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 

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