The accomplished writer Elizabeth Cruse set off a few weeks ago to find out what a mysterious order of Druids gets up to on ‘The Continent’ – as that vast expanse of territory that lies beyond the safety of our shores is known. This is her report:
OBOD Retreat in the Forest of Broceliande – 22nd – 25th October 2009
In Le Val Sans Retour (The Valley of No Return), in the magical forest of Broceliande, the great enchantress, Morgaine le Fay, entertained her many lovers. But her beauty and enticements were a trap for mortal men. Once in her enchanted valley, they were unable to escape, held prisoner forever. Only one man sat down to feast with Morgaine and left the valley unharmed. This was Sir Lancelot whose heart was so entirely given to Arthur’s queen, Guinevere, that he was impervious to Morgaine le Fay’s charms and quit the valley without a backward glance. In so doing he broke the spell forever and all her other lovers were set free.
This story was one of many told to a group of us in Brittany by the extraordinary Breton musician and storyteller, Ozegan. (Many of you will remember his stirring Breton pipe music and flamboyant jester’s costume at the Summer Assembly in 2008.) He it was who had organised the first ever OBOD retreat in Brocéliande this October. I had long wanted to visit the forest where some say Merlin was tricked into an enchanted slumber by the fairy woman Vivien (or Nimue) and had booked as soon as I saw the announcement in Touchstone. Trois jours en Brocéliande sur les traces du grand cerf blanc. Who could resist? So, taking my courage and rusty French by the scruff of their necks, I had caught the night boat to St Malo, setting foot on the land of Brittany as the tattered cloud flags of dawn were flying in front of a fiery sky. Now, here I was up on a hillside above the tarn called the Mirror of Morgaine listening to the harsh notes of Ozegan’s bombard (an early version of the oboe) echoing across the valley. Mist cloaked the hills in the distance but near at hand sun sparked rainbows off cobwebs and warmed the grey rocks of Merlin’s throne.
Falling into my mind, like the gold and crimson autumn leaves that embellished the Breton woods and countryside come a succession of pictures and sounds:
The first night – a ceremony at the scared well of St Onenn, who is the patron saint of the little church in Trehorenteuc where we were staying.
Cold brilliant stars, frosty Milky Way arcing overhead, candles flickering and wavering cries of owls alternately far away and near at hand. A scary descent to the healing waters (good for dropsy and eye problems) down at the bottom of crumbling steps. A spiritual entry into the other world and a return to the gentle welcome of my companions for the week.
On the following murky misty morning we gathered around the fire that burned in the salon of the gîte where we were staying. Ozegan played his psaltery, a medieval stringed instrument, plucked with quills of goose and crow or played with a bow. The alternate sounds of harp and wild violin. With only the fire for light we were translated to the Middle Ages.
A talk delivered by Phillip with his customary grace and clarity (and in French) under the ancient beams of La Maison des Sources next door to the gite. A large audience of druids and others including some mysterious men in black. Afterwards a Samhuinn ceremony infused with Gallic vigour and unpredictability. The original Samhuinn ceremony was given to OBOD by Breton druids so it was a special privilege to be part of this ritual in Brittany. The Druid prayer was recited in Breton, French, English and German. This nicely expressed the international nature of Druidry. A chill mystery manifested with the sudden appearance of the Caillach and her chaudron vorace ready to take away what was no longer needed from the passing year. Walnuts were passed around. Walnuts? No nutcrackers? Dear reader, your guess would have been as good as mine. A zen koan for Samhain.
At the fountain of Barenton we watched the water that wells up into a rectangular chamber bubble from time to time. Chrétien de Troyes mentions this spring in the romance of Yvain describing it as “the spring which boils though its water is colder than marble.” A hidden frog croaked sweetly along with Ozegan’s recounting of the local legend: that if a woman will look into the water at midnight on a full moon she may see the face of her soul mate (who may, but will not necessarily turn out to be, her husband). Here it was, according to the story that Calogrenant was defeated by the Black Knight who “came on swifter than an eagle, looking as fierce as a lion” and later Yvain came to avenge his cousin’s disgrace. Walking the long twisting path through the woods up to this fountain it was easy to imagine a knight on a charger picking his way delicately between the trees.
The Arthurian legends were never far from our minds. The local church restored in the 1940s and 50s by the Abbé Henri Gillard has stained glass windows depicting aspects of the Grail mysteries and there is a modern mosaic of the great white hart surrounded by crimson snarling lions.
Did we visit Merlin’s tomb and the house of Vivien? Or were they ancient Neolithic burial chambers, their once proud stones reduced to jagged teeth of rock by five thousand years of quiet endurance? It was close to Samhain and we were in Broceliande. The veils between the worlds were thin. So we slipped easily between them.
It being France food was an important part of the retreat – a torte of caramelised onions, honey and raisins remains in my memory. One day the soup was accompanied by the wild skirling of the cornemuse (Breton bagpipe). The grace and generosity of Michel, Marilyn and Roger of La Maison des Sources are alone worthy of a medieval ballad.
Merlin said that the most wonderful thing in the world is the scent of approaching events. Like an unseen garden full of herbs, roses and compost, the savours of a visit to Broceliande with my Breton brothers and sisters in Druidry had been drifting towards me on the wind of time for several months. Now those three days, the new friends, and the enchantment are woven into my being. My thanks to all who made it possible, not least, Merlin himself, elusive and ubiquitous. As they say, with a French accent, awen, awen, awen.