Saturday, February 13, 2010

In Search of the Lady in White (Trecesson)

By far the most haunting Breton Fairy Tale I have told is not medieval but rather, from around 1750. It involves a weary road traveler who, in the middle of the night, witnesses a procession of young people dressed in black lead a young woman dressed all in white out of a black carriage drawn by black horses. They take her to a field, dig a grave for her, and throw her in. The witness is so disturbed by this that the next day he begs the lord of Trecesson castle to come and see the sight of the event. The lord and his men find the freshly overturned earth and start to dig. Before long, they see white clothing and then, to their horror and wonderment, the Lady in White sits up from within her tomb. Her white face and sad eyes mark all those present. She heaves a tremendous sigh and then falls down dead.

Iris and Eleanor were ready for come what may. I honestly tried to think of ways to lighten up that story, but couldn't. The kids have decided that she was a fairy who had to get away from an evil man who wanted to hold her and her magic powers prisoner. So she had to die to live out her life in freedom and peace on "the other side." A good resolution! The whole story reminds me of Eyes Wide Shut, Stanly Kubrick's last movie based on a 1926 novella by Arthur Schnitztler, which described a late 19th-century secret society and their antics. The mystery that surrounds the Lady in White (her identity was never discovered, nor those of her companions) makes one think of secret societies, and the 18th century was lousy with secret societies (take the Free Masons for instance). It's all recorded, this tale, so not the stuff of medieval oral tradition, but rather the local lore of persistent rumor and speculation.

It still won her a place on this great mural o' Arthurian lore in the very nearby town of Campénéac. You see her white, ghostly form (which some claim to still see today - a detail I left out for the kids who were plenty freaked out already) to the right of the castle of Trecesson. There's Merlin in the top right, some elves dancing below...

But who's this guy? and will the woman get away? Can't wait to get to that fairy tale.

The creepiness quickly faded for the kids, once they saw the castle itself. It was locked up tight and, as you can see surrounded by a lake (more on that in a second). The castle itself, and perhaps the tiny hamlet of houses that look they might have been barns or kitchens at one time, are all privately owned. When I told Oliver, he looked around the expansive woods and at the lake and said "Geez, how much privacy so they need?"

Quite a bit apparently. The castle has the lake all around, and then this lush (think spring) forest around one flank. This picture and the next are Mac's beautiful shots (he's discovered the exposure button and whatever this is set at is glorious).

It is glorious, isn't it? And from the 15th century at that. Had to be solidly built to still be standing (in a lake!) today. Another Arthurian legend is associated with the lake of the castle and involves none other than the Lady of the Lake giving a sword to Lancelot! For those of you who need to see the Monty Python scene disclaiming the political efficacy of governments founded by the gifts proffered forth from "strange women lying in ponds," here's the link. :-)

If I sound a little glib, I apologize - I honestly think it's a response to the haunting mood of the site. I'm always moved by silent stones, but when they've taken on stories (and stories of chivalry are one thing, those of strange ceremonial sacrifice another), they're that much more present. And this castle has quite the character, don't you think? The steely winter day added its own touches, the castle's steady stand of 500 years, too. It's rather wonderful, but in its own way haunting, too, to think of the castle being privately owned. Most castles have been separated from the complex medieval and pre-modern history they framed by becoming museums; they are now shrines to a time gone by, to systems (political, economic, and ethical) now discarded and even discredited; the museum framework makes the complexity of the castle (its history and its systems) fade in the light of a nostalgic hue for a distant, now impossible, past. A castle that is still used as a home doesn't have that distancing framework. To sleep and step in the rooms and on the stairs upon which 15th century lords slept and trod - what is that like? To live our modern systems of thought framed within a medieval architecture - what is that like? It makes me realize how unabsolute the disconnect from the historical past is here (and by here, I should probably say Europe, but I could say, especially Brittany - especially for an American, whose embodied relationship to the Middle Ages is so distant). There are actually dozens and dozens of castles for sale, so this experience I'm describing is not so rarified. Still, it's a very different sense of marvel that one feels before a castle that is still a home, vs. a castle that is a museum.

And now for something completely different. Oliver and Mac went to the marché today and returned with three exquisite saucissond secs (smoked sausages): one with cêpes (a kind of mushroom), one with garlic (mmm), and one (and this was the one that Oliver really wanted apparently) with bleu cheese from Auvergne. Woo-hoo! The cheeses are (going clockwise from the little round guy): a crottin de Chavignol (possibly the most famous of the little goat cheeses, with good reason; the return of a nice slice of Etivaz (Oliver's request); and a slice of Appenzeller (which Mac couldn't resist). We are well stocked for our scholarly vacation! Indeed, it is shaping up to be a marvelous time: we came home from our adventures at Trecesson (Oliver and Iris were working out all sorts of ways to get into the castle, and then started weaving some sword-presentation ceremonies into it - interesting they left the Lady in White tale pretty much alone), had a yummy dinner centered around "paupilletes de dinde" (more marvels from the butcher: a very thin cutlet of turkey sits atop spiced ground pork, is then encircled in bacon fat and tied together into a luscious bundle - in the over for half an hour atop roasting vegetables and you're taken care of!), and then watched the absolutely wonderful Le Petit Nicolas - we all laughed and treasured it - yea, childhood!

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