Feature Articles –   The Otherworldly Forest of Merlin and Vivian
The forest of Broceliande in the center of French Brittany was said to be the domain of the fairy Vivian and the magician Merlin. It is a sacred forest, whose history goes back to Neolithic times, but where each generation comes in certain of magic, and adds to it.
by Philip Coppens

The Fountain of Barenton The forest of Broceliande sits between the villages of Concoret, Paimpont and Trehorenteuc in the heart of Brittany, not too distant from Rennes. Its etymology is believed to come from Barc’h Helan, “the empire of the druids”, underlining a strong connection to the Celtic priests in the centuries before Christ. The earliest written account in which its magical nature is mentioned dates back to the 12th century. In the Roman de Rou, a verse chronicle written by Wace in 1160, Broceliande was a legendary forest. Wace wrote that the place had the tomb of the Merlin, as well as a magical fountain, which he named Barenton. Hunters were said to scoop water from the fountain and wet a stone in order to summon rain. As a result, the forest was largely felt to be otherworldly, as it had unusual weather and even its location was either frequently shifting or uncertain. Still, its location was known to be in Brittany, the site part of the immense forest that formerly entirely covered this region. Wace also mentioned rumors of faeries but noted that when he traveled to Brittany in search of this magical forest, he was unable to find it. A decade later, the forest was worked into the Arthurian literature. The first to do so was Chrétien de Troyes himself, before he would write “Perceval, the Story of the Grail” in the 1180s. In “Yvain, the Knight of the Lion”, written in the 1170s, he mentioned the forest, relating that Yvain, the nephew of King Arthur, poured water from the spring onto a stone, causing a violent storm to erupt. This summoned the knight Esclados le Ros, who defended the forest. Meanwhile, in Catalonia, the Arthurian romance “Jaufré” claimed that the forest was near King Arthur’s palace, while Grail author Robert de Boron reconfirmed the link between Merlin and Broceliande in his poem “Merlin”. By the middle of the 13rd century, the forest was well-worked into the Arthurian legend. It is therefore quite remarkable that to this very day, Broceliande is not the official name of the forest. The French, it seems, feel that otherworldly forests should not become part of the legal system but forever maintain their nebulous character.

There has been almost endless debate about where the sites of the story are located and today there is still no uniformity, with some continuing to argue that the forest never was physically real. But it is a fact that the Charter of Usage and Customs of the forest of Broceliande from 1467 stated that Guy de Laval, Lord of Comper, owned the fountain and that only he could conjure up a storm. De Laval definitely wanted the otherworldly privilege noted down in a legal document, underlining that in the 15th century, the physical reality of the forest was commonly accepted and its location known, or at least commonly agreed upon.

The fountain is indeed an interesting site. The water that streams from this spring is always 10 degrees, “as cold as marble”. The water bubbles to the surface, as it contains methane gas. It said that if one makes a wish and the bubbles immediately rise to the surface, that wish will be fulfilled. Vivian’s Lake The history of this forest stretches much further back in time. There are more than fifty remains of the Neolithic Age, several of which, like the Monk’s Garden just outside of the village of Trehorenteuc, are worked into the Arthurian and fairy tradition. Rather than a stone circle, this is a stone square, formed with alternate blocks of red slate and white pudding stone, erected around 3000 BC. Another megalithic monument is the Giant’s Tomb in Campénéac, whose name is linked with legends of the tombs of mythical creatures. The fight or encounter with the giant is a theme found in many cultures, as well as the Arthurian tradition. In Chrétien’s rendition, Yvain met a wild man on the way to Barenton. The giant was gentle, but the Black Knight, Barenton’s guardian, demanded a fight to the death.

Several of the Neolithic monuments are associated with the dead – a common association found elsewhere. Nevertheless, scholars have posed the question whether this region was deemed to be more special than others and specifically, whether this region was considered to be a sacred place to bury the dead? If so, Merlin was but one in a long line of wizards that seem to have found their final resting place here. In fact, our medieval authors may have used the image of Merlin to become the billboard of a much older tradition, but one which without Merlin may have become lost.

The Tomb of Merlin itself is all that remains of a Neolithic gallery grave that once measured twelve meters. In 1892, a dozen slabs were still standing, but two years later, the landowner destroyed the site. Some believe it was done because he believed there were vast hoards of gold to be found underneath. Today, only two stones remain. Some therefore have a hard time accepting that this is indeed the tomb of this famous magician. And wasn’t he said to have attained eternal life? Despite the occasional disbelief, thousands come here to honor the magician, adding their layer to a tradition that goes back several centuries.

Merlin was said to be the guardian of the forest of Broceliande. Said to be the child of a young girl and a devil, he knew the past and was able to predict the future. From a very young age, his powers revealed themselves: he saved his mother from being burnt at the stake, educated the young Arthur, to later become his most trusted counsel. It is said that infrequently, Merlin returns to “his” forest, to rest upon these two stones.

Nearby is the Fountain of Barenton, where the otherworldly fame of the forest began. Only two red slate blocks, overlooked by a very old holly, remain. It would be easily missed if it were not for the numerous signs of recent veneration. This area was the bailiwick of the fairy Vivian. Vivian’s father was King Dionas, the goddess Diana’s godchild. From childhood, Vivian was pledged to the forest, which she knew like no other. She learned about the science of the plants and the stars. When she was barely fifteen years old, she encountered Merlin near Barenton and developed a fascination with the man and his knowledge. He took her under his wings and it is said that they even may have become lovers.

There is also the Fountain of Youth nearby, said to have been a site where the druids united at the equinoxes and solstices. The name comes from the legend that the druids, on the summer solstice, performed a ceremony for the newborns here. Some newborns were so fresh from the womb they could not participate in the rituals They were instead initiated the following year, when they were one year old. This tradition gave the site its name of Fountain of Youth, as it enabled slightly older babies to be treated as newborns, i.e. regaining their youth. Today, it is said that youth can still be attained, on the summer solstice, at midnight, but only in certain conditions.

French esoteric writer Jean Markale argues that Barenton can be turned into Bellanton, or Bel-Nemeton, the sacred precinct where Bel, the Celtic sun deity, was worshipped. If so, then we are clearly at the very heart of why this forest was “the empire of the druids”. Long before Merlin, these sites were extremely important to the Celts and it appears that the stories of Merlin are but medieval veneer that would guarantee the place’s survival. At Comper, in the valley which stretches in front of the old fortified castle of Dionas, now the Castle of Comper, Merlin built Vivian a crystal palace. So that she would not be bothered by people who were mystified by its beauty, he masked its appearance, that of a lake. Vivian thus became known as the Lady of the Lake.

Many years later, King Ban of Benoïc and Queen Helen fled their kingdom and arrived at Broceliande. The king died of sorrow and exhaustion while the queen had to witness her young son being dragged under the water of the lake by a lady dressed in white. In despair, she retired to a convent, while Vivian brought the child up as her own son. She taught him science, art, chivalry. He became known to the world as Lancelot, one of the greatest knights ever to have lived. When he reached his 15th birthday, Vivian told him to leave the enchanted forest, to earn a seat as a knight of King Arthur’s Round Table. There is one final important magical site in the forest: the Valley of No Return. For many years, it is said that its precise location was hard to establish. Today, it is deemed to be just south of Trehorenteuc. Only a few hundred yards off the main road – though in this part of rural Brittany that is something of a misnomer – the valley begins. From the small lake, known as the Mirror of the Faeries, the Valley begins to make its otherworldly start. It is said that near the lake, the seven faeries of Koncorret – whose name lives on in the village of Concoret – lived. They hid during the day and came out during the night, spending most of the time admiring themselves in the surface of the lake, from which the name of the lake was born. One day, one of the sisters fell in love with a man, resulting in a ferocious fight with her sisters. The blood of the faeries ran in the valley, giving the valley is red color. Indeed, the valley is typified by its red slate – red stone being the mark of so many holy sites, across the world, as if it symbolizes the blood of Mother Earth herself, bleeding. But in the case of a valley, we are also reminded that this is an entrance into Mother Earth herself, enabling Man to enter her body.

The Golden Tree Near the lake stands the Golden Tree. In September 1990, the Valley burnt for five days, destroying most of the trees and life in it. The valley was replanted and in memory of this horrific destruction, Francois Davin created the Golden Tree, a gold-leafed chestnut tree, symbolizing immortality, surrounded by five black trees, symbolizing the burned forest. Davin wanted the Golden Tree to evoke the head and antlers of a stag, the animal that ferried the souls to the eternal shores. And so, in 1991, another addition was created that made a link between this forest and the otherworld.

The Valley of No Return was the domain of Morgan le Fay, King Arthur’s fairy half-sister. Morgan had learned the sciences of Merlin and retired to this valley to practice these arts. However, it was said that she was a passionate woman, once betrayed by one of her lovers, Guyomard. She used her skills to turn the guilty parties into stones: they became the Rock of the Faux-Amants (false lovers), which dominates the valley. The rock is actually in the shape of a broken heart and it is said that it was inside this specific rock that Morgan kept her men. For that no-one else had to suffer the same fate that had befallen her, she enchanted the valley: faithful lovers would be able to cross it without risk, but all unfaithful ones would remain there, prisoners of an invisible wall of air. Once caught, they lost all notions of time, blind to reality, a fate they endured until Lancelot broke the spell.

Just above the lake, on top of the valley, sits Merlin’s Seat. It is said that the wizard came here to watch the sun set over the forest, from a rock formation that is said to resemble the back of a dragon. French researcher Alain Bocher argues that plotting the various sacred and ancient sites of the forest of Broceliande on a map reveals that their positioning is not haphazard, but that it displays the outline of the constellation of the Dragon – Draco. He wonders whether it is why the surname of King Arthur was Pendragon – the head of the dragon. The star Thuban is part of this constellation. 5000 years ago, when many of the megalithic monuments were erected here, it was the pole star. In many legends, the dragon was a mythical creature that guarded a site. It is clear that in the case of Broceliande, the dragon was laid out in the landscape. Thousands of years later, the creature’s fame was usurped by Merlin, the counselor of the great Dragon, King Arthur. The forest of Broceliande reveals that few things truly ever change. The legends may change, new characters take the place of others, but the sacred sites remain venerated, almost, it seems, no matter what. Why? Maybe because indeed otherworldly forces guard over this land, making sure that no-one will ever forget.