A gremlin is a mischievous folkloric creature invented at the beginning of the 20th century to originally explain malfunctions in aircraft, and later in other machinery, processes, and their operators. Depictions of these creatures vary widely. Stories about them and references to them as the causes of especially inexplicable technical and mental problems of pilots were especially popular during and after World War II.
Use of the term in the sense of a mischievous creature that sabotages aircraft first arose in Royal Air Force (RAF) slang among British pilots stationed in Malta, the Middle East, and India in the 1920s, with the earliest printed record in a poem published in the journal Aeroplane in Malta on 10 April 1929. Later sources have sometimes claimed that the concept goes back to World War I, but there is no print evidence of this.[N 1]
There is evidence of earlier RAF reference in the 1920s to a lowly menial person, in other words a low-ranking officer or enlisted man saddled with oppressive assignments.
Although their origin is found in myths among airmen claiming that gremlins were responsible for sabotaging aircraft, the folklorist John W. Hazen states that some people derive the name from the Old English word gremian, "to vex", while Carol Rose, in her book Spirits, Fairies, Leprechauns, and Goblins: An Encyclopedia, attributes the name to a portmanteau of Grimm's Fairy Tales and Fremlin Beer. According to Paul Quinion, it is plausible that the term is a blend of the word "goblin" with the name of the manufacturer of the most common beer available in the RAF in the 1920s, Fremlin.
An early reference to the gremlin is in aviator Pauline Gower's 1938 novel The ATA: Women with Wings, where Scotland is described as "gremlin country", a mystical and rugged territory where scissor-wielding gremlins cut the wires of biplanes when unsuspecting pilots were about. An article by Hubert Griffith in the servicemen's fortnightly Royal Air Force Journal dated 18 April 1942, also chronicles the appearance of gremlins, although the article states the stories had been in existence for several years, with later recollections of it having been told by Battle of Britain Spitfire pilots as early as 1940.
This concept of gremlins was popularized during World War II among airmen of the Royal Air Force (RAF) units, in particular the men of the high-altitude Photographic Reconnaissance Units (PRU) of RAF Benson, RAF Wick and RAF St Eval. The flight crews blamed gremlins for otherwise inexplicable accidents which sometimes occurred during their flights. Gremlins were also thought at one point to have enemy sympathies, but investigations revealed that enemy aircraft had similar and equally inexplicable mechanical problems. As such, gremlins were portrayed as equal opportunity tricksters, taking no sides in the conflict, but acting out their mischief from their own self-interest. In reality, the gremlins were a form of "buck passing" or deflecting blame. This led John Hazen to note that "the gremlin has been looked on as new phenomenon, a product of the machine age – the age of air". The concept of gremlins as a scapegoat was important to the morale of pilots according to the author and historian Marlin Bressi:
"Gremlins, while imaginary, played a very important role to the airmen of the Royal Air Force. Gremlin tales helped build morale among pilots, which, in turn, helped them repel the Luftwaffe invasion during the Battle of Britain during the summer of 1940. The war may have had a very different outcome if the R.A.F. pilots had lost their morale and allowed Germany's plans for Operation Sea Lion (the planned invasion of the U.K.) to develop. In a way, it could be argued that gremlins, troublesome as they were, ultimately helped the Allies win the war." Bressi also noted: "Morale among the R.A.F. pilots would have suffered if they pointed the finger of blame at each other. It was far better to make the scapegoat a fantastic and comical creature than another member of your own squadron."
Examples of Gremlins can be seen in the IBCC Digital Archive.
World War II posters warning of gremlins
British author Roald Dahl is credited with getting the gremlins known outside the Royal Air Force. He would have been familiar with the myth, having carried out his military service in 80 Squadron of the Royal Air Force in the Middle East. Dahl had his own experience in an accidental crash-landing in the Western Desert when he ran out of fuel. In January 1942, he was transferred to Washington, D.C. as Assistant Air attaché at the British Embassy. It was there that he wrote his first children's novel, The Gremlins, in which "Gremlins" were tiny men who lived on RAF fighters. In the same novel, Dahl called the wives of gremlins "Fifinellas", their male children "Widgets", and their female children "Flibbertigibbets". Dahl showed the finished manuscript to Sidney Bernstein, the head of the British Information Service, who came up with the idea to send it to Walt Disney.[N 2]
The manuscript arrived in Disney's hands in July 1942, and he considered using it as material for a live action/animated full-length feature film, offering Dahl a contract.[N 3] The film project was changed to an animated feature and entered pre-production, with characters "roughed out" and storyboards created. Disney managed to have the story published in the December 1942 issue of Cosmopolitan magazine. At Dahl's urging, in early 1943, a revised version of the story, again titled The Gremlins, was published as a picture book by Random House. (It was later updated and re-published in 2006 by Dark Horse Comics).[N 4]
The 1943 publication of The Gremlins by Random House consisted of 50,000 copies, with Dahl ordering 50 copies for himself as promotional material for himself and the upcoming film, handing them out to everyone he knew, including the British ambassador in Washington Lord Halifax, and the US First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt who read it to her grandchildren. The book was considered an international success with 30,000 more sold in Australia but initial efforts to reprint the book were precluded by a wartime paper shortage. Reviewed in major publications, Dahl was considered a writer-of-note and his appearances in Hollywood to follow up with the film project were met with notices in Hedda Hopper's columns.[N 5]
The film project was reduced to an animated short and eventually cancelled in August 1943, when copyright and RAF rights could not be resolved. But thanks mainly to Disney, the story had its share of publicity, which helped in introducing the concept to a wider audience. Issues #33–41 of Walt Disney's Comics and Stories published between June 1943 and February 1944 contained a nine-episode series of short silent stories featuring a Gremlin Gus as their star. The first was drawn by Vivie Risto, and the rest of them by Walt Kelly. This served as their introduction to the comic book audience as they are human gremlins who lived in their own village as little flying human people.
While Roald Dahl was famous for making gremlins known worldwide, many returning Air Servicemen swear they saw creatures tinkering with their equipment. One crewman swore he saw one before an engine malfunction that caused his B-25 Mitchell bomber to rapidly lose altitude, forcing the aircraft to return to base. Folklorist Hazen likewise offers his own alleged eyewitness testimony of these creatures, which appeared in an academically praised and peer-reviewed publication, describing an occasion he found "a parted cable which bore obvious tooth marks in spite of the fact that the break occurred in a most inaccessible part of the plane". At this point, Hazen states he heard "a gruff voice" demand, "How many times must you be told to obey orders and not tackle jobs you aren't qualified for? – This is how it should be done." Upon which Hazen heard a "musical twang" and another cable was parted.
Critics of this idea state that the stress of combat and the dizzying heights caused such hallucinations, often believed to be a coping mechanism of the mind to help explain the many problems aircraft faced whilst in combat.
|In The Gremlins||In Sometime Never|
|Habitat||Formerly in the prima forest and swamps of England, later in hangars (the Spandules, a different breed of Gremlins, live in clouds)||In one forest in England before the Industrial Revolution then moved underground|
|Food source||Used postage stamps||Snozzberries|
|Social Structure||Uncertain; rivalry between gremlins of different habitats; no established families||Ruled by one Leader, human-like society|
|Intelligence||Comparable to children, no clear culture of their own||Fully comparable to human; read human books|