(a French legend)
Long ago, King Gradlon the Great of Cornouaille in Brittany waged war against the countries to the north. The king had many ships and many men, but finally his sailors grew tired of fighting. They refused to seize one of the northern castles and instead they turned and sailed home, leaving their king behind.
Cold and abandoned, King Gradlon was obligated to sail for home, alone in a small boat. As he sailed his lonely course, he suddenly he saw a beautiful woman standing before him upon the water. She had flowing red hair and skin that glowed, and he fell in love the moment he saw her. “I am Malgven,” she said, “and I know you and wish to marry you and return with you to your home.”
So they traveled home to Brittany on Malgven’s magical sea horse, Morvarc’h, who could gallop across the water.
Some time after they returned, Malgven gave birth to a daughter, and they named her Dahut. She was as lovely as her mother, and King Gradlon told his wife, “I cherish Dahut as I cherish you.” But soon after that, Malgven disappeared. Some say she died. Others say she returned to her world. The king was grief-stricken, but he loved his daughter with all his heart.
As much as her father loved her, Dahut loved the sea. “Build me a city,” she begged her father. “Build it right upon the sea so that I can always be on water.” And so King Gradlon built the city of Ys on the Bay of Douarnenez, a city at sea level that was so beautiful, people said it was the most exquisite city in the world. It had a beautiful cathedral, for the king was very pious.
To protect the city and its cathedral from the sea, the king had a great dike built. The dike was guarded by a gate. The king owned the only key to that gate, which he opened only at low tide, when he wanted ships to enter or leave.
Time passed and Dahut became more and more lovely. Most days she sat upon the shore, looking out at the sea and brushing her long, golden-red hair. The king looked out from his castle, admiring his daughter. Many others admired her too. All the young men from the city, and all the sailors who passed through, sought Dahut’s hand in marriage. She charmed everyone. She stayed out dancing every night. She sang; she flirted; she flaunted her beauty.
There was an Abbey in nearby Landevenneg, where St. Winwaloe lived. He watched the corruption of the people of Ys and saw especially the danger of Dahut’s ways. He warned the king: “Your daughter has grown spoiled and cruel. You must change her ways or she will bring about your destruction.”
But King Gradlon loved his daughter and was blind to her habits. He did not believe the stories people told him of her flirtations and wildness. And then one day a knight appeared in Ys. He was a tall, handsome stranger dressed in red, with long fingers. And he wooed the princess with kisses.
“Come with me. We’ll run away across the sea,” he said. He brushed his fingers through her golden-red hair. He smiled tenderly. “Let us open the dike and ride upon the waves,” he said.
“My father has the only key to the gate protecting the dike,” the princess confessed. “It hangs on his neck. Only he can open the gate.”
There was a devilish glint in the knight’s eye as he smiled cunningly at her and said, “Ah, but you could get the key while he sleeps.”
That night, just as a storm was brewing at sea, Dahut stole into her father’s room and took the key. She gave it to the knight, who was the devil in disguise. The moment he opened the gate, the sea let out a roar. A mountain of water rose up and crashed down upon the city.
The terrifying sound woke the king and all his court. People ran screaming and weeping, but King Gradlon jumped upon the back of Morvarc’h, and as they danced over the crashing waves, he saw his city being crushed by the sea.
“My daughter!” he cried, and he galloped off in search of Dahut. When he saw her clinging to a rock, he lifted her onto the horse, and they rode for safety, out of the reach of the storm.
As they galloped over the waves, the king heard a voice. “Drop your daughter,” the voice called. “Drop her into the sea or everything will be ruined!”
He shook his head. The voice sounded like the voice of St. Winwaloe, but he refused to listen. The voice roared more loudly still. “Push her into the sea!”
Still he could not. He dug his heels into Morvarc’h’s side and pushed the horse to ride faster, but the horse whinnied and rose up on his back legs. The princess fell into the sea, and the horse took off, carrying the king to safety.
They rode north, away from the storm, and when they reached Quimper, the king dismounted. He was safe, but his city and his beloved daughter were gone, all swallowed by the sea.
People say when Dahut fell into the sea, she turned into a mermaid, and the storm quieted, and ever since that day sailors tell tales of the mermaid they sometimes see on that rocky coast, singing and combing her long, golden-red hair. And sometimes, on the clearest mornings, passing ships will hear the sound of priests chanting and bells chiming and organs playing from the drowned cathedral of the city of Ys.