There is a quote that I have seen attributed to various people and cultures, which states, “When an old man dies, a library burns down."
Storytelling is part of being human. We are all made of stories, and we spend our lifetimes telling and collecting them. And when someone passes away, a lot of those stories are lost forever. For me, as a folklorist and storyteller, it is one of the hardest part of losing a person.
Last Thursday, storyteller and author Alice Lannon passed away at the Palliative Care Unit of the Miller Centre here in St. John's. Her stories will be missed.
In 2010, when Newfoundland hosted the Storytellers of Canada/Conteurs du Canada national conference, Alice was one of the gems of storytelling who was showcased. That session was recorded, and today, those stories are part of the permanent collection on Memorial University's Digital Archives Initiative.
Lannon was one of the last great tellers of traditional Newfoundland fairytales in the province, who learned many of her stories orally from her grandmother.
“My grandmother claimed that the fairies were fallen angels,” she told the hundred-plus storytellers who had gathered in 2010 to hear her speak. “When Lucifer defied God, and when he was cast into Hell as the Devil, the others were cast in with him, who went with him. There was another bunch who stayed with God, so they were the good angels. Another bunch did nothing. They didn’t go with God or with Lucifer, so he couldn’t have them in heaven, so he threw them out into an underground.”
“Now, they all had the power of good and evil; they were powerful angels,” explained Lannon.
As a result, according to Lannon, the fairies could be either good or evil, and in her stories, she demonstrated how they could do both, as their whims suited them.
In one story of the good fairies, Lannon related how a five-year-old girl named Anne-Marie went berry picking with her family near Placentia on September. The girl went around a hill, and vanished from her parents’ sight.
“As it was getting dark, they had searched and called, with no answer,” described Lannon. “So they went back to Placentia and got their friends to come in with lights and hunted all night, with no sign of Anne-Marie.”
Five or six days later, a local man who had been living in the United States returned to the community. As he drove past the spot where the girl had vanished, his driver told him how the townspeople had been looking for her body, since she had not been seen for days.
“The man was watching,” explained Lannon, “and as they passed the gravel pit, he said, ‘There’s a little girl in there sitting on a stump!’ and so the man went back and sure enough, she said she was Anne-Marie, and she was waiting for her parents. They took her, and they said they would bring her to her parents. So she went with them.”
“When they brought her down to her parents’ home, they were so overjoyed,” said Lannon. “They couldn’t believe they would ever see their little girl again. Her hair was no tangles in it, her socks were as white as snow, her dress was clean.
The girl attributed her good condition to the fact she had been taken care of by the fairies.
“She told them that just before dark, when she was looking for them (her parents), three little strange-looking people came towards her, took her by the hand, and they took her to a big tree, where there was bushes,” said Lannon. “They parted the bushes, where there was a ladder, and they went down in the underground. A cosy spot down there! The older one, she figured she was the grandmother fairy, she rocked her and sang to her, and she cried because she was missing her parents. They were all nice to her, and sang songs, and made pancakes for her, out of special flour for her, and they fed her.”
“That day, the fifth day, the grandmother said to her, you go out to the gravel pit and sit near the road, on the tree stump, and you’ll be found,” said Lannon. “So that’s what she did!”