Wander through Broceliande, a wizard’s forest in the heart of Brittany. Though there are no signs of ogres or medieval maidens – it is truly magical…
The forest of Broceliande
In the forest of Broceliande, forty miles south-west of Rennes, there is a pile of red slate blocks. Through them grows an ancient holly tree. In its branches are flowers and wreaths of seven times knotted hair.
Wedged into the peeling bark are little anonymous messages. Some are written on slips of paper, some on the back of supermarket receipts. All are addressed to Merlin, the ancient intercessor between man and nature.
The world’s most famous wizard is said to be buried in these sacred Celtic woods.
Since the origins of Celtic mythology fifth and sixth century, and the publication in the twelfth century of the romances of Chretien de Troyes and Elinor of Aquitaine’s poet, Robert of Wace’s “Roman du Brut (1155), the Arthurian legend has fascinated and inspired millions. And mentioned Broceliande. The name appears in Tennysons’s “Idylls of the King” and inspired Tolkien’s region of Beleriand in Middle-Earth.
Some claim that King Arthur is buried in Glastonbury – or Worthyvale in Cornwall. His sword “Excalibur” is meant to lie at the bottom of a pool in the English county’s Bodmin Moor. Camelot has been variously located in Tintagel, Winchester and Roxburgh in Scotland. No one can really say for sure, the details are lost in the mists of memory. But here in France they know where Arthur’s most trusted advisor is. A Breton, his tomb is in the forest of Broceliande.
“Le Tombeau de Merlin” is under an hour away from L’Orient airport.
A wizard in love
Merlin fell in love with one of his students, a fairy called Viviane. She enclosed him in a magic circle and there he stays…
“I don’t think this is his final resting place. He is a spirit. He is everywhere. Not in one place,” said my guide, a professional Merlinologist and official tourist guide for “Le Centre de L’Imaginaire Arthurien” which aims to discover and spread Arthurian knowledge. The centre has several official “Round Table” guides.
“His spirit definitely inhabits the woods. That is why pilgrims come here. They seek guidance. The area is invested with memories of pre-Christian life.”
The forest has lots of well-marked footpaths and is a magical place to walk and feel the spirit of the old wizard. The tomb is indisputably an ancient site of worship. It stands near an old Neolithic gallery grave. The woods contain cromlechs and burial mounds from the Bronze and Iron ages. Water from the Fontaine de Barrenton spills over the Perron de Merlin (Merlin’s steps) into a pool where Merlin reputedly inducted Vivian into necromancy. For centuries locals believed that the water had enchanted properties.
Deeper into the forest, the Pont Dom Jean is believed to be the bridge of the sword crossed by Lancelot to deliver Guinevere. There is also a “Rock des Faux Amants”. The lover who betrayed Morgan, Arthur’s half-sister, and was turned into stone.
Broceliande is a part of Paimpont forest. The misty lakes and bubbling ponds of Les Forges and Perray and the castles of Trecesson and Pas-du-Houx are straight out of the pages of literary romance. The forest contains what many believe is the fountain of Barenton, where Merlin sat on his perron and conjured up a storm.
Golden trees and a lover’s bridge
In 1990, the woods burned for five days. As part of a massive re-plantation scheme, artist Francois Davin created his “L’Arbre d’Or”, a chestnut tree covered with gold leaf and surrounded by five blackened trees.
Our walking tour led us to the Val sans Retour (The Valley of No Return). It’s said the witch Morgane lived here and punished knights who were unfaithful to their ladies.
Surrounded by rocks which – to the guide’s eyes resemble the backbone of a sleeping dragon, we looked into the Miroir-aux-Fees (faerie pool) and sat on Merlin’s seat, a rock formation where he reputedly watched sunsets thinking up new ways of enchanting the world.
A bridge over a river called Pont du Secret is where Queen Guinevere told Sir Lancelot she loved him.
“Faithful lovers like Lancelet who avowed a perfect love for Guinevere can cross it without risk,” my guide explained with a sideways look. “The unfaithful remain as prisoners encaged by invisible walls.”
The church at Trehorenteuc celebrates and symbolizes the fusion of Arthurian legend with Celtic traditions and Christian faith. The mosaics, paintings and stained glass are all the work of a priest, Henri Gillard. The Celtic influence is symbolized by the oaks and acorns in the large stained glass window.
A fairy castle
All the Arthurian tours of Broceliande finish at Comper Castle, former stronghold of the king of Brittany. Here, Merlin is reputed to have created a crystal palace for the faerie Vivian so that none could gaze upon her. It’s believed to be buried in the lake where she is said to have swum with the baby Sir Lancelot after finding him abandoned. It’s why he is called Sir Lancelot of the Lake and she is known as the Lady of the Lake.
“They all come here and try not to look but they all do,” said my guide as we watched a group of schoolchildren looking down into the water.
“Everyone looks, hoping to see Merlin or catch a sight of the Lady of the Lake. They look for a long time. People are convinced they are both down there. They want to believe. It is an entrance to another world. The whole place is a dream world. It has a very otherworldly feel.”
We did not see any white-footed stags ferrying souls to the eternal shores, meet any mad washerwomen, ogres or medieval maiden in white dresses. Apparitions were thin on the ground. No black knights challenged us to mortal combat. But it does feel special…
For further information about guided tours of the area contact Centre L’Imaginaire Arthurien, Comper-en-Broceliande Castle: tourisme-broceliande.bzh/activite/centre-de-limaginaire-arthurien
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