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The legend of Ys

Influenced by various civilisations across the centuries, Breton culture is full of stories. Many of these have a religious element, having been inspired by Christian tales: the legend of King Arthur and his Knights of the Round Table is set in the Forest of Paimpont near Rennes, according to French myth.

One of the most haunting and powerful of Brittany’s myths is the story of King Gradlon and the city of Ys.

Douarnenez beach
Douarnenez beach
The origins of Ys

King Gradlon built the city of Ys in the modern day Bay of Douarnenez at the behest of his daughter, Dahut. The King, a converted Christian, was keeper of the only key to city, which was protected by a dyke equipped with flood gates that could only be opened at low tide. It was famed throughout Europe for its beautiful buildings and gardens, and acted as a safe haven for pagans to continue their practices in an increasingly Christian world.

The city grew fine and prosperous, and Dahut presided at ceremonies dedicated to the sea, which the people there worshipped. In Christian eyes, however, Ys was a place of debauchery and sin. The saint who had converted King Gradlon begged him to rein his daughter in, but Gradlon adored Dahut and paid no heed.

The arrival of the Red Knight

One day, a handsome knight clad in red rode into the city, and Dahut was soon besotted with him. They became lovers, and spent their days eating, drinking and dancing. One night, a great storm broke. The waves crashed against the walls of Ys, but thanks to the strength of the dyke, could not breach them.  

The Red Knight, eager for Dahut to prove her love to him, persuaded her to steal into King Gradlon’s bedroom and take the key to the flood gates. Infatuated, she slipped the key from around her sleeping father’s neck and presented it to her suitor in triumph. 

King Gradlon Statue in Quimper
King Gradlon Statue in Quimper
The fall of Ys

It was then that the Red Knight revealed himself to be the Devil. He snatched the key and opened the gates of Ys, letting the waves roll in and drowning its people. King Gradlon escaped to Quimper on a magical horse, but Dahut was claimed by the sea, turning into a morgen – a Breton water spirit that lures sailors to their deaths. 

Ys today

Today, a statue of Gradlon on his horse can be seen between the spires of Saint Corentin Cathedral in Quimper. The legend has appeared in several works of art and music, including E V Luminais’ painting, Flight of King Gradlon, and Édouard Lalo’s opera, Le Roi d’Ys.

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