Tuesday, April 13, 2010

A-Questing (and Happy Birthday, Steve!)

Today, Gretchen and I set out for Arthurian adventure. We went to where legend meets land: the Broceliand Forest. It houses so many Arthurian/Merlin/Vivane sites (and has the neo-celtic paintings on houses in towns nearby to prove it). We were drawn to the Fountain of Barenton, a 4km loop through absolutely beautiful forest (hills and dales and streams and trees whose branches meet overhead). Like all the others, this was a site that was re-awakened in the 19th century (new stones to frame the spring, clear the forest all around it, create pathways, plant trees to line said pathways), but unlike most of the others which were invented for the 19th century's hunger for All Things Medieval (think Merlin's tomb), this site seems to have "longue durée" continuity back to the Middle Ages.

It figures very prominently in Chrétien de Troyes's 1180s tale Yvain; the knight and the lion as the fountain which is guarded by Esclados whom Yvain kills before realizing that the former was the husband of lovely Laudine. Yvain falls madly in love with Laudine (who despises him); Lunete the lady-in-waiting arranges for Laudine to fall in love with Yvain, much adventure ensues, and the story ends on one of the strangest "happy endings" around. Here you see Yvain calling out Esclados by throwing water from the fountain onto a nearby stone (it makes Esclados nuts, and causes thunder, lightning and rain to shower down upon the forest). When I teach this story and its images (which I will do this fall), I'm consistently fascinated by the tension between a nature barely controlled by magic, and a culture barely held in check by ritual. Yvain eventually marries Laudine, but then breaks a promise to her and, when repulsed by her, goes mad and wanders the forest thusly (not to worry, Lunete makes everything aright once again). Looking at the beauty of the forest today, I did have to remember there was a very sinister side to it in the Middle Ages. The Barenton Fountain is most likely a cultic site from deep antiquity (from the neolithic period?) that offered comfort and respite to those who interacted with the forest. It has a natural quality that I saw in action: about every two or three minutes, bubbles of (as we learned) methane gas wriggled up to the surface of the water - at first one or two, and then a steady stream lasting about 15 seconds. I don't know if methane gas has any healing properties, but it certainly does make the fountain look alive. One of the many fascinating things about Brittany is that the Romans didn't leave too much of a mark here, so it's quite common to visit a site that allows you to travel from the neolithic period to the Middle Ages without any Roman voices or interference. I can't quite say why that's so delightful (especially as much as I love the Romans) except that the continuity feels immediate, and the site more intense - it never had to bend its shape to the imperial forms of ancient Rome.

And this is nowhere more true than at Montneuf, with its history of medieval activists taking down the megaliths around the year 1000. Here is dear Gretchen before one of the bigger ones of the region. We walked, we talked, we walked some more - and all under a sunny sky, weaving medieval with modern fantasy, wondering what "heritage" means, and asking each other about various means of connecting with the past. Gretchen leaves to go back to London tomorrow, and we, too, are leaving for just a bit, dear friends. We will be going a-questing within the Côtes d'Armor, along the Granite Coast. We'll be visiting the Planetarium de Bretagne (the biggest in all of Europe), a christianized megalith, the "Sentiers des Douaniers" (the path of the customs officers), a Gallic Village (!!!), and a ruinous abbey, a colorful wooden choir screen, and a Dance of Death painting. So we will see you again Thursday evening with many images and lore of quests!

In the meantime, Happy Birthday dear brother of mine, Steve! May your 38th year be one of discovery and wonder!!!


  1. Entirely tangentially, the central role of Lunette, essentially a servant, in the tale of Yvain immediately stood out to me because it's a theme that comes up all the time in French lit - I'm thinking of Molière in particular (Tartuffe). It's often the servants, midwives, etc who succeed at directing and bringing to fruition the designs of their supposed social betters. I was just surprised to see that come through so clearly in a Medieval account.

  2. Et oui - it's so pronounced (she has so much agency and Yvain is just so hapless and helpless; Laudine, too for that matter) that it begs interpretation. It is very easy to "go Marxist" with it (the lower classes should rule, the upper classes are hopeless and hapless), but I'd be curious to know what other interpretations are (comedy? the world upside down?)
    Thank you for this comment! it's fascinating to see how long these ideas lasted!