Folktales of Newfoundland: The Resilience of the Oral Tradition Essay

June 6, 2022 by Essay Writer


The book Folktales of Newfoundland: The Resilience of the Oral Tradition, created by the efforts of Herbert Halpert and J. D. A. Widdowson, provides an outstanding example of scholarly work. A collection of folk tales gathered from the representatives of the population of the island of Newfoundland, the book in the most precise manner reproduces the stories told by the people. The research was carried out with incredible rigor and thoroughness, and, apart from being a discovery itself, provides grounds for further studies of the culture both on Newfoundland and in the international context.

Authors and History of the Book’s Creation

Folktales of Newfoundland was first published in 1996 (Halpert and Widdowson ii). Written by Herbert Halpert, who was a famous American scholar and a prominent folklore researcher (Smith and Widdowson 211-214), and J. D. A. Widdowson, an influential scholar who is currently a Professor and the Head of the Institute for Folklore Studies in Britain and Canada at the University of Sheffield, England (The University of Sheffield n. pag.), the book obtained many positive reviews.

It was reprinted a number of times; the latest reprinting was published in 2015. The creation of the book took the authors and their assistants more than three decades; during 1964-1996, the authors rigorously collected, recorded, transcribed and analyzed numerous folktales told by people from the island of Newfoundland (Simpson 117) in order to provide the future readers with one of the most thorough collections of folklore written in the 20th century (Leary 581).

Summary of the Book

The text of the book begins with a lengthy introduction. The introduction provides the reader with ample information that is useful in order to work with the folk tales offered further. It supplies a short description of the history of the book’s creation, then supplies some details about the historical background of Newfoundland, as well as tells the reader about the settings in which the tales are generally told in this region, and about the storytellers themselves. Theoretical background for understanding and interpreting the tales is also supplied; the methods of collecting, recording, transcribing and processing the folk lore are explained.

The next part of the book, its main part, is comprised of 150 different folklore stories that were collected by the authors during their research. The transcription of the texts is aimed at maximally precise reproduction of the tale as it was told by the representative of the Newfoundland’s population. The storyteller’s pauses are shown by ellipses; all the contractions, phonetic peculiarities, differences in the tone, etc., are demonstrated punctuationally.

Each story is followed by a detailed description of the setting in which it was told, the teller’s attitude and style, the atmosphere in which the story was delivered, the peculiarities of the language that was employed, the duration of the recording, the audience who listened to the teller, and so on. In addition, parallels to the international context are provided, as well as comprehensive bibliographical lists of other similar tales and research related to them; the authors “systematically list and succinctly discuss both published and archived versions of each tale, with particular attention to kindred renditions from England, Ireland, and North America” (Leary 581).

Finally, the book presents fragments of texts that were not told completely by the interviewees, and notes on them. The authors also provide the readers with a list of supplementary references, biographical descriptions of the 69 storytellers, and the bibliography used for the research.


As it is possible to see, the book is a result of a scrupulous, thorough research that took the authors much time and effort to be carried out. The rigor with which the materials were collected and transcribed from the sound recordings can be called astonishing; every hesitation, every pause or change in tone made by the storyteller appears to be reflected in the book. It is stated that Folktales of Newfoundland, in fact, provides a sample of a practically ideal research; such quality is very rarely even approximated by the studies of representatives of the modern academic environment, and it might be considered an example to be followed in text collection and transcription (Simpson 117).

The scrupulous labor of the researchers was aimed at “recovering and characterizing the extant Märchen tradition of English-speaking Newfoundlanders” (Halpert and Widdowson xviii), and it is possible to state that the study was incredibly fruitful. It is stressed that the communities of Newfoundland were, in fact, largely isolated from the outside world due to the fact that the island, until recent times, could only have been reached by boat, which led to the conservation of certain elements of English and Irish folk cultures; these elements were discovered by the study (Leary 580). It is worth pointing out that the very existence of such folklore was perhaps not even known to the researchers of literature and folklore, so by publishing Folktales of Newfoundland the authors made, in fact, a whole new discovery (Simpson 117).

It is interesting to note that the labor of Halpert and Widdowson has provided the scholarly community with additional materials that can be used in order to describe and reflect upon the everyday life of the population of Newfoundland. It is observed that the social situation on the isle was persistently tough; the unemployment rates were among the highest in North America, and the people were forced to survive by taking part in numerous activities aimed at providing them with food, such as farming, fishing, and constantly looking for various types of seasonal jobs (Lovelace 149-150). In relation to this, Lovelace argues that the tales collected in Newfoundland are “deliberate, albeit sometimes coded, representations of the ‘master and man’ employment relationship” (149). The author carries out a structural analysis of the texts collected by Halpert and Widdowson and concludes that these tales are “’workers’ literature…’ imbued with a regional history of class exploitation and antagonism” (Lovelace 167).

Another discovery that was made possible thanks the work accomplished by the authors of the book is related to the rather widespread assumption that the pool of English folk lore does not include a large number of diverse Märchen, tales, that can commonly be found in collections of folk lore from other countries (Widdowson 19). As it was already pointed out, the isolation of Newfoundland resulted in conservation of some aspect of Irish and English culture (Leary 580); so, it is argued that the presence of such tales in the oral tradition of the island of Newfoundland clearly shows that they also existed in the English folk lore tradition (Widdowson 19-20).

On the whole, it should be stressed that the rigorous research conducted by the authors of Folktales of Newfoundland offered an important discovery about the peculiarities of the culture of the island, as well as provided firm grounds for more extensive research of folk cultures in the international context.


It is rather hard to find disadvantages and weaknesses in such a comprehensive and scrupulous study as was carried out in Folktales of Newfoundland; however, perhaps it is still worth providing some criticism. One disadvantage that might be considered major is related to the fact that most storytellers whose tales were gathered by Halpert and Widdowson are men (Simpson 117). This fact makes it impossible to use the collection of tales in order to conduct research, e.g., on the role of women in the Newfoundland society, on their perceptions on life, etc.

Another possible issue is related to the fact that the texts given in the book are rather hard to read. However, this is a minor problem, if even a problem at all; the book presents the results of an academic research, and this format allows for a deeper analysis of the materials. It is clear that, should there arise a need, the tales can easily be adapted to non-academic reading.


To sum up, it ought to be stressed that Folktales of Newfoundland can be considered an exemplary study of folk lore. Its thoroughness and precision allow for detailed analysis of the local culture from a number of points of view. Despite the fact that the tales were collected mainly from men, the research provides a unique contribution to the pool of scholarly knowledge that not only allows for subsequent studies of the culture on the island of Newfoundland but also supplies materials that can be used for examining folk lore in the international context.

Works Cited

Halpert, Herbert, and J. D. A. Widdowson. Folktales of Newfoundland: The Resilience of the Oral Tradition. New York, NY: Routledge, 2015. Print.

Leary, James P. “Folktales of Newfoundland: The Resilience of the Oral Tradition.” Journal of American Folklore 112 (1999): 580-581. ProQuest. Web. 25 Feb. 2016.

Lovelace, Martin. “Jack and His Masters: Real Worlds and Tale Worlds in Newfoundland Folktales.” Journal of Folklore Research 38.1 (2001): 149-170,176,178. ProQuest.

Simpson, Jacqueline. “Folktales of Newfoundland: The Resilience of the Oral Tradition.” Folklore 109 (1998): 117-118. ProQuest.

Smith, Paul, and J. D. A. Widdowson. “In Memoriam: Herbert Halpert, 1911-2000.” Folklore 112.2 (2001): 211-215. ProQuest.

The University of Sheffield. Heads of Research Units. n.d.

Widdowson, J. D. A. “Folktales in Newfoundland Oral Tradition: Structure, Style, and Performance.” Folklore 120.1 (2009): 19-35. EBSCOhost.

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