Reference > Anthologies > Warner, et al., eds. > The Library > Verse

C.D. Warner, et al., comp.  The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes.  1917.
The Foster-Brother
By Hersart de la Villemarqué (1815–1895)
Tréguier Dialect

Translation of William Sharp

  THIS ballad, some variants of which I owe to the Abbé Henry, and which is one of the most popular of Brittany, is sung under different titles in several parts of Europe. Fauriel has published it in modern Greek; Bürger picked it up from the lips of a young German peasant girl, and gave it an artificial form; ‘The Dead Go About Alive’ is but an artistic reproduction of the Danish ballad ‘Aagé and Elsé.’ A Welsh savant has assured me that his compatriots of the mountains possess it in their language. All are based on the idea of a duty, the obedience to the sacredness of the oath. The hero of the primitive German ballad, like the Greek Constantine, like the Breton cavalier, vowed to return, though dead; and he keeps his word.
  We do not know to what epoch the composition of the two German and Danish songs, nor that of the Greek ballad, date back: ours must belong to the most flourishing period of the Middle Ages, chivalric devotion shining therein by its sweetest lustre.

THE PRETTIEST girl of high degree in all this country round was a young maid of eighteen years, whose name was Gwennolaïk.
Dead was the old lord, her two poor sisters and her mother; her own people all were dead, alas! except her stepmother.
It was pitiful to see her, weeping bitterly on the threshold of the manor-door, so beauteous and so sweet!
Her eyes fixed on the sea, seeking there the vessel of her foster-brother, her only consolation in the world, and whom since long she had awaited;
Her eyes fixed upon the sea, and seeking there the vessel of her foster-brother. Six years had passed since he had left his country.—        5
Away from here, my daughter, and go and fetch the cattle; I do not feed you to remain there seated.—
She awaked her two, three hours before the day in winter, to light the fire and sweep the house;
To go to draw water at the fountain of the dwarfs, with a little cracked pitcher and a broken pail:
The night was dark; the water had been disturbed by the foot of the horse of a cavalier who returned from Nantes.—
Good health to you, young maid: are you betrothed?—        10
And I (what a child and fool I was!)—I replied: I wot naught of it.—
Are you betrothed? Tell me, I pray you.—
Save your grace, dear sir: not yet am I betrothed.—
Well, take my golden ring, and say to your stepmother that unto a cavalier who returns from Nantes you are betrothed:
That a great combat there has been; that his young esquire has been killed over there, that he himself by a sword-thrust in the flank has been wounded;        15
That in three weeks and three days he’ll be restored, and to the manor will come gayly and quickly to seek you.—
And she to run at once to the house and to look at the ring: it was the ring that her foster-brother wore on his left hand.
One, two, three weeks had passed, and the young cavalier had not yet returned.—
You must be married; I have thought thereon in my heart, and for you a proper man, my daughter, I’ve found.—
Save your grace, stepmother, I wish no husband other than my foster-brother, who has come.        20
He gave me my wedding-ring of gold, and soon will come gayly and quickly to seek me.—
Be quiet, if you please, with your wedding-ring of gold, or I will take a rod to teach you how to speak.
Willy nilly, you shall wed Job the Lunatic, our young stable-boy.—
Wed Job! oh horror! I shall die of sorrow! My mother, my poor little mother! if thou wert still alive!—
Go and lament in the court, mourn there as much as you will; in vain will you make a wry face: in three days betrothed you’ll be.        25
About that time the old grave-digger traveled through the country, his bell in his hand, to carry the tidings of death.
Pray for the soul which hath been the lord cavalier, in his lifetime a good man and a brave.
And who beyond Nantes was wounded to death by a sword-thrust in his side, in a great battle over there.
To-morrow at the setting of the sun the watching will begin, and thereafter from the white church to the tomb they will carry him.
How early you do go away!—Whether I am going? Oh, yes indeed!—But the feast is not yet done, nor is the evening spent.—
I cannot restrain the pity she inspires in me, and the horror which awakes this herdsman who stands in the house face to face with her!
Around the poor girl, who bitterly wept, every one was weeping, the rector himself:
In the parish church this morn all were weeping, all, both young and old; all except the stepmother.
The more the fiddlers in returning to the manor twanged their bows, the more they consoled her, the more was her heart torn.
They took her to the table, to the place of honor for supper; she has drunk no drop of water, nor eaten a morsel of bread.        35
They tried just now to undress her, to put her in her bed: she has thrown away her ring, has torn her wedding fillet;
She has escaped from the house, her hair in disorder. Where she has gone to hide, no one doth it know.
All lights were extinguished; in the manor every one profoundly slept; elsewhere, the poor young maid was awake, to fever a prey.—
Who is there?—I, Nola, thy foster-brother.—
It is thou, really, really thou! It is thou, thou, my dear brother!—        40
And she to go out, and to flee away on her brother’s white horse in saddle behind, encircling him with her little arm, seated behind him.—
How fast we go, my brother! We have gone a hundred leagues, I think! How happy I am near unto thee! So much was I never before.
Is it still afar, thy mother’s house? I would we were arrived.—
Ever hold me close, my sister: ere long we shall be there.—
The owl fled screeching before them; as well as the wild animals frightened by the noise they made.—        45
How supple is thy horse, and thy armor how bright! I find thee much grown, my brother.
I find thee very beautiful! Is it still far, thy manor?—
Ever hold me close, my sister: we shall arrive apace.—
Thy heart is icy; thy hair is wet; thy heart and thy hand are icy: I fear that thou art cold.—
Ever hold me close, my sister: behold us quite near; hearest thou not the piercing sounds of the gay musicians of our nuptials?—        50
He had not finished speaking when his horse stopped all at once, shivering and neighing very loud;
And they found themselves on an island where many people were dancing;
Where young men and beautiful young girls, holding each other by the hand, did play:
All about green trees with apples laden, and behind, the sun rising on the mountains.
A little clear fountain flowed there; souls to life returning, were drinking there;        55
Gwennola’s mother was with them, and her two sisters also.
There was nothing there but pleasure, songs, and cries of joy.
On the morrow morning, at the rising of the sun, young girls carried the spotless body of little Gwennola from the white church to the tomb.


  AS will be remembered, the German ballad ends, after the fashion of the stories of the ‘Helden-Buch,’ by a catastrophe which swallows up the two heroes; it is the same with the Greek ballad published by Fauriel.
  The ancient Bretons recognized several stages of existence through which the soul passed; and Procopius placed the Druid elysium beyond the ocean in one of the Britannic Isles, which he does not name. The Welsh traditions are more precise: they expressly designate this island under the name of Isle of Avalon, or of the Apples. It is the abiding-place of the heroes: Arthur, mortally wounded at the battle of Camlann, is conducted there by the bards Merlin and Taliesin, guided by Barinte the peerless boatman (‘Vita Merlini Caledoniensis’). The French author of the novel of ‘William of the Short Nose’ has his hero Renoard transported thither by the fairies, with the Breton heroes.
  One of the Armorican lays of Mary of France also transports thither the squireen Lanval. It is also there, one cannot doubt it, that the foster-brother and his betrothed alight: but no soul, it was said, could be admitted there before having received the funeral rites; it remained wandering on the opposite bank until the moment when the priest collected its bones and sang its funeral hymn. This opinion is as alive to-day in Lower Brittany as in the Middle Ages; and we have seen celebrated there the same funeral ceremonies as those of olden times.

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