Brittany's Broad Canvas

By Lothar, Corrinna | The World and I, December 2004 | Go to article overview

Brittany's Broad Canvas


Lothar, Corrinna, The World and I


Corrinna Lothar is a writer with The Washington Times.

PONT AVEN, Brittany

From the fairy forest of Broceliande, where King Arthur, Guinevere, and Lancelot made their home when they were not across the Channel in Britain, to the mysterious megaliths built 70 centuries ago, Brittany is a province of France filled with romance, legend, art and history.

The connection between the two Britains is ancient. About 500 B.C., when the Celtic Gauls arrived in what today is Brittany, they named the peninsula Armor (land of the sea). The interior was Argoat, the wooded country. The Romans arrived in the first century A.D. and remained for 400 years. During the sixth century, the Celtic Britons, driven out of England by the Angles and Saxons, emigrated to Armorica and gave it a new name, Little Brittany, which in time became just Brittany, or Bretagne in French. Britain, across the English Channel, remained Grande Bretagne, big Brittany.

The Arthurian legend arose from Celtic mythology passed down orally on both sides of the channel. In France, the familiar medieval version of romantic chivalry is primarily the creation of twelfth-century poet Chretien de Troyes, whose five romances became the basis of the legend and future works.

The forest of Broceliande--Paimpont in the modern world--is the center of Arthurian activity. To enter the forest, a visitor goes up the Valley of No Return, so named because of Morgan le Fey's curse that all unfaithful men would be unable to find their way out of the forest. The clear, calm lake is Vivienne's crystal palace; at night, the fairies come out to see their reflections in the lake. Vivienne is not to be confused with Tennyson's Lady of the Lake, who gave Excalibur to Arthur, although in some versions of the legend, Vivienne receives the sword when it is thrown back into the lake; she is the inspiration for Keats' La Belle Dame Sans Merci.

There is a real golden tree in the forest, the work of French artist Francois Davin. The tree, transformed by the sculptor from a burned ruin into golden stag antlers, symbolizes the beauty and rebirth of the forest after a terrible five-day forest fire in 1990. The sculptor painted the tree with gold leaf and surrounded it with five burned trees.

The Center for Arthurian Imagery is in the privately owned Chateau de Comper within the forest. For six months a year, the center offers exhibitions, films, and guided tours of the forest.

The Breton kingdom, known as Britannia, remained an independent duchy despite Norman invasions and attempts by the kings of France and England to annex it until 1491, when the marriage of Anne of Brittany to Charles VIII of France set the scene for Brittany to become part of France. The region remains a unique section of France with its legends, saints, customs, people, and language. At the beginning of the twentieth century, most of the population of western Brittany spoke Brezoneg, an ancient Indo-European language related to Welsh.

Beginning with the Third Republic at the end of the nineteenth century, speaking the Breton language was discouraged. Signs were posted in railroad stations stating, "It is forbidden to spit on the ground or speak Breton." Recently, there has been a revival of the ancient tongue; about 300,000 people speak it, and bilingual schools are popular. It has not been spoken in eastern Brittany for centuries. Ironically, the French language was brought to Brittany from England.

For a tourist, Brittany offers a wonderful variety of sights, activities, and experiences. It is fascinating and welcoming, whether in the lush green hills and valleys of the interior or the splendid craggy seacoast, the villages of gray stone houses with slate roofs, the Romanesque churches and chapels, the pagan and Christian monuments, the castles to visit or sometimes to inhabit as paying guests, the beaches, museums and, of course, restaurants and inns. …

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