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The Jack Tales

Author Kevin Shortsleeve
Air Date 8/21/2002

The Jack Tales Transcript

Everyone knows about Jack. For he is the most popular boy in children’s literature. From Jack Be Nimble to Jack and Jill. From Little Jack Horner to Jack Sprat. There’s Jack the Giant Killer and Jack and the Beanstalk and in modern popular music, the variations continue from Happy Jack to Jumpin’ Jack Flash. Jack, it seems, is ubiquitous to the rhymes and legends of youth. He is, ageless, clever, and popping up like a Jack-in-the-Box any direction you turn.

The truth is, that little Jack is one of the oldest heroes of English children’s literature. The earliest printed version of Jack and the Giants dates from 1708, and variations on the giant theme have Jack battling every over-sized ogre in Kingdom Come from Gogmagog to Cormistan, from Blunderboar, to the two-headed Thunderdel.

Giants it seems, were quite the problem in the old days. As early as the renaissance, even Shakespeare was apparently aware of the threat these giants posed. For Edgar, in King Lear exclaims

Child Rowland to the darke tower came,
His word was still, fie foh and fummme,
I smell the blood of a Brithish man.

But for most ancient ancestors of the Jack Tales, one may even seek as far back as the old testament, where David battles Goliath and where Jacob’s ladder reaches up into the clouds. And in Norse mythology, there is the World Tree, Yggdrasil, which supports the universe and whose roots lead to the land of giants. In some ways Jack is an early version of the super hero. He is endowed with wit, bravado and ingenuity, and in one tale from the early 1800s Jack possessed shoes of swiftness, a cloak of invisibility and defeats none other than, that arch villain, Lucifer himself.

As a commoner who becomes a hero, Jack was warmly assimilated into American legends. Tales from the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina tell of a small lad named Jack, who kills giants, speaks in a southern dialect, and eats American mash instead of English hasty pudding. This Jack says things like, “Shucks! My bean tree’s done growed plumb out-a-sight!”

The Oxford companion to children’s literature points out that “Jack Tales incorporate modern fairy tale elements of social rise through magical enrichment,” and therein lies the appeal… The little guy, the under dog, who through wit and ingenuity can bravely face any adversity that comes his way-can get rich in the process-and live happily ever after.

So that’s the tale
That tells the story
That without fail
tells of the glory
that fooled the giant
that soon was kill’t,
by that boy, defiant…
That legend… that Jack built.

Works consulted:

Chase, Richard. The Jack Tales: Folk Tales from the Southern Appalachians. Houghton Mifflin, 1971.

Pritchard and Carpenter. The Oxford Companion to Children’s Literature. 1999 Zipes, Jack. ed. The Oxford Companion to Fairy Tales. 2000.

Posted in Literature