I had first seen it at Cancale, this fairy-tale castle planted in the sea.
I had seen him confusedly, a gray shadow rising from the misty sky.
I saw him again at Avranches, in the setting sun. The immensity of the sands was red, the horizon red, the whole bay was red; alone, the steep abbey, pushed there, far from the earth, like a fantastic manor, stunning like a dream palace, unbelievably strange and beautiful, remained almost black in the purples of the dying day.
I went to it the next day at dawn, through the sands, my eye on this monstrous jewel, as big as a mountain, chiseled like a cameo and vaporous like a muslin. The closer I approached, the more I felt raised in admiration, for nothing in the world perhaps is no more astonishing and perfect.
And I wandered, surprised as if I had discovered the habitation of a god through these rooms carried by light or heavy columns, through these corridors pierced by day, raising my eyes amazed on those bells that seem like rockets gone to the sky and on all this incredible entanglement of turrets, gargoyles, svelte and charming ornaments, fireworks of stone, lace of granite, masterpiece of colossal and delicate architecture.
As I remained in ecstasy, a Lower Norman peasant approached me and told me the story of the great quarrel of St Michael with the devil.
A skeptic of genius said, “God created man in his image, but man created God in his image as well.”
This word is of eternal truth, and it would be very curious to make in each continent the history of the local deity, as well as the history of the patron saints in each of our provinces. The Negro has ferocious idols, eating men; the polygamous Mahometan people his paradise of women; The Greeks, practical people, had deified all passions.
Each village of France is placed under the invocation of a protective saint, modified in the image of the inhabitants.
Now St. Michael watches over Lower Normandy, St. Michael, the radiant and victorious angel, the sword-bearer, the hero of heaven, the triumphant, the ruler of Satan.
But here is how the Lower Norman, cunning, mistrustful, sly and chicaner, understands and relates the struggle of the great saint with the devil.
In order to shelter himself from the wickedness of the demon, his neighbor, St. Michael himself, built, in the open ocean, this dwelling worthy of an archangel; and, in fact, such a saint alone could create such a residence.
But as he still dreaded the approaches of the Evil One, he surrounded his domain with shifting sands more perfidious than the sea.
The devil dwelt in a humble cottage on the coast; but he possessed the meadows bathed in salt water, the beautiful rich lands where the heavy crops, the rich valleys, and the fertile hills of the whole country grow; while the saint reigned only over the sands. So that Satan was rich, and St. Michael was as poor as a beggar.
After a few years of fasting, the saint was bored with this state of affairs and thought of compromising with the devil; but the thing was not easy, Satan holding to his harvest.
He reflected for six months; then, one morning, he made his way to the land. The devil ate the soup before his door when he saw the saint; he immediately rushed to meet him, kissed the bottom of his sleeve, made him enter, and offered to refresh.
After drinking a jug of milk, St Michael spoke:
— I came to offer you a good deal.
The devil, candid and unsuspecting, replied:
— It’s okay with me.
— Here’s. You will give me all your land.
Satan, worried, wanted to speak:
The saint resumed:
— Listen first. You will give me all your land. I will take care of the maintenance, the work, the plowing, the seeds, the smoking, and everything, and we will share the crop by half. Is that said?
The devil, naturally lazy, agreed.
He only asked for some of those delicious fish that are being caught around the solitary mountain. Saint Michael promised the fish.
They clapped each other in their hands, spat aside to indicate that the affair was done, and the saint resumed:
— Well, I do not want you to complain about me. Choose what you prefer: the part of the crops that will be on earth or the part that will remain in the earth.
Satan cried out:
— I take the one that will be on earth.
— That’s understood, said the saint.
And he went away.
Six months later, in the immense domain of the devil, nothing was seen but carrots, turnips, onions, salsify, all plants whose fat roots are good and tasty, and whose useless leaf serves all more to feed the animals.
Satan had nothing and wanted to break the contract, treating Saint Michael as “mischievous.”
But the saint had taken a taste for farming; he returned to find the devil:
— I assure you that I have not thought of it at all; it was like that; there is no fault of mine. And, to compensate you, I offer you this year to take everything underground.
— That’s all right, said Satan.
The following spring, the whole extent of the land of the Spirit of Evil was covered with thick corn, oats as big as bells, lins, magnificent colza, red trefoils, peas, cabbage, artichokes , of everything that flourishes in the sun in seeds or fruits.
Satan had nothing, and was quite annoyed.
He took back his meadows and plowing, and remained deaf to all the new requests of his neighbor.
An entire year passed. From the height of his isolated manor, Saint Michael looked at the distant and fertile land, and saw the devil managing the works, returning the crops, beating his grains. And he raged, exasperating himself with his impotence. No longer able to deceive Satan, he resolved to avenge, and he went to pray him to dinner for the following Monday.
— You have not been happy in your affairs with me, he said, I know; but I do not want any grudge between us, and I expect you will come and dine with me. I will make you good food to eat.
Satan, as greedy as lazy, accepted very quickly. On the appointed day he put on his best clothes and took the road to Mount.
Saint Michael made him sit down at a magnificent table. First served a vol-au-vent, full of crusts and kidneys of rooster, with meatballs of sausage, then two large cream-colored fish, then a white turkey full of chestnuts confit in wine, then a leg of salt meadow lamb, tender as cake; then vegetables that melted in the mouth and the good hot cake, which smoked by spreading a perfume of butter.
They drank pure cider, sparkling and sweet, and red and heady wine, and after each dish was made a break with old apple brandy.
The devil drank and ate like a chest, so much so that he found himself embarrassed.
Then St. Michael, rising formidably, exclaimed in a voice of thunder:
— In front of me! In front of me, scoundrel! You dare … in front of me …
Satan, disturbed, fled, and the saint, seizing a stick, pursued him.
They ran through the low rooms, turning around the pillars, climbing the stairs, galloping along the cornices, jumping from gargoyle to gargoyle. The poor demon, sick heartbreakingly, fled, defiling the dwelling of the saint. At last he arrived on the last terrace, at the top, from which one can discovers the immense bay with its distant towns, its sands and its pastures. He could not escape any longer; and the saint, throwing him in the back a furious kick, threw him like a bullet through space.
He sped into the sky as well as a javelin, and fell heavily in front of the town of Mortain. The horns of his forehead and the claws of his limbs entered deep into the rock, which keeps for eternity the traces of this fall of Satan.
He stood up lame, crippled until the end of the centuries; and, looking down at the fatal Mount, set up like a peak in the setting sun, he realized that he would always be defeated in this unequal struggle, and he dragged his leg, heading towards distant lands, abandoning to his Enemy its fields, its plains, its hills, its valleys and its meadows.
And this is how St. Michael, the patron of the Normans, defeated the devil.
Another people had dreamed otherwise this battle.