King Arthur in Brittany

The true origins of the legends surrounding the 6th century King Arthur and his knights are lost in the distant mists of time. Scattered references to this warrior king can be found in early Welsh literature, hagiographies and purportedly historical chronicles but it is in the early 12th century that the characters and features of Arthurian legend familiar to us today, such as Merlin the magician, Queen Guinevere, the Round Table and the sword Excalibur, coalesce into a single narrative about the rise and fall of a king of the Britons who defended his people against the Saxon invaders.

By the end of the 12th century, five epic romances written by the French poet Chrétien de Troyes brought in elements such as the chivalric code, Camelot and the Holy Grail and key figures like Sir Lancelot and Sir Percival. Subsequently, dozens of medieval authors penned other romances, tales and ballads featuring King Arthur or one of his knights. Some of these stories were re-imaginings of the earlier source material and featured major shifts in the personalities of key characters, particularly Arthur who is often depicted as an inert cuckold rather than a vibrant warrior or his half-sister Morgan le Fey depicted less as a healer and ally of Arthur but as a sinister, scheming sorceress.

Knights of the Round Table - King Arthur in Brittany
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At the end of the medieval period, these often disparate and contradictory threads were brought together in Sir Thomas Malory’s epic Le Morte d’Arthur (1470) and it is this work, perhaps more than any other, which has shaped our view of the Arthurian universe. Arthur’s connections with Brittany are littered throughout these early works and I propose to highlight some of the most significant links both in literature and local legend.

The most famous of which is surely Brocéliande around Paimpont; the remains of the legendary enchanted forest which once probably stretched westwards across the heart of Brittany to include the now distinct forests of Loudeac, Quénécan and Huelgoat. Here lies the Fountain of Barenton, where Sir Ywain, nephew of King Arthur, avenging the murder of his cousin, defeated the mysterious Black Knight in combat. Ywain subsequently marries the Black Knight’s widow and guardian of the fountain, Laudine, but loses her love after he breaks his vow to return to her by a certain date. Driven mad with grief, Ywain fled into the forest where he reverted to the animal state. Having been returned to his senses by a magical balm, Ywain sets out to win-back his wife’s affections. In Brocéliande, he saves a lion struck down by a dragon. The lion becomes his devoted companion and aids him in his quest for redemption, helping him defeat giants and demons before finally regaining the trust and love of his wife.

Merlin and Viviane, Broceliande - King Arthur in Brittany
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However, the fountain is most famous for its association with Merlin for it was here, when travelling in the guise of a young man, that he met Viviane, fairy guardian of the fountain and the cause of his doom. There are several versions of their story but the common theme is that Merlin is fully aware of Viviane’s designs against him but he is so besotted by her that he no longer has the ability or will to save himself from his fate.

In order to please Viviane, Merlin agreed to teach her his magic even eventually confiding to her the secret to bind a man forever. Having learnt everything she could from him, Viviane entrapped Merlin with his own spell and imprisoned him in a cave whose entrance was covered by a large rock, although a more romantic tale has him held in a crystal tower. Confined for eternity, it is said that even today Merlin awaits his release from captivity somewhere deep in the forest of Brocéliande.

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Warrior, bard, physician, soothsayer and shapeshifter; Merlin’s role in the legends of King Arthur cannot be understated. He was counsellor to both Arthur and his father, Uther Pendragon, and advised Arthur until the end. While never explicitly referred to as a druid, Merlin’s role with Arthur mirrors the division of powers between druid and king in ancient Celtic society: the kings rule, the druids advise. Like the druids, Merlin interpreted omens and enjoyed absolute freedom of movement, often leaving Arthur’s court for the sanctuary of the forest or to help other rulers without ever notifying the king first.

The fountain, which never seems to have been successfully Christianised, was traditionally said to possess a particular characteristic; whoever drew water from it and sprinkled the stones therewith, produced a terrific thunderstorm accompanied by thick darkness. The spring was also believed to possess both healing and divinatory powers. Its waters were once taken in expectation of a cure for madness but it was also popularly visited by young people seeking marriage; the image of their future spouse was said to appear on the surface of the water at midnight on the night of a full moon. Similarly, young women would throw pins into the water to find out if they were truly loved or not.

Barenton Fountain, Broceliande - King Arthur in Brittany
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A ruined Neolithic dolmen in the north of the forest of Brocéliande is known as Merlin’s Tomb; the broken slabs are said to lie over the entrance to Merlin’s prison. Unfortunately, the site is difficult to interpret today due to the significant damage wrought by dynamite-wielding treasure hunters in the 19th century.  Another dolmen in the forest is known as the Giant’s Tomb and was said to have been the tomb of a giant killed by Arthur’s knights.

Not too far away is a spring known locally as the Fountain of Life; according to one story, it was created by the fairy Viviane so that Merlin might be rejuvenated. Viviane is also strongly associated with the nearby Château de Comper; the lake beside the castle is reputed to have been home to Viviane who lived in a beautiful crystal palace created for her by Merlin and magically disguised as a lake.

In another legend, King Ban of Benoïc and his family took refuge in Brocéliande having fled their country on the eastern borders of Brittany following its invasion by King Claudas of the Wasted Lands. As Ban lies dying, tended by his queen, their infant son is dragged underwater by the Lady of the Lake. The boy is raised in her enchanted realm until his fifteenth birthday when he leaves to become a knight, Sir Lancelot of the Lake. Further south, towards Coëtquidan lies the Aff Valley where Arthur’s wife, Queen Guinevere, subsequently opened her heart to that Breton “flower of the world’s knights”, Sir Lancelot.

Lancelot and Guinevere - King Arthur in Brittany
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Almost from the beginning, Lancelot loves Guinevere unabashedly and devotes himself to her service but he cannot act on his passion and so, more often than not, he removes himself from Arthur’s court. As a knight, he has no equal and the tales of his exploits defeating Arthur’s enemies in battle or dragons, giants and mighty villains in single combat are as numerous as the tales that relate the many times he rescues those held captive or in distress. His love for Guinevere withstands all trials and temptations; his only infidelity is when the daughter of the Fisher King uses magic to convince him that she is Guinevere and it is the child born from this liaison, Sir Galahad, that is destined to become the perfect knight and find the Holy Grail – a prize denied to his adulterous father.

A little to the west, towards Tréhorenteuc is a deep ravine known as the Vale of No Return; the reputed onetime home of Arthur’s half-sister, the fairy Morgan le Fey, where the passage of time once flowed differently to the outside world. It is worth noting that in the early 19th century this Arthurian site was said to lie further to the east but shifted westwards in the middle of the century when the industrial scars created by the metallurgical industry sullied the romantic image of an unspoilt wilderness.

High on the ridges of the Vale of No Return stands a rock formation known as the Rock of False Lovers; two upright rocks are said to be the figures of the knight Guiomar or Graelent and his lover, turned to stone by the betrayed Morgan when she discovered them together. The unfaithful Guiomar was condemned to never leave the Vale and Morgan extended this punishment to any knight who entered the Vale who had been unfaithful, in thought or in deed, to their beloved; only a truly faithful lover, capable of overcoming the trials in the Val, would be able to free the captive knights. These trials involved besting terrible dragons and crossing a wall of fire and a cliff-lined pool and were attempted, unsuccessfully, by many knights including Sir Ywain. Finally, Lancelot learns of the captive knights and eventually overcomes the trials to lift the curse of the Vale and free the knights.

Lancelot in the Vale of No Return - King Arthur in Brittany
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The character of Morgan sometimes varies greatly between the different tales in which she features but she is always depicted as a great healer and a sorceress eager to improve her mastery of magic. In the earliest account, she rules the Isle of Avalon where she and her eight sisters tend to Arthur; a description that seems to echo the 1st century writings of the Roman geographer Pomponius Mela, who wrote of another island off the coast of Brittany; the Île de Sein. This island he described as the dwelling place of nine female virgins known as the Gallicenae. These virgins were said to be Celtic priestesses who worshipped a god of prophecy whose shrine they guarded. Many magical powers were attributed to these women and they were said able to cure even the most impossible of diseases.

Like Viviane, Morgan was once one of Merlin’s apprentices but while the early tales portray her as a wise healer, the later tales paint her magic and morals in a much darker light: “Mighty was she in magic and her life was greatly in defiance of God”. From being an ally of Arthur and Guinevere, Morgan becomes the arch-villain of the Arthurian world; a sinister schemer opposed to Arthur’s queen, whose infidelity she often tries to expose, and some of his knights particularly Lancelot who she seems infatuated with. However, after the fateful Battle of Camlann where Arthur defeats his treacherous nephew Sir Mordred, such intrigues are set aside; Morgan is one of the four enchanters, alongside Viviane, who arrive in a black boat to transport the wounded king to the Isle of Avalon where she will heal his wounds.

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A Neolithic menhir or standing stone on the small north coast island of Île Aval is traditionally said to mark the spot where King Arthur lies buried; awaiting his re-awakening which will restore peace to the Celtic lands. Just over three miles (5km) from Île Aval lies the 13th century Château de Kerduel; reputedly built on the site of one of King Arthur’s hunting lodges. Local legend tells that, on certain nights, Arthur rides along the castle’s pathways on his white horse. It is difficult to pinpoint the age of this tradition but it is interesting to note that the word Kerduel resembles Carduel where Arthur is said to have held court and where, according to one story, Merlin prepared the round table.

One legend tells that Arthur and his queen spent each Spring at their castle in Kerduel but that one night, Morgan le Fey kidnapped Arthur and took him to Île Aval where she offered him her love and eternal life. A powerful enchanter, Morgan’s magic kept the king imprisoned on the isle until he asked her for the favour of being able to review his kingdom. This request she granted but on condition that Arthur was transformed into a crow to fly over his realm. It is said that only if Brittany should find itself in great peril will Morgan release Arthur to return to his lands.

Sir Lancelot - King Arthur in Brittany
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However, another legend says that Arthur lies waiting, asleep in a cave in Huelgoat Forest, some 30 miles (50km) to the south. Similarly, a cave not far from Le Roz, near Guerlédan in central Brittany, is traditionally held to have once been home to the magician Merlin. It was said that the cave could be turned by magic so that it never faced the wind, or even moved completely underground if the wind happened to blow from every side. While a rock in the woods known as Koat Toul Lairon Arthur near Spézet carries seventeen marks which were said to have been created by the agitations of King Arthur’s horse that had been tethered to the rock for seventeen long years.

Huelgoat Forest also contains the remains of an ancient Celtic hill-fort, today known as King Arthur’s Camp, and the giant granite blocks hereabouts gave rise to the popular belief that that this was the site of one of Arthur’s castles. The settlement seems to have been abandoned towards the end of the 1st century BC, when the Roman occupiers created a new town, Vorgium (Carhaix), 10 miles (15km) to the east.

According to local tradition, the massive rocks that litter the hills of Poullaouen just 4 miles (7km) away are the remains of Arthur’s castle. Here the king is reputed to have hidden his treasures when he routinely left Brittany to attend to business in Britain; the Devil and his sons were said to guard this wealth and it is a reckless person indeed who would dare to steal Arthur’s riches!

The knight distracted by Pirner - King Arthur in Brittany
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One of the first missions of the newly crowned King Arthur was to help his vassal, King Leodegrance, whose kingdom of Cameliard was besieged by Arthur’s opponents. An early 13th century French account tells that the decisive battle was at Carhaise (Carhaix) where Arthur’s forces under Merlin and a few knights including King Ban de Benoïc were triumphant. Leodegrance had served Arthur’s father Uther Pendragon and had been entrusted with the keeping of the Round Table upon Uther’s death. He was also Guinevere’s father and, according to some texts, gave the Round Table to Arthur as part of her dowry.

Another Breton legend tells that King Arthur wed not Guinevere but Saint Tréphine or Triffin. In this tale, it is the noble Arthur who weds Tréphine rather than the barbarous Count Conomor but there are clear similarities with the more popularly known accounts of Arthur’s marriage. Much of the story revolves around Kervoura, Trephine’s evil brother, who envies Arthur’s kingdom. When he discovers Tréphine’s pregnancy, he decides to eliminate the line so that he might inherit the realm. When his sister is about to give birth, he kidnaps her and hides the baby in his castle in Lanmeur. He accuses Tréphine of killing the baby and uses false evidence to incriminate her in a plot against Arthur’s life. The latter, deeply upset, puts his wife under arrest but she manages to escape and lives anonymously for six years as a humble servant.

Tréphine was eventually discovered and brought back to court where Arthur accepts her innocence. In time, the royal couple have a daughter together but happiness is short-lived as Kervoura then accuses Tréphine of adultery by using dishonest witnesses. She is therefore condemned to be executed. However, her son Tremeur, who is now grown-up, manages to escape his jailers and returns. He arrives at court just when his mother is to be beheaded and challenges Kervoura to a duel. Tremeur is victorious and Kervoura confesses his crimes before atoning and seeing Arthur and Tréphine reconciled once more.

Knights battle at Cameliard_Pyle - King Arthur in Brittany
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Other uniquely Breton legends exist about King Arthur. For instance, a hagiography composed around the 13th century tells that, in the 5th century, all infants who died without baptism were delivered to the terrible dragon of Grand Rocher, near the north coast town of Plestin, but every year, on Christmas Eve, it demanded human prey of royal blood. The legend tells that King Arthur fought this human-headed beast, whose neck was as thick as the necks of seven bulls, for three days but was unable to defeat it; the dragon was eventually slain by Saint Efflam, an acquaintance of Arthur’s.

Further along the coast, in the northernmost corner of Brittany, the island of Mont Saint-Michel was once the lair of a brutal giant, described as 30 feet (9m) tall, who held the Duke of Brittany’s niece captive. Many knights had tried to rescue her from the clutches of this man-eating giant but all had met their end before they could gain a footing on the island; the giant sank all their ships by throwing massive boulders onto them. Undaunted by the sight of so many smashed ships and broken bones, King Arthur resolved to rescue the Duke’s kin and avenge the deaths of so many noble men. Accompanied by his knights, Sir Kay and Sir Bedivere, Arthur crossed to the island under cover of darkness but elected to face the giant alone. After a fierce and lengthy battle, Arthur emerged victorious and instructed his knights to cut off the giant’s head for the men of Brittany to stare upon. Unfortunately, the Duke’s niece was beyond saving; her young body unable to survive the brute’s violation.

King Arthur and the giant of Mont Saint-Michel - King Arthur in Brittany
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The area around Mont Saint-Michel also features another link with Arthur that was told in The Great and Inestimable Chronicles of the Great and Enormous Giant Gargantua, published anonymously in 1532. This tells that in order to protect King Arthur from the enemies he will have, Merlin created Grantgosier and Galemelle, the father and mother of the giant Gargantua, from whale bones, Lancelot’s blood and Guinevere’s nail clippings. When their son is born, Merlin instructs them to send him to Arthur’s court on his seventh birthday.

In time, Gargantua’s family journey to Arthur’s court, taking two rocks with them but Gargantua injures his foot and they rest at the seashore before crossing over to Great Britain. The curious Breton peasants come and attack the provisions of the giants. To protect their belongings, the giants put down their rocks and thus created Mont Saint-Michel and the adjacent islet of Tombelaine. Unfortunately, the parents die of fever and it is left to Merlin to take Gargantua across the sea to Arthur. The giant agrees to fight for the king whose enemies he mercilessly defeats time and again. Finally, after many years of fighting great giants and strong armies he is taken to the Isle of Avalon by Merlin.

Gargantua - King Arthur in Brittany
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Not all memories of Arthur are anchored to the earth here for several superstitions once attributed marvellous origins to the strange noises heard on the wind at night. Such noises, distorted by fear, were believed to have been produced by supernatural hunts from the Otherworld. In many parts of Brittany, it was King Arthur that was said to lead these wild hunts through the air; cursed, due to a sacrilege, to lead an unfinished hunt until Judgement Day. Arthur’s representation as the eternal hunter leading these fantastic hunts was attested as early as the 12th century when Gervais of Tilbury wrote: “the foresters of Britain and Brittany say that they often see, on certain days in the first part of the night, when the full moon shines, a company of knights who hunt amidst the din of dogs and horns. To those who question them, they answer that they are from Arthur’s court.”

Wild or Fantastic Hunt - King Arthur in Brittany
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We will likely never know whether a historical King Arthur ever existed but his legend shows no signs of diminishing. Arthur might even have remained an obscure local legend if the distant memories of a warrior king defending his people had not been woven with the darker traditions of Celtic mythology to create a canvas upon which generations of Breton minstrels overlay their rich romances before others set-down and embellished their tales on paper.

If you have reached this far, I thank you for reading! I would also like to extend my grateful thanks to those readers who have stuck with me during my enforced absence from WP; your tolerance and support is much appreciated, thank you!!

Published by Bon Repos Gites

Enjoying life in Kalon Breizh - the Heart of Brittany.

201 thoughts on “King Arthur in Brittany

  1. I’ve always been fascinated, not saying obsessed, by the legendary tales of the Pendragon, Merlin, and Morgan Le fey; and now, after having read your well-detailed article, I’m way more obsessed and curious to know more about all of the personages and lieux you’ve described here.

    Liked by 3 people

    1. I am glad that you thought so!! Thank you! 🙂 I suppose it is only natural for Brittany to feature in the Arthurian legends as he was said to have ruled after the first wave of emigrants from Britain settled in Brittany and the ties between both lands remained strong until the Viking incursions.

      Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you so much!! I am very happy that you enjoyed it! I have a list that I wrote when I started blogging of things that I would like to cover – there are two lais still on that list and spookily animals, well, horses at least! 😉

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Haha, please do not raise your expectations! I was not thinking of anything as obscure as Mildumarec but more along the lines of Lanval 😉 Phantom horses could be good but I really need to find my notes as I had done some research but can’t find them again, at present!

        Liked by 1 person

      2. Oh that’s awesome! Will it be just a discussion of the text or any comparisons bc I’ve got stuff for that too! I do believe it’s predicated on mythological material. Lol, but admittedly I always do…
        Find those notes! I’m very excited to read more from you!

        Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you!! 🙂 I am very pleased that you enjoyed the read!!
      I know it may sound strange but even into the late 19th century, congregations would take their priests there to pray for rain!!

      Like

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