Monday, August 15, 2016

Disappointing stones

 Last week, we were on a two- week trip to Brittany.  One afternoon, while installed in Douarnenez, we set out to find the Neolithic covered alley at Lesconil (c. 3500-2000 BCE), just outside of Tréboul.

After parking next to one other car on the edge of a field, we followed a footpath into the woods.  Three other people were there before us, taking photos and bantering.  After they left, we had it to ourselves for a few moments before more people arrived (it was August).

With a few minutes to reflect, the great granite stones, arranged like a dragon's bones, commanded attention. The historical monuments plaque, nearby, described how this sort of dolmen, a passage tomb, had been covered by earth.  The diagonal stones pointing outward, once held the edge of the mound.  And yet, you could see it at once as the framework of an underground burial space and as a structure or a sculpture: a set of stones on the land.

Like the people before us, we went into it, onto it, photographed it.  The wind blew through the trees above and the light kept changing.  Molly climbed onto it.  In a field just beyond this patch of woods, two brown mares and their foals grazed, their tails swishing at flies.

Brittany’s Neolithic standing stones are gray granite, the ubiquitous local stone that is the material of its geological sense of place. Granite is also the stuff of its weather-beaten craggy coastline and its lichen-covered, somber towns, sculptures and churches. Nineteenth-century writers often conflated the material qualities of this stone with the Breton landscape, the character of its people and many layers of their cultural histories. Balzac describes the residents of the area of Guérande as “old as the granite of Brittany… neither Frenchmen nor Gauls,—they are Bretons; or, to be more exact, they are Celts. Formerly, they must have been Druids, gathering mistletoe in the sacred forests and sacrificing men upon their dolmens.” Jules Janin writes that “there is nothing as sad as this land of granite that is constantly beaten by wind, with neither a tree nor shelter” in his description of the islands off the coast of Finistère.

A few days later, leaving Brittany, we drove through the Paimpont forest near Rennes and looked for the place known as "le Tombeau de Merlin" (Merlin's tomb) in one of the places that has been identified as the Arthurian woods of Brocéliande. The tourist information center in Paimpont provided a map. From the mob in the gift shop, the animé pixies and gnomes on its walls, and the cutesy names of the surrounding streets, it was pretty clear that the area was being marketed to families as a kind of themed landscape of magic. We drove off through the very beautiful forest to find it all the same, following signs that led to a congested parking lot and well-worn walking paths.

A sign at the entry explained that "le tombeau de Merlin" had been a Neolithic site (another covered passage tomb) that had been "discovered" in 1820 by the amateur antiquarian Jean Côme Damien Poignand who was responsible for locating much of the Arthurian legends, in the Paimpont forest. As Michel Calvez writes, this landscape is today a crystallization of the meanings imposed upon it in the 19th century. In short, Poignand made it up. He located many of the events of the Knights of the Round Table in the immediate landscape so that one may visit  Merlin's tomb, Viviane's tomb, The Valley of No Return, The tomb of the Giant, The fountain of Jouvence, and the pavilion of Morgane in one convenient park.

Jean Côme Damien POIGNAND,  Antiquités historiques et monumentales de Montfort à Corseul par Dinan et au retour par Jugon, Rennes, Duchesne, 1820,   140-141 —

Poignand wasn't acting alone. In 1824, François Blanchard de la Musse confirmed the identity of the Neolithic monument as Merlin's tomb. Many antiquarians and historians of the early 19th century attributed Brittany’s Neolithic stone monuments (c. 5200-2200 BC) to the Celts and Druids who settled in Brittany at least one thousand years later. Writers, artists and illustrators followed this romantic, nationalist interpretation of Neolithic monuments as Celtic ruins: like the Ossian hoax, they were considered a testimony to a native tradition of Northern France that was resistant to the Roman Empire and had no ties to Mediterranean classicism.

The first published image of "Merlin's Tomb,"  Magasin Pittoresque, 1846

Although there were no published works on Brittany’s prehistoric stones before 1760, by the mid 19th century, menhirs, dolmens, and the Carnac alignments were one of the most common themes of landscape description. Republican historian Jules Michelet comments in 1851 that it is unlikely to walk a half hour in some parts of Brittany, “without encountering one of the formless monuments that are call druidic."  Claiming Merlin for Brittany, Jacques Cambry (1795) and Miorcec de Kerdanet (1818) proposed that he had been born on the Isle de Sein.  Locating his tomb in Paimpont helped to further resolve his history, as historian Marcel Calvez argues.
Julia Margaret Cameron, Vivian and Merlin, c. 1876

Gustave Doré,Vivian and Merlin, c. 1867
Mad about the Arthurian legends, over the course of the 19th century, many French folklorists and antiquarians joined in the search for the sites of Brocéliande, adding layers of myth and speculation to the sites of Paimpont forest.

Archaeologist Felix Bellamy(1896) drew up an inventory of these, rejecting some theories and establishing a map of legends and definitive histories (Calvez).   Tourist maps and itineraries of the forest (like those drawn up for Fontainebleau) arrived as early as 1860.
Source: bnf exhibition on King Arthur,

Topography of the Forest of Brocéliande by Abbot Gillard (1953). As published in Marcel Calvez (2010).

In 1889, the archaeologist Felix Bellamy described the Neolithic monument as “a covered walkway of which only six stones remained.” A similar covered alley, that he proposed as Arthur's tomb,  is illustrated in his book, La forêt de Bréchéliant, la fontaine de Bérenton  (1896, volume 1). In 1892, treasure-hunters, persuaded that treasure lay buried beneath the great stones, blew up the Neolithic tomb. Two disappointing, fragmentary stones are all that remain.

  Bellamy's source, known as Ty-Lia or Ty-ar-C'Horrandened, in Pleumeur-Bodou (Côtes-d'Armor)

To return to our visit last week: Molly circled the stones, barefoot, hoping to find something of her beloved Merlin there.  The sad, bedraggled stones didn't give anything back.  The dirt of the crowded clearing around them was thick with ugly wood chips and the stones were hard to see as they were so draped with stuff that many visitors had left-- bits of fern, stones, and sticks.

Sources/ Further reading:

 Félix Bellamy, “La forêt de Bréchéliant : la fontaine de Bérenton, quelques lieux d'alentour, les principaux personnages qui s'y rapportent : tome premier / Félix Bellamy,” Collections numérisées - Université de Rennes 2, consulté le 11 août 2016,  Voir en ligne. pages 210

 Marcel Calvez "Brocéliande et ses paysages légendaires" Ethnologie française, T. 19, No. 3, Crise du paysage? (Juillet-Septembre 1989), pp. 215-226

Marcel Calvez. Druides, fées et chevaliers dans la forêt de Broc eliande : De l'invention de la topographie légendaire de la forêt de Paimpont a ses recompositions contemporaines.. Festival
international de géographie. Programme scientique, Oct 2010, Saint-Die-des-Vosges, France.

Théodore Hersart de la Villemarqué, « Visite au tombeau de Merlin » dans Revue de Paris, deuxième série, 1837, XLI, p. 45-62.

Jean Côme Damien Poignand, Antiquités Historiques Et Monumentales À Visiter De Montfort À Corseul, Par Dinan, Et Au Retour, Par Jugon, Avec Addition Des Antiquités De Saint-Malo Et De Dol, Étymologies Et Anecdotes Relatives À Chaque Objet. Rennes: Duchesne, 1820.

CHARTON, Edouard, « Le tombeau de Merlin », Le Magasin Pittoresque, Vol. 14, 1846, p. 87-88, Voir en ligne. pages 87-88.

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