To See with Inner Sight : Celtic Mysteries Resist Reality in Brittany

Article excerpt

There is an old saying: "The map is not the territory." We realized this was certainly true when we visited Brittany's forest of BrocAliande. Most maps refer to this small region--only twenty-seven square miles in area-- of primeval forest in the northwest corner of France by the mundane name of Paimpont. But people who are steeped in the legends of King Arthur know better. They know that the true name of the forest is BrocAliande.

It is a place that echoes with ancient mystery and modern enchantment. The forest is all that remains of the original woodland that once covered much of central Brittany. Hidden within its groves of pine, oak, and beech trees is an intriguing mixture of 5,000-year-old megaliths, Arthurian myths, and Celtic revivalism. Visiting BrocAliande is like stepping into a world where myth is taken for reality and fantasy has become a way of life.

According to local legend, Lancelot (who later fell in love with Queen Guinevere) was raised by the Lady of the Lake in an underwater palace in nearby Lake Comper. Another legend relates that Merlin the sorcerer fled to BrocAliande seeking seclusion. Instead he found love--and entrapment-- in the arms of Viviane. The Holy Grail also supposedly resided in BrocAliande, at least for a while, before disappearing into the mists--or should we say myths?--that envelop the forest.

Surely, you protest, nobody really believes these legends. Don't be too sure. In fact, after a visit to BrocAliande, you may never be sure again.

My husband and I were driving across Brittany on a diagonal, heading from the megaliths at Carnac to the island church of Mont-Saint-Michel on the northern coast of France. On a whim, we took a detour to the forest of BrocAliande. Just a brief visit, we thought. We expected to spend part of the afternoon following the tourist itinerary described in our Michelin guide. It was a short drive off the main highway to the village of Paimpont, located in the middle of the forest. We were happily amused as we strolled down streets named "The Fairy Viviane," "The Knights of the Round Table," and "Sir Lancelot of the Lake."

Souvenir shops lined the main street. Their windows displayed everything from Celtic-style jewelry, books on magic and modern Druid rituals, figures of elves, dwarfs, and fairies of various sorts, and medieval "Arthurian" armor (an anachronism, since the Arthur of history was a fifth-century Celtic high king, not a medieval knight). We soon realized that although the Knights of the Round Table are long gone from BrocAliande, the Breton legends are alive and well. Indeed, they are the source of a thriving neo-Celtic revival.

A dark-haired young man welcomed us into the Red Son souvenir shop. Soon the young man, Jean, was regaling us in a mixture of Italian, French, Spanish, and English, describing the Druid goings-on in BrocAliande. He told us that he had just returned from cutting mistletoe with a golden scissors from the top of a sacred oak tree under the light of the full moon at the summer solstice. He offered my husband a sprig. Jean explained that he was a Druid bard who had recently moved to BrocAliande from Italy. He was part of an active Druid community that met regularly and practiced various rituals in the depths of the forest.

Jean told us about various must-see sacred sites: Merlin's tomb, the sacred oak, the Chateau of Comper and its nearby lake, the Valley of No Return where Morgan le Fay ensnared unfaithful knights, and the magical fountain of Barenton. Then he paused, shaking his head sadly. "Tourists come here and ask me, 'Where can we see the fairies?' I tell them, and they go into the forest expecting to see fairies, but they usually come back disappointed. They don't realize you have to look with the 'eyes of the heart' to see the fairies--you have to look with the Inner Sight. Then you'll see them."

We nodded sagely, encouraging him to say more. …