Blast Those Little Fellas: The Fairy Folklore of Newfoundland
written by: Nicole Silvester
• edited by: Elizabeth Stannard Gromisch
• updated: 9/11/2012
It's often assumed — even by folklorists — that there aren’t any fairies in North America. The Good People are thought to be a purely European sort of supernatural creature. But that isn’t so. Newfoundland was settled by people who brought their lore — if not their actual fairies — with them.
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Folklore scholar Richard M. Dorson has written that the people of the British Isles did not bring their fairies with them when they settled in North America, because fairies are nature spirits of a sort, and “rooted in the soil" of their native countries. But fairy folklore itself posits several different possible origins for these beings, and the one most common in Newfoundland communities is that when the angels rebelled in Heaven, many of them fell to Hell, but when God slammed shut the Heavenly gates, the gates to Hell closed also, trapping many angels on the Earthly plane. Those former denizens of Heaven became fairies, and lived wherever on Earth they landed.
In other words, there could be fairies anywhere, so the people who settled in Newfoundland found them already there. The fact that Newfoundland culture remained very similar to the traditional structure of the places they settlers had left (unlike those who moved into large urban centers, for example), meant that existing folklore easily adapted to the new situation.
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In Newfoundland, the fairies are often referred to as the “Little Fellas" or the “Little People," and it’s meant as a literal description. They are two feet tall, or perhaps four feet tall, or the size of a child (or sometimes they are a child). They might be tiny men with long beards and pointed caps, or they might be faceless boys or beautiful women in white. In some stories, the distinction between the fairies and the dead is not always clear.
Whatever shape they might take, the fairies of Newfoundland are not generally friendly towards humans. Usually, they are as indifferent as the landscape they inhabit, but cross them, or even disturb them by accident, and you can expect retribution. There are, of course, traditional precautions to be taken. Bread carried in the pocket was always a good idea when venturing out into the woods. It might be used as an offering, to allow the human to escape, or it might simply ward off the heathen spirits as a representation of the Host — Christian objects were thought in many cultures to have power against malevolent beings of all kinds.
The other sure way to escape the fairies was to turn an article of clothing inside out. Perhaps this confused the Good People. In Newfoundland, it was commonly the cap (a fisherman’s cap was a common article of clothing until quite recent times) that was turned, but one’s jacket or anything else that could be quickly got off, reversed and put back on would do.
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In Newfoundland, berry-picking was (and for some folks, still is) an important economic activity. While the men fished and cut wood and built houses, the women cooked and cleaned and gardened. And in late summer or early autumn, the women and older children picked berries. Berries were a nice thing for the family to eat, and they could be sold to the local merchant for store credit — and since Newfoundland functioned on a credit-based economy for much of its history, that could be a significant contribution to a family’s economic well-being.
Berry-picking meant leaving the village or town and heading out into wild areas. Berries, depending on the species, grow on bogs and barrens, places outside of direct human control. Areas like these — the woods and the wilds — were the fairies’ domain and tales of people out berrying or cutting wood being led astray by the fairies are common. Often, a person might hear their name called or see someone they thought they knew and follow, only to be found hours or days or even weeks later, dirty and ragged, with no memory of how they came to be miles away from where they should. Or if they did remember, they swore they’d only being having a chat with some nice fellow and surely only 10 minutes had passed.
Being under the power of the Good People was called being “in the fairies," and while sometimes the person lost might come home not too much the worse for wear, they might not be so lucky. They could be aged far beyond their years, or crippled, or a little mad. Or they might be suffering from the Blast.
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The “Blast" is the Newfoundland term for what is sometimes know as being “elf-shot" or “elf-struck." It’s when a person is struck by something — an object, or maybe only a supernatural wind — that leaves them with an injury. It usually happens when someone is outside the human realm and accidentally or even deliberately does something to disturb the fairies. Sometimes the fairies themselves offer the person a drink or some other item deliberately to tempt them into a transgression.
Where the object or wind struck the person, an injury develops. It might be only a pain or a bruise, but it might grow worse every day until the wound festers. When it is lanced, all sorts of noxious things may spew out of the wound, like bones and hair and bits of string. If the person is very lucky, the wound will heal, but usually even if it closes up and heals over, the person is left lame or crippled.
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Many of the stories of fairies are localized versions of tales that originated in the same lands that the ancestors of the people of Newfoundland came from. But they have a certain Newfie twist that makes them unique, too. That fairy folklore has been as important as any other folkloric or historical element in the development of Newfoundland culture is obvious simply from looking at a map. Place names like “Ferryland" (which may derived from an older Portuguese name, or may be an alternate spelling of “Fairyland"), “Brownies Flat" and “Fairy Meadow" are common. There absolutely are fairies in Newfoundland, or there were until very recently.
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Dorson, Richard M. American Folklore and the Historian. University of Chicago Press, 1971.
Narváez, Peter. “Newfoundland Berry Pickers ‘In the Fairies’: Maintaining Spatial, Temporal, and Moral Boundaries Through Legendry." The Good People: New Fairylore Essays. Edited by Peter Narváez. University Press of Kentucky, 1997. Pp. 336-367.
Pocius, Gerald L. A Place to Belong: Community Order and Everyday Space in Calvert, Newfoundland. McGill-Queen’s University Press, 1991.
Rieti, Barbara. Strange Terrain: The Fairy World in Newfoundland. ISER, 1991.
Rieti, Barbara. “‘The Blast’ in Newfoundland Fairy Tradition." The Good People: New Fairylore Essays. Edited by Peter Narváez. University Press of Kentucky, 1997. Pp. 284-297.
Silvester, Niko. “There’s A Piece Wad Please a Brownie": A Comparative Study of Offerings to the Fairies in Traditional Cultures and Contemporary Earth-Centred Religions. MA Thesis, Memorial University of Newfoundland, 1999.