Tuesday 31 March 2020

Strong Fairy Tale Heroines #6: GILLA OF THE ENCHANTMENTS



Told in the 1880s by Patrick McGrale of Dugort, Achil, County Mayo, to William Larminie (“West Irish Folk-Tales”, Camden Library, 1893). Larminie says of this tale that it combines domestic incident with romantic extravagance. It is a variant of Aarne-Thompson Tale Type 451: the brothers who are turned into birds. Towards the end of the story I have made some slight changes where Patrick McGrale's oral rendition, faithfully reproduced by Larminie, becomes a little unclear as to who does what to whom.

Although the parallels with better-known tales are clear (such as the Grimms' 'The Six Swans', KHM 49, and 'The Seven Ravens, KHM  25), this story has its own individual character. It’s both confusing and fascinating, with a great deal to puzzle over. On the death of his wife the queen, Gilla’s father sends his three sons away to a ‘greenawn’ – a sort of sunny pavilion on an island. He appears to do this in order to keep them safe from his new wife, from whom he has kept all knowledge of them. But his daughter Gilla has inherited powerful magic in the shape of a cloak left to her by her dead mother (just as the power of Aschenputtel’s dead mother is channeled to her through the tree planted on her grave). She cannot be harmed while she is wearing it. Only Gilla may ever visit the brothers; she brings them food, and she cuts off, washes and replaces their heads each day. It is as if they are dependent on their sister for continuance in life: perhaps the greenawn itself is an otherworld, a liminal land which requires them to undergo a daily resurrection only Gilla can perform. Gilla is both a magic-worker, and a person who can bring back the dead. At the same time, she belongs to the fairy tale sisterhood of those who persist and endure trials in order to rescue the brothers they love. The motif of the death of a child, and smearing its mother with blood in an attempt to frame her for its murder, is reminiscent of the story of Rhiannon and her son Pryderi, in the First Branch of the Mabinogi. 

There was a king in Ireland and his wife, and they had but one daughter, whose name was Gilla of the Enchantments, and she had a magic coat that her mother had left her when she died. And there was a man courting her whose name was George nă Riell, and the two were courting.

                When her mother died the king made a fair and beautiful greenawn [a summer-house or sunny palace] for his three sons on an island in the midst of the sea, and there he put them to live, and he sent his daughter to them with food every evening.

                It was not long after that till he married another wife, and by this wife he had three daughters. She was one day walking in the garden and she got the corner of her apron under her foot and she fell.

                “May neither God nor Mary be with you,” said the hen-wife.

                “Why do you say that?” said the queen.

                “Because the wife that was here before you was better than you.”

                “Was there a wife before me?”

                “There was; and that one is her daughter, and there are three sons also in an island in the sea, and the daughter goes every night to them with food.”

                “What shall I do to the three of them, to put them to death?”

                “I’ll tell you,” said the hen-wife, “if you will do what I advise you.”

                “I will do it,” said she.

                “Promise a dowry to your eldest daughter if she will follow the other daughter out when she is going with food to her brothers.”

                So the queen sent her daughter out after Gilla who was going with food, but Gilla looked behind and saw the other one coming, and she made a bog and a lake between them, so that the queen’s daughter went astray and was wandering all night. She told her mother, and her mother went to the henwife, and the henwife said, “Promise a dowry to your second daughter.”

                And she did this, and the second daughter fared in the same way as the first, and she came and told her mother. And the mother went to the hen-wife, and the hen-wife said, “Promise the dowry to your third daughter.”

                Now the third daughter followed Gilla of the Enchantments as she was going with the food, and this time Gilla did not look behind her. She parted the sea and she came to her brothers’ house, and she put the pot of water down and cut off the heads of her three brothers and washed them, and put them on their shoulders again. And the half-sister was at the window looking on at everything she did, and she went home through the sea, before the sea returned together, and while they were eating their supper, Gilla came home.

                The mother went next morning to the hen-wife and told her the third daughter had succeeded, and had learned everything. And she asked her what she should do.

                “Say now, your daughter is going to be married, and ask Gilla for the loan of her coat. She will not know that the power of the coat will be gone if she gives it away. So long as she keeps the coat herself she can do everything; there are spells on the coat so that the sea must open before it, without closing after it; but she does not know that the spell of the coat will be lost.”

                The third daughter got the loan of the coat from Gilla, but instead of going to be married, this is what she did. When night came she put the coat on and went to the house of her half-brothers, knocked at the door and asked them to open it. And one of the brothers said, “That is not my sister.” But another looked out of the window and saw the coat and recognised it, and he opened the door and let her in. She cut the three heads off, and took them three-quarters of a mile and put them into a hole in the ground, and went back to her mother and told her she had killed the three.

                She gave the coat back to Gilla of the Enchantments, and Gilla went in the evening to her brothers with food, and whatever sort of fastening the other one put on the door she could not open is, but had to go in by a window, and she found her three brothers dead.

                She wept and she screamed and pulled the hair from her head in her lamentations, till the whiteness of the day came upon the morrow. She had not one head of the heads to get, but she followed the trace of the blood, and three-quarters of a mile from the house were they, in the place where they were buried. She dug them up and took them to her, and washed and cleaned them as was her wont, and put them on the bodies, but down they fell. She had to take them up at last, and cry to God to do something to them, that she might see them alive. And they turned into three otters, and she made another otter of herself. They were swimming that way for a time and then they made themselves into three doves, and she made of herself another dove. They were flying and she was flying, and the four came and settled on the gable of the house, and in the morning the man [the king] said to his wife,

                “There is a barrel of water. Let it be wine in the evening.” (He thought to test her, he thought it was not the right woman he had got.)

                Then said one of the brothers to the sister, “Go in, and do good in return for evil, and make wine of the water.”

                She went down, and when she got in, and she in the shape of a dove, the old blind wise man who was lying in his bed under the window got his sight, and he saw her dipping her finger in the water and making of wine, cold and wholesome.

                And in the morning the man said to his wife, “Here is a barrel of water. Let it be wine with you in the evening.”

                And the second brother said to his sister, “Go in, and do good in return for evil, and make wine of the water.”

                She went down, and when she went in at the window, and she in the shape of a dove, the wise old blind man who was lying on the  bed under the window got his sight, and he saw her dipping her finger in the water and making it wine, cold and wholesome.

                And in the morning on the third day the wise old man spoke to the king, and said to him that he had seen a beautiful woman come in by the window on two days, and that he got his sight when she came in and lost it when she went out and (said he) “Stretch yourself here today, and when she comes in and makes wine of the water, catch her as she is going out.”

                And he did so, and the third brother said to his sister, “Go in, and do good in return for evil, and make the wine.” And she did this; and as she was going out the man caught her. And when her brothers heard that she was caught they went away. And she asked the king to to give her leave to take just one look at her brothers. “Here’s the corner of my apron.”

                So he took hold of the corner of her apron, and she slipped out of it and left it with him and went away after her brothers.  When they saw her coming they waited for her, and she asked them if there was anything at all in the world that would make them come alive again; and they said there was one thing only, and that hard it was to do it.

                “What is it?” said she, “and I will try it.”

                “To make three shirts of the ivy-leaves in a day and a year, without uttering a word of speech or shedding a single tear, for if you weep we shall lose a part of ourselves.”

                And she said to them to make a little hut for her in the wood, and they made her the hut and went away and left her there. She was not long before she began to get material for the shirts, and she began to make them.

Now the queen’s daughter had her dowry. And she thought the king’s sons and the king’s daughter were dead, and she married George nă Riell, and her mother died and her father, and now she was queen.  But Gilla of the Enchantments was not long in the house in the wood, till George nă Riell found her, and she did not speak a word to him, but he was with her till she had a child to him.

                A young man was in the wood one day and a dog with him, and the dog took him to the place where the woman was, and the man saw the woman and the child there, and he went home and told the queen there was a beautiful woman in the wood. And the queen went and found the woman and the babe, and she killed the babe and caught up some of the blood and mixed the blood and ashes together and made a cake and she sought to put a piece of the cake in the woman’s mouth. And Gilla dropped one tear from her eye; but the queen who was her half-sister went back to her husband and said to him that great was the shame of him to have children by that woman, and that Gilla had killed her own child and eaten it.

                “It is not possible,” said he, “that she has killed my child.”

                “She killed and she ate.”

                He went to her and found the child dead; but Gilla did not speak a word to him. He said then that he would burn her at twelve o’ clock of the next day. He commanded that every one should come in the morning with sods of turf and sheets of paper, and everything to make a fire. And she was brought and put there, and she was still sewing. When it was twelve o’ clock, the sign was given to light the fire, but an old man in the crowd asked them to give her another hour by the clock, and when that hour was passed he asked them to give her a half-hour; the woman in it (he said) was under geasa. “You see that it is not her life that is troubling her, but that she is always sewing.”

                It was not long before they saw a black cloud coming through the air, and they saw three things in the cloud coming. “Well,” said the old man, “there are three angels from heaven, or three devils from hell, coming for her soul.”

                There were three black ravens coming, and their mouths open, and as it were fire coming out of their mouths, till the three black ravens came and lay in their sister’s bosom, and she on top of the pyre, and she put the three shirts on them and said, –

                “Finn, Inn and Brown Glegil, show that I am your sister, for in pain I am today.”

                They took hold of her and lifted her down from the pyre, and the brothers told George nă Riell everything that the half-sister had done, first that she had killed the three of them, and afterwards that it was she that killed their sister’s child.

                So the half-sister was thrown into the fire. And they went home, and George nă Riell married Gilla of the Enchantments, and they spent the rest of their lives as is right.

 NB: since Gilla sheds one tear, it's possible that one of her brothers lacks an eye, but the narrator does not say so.

More on fairy tales and folklore in my book "Seven Miles of Steel Thistles" available from Amazon here and here.

Picture credit: 
The Ravens of Wotan, Arthur Rackham

Tuesday 24 March 2020

Strong Fairy Tale Heroines #5: THE THREE PRINCESSES


This Hungarian story, in which the spirited third daughter of an impoverished king is abandoned in the forest with her two elder sisters, comes from ‘The Folk-Tales of the Magyars’ by W Henry Jones and Lewis L Kropf (Folklore Society Publications, 1889). It incorporates elements recognisable from Hansel and Gretel, Cinderella, and the Scottish tales Mollie Whuppie or Maol a Chliobain (in which the youngest child of a group of siblings defeats a giant), but although the ingredients may seem familiar and similar variants are told across Europe, this tale has a freshness and interest of its own. Wicked stepmothers and weak fathers are standard fare in fairy tales: sometimes the tales explore such relationships a little further but often, as in this case, the reader has to accept them as given and move on. I think you'll enjoy the surreal nonsense opening (intended to catch the attention of perhaps a rather raucous audience) and I love the mischievous manner in which the heroine gets her own back on her sisters on her final ride to the palace – and the bargain she strikes before agreeing to marry a particularly bloodless prince.

Once – I shan’t tell you where but you’d better believe me – there was a broken-down oven in splendid condition barring the sides, and it had cakes baking in it. One of you has eaten them! Well then, on the Komáran mountains, on the glass bridges, on the beautiful golden chandelier, there was once a Debreczen cloak with ninety-nine tucks in it, and in the fold of the ninety-ninth I found this tale…

                There was a king with three daughters, but the king was so poor he could hardly keep his family; so one night his wife, who was the girls’ stepmother, told her husband that in the morning she would take the girls deep into the forest and leave them where they wouldn’t be able to find their way home.

                But the youngest overheard her, and as soon as the king and queen fell asleep she hurried off to her godmother, who was a magic-worker, to ask her advice. Her godmother’s pony was waiting at the front gate, and taking her on its back it ran straight to the magic woman, who knew just what the child needed. She gave her a reel of cotton which she could unwind in the wood and so find her way back; but she made the condition that the girl was not to bring her elder sisters back with her, for they were very bad and proud. 

                Next morning the girls were led by their stepmother far into the wood to gather twigs, so she told them – and when they had wandered about for a long time she told them to rest. They sat down under a tree and soon all three fell asleep. Seeing this, the stepmother hurried home.

                When they woke and discovered their mother was gone, the two elder girls began to cry, but the youngest was quiet. Then she said she knew how to find her way home but could not take them with her, upon which her sisters began to beg and implore and scold her, till at last she gave in. On their arrival home their father received them with open arms while their stepmother feigned delight. Next night she told the king that she would lead them even deeper into the wood. Again the youngest overheard the conversation, and just as before she rode the little pony to her godmother, who scolded her for having brought home her bad sisters. Making her god-daughter promise to obey this time, she gave her a bag full of ashes to scatter along the path as they went in; so the girls were led into the wood again and left there. And this time too, the youngest took her sisters home.

                On the third night the stepmother once again schemed to lose them in the forest; and this time the girl didn’t have the courage to speak to her godmother; she thought she could help herself, so she took a bag full of peas, which she threw behind her as they went.  When the mother abandoned them the two elder girls again began to cry, but the youngest said laughing that they could find their way home just as easily as they had before – but she could not find a single pea, for the birds had eaten them all. 

                Now the three outcasts wandered all day through the wood hungry and thirsty, for until sunset they did not find so much as a spring of water to quench their thirst. Here they found an acorn lying under an oak tree under which they chose to spend the night. They planted the acorn, and carried water to it in their mouths to water it, and by next morning it had grown into a tree as tall as a tower. The youngest girl climbed it to see if she could spy any house or dwelling from the top, but she saw nothing, and they spent the whole day crying and wandering about. 

                On the following morning, the tree was as tall as two towers, and still the girl could see nothing from its summit; but by the end of the third day the tree was as high as three towers, and from its topmost branches she saw a lighted window shining far away. She led her sisters in the direction of the light. They walked for three days and three nights, until at last they came to a beautiful castle. And now, far from being grateful, her sisters began to beat and bully her, and told her that when they knocked at the door she was to say that they were grand ladies and she was their servant.

                What a fright they had! The door was opened by a woman as tall as a tower, with an eye as big as a plate in the middle of her forehead and teeth a foot long, which she gnashed at them. “What lovely girls!” she said. “What a splendid roast dinner you will make!” All three were terrified, but the youngest spoke up and told the giantess how skilled they all were at needlework, and described the beautiful clothes they could make for her, if only she would let them live. 

                The woman with the big teeth listened and agreed, and she hid the girls in a cupboard so her husband would not see them when he came home. But the giant sniffed about and demanded the  human flesh he could smell, and his wife had to bring the girls out. Now the youngest again spoke up and told the giant what good cooks she and her sisters were, and described the wonderful food they could prepare for him, if he would spare their lives. 

                The giant’s mouth watered, but he thought to himself that he would let the girls cook the food first, and then eat them afterwards. So the three sisters began baking and roasting: the two eldest kneaded the dough, and the youngest built up the fire in the oven, which was almost big as hell, and when it was red hot she popped a pot of lard into it and called the giant to taste the lard with his tongue to see if it was hot enough and if the oven had reached its proper heat.  

                This tower of flesh tried it – but the moment he put his head in the oven, the girl gave him a push and he was a dead man in the fiery furnace. The giantess flew into a rage at this and would have swallowed them up at once, but the youngest sister begged her to wait until they had beautified her, which she agreed to do. 

                “First let me comb your hair,” said the girl, and she took a ladder and climbed it, but instead of combing the giantess’s hair with the big iron comb, she knocked her on the head so hard with it that the creature dropped dead on the spot. The girls had the giants’ bodies carted away by twenty-four pair of oxen, and now they were the owners of the magnificent castle. 

                Next Sunday, the two eldest dressed up in their best clothes and went to a dance in the royal town. But they left their younger sister behind to do the housework. While they were gone, the young girl set out to explore all the rooms, passages and closets in the castle, and during her search she saw something shining in the flue of a fireplace. Knocking it free with a stone, she found it was a beautiful golden key. She tried it in every door and cupboard, but it fitted none of them until in the end she managed to open a small wardrobe full of beautiful dresses, all of which seemed made to fit her. She flung on a silver dress, the little pony was waiting for her outside, and like a hurricane she galloped away to the ball. 

                Here every eye was turned on her, gentleman vied to dance with her, and her two sisters, who until her arrival had been the belles of the ball, were set aside. But before the dancing ended, the young lady suddenly disappeared and was waiting in her servant’s clothes to greet her sisters when they returned. They told her they had enjoyed themselves very well at first, until some impudent female had stolen all the attention. The youngest sister laughed and said, “Suppose that had been me!” but they boxed her ears and called her names.  

                Next Sunday the same thing happened again, but this time the girl was dressed in gold, and on the third Sunday she appeared in a dress all covered in diamonds. Now the young men kept such a close eye on her that when she made her escape she had no time to pick up a shoe she had accidentally dropped in a corridor: she only just got back in time to receive her sisters. But the prince of the land found the shoe and kept it carefully.

                A few days later he fell ill. No one could tell why or find a cure for him, until at last one foreign doctor announced the cause: he had fallen in love with the mysterious lady who had lost the shoe, and would not recover until he married her.  So it was proclaimed throughout the realm that all the ladies of the country should come to the palace next Sunday to try on the shoe, and whoever it fitted should be the prince’s wife. The two eldest sisters joined the crowds swarming to the capital: they felt they has a good chance, since their younger sister had scraped their heels raw to make their feet smaller. 

But after they’d gone the youngest sister wrapped the second shoe of the pair in a handkerchief, jumped on the pony’s back in her best dress, and galloped off to the palace. She overtook her sisters on the way, and jumping the pony into a puddle, splashed them all over with mud. The moment she was seen approaching, a hundred cannons were fired off and all the bells were rung, but she wouldn’t acknowledge the shoe as her own without a trial. It fitted exactly on her foot, and when she produced its mate, three hundred cannons greeted her as the future queen. 

She accepted the honour on one condition,  that the king should restore her father’s conquered land. Her wish was granted and she became the prince’s wife. Her sisters returned to their royal father who was now rich and powerful once more. And if they are not dead yet, they are living there still. 

More on fairy tales and folklore in  "Seven Miles of Steel Thistles" available here and here.

Picture credits:
As I couldn't find any illustrations of this particular Hungarian tale, the one at the top of the post is from the fairy tale 'Mollie Whuppie' and it's by Errol le Cain.

Tuesday 17 March 2020

Fairy Tale Heroines #4: THE GROAC’H OF THE ISLE OF LOK


This lively fairy tale comes from Brittany (the Isle du Loch is a real island off the Brittany coast, and as the name suggests, it has a lake) and it's another traditional story in which a young man has to be rescued by his dauntless, magic-working sweetheart. The Groac’h of the title is a fairy enchantress, but a groac’h (Gaelic gruagach, Irish grogan) is a creature which turns up in many Celtic fairy tales. The word is sometimes claimed to mean ‘old woman’, but JG Campbell explains it literally as ‘the long-haired one’ and ‘a common Gaelic name for a maiden, a young woman.’ Emile Souvestre (see below) thinks the word once applied to druid priestesses on offshore holy islands: whether or not that is so, it must gradually have become a catch-all: some gruagachs seem to be the same creature as the glaistig, ‘a tutelary being haunting farms and stables’, who appears as a finely-dressed young man or woman with long hair. Others seem the equivalent of brownies or boggarts. In ‘A Dictionary of Fairies’, Katherine Briggs tells us that the grogan of the north of Ireland tends to follow the brownie tradition, while the grogan of the south is more usually a supernatural wizard, and often a giant too, or a type of ogre.  

"The Groac’h of the Isle of Lok" is included in ‘Le Foyer Breton’ by Emile Souvestre (1844) and he has almost certainly embellished the tale with a number of charming ‘literary’ descriptions – for which it is none the worse! Andrew Lang’s wife Leonora Blanche Alleyn translated it for ‘The Lilac Fairy Book’ (1910), but she cut out nearly all the Breton references, especially those to do with the Christian religion or Breton saints, while the korandon (a Breton folkloric creature also known as a korrigan) becomes a generic ‘little man’. Alleyn has also removed anything she felt unsuitable for children – such as a few mild sexual references and a moment when the hapless hero drinks far too much of the Groac’h’s wine. The effect is to make the tale blander, less risqué, and less funny. So this my own translation, slightly abbreviated, of Souvestre’s version.

In the days when miracles happened in Brittany even more often than christenings and funerals do today, there lived in the village of Lanillis a young man named Houarn Pogamm and a girl called Bellah Postik. They were cousins, and when they were in the cradle together, their mothers had hoped for them one day to marry, but since then their parents had died, and they’d had to hire themselves out as servants, so they were too poor to get married. 

            “If only we had a little cow, and a skinny pig to fatten up,” said Houarn. “I’d buy a bit of land, the curé could marry us and we’d live happily together.”

            “Yes,” said Bellah with a sigh, “but these are hard times. Cows and pigs fetch high prices at the Ploudelmazeau market. God no longer seems to care what happens in the world.”

            This made them both unhappy, and one day Houarn came to Bellah and told her he was going to go away and seek his fortune, so that he could come back and marry her.  

            Bellah begged him not to leave. But his mind was made up, so she said, “Go then, since you must, and may God protect you! But first I will divide with you what my parents left me,” and taking him to her room she opened a small chest and took out a bell, a knife and a wand. 

“These relics,” said she, “are heirlooms which have never left my family. Here is the bell of Saint Kolédok; it can be heard at any distance, however far, and will ring to tell our friends if we’re in danger. This knife belonged to Saint Corentin and anything it touches will be freed from any enchantment. Last of all, this wand is the baton of Saint Vouga; it will carry the one who holds it wherever they want to go. I give you the knife to guard you against the spells of magicians or demons, and you shall have the bell to warn me of any dangers you meet, but I shall keep the wand so I can fly to your help if ever you need me.”

Houarn thanked her, they embraced and cried a little, and he set out. Along the way he came to a little town called Pont-aven, set on a river bordered with poplars. As he sat by the inn door, he overheard two men who were loading their mules talking about the Groac’h of the isle of Lok. 

“Whatever is a Groac’h?” he asked, and the men told him it was the name of the fairy who lived in the lake on the Isle of Lok, and she was richer than all the kings of the world put together, and many men had journeyed there in search of her treasure, but not one had ever returned. 

“I will go, and I will return too!” said Houarn. And although the men told him not to throw his life away, he went down to the sea and paid a boatman to carry him over to the isle of Lok.

He found the lake without any trouble. It was in the middle of the island, surrounded by marshland. He walked around it till at one end he saw, in the shade of a clump of yellow broom, a little sea-blue boat shaped like a sleeping swan floating gently in the water with its head tucked under its wing. Houarn marvelled, and climbed on board to take a better look, but no sooner had he set foot on it than the swan woke. Its head came out of its feathers, its big feet struck the water and it paddled briskly away from the bank. The young man exclaimed in fright, but the swan sped towards the middle of the lake, and just he decided to jump overboard, the bird plunged its head into the water and dived, carrying him down with it. His cry was stifled, he had to shut his mouth so as not to swallow the muddy water, and soon he arrived at the Groac’h’s home.

The palace was made from shells of many colours. The approach was by a crystal stairway made so that each step, as you trod on it, chirped like a woodland bird. All around the palace were huge gardens, forests of marine plants and lawns of green weed strewn with diamonds instead of flowers. The Groac’h herself was resting on a golden couch in the first hall. Her face was as pink and white as the shells of her palace, her black hair fell to her feet, woven with strings of coral, and her sea-green dress flowed as she moved. Houarn was dazzled by her beauty. 

The Groac’h rose smiling and came towards him as gracefully as a white wave passing across the sea. “Welcome,” she said. “There is always a place here for strangers, especially handsome boys. Tell me your name, and what you want.”

            Houarn told the Groac’h who he was, and how he wished to make enough money to return to Lanillis, buy a cow and a little pig, and marry his sweetheart. 

            “That is easily done,” she answered. “Come now, drink with me!” And she led him into a second hall decorated with pearls and gave him eight different wines to try, served in eight silver goblets. The wine was so good that Huoarn drank all eight at once, and then he had eight more of each, and at each cup the Groac’h seemed to him more beautiful than before. And she encouraged him, teasing that he needn’t worry about impoverishing her, as the lake of the isle of Lok had an entrance to the sea, and all the rich treasures from all the shipwrecks were swept to her on a magic current. 

            “Upon my word!” cried Houarn – who was now very merry – “no wonder everyone speaks ill of you; rich people are always envied. As for me, I’d settle for a tiny fraction of your wealth!”

            “You may have all of it if you wish,” said the Groac’h.


            “I’m a widow. My husband the korandon is dead, and if you would like me, I’ll marry you.”

            He, Houarn? – to marry the beautiful Groac’h? – and live in this splendid palace? – and have eight varieties of wine he could drink at his will? It’s true he’d asked Bellah to marry him, but how easily men forget that kind of promise! He accepted with joy.

            “Then let us perform the ceremony,” said the Groac’h, and she led him down to a little fish-tank at the bottom of her garden. 

             “Hey, attorney! Hey, miller! Hey, tailor! Hey, chorister!” she called, holding out a steel net. At each cry a fish jumped into the net , and when it was full she went into the kitchen and threw them all into a golden frying pan and started to fry them. But as the fat heated, Houarn seemed to hear little voices crying. 

            “Who’s crying in the golden frying pan?” he asked. “It’s only the fat spitting,” said she, but it didn’t sound like that to Houarn. “There it is again!” he cried. 

            “It’s just the fire-wood crackling,” she replied, but the noise grew louder, like little shrieks. Houarn became uneasy.

            “What can it be?” he exclaimed, but the Groac’h said, “It’s nothing but the cricket chirping on the hearth.” And she began to sing so loudly he could hear nothing more. But all of this was causing Houarn to think again. He was becoming frightened, and he began to feel ashamed.
            “Jesu and Mary!” he thought, “how is it possible I could have forgotten Bellah for the sake of a Groac’h who is quite possibly the daughter of the devil? How could I say my evening prayers while living with a woman like that? I’d be sure to go to hell!” But while he was having these thoughts, the Groac’h finished frying, and she set the pan in front of him and told him to eat, while she went to the cellar to find him a dozen more wines. 

            Houarn sat down and took out the knife Bellah had given him, but as soon as the blade touched the fish they turned into little men, each dressed according to his station – an attorney in his robes, a tailor in purple stockings, a miller covered in flour and a chorister in his surplice – and they cried together as they swam in the hot fat, “Save us, if you yourself hope to be saved!” “Holy Virgin! What are these little fellows doing, singing out in the melted butter?” young Houarn gasped.

            “We are Christian men like you! Like you we came to the isle of Lok to seek our fortunes, and like you we agreed to marry the Groac’h, but the morning after the marriage she turned each of us into fishes as she’s done to many men before, and now we all swim in the fish-tank together!”

            “No! How can she look so young, if she’s already been married to all those fishes?”

            “She's a fairy! And the same will happen to you – caught and fried, and served to the next comer!” 

            Houarn jumped up as if he was already sizzling in the gold frying pan. He rushed for the door, but the Groac’h was on the threshold and had heard everything. She threw the steel net over his head, turned him into a little green frog and took him down to the fish-tank to join all her other husbands. 

At that very moment, the little bell which Houarn wore around his neck rang by itself, and Bellah head it in Lanillis, where she was skimming cream in the dairy. “Houarn’s in danger!” 

            Without waiting for anything or speaking to anyone, she ran to put on her Sunday clothes and slippers, and her silver cross, and left the farm with her magic wand. Coming to the cross-roads she drove the wand into the earth, murmuring: 

Apple-wood wand, carry me
On earth or wind or water:
In the name of St Vouga, bear me
Wherever I want to go.

At once the stick turned into a little red horse of St Vouga all nicely combed, saddled and bridled, with a rosette at each ear and a blue feather on his forehead. Bellah leaped on his back and he set off at a walk, a trot, a canter, faster and faster till ditches, trees, houses and bell-towers flew by like a whirling wheel. But he wasn’t fast enough for Bellah, so she bent to his ear and said,  “A swallow is swifter than a horse, the wind is swifter than the swallow, the lightning is swifter than the wind, but you my little horse must gallop faster than all of them, so I may rescue my love.” And the horse now galloped like a straw blown by a hurricane till they reached the foot of a rock called the Deer’s Leap. There he stopped, for neither horse or mule could climb it and Bellah knew this, so she sang,

Little red horse, now carry me                                                          
On earth or wind or water,
In the name of St Thégonec, bear me
Wherever I wish to be!

As soon as she had finished, wings sprouted from the horse’s sides and he turned into a great bird which carried her easily to the summit of the rock. Here at the top she found a nest made of clay and line with dried moss, and in the middle of the nest was a tiny little korandon, all black and wrinkled, who cried out, “Here’s the pretty girl who has come to save me!”
            “Save you! Who are you, my little man?”

            “I am Jeannik the korandon, husband of the Groac’h of the isle of Lok, and she has imprisoned me here!”

            “But what are you doing in this nest?”

            “I’m sitting on six stone eggs, and I can’t be set free till they have hatched.”

            Bellah could not help laughing. “Poor little cockerel!” she said, “and how am I to save you?”

            “By saving Houarn, who is in the power of the Groac’h!” 

            “Ah! Tell me how and I will do it, even if I have to crawl on my knees around around four bishoprics!”

            “You must disguise yourself as a young man and go to find the Groac’h. Then you must take the steel net that hangs from her waist, and shut her up in it for ever.”

            “How can I find a set of boy’s clothes?”

            “I shall manage that.”  And pulling four red hairs from his head, the korandon blew upon them and changed them in the twinkling of an eye to four tailors. The first carried a cabbage, the second a pair of scissors, the third a needle and the fourth an iron. They sat cross-legged in the nest and made a suit of clothes for Bellah with the cabbage leaves as cloth, and when she was dressed she looked like a handsome young man dressed in in green velvet lined with white satin. She thanked the little mannikin, jumped on the back of her bird and flew away to the isle of Lok, where the bird changed back into a wand, and the blue swan-boat carried her to the Groac’h’s palace. 

            “By my cousin the Devil,” said Groac’h to herself when she set eyes on this new visitor, “here is the handsomest young man I’ve ever seen in my life. I could make love to him three times a day for three days!” and plying Bellah with endearments she led her through the great hall where the wine cups stood and fruit lay piled on the table… and the young woman spied the knife of Saint Corentin, which Houarn had dropped. She hid it her pocket to use later, and followed her fairy hostess into the garden. The Groac’h showed her the diamond flowerbeds, the perfumed fountains and the fish-tank, where rainbow-coloured fish swam in their hundreds. 

            Bellah pretended to be enchanted with these. She stood at the edge of the water gazing as they flashed and twirled. 

            “How would you like to stay here and watch them for ever?” asked the Groac’h, and Bellah replied that she would like nothing better. 

            “So you shall, if you will marry me here and now!” cried the Groac’h.

            “Yes,” said Bellah, laughing, “but first you must lend me your net and allow me to try and catch one of these lovely fishes.”

            “Take it, my beautiful fisherman,” said the Groac’h, “let me see what you can catch!” 

            “I’ve caught the devil!” cried Bellah, casting the net over the Groac’h’s head. “In the name of the Saviour, become in body what you are in soul!” and instantly the lovely fairy of the sea was changed into a hideous toad. Bellah pulled the net tight and ran to fling it into a pit, over which she rolled a stone sealed with the sign of the cross, so the Groac’h could never escape until Judgement Day. Then she ran back to the pond, where a great procession of fishes greeted her like strange little monks, all of them croaking, “All hail to our lord and master who has saved us from the steel net and the gold frying pan!”

             “And I am the one who will restore you to your proper shapes!” said Bellah. Drawing the magic knife from her pocket she was just about to transform the first ish, when her eye fell upon a small green frog. He crouched sobbing on the edge of the fish-tank, with the magic bell around his neck and his little hands placed over his heart. “Is it you, my Houarn?” she cried. “Is it you?”

            “It is,” croaked the little frog, and as the knife touched him he sprang up a man again, and they fell into each other’s arms. 

            Then Bellah began to transform all the fishes to their human shapes again. It took a long time, there were so many, and just as she finished who should arrive but the korandon from the Deer’s Leap Rock in a chariot pulled by six oak flies, June bugs as you call them, which he had hatched from the six stone eggs. 

            “There you are, the pretty girl!” he called to Bellah. “You’ve broken the enchantment which held me, and here I am to thank you – for out of a chicken you’ve made a man! Now for your reward,” and he led the two lovers to the Groac’h’s coffers, all stuffed with gold and jewels, and told them to help themselves. Bellah and Houarn filled their pockets, their belts, their hats and even their pantaloons, and when they had taken as much as they could carry, Bellah made her wand change into a winged chariot big enough to carry not only themselves but all the men they had rescued back to Lanillis. There the banns were read, and Houarn married Bellah – only now, instead of a little cow and a skinny pig, they were rich enough to buy up all the land of the parish, and the men who had been fishes became their tenants, and they all lived happily to the ends of their days. 

More on fairy tales and folklore in my book "Seven Miles of Steel Thistles" available from Amazon here and here.

Picture credits:
'Le Foyer Breton’ by Emile Souvestre: Frontispiece by Paul Chardin
The Swan-boat by Théophile Busnel 
Houarn Enjoys the Groac'h's Wine by Théophile Busnel
The Litte Horse of Saint Vouga by Théophile Busnel
Bellah and Korandon by HJ Ford
The Frog by Théophile Busnel
The Groac'h calls the fishes into her net  by HJ Ford