How Brittany remains a land of legends

Fairies and korrigans, the mysterious city of Ys washed away by water, Ankou and Arthurian legends… Armorican legends inspire dreams far beyond the borders of historical Brittany. How can its persistence and strength be explained? More importantly, how can its meaning be revealed beyond the various versions it has been given?

If Brittany is now considered a land of legends, it owes a part to a paradox. In fact, oral traditions have been preserved there beyond the nineteenth century thanks to the continuity of Gallo and Breton, both recognized since 2004 as languages ​​of Brittany by the Regional Council.

Until the 1950s, the first was widely spoken in the countryside of Upper Brittany, Loire-Atlantique or Ille-et-Vilaine, for example, when the second dominated Lower Brittany, from the west of Morbihan to the west of Côtes-d. ‘Armor through Finistère. In the past, Gallo – from Breton bilewhich means “foreigner” – acquired land in Breton, due to its proximity to the French.

But it has long been favored to prove fatal or nearly so. Gallo is actually one of the languages ​​of the oïl – Romance dialects of northern France and Belgium. Like the “patois” of other regions of France, it has not aroused during the last two centuries the same interest as Breton, the only Celtic language on French territory, related to Cornish and Welsh still spoken across the Channel. . as one of the foundations of regional identity.

Gallo is also currently on the verge of extinction, while Breton now has more than 200,000 speakers and can rely on a wide network of media and learning structures, in public establishments and in the associated network in Diwan schools, where students learn it by immersion. .

“The Barzaz Breiz Quarrel”

At the end of the nineteenth century and the first half of the twentieth century, following the example of what happened outside mainland France during the colonial conquest, the desire to impose French as the sole language of teaching and administration go hand in hand with duplication. attention to oral narratives, which we hasten to collect when their oral transmission seems doomed to imminent death.

The first major attempt to collect stories, in the form of songs and poems, linked to Breton legends and mythology and to historical facts whose story was passed down through oral tradition, began in 1839. This work by Théodore Hersart de La Villemarqué , a 24-year-old Finisterian, son of an ultra-royalist deputy, who published a collection in the name of Barzaz Breiz, popular songs from Brittany.

He never stopped adding content in the course of several reissues, and his work immediately gained him the interest of his peers, such as Gérard de Nerval and especially George Sand, busy in these years collecting stories oral exams in Valois and Berry. But as its popularity grew, criticisms became more lively, initiated by the philosopher and historian Ernest Renan, then taken up again in the late 1860s by the folklorist François-Marie Luzel.

What was quickly called “the fight of Barzaz Breiz” will continue to this day. Théodore Hersart de La Villemarqué, like the poet James Macpherson, translator of the Scottish Gaelic bard Ossian, has been accused of rewriting or inventing most of the texts collected in his work. To make matters worse, he refused to give details of his origins.

In 1964, the discovery of his notebooks in the collection made it possible to complete the research begun at the beginning of the twentieth century to identify the performers cited by the author. If the area of ​​pure invention is too limited, rewrites are available. The real issue may be elsewhere, in the influence that he never stopped exerting on generations of Breton singers and in what the researcher Nelly Blanchard describes as his “rebellion charge”, the basis of the constitution of a regional identity.

A child exploring the “house of the corrigans” on the Allée de Lesconil in Cap Sizun, Finistère, 2020. © Olivier Favier

From the romanticism of Émile Souvestre togolden age of folklorists

In the arguments put forward, the opponents of Barzaz Breiz confirms the relatively general passage in Europe in the second half of the nineteenth century and the beginning of the next century of a romantic vision of tales and legends, which is also very present in another contemporary collector of La Villemarqué, Émile Souvestre, in a strict method that is faithful to the sources.

François-Marie Luzel, Paul Sébillot or Anatole Le Braz, to name only the most important, claim to be writers and historians, ethnologists, anthropologists or linguists. The first two, following the rest of Théodore Hersart de la Villemarqué, were passionate about archaeology. All three are also staunch Republicans.

Paul Sébillot was born in the east of Côtes-d’Armor, in the country of Gallo. So it was only natural that he started collecting the VSprovinces of Upper Brittany, after a short career as a painter. His interest in folklore led him to be interested in other regions of France, especially in finding similarities between Brittany and Auvergne, to explain the continuity of their oral traditions.

Anatole Le Braz, originally from the west of Côtes-d’Armor, in the country of Breton, wrote all his works in French and thus revealed to the general public the richness of The llegend of death in Lower Brittany. Clever orator, adored pedagogue, he tried to reconcile his unconditional love for his homeland – he would do most of his teaching career in Brittany – and his loyalty to France which alienated him from what he called that “separatist chimeras”.

Returning to the Celtic world, he became involved with playwright John Millington Synge and stood up for Irish separatists. He also stayed in Switzerland and the United States, where he met his second wife and gave lectures on Brittany. This makes Ankou, the ghostly personification of the community of the dead, found in Wales as in Cornwall, one of the most prominent figures in France in the Breton imagination.

A horse in the forest of Huelgoat, one of the hotspots of Breton imagination, 2021.
A horse in the forest of Huelgoat, one of the hotspots of Breton imagination, 2021. © Olivier Favier

A legendary fund is always studied and accessible to all viewers

University research and cultural dissemination, as evidenced by the current exhibition of Barzaz Breiz at the Departmental Museum of Brittany in Quimper, confirms a strong continuity of attention given to these oral traditions. Regional publishing houses such as Coop Breizh, Locus Solus, Ouest France or Terre de Brume provide wide access to the works mentioned above and their various extensions, which go beyond the catalogs by other French publishers, including collections for children.

A part of the mythology of Across the Channel – especially the Arthurian legend – is shared in Brittany, which relates some places like the forest of Brocéliande in an imported corpus. Archeological traces – dolmens, menhirs, tumuli – crystallize their amazing many legends of the Celtic tradition, especially those related to korrigans – the term korrigan is literally translated dwarf-small- little. In 2016, Gaël Bizien devoted a documentary to these elves, titled Correctwhere the questioning of experts and residents, he tries with humor to prove their existence.

Among the legends of the Breton oral tradition, the best known is undoubtedly related to the city of Ys. It is often said according to Charles Guyot’s version of the book, The story of the city of Ys according to ancient texts, which was published in 1926. Despite the title of the book, the author does not hesitate to add some fiction of his own or to take from versions that are more recent because they are imaginary. Thus he made Malgven, a queen from the North, the mother of the story’s protagonist, Princess Dahut. And to make good, he gave this queen a “sea horse” [Morvac’h] which she will then give to her husband, King Gradlon.

Beyond these poetic licenses, the story told is about the Christian re-reading that makes Princess Dahut a devourer of men – she seduces and kills a lover every night – and the devouring in the city of Ys la the consequence of all his sins. This is how it is The Escape of King Gradlonfamous painting by Évariste-Vital Luminais, displayed in the Quimper Fine Arts Museum, we see the ancient sovereign riding the Morvac’h and throwing his daughter back into the waters of the Bay of Douarnenez at the call of Saint-Guénolé .

The bay of Douarnenez in winter, one of the places identified as home to the remains of the city of Ys, 2021.
The bay of Douarnenez in winter, one of the places identified as home to the remains of the city of Ys, 2021. © Olivier Favier

A necessary return to basics

All this makes Lukaz Nedeleg smile, a young storyteller from Brest who wants to make this legend, its origin and its meaning, the subject of a show whose creation is planned for the end of 2023, Dahud, the forgotten city of Is1 “The city of Ys is everywhere on the coast of Breton, around Cap-Sizun, there are those who say that it is at the bottom of the bay of Douarnenez, and those who place it in the Bay of ‘Audierne and make the Ile de Sein the only part of it that is still visible. »

Stories of shipwrecks are a topos among populations living by the sea. Similar ones can be found in Wales. Regarding Dahut, he is reminiscent of the Irish Banshee, messenger from the Other World, especially since in Celtic tradition, the world is often seen as divided into two parts separated by the surface of water.

The sinking of the city of Ys thus represents the brutal transition from the pagan world to the Christian world, and Dahut what Gradlon had to leave behind in the flow towards modernity. She also embodies the Celtic relationship with the sea, which often takes the parts of a woman who is as attractive as she is dangerous, who with one breath can capsize a ship.

“Brittany attracted the romantics, concluded Lukaz Nedeleg, and the first collections formed a picture of the legendary Breton that sometimes bordered on caricature. But Brittany escaped its own clichés. We want to freeze it is in time, but there is a part of the culture that continues, in a whisper and under water. »

1 The city is spelled Ys or Is, as for the final d in Dahud, it corresponds to the Breton pronunciation that brings it closer to the French t.

Évariste-Vital Luminais
Évariste-Vital Luminais “The Flight of King Gradlon”, circa 1884, Transfer of State property to the city of Quimper in 2013 © Collection of the Quimper Museum of Fine Arts.

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