Unlike women in some of the more sanitised and decidedly patriarchal northern European fairytales many of us grew up with, women in many of the old Celtic myths and fairytales hold power. Here’s a brief recounting of a story from Brittany. It is in the long tradition of women who represent ‘Sovereignty’: the power to bestow the title of King on a man, through his marriage to the (female) land. In this story the Enchanted Princess, as Sovereignty, is very clear about who is worthy of the title of King, and who is not. Note that in this story the sun has female qualities, making the Mother of the Sun another female character of great power. The third powerful female character in this story is the girl who sets the challenge for Efflam, the hero. Although often described as a classic ‘hero’s quest’ story, in fact this is very much a story about the critical place women occupied in the Celtic mindscape.
Le seul rêve intéresse,
Vivre sans rêve, qu’est-ce?
Et j’aime la Princesse Lointaine.
Edmond Rostand, La Princesse Lointaine
A young man called Efflam was sent by the old King to find out why the sun was light red in the morning. Efflam arrived at the palace of the Mother of the Sun, who prevented the sun from destroying him, and told him that the sun was light red in the morning because of the radiance of the Enchanted Princess, who stood then at the window of her palace looking out onto the world. Efflam returned to the King and told him this, and the King decided that he would like to marry the Enchanted Princess, since he was clearly the only man in the land worthy of such beauty. And so the King sent Efflam off on a quest to find the Princess and bring her back to him.
Efflam crossed the kingdom of lions, the kingdom of ogres, and the kingdom of ants. He came to the Enchanted Palace and there was received by a girl of great beauty. She set Efflam three tasks so that he might free her from her enchantment, and said that she would take him to the Princess if he fulfilled the tasks. And so Efflam spent one night in a lion’s cage, a second in an ogre’s den, and on the third night he was to sort out a great pile of mixed grain into its different constituents. He succeeded, as a result of alliances made in the three kingdoms he passed through. The girl then took him before the Enchanted Princess who, impressed by the fact that he had past the tests through the creation of alliances, agreed to return with him to his own land.
The King wanted to marry her immediately, but she objected that he was too old, and impotent. Wouldn’t it be better, she suggested, if he could be restored to life as a twenty-year-old? The King agreed that it would indeed be much better, and so the Princess suggested that, as she held the power of life, she would kill him and then restore him. And so she killed him, but she did not restore him. ‘Since he is dead, let him remain so,’ she declared, ‘and the man who took all the trouble can receive the reward.’
And so it is Efflam, deemed to be worthy of the title of King by his own actions, who marries the Enchanted Princess.