For the past two weeks I’ve been slowly making my way south through Brittany, a beautiful region which lies in the northwest part of France. The area, which was once Lesser Britain, is counted amongst the six remaining Celtic nations; in other words, it’s one of the last territories whose Celtic cultural traits and/or language are still alive today. As one might expect, it is a place brimming with history and a fair amount of legend, not to mention a plethora of breathtaking landscapes, beautifully preserved medieval villages and fairytale-worthy castles.
Until recently, I was unaware that there are many locations in Brittany that are closely associated with the legend of King Arthur. Many believe, for instance, that the legendary forest Brocéliande is located there, though nowadays it is called Paimpont Forest. In this forest, next to the ruins of the Château de Comper, there is a large pond that is associated with the Lady of the Lake. A few kilometers from the castle, the remains of a dolmen are said to be Merlin‘s tomb. To the west, a path is believed to be Morgan le Fay‘s Val sans Retour (the Valley of No Return), where the powerful sorceress once imprisoned her lovers. Tristan and Iseult are also said to have lived in Brittany. And the list goes on…
People from all corners of the world are drawn to this mythological place, from King Arthur enthusiasts, to modern pagans, to scholars and archaeologists. Some only come for a short visit, but there are also those who come to the area to stay. Such was the case for Pierre and Enora, a young couple who met online and quickly discovered that they shared a similar passion for all things Tolkien and Arthurian. Eventually, when they were ready to take the next step in their relationship, both moved away from their homes to find a place together. Given their mutual cultural interests it made perfect sense for them to move to Brocéliande. Today, they are married and living in a house in Paimpont Forest with their two sons, Taliesín and Ciarán.
It was a pleasure to stay with this lovely little family. By day I walked or cycled around the region, visiting the various sites that the area is known for. And by night, I was staying in a home replete with infusions of folklore and fantasy. The artwork on the walls depicted scenes from the legends, fantastical creatures of the forest and beautiful Celtic dames. Under my bed were drums fashioned out of wood and leather that looked like they’d been plucked right out of the Middle Ages.
When I commented on the theme of their home’s décor, my hosts explained that they’re a part of a troupe whose members combine performance art, theater and historical re-enactments to bring spectators into the world of fantasy, Arthurian legend, and even Middle Earth. The troupe participates in a number of festivals and other cultural events in Brittany, especially during the summer, when the majority of tourists flood into the region.
The troupe is called La Compagnie Grise and they’ve been perpetually developing their project since it all began in 2009. Over the years, the members have put in countless hours and spent hundreds of Euros to present increasingly elaborate productions. They have an ever-growing inventory of costumes, including leather and metal armour, weapons, tools, and other props and accessories. During the summer, they meet every week to practice complex choraeographies so as to deliver high-quality, high-energy (and credible) fighting scenes. In the winter, it’s time to focus more on the details; dresses are embellished with embroidery, breastplates are engraved with Celtic patterns, swords are forged and polished. New routines are developed and techniques are perfected.
Everything they use during their activities is the ‘real deal’ – the leather, the sheep skins, the steel, the silk – everything is as authentic as can be. They don’t use anything that is mass-produced, cheap imitations, or even wigs; every inch of their hair and beards is natural. And whenever they can, the troupe’s members make everything themselves. As a result of their devotion and their attention to detail, their audiences are enraptured and transported to places that only exist within the realm of our imaginations… All of this La Compagnie Grise does for the love of it; it’s a lifestyle for them. Though they generally do receive remuneration for their performances, I believe the moderate sums they receive are far from being the leading incentive for the company.
Now, as it turns out, Enora has another passion, and this is one that she doesn’t share with her husband – I’m talking about tattoos, of course! She already has a number of them, and not surprisingly has plans for more. Eventually she’d like to have a long vine of ivy that wraps around her leg and climbs up the side of her body to reach her shoulders and upper back.
But like so many other people out there, she got a few tattoos done when she was quite young that are now clashing with the newer, more refined tattoos that she’s had done more recently. It’s a common enough situation that is untroubling to some, but extremely bothersome to others. For Enora, it was something she wanted to deal with before moving forward with her ivy project. And so this is how I came to be entrusted with the task of covering up a fairly large tribal dragon that she had on her chest, just above her heart.
Enora wanted to extend the tattoo she had on her back, bringing it up and over her shoulder, and down to where the dragon was now. Her back piece was an image her friend had drawn for her, of a fantastical squirrel-like creature perched amid the branches of an oak tree. After a bit of consideration, I decided to cover the tribal dragon with a second little creature, this one a darker, baby version of the one she had on her back. Enora was happy with the plan, and away we went, turning her kitchen into a tattoo studio, and proceeding to transform her old dragon into a furry little critter.
A few hours later, our dragon was gone, hidden under the bushy tail of our cute little squirrel-like friend. Now there’s more cohesion between the tattoos Enora has on her upper body, and she doesn’t have to see an old faded tribal tattoo every time she looks in a mirror…
I must say I really enjoy doing cover-ups. In some ways I find it even more rewarding than doing a new tattoo on a ‘clean’ piece of skin. Of course, it’s always nice to see someone smile about a new tattoo. But there’s something extra special about seeing someone becoming lighter, in a sense, as a cover-up process moves forward. When the work is done, not only are people happy with the new ink, but you can also sense that they feel relieved that the old one is gone…
And so now I’ve left Enora in her medieval-inspired life with a new fantasy-inspired tattoo. It was great to spend time with people who are so knowledgeable and fascinated with historical figures, cultures and customs, and who like to dress up as much as I do! There’s no doubt that if I were ever to move to Brocéliande, I’d waste no time getting involved with La Compagnie Grise; what they do is certainly my cup of tea. And coming from a background of French-Canadian traditional dancing, you can bet your favourite dagger that before season’s end, I’d have them all bowing to their partners… 😉
*Check out this video and see La Compagnie Grise in action with several other troupes from different areas during a festival at the Château Comper in Paimpont Forest.