May 24th, 2024

Land of Legend

Searching for King Arthur in Brittany

for France Magazine

In a quiet clearing in the woods of Brocéliande, two large burial stones stand upright under a holly tree. A man with a black ponytail approaches them, bends down and tucks a slip of paper into a crack in one of the surfaces. He stands, reflects a while, then departs.  Minutes later a lady appears with a young boy, writes on a fold of paper and again places it as an offering within the stone. Close by, someone has etched a set of concentric circles into the earth.  Someone else has plaited ribbons onto the holly tree. “Voilà,” the lady whispers to the boy, gesturing to the stones. “Le tombeau de Merlin.”

Arthurian legends hang thick in Brittany, and nowhere more than in Brocéliande, a dense forest that in medieval times covered 200,000 hectares. The ways of the modern world have today reduced this to around 12,500 hectares, but the land retains a timeless, all-surrounding quality. Its ranks of alders and beeches are gnarled and ancient. The flitter of birdsong and the rush of cold streams are often the only sounds. By Brittany’s standards it’s even fairly hilly, with purpled landscapes sprawling up and down under huge skies. It’s quite a place.

Tap ‘Brocéliande’ into a sat nav, however, and you won’t get very far. The administrative name for the forest, which sits around an hour south of Rennes, is Paimpont. “For me, there are two forests here overlaying each other,” explains Marion, my guide, who moved to the area from Burgundy to follow her passion for all things Arthurian. “There’s Paimpont, which has deer, rabbits and squirrels. Then there’s Brocéliande, where you find the knights, the fairies and the legends. Not everyone sees them both,” she adds with a smile.

What makes Brocéliande so special, particularly in the eyes of Arthur aficionados, is that unlike Avalon, Camelot and other places enshrined in history-cum-folklore, its exact location is largely agreed on. Some scholars still cast doubts, but for the enthusiasts who visit in their tens of thousands each year, Paimpont is definitively celebrated as the site of the myth-heavy forest which appeared regularly in Arthurian legends. Paimpont’s medieval name, Brécilien, supports this view.

The woods have particularly close associations with the all-seeing wizard Merlin, the knight Lancelot, the fairy temptress Morgan le Fay and the enigmatic Lady of the Lake, Viviane. Their spirits are said to still linger in the woods.

Naturally, enjoying a trip here is about understanding that belief in the legends is relative. Even the most ardent romantics are aware that the stones of “Merlin’s Tomb” are the remnants of a Neolithic burial site, for example, just as no one actually comes here expecting to see faeries frolicking in the brooks. This doesn’t detract from the power of the place. “It takes time to know the forest, but by far the most important thing is this,” explains Marion, as we wander down sun-dappled trails towards a majestic millennium-old oak tree. “Brocéliande is an invitation to look beyond appearances.”

The world of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table is full of grand tales of destiny, redemption and heartbreak. Just as absorbing as the sagas themselves, however, are the ways in which they came to be handed down through the years.

It’s generally accepted that the origins of Arthur, whether or not he existed, are rooted in Britain in the fifth and sixth centuries. The Romans had by this time come and gone, and Celts made up the majority of our island’s population. A significant number of these Celts, of course, were then forced by brutal Saxon invasions to flee across the water to what is now Brittany. They brought with them their history, language and folk traditions. In doing so, they entrenched the spirit of Arthur on both sides of the Channel.

For centuries, legends of the valiant King of the Britons were handed down by word of mouth, through story-telling and song. Lays – short, emotive songs usually performed by travelling bards – became a particularly prevalent way of keeping Arthur alive in the Breton consciousness. Touching also on Celtic mythology, the songs told of chivalry, patriotism and an age of collective nationhood, all of which resonated with the region’s inhabitants at the time.

By the 12th century, the birth of romantic literature meant these legends finally began appearing in print, both in Britain and Brittany. Storylines became entwined and embellished (there’s evidence that Henry II commissioned an author to establish a bloodline between him and the great King Arthur, to bolster his popularity in Britain) and the list of characters became longer. In Brittany, partly to please local readers, the province itself became an integral setting of Arthurian romances. The best part of a thousand years later, this remains the case.

Various parts of the province still have associations with Arthur and his colourful band of knights, sages and doomed lovers. On the north coast, a church in Perros-Guirec has a famed sculpture denoting an Arthurian adventure. On the south coast, the monastery of St Gildas de Rhys was founded by a monk, Gildas, who himself was said to have met Arthur. Over in Brittany’s west, meanwhile, the forest of Huelgoat is another wrapped up in Middle Ages myths.

But none of these compare with Brocéliande, and the semi-mystic aura that has welled up around it. Both of the forest’s tourist information offices sell stacks of books on witches, druids and dragons. Among visitors, colourful, flowing clothes are de rigueur. Even the galettes in the obligatory crêperies are named after knights and faeries. In mood, the nearest UK equivalent would be the town of Glastonbury, although Brocéliande is far smaller – its total population, over a broad area of woodland villages, barely nudges 2,000.

The forest’s only real town, the charming little lakeside settlement of Paimpont, was once at the heart of the region’s iron ore industry. The ground is rich in minerals – you’ll see a dark reddish tint to the soil and slate – and for centuries a large number of forges here produced high-quality iron for domestic products and weapons. They reached their peak in the 1850s, then declined due to fierce competition. The last blast furnace went out in 1884. The town, which still plays home to a gorgeous 13th century abbey, today relies mainly on forest tourism. Luckily, there’s plenty to make that viable.

In the west of the forest, Marion takes me to the most remarkable French church I’ve ever entered. Its modest stone walls mean it doesn’t look much from the outside, but the interior is extraordinary, with the decor combining Arthurian legends, Celtic tradition and Christian imagery. “A priest called Father Gillard was sent here to try and increase attendance at church in the 1940s,” she explains. “The locals weren’t enthusiastic, so he decided to make the church itself more relevant to them. He redesigned everything. It worked too.”

On stained glass windows, Christ looks down from his crucifix onto knights gathered around the Round Table, the whole scene framed with Celtic patterning. Elsewhere, a mosaic shows the Messiah as a Brocéliande forest stag. Among the framed paintings on the wall, meanwhile, one shows Jesus prostrate at the feet of a buxom Morgan le Fay. “It’s an attempt to show that different beliefs can live together in harmony.” A full statue of Father Gillard, bespectacled and pensive, still stands outside the church.

A few minutes away, we spend an hour walking through the dale known as Le Val Sans Retour, said to be enchanted so that only men of pure mind are able to leave it once entering (I managed it, I’m pleased to report). Lancelot once passed through the valley, it’s believed, and his love for Guinevere was so true that his presence was enough to release every impure man that had become trapped. It’s a lovely spot, with yellow wildflowers and rocky bluffs standing high above wide pinelands. Like most of the forest, it makes for a deeply soothing setting.

That afternoon I meet Patricia, a bohemian Belgian tourist holidaying with her husband. “We’ve come to Brocéliande twice a year since 1994,” she tells me, as we look out over sweeping woods. “It’s the serenity that gets you. The peace, the people and the countryside. It’s a very spiritual place.” There are some spectacular manmade sights in the forest – not least the gloriously turreted Château de Trécesson, a match for its Loire counterparts – but for Patricia and her partner it’s individual trees that hold the most magic. They talk of particular beeches and oaks with the reverence of art critics discussing Rodin sculptures.

The next day I’m introduced to someone with even more of an attachment to the forest. Nicolas Mezzalira is the director of the Centre d’Imaginaire Arthurien, an interpretative museum which occupies the handsome Château de Comper. In the seven months it opens each year, the museum draws 30,000 visitors. The chateau itself has origins dating back to the 9th century, and overlooks the large lake in which Merlin is said to have constructed a crystal castle for his beloved Viviane. This morning there’s a thin mist on the water, disturbed only by swallows.

“When we have school groups, some of them swear they can see Viviane’s castle,” laughs Nicolas, who ushers me inside warmly. As he shows me around the myriad exhibits, which range from Arthur-inspired artworks to in-depth legend appraisals, he explains his passion for the subject. “It’s all an inextinguishable source of inspiration for artists. Some Brits say ‘why are you bloody French stealing our stories?’, but it’s all about shared heritage. The Arthur legends have inspired everyone from Wagner and Cervantes to Tolkien and JK Rowling. So Brocéliande is a place of freedom. It’s somewhere to touch a little poetry.”

We return outside and stroll slowly around the lake. “We want people to be able to explore their own imaginations,” he explains. “It’s the old saying – when the wise man points at the moon, some only look at the end of his finger.”

On my last afternoon I hike to what Nicolas tells me is the most important place in Brocéliande: the spring of Barenton. According to Arthurian legend, if water from the source is poured onto the broad stone at its head, rain will come. After 20 minutes of negotiating quiet forest paths, I arrive at the softly bubbling fountain. A wet patch on the stone attests that someone has been here recently, testing out its fabled properties. And as I stand there, a light rain starts to fall. Soft at first, then heavier. I stay for a few minutes, breathing in the cool sylvan air, then return through the woods.