Sacred Texts  Sagas and Legends  Celtic  Index  Previous  Next 


Mut ant este noble Barun
Cil de Bretaine il Bretun.
Marie de France.
Thise oldé gentil Bretons in hir dayes
Of diverse aventurès maden layes.
BRITTANY, the ancient Armorica, retains perhaps as unmixed a population as any part of Western Europe. Its language has been, however, like the Welsh and the Celtic dialects, greatly affected by the Latin and Teutonic. The ancient intercourse kept up with Wales and Cornwall by the Bretons, who were in a great measure colonists from these parts of Britain, caused the traditions and poetry of the latter to be current and familiar in Little Britain, as that country was then called. To poetry and music, indeed, the whole Celto-Cymric race seem to have been strongly addicted; and, independently of the materials which Brittany may have supplied for the history of Geoffrey of Monmouth, many other true or romantic adventures were narrated by the Breton poets in their Lais. Several of these Lais were translated into French verse in the thirteenth century by a poetess named Marie de France, resident at the court of the English monarchs of the house of Plantagenet, to one of whom, probably Henry the Third, her Lais are dedicated. [a] This circumstance may account for the Lais being better known in England than in France. The only manuscript containing any number of them is in the Harleian Library; for those of France contain but five Lais. The Lai du Fresne was translated into English; and from the Lai de Lanval and Lai de Graelent--which last by the way is not in the Harleian Collection--Chestre made his Launfal Miles, or Sir Launfal Chaucer perhaps took the concluding circumstance of his Dream from the Lai de Eliduc.
In some of these Lais we meet with what may be regarded as Fairy machinery. The word Fée, indeed, occurs only once; but in the Lais de Gugemer, de Lanval, d'Ywenec, and de Graelent, personages are to be met with differing in nothing from the Fays of Romance, and who, like them, appear to be human beings endowed with superior powers.
The origin of the Breton Korrigan, as they are called, has been sought, and not improbably, in the Gallicenae [b] or ancient Gaul, of whom Pomponius Mela thus writes:-
"Sena [c] in the British sea, opposite the Ofismician. coast, is remarkable for an oracle of the Gallic God. Its priestesses, holy in perpetual virginity, are said to be nine in number. They are called Gallicenae, and are thought to be endowed with singular powers, so as to raise by their charms the winds and seas, to turn themselves into what animals they will, to cure wounds and diseases incurable by others, to know and predict the future; but this they do only to navigators who go thither purposely to consult them." [d]
We have here certainly all the attributes of the Damoiselles of the Lais of Marie de France. The doe whom Gugemer wounds speaks with a human voice. The lady who loved Lanval took him away into an island, and Graelent and his mistress crossed a deep and broad river to arrive at her country, which perhaps was also an island in the original Breton Lai. The part most difficult of explanation is the secret manner in which these dames used to visit their lovers; but perhaps the key is to be found in the Lai d'Ywenec, of which, chiefly on that account, we give an analysis. The hero of that Lai differs not in point of power from these ladies, and as he is a real man, with the power of assuming at will the shape of a bird, so it is likely they were real women, and that it was in the bird-shape they entered the chambers of their lovers. Graelent's mistress says to him, [e]
I shall love you trewely;
But one thing I forbid straitly,
You must not utter a word apérte
Which might our love make discovérte.
I will give unto you richly,
Gold and silver, clothes, and fee.
Much love shall be between us two--
Night and day I'll go to you:
You'll see me come to you always--
With me laugh and talk you may.
You shall no comrade have to see,
Or who shall know my privacy,
* * *
Take care now that you do not boast
Of things by which I may be lost.
The lady says to Lanval,
When you would speak to me of ought--
You must in no place form the thought
Where no one could meet his amie
Without reproach and villainie--
I will be presently with you,
All your commands ready to do;
No one but you will me see,
Or hear the words that come from me.
She also bad previously imposed on the knight the obligation of secresy.
As a further proof of the identity of the Korrigan and the Gallicenae, it may be remarked, that in the evidently very ancient Breton poem, Ar-Rannou, or The Series, we meet the following passage:--"There are nine Korrigen, who dance, with flowers in their hair, and robes of white wool, around the fountain, by the light of the full moon." [f]

[a] Poésies de Marie de France, par De Roquefort. Paris, 1820. If any one should suspect that these are not genuine translations from the Breton, his doubts will be dispelled by reading the original of the Lai du Laustic in the Barzan-Breiz (i. 24) presently to be noticed.
[b] The Bas-Breton Korrigan or Korrigwen differs, as we may see, but little from Gallican. Strabo (i. p .304) says that Denieter and Kora were worshipped in an island in these parts.
[c] Sena is supposed to be L'lsle des Saints, nearly opposite Brest.
[d] Pomp. Mela, iii. 6.
[e] It might seem hardly necessary to inform the reader that these verses and those that follow, are our own translations, from Marie de France. Yet some have taken them for old English verses.
[f] E korole nao c'horrigan,
Bleunvek ho bleo, gwisket gloan,
Kelc'h ar feunteun, d'al loar-gann.
Villemarqué, Barzan-Breiz, i. 8,
The c'h expresses the guttural.

Next: Lai D'Ywenec