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How the Gremlins Ruled the Sky

Updated on January 10, 2017
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An engine sputters or a fuel line breaks without warning. A wary fighter pilot feels the pang of fear in the pit of his stomach. High above a battle field, his plane is malfunctioning and is going down fast. But this is not due to enemy fire or flak. The pilot fears it’s something unseen and equally sinister. As he punches out, hoping only for the best possible situation, he mutters in a tone of fear and anger: “gremlins.”

During World War II, England's Royal Air Force (RAF) was plagued by unexplained accidents and mechanical failures affecting its planes. Some pilots believed it was enemy sabotage; yet, others alleged it was something more sinister and supernatural. They began blaming these problems on mythological imps known as gremlins.

Despite their nefarious beginnings, however, gremlins became part of aviation and modern folklore. They even became the source of children's literature for an up-and-coming writer, as well as fodder for British propaganda aimed at gathering support from the United States for its war effort.

And the war was only the beginning. Gremlins found new life in comic books and movies - and found a new home in Hollywood. In a short time, the creature the RAF dreaded became a world-wide sensation.

Equal Opportunity Tricksters

The term "gremlins" is believed to have been derived from an old English word gremian, meaning "to vex" or "annoy". The term was first used before the war in a poem published in a journal called Aeroplane in 1929.

However, it was not until the early years of World War II that the term came to be used as aviator slang to describe unexplained mechanical problems occurring in RAF planes - in particular, its high-altitude Photographic Reconnaissance Unit (PRU). Soon afterward, some pilots (British and American) reported seeing "little being" dancing on their wings or flying around their planes (of course, most of these sighting were never verified).

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Some pilots believed that gremlins were working with the enemy. When reports came in that enemy aircraft - in particular the planes of the German Luftwaffe - were having the same technical difficulties, many RAF pilots began to believe that the creatures were equal opportunity tricksters that took no sides in the war.

For the most part, gremlins came to represent any mechanical problems or aerial accidents that could not be explained. The creature never took a physical form until it was introduced outside the RAF by a former pilot and future best-selling author, Roald Dahl (creator of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory).

In it, the gremlins were finally personified as tiny anthro-morphed beings crawling on planes and tearing panels and instruments from it

Dahl is often credited for introducing gremlins to the rest of the world in the first children's novel he wrote. During the war he was an RAF pilot injured in the line of service by an aerial accident. Soon, he became an assistant air attaché and was transferred to Washington D.C. in 1942. After arriving in the United States, Dahl wrote the novel The Gremlins.

The book was about the hazards of being an RAF pilot. In it, the gremlins were finally personified as tiny anthro-morphed beings crawling on planes and tearing panels and instruments from it. The story went as far as to introduce male (widgets) and female (fifinellas) gremlins.

The popularity of the story soon reached Dahl's boss, Sydney Bernstein and William Stephenson (a British agent who was known as Intrepid). It is believed that the two showed the manuscript to Walt Disney.

Gremlins Invade USA and Joins Forces with Allies

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Disney released a comic book version of the novel. The cover of this particular book made the gremlins resemble Mickey Mouse to a certain degree. It had big eyes and a round red nose (no big ears) Also, they were cute and cuddly (This was probably not the image Dahl had envisioned).

Later, after hearing Dahl read the story to her grandchildren, Eleanor Roosevelt befriended Dahl. As a result Dahl became a go-between for President Franklin Roosevelt and British Prime Minister Winston Churchill during the war. It was just one of the strange and indirect ways the gremlins came into service for the allies.

Flying toward Hollywood Stardom

Bugs Bunny and a Gremlin ready to create havoc.
Bugs Bunny and a Gremlin ready to create havoc. | Source

The concept of making Dahl’s The Gremlins into a movie was in talks with Disney. However, the deal fell through. One website speculates that Dahl's political relationship with FDR may have been a factor. Either way, other Hollywood studios jumped onto the gremlin myth and used it as wartime propaganda.

Warner Brother's Merrie Melodies later to be known as Loony Tunes) were among the first to use a gremlin as a character. In the earliest episode, Bugs Bunny is pitted against a gremlin with plane wings for ears. Another Merrie Melodie cartoon produced during World War II shows the gremlins attacking a plane flown by Adolf Hitler.

In later years, shows such The Twilight Zones and The Simpsons would use gremlins. Also, after more than forty years, gremlins finally made it to the silver screen in Gremlins and its sequel, Gremlins 2.

By that time, gremlins had gone from being a folklore of World War II, to a Hollywood creation. The gremlins of Hollywood were vastly different. Even the movie version had an entirely new origin for them.

From aviation folklore to movie sensations, gremlins have come a long way. Once despised, they are now seen as cute and cuddly creatures. In many respects, gremlins are new modern myths. Still, they've come long way from their days of harassing and annoying fighter pilots over the European theater of war.

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    • James Slaven profile image

      James Slaven 6 months ago from Indiana, USA

      This was great!

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