The odd north- Canadian Folklore in Literature and Art

Henri Julien (1852–1908) Blue pencil, Study for La Chasse-galerie [Public domain or Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Nearly ten years ago I used to teach a short summer course on Canadian folklore in literature and film. I no longer have the opportunity to teach the class, but I wanted to share the syllabus in case it might inspire anyone else. I’ll also share a series of lectures for the class in coming days. Happy Halloween everyone.

Shawn Smallman, 2021

Canadian Folklore in Literature and Film

Professor Shawn Smallman

Friday, June 21st and 28th, 2-7 pm

Saturday, June 22nd and 29th, 10-12pm, 1-4pm.

Course Description: This class will examine how folklore has shaped Canadian literature and film in both English speaking and French Canada. It will examine key figures in legend –such as the windigo, loup garou or Inuit hero Atlarjuat (Fast Runner)- and see how authors and directors have used them to explore key themes in Canadian society. The class will give particular attention to the work of modern Indigenous authors such as Eden Robison, and Thomson Highway. It will also examine the ways in which the line before fiction and reality can become blurred in folklore, through the work of Howard Norman. The course will also address a series of key questions: Why have certain beliefs have emerged, and how they reflect specific Canadian regions, life-ways, and cultures? How have Euro-Canadians adopted indigenous beliefs and why? Why have Canadians believed in folklore, and how have these beliefs been translated into literature, art, and culture? What aspects of these beliefs reflect national narratives about the wilderness, the north or the city? How do Canadians use folklore to reclaim and interpret the past, and to understand the world that they live in, through literature, film and music? 


Final Paper: 100%. 

Pass/Fail Option:

Students taking the class on a pass/fail basis will be assessed based only on their participation (50%) and the five to ten minute oral report (50%).

Assignments for the final paper:

For students taking the class lease choose one of the following assignments. All final papers will be seven to ten pages in length. You will be required to send a completed copy of the paper in Word format by e-mail to the Professor by August 1st. The e-mail address is: Please choose one of the following three possible paper topics.

1) Every course is dominated by themes. For you, what was the most important theme in this course and why? Use specific details to support your argument. What other themes might you have considered for the course, and why were they less important?

2) Read and write a book review of a contemporary Canadian novel with a strong connection to folklore, such as Michael Crummy’s, Galore, Joseph Boyden’s, Three Day Road, Eden Robinson’s, Monkey Beach, or Tomson Highway’s, Kiss of the Fur Queen. How does the author evoke and use folklore in the work? In what ways does this effort succeed or fail? What motivated the author to employ folklore in this manner? How have folklore traditions been adapted to a new narrative?

3) View the film Fast Runner by Zacharias Kunuk. Write a detailed review of the film, which connects the work to themes from the course. To what extent is Kunuk’s work an authentic reflection of Inuit tradition? Why did Kunuk choose this narrative to embody Inuit culture? What are the strengths and weaknesses of the film as a work of art?

Day One, June 18th: The North and Spirits in Canadian literature: The Windigo, Werewolves and the Devil.

Introduction: What is folklore, and why has it extensively shaped Canadian literature and film? 

Lecture: The North in the Canadian Imagination.

Lecture and Discussion: Spirit Beings, Madness and Murder: the Windigo in Canadian folklore and history.

Discussion of Margaret Atwood’s analysis of the windigo in literature: “Eyes of Blood, Heart of Ice: the Wendigo,” from Strange Things. 62-86.

The Windigo Motif in the novels of Thomson Highway, Joseph Boyden, Edward Metawabin, and Rudy Wiebe.

Lecture: Werewolves, the Devil and Modernization in 19th century French Canadian short stories

Class Reading: 

Margaret Atwood, Strange Things. 7-34, 62-86.

Day Two, June 19th. Indigenous Film-makers and Authors.

Lecture: Native Peoples in Canada: Nunavut to the Idle No More Protests.

The Film Fast Runner: Reclaiming Culture and the problem of Authenticity.

(the class will view a brief selection from the film).

Eden Robinson: Sasquatch and Northern Gothic in Monkey Beach

Brief clips: “Sasquatch Odyssey”

Discussion: Eden Robinson, Monkey Beach, 1-21.

Brief lecture: Canadian geography.

Class Reading: 

Eden Robinson, Monkey Beach, 1-21.

Optional Lecture: Wednesday, June 26, 6:15 pm, hall HS 10

Canada’s Idle No More Protests.

Day Three, June 25th: Canada’s Coasts: Atlantic Canada and the British Columbia Coast. 

Class Presentations: One half of the students will do their brief oral presentations.

The Folklore of Atlantic Canada

Howard Norman’s translations and novels.

Richard Crummy’s Galore. Magical Realism, Carnival and Folklore in historical fiction.

Lecture: The Short Stories of Dick Hammond: European and Indigenous Folklore in a West Coast author’s work.

Discussion: Short story by Dick Hammond.

Class Reading: Hammond, “The House by the Talking Falls,” 193-243.

Day Four, June 26th: Canadian Gothic

Class Presentations: the second half of the students will do their brief oral presentations.

The Origins of Canadian Gothic literature.

The Ghost in Canadian literature.

Discussion: Postcolonial Gothic literature in Canada: Shelly Kulperger: “Familiar Ghosts: Feminist Postcolonial Gothic in Canada,” pp. 97-120” and Atef Laouyene, “Canadian Gothic and the Work of Ghosting in Ann-Marie MacDonald’s Fall on Your Knees, pp. 125-151.


Kulperger and Laouyene, chapters five and six in Unsettled Remains: Canadian Literature and the PostColonial Gothic, ed. Cynthia Sugars and Gerry Turcotte, pp. 97-151.

Further Reading:

Marlene Goldman and Joanne Saul, eds. Haunting in Canadian Literature. Special Issue of University of Toronto Quarterly. 75:2 (2006).

Sherril Grace, Canada and the Idea of the North. Montreal and Kingston: McGill Queen’s University Press, 2001.

Renee Hulan, Northern Experience and the Myths of Canadian Culture. Montreal and Kingston: McGill Queen’s University Press, 2002.

Margot Northey, The Haunted Wilderness: the Gothic and Grotesque in Canadian Fiction. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1976.

Cynthia Sugars, “Saying Boo to Colonialism: Surfacing, Tom Thomson, and the National Ghost,” In The Open Eye: Reappraisals of Margaret Atwood. Ed. John Moss. Ottawa: University of Ottawa Press, 137-158.

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