in his belt and thus subdued, quickly tied his legs together with a length of blessed twine.
The first chimes were sounding as Yannick ran to the tree and began examining its roots, pulling furiously at the undergrowth in his determination to find the entrance. Lifting a slab of schist, he grabbed at a large iron ring that seemed to have been buried in the earth under the stone but as he pulled it, he realised it was a handle. He heard the striking of the ninth bell as he frantically pulled the ring in every direction but all to no avail, when he had the idea of holding it upright. Once vertical, Yannick pushed down on the ring which slid seamlessly into the ground and as it did so, the tree split open to reveal a small door made of silver which opened to his touch. With no time to spare, Yannick pushed himself through the opening and found himself plunging rapidly into the darkness.
…. the conclusion follows here.