Groac’h of the Isle of Lok

The Groac'h of the Isle of Lok.1

Every one who knows the land of the Church  (Lanillis), knows also that it is one of the loveliest parishes in the diocese of Léon. To say nothing of green crops and corn, its orchards are famed from all time for apples sweeter than the honey of Sizun, and plum-trees of which every blossom ripens into fruit. As for the marriageable maidens, they are all models of discretion and housewifery; at least so say their nearest relations, who of course know them best.

In olden times, when miracles were as common in these parts as christenings and burials now, there dwelt in Lanillis a young man called Houarn Pogamm, and a damsel whose name was Bellah Postik.

They grew up together in love, as in age and stature; but every one that they had to care for them being dead, one after the other, and they left portionless, the two poor orphans were at last obliged to go into service. They ought, indeed, to have been happy, for they served the same master; but lovers are like the sea, that murmurs ever.

“If we had only enough to buy a little cow and a lean pig,” said Houarn, “I would take a bit of land of our master; and then the good father should marry us, and we would go and live together.”

“Yes,” replied Bellah, with a deep sigh; “but the times are so hard. The cows and pigs were dearer than ever at Ploudalmazeau the last fair. Providence must surely have given up caring for the world.”

“I am afraid we shall have to wait a long time,” said the young man; “for I never get the last glass of the bottle when I drink with the rest of them.”

“Very long,” replied the maiden; “for I never can hear the cuckoo.”

Day after day it was the same story; till at last Houarn was quite out of patience. So one morning he came to Bellah, as she was winnowing some corn in the threshing-floor, and told her how he had made up his mind that he would set out on his travels to seek his fortune.

Sadly troubled was the poor girl at this resolve, and she said all she could to dissuade him from it; but Houarn, who was a determined young fellow, would not be withheld.

“The birds,” said he, “fly hither and thither till they have found a field of corn, and the bees till they meet with flowers that may yield them honey; is it for man to be less reasonable than the winged creatures? I also will go forth on my quest; what I want is but the price of a little cow and a lean pig. If you love me, Bellah, you will no longer oppose a project which is to hasten our marriage.”

Bellah could not but acknowledge that there was reason in his words; so with a sigh and a yearning heart she said,

“Go then, Houarn, with God's blessing, if it must be so; but first let me share with you my family relics.”

She led him to her cupboard, and took out a little bell, a knife, and a staff.

“There,” said she, “these are immemorial heirlooms of our family. This is the bell of St. Kolédok. Its sound can be heard at any distance, however great, and will give immediate notice to the possessor's friends should he be in any danger. The knife once belonged to St. Corentin, and its touch dissolves all spells, were they of the arch-fiend himself. Lastly, here is the staff of St. Vouga, which will lead its possessor whithersoever he may desire to go. I will give you the knife to defend you from enchantments, and the little bell to let me know if you are in peril; the staff I will keep, that I may be able to join you, should you need my presence.”

Houarn accepted with thanks his Bellah's gifts, wept awhile with her, as belongs to a parting, and set out towards the mountains.

But it was then just as it is now, and in all the villages through which he passed, the traveller was beset by beggars, to whom any one with whole garments was a man of rank and fortune.

“By my faith,” thought he, “this part of the country seems fitter for spending a fortune than for making one: I must go farther.”

He went onwards therefore towards the west, till at last he arrived at Pontaven, a pretty town, built upon a river bordered with poplars.

There, as he sat at the inn-door, he overheard two carriers, who, as they loaded their mules, were talking together of the Groac'h of the Isle of Lok.

Houarn inquired who or what that might be; and was told that it was the name of a fairy who inhabited the lake in the largest of the Glénans,2  and who was said to be as rich as all the kings of the earth together. Many had been the treasure-seekers that had visited her island, but not one of them had ever returned.

The thought came suddenly into Houarn's mind that he too would try the adventure. The muleteers did all they could to dissuade him. They were so loud in their remonstrances, that they collected quite a crowd about him, crying out that it was downright unchristian to let him run into destruction in that way; and the people would even have kept him back by force. Houarn thanked them for the interest they manifested in his welfare, and declared himself ready to give up his design, if only they would make a collection amongst them which would enable him to buy a little cow and a lean pig; but at this proposition the muleteers and all the others drew back, simply repeating that he was an obstinate fellow, and that it was of no use talking to him. So Houarn repaired to the sea-shore, where he took a boat, and was carried to the Isle of Lok.

He had no difficulty in finding the pond, which was in the centre of the island, its banks fringed by sea-plants with rose-coloured flowers. As he walked round, he saw lying at one end of it, shaded by a tuft of broom, a sea-green canoe, which floated on the unruffled waters. It was fashioned like a swan asleep, with its head under its wing.

Houarn, who had never seen any thing like it before, drew nearer with curiosity, and stepped into the boat that he might examine it the better; but scarcely had he set foot within it when the swan seemed to awake, its head started from amongst the feathers, its wide feet spread themselves to the waters, and it swam rapidly from the bank.

The young man gave a cry of alarm, but the swan only made the more swiftly for the middle of the lake; and just as Houarn had decided on throwing himself from his strange bark, and swimming for the shore, the bird plunged downward head foremost, drawing him under the water along with it.

The unfortunate Léonard, who could not cry out without gulping down the unsavoury water of the pool, was silent by necessity, and soon arrived at the Groac'h's dwelling.

It was a palace of shells, far surpassing in beauty all that can be imagined. It was entered by a flight of crystal steps, each stair of which, as the foot pressed it, gave forth a concert of sweet sounds, like the song of many birds. All around stretched gardens of immense extent, with forests of marine plants, and plots of green seaweed, spangled with diamonds in the place of flowers.

The Groac'h was reclining in the entrance-hall upon a couch of gold. Her dress was of sea-green silk, exquisitely fine, and floating round her like the waves that wrapped her grotto. Her black locks, intertwined with coral, descended to her feet; and the white and red of her brilliant complexion blended as in the polished lining of some Indian shell.

Dazzled with a sight at once so fair and unexpected, Houarn stood still; but with a winning smile the Groac'h rose, and came forward to meet him. So easy and flowing were her movements, that she seemed like a snowy billow heaving along the sea, as she advanced to greet the young Léonard.

“You are welcome,” said she, beckoning him with her hand to enter; “there is always room here for all comers, especially for handsome young men.”

At this gracious reception Houarn somewhat recovered himself, and entered the hall.

“Who are you? Whence come you? What seek you?” continued the Groac'h.

“My name is Houarn,” replied the Léonard; “I come from Lanillis; and I am in quest of the wherewithal to buy a little cow and a lean pig.”

“Well, come in, Houarn,” said the fairy; “and dismiss all anxiety from your mind; you shall have every thing to make you happy.”

While this was passing she had led him into a second hall, the walls of which were covered with pearls; where she set before him eight different kinds of wine, in eight goblets of chased silver. Houarn made trial of each, and found all so much to his taste, that he repeated his draught of each eight times; while ever as the cup left his lips, the Groac'h seemed still fairer than before.

She meanwhile encouraged him to drink, telling him he need be in no fear of robbing her, for that the lake in the Isle of Lok communicated with the sea, and that all the treasures swallowed up by shipwrecks were conveyed thither by a magic current.

“I do not wonder,” cried Houarn, emboldened at once by the wine and the manner of his hostess, “that the people on shore speak so badly of you; in fact, it just comes to this, that you are rich, and they are envious. For my part, I should be very well content with the half of your fortune.”

“It shall be yours if you will, Houarn,” said the fairy.

“How can that be?” he asked.

“My husband, the Korandon, is dead,” she answered, “so that I am now a widow; if you like me well enough, I will become your wife.”

Houarn quite lost his breath for very wonderment. For him to marry that beautiful creature! to dwell in that splendid palace! and to drink to his heart's content of the eight sorts of wine! True, he was engaged to Bellah; but men easily forget such promises,—indeed, for that they are just like women. So he gallantly assured the fairy that one so lovely must be irresistible, and that it would be his pride and joy to become her husband.

Thereupon the Groac'h exclaimed that she would forthwith make ready the wedding-feast. She spread a table, which she covered with all the delicacies that the Léonard had ever heard of, besides a great many unknown to him even by name; and then proceeding to a little fish-pond at the bottom of the garden, she began to call, and at each call up swam a fish, which she successively caught in a steel net. When the net was full, she carried it into the next room, and threw all the fish into a golden frying-pan.

But it seemed to Houarn as though there was a whispering of little voices amidst the hissing of the pan.

“What is that whispering in the frying-pan, Groac'h?” he asked.

“It is the crackling of the wood,” said she, stirring the fire.

An instant after the little voices again began to murmur.

“What is that murmuring, Groac'h?” asked the bridegroom.

“It is the butter in the frying-pan,” she answered, giving the fish a toss.

But soon the little voices cried yet louder.

“What is that cry, Groac'h?” said Houarn.

“It is the cricket in the hearth,” replied the fairy; and she began to sing, so that the Léonard could no longer hear any thing but her voice.

But he could not help thinking on what he  had noticed: and thought brought fear, and fear, of course, repentance.

“Alas!” he cried, “can it then be possible that I have so soon forgotten Bellah for this Groac'h, who is no doubt a child of Satan? With her for my wife, I shall not even dare to say my prayers at night, and shall be as sure to go to hell as an exciseman.”

While he thus communed with himself, the fairy brought in the fried fish, and pressed him to eat, while she went to fetch him twelve new sorts of wine.

Houarn sighed, took out his knife, and prepared to begin; but scarcely had the spell-destroying blade touched the golden dish, when all the fish rose up in the form of little men, each one clad in the proper costume of his rank and occupation. There was a lawyer with his bands, a tailor in blue stockings, a miller all white with flour, and so on; all crying out at once, as they swam in the melted butter,—

“Houarn, save us, if thou wouldst thyself be saved.”

“Holy Virgin! what are these little men singing out from amongst the melted butter?” cried the Léonard, in bewilderment.

“We are Christians like thyself,” they answered. “We too came to seek our fortunes in the Isle of Lok; we too consented to marry the Groac'h; and the day after the wedding she did with us as she had done with all our predecessors, of whom the fish-pond in the garden is full.”

“What!” cried Houarn, “a creature so young and fair, and yet so wicked?”

“And thou wilt soon be in the same condition, subject thyself to be fried and eaten by some new-comer.”

Houarn gave a jump, as though he felt himself already in the golden frying-pan, and ran towards the door, thinking only how he might escape before the Groac'h should return. But she was already there, and had heard all; her net of steel was soon thrown over the Léonard, who found himself instantly transformed into a frog, in which guise the fairy carried him to the fish-pond, and threw him in, to keep her former husbands company.

At this moment the little bell, which Houarn wore round his neck, tinkled of its own accord; and Bellah heard it at Lanillis, where she was busy skimming the last night's milk.

The sound struck upon her heart like a funeral knell; and she cried aloud, “Houarn is in danger!” And without a moment's delay, without asking counsel of any as to what she should do, she ran and put on her Sunday clothes, her shoes and silver cross, and set out from the farm with her magic staff. Arrived where four roads met, she set the stick upright in the ground, murmuring in a low voice,—

“List, thou crab-tree staff of mine!

By good St. Vouga, hear me!

O'er earth and water, through air, 'tis thine

Whither I will to bear me!”

And lo, the stick became a bay nag, dressed, saddled, and bridled, with a rosette behind each ear, and a blue feather in front.

Bellah mounted, and the horse set forward; first at a walking pace, then he trotted, and at last galloped, and that so swiftly, that ditches, trees, houses, and steeples passed before the young girl's eyes like the arms of a spindle. But she complained not, feeling that each step brought her nearer to her dear Houarn; nay, she rather urged on her beast, saying,

“Less swift than the swallow is the horse, less swift the swallow than the wind, the wind than the lightning; but thou, my good steed, if thou lovest me, outstrip them all in speed: for a part of my heart is suffering; the better half of my own life is in danger .

The horse understood her, and flew like a straw driven by the whirlwind till he arrived in the country of Arhés, at the foot of the rock called the Stag's Leap. But there he stood still, for never had horse scaled that precipice. Bellah, perceiving the cause of his stopping, renewed her prayer:

“Once again, thou courser mine,

By good St. Vouga, hear me!

O'er earth and water, through air, 'tis thine

Whither I will to bear me!”

She had hardly finished, when a pair of wings sprang from the sides of her horse, which now became a great bird, and in this shape flew away with her to the top of the rock.

Strange indeed was the sight that here met her eyes. Upon a nest made of potter's clay and dry moss squatted a little korandon,3  all swarthy and wrinkled, who, on beholding Bellah, began to cry aloud,

“Hurrah! here is the pretty maiden come to save me!”

“Save thee!” said Bellah. “Who art thou, then, my little man?”

“I am Jeannik, the husband of the Groac'h of the Isle of Lok. She it was that sent me here.”

“But what art thou doing in this nest?”

“I am sitting on six stone eggs, and I cannot be free till they are hatched.”

Bellah could not keep herself from laughing.

“Poor thing!” said she; “and how can I deliver thee?”

“By first saving Houarn, who is in the Groac'h's power.”

“Ah, tell me how I may do that!” cried the orphan girl, “and not a moment will I lose in setting about my part in the matter, though I should have to make the circuit of the four dioceses upon my bare knees.”

“Well, then, there are two things to be done,” said the korandon. “The first, to present thyself before the Groac'h as a young man; and the next, to take from her the steel net which she carries at her girdle, and shut her up in it till the day of judgment.”

“And where shall I get a suit of clothes to fit me, korandon?”

“Thou shalt see.”

And with these words the little dwarf pulled out four hairs from his foxy poll, and blew them to the winds, muttering something in an under-tone, and lo, the four hairs became four tailors, of whom the first held in his hand a cabbage, the second a pair of scissors, the third a needle, and the last a smoothing goose. All the four seated themselves cross-legged round the nest, and began to prepare a suit of clothes for Bellah.

Out of one cabbage-leaf they made a beautiful coat, laced at every seam; of another they made a waistcoat; but it took two leaves for the trunk-breeches, such as are worn in the country of Léon; lastly, the heart of the cabbage was shaped into a hat, and the stalk was converted into shoes.

Thus equipped, Bellah would have passed any where for a handsome young gentleman in green velvet lined with white satin.

She thanked the korandon, who added some further instructions; and then her great bird flew away with her straight to the Isle of Lok. There she commanded him to resume the form of a crab-stick; and entering the swan-shaped boat, arrived safely at the Groac'h's palace.

The fairy was quite taken at first sight with the velvet-clad young Léonard.

“Well,” quoth she to herself, “you are the best-looking young fellow that has ever come to see me; and I do think I shall love you for three times three days.”

And she began to make much of her guest, calling her her darling, and heart of hearts. She treated her with a collation; and Bellah found upon the table St. Corentin's knife, which had been left there by Houarn. She took it up against the time of need, and followed the Groac'h into the garden. There the fairy showed her the grass-plots flowered with diamonds, the fountains of perfumed waters, and, above all, the fish-pond, wherein swam fishes of a thousand colours.

With these last Bellah pretended to be especially taken, so that she must needs sit down upon the edge of the pond, the better to enjoy the sight of them.

The Groac'h took advantage of her delight to ask her if she would not like to spend all her days in this lovely place. Bellah replied that she should like it of all things.

“Well, then, so you may, and from this very hour, if you are only ready at once to marry me,” proceeded the fairy.

“Very well,” replied Bellah; “but you must let me fetch up one of these beautiful fishes with the steel net that hangs at your girdle.”

The Groac'h, nothing suspecting, and taking this request for a mere boyish freak, gave her the net, saying with a smile, “Let us see, fair fisherman, what you will catch.”

“Thee, fiend!” cried Bellah, throwing the net over the Groac'h's head. “In the name of the Saviour of men, accursed sorceress, become in body even as thou art in soul!”

The cry uttered by the Groac'h died away in a stifled murmur, for the exorcism had already taken effect; the beautiful water fay was now nothing more than the hideous queen of toadstools.

In an instant Bellah drew the net, and with all speed threw it into a well, upon which she laid a stone sealed with the sign of the cross, that it might remain closed till the tombs shall be opened at the last day.

She then hastened back to the pond; but all the fish were already out of it, coming forth to meet her, like a procession of many-coloured monks, crying in their little hoarse voices, “Behold our lord and master! who has delivered us from the net of steel and the golden frying-pan.”

“And who will also restore you to your shape of Christians,” said Bellah, drawing forth the knife of St. Corentin. But as she was about to touch the first fish, she perceived close to her a frog, with the magic bell hung about his neck, and sobbing bitterly as he knelt before her. Bellah felt her bosom swell, and she exclaimed, “Is it thou, is it thou, my Houarn, thou lord of my sorrow and my joy?”

“It is I,” answered the youth.

At a touch with the potent blade he recovered his proper form, and Bellah and he fell into each other's arms, the one eye weeping for the past, the other glistening with the present joy.

She then did the like to all the fishes, who were restored each of them to his pristine shape and condition.

The work of disenchantment was hardly at an end, when up came the little korandon from the Stag's-Leap rock.

“Here I am, my pretty maiden,” cried he to Bellah: “the spell which held me where you saw me is broken, and I am come to thank you for my deliverance.”

He then conducted the lovers to the Groac'h's coffers, which were filled with precious stones, of which he told them to take as many as they pleased.

They both loaded their pockets, their girdles, and their hats; and when they had as much as they could carry, they departed, with all whom she had delivered from the enchantment.

The banns were soon published, and Houarn and Bellah were married. But instead of a little cow and a lean pig, he bought all the land in the parish, and put in as farmers the people he had brought with him from the Isle of Lok.

1 The name Groac'h, or Grac'h, means literally old woman ; and was given to the Druidesses, who had established themselves in an island off the south-west coast of Brittany, called thence the isle of Groac'h; by corruption Groais, or Groix. But the word gradually lost its original meaning of old woman, and came to signify a woman endowed with power over the elements, and dwelling amongst the waves, as did the island Druidesses; in fact, a sort of water-fay, but of a malevolent nature, like all the Breton fairies. Such of our readers as are not acquainted with La Motte Fouqué's beautiful tale of Undine, may require to be reminded that the sprites, sylphs, gnomes, and fairies of the popular mythologies are not necessarily, perhaps not even generally, exempt from mortality.

2 A cluster of islets off the southern coast of Brittany, near the headland of Penmarc'h. The name signifies literally summer-land. One of them is called the isle of Lok, or Lock, and contains a fish-pool, from which it seems to derive its name.

3 A dwarfish sprite.