May 02, 2019

Peg Bearskin: A traditional Newfoundland folktale

As told by Mrs. Elizabeth Brewer
Adapted by Philip Dinn and Andy Jones
Illustrated by Denise Gallagher
Running the Goat, Books & Broadsides
44 pp.
All ages
February 2019

Peg Bearskin may be big and ugly and hairy but she's clever and that gumption and canniness make all the difference to her life and those of others.
From Peg Bearskin, illus. by Denise Gallagher
Peg Bearskin is one of three daughters but, alas, her sisters are "pretty as ever the sun shined on" and Peg Bearskin is not. As they grow older, her sisters, like many people, want nothing to do with Peg but she persists in following them. It's lucky for them that she does as, when they spend the night at the home of an old woman, Peg's instincts and exploration lead her to discover the woman to be a witch who possesses a decanter that never empties, a lantern that shines for half a mile without fuel, and a swift horse with magic bells for wishing. Realizing that the witch intends to kill her sisters, Peg tricks the old woman and the three escape. 

When the three siblings get older, Peg goes to see a king with three marriageable sons. She promises the decanter to him if he'd allow her oldest sister to marry his oldest son. She only asks for a handful of pepper to achieve her task of acquiring the decanter for him. While the witch's old man uses the decanter, Peg throws the pepper at him and grabs the pitcher.  Similarly, she steals the lantern to secure a husband for her other sister. Finally, she does the same for herself, using a knife and saw to steal the horse with its magical bells.
From Peg Bearskin, illus. by Denise Gallagher
But, the third son is distraught to be married to Peg. Recognizing that perhaps making a wish on a bell might give him what he wants, Peg shares with him the secret of the bells, upon which he wishes for Peg to be beautiful. And, though the reader will see that Peg does not appear to be any different, the prince, who has turned big, ugly and hairy himself, sees Peg as "the most beautiful woman that water ever wet or the sun ever shined on."

Peg Bearskin may focus on Peg's appearance as defining how she is seen but it supersedes that characterization by showcasing how clever she is. She doesn't need to be beautiful in the same terms of her sisters, and Peg Bearskin justifies the phrase that beauty is in the eyes of the beholder because Peg is beautiful by her astuteness. Even in the end, when her husband wishes her to be beautiful, it's not her that must change. 
From Peg Bearskin, illus. by Denise Gallagher
This traditional Newfoundland folktale is derived from Mrs. Elizabeth Brewer's story told to a folklore student in 1976 and is part of the Memorial University of Newfoundland Folklore and Language Archive (MUNFLA) and shared in multiple editions of books on the folktales of Newfoundland. Philip Dinn and Andy Jones adapted it for a storytelling play in the late 1990s and several versions have been published over the years. This edition, illustrated by Louisiana artist Denise Gallagher, lends a folk art feel to the story. With its earthy green tones and beet red touches, Peg Bearskin becomes a true reflection of the folklife of Newfoundland while continuing to focus on the message that beauty should be accepted in its different manifestations. It's storytelling that can be heard in the Newfoundland vernacular of "mudder" and "et" and "spose" and in the supernatural elements of wishing for children, an evil witch, and magical phenomena. There is beauty in all of it and most of all in Peg Bearskin herself.

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