Elves, Dwarves, Fairies, and Goblins in Canadian Settler Folklore
From the nymphs of ancient Greek mythology, through the elves and dwarves of Germanic legend, to the faeries of Celtic folklore, little people with preternatural abilities, who live in the wilderness and on the fringes of the civilized world, concealed from mortal eyes by some other-dimensional veil from which they rarely emerge, have been staples of European folk tradition for millennia. To the modern mind, this element of European folklore is the quintessence of fiction; the story in which it is incorporated the epitomical tall tale. ‘Fairy tales’ are imaginary stories we tell to children, or a designation we apply to narratives that are too preposterous to believe. Elves and dwarves populate our literary and cinematic fantasies. To our European ancestors, however, little people were very real neighbours who could confer good luck if treated with respect and wreak terrible mischief if provoked.
Little people stories are not unique to the Old World. For centuries, European immigrants to Canada have reported strange experiences on their homesteads and in the wilderness beyond their farmhouses which mirror the little people tales of their homeland. Folklorists attribute these reports to the importation of little people beliefs into Canada, contending that the settlers who disclosed them drew upon the folklore of their ancestors in an effort to interpret bizarre phenomena for which no rational explanations readily presented themselves. Many Euro-Canadian pioneers, on the other hand, unhesitatingly attributed the strange events from which such reports derived to the machinations of little people, firmly maintaining that their mysterious diminutive Old World neighbours had followed or accompanied them across the Atlantic and taken up residence outside their own settlements.
The first written records of little people in Canada are arguably the Greenlanders’ Saga and the Saga of Erik the Red– medieval texts describing 10th Century Icelandic-Greenlandic Viking voyages to Canada’s Atlantic Northeast, known collectively as the Icelandic sagas. Both of these texts describe Norse encounters with diminutive fur-clad natives who the Vikings called ‘Skraelingjar’, with whom the explorers traded and battled. Although many historians argue that the Skraelingjar were likely the Thule people, the ancestors of the modern Inuit; the more ancient Dorset people, whom the Thule displaced; or perhaps the ancestors of Beothuk or Mi’kmaq First Nations, some of the abilities and behaviors with which the sagas ascribed them were distinctly inhuman. Specifically, in the Saga of Erik the Red, a party of Norse explorers attempted to capture a family of Skraelingjar they came across on their return journey to Greenland. Although they managed to capture two children, a Skraeling man and two women escaped them by disappearing down holes in the earth. The Skraeling children, after learning the Norse language, later explained that their people did not live in houses, but rather dwelled in caves or holes in the ground, much like the dwarves of medieval Germanic legend.
Another dwarf-like creature which made its appearance in the sagas was the One-Footer, a stunted, one-legged monster which hopped from place to place, referenced in the writings of the Classical Greeks and Romans. According to the Saga of Erik the Red, the Norsemen who captured the Skraeling children were attacked by a One-Footer shortly after their kidnapping operation. The creature shot their leader in the lower abdomen with an arrow but failed to kill him, and hopped away before any of the Vikings could exact vengeance.
In the 1870s, nearly nine hundred years after the Viking voyages described in the sagas, Iceland was rocked by a series of devastating volcanic eruptions, droughts, and ovine epidemics which rendered the island country all but inhospitable. Encouraged by agents of the Allan Shipping Line, a Scots-Canadian steamship company which had recently opened an office in Reykjavik, thousands of Icelanders fled the Land of Fire and Ice and immigrated to the Great White North, following in the shadowy wake of the longships that their Dark Age ancestors sailed to the New World. Prompted by generous land grants arranged at the behest of Lord Dufferin, the Governor General of Canada, many Icelandic-Canadians gradually gravitated to a stretch of Manitoban prairie on the southwestern shores of Lake Winnipeg which would come to be known as New Iceland. Ever since, Manitoba has boasted the highest population of ethnic Icelanders outside Iceland.
In the summers of 1966, 1967, and 1969, an Icelandic-Canadian folklorist named Magnus Einarsson travelled throughout New Iceland and the rest of Western Canada for the purpose of collecting Icelandic-Canadian folklore. Throughout the course of his travels, he sat down with ninety-eight Icelandic-Canadian old-timers and recorded all the local stories and traditions they wished to share with him. Einarsson made 462 recordings which wound up in the archives of the Canadian Museum of History in Gatineau, Quebec. In 1991, Einarsson transcribed 175 of his recordings and published them under the title Icelandic-Canadian Oral Narratives.
Magnus Einarsson’s collection of Icelandic-Canadian folktales reveals a strong belief in ghosts, Second Sight, the power of dreams, and the supernatural among the mid-20th Century Icelandic-Canadians of south-central Manitoba. “What I eventually found in the way of stories came as a surprise to me,” Einarsson wrote of his findings in an introduction to his book. “I did not expect to find people to tell me fairy tales or tall tales; I most certainly did not expect to find so many good, humorous anecdotes, and I didn’t expect to find alive such a keen and pervasive interest in dreams and ghostly visions.”
Amid tales of hauntings and premonitions, Einarsson’s book contains a handful of anecdotes pertaining to the alfar, or huldufolk (literally “hidden people”)- elusive elves of Icelandic folklore who live inside rocks, atop cliffs, or within hills. “The belief in elves… has had a stubborn death in Iceland,” Einarsson wrote in a footnote to one of the stories. The folklorist went on to explain that the huldufolk are said to look, speak, and act like humans, but are believed to be of an essentially different nature. Contact with the huldufolk, according to his informants, was a rare and potentially dangerous occurrence in the wilds of New Iceland. These mysterious entities sometimes attempted to kidnap human children and steal household objects. Huldufolk would occasionally approach humans and entreat them for help, and would confer luck or bestow particular skills upon their assistants as a reward for their kindness.
“Because elves are so bound up… with a particular type of rocky topography,” Einarsson wrote, “there are not many reports of them being sighted in the New World, but the belief in them is, nevertheless, quite strong, especially among the older generation.” He elaborated on the beliefs of the old-timers he interviewed in another footnote, writing, “In the New Iceland settlement of Manitoba, on the western shore of Lake Winnipeg, there seems to be a greater readiness, at least among some of the older people, to see the environment in the traditional way, as having a fourth, usually unseen dimension, than there is in some of the more recent settlements in Saskatchewan.”
Stories Set in Iceland
Man Helps Elf Woman Give Birth
Four of the huldufolk stories in Einarsson’s book are set in Iceland, the birthplace of the respective storytellers. The first of these was told by Mrs. Sigurdis Thorsteinsson, an elderly farmwife who lived outside the town of Arborg, Manitoba. Mrs. Thorsteinsson heard the tale from an old man named Fusi, who would often tell her about “all sorts of things that happened in Iceland.”
Fusi’s father, Sveinn, had been a physician back in Iceland. One night many years ago, a strange man knocked on his door and asked him if he would help deliver a baby. Sveinn agreed. After gathering his coat, hat, and medical kit, the doctor stepped outside to find two horses tethered to his fence, one of which was apparently intended for him. Before mounting, the stranger insisted that the doctor blindfold himself, assuring him that he would guide his horse to their destination. Mystified, Sveinn did as requested.
“They had travelled a long way,” Mrs. Thorsteinsson said, “and he said it had almost seemed to him as if they were going up the side of a mountain. And then… when they had gone quite a long way… [he] took the handkerchief from his eyes…” Sveinn found himself at the mouth of a small cave, into which his mysterious guide ushered him. Inside, he found a woman in labour, whom he promptly assisted. Due to Sveinn’s ministrations, the delivery was a success; before dawn, the healthy newborn was sleeping soundly in the arms of his mother.
When he was satisfied that his assistance was no longer required, the physician prepared to leave. As he rose from his seat, the new mother informed him that “he would never fail in helping a woman give birth to a child.”
Sveinn returned home in the same manner in which he had arrived: blindfolded, his horse guided by his mysterious supplicant. He went on to enjoy a long and distinguished medical career, and, just as the woman predicted, he never failed in his perinatal duties.
The second huldufolk story set in Iceland was related by Mrs. Sigrun Thorgrimsson, a housewife from Winnipeg, Manitoba. It revolves around Kristjan Kristjansson, a member of a large family from Skagafjordur, a region in northern Iceland characterized by a deep fjord and its valley, and the only county in the country where horses outnumber people.
One spring day, when Kristjan was four years old, he and his siblings were playing beneath a crag that overlooked the family farmhouse. “And it was a peculiar crag,” Mrs. Thorgrimsson disclosed. “They said it looked like a church.”
When the children finally returned home, it was discovered that Kristjan was not among them. A frantic search ensued, but no matter how thoroughly they looked, the family members could find neither hide nor hair of the missing child. “And there was no hazard that they could imagine,” Mrs. Thorgimsson said. “Neither brooks nor anything that he could have fallen into. So they searched until evening… [but] the boy wasn’t found, and everyone, naturally was chilled by fear and sorrow.” Kristjan’s mother, Gudrun Sigurdardottir, tossed and turned all night.
The family resumed their search at first light the following morning, scouring the fields for any sign of the missing boy. Their efforts were for naught; it seemed as if Kristjan had vanished into thin air. The rescue party finally retired to the farmhouse after sundown that evening, the gathering gloom heralding the arrival of another dread-filled night.
It was with a heavy heart that Gudrun set about preparing the evening meal for her weary family, now bafflingly short one member. She made her way to the pantry and opened the door, only to find little Kristjan standing on the other side, “tear-stained, weak, and downhearted.” Elated, Gudrun relayed the good news to her husband and children, who immediately crowded around the four-year-old and asked him where he had been. “A woman took me,” Kristjan explained, “but I cried so much that she didn’t want to keep me any longer.”
“And that’s all they ever got out of him,” Mrs. Thorgrimsson concluded. “No one knows to this day where the child was during this time. Everyone, of course, thought he had been with the elves in the crags.”
Interestingly, the ideas implicit in this story accord with an old tradition of the Dene and Woodland Cree of Northern Canada which contends that a race of supernatural dwarves with a penchant for kidnapping inhabit the rocky crags along rivers.
The Levitating Girl
Another tale of attempted huldufolk abduction in Iceland was told by Mr. Bjorn Bjarnason, a farmer from the village of Arborg, Manitoba. This tale, which Mr. Bjarnason learned from his father, takes place in Iceland’s rugged northwestern corner.
“An incident occurred,” Mr. Bjarnason began, “in which a child, a girl, started complaining that there was a woman who came and wanted… to take her away, but she said she didn’t want to go with the woman.”
One day, while working outside, the girl’s mother heard an alarming noise from the farmhouse and rushed inside to investigate. She found her daughter floating in mid-air at about shoulder height. As soon as she arrived, the child fell to the floor. “At that moment,” Mr. Bjarnason said, “a gust of wind, or some gust of air passes by her and… seemed to disappear.”
Following the incident, the mother sought the services of a renowned clairvoyant named Jon. Although Jon was an elderly man who preferred to keep his journeys short, he agreed to travel to the farmhouse to investigate the matter. He arrived at the farm one evening and announced that he would begin his work the following morning. Unfortunately, the clairvoyant died in his sleep that very night, leaving the mystery unsolved.
Boy Meets Elf Girls
The fourth and final Iceland-based huldufolk story that Einarrson included in his book was related by Mr. Gunnar Alexander, a fisherman from Arborg, Manitoba.
Mr. Alexander explained that, when he was ten years old, he worked as a shepherd’s assistant in eastern Iceland. One day, he headed out on an errand, taking a trail that wound along the slopes of a mountain. On the way, he spied three beautiful girls standing near a large rock some distance from the trail. “I think to myself,” Alexander said, “that it would be nice to talk to them, and I turn off the path.” In his haste to approach the strangers, Alexander tripped and fell to the ground. “And when I looked up,” he said, “everything was in a fog… They were beautiful, boy!”
Stories Set in Canada
Elf Woman Tries to Lure Young Boy
In addition to the stories above described, Einarrson included five fairy tales set in Manitoba which demonstrate a belief, shared by certain Icelandic-Canadian old-timers, that some huldufolk had followed their ancestors to Canada. The first of these was related by Mr. Hallgrimur Stadfeld, from the community of Riverton, Manitoba. In a footnote, Einarrson explained that the incident described “took place at the farm of Reynistad in northern New Iceland, on Lake Winnipeg,” and that “there had been two or three similar incidents prior to this one”.
One day when he was a boy, Mr. Stadfeld’s brother, Kjartan, was watching over the family’s sheep flock when he was suddenly and unexpectedly approached by a woman dressed in a traditional Icelandic woman’s costume. The woman beckoned for Kjartan to follow her, and the boy, in a daze, obeyed. “He had gone about a half mile towards the shore [of Lake Winnipeg],” Stadfeld said, “when he at last sort of came to, wondering where he was going.” Startled, Kjartan looked around for the woman and discovered that he was alone.
The boy returned home and relayed his adventure to his mother. Upon hearing Kjartan’s description of the woman, Mrs. Stadfeld concluded that she must have been an elf, and that she had attempted to lure her son to the water.
Elves Borrow Mittens
Three Canadian huldufolk tales in Einarrson’s book involve the elves’ alleged propensity to appropriate random household items for their own mysterious purposes. The first of these tales was told by Miss Margret Bjarnason, the sister of the aforementioned Bjorn Bjarnason who kept house for the latter; Einarrson interviewed the siblings together in their Arborg farmhouse in August 1967.
Whenever Marget did the laundry, she hung her and her brother’s wet clothes on a clothesline outside. She maintained this practice even in winter, and would wear a pair of mittens when spreading out the laundry during the colder months of the year.
“I was going to hang out some socks,” she said, “and then I discovered that my gloves had disappeared… And it didn’t matter where I looked; I couldn’t find them.”
Time passed, and Margret forgot about the missing mittens. “A year later,” she said, “I find them lying in the clothespin box where I had always kept them, and, naturally, [I] had often… opened this little box. The hidden people had returned them.”
Miss Bjarnason never outright acknowledged a belief in elves, and confessed to Einarrson that she was unsure of whether or not they existed. She went on to suggest that most of the older people she knew definitely seemed to believe in them.
Elves Borrow Scabbard
After relating the tale of the missing mittens, Margret Bjarnason prompted her brother to tell Einarrson about his own brush with the huldufolk.
Bjorn explained that, one day, he went down to the basement to tackle some household chore which required the use of his knife. Once he completed the task, he searched for the leather sheath in which he always kept his knife but was unable to find it anywhere. “I made a determined effort to search in a bed that was there,” he said, “and all around it, and under it, and it was all for naught.
“And I went and got my sister, and we searched again where we could, although we had no idea where this thing might be… It wasn’t found, so I said we shouldn’t bother with it any more, that it was pointless.
“But, a year later, or very close to it, I had some business down in the basement.” Bjorn went downstairs to work on this project and found his knife’s leather sheath lying atop the neatly made-up bed.
Like his sister, Bjorn expressed an open-mindedness regarding the existence of the huldufolk, but accepted them “as a possibility in the framework of Spiritualism” rather than in the “framework of traditional belief”.
Chasing an Elf
Later in the interview, Bjorn Bjarnason told a short story about another Icelandic-Canadian, the identity of whom he refused to disclose, who claimed to have once chased what he suspected to be a supernatural creature. The entity in question was man-like in appearance, but “shorter than is common, [and] strapping and robust”. During the pursuit, the creature would sometimes turn around and beckon for the man to follow him.
“I can’t explain this any further,” Bjorn concluded at the end of his brief tale. “[This thing] seemed to have been something not human; it was something else.”
“Something supernatural?” the interviewer asked.
When asked whether this man thought he had been following an elf, Mr. Bjarnason replied that he suspected that to be the case, but was unsure.
Elves Borrow Carpenter’s Tool
The last huldufolk story in Einarsson’s book was recorded by Miss Thorunn Vigfusson on her family’s homestead near Arborg, Manitoba, on July 27th, 1967. Miss Vigfusson described the experience of her father, a well-known carpenter named Trausti Vigfusson who had once built churches in northern Iceland.
Just before leaving his homeland for Canada, Trausti dreamed that he walked out of a shack to find himself surrounded by “a large flock of white and horned, beautiful sheep. And then a man [approached] him, [offered] him his hand, and [thanked] him for the fellowship” that had always existed between them, expressing gratitude that the two of them have always had the means to properly take care of their animals. Miss Vigfusson explained that her father believed that the man in his dream was an elf farmer, and that the white horned sheep were his elf sheep.
Later on, Miss Vigfusson described another of her father’s experiences which took place on his farm near Arborg, Manitoba. “Dad was a carpenter, as you know,” she said, “and he had a carpenter’s chest- [a] tool chest [inside of which] all his tools [were] laid out.” One of Trausti’s tools was a hand plane, the blade of which could be adjusted with a brass wheel handle. Trausti always removed the blade and separated the wheel handle when storing his plane, which he always made the topmost piece in his tool chest.
Trausti was perhaps the last Icelandic-Canadian to craft traditional Icelandic spinning wheels. One time, when he was in the process of making a batch of these products, he prepared to assemble his plane and found that the brass wheel handle was missing. He carefully removed every item from his toolbox in his search for the missing piece, but to no avail; the wheel handle was nowhere to be found. Trausti then sifted through the bed of wood shavings that had accumulated on the floor of his workshop, naturally suspecting that the wheel handle had disappeared therein. Despite a meticulous search and cleanup in which all the shavings were gathered and burned, the missing tool piece failed to turn up.
“Then a young lad from the neighbourhood came over,” Miss Vigfusson said, “and asked him for the loan of a trunk. He was going out on the lake, but he thought, because the carpenter’s tool chest [could be locked], that that was the best trunk he could lend him.” Since Trausti had another chest that would suit his own purposes, he agreed to lend the boy the use of his lockable toolbox. He proceeded to move all his tools into his other chest, organizing them in the manner with which he was accustomed, and half hoping that his plane’s wheel handle would turn up in the process. Although the missing piece failed to appear, Trausti placed his hand plane and its blade atop all his other tools, as was his habit.
One morning, more than a year later, the carpenter opened his toolbox to find the brass wheel handle sitting atop his hand plane, just as though he had placed it there himself. “No one had access to his shop,” Miss Vigfusson said, “and he, naturally, thought this to be the work of the hidden people.”
In a footnote to Miss Vigfusson’s story, Einarrson wrote, “The attitude of contemporary people toward their ancestors’ belief in the supernatural is often somewhat tortured. While often unable to believe, themselves, in the supernatural world of ghosts and elves, they are not only willing to believe that the old timers believed, but that they had cause to believe. They themselves, however, as a modern people are somehow different in kind, no longer able to experience the reality of the fourth dimension.”
Snorri and Snaebjorn: The Huldufolk of Gimli, Manitoba
If you drive an hour north of the city of Winnipeg, along the western shores of Lake Winnipeg, you’ll come to the town of Gimli, Manitoba. Dubbed “The Heart of New Iceland”, this Icelandic-Canadian enclave is the setting of what is undoubtedly the most famous huldufolk tale in Canada- a modern-day saga which, like all good fairy tales, teeters on the border separating charming fantasy from unsetting credibility.
The story revolves around Gimli’s town hall, an enchanting, 106-year-old building which was initially employed as a public schoolhouse. The window that sits directly above the building’s main entrance is surmounted by a decorative arch composed of three large, trapezoidal, limestone bricks, the middle of which is missing. The conspicuous, mortar-encrusted depression in which this stone was once set serves as a reminder of a seemingly-unremarkable event which initiated Gimli’s most famous fairy tale.
One day in 1975, the abovementioned stone unexpectedly fell from the school’s exterior wall, nearly braining a female teacher who had been standing in the doorway. Many Gimli residents who still adhered to the traditions of their ancestors suspected that the close call might be attributable to the mischief of the huldufolk, whom Icelandic folklore contends often live inside rocks such as those which adorned the school’s entrance. Due to safety concerns, the local Evergreen School Division decided to close the school, unwilling to make the renovations necessary to bring the building up to code. As local legend would have it, the school board’s refusal to renovate the edifice stemmed less from a preclusive budget than from a reluctance to risk offending the little people, a potential consequence of such a project.
In 1987, the new school council, apparently unencumbered by their predecessors’ fear of elfish repercussions, decided to demolish the historic structure, prompting a coalition of townspeople to launch a campaign aimed at designating the abandoned school a municipal heritage site. Demolition was delayed, and a series of unproductive council meetings ensued.
In 1990, the crusade to save the school gained a new and powerful recruit. Dr. Leo Kristjanson, the 58-year-old, freshly-retired President of the University of Saskatchewan, who had just attained membership in the Order of Canada for his academic services, was dismayed when he learned that his childhood school was scheduled for an indefinite appointment with the wrecking ball. Out of the blue, to the amusement of some and the astonishment of others, Kristjanson publically came forward with a fantastic personal story which imbued the old building with a new aura of mystery and magic.
The school was indeed inhabited by huldufolk, Kristjanson maintained, as many Gimli old-timers had long suspected. He knew this because two of the elves, named Snorri and Snaebjorn, had introduced themselves to him when he was a student there. These huldufolk had initially made their home on the second story of Tergesen’s General Store, the oldest of its kind still in operation in Manitoba, which was built in the heart of Gimli in 1899. When the store’s second floor was removed in the 1920s, the little people took up residence in the attic of the newly-constructed brick schoolhouse. Every once in a while, they would descend from their hideaway and play tricks on teachers and students, borrowing books, stationery, and other school equipment which struck their fancy.
On crisp autumn mornings in the 1930s and ‘40s, when Kristjanson attended the Gimli Public School, the elves would often sit at the attic window and watch young Leo walk over from his house across the street. The huldufolk took a liking to Leo, and decided to make themselves known to him one day. Over the next few years, the student would have several more encounters with the little people, who would sometimes answer his questions regarding their backstory. Snorri and Snaebjorn were pranksters, and Kristjanson was certain it was they who had dislodged the stone from the school wall in 1975.
In nearly any other Canadian community, Leo Kristjanson’s tale would have been received as nothing more than a playful attempt to inject some local colour into a dry and flagging historic preservation campaign. In Gimli, Manitoba, however, where a deep filial respect for ancestral tradition courses through local veins, the story of Snorri and Snaebjorn met with both chuckles and tacit credulity.
True or not, Kristjanson’s tale gave new life to the campaign, helping secure much-needed government funding. As a compliment to his marketing efforts, Gimli writer Kathy Hurlburt (nee Arnason) and illustrator Jerry Johnson dramatized his fairy tale in a children’s book entitled The Story of the Gimli Huldufolk, in which Snorri and Snaebjorn are portrayed as large-eared elf-like creatures with colourful scarves and tall floppy hats.
By 1994, a corps of volunteers under the auspices of the Gimli Municipal Heritage Committee were busy restoring the old schoolhouse. Led by Kristjanson himself, who, despite suffering from Parkinson’s disease, served as head of the building committee, the volunteers spent a collective 30,000 hours and $350,000-worth of government grants rebuilding walls, rewiring the electrical system, replacing the furnace, installing new flooring, building a new staircase, and making cosmetic touch-ups inside the historic building.
According to Kristjanson, the renovation project awakened the dormant Snorri and Snaebjorn, who had enjoyed sole occupancy of the schoolhouse since its closing in 1975. “They have great rapport with children, who are more likely to see them than adults,” he said of the huldufolk in an interview, adding that the elusive pranksters had recently stolen the boots he kept at the worksite. In an effort to appease the little people, he and the volunteers reserved the attic for their use, furnishing it with a tiny bed and other suitably small accessories.
In 1996, the refurbished schoolhouse was converted into Gimli’s multi-purpose community centre. The municipality moved its administrative offices into the heritage building, turning half of the schoolhouse into an unorthodox town hall. Other vacant rooms were employed as social service offices, a museum, and an art gallery. The attic remained, and remains to this day, the domain of Snorri and Snaebjorn, in which local children are encouraged to leave drawings and written messages for their town’s most elusive residents.
To this day, there is no real consensus in Gimli as to whether Kristjanson’s tale was merely the product of his imagination, his enduring refusal to concede its fantastical nature being a manifestation of the droll, deadpan sarcasm which seems to characterize Scandinavian humour; or whether it had some kernel of truth at its core.
Many, of course, dismiss Kristjanson’s story as a well-intentioned fib, and with good reason. There is some evidence suggesting that the former university president was a strong believer in the importance of stimulating childhood imagination, and that he was not beyond inventing tall tales in an effort to achieve that purpose. According to Manitoban Creative Communications student Josh Kerr in an article he published on his website in December 2015, Lorna Tergesen, the owner of Tergesen’s General Store, told him that Kristjanson “said he was really sorry that he allowed Kathy [Hurlburt] to make images” of Snorri and Snaebjorn in her book, strongly believing that “every child should have their own imagination of” the little people.
Another blogger who purports to be a Gimli native wrote the following on her website:
“One of my clearest memories from childhood is being at the bottom of the small spiraling staircase that leads to the high school attic with my grandmother and Leo Kristjanson. Mr. Kristjanson let me feel a bump on his head which he told me came from the brick the Huldufolk threw.”
Assuming that this memory is accurate, and that the brick to which the blogger referred is the famous piece of ornamental limestone which fell from the school in 1975, Kristjanson’s disclosure to the author appears to be a fabrication concocted for the youngster’s benefit; Dr. Kristjanson was 43 years old when the aforementioned stone fell, living in the city of Saskatoon, where he was beginning his first term as Vice-President of the University of Saskatchewan.
Despite that the saga of Snorri and Snaebjorn seems likely to be little more than a product of Leo Kristjanson’s imagination, some Gimli residents believe to this day that their town, and the old schoolhouse in particular, is haunted by huldufolk. According to then-29-year-old Brittany Isfeld, a lifelong Gimli resident whom Josh Kerr interviewed for his aforementioned article, “the sound of giggling and [footsteps], as if they’re running around,” can sometimes be heard emanating from the old building’s attic, invariably when the tape recorder is out of reach. Similarly, in Season 1, Episode 6 of the Canadian TV series Exhibit Eh, filmmakers Frank Wolf and Todd Macfie conducted a small impromptu survey on the streets of Gimli in which 38% of participants expressed a belief that they share their town with the hidden people of Icelandic-Canadian legend.
Another Canadian ethno-cultural group with a traditional belief in little people are the Kashubian-Canadians of Madawaska Highlands, the latter being a quiet rural area in southern Ontario east of Algonquin Provincial Park.
Kashubia, the historic homeland of Kashubian-Canadians, is a region in northwestern Poland which hugs the shores of the Baltic Sea. Kashubians, the historic inhabitants of Kashubia, are descendants of a medieval Slavic tribe whose members were known as Pomeranians, who speak their own regional dialect, and whose unique traditional culture distinguishes them from their Polish neighbours.
In 1858, when Kashubia was part of the German Kingdom of Prussia, hundreds of poor, hardworking Kashubians left their homeland for Canada, hoping to build better lives for themselves and their families in the Great White North. Most of these immigrants settled along the Opeongo Line, a colonization road freshly blazed through the forests of the Madawaska Highlands, along which the British-Canadian government was offering free land at the time. The settlements which these immigrants founded- foremost among them being Wilno, Barry’s Bay, and Round Lake Centre- boast high populations of Kashubian-Canadians to this very day.
In 1968, a young Harvard-educated linguist named Jan Louis Perkowski interviewed fifteen elderly Kashubian-Canadians from Wilno in an effort to investigate a rumour that certain residents of that quiet rural community harboured a traditional belief in vampires. He outlined his findings in a controversial paper entitled Vampires, Dwarves, and Witches among the Ontario Kashubs, which was published in July 1972 by Gatineau’s National Museum of Man (now the Canadian Museum of History; the same museum which held Einarsson’s recordings), under whose auspices Perkowski conducted his research.
The Dwarves of the Madawaska Highlands
Amid tales of vampires, witches, and succubae, Perkowski’s paper includes stories of supernatural dwarves whom Kashub-Canadians traditionally believed inhabited their barns, stables, and farmhouses. “Dwarves (krusnunti) are domestic daemons [i.e. spirits attached to the home],” Perkowski began in his introduction to the subject, “whose dispositions are not all bad. In habit and physique they resemble human beings, except that they are very small. They wear red suits and red caps.”
The dwarves of the Madawaska Highlands were said to be mischievous entities who sometimes perpetrated pranks on the farmers on whose properties they squatted. The most common of these was their practice of braiding horses’ manes and tails at night, creating inextricable tangles which, in other traditions, have been called ‘fairy-locks’ and ‘witches’ knots’.
“Oh yes,” said one of Perkowski’s informants in reference to this troublesome dwarfish courtesy, “about those dwarves… We were very much afraid of [them]. They told various stories about how the dwarf came, braided the horse. They so braided it that it was impossible to unbraid it. I still remember how our horses had it.”
“My father went to the stable,” said another informant, recalling an incident from his childhood. “The horses’ manes were tangled, and they said that the dwarves must have done it… We were afraid to go to the stable.”
Other manifestations of dwarfish activity are circular rings of dead grass or scorched earth which sometimes appear around farmhouses, which were said to be spots on which dwarves had danced. One of Perkowski’s interviewees remembered “seeing a circle as wide as a horse plow, in which nothing grew for over five years.” Another informant recalled seeing a similar ring outside her neighbour’s granary.
In an effort to illustrate the prevalence of such circles, Perkowski reproduced an article published in the June 19th, 1969 issue of the Pembroke Observer, based out of Pembroke, Ontario, entitled “Scorched Rings Found in Field 20 Years Ago”. The article described a perfectly circular ring of desiccated grass discovered in the field of farmer Allan Stuart, located about a half hour’s drive east of Wilno, in the late 1940s. The circle was described as having a scorched appearance, and the farmer on whose land it appeared claimed that nothing grew in the spot for several years. The article went on to reference several similar circles discovered in the neighbouring counties of Chapeau and Westmeath.
Although perhaps most strongly reminiscent of the infamous crop circles so often concomitant with UFO sightings, these circular patches of scorched earth also evoke a naturally-occurring phenomenon called ‘fairy rings’- circular patches in fields and meadows filled with or fringed by either dead grass, dark green grass, or mushrooms. There have been several theories put forth over the years as to the mechanism by which these unsettling formations appear. Celtic folklore, for example, contends that these rings are traps laid by malicious faeries. According to Germanic legend, they mark the site of witches’ covens. In a footnote to his 1789 poem Botanic Garden, Erasmus Darwin, grandfather of the famous English naturalist Dr. Charles Darwin, proposed that fairy rings in which the circumferences are composed of dead grass are caused by bolts of lightning striking the earth. He maintained that the reason lightning only burns the exterior of these rings is because the interior of the lightning bolt is devoid of air, and “without air nothing can be calcined. This air after having been so calcined becomes a richer soil, and either funguses or a bluer grass for many years mark the place.”
Today, most biologists generally agree that fairy rings are caused by certain species of subterranean fungi which grow outward in a circular pattern. For nutritional purposes, the extremities of these fungi release enzymes which help break down the organic matter which lies in the path of their expected growth, releasing nutrients into the soil. In the brief interim preceding the fungi’s advancement, the grass growing around the edge of the fungus absorbs some of these nutrients, becoming thicker and developing a richer hue as a result. As the fungus expands, it eventually absorbs the nutrients before it, depriving the newly-lush grass above it of sustenance, thus causing it to starve and die. Upon absorbing the nutrients, the fungus’ extremities sprout mushrooms which are visible on the surface, creating the third and most recognizable form of fairy ring.
Another sign that a farm had been visited by dwarves was a reduction in a cow’s milk yield; Kashubian-Canadian tradition contends that dwarves would sometimes milk their cows in the night.
According to one of Perkowski’s informants, a Kashubian-Canadian woman was once approached by a dwarf with a pail while she was in the process of milking her cow. “The little fellow came from somewhere in the barn,” the informant said, “… and asked her to give him some of the milk for his sick child.” The interviewee neglected to disclose whether or not the milkmaid complied with the request.
Like the famous leprechaun of Irish mythology, the dwarves of the Madawaska Highlands were said to possess great stores of gold coins. They so valued the little red caps that they wore that if a human managed to snatch one from one of their heads, the bereaved dwarf would offer some of his gold in exchange for the cap’s return. One of Perkowski’s informants claimed that a minister had acquired a pocketful of coins through this operation.
The most sinister trick in the dwarves’ playbook, according to Perkowski’s informants, involved stealing a human infant and replacing it with one of their own malformed dwarf children. According to one old-timer whom Perkowski interviewed, a dwarf had attempted to do this to an infant born to of one of the first Kashubian-Canadian families to settle in the Madawaska Valley; the kidnapper-to-be was caught in the act, and its plan was thwarted.
Another dwarf, according to another informant, prevailed in its endeavours, successfully swapping its deformed baby with that of a local family while the child’s mother was working in the field. “It was evident that the child was changed,” the informant said. In an effort to lure the tiny perpetrator back to her home so that she could force it to remedy its offense, the mother devised a trap involving a boot and a piece of meat. The mother successfully trapped the dwarf and gave it a thrashing, prompting it to repossess its own changeling and return the human child safe and sound.
After expounding this dark element of Kashub-Canadian dwarf lore, Perkowski proposed that the changeling concept stemmed from an unconscious cultural desire to explain human dwarfism. “Its underlying function,” he wrote, “is to relieve anxiety over causation. It helps to fill the need to understand and therefore control one’s environment. It provides an anthropomorphic representation of causes and serves as an agent of otherwise inexplicable natural phenomena.”
Although supposed evidences of dwarfish activity like fairy rings and fairy-locks could potentially be attributable to natural phenomena, actual sightings of little people in the Madawaska Highlands are more difficult to explain away. One of Perkowski’s informants claimed that some people he knew had seen a group of small, red-clad people dancing in a circle by the riverside while they were fishing one Good Friday. Another interviewee claimed that, when she was a child, she peered through a small hole on a hollow log on which she sat and spied a tiny woman hiding therein. “I kept looking at her and was very much afraid,” she said. “She had a hat and a nice dress and wore shorts with buttons.” The informant called her mother over, but by the time she arrived the little person had disappeared.
Other interviewees claimed to have heard dwarves without seeing them. One claimed that mysterious sobbing- perhaps the lamentations of a dwarf- erupted from behind her kitchen stove when a member of her household announced the passing of a friend. Another related a story that his uncle told him about dwarves who would emerge from a particular rock atop a treeless hill on certain Saturday nights to sing, dance, and play music on tiny violins. “They could hear, you know, the dwarves,” he said, “but we were not able to see them.”
The Lutins of French-Canada
The French-Canadian habitants who farmed their narrow seigneuries along the shores of the St. Lawrence River throughout the 17th, 18th, and 19th Centuries had their own little people legends, many elements of which they share in common with the dwarf lore of the Madawaska Highlands. The name that French-Canadian farmers applied to their diminutive neighbours was “lutin”, a word which roughly translates to “goblin”.
Two of the best sources on this all-but-forgotten piece of French-Canadian folklore are 19th Century writers Honore Beaugrand and Louis-Honore Frechette- radical French-Canadian nationalists and friends famous for their contes, or fictional stories, based on old French-Canadian folktales. Beaugrand wrote an academic-style discourse on the legend of the lutin in his article The Goblin Lore of French Canada, a chapter in his 1904 ethnology New Studies of Canadian Folklore. Frechette, on the other hand, incorporated the legend into his French-language short story Les Lutins, or “The Goblins”, a tongue-in-cheek comedy which was published in the 1905 issue of the Almanach du people de la librairie Beauchemin. Similar to Washington Irving’s famous short story The Legend of Sleepy Hollow (1820), in which the spectral Headless Horseman who confronts the protagonist in the climax is strongly implied to be the latter’s human nemesis in disguise, the gullible narrator of Frechette’s story encounters a lutin who is implied to actually be an illusory projection of his own superstitions onto the antics of a mischievous co-worker.
According to Beaugrand, “it is evident that the Goblin Lore of Canada was imported from France,” and that there are very few differences between Canadian lutin lore and its French progenitor aside from “things connected with the difference in climatic or geological surroundings”. The world lutin itself, he argued, most probably derives from an ancient Saxon word meaning “little”, since “the most distinguishing characteristic of the lutin is its diminutive size”. Frechette, perhaps indulging in a little literary license, elaborated on the creatures’ physical appearance in his short story, describing them as “little men, eighteen inches tall, with nothing but a single eye in the middle of their foreheads, with noses like hazelnuts, a bullfrog’s mouth split up to the ears, arms like toads’ feet, with bellies like tomatoes and big pointed hats that make then look like spring mushrooms. The eye that they have in the middle of their foreheads glows like a burning coal; and that’s what lights them up, because these folks sleep during the day, and come out at night to cause mischief, you know.”
Lutins attach themselves to particular households, on the grounds of which, according to Frechette, they abide “in the earth, behind stumps, between rocks, and especially in the stables, because if they have a penchant for anything, it’s for horses.” They are shapeshifters, and in an effort to disguise themselves from humans, they often, as Beaugrand put it, assume “the form of a domestic pet, such as a dog, a cat, a bird, a rabbit, or even a reptile of the inoffensive species, or, again, rats and mice that have learned to become familiar with the members of the household.”
“In the French-speaking parishes of the Province of Quebec,” Beaugrand wrote, “the lutins are considered as mischievous fun-loving little spirits” which either annoy or confer luck upon their inadvertent landlords “according to the treatment that they receive from the inmates of the house where they have chosen to dwell.” In return for good treatment, lutins “will procure good weather for the crops, they will watch over favorite animals, [and they will] intercede for the recovery of the sick members of the household… [attaching] themselves to favorite children and [guiding] them safely through the infantine maladies of their tender years.” Contrary to general European superstition, lutins which take the form of black cats were considered especially lucky in French Canada.
If treated poorly by the residents of their chosen abodes, lutins would subject their human neighbours to “a long series of annoyances and persecutions of all kinds.” These tricks include, but are not limited to, filling boots with peas or pebbles; sewing pant legs shut at the knees; mixing salt or pepper into tea; replacing food with stones; and tampering with tools.
The lutins of French-Canada seem to take a special interest in horses. “When it comes to tending horses,” Frechette wrote, “there are no stablemen… to match them. When they take a liking to a horse, its manger is always full, and you wouldn’t believe how its coat shines… Its mane and tail are as dainty as any dolled-up pet.” Conversely, if a lutin is upset with a farmer, its delight is to take revenge on his favourite horse. Like the dwarves of the Madawaska Highlands, the vengeful lutin will spend the night twisting the hair of a horse’s mane and tail into hopeless tangles. Sometimes he will take the horse out for a long, hard nocturnal gallop through the wilderness, eventually returning the animal to its stall exhausted, lathered in sweat, and covered with burrs and thistles.
According to Beaugrand, there are two methods by which farmers can protect themselves from the wiles of an unhappy lutin. One is to pour a line of salt across the threshold of the home and the entrance to the stable, since “lutins have a holy horror for salt [and] cannot pass where that condiment has been strewn in their way.” If a lutin continues to commit its misdeeds despite this precaution, the only recourse is to kill and skin two cats, one of them pure black and the other pure white, cut the skins into strips, and use the strips to create a lattice screen for the doors and windows of the building in which the pranks occur. Frechette hints at a third remedy in his story, stating that if one manages to capture a lutin, the little creature will offer the captor a barrel of gold in exchange for its freedom.
The Fairies of Newfoundland
Undoubtedly, the deepest-rooted, best-documented, and most enduring little people tradition in all of Canada is the fairy lore of Newfoundland. Imported to the Rock from Scotland, Wales, Brittany, and especially southeastern Ireland and southwestern England, this legacy of Celtic folklore bears many similarities to its Icelandic-Canadian, Kashubian-Canadian, and French-Canadian cousins. Like the lutin of French-Canada, for example, the fairies of Newfoundland were said to take farmers’ horses for nightly rides and tamper with their manes and tails. Like the dwarves of the Madawaska Highlands, they were believed to milk cows from time to time, and were said to be occasionally spotted dancing in circles, hand in hand.
Unlike these other Canadian traditions, however, in which little people are said to be inclined to attach themselves to farmhouses and rural settlements, Newfoundland fairy lore designates the wilderness the primary domain of the little people. Another characteristic which sets Newfoundland fairy lore apart from its Canadian counterparts is the nature of the relationship which it contends exists between little people and humans; the fairies of Newfoundland are said to be almost entirely malevolent, enjoying a purely parasitic association with the humans who trespass on their territory. Newfoundland settlers were so afraid of offending these little malicious entities, lest they make themselves the objects of their mischief, that they paradoxically referred to them, in the infrequent fireside conversations which their terror would allow, as the “Good People”.
One of the most authoritative sources on Newfoundland fairy lore is Californian folklorist Dr. Barbara Rieti’s 1991 book Strange Terrain: The Fairy World in Newfoundland. Rieti’s book is essentially a curated selection of student-collected stories from the Memorial University of Newfoundland Folklore and Language Archive (MUNFLA), supplemented by Rieti’s own fieldwork and analysis.
In her book, Rieti identifies a handful of alleged fairy hotspots, almost all of them located on the Avalon Peninsula in Newfoundland’s southeastern corner. Many of these cluster along the shores of the predominantly English-Protestant Conception Bay which furrows Avalon’s northern face, while many more dot Avalon’s southerly Irish-Catholic-heavy bays and harbours. Most of these hotspots are characterized by forest, marshland, berry patches, or sparsely-vegetated barrens, all of these features being favourite fairy haunts, and are home to natural features with names like “Fairy Ridge”, “Fairy Hill”, and “Fairy Marsh”.
Newfoundland fairies are said to delight in disorienting lone travelers who trespass on their territory, creating optical illusions which lead their victims off the beaten path and deeper into the wilderness. Their ultimate aim is to draw their human prey into their own other-dimensional realm, trapping them “in the fairies”, as Newfoundland vernacular terms the shadowy plane in which they dwell.
In her book, Rieti includes the tale of a man from Bell Island- an alleged fairy hotspot situated at the southeastern end of Conception Bay- who claimed to have walked into one of these fairy traps while heading down a familiar trail through the forest. “As he was crossing a path that he usually crossed,” wrote the man’s nephew, who recorded the story, “he saw trees that were never there before. The trees were about fifty or sixty feet high. He went down the road a ways and then went back again. He did this three times, and the third time he went back, everything was back to normal.”
Another man from Southern Shore, at the eastern end of the Avalon Peninsula, is said to have been walking on a well-beaten path through the forest outside the town of Fermeuse “when he sensed he was walking on unfamiliar ground. All around him were high trees, the height of which he had never seen before. Then he began to curse and swear and in the madness at having lost his way took off his cap and flung it to the ground. Immediately, he was on the correct path again.”
Roland O’Connor’s Experience
A man named Roland O’Connor, who hailed from the town of Placentia on the Avalon Peninsula’s western shore, claimed to have suffered a similar experience on October 1st, 1925. Roland spent that day hunting with his brother Ralph, but found little in the way of game. Hoping to bag something before the end of the day, he decided to head out for one last ramble that evening.
Shortly after he left camp, his dog suddenly began to whine. His horse quickly followed suit, breaking into a nervous whinny without any apparent cause.
At that moment, Roland spotted two black ducks in the underbrush, which he promptly shot. Thinking that the fowls must have somehow been the cause of his animals’ mysterious agitation, the hunter made to retrieve the birds. Suddenly, a babble of unintelligible voices erupted all around him, muttering words he could not make out. Startled, he whirled around to find himself in an unfamiliar setting, surrounded by tall trees, cliffs, and large boulders.
The bewildered hunter began to pick his way through the new terrain, wandering aimlessly without any familiar landmark to guide him. He continued his journey as darkness descended. When his tired legs would carry him no further, the hunter fired thirteen shots with his rifle into the air, hoping that the sound would lead Ralph to his location. That accomplished, he sat down and waited for morning.
At dawn, Roland found himself sitting on the familiar game trail on which he had set out the night before, a mere mile from camp. He reunited with his brother, who told him that he had spent half the night looking for him. He never heard any of Roland’s gunshots despite their close proximity, and had fired ten or twelve shots himself, none of which Roland perceived.
James Lynch’s Experience
Barbara Rieti heard a similar story firsthand in January 1988 from a man named Jim Lynch. Lynch lived with his wife, Kitty, in a house he built himself in the village of Bellevue, located on the northern shore of the thin strip of land which attaches the Avalon Peninsula to the island of Newfoundland. At Kitty’s prompting, Jim reluctantly told Rieti about an incident that took place many years earlier, on a snowy morning in February. That morning, Jim set out to fell some timber, and took a trail he knew well which meandered along the edge of a marsh. On the way, he came across a fork in the trail that he never remembered seeing before. He decided to explore the new route, which appeared to extend a short distance into the marsh.
After travelling a short distance down this new branch, Jim came to a crossroads. Startled to discover so many new trails of which he had previously been unaware, and not particularly desirous of exploring any more of them at that moment, he decided to return to the main trail. Upon turning around, he found himself staring up a large hill that had not been there before. At the top of the hill was a ten-foot cliff, at the top of which, he knew, lay the main trail. “How I got down there,” Jim said, “I don’t know. I guess I got lifted up and brought down there. I never walked down there, sure of that…”
Jim proceeded to tramp through a stand of timber in an attempt to reconnect with the main path. He succeeded, and, after reaching the path, decided to abandon the lumberjacking operation and return home. By the time he arrived at his house, it was 4:00 in the afternoon. He had initially set out at 10:15 a.m., and estimated that he had covered a distance of about four miles. Apparently, Jim had experienced an unaccountable lapse in time.
Trapped in the Fairies
Later on in her book, Rieti included a short MUNFLA entry collected from a man from the community of Lumsden on the northernmost lip of Bonavista Bay, the latter being a remote body of water north of the Avalon Peninsula. The informant claimed that his father had once disappeared while scouting out berry bushes. His friends searched for him for hours, and finally found him walking around in a circle, apparently in some kind of trance. When they shouted at him, he stopped in his tracks, immediately freed from the strange spell that had gripped him.
“As soon as he did,” the informant said, “he told his friends that he had been in fairyland, and he couldn’t get out no matter how hard he tried. He said the fairies had been holding him captive. As soon as he came out of this trance he recognized where he was and walked out with his friends.”
There are several methods by which travelers can protect themselves from being taken by the fairies. The most common of these is to carry a piece of bread in one’s pocket; instead of attempting to kidnap the human, the fairies will direct their efforts towards stealing the bread. Other protective measures include sprinkling oneself with holy water before going out, wearing clothing inside out, turning pockets inside out, and not wearing green-coloured clothing, green being a colour of special importance to the fairies. If the traveler actually sees a host of fairies in the wilderness, he can prevent the Good People from doing mischief to him by tossing pieces of bread to them, making the sign of the cross, or praying on his knees.
Legend has it that if someone is successfully captured by the fairies, the little people will offer him or her fairy food, which is said to be always devoid of salt. Those who eat this food will remain trapped among the fairies forever. Those who steadfastly refuse to eat fairy food may eventually be returned to civilization, although perhaps not in the same state as the one in which they had been prior to their capture.
This facet of Newfoundland fairy lore eerily evokes the legend of the Bukwus, or “Wild Man of the Woods”, a supernatural being of Kwakwakawak’w tradition said to haunt the forests and streams of Vancouver Island, British Columbia. Legend has it that the Bukwus attempts to persuade humans to eat “ghost food”, which will transform them into beings like himself.
Optical illusions aren’t the only artifices which fairies employ in their efforts to capture human travelers. These mischievous beings are also said to physically drag people, especially children and teenagers, to fairyland by conjuring strong winds. If a strong wind picks up suddenly and expectedly on the island, many old Newfoundlanders will suspect it to be a work of the fairies.
There are two methods by which humans can prevent themselves from being carried off by fairy winds. The first is to throw a rock or some other gift in the direction in which the wind is blowing. The second is to repeat the full name of the abductee-to-be backwards. For example, if a boy named John Smith is in the process of being blown away by a fairy wind, his abduction can be halted if he or someone near him repeats the words “Smith, John, Smith, John.”
One startling account of a fairy wind appears in the MUNFLA files, furnished by the subject’s granddaughter. “Her father and herself were picking flowers in a field back of their house on the Southern Shore,” the story goes, “when the little girl was picked up and swept across the meadow at a very fast pace. She wasn’t touching the ground but the heels of her feet brushed the daisies as she swept past. The father turned to see his youngest daughter ‘taken away by the fairies’, as he suspected, and yelled the girl’s name backwards, three times. Immediately the spell was broken and the young child was placed on the ground without harm. Since that time she has had special powers: predictability, an ability to read tea leaves, ESP, all unnatural but stemming possibly from her being ‘taken away’ that afternoon in the meadow.”
The Lingering Effects of Fairy Abduction
Not every Newfoundlander to have a brush with the fairies is as fortunate as the subjects of the aforementioned stories. Many disappear forever, never to be seen again; the fairies may leave some article of their clothing behind as a sign that they are with them in fairyland. Others are later found dead in the wilderness, often in places that have been previously scoured by search parties; sometimes these corpses are found with prematurely white hair, hinting at the possibility that the victims suffered some terrible supernatural shock at the time of their deaths.
Some of those believed to have been taken by fairies eventually return to civilization days, weeks, or months after their abductions. Almost invariably, these survivors return from fairyland inalterably changed in some way, usually for the worse. Most of these unfortunates suffer from extreme personality changes or mental disabilities. Abductees who are naturally talkative and outgoing may return taciturn and antisocial; some develop speech impediments, while others lose the ability to speak entirely. Many are later committed to asylums. Nearly all either refuse to or are unable to describe their time among the fairies.
In addition to mental maladies, some survivors return to civilization bearing deformities or suffering from crippling physical disabilities. Others look subtly, undefinably, yet undeniably different than their former selves. Many die prematurely, often a year or two after their return, bringing the secrets of fairyland with them to the grave.
There is no consensus in Newfoundland as to the cause of the changes seen in fairy abductees. Many believe that the survivors return under the influence of some sinister fairy spell, administered for the purpose of preventing the abductee from revealing the fairies’ secrets. Some suspect that the magic of the fairies is too powerful for mortals to sustainably endure; those touched briefly by the fairies, like the girl who was nearly carried away by the wind, may develop uncanny fairy-like abilities, but those saturated in fairy magic will sustain permanent and irreversible damage. Others suspect returnees to be possessed by fairy spirits, while others still believe them to be fairies themselves, disguised in human form, aping the behavior of the humans they have decided to replace. Whatever the case, most variations of Newfoundland folklore agree that the changes affecting fairy abductees seem to visibly disappear at death.
David Mercer: The Fairy Man
One of the most famous Newfoundland “fairy men” (as returnees from fairyland are sometimes called) was Davy Mercer, a boy who disappeared one day on Bell Island in the 1920s. According to one informant whose account lies in the MUNFLA files:
“My grandfather told me of a fairy happening that he had seen himself. One day in the early 1920s, Poppy and his friends were playing near the woods. They were afraid to go in the woods because they had been warned of the fairies. Suddenly they heard a giggling noise, one that sounded very unusual. Poppy and his friends ran as fast as they could to the nearest house. When they got there they realized that one of the boys was missing: Davy Mercer. They were afraid to go back and look for him, instead they went to the Mercer home and told Davy’s parents. Mr. and Mrs. Mercer gathered up a few more older folks and began to look for Davy. They had no luck in finding him. It was a week or so when he found his own way home. His parents were shocked: their darling little boy, who was completely normal before, was now practically deformed. They pulled sticks, rocks and things from the lumps in their son’s skin. Davy was now mentally and physically disturbed. From that time onward, he was never the same. As he grew older, he became stranger. He walked around [crippled], wearing a long coat and a top hat. He always carried a brief case and tried to sell things; however, no one ever saw what was inside the briefcase.”
Another MUNFLA informant elaborated on the case of Davy Mercer, writing:
“I still persisted to question my father as a non-believer of fairies. He next told me about a man who I personally had known. He was a Mr. David Mercer who lived on Bell Island. He was a short thin man. He walked with a limp, his face was very white and wrinkled, his speech was not a stutter or a stammer but a mixture of the two, and he had a perpetual grin which was horrifying. He was a very awkward and even frightening individual. To see this person would quickly lead one to believe that he had experienced a great shock of some sort. That look of terror was painted on his face. Dad explained what happened to turn a perfectly normal man into such a horrible specimen.”
After relating the story of Mercer’s abduction, which differs slightly from that furnished by the aforementioned informant, the writer claimed that Davy was “found curled up by a tree in a fit of terror. He was crying and mumbling, his clothes were torn and he seemed to be in pain… Many of the people who were present when he was found believe it to be the work of the fairies.”
The Tale of Stuart Taylor
Another well-known fairy man was Stuart Taylor, who hailed from the city of St. John’s. A tiny elfish man with delicate, elfish features, Taylor was said to have been taken by the fairies when he was a boy, only to be returned to civilization a changed man. Locals believed that Taylor had developed uncanny skills as a result of his time with the fairies, such the ability to escape from locked rooms or mysteriously acquire goods and materials. He was a proficient fiddler and tin whistle player, and was said to have learned to play these instruments in fairyland.
Legend has it that Taylor would go into the woods every night to commune with his fairy friends. In the daytime, locals would sometimes see him sitting by himself on a certain well-known ‘fairy rock’ in the woods playing strange, haunting melodies on his tin whistle.
Bride Hall and the Fairy Wind
Another MUNFLA tale which Rieti includes in her book is that of Jack McCall, a farmer from the village of Colliers who was interviewed in 1989 at the age of eighty. McCall recalled an incident which took place when he was a young man. He and his sister went out to collect tree branches when they found a local woman named Bride Hall raking a pile of hay into a cart. “And all of a sudden,” he said, “this squall of wind come and rolled up the pooks together, took them all in one.” Incredibly, Bride Hall flew away with the hay.
Jack and his sister ran home and informed their mother of the incident. Although their mother was skeptical, she and her sister, Mary, headed down to the field to investigate. Sure enough, Bride Hall was nowhere to be found. A thorough search ensued, but without avail; it was as if Bride Hall had disappeared into thin air.
Three days later, the searchers found Bride Hall sitting beside a body of water called Three Island Pond, casually knitting a pair of stockings. “So where’d she get the needles?” McCall asked. “Where’d she get the wool to knit a stocking?”
Bride Hall spent the next seven years bedridden, and refused to tell a soul what had happened to her in the three days which succeeded her disappearance.
The Abduction at Fairy Cove
Another disturbing tale of fairy abduction was told by an old man from Perry’s Cove, located on the western edge of the Avalon Peninsula’s northernmost finger, whose interviewer submitted the tale to the MUNFLA files. In 1932, when the informant was sixteen years old, a little girl of about nine years veered off the beaten path while tobogganing with some of her friends. Her sled carried her into a nearby marsh.
“Several men who were working in the area heard her frantic cries and hurried to help her,” the informant said, “although a short interval elapsed before she was reached. No amount of persuasion could coax her away and finally physical force had to be employed while she kept crying out that she ‘wanted to go back’. They brought her to the priest, who blessed her and tried to allay her hysteria, but she was never really the same afterwards… You couldn’t get her to say anything, and she even had to be told to sit down, otherwise when would remain standing and staring vacantly before her. She was just a young woman when she died, only in her thirties, and in all that time she never got any better.”
Deception and abduction aren’t the only acts of mischief fairies play on humans who trespass on their territory. Every once in a while, Newfoundlanders suffer so-called “fairy blasts” while walking through a forest, foraging in a berry patch, or tramping alongside a marsh. Initially, the sufferer will feel a sharp sting on his or her arm or leg, as if struck by some invisible projectile. The pain gradually worsens, and a tender swollen lump eventually develops at the site of the discomfort. Once excised, the contents of this lump prove to be natural materials like twigs, grass blades, small rocks, thorns, feathers, and fish bones. In many cases, the limb affected by the fairy blast will eventually become partially or completely useless.
If Newfoundland fairies only played their tricks on those who encroached upon their privacy, people who hoped to avoid their pernicious attentions could do so simply by steering clear of bogs, barrens, forests, hills, berry patches, and other locales believed to be popular fairy haunts. Unfortunately, Newfoundland fairies are said to sometimes invade human abodes to torment their inmates. The houses most commonly subjected to these unwanted intrusions are those built on so-called “fairy paths”- thoroughfares which fairies follow when conducting their funerals. Legend has it that on certain foggy nights- especially on October 1st, October 31st, November 2nd, and May 1st– fairies can be seen marching solemnly in file along these paths carrying the coffins of their dead. Those who witness these funerary processions who wish to preserve their sanity are advised to avert their gaze, cover their ears, and inconspicuously leave the vicinity of the path.
The best preventative measure people can take to avoid being harassed by fairies in their own homes is to leave some refreshments- specifically bread and water or milk- on the kitchen table or on the doorstep overnight; fairies who enter the home at night will always avail themselves of this hospitality, leaving their involuntary hosts in peace. Another good practice is to refrain from whistling at night, as fairies are said to be attracted to nocturnal music.
The most heinous crime committed by Newfoundland fairies involves stealing human infants from their cradles, usually when their mothers are not watching them, and replacing them with their own changelings- grotesque, impish, baby-like beings that have faces like elderly men. These changelings rarely live long in their new environments, and when they die, their appearances revert back to those of the original children they replaced.
There are several methods by which parents who find changelings in their babies’ cribs can coerce the fairies to return their real children. The most effective of these is to thrust a shovel into the fire, wait until the blade is red hot, and approach the monstrous infant with the glowing implement. This prompts the changeling to abandon the cradle and flee out the nearest door or window, and the fairies to return the real baby. Parents unwilling to take this desperate measure can treat their infants’ gruesome substitutes with extraordinary warmth and kindness; if the changeling receives sufficient affection, the fairies may return the original child out of gratitude.
One elderly Newfoundland woman named Angela Mason told several changeling stories to an enterprising folklorist, who submitted her accounts to the MUNFLA archive. One of these, involving a family she knew personally, unfolds thus:
“My mother, you know, she was from the Goulds. The people who lived next door… had a baby boy, and he was swapped. He was only just a little baby but he was starting to look just like an old man. The woman’s brother used to live there with them too. He kept telling her the baby was swapped, and wanted to redden the shovel and throw him out, but she wouldn’t hear of it. One day she was in town and there was nobody home, only this brother and the baby. This was his chance. He reddened the shovel in the fireplace and brought it to the side of the crib. Just as he did, the baby flew right up out of the crib and out through the door, and he chasing it with the shovel. When he came back the real baby was back in the crib.”
The following is another Newfoundland changeling story, collected by a folklorist named Wayne Lee Stephenville:
“Alice Ryan was born a nice child, but at two or three weeks of age got cross and ugly, and showed behavior inconsistent with a child of that age… Mrs. Cook was an old woman who lived in Mussel Pond, a community some distance from Riverhead, and the acknowledged authority on supernatural events. Three people from the community of Riverhead set out on the considerable journey cross-country to eventually arrive at Mrs. Cook’s house with the baby and find three cups of tea waiting for them. Mrs. Cook, when presented with the child, said, ‘Give me that!’, threw the child in the bedroom, put a shovel in the stove to heat, and invited her three visitors to sit down to tea. When tea was finished and the shovel was red hot, Mrs. Cook went into the bedroom from which emerged loud cries and shrieking and a noise ‘such as the side was coming out of the house’. Then, after a short period of quiet, Mrs. Cook emerged with a cute baby to announce that all was well.”
Newfoundland tradition contends that parents can protect their infants from being swapped by the fairies by placing breadcrumbs in their cribs; prospective fairy kidnappers who approach the crib will steal these morsels and leave the baby unharmed. Another effective precaution is to place the infant’s crib away from the window, and to ensure that all the windows in the house remain shut.
There is no universal consensus in Newfoundland as to the fairies’ essential nature or physical appearance. One old Irish-Newfoundlandic tradition contends that the fairies are angels who failed to take sides in the War in Heaven- a celestial battle which, according to Christian tradition, was fought at the dawn of time, the combatants being the Heavenly Host loyal to God, captained by St. Michael the Archangel, and the rebellious Fallen Angels, who pledged allegiance to Lucifer. As punishment for their infidelity, God banished the neutral angels to earth, to a twilight realm between Heaven and Hell, and promised them that they would be the last to enter paradise on Judgement Day. Legend has it that their assurance of an eventual place in Heaven is the only thing preventing the fairies from venting their frustration upon the earth and wiping out its human inhabitants.
According to Barbara Rieti, “the fairies are protean beings, appearing here in one form, there another, sometimes changing right before a person’s eyes.” Some Newfoundlanders who claim to have seen fairies describe them as tiny beings no taller than a foot and a half. Most contend that they are the same size as children, while a few believe them to be as large as ordinary human adults. While some ascribe the fairies with youthful, childlike features, others maintain that their countenances are withered and ancient-looking.
Alleged fairy witnesses have furnished many different descriptions of the clothing worn by the little people they encountered. Some fairies have been seen wearing green robes, while others were garbed entirely in gray. Some wore blue suits, while others affected green and red motley. A few are said to have been clad in lily white raiment, evocative of certain huldufolk stories, while others were dressed all in red, like the dwarves of the Madawaska Highlands. Despite the many different descriptions of fairy attire, one remarkable consistency is a red stocking cap which nearly every alleged fairy witness claimed adorned the crania of the little people into which they stumbled.
Why Do We Tell Fairy Stories?
It is tempting to dismiss the ‘little people’ stories of New Iceland, the Madawaska Highlands, the St. Lawrence Valley, and the island of Newfoundland as mere remnants of Old World folklore which European settlers imported into the continent- the product of our less sophisticated ancestors’ attempt to make sense of nuisances, tragedies, and bizarre phenomena for which they had no rational explanation. This comforting idea is challenged by the fact that many First Nations and Native American tribes have ‘little people’ stories of their own which bear remarkable similarities to their European counterparts. I touched on the northernmost of these legends in my 2018 book Legends of the Nahanni Valley. We will explore some more indigenous Canadian ‘little people’ legends in an upcoming series.
- The Saga of Erik the Red
- The Greenlanders’ Saga
- Icelandic-Canadian Oral Narratives (1991), by Magnus Einarrson
- The Icelandic People in Manitoba (1965), by W. Kristjanson
- Vampires, Dwarves, and Witches among the Ontario Kashubs (1972), by Jan Louis Perkowski
- New Studies of Canadian Folklore (1904), by Honore Beaugrand
- Les Lutins (1905), by Louis-Honore Frechette
- Strange Terrain: The Fairy World in Newfoundland (1991), by Barbara Rieti
- Fables, Fairies, and Folklore of Newfoundland (1991), by Alice Lannon and Mike McCarthy