Post-Industrial Folklore Beasties: Knockers and Gremlins

We are a technological species; we may or may not be smarter than the other mammals still hanging on, but we’ve definitely left a physical mark on the planet that gave us birth.

Perhaps too much of a mark; but that is a different discussion.

The point that I am making is there are certain mythologies that can only exist in a modern context; their set and setting requires technology to make sense of their existence.

Alien? Check. Terminator? Double Check.

Neo from the Matrix? Triple Check.

The Borg? The Daleks? Darth Vader?

How many checks do you want?

These are narratives that demand a techno-supernatural background/environment to work as stories.

The thing is, we understand these are works of fiction…

What happens when a Post-Modern, Post-Industrial Revolution society starts updating its own myths and folk traditions?

Surprisingly, unlike the majority of beings already mentioned, these new minted nightmares of the early to mid 20th century were distinguishable from their clearly fictional counterparts in one interesting aspect:

These creatures were Luddites.

[Luddites were anti-technology English textile workers who took to sabotaging machinery in the early 1800s; from then on, anyone who stands in the way of “progress” has been deemed a Luddite].


Digging in the Dirt: Knockers

Also called Knockers, Knackers, Bwcas (Welsh), Buccas (Cornish) or Tommyknockers (US (thank you, Stephen King)) is a being that might be described as a mischievous leprechaun. In the Cornish traditions,  theses creatures are diminutive, with big heads, extended arms and aged faces and beards. They are known to play pranks on miners, for instance, stealing or misplacing their unguarded tools and food.

Here’s where the opinion on Knockers gets mixed:

Right before a mine collapsed, the miners would hear rhythmic banging. Today, we assume this to be the sound of the earth shifting, but for many miners, this meant one of two things:

Either, it was the Knockers giving a warning notice, or…

It was the sound of the Knockers bashing down the support columns ahead, leading to the collapse…

Take your pick.

Either way, this legend of the miners traveled to the New World, and affected mining culture at least through the 1950s [this regards an incident where local “Cousin Jacks” –  Cornish settler miners with a knack for escaping collapses – protested a mine closure until the Knockers could get out. The owners complied.]

Also, a custom of discarding the crust from a Corwall pasty developed among miners as a way of appeasing the Knockers; apparently the crimped over portion of the crust was enough to satisfy the hungry beastites.

[Pasties enjoy many a literary reference; one of the earliest was in the 12th century C.E. by the famed Arthurian romance writer, Chrétien de Troyes. In his novel Erec and Enide, the characters eat pasties in what is now known as Cornwall]

Another more straightforward theory holds that the crimped crust was to give the miners a handle, especially to help prevent arsenic poisoning among tin miners, whose fingers were often contaminated…

I prefer the Knockers theory myself .


There’s a Monster on the Wing: Gremlins

Typically, Gremlins have a thing for causing mechanical failure on airplanes.

Some have argued that this served a psychological function for Allied air crews, shifting the blame from fellow airmen to semi-demonic creatures. Personally, I like the idea of spike-hair backed, big eyed, sharp toothed creatures taking the credit for all manor of disaster, big, small, Allied and Axis.

The earliest extant printed reference to Gremlins comes from 1929. Etymologies have ranged from Old English (gremian, to vex) to a combination of a beer manufacturer and Grimm’s Fairy Tales (the beer maker in question is Fremlin Beer).

WW II American Gremlin Warning poster, U.S. National Archives and Records Administration. There are dangers to drinking too much Fremlin.


So are Tommyknockers here to help or hinder?

Do Gremlins take sides in armed conflict, or they are merely interested in breaking things?

What’s the take-away?


Probably just this: As much as we may fear new technology, we fear old, familiar technology failing us even more.

Any creature that can actually weaponize our own technology against us is intrinsically frightening (Star Trek‘s Borg, the re-imagined Battlestar Galactica Cylons, 2001: A Space Odyssey‘s Hal 9000 – the list goes on).

So given that, Tommyknockers and Gremlins should scare us; much like the Artificial Intelligences that are starting to come on-line, they might choose to warn us, even help us…

Or they might choose to watch the whole plane go down, giggling maniacally all the way to impact.

Unfortunately, we don’t get a say in this matter,

Which is all the more reason to be scared…

My advice: leave a little pasty crust behind for the Knockers…

grmelin bugs
Bugs Bunny in “Falling Hare” (1943) – Looney Tunes Classic Animated Cartoon. Gremlin on the left.







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