Thursday, September 18, 2008

You Don’t Know Jack!

…Well actually, you probably do seeing how Jack is arguably the most well know character in all of western folklore. The character of Jack (he has no definite last name) has appeared in nursery rhymes, folk and fairytales, legends, plays and literature going back as far as 1414. Geographically speaking, folklorists and mythographers find the greatest concentration of Jack tales to be in England and then the American Appalachian mountains where they were imported by immigrants from the British Isles.

The Larousse Dictionary of World Folklore (1995) characterizes Jack as a "hero [who] is generally unpromising at the start of the tale, young, poor or foolish, but through a combination of luck and craftiness… triumphs against the odds.” The “odds” in question here typically take the form of supernatural threats such as witches or demons, though Jack’s most common and persistent adversaries are giants and it is these tales which will be the focus of this entry.

One reason for this narrow look at the world of “Jack Tales” is simply focus and space constraints. Attempting to discuss every “Jack Tale” ever told is simply out of the question – there are just far too many of them. Another thing that will not be discussed here are several Jack related characters that are, for our purposes, far too complex to be summarized here and now. These characters include: Jack of the Lantern, Jack Frost, Jack in the Green, and Spring Heeled Jack. All of whom will be discussed at a later date, I promise…

The most famous "Jack" Tale is undoubtedly that of “Jack and the Beanstalk.” To sum up the story – which hopefully everyone reading this blog already knows – Jack is a poor farm boy who lives with his mother in the countryside. One day Jack’s mother tells her son to go into town and sell the farm’s only cow for money. Jack does as he is told and takes the cow to town; however when Jack returns later that same day he has not money but five magic beans which he obtained from a mysterious man in exchange for the cow. Jack's mother is furious with him and in a fit of rage throws the beans out the window and sends her son to bed.

That night a massive beanstalk sprouts from the ground and grows all the way up into the sky. Jack, upon awakening, discovers the beanstalk and decides to climb it. At the top of the beanstalk Jack discovers a castle which is home to a man-eating giant and his wife. Jack befriends the giantess who helps to hide him from her flesh-eating husband. Later Jack discovers that the giant is also the owner of several bags of gold as well as a magical hen who lays golden eggs and a golden harp. Jack decides to “steal” these three treasures and make his way back down the beanstalk. However, the harp calls out for help from the giant who discovers Jack and pursues him. Jack being smaller and faster manages to outmaneuver the giant. Reaching the bottom first Jack takes an ax and chop the beanstalk down causing the giant to fall to his death.



According to folklorists Peter and Iona Opie, the oldest known written version of this tale is an English reprint of a text called Round About our Coal-Fire: or Christmas Entertainments (1730) which features a tale entitled "Enchantment demonstrated in the Story of Jack Spriggins and the Enchanted Bean." This version of the tale is intended to be light hearted and comedic, severing simply as entertainment.

It would be seventy-years later before the more serious, more familiar version of the tale of “Jack and the Beanstalk” would be written down, this time by London author Benjamin Tabart under the impressive title of The History of Jack and the Bean-Stalk, Printed from the Original Manuscript, Never Before Published (1807). Tabart’s version of the tale was lost for many years after its original publication until anthropologist Andrew Lang recovered it and republished it in his Red Fairy Book in 1890. That same year folklorist Joseph Jacobs published a different version of the story in his book English Fairy Tales.

It is important to note that while the Tabart/Lang and Jacobs’ versions of the tale are similar, if not identical, in many ways they do differ in one major area – justification. In Jacobs’ version of the tale Jack is simply a cunning trickster with no direct justification for his thieving actions other than the fact that he and his mother are poor and the giant is apparently less than human which makes the theft of his goods and later murder alright. In contrast to this is Tabart's version which justifies Jack’s actions by explaining that the castle and its good once belonged to Jack’s father who was murdered by the giant.

Of course the most striking aspect of the tale of “Jack and the Beanstalk” is undoubtedly the beanstalk itself. The idea of ascending to the heavens via some sort of tower (either man-made or natural) is as old as mankind. Mythographers refer to these devices as axis mundi and they are found across cultures. One terrific example, which may have even served as the basis for Jack’s beanstalk, is that of the Norse-Germanic ash tree Yggdrasil which spanned the cosmos and connected the three realms of Ásgard (Heaven), Midgard (Earth), and Niflheim (Hell). Maria Tatar, Harvard’s Chair of Mythology and Folklore, notes that the idea of massive tree-like beanstalk “has a certain whimsical inventiveness, for beanstalks are notoriously unstable and usually require staking to remain propped up.”


Having looked at Jack’s beanstalks exploits we now move on to Jack’s adventures as a professional giant killer. These stories, which may date back as far as 1557, are often known as “Jack the Giant Killer” tales. There are literally hundreds of variations of said tales though the most famous narrative involves Jack’s struggle against five giants and links Jack with none other than King Arthur himself.

According to the story Jack is young man from Cornwall who manages to thwart a cattle raiding giant named Cormoran by catching him in a pit trap and then killing him. For this feat Jack becomes famous and receives a belt engraved with the words: “This is the valiant Cornish man, who killed the giant Cormoran.” The second giant Jack encounters is named Blunderbore and like the one living at the top of the beanstalk has a taste for human flesh. Blunderbore manages to catch Jack while sleeping and abducts the hero taking him back to his lair to devour. Once at the giant’s lair Jack awakens and quickly assesses his situation. Fortunately the giant has stepped out in order to fetch his brother who he wishes to have dinner with. Jack manages to find some strong cord from which he makes a set of nooses which he then loops over the rafters. When Blunderbore and his brother return Jack throws the nooses around the giant’s necks. The two giants immediately begin to pull at the nooses in an attempt to break free and instead only end up strangling each other instead.

Jack’s third encounter is with a two-headed Welsh giant who invites Jack to spend the night at his castle but then tries to kill him in the middle of the night with a club. Jack survives the night thanks to some trickery and in the morning uses some more in order to get back at the brute by challenging him to a pudding eating contest. In order to compete with the giant Jack stuffs a leather sack under his shirt and then sits down to the meal. While the giant is really stuffing his stomach, Jack is merely filling the leather sack with pudding. Soon it appears that Jack has eaten just as much as the giant, much to the monster's humiliation. Wanting to know how Jack is able to consume so much pudding the giant asks him at which point Jack tells him that he has magic powers which he demonstrates by stabbing himself in his fake stomach with a knife and then suffering no ill effects. The giant not wishing to be outdone (and being quite stupid) also stabs himself in the stomach and promptly drops dead.

The fourth giant Jack encounters has three heads and thus is able to see in all directions. In order to defeat it Jack dons a coat of invisibility, which he received in the castle of the third giant, and attacks the three-headed giant unseen. Jack’s final encounter is with the savage giant Galligantus who is allied with the evil sorcerer Hocus-Pocus. Again Jack uses his cloak of invisibility to sneak inside the giant and magician’s castle where he discovers a magic trumpet with the inscription “Whoever can this trumpet blow, will cause the giant’s overthrow.” Jack picks up the trumpet and blows it causing the castle to fall down. Jack then cuts off Galligantus’ feet causing him to fall to the ground allowing Jack to reach his head which he then cuts off and sends to King Arthur who rewards Jack with his daughter’s hand in marriage.

Over the years the tales of Jacks exploits have delighted readers and listeners both young and old. There are numerous children’s books which retale the tales of Jack as well as some outstanding anthologies of the original folktales for older readers. In 1962, United Artists made Jack the Giant Killer into a feature film. The story revolves around Jack (Kerwin Mathews) in his quest to rescue young Princess Elaine (Judi Meredith) from the evil sorcerer Pendragon (Torin Thatcher). Along the way Jack not only fights giants but also sword wielding skeletons and a frightening band of witches. At the film’s climax Pendragon transforms himself into a dragon and Jack battles him as well. Joining Jack on his quest is an old Viking named Sigurd (Barry Kelley) – perhaps the same Sigurd of Germanic mythology? – and a wise-cracking leprechaun imprisoned in a bottle named Diaboltin (Don Beddoe) who steals every sceen he’s in. The film stays true to the spirit of a fairy-tale and contains many throwaway references to other classic pieces of fairy-tale lore such as seven-league-boots which aren’t talk about enough in my opinion. Unfortunately the giants, dragon and other monsters (including a giant googly-eyed dinosaur-octopus thing) are all brought to life via some very sub-par stop motion animation. The work of Ray Harryhausen this is not. Never the less the film is still highly entertaining and sources tell me can currently be purchased at most Big Lots stores for three dollars!

Images: All art by Arthur Rackham (1867-1939), Jack the Giant Killer movie poster by United Artists.


Sources: The Annotated Classic Fairy Tales by Maria Tatar (2002), Larousse Dictionary of World Folklore by Alison Jones (1996), Southern Jack Tales by Donald Davis (1993), The Red Fairy Book by Andrew Lang (1966) & SurLaLune's Annotated Fairy Tales.com.

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