Some years ago I wound up in Aix-en-Provence in the summer. (Don’t ever do this.) We were living in a cramped basement apartment that was at least a few degrees cooler than it was outside, and there was little to do during the heat of the day but read and listen to the eerie, omnipresent chorus of the million cicadas that are a regional mascot and a fixture in Provençal fabric design. (Gorgeous tablecloths depicting bugs, go figure. It’s just a Provençal thing.) I don’t speak French beyond the Ou sont les toilettes, s’il vous plait? level, but there was one book in English in the university library, a biography of Frédéric Mistral, the 1904 Nobel Prize-winning writer and lexicographer of Provence’s Occitan language and folklore.
I love folklore, search for it incessantly, regard it as the Rosetta Stone of all hidden mysteries. In the back matter of the book was a reference to a museum in Arles devoted to the Provençal traditions Mistral celebrated in his work. I would have walked the 49 miles from Aix to Arles just to see it, but fortunately we had a car.
The temperature was in the 90’s; the museum was empty, stifling and airless, but I popped a salt pill and reveled in it. The place was and is a trove of wonderful costumes, dioramas, santons (tiny statues of countless Provençal characters), Mistral’s framed Nobel Prize certificate, and a Tarasque! It was love at first sight.
The Tarasque is a mythic, amphibious creature who lived in the Rhone or in the woods near the Rhone and devoured people, mostly those unfortunates who fell into the river due to shipwrecks and that sort of thing. Armies of skilled hunters failed at every attempt to capture and kill the monster, but as luck would have it, St. Martha (of Mary and Martha biblical fame) had moved to France in 48 A.D. shortly after the crucifixion and lived
nearby. She went to the Tarasque and sang to it, taming the beast and sealing its fate. The now-gentle creature walked with St. Martha back into town, where the townfolk immediately beat it to death. Moral: The Little Prince quite aside (“You become responsible forever for what you’ve tamed.”), wisdom lies in scrupulous attention to the character of potential tamers. Martha wasn’t up to the responsibility, and would have found no fan in Antoine de Saint-Exupéry.
The Tarasque became one of my many personal conceptual icons, and I included it in The Paper Doll Museum. But life strangely offered few opportunities to discuss Tarasques over lunch, and my interest, if not my fondness for the creature, faded. Until this trip.
When, driving around the various ancient communes near Meynes, I saw a town name on a road sign -Tarascon. My beast has a whole town named for it! And a statue the size of a Volkswagen van, an annual festival in which it’s carried through town by men in colorful costumes, plus books and tourist gimcracks. I bought the refrigerator magnet. Our hostess Martine, no doubt uneasy at my sudden, frenzied ecstasy over an old French folk tale, graciously bought me the key chain.
There’s a castle in Tarascon that, unlike every even slightly perilous locale in the U.S., has
no “Danger! Keep Out!” signs prohibiting exploration. It was built in the first half of the 15th century and does present certain dangers. But the French assume you’ll pay attention while climbing those crumbling spiral stairs five stories up to the roof from which soldiers of Good King Rene sent arrows and catapulted stones to fall on the invading armies of Aragon.
The roof affords spectacular views of the town and the church of St. Martha, in which her supposed relics may be venerated in a crypt supposedly built on the exact spot where her house stood. In the 1st century. We must assume they kept amazing real estate records! It’s interesting that Martha got the church, but the Tarasque got the town name, a statue and an annual festival that continues to this day. The official story is that the town feels guilty for having killed a tamed beast over 2,000 years ago. If true, the tale sheds light on the absence of the death penalty in France. But I don’t think that’s it.
The ungainly, impossible Tarasque with its spiked turtle shell, six legs, human-faced lion head and lashing, spiked tail, is a wonderful jumble of archetypal images. It’s a primordial, nursery-brain dragon, both animal and human, lovable and deadly as we all variously are. The truth of the Tarasque is soon crushed into subconsciousness in three-year-olds by the slaughter of “reality,” but only after being tamed by a song. And always dimly half-remembered as the closest, most secret, scary and wonderful friend. Because the Tarasque is us.