Pêr-Jakez Helias, baptised Pierre-Jacques Hélias, nom de plume Pierre-Jakez Hélias (1914–1995) was a Breton stage actor, journalist, author, poet, and writer for radio who worked in the French and Breton languages. For many years he directed a weekly radio programme in the Breton language and co-founded a summer festival at Quimper which became the Festival de Cornouaille.
Life and work
After a career in the French Resistance during the Second World War, in 1946 Helias was appointed as director of a weekly programme in Breton on Radio Kimerc'h. Working with Pierre Trépos, he created hundreds of dialogues, many of them between two stock characters, Gwilhou Vihan and Jakez Kroc'hen. In 1948 he was the co-founder, with François Bégot and Jo Halleguen, of Les grandes Fêtes de Cornouaille, a major summer festival of Breton life.
The theatre was Helias's favourite genre, as he was convinced that the Breton reality was primarily a spoken one, so that it could best be captured by drama, and much of his early work was in the form of plays and scripts for radio. His An Isild a-heul, or Yseulte seconde (1963), was a three-act tragedy based on the story of Tristan and Isolde, but with a focus on Tristan's wife rather than his lover. While written in Breton, it was published in a dual text, with a French translation on the facing page, and was broadcast on the France Culture radio station in 1965.
Helias's best-known and most often performed play is Mevel ar Gosker, or 'The Yardman of Kosker'. A mevel bras was the most important Breton farm worker, a man who might enjoy many privileges, but he was not of the landowning class and it was inconceivable in the old Brittany that he could aspire to marry into it. However, the mevel of the play, Jakez Mano, contrives by a complicated means to marry his master's daughter, God Konan. The fact that he can not only think of this but even achieve it is seen as proof that the old Brittany, in which marriages were decided by social status and by the ownership of land, is dying.
Helias's poetry includes two collections in Breton, Ar men du (1974, The Black Stone) and An tremen-buhez (1979, The Pastime). An important theme in his work is his devotion to the Breton language and its power. One of his lines translates as "Breton speaker that I am, my heritage lies on my tongue, it shall never be yours".
His best-selling work is his autobiographical Le cheval d'orgueil, or The Horse of Pride, adapted for cinema by Claude Chabrol in 1980, rooted in the Bigoudenn area south of Kemper. This was also published in Breton as Marh ar lorh, after its success on screen had turned Helias into a national celebrity.
He also collected folk tales from his native Brittany and published work on the Breton language and culture. He became a major figure in Breton literature during the last third of the 20th century.
Despite his importance in Brittany, Helias came under fire from the radicals promoting the revival of the Breton language. This was only partly due to his willingness to work primarily in French and his refusal to disapprove of the language. In his important and influential Le cheval d'orgueil", Helias is accused of presenting a disappearing Breton world without obvious regret, and he even says in it that he enjoyed learning French. The book appeared first in French, and the English translation was available before that into Breton. The radicals condemned it as folklore. One commentator has said of this "Brittany's two writers most famous in France as a whole, Per-Jakez Helias and Jean-Edern Hallier, are regarded with some scorn by the Breton zealots."
- Diarmuid Johnson, 'Helias, Pêr-Jakez (1914-95)', in John T. Koch (ed.), Celtic culture: a historical encyclopedia, Volumes 1-5 (2006), pp. 900-901 online
- Peter Neary, 'Brittany:Theatre', in White Tie and Decorations: Sir John and Lady Hope Simpson in Newfoundland, pp 175-177 online
- Joan T. Grimbert, Tristan and Isolde: a casebook, pp. 78-79 online
- Brezoneger wa 'z on, war ma zeod eman ma berez, birviken ne vo deoh.
- Maryon McDonald, 'The politics of fieldwork in Brittany', in Anthony Jackson (ed.), Anthropology at home (1987), pp. 126-127 online
- John Ardagh, France in the 1980s (1982), p. 134
- The new encyclopaedia Britannica, volume 1 (1997), p. 602
- Pierre-Jakez Hélias, book #36, published by Skol Vreizh
- Per-Jakez Hélias. Niverenn ispisial, special edition #172, published by Brud Nevez, 1994
- Francis Favereau: Pierre-Jakez Hélias, Bigouden universel, published by Pluriel
- Thierry Glon: Pierre-Jakez Hélias et la Bretagne perdue, published by Presses Universitaires de Rennes, 1998
- Pascal Rannou: Inventaire d'un héritage — Essai sur l'œuvre littéraire de Pierre-Jakez Hélias, published by An Here, 1997; new édition by Les Montagnes noires, 2014.