I had first seen it
from Cancale, this fairy castle in the sea. I got an indistinct
impression of it as of a gray shadow outlined against the misty
sky. I saw it again from Avranches at sunset. The immense stretch
of sand was red, the horizon was red, the whole boundless bay
was red. The rocky castle rising out there in the distance like
a weird, seignorial residence, like a dream palace, strange and
beautiful-this alone remained black in the crimson light of the
The following morning
at dawn I went toward it across the sands, my eyes fastened on
this, gigantic jewel, as big as a mountain, cut like a cameo,
and as dainty as lace. The nearer I approached the greater my
admiration grew, for nothing in the world could be more wonderful
or more perfect.
As surprised as if
I had discovered the habitation of a god, I wandered through those
halls supported by frail or massive columns, raising my eyes in
wonder to those spires which looked like rockets starting for
the sky, and to that marvellous assemblage of towers, of gargoyles,
of slender and charming ornaments, a regular fireworks of stone,
granite lace, a masterpiece of colossal and delicate architecture.
As I was looking up
in ecstasy a Lower Normandy peasant came up to me and told me
the story of the great quarrel between Saint Michael and the devil.
A sceptical genius
has said: "God made man in his image and man has returned
This saying is an eternal
truth, and it would be very curious to write the history of the
local divinity of every continent as well as the history of the
patron saints in each one of our provinces. The negro has his
ferocious man-eating idols; the polygamous Mahometan fills his
paradise with women; the Greeks, like a practical people, deified
all the passions.
Every village in France
is under the influence of some protecting saint, modelled according
to the characteristics of the inhabitants.
Saint Michael watches
over Lower Normandy, Saint Michael, the radiant and victorious
angel, the sword-carrier, the hero of Heaven, the victorious,
the conqueror of Satan.
But this is how the
Lower Normandy peasant, cunning, deceitful and tricky, understands
and tells of the struggle between the great saint and the devil.
To escape from the
malice of his neighbor, the devil, Saint Michael built himself,
in the open ocean, this habitation worthy of an archangel; and
only such a saint could build a residence of such magnificence.
But as he still feared
the approaches of the wicked one, he surrounded his domains by
quicksands, more treacherous even than the sea.
The devil lived in
a humble cottage on the hill, but he owned all the salt marshes,
the rich lands where grow the finest crops, the wooded valleys
and all the fertile hills of the country, while the saint a ruled
only over the sands. Therefore Satan was rich, whereas Saint Michael
was as poor as a church mouse.
After a few years of
fasting the saint grew tired of this state of affairs and began
to think of some compromise with the devil, but the matter was
by no means easy, as Satan kept a good hold on his crops.
He thought the thing
over for about six months; then one morning he walked across to
the shore. The demon was eating his soup in front of his door
when he saw the saint. He immediately rushed toward him, kissed
the hem of his sleeve, invited him in and offered him refreshments.
Saint Michael drank
a bowl of milk and then began: "I have come here to propose
to you a good bargain."
The devil, candid and
trustful, answered: "That will suit me."
"Here it is. Give
me all your lands."
Satan, growing alarmed,
wished to speak "But--"
She saint continued:
"Listen first. Give me all your lands. I will take care of
all the work, the ploughing, the sowing, the fertilizing, everything,
and we will share the crops equally. How does that suit you?"
The devil, who was
naturally lazy, accepted. He only demanded in addition a few of
those delicious gray mullet which are caught around the solitary
mount. Saint Michael promised the fish.
They grasped hands
and spat on the ground to show that it was a bargain, and the
saint continued: "See here, so that you will have nothing
to complain of, choose that part of the crops which you prefer:
the part that grows above ground or the part that stays in the
ground." Satan cried out: "I will take all that will
be above ground."
"It's a bargain!"
said the saint. And he went away.
Six months later, all
over the immense domain of the devil, one could see nothing but
carrots, turnips, onions, salsify, all the plants whose juicy
roots are good and savory and whose useless leaves are good for
nothing but for feeding animals.
Satan wished to break
the contract, calling Saint Michael a swindler.
But the saint, who
had developed quite a taste for agriculture, went back to see
the devil and said:
"Really, I hadn't
thought of that at all; it was just an accident, no fault of mine.
And to make things fair with you, this year I'll let you take
everything that is under the ground."
The following spring
all the evil spirit's lands were covered with golden wheat, oats
as big as beans, flax, magnificent colza, red clover, peas, cabbage,
artichokes, everything that develops into grains or fruit in the
Once more Satan received
nothing, and this time he completely lost his temper. He took
back his fields and remained deaf to all the fresh propositions
of his neighbor.
A whole year rolled
by. From the top of his lonely manor Saint Michael looked at the
distant and fertile lands and watched the devil direct the work,
take in his crops and thresh the wheat. And he grew angry, exasperated
at his powerlessness.
As he was no longer
able to deceive Satan, he decided to wreak vengeance on him, and
he went out to invite him to dinner for the following Monday.
"You have been
very unfortunate in your dealings with me," he said; "I
know it, but I don't want any ill feeling between us, and I expect
you to dine with me. I'll give you some good things to eat."
Satan, who was as greedy
as he was lazy, accepted eagerly. On the day appointed he donned
his finest clothes and set out for the castle.
Saint Michael sat him
down to a magnificent meal. First there was a 'vol-au-vent', full
of cocks' crests and kidneys, with meat-balls, then two big gray
mullet with cream sauce, a turkey stuffed with chestnuts soaked
in wine, some salt-marsh lamb as tender as cake, vegetables which
melted in the mouth and nice hot pancake which was brought on
smoking and spreading a delicious odor of butter.
They drank new, sweet,
sparkling cider and heady red wine, and after each course they
whetted their appetites with some old apple brandy.
The devil drank and
ate to his heart's content; in fact he took so much that he was
very uncomfortable, and began to retch.
Then Saint Michael
arose in anger and cried in a voice like thunder: "What!
before me, rascal! You dare--before me--"
Satan, terrified, ran
away, and the saint, seizing a stick, pursued him. They ran through
the halls, turning round the pillars, running up the staircases,
galloping along the cornices, jumping from gargoyle to gargoyle.
The poor devil, who was woefully ill, was running about madly
and trying hard to escape. At last he found himself at the top
of the last terrace, right at the top, from which could be seen
the immense bay, with its distant towns, sands and pastures. He
could no longer escape, and the saint came up behind him and gave
him a furious kick, which shot him through space like a cannonball.
He shot through the
air like a javelin and fell heavily before the town of Mortain.
His horns and claws stuck deep into the rock, which keeps through
eternity the traces of this fall of Satan.
He stood up again,
limping, crippled until the end of time, and as he looked at this
fatal castle in the distance, standing out against the setting
sun, he understood well that he would always be vanquished in
this unequal struggle, and he went away limping, heading for distant
countries, leaving to his enemy his fields, his hills, his valleys
and his marshes.
And this is how Saint
Michael, the patron saint of Normandy, vanquished the devil.
Another people would
have dreamed of this battle in an entirely different manner.
Legend of Mont Saint-Michel
- Guy de Maupassant 1882. Published in the Collection Moonlight