Ys (pronounced // EESS), also spelled Is or Kêr-Is in Breton, and Ville d'Ys in French, is a mythical city that was built on the coast of Brittany and later swallowed by the ocean. Most versions of the legend place the city in the Baie de Douarnenez.
- 1 Etymology
- 2 Development of the legend
- 3 The legend
- 4 Adaptations in the arts
- 5 Notes and references
- 6 Further reading
- 7 See also
- 8 External links
Development of the legend
While legends and literature about Gradlon are much older, the story of Ys appears to have developed between the end of the fifteenth century and the seventeenth century. An early mention of Ys appears in Pierre Le Baud's Cronicques et ystoires des Bretons in which Gradlon is the king of the city, but Dahut is not mentioned. Bernard d'Argentre's La histoire de Bretagne and mystery plays on the life of St. Winwaloe, in the sixteenth century, also provide early references to the city.
The version of the story of Ys which appears in Albert Le Grand's Vie des Saincts de la Bretagne Armorique published in 1637 already contains all the basic elements of the later story and has been said to be the first.
On 1839, T. Hersart de la Villemarqué published a collection of popular songs collected from oral tradition, the Barzaz Breizh. The collection achieved a wide distribution and brought Breton folk culture into European awareness. In the second edition, the poem "Livaden Geris" ("The Submersion of Ker-Is") appeared. The same basic story elements are present and, in this version, Dahut steals the key at the incitement of a lover.
Villemarqué studied several versions of the song and created his song using the best material from each. As a result, his song mentions several traditions. In the Stanza V, it mentions King Gradlon's horse that can only be heard once a year during the Black Night, a detail he may have borrowed from Lai de Graelent, probably written in the late 12th century. Also, the last verses of the song mention a fisherman seeing a mermaid combing her hair and singing a sad song. The mermaid is Dahut transformed into a morgen, which references another tradition. It also appears that elements of the text of this version were adapted from the medieval Welsh poem about the legend of Cantre'r Gwaelod, a very similar Welsh legend about a land that disappeared beneath the ocean as a result of human error. The poem appears in the Black Book of Carmarthen, which Villemarqué had studied at Jesus College, Oxford, in 1839. Villemarqué wrongly considered that the Welsh spoken in the sixth century was the same as the Breton spoken in his days.
In 1844, Emile Souvestre told a version of the legend in his work Le Foyer breton. In the tale "Keris", the character of the Devil disguised as a man with a red beard appeared. His version may have come from a different oral source. His telling also played a great part in making the legend widely known, and many 19th century English tellings of the story are closely derived from this version.
In 1893, Anatole Le Braz collected a fragmentary version of the legend in his book La Légende de la mort en Basse-Bretagne, and its posterior 1902 augmented edition La Légende de la mort chez les Bretons armoricains This version also mentions Dahut (here called Ahés) transformation into a mermaid but, unlike other versions, here Dahut is thrown off the horse by king Gralon himself, on orders from St. Gwénolé.
In 1917, Scottish folklorist Lewis Spence included the legend of Ys among the tales told in his book Legends & Romances of Brittany. One year later, Jonathan Ceredig Davies published a short version of the legend in the 29th issue of the Folklore journal. A few years later, in 1929, Elsie Masson also included it in her book Folk Tales of Brittany, citing Souvestre and Le Braz among her sources.
The different versions of the legend share the basic common elements. King Gradlon (Gralon in Breton), ruled on Ys, a city built on land reclaimed from the sea, and some times described as rich in commerce and the arts, with Gradlon's palace being made of marble, cedar and gold. In some versions, Gradlon built the city upon the request of his daughter Dahut, who loved the sea. To protect Ys from inundation, a dike was built with a gate that was opened for ships during low tide. The one key that opened the gate was held by the king.
Most versions of the legend present Gradlon as a pious man and his daughter Princess Dahut, as wayward.  Dahut (sometimes called Ahez) is often presented as frivolous and an unrepentant sinner, or, sometimes, as a sorceress. However, in another version, that of an ancient ballad, Gradlon himself is blamed by his people for extravagances of every kind. Dahut received the key from him and its misuse led to catastrophe.
One night, Dahut stole the keys (made either of silver or gold) to the dikes from her father while he slept, either to allow her lover inside for a banquet or after being persuaded to do so by her flatterering lover. Dahut then opened the gates of the dikes either in a wine-induced folly or by mistake, believing she was opening the city gates.
The sea inundated the city, killing everyone but the king. A Saint (either St. St. Gwénnolé or St. Corentin) woke the sleeping king and urged him to flee. The king mounted his horse and took his daughter with him. As the water was about to overtake him, a voice called out: "Throw the demon thou carriest into the sea, if thou dost not desire to perish." Dahut fell from the horse's back, and Gradlon was saved. In Le Baz's version, it is Gradlon himself who throws her off on St. Gwénnolé's orders.
In some versions, after falling Dahut becomes a morgen or mermaid  who continues haunting the sea, and can be seen combing her golden hair and singing sad songs. Some 19th century folklorists also collected old beliefs that said, during the low tides, the ruins of Ys could be seen, or the sound of its carillon could be heard.
In Le Grand's version, St. Gwénnolé went to see Gradlon and warned him about the sins being committed in the city, absorbed in luxury, debauchery and vanity. God warned St. Gwénnolé that he was going to punish the city, and the Saint told the king to flee since God's wrath was about to fall upon the city. The king fled riding his horse. A storm fell upon the city and quickly inundated it. The main culprit was Princess Dahut, the king's indecent daughter, who had stolen the key, symbol of royalty, from around her father's neck. Gradlon took refuge in Quimper.
Other versions of the legend tell that Ys was founded more than 2,000 years before Gradlon's reign in a then-dry location off the current coast of the Bay of Douarnenez, but the Breton coast had slowly given way to the sea so that Ys was under it at each high tide when Gradlon's reign began.
The devil in Souvestre's version
Émile Souvestre's telling differs from the tale in several points. Ys was still protected by dikes, whose gates were opened for ships at certain moments, but it was Dahut herself who kept the silver keys of the dikes around her neck. Dahut was a sorceress and had embellished the city with the help of the korrigans, which built works men could not make. With her magic, Dahut also tamed the sea dragons, and gave one to each inhabitant of the city, which they used to go find rare goods or to reach their enemies' vessels. The citizens were so wealthy that they measured out grain with silver hanaps (goblets), but their wealth had also turned them vicious and harsh. Beggars had been chased from the city like beasts; the church had been abandoned, and the citizens spent all day and night entertaining themselves at the inns, dance halls and performances, while Dahut herself threw parties at her palace all day around. St. Corentin warned Gradlon that God's patience with the city was at end, but the King had lost his power, living alone in one wing of the palace, and Dahut ignored the Saint's warning.
One day, a bearded prince dressed in red came to Ys, and seduced Dahut and her friends with his compliments and sweet words. He proposed to them to dance a new kind of branle, and he played the tune on his bagpipe, sending everyone into a frenzy. He took advantage of the situation to steal the dike's keys from Dahut and, taking his true appearance as the demon, used them to open all the dikes, allowing the sea to flood the city.
St. Corentin appeared in Gradlon's chambers and urged him to flee. He mounted his black horse and ran. When he passed Dahut's castle, she threw herself on her father's horse, but the horse stopped suddenly. St. Corentin told the King to push Dahut off the horse, but Gradlon could not do it. So it was Corentin himself who hit her with his crozier to make her fall off into the sea. The horse ran again, taking the king to safety. When Gradlon looked back, from the ruins of the city the demon mockingly showed him the silver keys.
A few legends speak of Ys' resurrection. Le Braz mentions one which says that, on the day it happens, the first person who sees the church's spire or hears the sound of its bells, will become king of the city and all of its territory.
Adaptations in the arts
Several famous artistic adaptations of the Ys legend appeared in the late 19th and early 20th century. E. V. Luminais' painting Flight of King Gradlon, depicting Gradlon's escape from Ys, scored a success at the Salon of 1884.
Le roi d'Ys, an opera by the French composer Édouard Lalo which premiered in 1888, transforms the story significantly, replacing the figure of Dahut with Margared, whose motive for opening the gates (with the aid of her own betrothed Karnac) is her jealousy at her sister Rozenn's marriage to Mylio (characters who are also inventions of Lalo).
Also inspired by the story of Ys is Claude Debussy's La cathédrale engloutie, found in his first book of Preludes (published 1910). This is a prelude intended to evoke the atmosphere of the legend by its sound.
- The story is also an element in Alexander Blok's 1912 verse drama The Rose and the Cross.
- The city of Ys and the character Dahut feature prominently in the 1934 novel Creep, Shadow! by A. Merritt.
- Ys is one of the principal cities of the Elder Isles in Jack Vance's Lyonesse Trilogy.
- Poul Anderson and his wife Karen Anderson retold the story in the tetralogy The King of Ys in the 1980s. They pictured Gradlon as a Roman soldier named Gratillonius.
- The King in Yellow by Robert W. Chambers contains the story "The Demoiselle d'Ys".
- Alain Deschamps and Claude Auclair wrote a comic based on this legend, called Bran Ruz (red raven), from 1978 to 1981.
- Ys is a best-selling series of role-playing video games developed by Nihon Falcom. The first game appeared in 1987 and the last, so far, in 2016.
- Ys, a two-volume anime OVA based on the video game above.
- The name Dahut and certain thematic elements of the story of Ys can be found in the survival/exploration noir game Sunless Sea.
Notes and references
- Doan, James (1981). "The Legend of the Sunken City in Welsh and Breton Tradition". Folklore. 92 (1): 77–83. JSTOR 1260254.
- Le Baud, Pierre (1480). Cronicques et ystoires des Bretons Tome III (in French) (Société des Bibliphiles Bretons, 1911 ed.). pp. 42–45.
- Guyot, Charles; translated by Deirdre Cavanagh (1979). The Legend of the City of Ys. Amherst, Mass: University of Massachusetts Press.
- Le Grand, Albert (1637). Vie des Saincts de la Bretagne Armorique (in French) (1901 ed.).
- Varin, Amy (1982). "Dahut and Gradlon". Proceedings of the Harvard Celtic Colloquium, Vol. 2. pp. 19–30.
- Souvestre, Emile (1845). "Keris". Le Foyer Breton (in French) (W. Coquebert, Éditeur ed.). pp. 119–127.
- Le Braz, Anatole (1923). "XI. Les villes englouties". La Légende de la mort en Basse-Bretagne. Édition Définitive (in French). Paris: H. Champion. pp. 429–441.
- Sébillot, Paul (1905). "Les envahissements de la mer". Le folk-lore de France. Tome Deuxième. La mer et les eaux douces (in French). E. Guilmoto, Éditeur. pp. 41–57.
- Spence, Lewis (1917). "VII: Popular Legends of Brittany". Legends & Romances of Brittany. p. 184.
- Ceredig Davies, Jonathan (1918). "Breton Folklore". Folklore. 29 (1): 79–82. JSTOR 1254935.
- Elsie, Masson (1929). "Princess Ahez and the Lost City". Folk Tales of Brittany. Philadelphia: Macrae Smith Company. pp. Foreword, 87–96.
- Markale, Jean (1986). "The Submerged Princess". Women of the Celts. Inner Traditions. pp. 44–45. ISBN 0-89281-150-1. Translation of the French La Femme Celte, Editions Payot, 1972
- "The Legend of the City of Ys". Retrieved 20 January 2019.
- "Douarnenez : façonnée par les légendes". Retrieved 20 January 2019.
- Steven Huebner, French Opera at the Fin De Siècle, Oxford University Press, 2006, ISBN 978-0-19-518954-4; p. 238–240.
- Victor Lederer. Debussy: a listener's guide. Hal Leonard Corporation, 2007. ISBN 978-1-57467-153-7; p.100.
- MacKillop, James. Myths and Legends of the Celts, London ; New York : Penguin Global, 2005, pp. 299–302. ISBN 978-0-14-101794-5.
- Guyot, Charles. The Legend of the City of Ys, Amherst, Mass.: University of Massachusetts Press, 1979.
- Lewis Spence, Legends & Romances of Brittany. 1917, available at Project Gutenburg
- Albert Le Grand, Vie des Saincts de la Bretagne Armorique, 1637. 1901 edition available at Gallica.
- Pierre Le Baud, Cronicques et ystoires des Bretons Tome III. 1911 edition by Société des Bibliphiles Bretons, available at Gallica.
- Emile Souvestre, Le Foyer Breton. W. Coquebert, Éditeur, 1845. Available at Gallica.
- TH. de La Villemarqué, Barzaz-Breiz: Chants populaires de la Bretagne. Quatrième Édition, 1846. Available at Numerlyo, Bibliothèque Numérique de Lyon.
- Anatole Le Braz, La Légende de la mort chez les bretons armoricains. Édition Définitive. 1923, available at archive.org
- Paul Sébillot, Le folk-lore de France. Tome Deuxième. La mer et les eaux douces. E. Guilmoto, Éditeur, 1905. Available at Gallica.
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