Saturday, 20 August 2011

Classical Places in Popular Culture: Brittany

Continuing the series otherwise known as What I Did on my Holidays, I thought I'd share some thoughts on Brittany, the part of France I know best, home of crepes and big rocks. Brittany has strong links with medieval culture and Arthurian legend, and one of my former housemates once referred to it as Cornwall but in French, but it was also once part of the Roman Empire and is, therefore, definitely Classical.

Like Wales, Cornwall and Ireland, Brittany is still predominantly Celtic and a substantial proportion of it is Celtic speaking. There are plenty of fascinating arcaheological sites in Brittany, including numerous prehistoric standing stones,

Menhir, one of a group at... actually I'm not sure, I think we'd stopped for a comfort break!

Many, many stones at Carnac

the Cairn of Barnanez, a dry stone tomb in the shape of a stepped pyramid, with two distinct phases of construction that was in use through to medieval times,

 and loads of medieval buildings, calverts and so on, including the amazing Dance of Death fresco, preserved in a medieval church

and some churches that are just really pretty.

The gorgeous and famous medieval town of Mont-St-Michel is just outside Brittany - but more to the point, I don't seem to have any digital photos of it. It is, however, an amazing place to visit.

The Romans conquered Brittany along with the rest of Gaul, but there isn't as much in the way of Roman remains... possibly because Brittany is the home of Asterix the Gaul!

It took me ages to work out that this is, indeed, supposed to represent Brittany, not Normandy...

It seems only right and proper that Asterix should come from a place still so strongly Celtic, and of course, Brittany's position, sticking out from the rest of France, makes it the perfect location for a lone holdout against invasion. This location is also, presumably, the inspiration for Obelix's job as a menhir delivery man.

Aside from Asterix, Brittany does not come up overly often in Classical pop culture, presumably because it isn't really on the way to anywhere. To be in Roman Brittany, you have to have aimed to go to Roman Brittany, and since it lacked major cities etc, fictional characters don't tend to do so. Dramas set in other periods do occasionally visit the region, my favourite of which is First World War story A Very Long Engagement (Une Long Dimanche de Fiancailles), which comes complete with sea, lighthouse and crepes, all familiar images to anyone who's shopped in Brittany's many cute tourist traps.

The lighthouse in the film - our family own a number of lighthouse themed placemats, purchased in the cutesy tourist shops of Brittany

However, there is at least one notable instance of Brittany's Classical past and its strong links with Arthurian legend being brought together, in Mary Stewart's The Crystal Cave, adapted for television by the BBC back in the early '90s.

I absolutely adored this series when I was little, but unfortunately it isn't currently available on DVD and I haven't seen it since. I was pleased to discover that I wasn't hallucinating - it really did star Robert Powell, otherwise known as Jesus, or that dude that wasn't Jasper Carrot on that old sitcom about detectives. I think it had Mr Weasley in it as well. In the series, Merlin goes to Brittany, where he discovers that his father is a Roman soldier called Ambrosius Aurelianus and some kind of Mithraic ritual is carried out among a group of standing stones. I remember that this was the first time I'd heard of Mithras, that the religion was correctly described as a particular favourite of soldiers, and visions of a bull were somehow involved, but not much else. I do have the original novel at home somewhere, so I'll have to re-read it.

The nice thing about the series' use of Brittany is that, as I said, the links with Arthurian legend are widely celebrated in Brittany (by the tourist board, at least). You can't move for an Arthurian-themed restaurants or supposedly haunted woods in Brittany. And the Arthurian legends are frequently linked with the Classical past in one way or another. So the blending of Brittany's Classical past with its Arthurian heritage is a really nice idea, and although I barely remember the series, I do remember the combination of the exotic Mithraic cult with the haunting stones of Brittany being very effective.

It's no wonder Brittany celebrates its medieval heritage so much, when you've got buildings like these...

and no wonder it's such a good place for fantasy and folklore lovers, with landscapes like this, known as the Roches du Diable (Devil's Rocks).

If only the BBC would release the series on DVD...!


  1. Another use of Brittany with a classical connection is Poul and Karen Anderson's King of Ys tetralogy. They retell the Ys legend at some length and set it very firmly in the fourth or fifth century as the Empire was unravelling.

  2. That sounds interesting, I hadn't heard of it before. Is it a book series?

  3. I didn't know they'd televised "The Crystal Cave", but both my sister and I loved the books.

  4. You forgot the most important figure in Bretagne (Brittany)'s history, Bertrand du Guesclin. He was constable of France during the Hundred Years War and managed to recover most of the lost provinces of France during the reign of king Carol V.

  5. It's a 4 book series: Roma Mater, Gallicenae, Dahut, and The Dog and the Wolf. It posits Ys as a Punic offshoot mixed with some local pagan stuff and starts with a Roman military official heading there to collect tribute. He winds up killing the current sacred king in the sacred grove and becoming king himself (very Frazierian). Toss in some Irish raiders, local saints and a bit of magic and hang all that on the Ys legend. It's pretty good, though the second book is rather slow.


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