Most of us associate the legends of King Arthur, the Knights of the Round Table and Merlin the Wizard with England. You may be surprised to learn that in Brittany the same legends exist with the same personalities, including Lancelot and Guenivere, Vivien and Morgan, as well as the court that is also named Camelot. Breton legends place them in the forest that is known as Brocéliande, which also known as the Forest of Paimpont.
If you drive 30 kilometers west from Rennes, you reach the forest, which has an attractive town called Paimpont in the center of it. The forest covers a surface of 40 square kilometers, and is a remnant of the former Argoat Forest that once blanketed most of the interior of Brittany.
If you drive to the Chateau de Comper within the forest, you will find that it houses a center devoted to evoking the legends of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table. It often hosts exhibits that illustrate one aspect or another of the legends.
There is a lake next to it which is thought by some to be the home of Vivien, the Lady of the Lake, for whom Merlin is said to have built a crystal palace beneath its surface. It is where Arthur is said to have parted with his magic sword, Excalibur. When Arthur hurled it into the lake, Vivien caught it and held it aloft, before disappearing with it below the surface. In another version of the legend, she had implanted it in a stone that only the person for whom it was intended could withdraw it, a role that Arthur fulfilled.
Brocéliande is also where Lancelot is believed to have spent his childhood. There is a spot in the forest that is named Merlin’s Tomb. According to legend, Merlin fell in love with Vivien and doted her with some of his supernatural powers, which she then used to imprison him in a tree, also to be found in the forest.
One more piece of Arthurian legend holds that his half-sister, Morgan le Fay, enticed faithless lovers to its Vale of No Return and imprisoned them at the Rock of False Lovers. All of these sites are clearly designated in the forest, and there are markers pointing to where and at what distance you will find them.
Brocéliande is a remarkably beautiful forest, whether Arthurian legends appeal to you or not. There is also an aspect of it that adds to its mysterious charm: here and there, scattered here and there, it is sprinkled with Neolithic monuments that were erected several thousand years ago by prehistoric man. Many of the sites of the Arthurian legends, such as Merlin’s Tomb, are themselves Neolithic monuments, resulting in a fusion of legend and history.
If you are interested in Neolithic monuments, you will not want to miss Monteneuf, which is a drive of 25 minutes to the south of Paimpont. It is a countryside of heaths and heather, and moorlands comprised of peat and gorse. It provides marked walking circuits that lead you to curiously named megaliths, such as the Burial Chamber or Little Red Riding Hood, or the Sisters. That we have no clear idea what these monuments truly commemorate simply adds to their mystery and appeal.
In 1990 a terrible fire ravaged the forest. To symbolize its resilience, local authorities commissioned the sculptor François Davin to create a work called The Golden Tree. You can find it, surrounded by five charred trees, in the Valley of No Return.