The French Fairy Tale in Newfoundland
Few people today have experienced a living, oral tale tradition, particularly that of the wonder tale or
fairy tale. The term as it is used today suggests tales for children, and the stories are probably best
known through Walt Disney films based on versions published in Perrault or by the Grimm Brothers.
Before mass media, universal education or generalized literacy, however, popular culture was
dominated by the spoken word, and in oral cultures, the wonder-tale (or fairy tale) provided people in
general and adults in particular with the joys of narrative art.
The French of Newfoundland's West Coast had until recently a rich repertoire of fairy tales, brought
with them from France or Acadia. From the establishment, at the beginning of the nineteenth century, of
the earliest francophone communities on the west coast of the island of Newfoundland, people were
accustomed to get together from time to time during the long winter evenings, for a veillée, or social
gathering, at which they would listen to and appreciate the narrative art of a well-known storyteller.
These gatherings were an expression of a long narrative tradition; some tales collected on the Peninsula
have been found in literary versions from India dating to some three thousand years ago.
Similar tales might be told in the private, or family tradition, but public narration at a veillée was the
domain of the specialist. Observing the telling of a tale by a well-known storyteller was as artistically
appealing to the audience as a performance by noted actors of a fine play might be today. The
comparison between a storyteller in a lamp-lit kitchen and an actor on a theatre stage is deliberate,
because both are giving an artistic performance, and to a certain degree use the same tricks of the
In general terms, and by present-day standards, fairy tales were very long. A narrator might begin his
tale at eight in the evening and finish it some three hours later. To capture and keep his audience's
attention, he needed not only skill and powers of endurance, but also a stock of narrative techniques
Fairy tales possess a strong repetitive element. Episodes and events are often in triplicate - for
example, if the devil imposes tasks upon the hero, there will be three tasks to perform. In one tale the
hero is required to empty a pond with a wicker basket full of holes, to chop down a forest with a paper
axe, and to climb to the top of a glass tower and retrieve an egg. Elsewhere in the tale, the hero and
heroine, fleeing the devil, stop three times to transform into different people or objects in order to trick
their pursuer. The tales are full of triple elements, and the omission of one or two would be detrimental
to the story.
The language of the fairy tales is formulaic. From the beginning - "Once upon a time, and a good time it
was..." to the conventional end, "...and if they're not dead, they're living yet" - formulaic phrases are
scattered throughout the tale. They fulfill many functions, for example to express the passage of time
("He walked and walked and walked, for three days and three nights...").
The tale's repetitive elements and its stereotyped speech are constituents of its "text", but the oral text
does not have a fixed and absolute form: it has as many versions as there are performances of it. When
one oral text is recorded and subsequently put down on paper, the reader may think that he or she has
the definitive version. Although the good storyteller will do his best to remain faithful to his own version
of a given tale, the recorded version may itself be incomplete, a variety of factors having influenced its
performance, including the narrative context, and even the storyteller's memory.
The language, the repetitive elements and the structure of events are all parts of the story, but it is the
storyteller's performance that brings the tale to life. The public storyteller typically performed in a
kitchen lit by coal-oil lamps; with adults seated on benches and chairs; perhaps some children on the
floor. An important element in a tale's performance is the interaction between the storyteller and his
audience. The storyteller is physically very close to his hearers. Most were inclined to use exuberant
physical gestures to illustrate the actions of a tale's characters, and the audience had to be careful of the
storyteller's movements, lest he step on feet or catch someone with the sweep of an imaginary sword
clenched in an all-too-real fist.
The storyteller used all the techniques of the dramatic actor: a wide vocal range, pauses for effect,
elastic facial expressions, but the artistry of the performance art was probably most evident in the use of
dialogue. In fairy tales there are never more than two characters at a time involved in conversation, and
the gifted storyteller was always able to put into the mouths of his characters the most lively and spirited
exchanges typical of everyday talk, full of humour, wisdom, malice. It is dialogue, more than anything
else, which most enlivens a tale. Dialogue also serves to lengthen the narrative, and when tales were
important to people, the longer the tale, the more it was enjoyed.
The private, or family tradition, which still lives today, is both similar to and different from the public
tradition. The same tales could be heard in both private and public contexts; and the physical context
could be the same kitchen, but the differences are much more numerous. One the one hand, the one
who tells the story in the family tradition does not think of him or herself as a "storyteller." He or she
does not follow the rules of the public tradition: episodes may be omitted or shortened; triple repetition
can become double repetition or no repetition at all; formulas can be abridged or omitted altogether;
grand gestures are usually absent, and the narrator's voice may be quiet and monotonous. It is not a
dramatic performance, rather and at times a badly recalled recitation.
Between these two extremes there were of course private or family storytellers who were very good
narrators, respecting, as far as they were able, the rules of the storyteller's art; yet such individuals did
not enjoy a reputation as storytellers in the wider community, nor did they aspire to it. The crucial
difference between the two traditions, of course is in the audience. In a public veillée, the audience was
made up of adults (including post-pubertal youths); the presence of children was tolerated as long as
they kept quiet. During the evening, comings and goings were frowned upon, as were untimely
interruptions. In the private or family tradition, informality reigns: children run about, stopping for an
instant to listen to grand-mother or grand-father; listeners comment to one another, there are exchanges
between storyteller and audience; there are pauses, full stops, corrections made.
However, it was with the family tales that young listeners took their first steps towards knowledge and
appreciation of an adult activity, the art of storytelling. And the the family member who was introducing
them to the community repertoire might say, "I don't know how to tell stories - but just wait until you
see so-and-so! Now he's a storyteller! He can tell stories!" and the children would await the day when
they could take part in an adult veillée, to see, at last, a real storyteller practising his art.
The veillée began to disappear first with the arrival of the battery radio, and the disappearance was
accelerated by the coming of electricity at the beginning of the 1960s, and the advent of television.
Television more than any other factor turned people from the veillée, at first because of its novelty, later
because of its convenience. Television also introduced a new element to the narrative regime: suspense.
Audiences knew the fairy tales well, and their interest was maintained by the storyteller's art of dramatic
performance. Television soap operas, a genre which more than any other seems to have captured
former fans of the fairy tale, are certainly formulaic but they are structured to draw the viewer back
from episode to episode by skilful use of suspense.
Other factors also militated against the old-style veillée. The opening of the American Air Force base
at Stephenville in 1941 caused many men to leave their home communities for employment. When
fathers were away from home, wives and mothers did not go alone to social events as a rule. Later,
when new roads were built and old ones paved, people were able to visit at a distance with greater
ease. The opening of clubs and bars with their social life provided new temptations, and by the end of
the 1970s it was difficult, if not entirely impossible, to meet storytellers who had performed at an old-style veillée. It was only in private, or in family groups, that fairy tales continued to be told, and still are
© 1998, Gerald Thomas