One of the recommendations I suggest in making folktales your own to my students in my storytelling courses is to add a new character and/or to tell it from a different point of view, all the while staying within the basic structure of the traditional folklore. This is what M.T. Anderson and Jo Rioux have done in this evocative adaptation of the legend of the mythical city of Ys, situated below sea level on the coast of Brittany.
Various versions of the legend exist and all contain the element of the dike with a gate that allowed access to ships at low tide. This gate could only be opened with a key, held by the king. In some variants of the legend, after King Gradlon’s malevolent and degenerate daughter Dahut takes lovers to bed, she makes them wear a black satin mask that would cling to their face and strangle them. The bodies of the lovers would be then thrown over the cliff tops as her tithe to the sea. When Dahut steals the key from her father on the advice of a mysterious lover and opens the gates during a harsh storm, she dooms the city. Both Gradlon and Dahut, on a lone horse, try to flee the rising sea. Gradlon responds to an ethereal command to throw his daughter off the horse to save himself and, this he does, leaving Dahut to drown. He rides to safety and makes Quimper his new capital.
The illustrations effectively enhance the freshness of the author’s words in the innovative adaptations of the legend canon. These include a backstory for the creation of the city of Ys, two daughters instead of one for the king, details of the pact with the devil, and a marked shift in point of view. Gradlon, the hero in the traditional legends, merely becomes a catalyst and an onlooker to the tale of his two daughters, Rozenn and her ambitious and vengeful younger sister Dahut. A key adaption, and yes, the pun is intentional, by the author is the fact that it is Dahut who is the keeper of the key, not her father. She is the one responsible for annually opening the gates to allow the sea monsters to entertain the citizenry with their frolicking antics. She is not, in this version, the primary agent of the destruction of the city. The key is snatched from her by the devilish lover and she and her family try desperately to stop his actions. Rozenn and her father both survive the destruction and, as in the legend, Dahut is sacrificed to the sea by her father.
The holy hermit is another refreshing addition to this tale. His wisdom, along with his melancholy relationship with the fish that feeds him, offer an opportunity for the creators to move above the legend itself to seamlessly foreshadow the coming dire events. “We live by devouring those we love. How can we help it? They’re the ones within closest reach” (p. 69).
The mournful and powerful pencil illustrations by Ottawa’s Rioux are equally evocative in the telling of this legend. The pages of wordless passages add depth and texture to her dynamic depiction of events. There is constant movement in her water scenes, a sense of harmony and calm in the woods of Rozenn and the hermit, and an effective portrayal of the tumultuous emotional conflicts of the main characters. She exposes the city of Ys as opulent, sophisticated, dangerous, and doomed in contrast. The intensely saturated color palettes for both settings are elegant and appropriate. Rioux’s style is reminiscent of the Anglo-Saxon art of the tale’s earliest setting in the fifth century. The faces of her characters, while having flat eyes and minimal features, are expressive and alluring. There is a flow of energy in the bodies of the characters that activates the telling of the story, bringing it alive and matching it to the strength and pacing of the text.
Anderson closes his tale by blending the legendary with the historic record of the area. He points to the equestrian statue of King Gradlon in Quimper and the statue of Virgin Mary that stands in the moors where Dahut once walked. The illustration of this sculpture has been adapted for the graphic novel, deleting a third character at the base of the actual statue. “There is no trace of Ys, though sometimes fishermen say they hear the bells of the sunken steeples ringing in the deep, rocked by the tides. Or a singing of a maiden beneath the waves” (p. 204-5). Source notes for several variants of the legend are also incorporated in this enchanting graphic novel.
A caveat: although the novel is recommended for young adults, there are several instances of lusty sexual intrigue (tastefully illustrated) and gore that may bring pause to those who wish to share it with younger teens. Neither the text nor the illustrations are especially explicit.
I recommend it for older teens and adults. I highly recommend it for enthusiasts of reworkings of traditional folklore.
The Daughters of Ys
By M. T. Anderson
Art by Jo Rioux
First Second, 2020
Publisher Age Rating: Adult
Title Details and Representation
NFNT Age Recommendation: Older Teen (16-18), Adult (18+),
Character Traits: French
Related to…: Book to Comic