A long time ago, when magic was commonplace and the fairies still lived amongst us, there was a prince of Poher who had been blessed with six healthy children. This aging nobleman was content that his lands were peaceful and that his wife and children were happy in the realm he had fought so hard to maintain; all save his only son, who seemed consumed with wanderlust and dreams of faraway places.
To indulge his boy, the prince had given him a great deal of gold and silver along with the second-best horse in his stables, with hopes that he might see a little of the world he so longed for before returning home to assume his responsibilities in Poher. Unfortunately, the young prince did not take very long to squander his coins on unfriendly cards and over-friendly women; he had even been forced to sell his horse and fine tackle to pay for his last lodging.
Penniless and with no knowledge of a trade with which to earn a living, the young man resolved to carry on heading eastwards. One evening, he arrived, exhausted with hunger and fatigue, at a poor stone cottage that sat astride a great desolate moor; home to an old tailor and his wife. He asked for a little hospitality for the night but the lady of the house bewailed her situation and explained that they only possessed one bed and had only barley bread and buckwheat pancakes for food. The prince pleaded for pity and only the chance to sleep on the hearthstone; a request that was granted along with an invitation to share what meagre resources the old couple possessed.
The next morning the prince asked his host if he knew of some grand house in the neighbourhood where he might find work as a groom or even as a stable lad. “I know only the poor around here but within a good day’s walk there is an old castle, in the middle of a wood, and maybe you will find what you are looking for there”, replied the tailor. With this encouraging news, the prince thanked his hosts and set off in the direction shown by the tailor.
The sun was setting as the prince arrived under the walls of the castle which the tailor had told him about. To him, it seemed uninhabited and long abandoned; weeds and brambles invaded it on all sides and even covered the towers and roofs. Finally finding a door that would open, he entered the castle’s courtyard but could neither see nor hear any sign of life. However, on entering the kitchens, he encountered, crouched on the stone of the hearth, an old woman with long dishevelled white hair and yellow teeth as long as those of a rake. “Good evening, grandmother,” he announced politely.
“Good evening, my child; what are you seeking? Come and warm yourself by these poor flames and tell me your story,” replied the old woman. So, the prince informed her of his situation and she showed herself well disposed towards him. She gave him some of her barley stew and afterwards led him to a chamber that contained a worm-eaten but serviceable bed. “Sleep there, my child and tomorrow morning I will find you work. During the night, you might hear, in the next room, some noise, which will surprise you but whatever you hear, do not open the door of this room or you will have need to repent”.
Too tired to mull over the old woman’s curious words, the prince immediately went to bed but sleep eluded him as his senses were now too alert. From the next room, he could distinctly hear anguished moans that convinced him that some sick person must be within and likely close to death. After an hour of listening to the most piteous cries, the prince resolved to help in whatever way he could; he got up and opened the door to the adjacent room but immediately recoiled in terror at the sight of a huge coiling snake. The serpent spoke, like a man, and said to him: “Welcome, Prince of Poher! I pity you because I fear that you are to be treated here as I myself have been. You might still avoid this misfortune and save yourself, saving me too, if you do precisely as I tell you”.
The prince was dumbstruck; nothing in his life had ever prepared him for an encounter with an enormous talking snake. “Do not be afraid for you have nothing to fear from me. I only want to save you from my fate but you must act now! Go into the forest that surrounds this castle and cut a strong stick of holly or hazel there and bring it to me”, said the snake.
Having cut and trimmed a very stout branch of hazel, the prince offered it to the snake who told him: “We have no time to lose. Put the staff through my mouth and I will coil around it as best I can. Load me on your back and carry me away from here but take care to make not a sound, lest the old witch should awaken. You must walk straight ahead until you find another castle. When you feel yourself weakening or when you are hungry or thirsty, lick the foam that I have in my mouth and immediately you will feel comforted”.
With the heavy snake loaded on his back, the prince quietly left the castle and began walking. He walked for what seemed an eternity and whenever he felt thirsty, he licked the serpent’s mouth and continued walking as before. Finally, with great difficulty, the exhausted prince arrived at the foot of a high curtain wall and once again found himself in the courtyard of a strange castle. “We are saved!” cried the snake, “Remove the staff!”
The prince withdrew his hazel staff and immediately found himself in the presence of a king rather than a serpent. “My blessing upon you, Prince of Poher,” said the king to him: “Five hundred years ago I was transformed into a serpent by an evil sorcerer. I have three daughters who live in this castle and whom the same magician also kept enchanted and asleep; in delivering me, you have also delivered them and I offer you the hand of whoever pleases you most. Here they are now, calling me, each at her bedroom window”.
The three princesses hurried down to the courtyard and threw themselves on the king’s neck, weeping for joy; then the king said to them, showing them the prince: “Here, my children, the Prince of Poher to whom we owe our deliverance. In payment of that debt, I want one of you to agree to take him for a husband”.
“The Prince of Poher! What or where is that?” replied the two eldest girls, disdainfully.
“I, father, will gladly take him, since it is to him that you owe your deliverance,” said the king’s youngest daughter.
“Fool!” her sisters snapped back, “At least let him first show his worthiness.”
“That seems right,” responded the old king who rushed to a nearby doorway only to quickly return with a great sword in his hands. “Take this enchanted sword and the white mare that you see grazing by the oven wall. Go to Russia, the horse knows the road and will lead you there directly. While you hold the sword you can be without worry, for it has no equal in the world. When you are in a battle, in the middle of the melee, all you have to do is raise the sword in the air, saying: ‘Do your duty, my good sword!’ and immediately, it will cut down, striking of itself, whatever is in its path, except, however, what you tell it to spare.
You will arrive in Russia at the time of a great battle; you will throw your horse in the middle of the fight and tell your sword to do its work and it will do it. Similarly, when you are out hunting, it will pursue and strike the game; all you have to do is watch.
In recognition of the great service that you will have rendered him, the Emperor of Russia will grant you the hand of his only daughter, who is of a marvellous beauty and with whom you will immediately fall in love. Your wife will betray you with one of her father’s generals and they will succeed in stealing your sword, making you quite helpless. You will be killed and your broken body minced, like meat for pâté.
Do not be afraid because, despite everything, you will one day be restored and marry the daughter of the King of Naples. Before your death, ask that they place your body in a sack and that this be put on the back of your horse, that they will set free. The horse will return home and then you will be saved, for with the wonderful water that I have, the water of life, I will resuscitate you and restore your body, as whole and as healthy as it ever was.
As instructed, a few days later, the young prince set his horse towards Russia carrying little more than his new sword and a mind full of confused thoughts. He arrived at the height of a bloody and confusing battle, immediately throwing his horse into the fray. Miraculously, he reached what seemed the midpoint of the fighting and raised his sword with the command: “Do your duty, my good sword!” while indicating the direction to strike. As swift as a lightning bolt, the sword rushed through the enemy ranks, scattering all before it in the blink of an eye.
The Emperor of Russia, saved by such a marvellous and unexpected intervention, took the prince of Poher to his court and showered him with honours and favours. When the young prince saw the emperor’s beautiful daughter, he immediately fell in love with her and asked for her hand in marriage. Openly given, the marriage was soon arranged and duly celebrated with pomp, solemnity and riotous feasts.
However, the new bride cared little for her husband and preferred instead a young and handsome general of her father’s armies. The prince, who had been forewarned of the path of fate, did not seem to care about his wife’s affections and spent most of his time hunting; taking so much game with his sword that everyone was astonished and many were jealous. The young general was particularly intrigued and determined to expose the witchcraft he felt certain was behind the sword’s prowess.
One evening, after a day in which the prince had taken an incredible amount of game, his wife was most effusive towards him, saying: “What a mighty hunter you are, my prince! We have never seen your equal and if you do not moderate yourself, you will destroy all the game in Russia. All of our hunters are vexed and humbled by your exploits, as much as I am proud of them. Tell me, how do you kill so many beasts every day?”
“I will tell you but you must assure me of your absolute secrecy,” replied the prince. “I have an enchanted sword and when I command: ‘Do your duty, my good sword!’, it reaches out and defeats whatever I want, whether in battle or in the hunt.”
“I thought there was some magic there,” answered the princess who also thought to herself: ‘This is better than I hoped. The sword will be mine; I will substitute another sword for his, while he sleeps.’
By the time the sun had risen on the next morning, the substitution had been made. The prince was completely oblivious to the exchange and took the sword which he found under his pillow as his own. As was his habit, he went hunting soon after his breakfast but his sword no longer reacted to his command and, for the first time, he returned home, dejected, without having taken a single prize.
Sadness not bitterness filled the prince’s heart for he now realised that the prophecy of the serpent king was steadily unfolding. Indeed, he had barely dismounted his horse before he was seized and manacled to the stable wall. “I am not blind to this betrayal nor to its ultimate cause,” the prince said to his wife, who had appeared before him an hour or so after the sun had risen the following morning. “I will not beg for my freedom, so, you must do as you think best and I ask no favour of you, save one; if I must die then let my body rest in my own land. Cut my flesh as finely as possible, put my sad remains into a sack and load it onto my horse; she knows the way home.”
Impressed by her husband’s noble manner, the princess described all that had been said to her lover and instructed that her husband’s death be a quick affair and that his last wishes be respected. As foreseen, the white mare carried its unusual burden directly to the court of the Serpent King but the suffocating stench that surrounded her as she entered the stables, caused all who worked there to flee in disgust.
One groom decided that the return of such a fine horse needed to be reported to the king. He was in the process of doing so when the king sprang-up and demanded: “Bring that foul-smelling sack to me immediately!” The groom did as he was bidden and brought the fetid sack to the king who quickly opened it and sprinkled a few drops of his marvellous water onto the shapeless and stinking contents. Almost at once the Prince of Poher emerged, as sound of mind and as healthy in all his limbs as he had ever been.
A few short days later, the Serpent King took the prince aside and told him that he had to return to Russia again. “This time,” he added, “you will go in the form of a beautiful white horse. I will hide a vial of my Water of Life in your left ear because you will need it. When you arrive at the emperor’s court, you will go straight to the stable. There, a young girl, who is employed to keep geese although she is of high birth, will come to your aid.
Her name is Souillon and she will inform your former wife, who has now married her lover, of your arrival. The princess will rush to the stable and, seeing you, will say: “This must be some mischief connected to my first husband!” She will immediately issue orders to kill you and to throw your dismembered corpse into the castle’s furnace but Souillon will plead for mercy and will stroke your head with her hand. It is then that you must tell her, very softly, to take the vial that you will have in your left ear.
Now in the form of a beautiful white horse, the prince once more left for Russia. As predicted, his former wife gave the order to put him to death, to cut his body into pieces and to throw everything into a fiery furnace. However, quick-witted Souillon had already seized the vial of precious water which had been hidden in his ear and sprinkled a few drops onto the thick puddle of curdled blood left by the executioners.
At once, a beautiful cherry tree sprang-up, bearing plump red cherries, and stretched upwards until its crown reached to the window of the princess’s bedroom. Worried by this incredible sight, the princess again feared some magic from her first husband and quickly had the cherry tree cut down and consigned to the fire. However, Souillon had managed to pick a beautiful red cherry before the flames had consumed the tree and she placed this on one of the stable’s stone window ledges before pouring a few drops of the marvellous water on it.
Immediately, a wonderful blue bird emerged, its faltering flight soon giving way to aerial acrobatics that impressed everyone with their grace and dexterity. The bird flew over the castle’s walled garden and its remarkable colour and skilful flight soon captured the attention of the princess and her husband, who happened to be walking there. “That is such a beautiful bird! Let us try to take it,” exclaimed the princess who began chasing after it. The bird seemed to enjoy the game of being chased and flew rapidly from bush to bush, never going so far as to be completely out of reach of its pursuers. In order to be able to run more freely, the princess took off her shoes while her husband removed his sword-belt: now the chase would quicken.
However, the bird swooped in a great arc and landed on the hilt of sword and instantly transformed into a man; the Prince of Poher. He quickly seized the sword and brandished it with the command: “Do your duty, my good sword!” As fast as lightning, the magical sword fell upon the startled princess and her husband and cut off their heads.
A lady of uncommon beauty had entered the garden and slowly approached the prince who recognised her with a gracious smile. It was the youngest of the three daughters of the Serpent King or the King of Naples, who had followed him in all his trials and had become keeper of geese at the court of the Emperor of Russia in order to remain unnoticed. The young couple returned to Naples, where their marriage was soon arranged and duly celebrated with much pomp, solemnity and joyous feasting.
This rather curious tale was first set-down from the oral tradition by the Breton poet and folklorist François-Marie Luzel in 1868 and published as part of his Fifth Report on a Mission to Lower Brittany (1873). Luzel spent over forty years researching, collecting and cataloguing the oral folk tales and legends of Lower or western Brittany. His systematic approach focused on faithfully recording the tales that he heard in Breton and translating these as accurately as possible into French: ‘without taking anything away and above all adding nothing to the versions of my storytellers.’
Luzel wrote that Breton storytellers were usually quite verbose and often liked to insert episodes from other tales into their stories in the belief that such embellishments only added further interest to their own. These literary detours were retained by Luzel when he transcribed his field notes, preferring fidelity to the source over a well-crafted composition. He accepted that the tale recounted above was somewhat confused and incomplete and likely a rather clumsy grafting together of two, once distinct, tales. Luzel collected this story from a beggar that lived just a few miles away from his childhood home and never found another version with which to compare; the tale thus remains unique to a single rural commune in the north west of Brittany.