Archive for the Fairy Tales Category

The Fountain of Barenton, Brittany

Posted in Brittany, Fairy Tales, Fountain, King Arthur, Woods with tags , , , , , on November 3, 2015 by mysearchformagic

One of the undoubted highlights of my recent visit to the Forest of Brocéliande in Brittany was the Fontaine de Barenton, a mythical fountain long associated with the region’s Arthurian legends. Not only was the fountain itself rather magical, but the journey to get there, which involved following a winding path through the autumnal woodland, was pretty wonderful too.

Entering the mythical forest of Brocéliande, Brittany

Entering the mythical forest of Brocéliande, Brittany

As I set out, the path was wide and flat, not particularly taxing. As I got further into the forest, however, it became narrow and muddy, crossing rocky outcrops and traversing knobbly tree roots.

The winding path through the forest towards the Fontaine de Barenton

The winding path through the forest towards the Fontaine de Barenton

The autumn leaves were just begining to fall, and the ferns and bracken were turning a rich golden hue. From time to time I spotted huge red mushrooms which had sprouted up from the loamy forest floor. A small stream appeared to my left, trickling its way gently through the undergrowth.

Magical mushrooms on the floor of the Forest of Brocéliande

Magical mushrooms on the floor of the Forest of Brocéliande

Finally, after about twenty minutes or so of pleasant wandering, I arrived at the Fontaine de Barenton itself.This spot is mentioned in a number of medieval literary texts, including the twelfth-century Roman de Rou, and for many centuries it has been said to be the place where Merlin taught the magical arts to the fairy Viviane, a sorceress who is perhaps better known as the legenday Lady of the Lake.

The legendary Fountain of Barenton, Brittany

The legendary Fountain of Barenton, Brittany

To the left of fountain’s source can be found a huge stone slab known as the “Perron de Merlin”, or “Merlin’s Step”. Legend tells that whoever sprinkes water from the spring onto this slab will not only bring about a huge thunder storm, but also rouse the Black Knight who is said to guard the magical fountain. Twelfth-century poet Chrétien de Troyes tells how Arthurian Knight Calogrenant visited the fountain, and was defeated by its fearsome protector. Later his cousin Yvain followed in his footsteps, but ended up defeating the Black Knight, and thus became the new guardian of the magical fountain. Arhur himself is said to have been intrigued by this wonderous place, although whether he ever visited it or not is unclear.

Merlin's Step, the Fountain of Barenton

Merlin’s Step, the Fountain of Barenton

In the fifteenth century, one Guy XIV, Lord of Montfort-Laval, claimed to have inherited the ability to bring about rain by dropping water on the step, although we can assume he did not invoke any pugnacious knights in the process. In more recent times, local people would dip the foot of a cross in the water in times of drought, appealing to Saint Mathurin for rain. And in case you are wondering, I didn’t attempt to awaken any storms – it was a long walk back to the car park after all, and since I was not dressed for rain, I didn’t want to tempt fate.

The ‘Courtil des Fées’, Morbihan

Posted in Brittany, Fairy Tales, Legend, Standing Stones with tags , , , , , , , on October 21, 2015 by mysearchformagic

This month I’ve been back to Brittany, one of my favourite (and most successful) hunting grounds. Every time return to Morbihan, a region steeped in myths and legends, I wonder if I will finally run out of weird and wonderful places to discover, but every time I uncover more magical locations. This visit was particularly fruitful, so you can expect my next few posts to be filled with my Breton adventures!

My first destination on this trip was the enigmatically named Courtil des Fées, a phrase which translates roughly as ‘fairy courtyard’. As with many of my expeditiions, the journey to the Courtil des Fées began with a track leading into shady woodlands, in this case the Forest of Houssa. Althought it was severely damaged by fire in the 1980s, this ancient wood is slowly reestablishing itself, and still retains its magical wildness. At this time of year, the path leading into the forest is noisier than usual, littered as it is with crackling branches and crunching acorns.

The wild and wonderful forest of Houssa

The wild and wonderful forest of Houssa

The Courtil des Fées is located on a ridge high above the Oust valley, not far from the tiny village of Beaumont. Archaeological investigations suggest that this ridge was inhabited by humans for many centuries before the trees reclaimed it. The first evidence of these ancient inhabitants that I encountered was the remains of a four thousand year old neolithic burial mound which lies deep in the forest, sitting in a pretty clearing surrounded by oaks, birches and ferns.

The ancient burial site of Beaumont, Morbihan

The ancient burial site of Beaumont, Morbihan

Just a few metres away can be found a small standing stone, which no doubt also formed a part of this ancient burial site. Some evidence of carved ‘cup marks’ can be seen on this mossy menhir.

The standing stone at the neolithic site of Beaumont

The standing stone at the neolithic site of Beaumont

It’s just another short walk to the Courtil des Fées itself, a raised round earthwork with a diameter of around twelve metres surrounded by a ditch. Known for generations as a magical place, the Courtil has long been considered the haunt of fairies. But these fairies are not the sweet little winged sprites of Disney cartoons, but nasty, wicked imps who were reputed to steal local babies from their cots. Not surprising then that I approached this place with some trepidation.

The steep entrance to the Courtil des Fées, Morbihan

The steep entrance to the Courtil des Fées, Morbihan

The Courtil is not particularly easy to decipher, or indeed to photograph, at this time of year, its ditch and mound rather lost in the autumnal undergrowth, but its raised platform is hard to miss. As I entered its circle, the sky darkened and the wind suddenly lifted, sending a shower of acorns and chestnuts clattering to the ground around me. If I hadn’t known better, I might have suspected that someone (or something) didn’t want me to be there.

I had been promised a great vista of the valley below from the Courtil, but in fact the view was almost totally blocked by the dense wall of trees that surrounds it. In the end I didn’t hang around for long, taking a couple of photos before I headed off back towards Beaumont. As I walked away the sun reemerged and the wind faded. Back in the peaceful forest of Houssa, the Courtil des Fées far behind, I’m not ashamed to say that I breathed a tiny sigh of relief.

The Alignements du Petit-Ménec, Brittany

Posted in Brittany, Fairy Tales, History, Standing Stones, Woods with tags , , , , , , , on May 13, 2015 by mysearchformagic

The huge complex of standing stones at Carnac in Brittany is, quite deservedly, world famous. With row upon row of huge megaliths running for kilometres across the landscape, it is hardly surprising that these stones have fascinated generations of antiquarians and now attract thousands upon thousands of tourists every year. The large numbers of visitors have inevitably had an impact on the fragile environment of Carnac, and as a result the majority of the stones are now kept behind fences, far from the fingers (and feet) of inquisitive day-trippers. So, although they are an amazing sight, the best-known alignments of Carnac can seem rather distant, untouchable, lacking that certain uncanny atmosphere that I love so much.

The impressive standing stones of Carnac, Brittany

The impressive standing stones of Carnac, Brittany

What few of the visitors to Carnac realise is that there is in fact one set of the stones which remains rather overlooked, and still retains a wonderfully air of magic. The stones of the alignements du Petit-Ménec, which sit at north-easterly end of the complex, might be smaller than some of their better-known neighbours, and may be rather hidden in woodland, but the fact that they remain open and unfenced means that visitors can still wander among them and get a real sense of their unique ancient mystery.

Approaching the alignements du Petit-Ménec, Brittany

Approaching the alignements du Petit-Ménec, Brittany

Although they do appear on most of maps of the complex, the alignements du Petit-Ménec are not properly signposted, and lie quite a distance from the other megaliths beyond a busy main road. This is perhaps why they tend to be ignored by most visitors to the Carnac stones. Whatever the reason, I am rather glad that they are overlooked. Hidden in a quiet woodland, far from the crowds and their cars, the alignements du Petit-Ménec are a magic-hunters dream come true!

The magical stones of Petit-Ménec, Carnac

The magical stones of Petit-Ménec, Carnac

There are plenty of fabulous tales associated with the stones, including the (rather anachronistic) story that they were marching Roman centurions turned to stone by the wizard Merlin. Another legend tells that they are in fact a fleeing army of Pagans literally petrified by Pope Cornelius. All in all there are 101 standing stones in the Petit-Ménec group, with seven rows facing east and a further three facing north-east. Wandering amongst the stones in their peaceful forest, its easy to imagine yourself in some enchanted wood. I didn’t see any fairies, goblins or Korrigans on the day of my visit, but if I had, I am not sure I would have been that surprised. After all, I can’t think of a more suitable place for them than the magical alignements du Petit-Ménec.

Some of the larger stones in the alignements du Petit-Ménec, Carnac

Some of the larger stones in the alignements du Petit-Ménec, Carnac

The Standing Stones of Er Lannic, Morbihan

Posted in Brittany, Fairy Tales, Island, Legend, Standing Stones with tags , , , , , , , , on April 28, 2015 by mysearchformagic

The Gulf of Morbihan is famous for its mild climate and pretty ports, which are popular with tourists and sailors alike. Today it is peppered with around forty islands of various shapes and sizes, but it was not always this way. Thousands of years ago this huge bay was a much dryer place, and before it was consumed by the sea, these islands were the highest hilltops of a large and complex prehistoric landscape. A number of the islands also feature fascinating megalithic monuments, and one of the most intriguing of these is the stone (semi)circles of Er Lannic.

The island of Er Lannic, Morbihan

The island of Er Lannic, Morbihan

As a protected bird sanctuary, it is not possible to land on Er Lannic, but you can take a boat trip which skirts round its rocky shores. From a distance, the island looks rather craggy and uninviting, but as the boat approaches its southern side an interesting feature emerges. First you notice a huge standing stone towards the top of the island, then more stones pop up and soon a large semicircle of menhirs becomes clear. On the day of my visit, each stone seemed to be topped by its own proud seagull.

The standing stones of Er Lannic, Morbihan

The standing stones of Er Lannic, Morbihan

In fact, many more of these stones lie beneath the waterline, and recent investigations have revealed another stone semicircle below the water. The largest stone measures an impressive 5.4 metres tall, and a number of cists containing bones, charcoal, flints and pottery were also discovered by modern archaeologists. Although the purpose of the monument is not clear, it has been dated to around 3000 BC. My visit to Er Lannic made me wonder what other magical treasures lie under the waves of the Gulf of Morbihan – it is surely monuments like this that gave rise to the local myth of Ys, an ancient city that once stood on the coast of Brittany which was destroyed by the a huge flood after its citizens descended into sin and debauchery.

The Drowning of Arthur Braxton, Caroline Smailes

Posted in Books, Fairy Tales, Legend, Superstition with tags , , , , , , , , , on October 1, 2013 by mysearchformagic

I came across The Drowning of Arthur Braxton while browsing through the book reviews in The Guardian. The reader comments on there are unfailingly positive, describing the book as ‘magical’, ‘strange’ and ‘breathtakingly good’. I headed over to Amazon, and on seeing the rave reviews on there (a 100% five star rating last time I checked) I knew that I had to get hold of a copy.

cover_matt-quote_med

The Oracle is a run down Edwardian swimming pool in an unnamed northern town. It has been taken over by a bohemian band of new age healers, who offer water-based therapies to the eager locals, claiming that the pool lies right on top of a sacred spring. Laurel is a lonely teenager who gets a job there, and soon becomes involved in the strange, sometimes sinister goings-on. She sees things that she cannot explain, and attracts the attention of Martin Savage, one of the healers whose intentions are less than honourable. Silver, who can read palms, sees something terrible in her future, and things start to quickly unravel.

Years later, Arthur Braxton seeks refuge from the torrential rain in the now apparently empty, damp and dilapidated pool complex. Arthur is an outcast with a dysfunctional family and a band of bullies on his back. He discovers something magical inside The Oracle; a beautiful girl who swims naked in one of the pools, her sad-looking friend watching on from the side. He is instantly smitten, and on returning to the pool he finally makes contact with the strange pair. Despite the fact that the girl, named Delphina, seems unable to leave the pool, their relationship quickly develops. But The Oracle is under threat from American developers, Arthur is under threat from his persistent bullies, and the blossoming love between the boy and this water-bound beauty is under threat from the unavoidable differences between them. As the pressure grows, unbelievable truths about Delphina’s past begin to emerge, and as young love grows, Arthur and Delphina are pulled apart by circumstances beyond their control. And oustide the rain keeps on falling…

The blurb on the back of The Drowning of Arthur Braxton describes it as a ‘modern fairytale’, but if you are looking for a happy-ever-after story of handsome princes and pretty princess then look elsewhere. This book is dark, very dark, filled with swearing, sex (not all of it consensual), depression and more swearing. At times it is painfully sad, at others strangely surreal, absurdist even – if Angela Carter and Samuel Beckett had ever collaborated on a novel then it probably would have ended up something like this. As the narrative progesses, Smailes successfully racks up the tension – I read it in twenty four hours, unable to stop until I got to the dramatic climax. The Drowning of Arthur Braxton more than lives up to those great online reviews. This is modern magic at its best, and I challenge you not to love it.

Witches and Wicked Bodies, Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art

Posted in Art, Edinburgh, Fairy Tales, Legend, Photography, Superstition, Witches with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , on August 13, 2013 by mysearchformagic

Apparently Witches and Wicked Bodies is the UK’s first large scale gallery exhibtion dedicated to the subject, surprising given the extensive interest that artists have shown over the last five centuries for images of malevolent hags and mysterious sorceresses. The pictures on display in the show cover most of this period, and works by some of the biggest names in the art history canon are included, amongst them Francisco Goya, Henry Fuseli and Albrecht Dürer. Many of the artworks are on loan from the incredible collection in London’s British Museum, some come from the Tate and a few are from Scotland’s own national collection, but all of them share a fascination with the strange power of these mythical, magical women.

The Four Witches, Albrecht Dürer, 1497

The Four Witches, Albrecht Dürer, 1497

Some of the most striking works on show are the small but powerful monochrome prints, which employ line and tone to create dramatic effects. Goya’s paintings and drawings are rather creepy at the best of times; the prints on display here are downright terrifying. Many of the works included were produced at a time when the existence of witches was beyond doubt, and some books which describe ways to identify and deal with them are also exhibited, complete with elaborate illustrations.

L'Appel de la Nuit, Paul Delvaux, 1938

L’Appel de la Nuit, Paul Delvaux, 1938

Witches were certainly not shy, and many are represented as naked and unashamed, flaunting bodies which are either youthful and tempting, or ancient and shrivelled. If, like me, you assumed that the idea of a witch flying on a broomstick was a modern, ‘Disneyfied’ concept, then think again – some of the earliest works in the exhibition show them doing just that. Others even fly around on goats, potent symbols of the devil.

Witches' Sabbath, Franz Franken, 1606

Witches’ Sabbath, Franz Franken, 1606

Witches’ Sabbaths are also well represented, the scenes of diabolical drama featuring crowds of sorceresses indulging in magical excess providing material for some shockingly violent and erotic visions.

 Three Weird Sisters from Macbeth, Henry Fuseli, 1783

Three Weird Sisters from Macbeth, Henry Fuseli, 1783

This being Edinburgh, the three witches which appear in William Shakespeare’s Macbeth get a room all to themselves, demonstrating just how compelling a symbol of mystery and intrigue they were for artists over the years, both in Scotland and around the world. The representations of them could hardly be more different; from bald, whiskered crones to fancy-dressed society beauties, these enchantresses who seemed able to predict the future and shape history in the process, have meant many things to many people.

Untitled (Encryption) from Out of the Woods, Kiki Smith, 2002

Untitled (Encryption) from Out of the Woods, Kiki Smith, 2002

Not everything here is historic, and contemporary art also gets a decent look in too. Paula Rego’s prints owe an obvious debt to those of Goya, all dark shadows and strange, otherwordly figures, while Kiki Smith turns her self portrait into an image of a creepy little witch with a huge head and tiny stunted body. Many of the more recent works are by women artists, and a number have obviously feminist intentions, finally changing the image of these witches from lonely, ugly outcasts to powerful independent women.

The Magic Circle, John William Waterhouse, 1886

The Magic Circle, John William Waterhouse, 1886

With four large rooms filled with fascinating works, plus an extensive catalogue featuring colour reproductions and academic essays, Witches and Wicked Bodies is an incredibly comprehensive survey of this magical subject. It is one which has already captivated artists and audiences for centuries. I don’t doubt it will continue to do the same for many centuries to come.

http://www.nationalgalleries.org/whatson/exhibitions/witches-wicked-bodies/

Update: The exhibition has transferred to the British Museum in London until January 2015, details can be found here.

All images courtesy of the National Galleries of Scotland

The Fairy Tales of Charles Perrault, Angela Carter

Posted in Books, Fairy Tales with tags , , , , , , , on April 30, 2013 by mysearchformagic

Anyone who loves modern magic will love the writing of Angela Carter. I have already featured one of her best-known novels, Nights at the Circus, a book that I have enjoyed many times. This week I read her translations of the fairy tales of Charles Perrault for the first time, a very different work perhaps, but no less enchanting.

The Fairy Tales of Charles Perrault, Angela Carter

The Fairy Tales of Charles Perrault, Angela Carter

Charles Perrault wrote his fairy tales in late 17th Century France, re-interpreting old stories which had been passed down from generation to generation. Some of them are still well know, in particular Cinderella, Blue Beard and Little Red Riding Hood, some are more obscure – I for one have never come across the strange adventures of Donkey Skin or Ricky with the Tuft! Perrault spent many years as a notable figure in the government of Louis XIV, but took to writing more seriously following his retirement in 1695.

Charles Perrault, 1628-1703

Charles Perrault, 1628-1703

Angela Carter has remained largely faithful to his original text, but in places was unable to resist adding her own (often feminist) slant; here and there, little sparks of pure Carter shine through, particularly in the instructive ‘morals’ which follow each tale. Although not nearly as dark or gruesome as the Grimm Brothers’ versions which followed a century later, Perrault’s fantastical fictions are often far from cosy. Quite who they were written for is still debated, for although we now assume that children were their target market, in fact the idea of ‘children’s literature’ didn’t exist in the 17th Century, and it is likely that these tales were aimed firmly at the members of the French Royal Court, who were currently in the grip of a fashion for tales of magic and wonder.

Carter’s translations may seem rather tame compared to her other writings; perhaps she felt constricted by the idea of interpreting a historic text. What is for certain is that it was working on Perrault’s stories that inspired one of her greatest collections of short stories, The Bloody Chamber of 1979, in which she was finally allowed free reign with these classic fairy tales. Her versions are bold and subversive, violent of often terrifying, and feature female protagonists who are strong and decisive, far from the blushing princesses of tradition. But I won’t go into too much details about them here, as The Bloody Chamber definitely deserves a blog post all of its own!