Fairy Tale Tuesday No.119 – Jack the Giant Killer

If you’re at all familiar with Western fairy tales, you’ve probably heard of the Jack who sold his cow for magic beans, climbed a gargantuan beanstalk and robbed a giant blind. He is, to say the least, a morally dubious hero – but he’s got nothing on this Jack, who has a whole saga of violent adventures.

Jack and the Giant Cormoran

This telling, taken from Ruth Manning-Sanders’ collection A Book of Giants, actually begins with a careful disassociation. “It wasn’t any Jack you know, and it wasn’t any Jack I know. It was Jack, the farmer’s son, who lived in Cornwall a long time ago.” Also resident in Cornwall at the time is the giant Cormoran, an insatiable terror who will eat anything and everything that can be hammered to death with his spiked club.

Something has to be done, only nobody knows what. The mayor and all his councillors are going in circles debating the issues when a pounding at the door sends them all scurrying under the table, sure Cormoran has come to eat them up. But it is not Cormoran. It is Jack the farmer’s son. When no one answers his knocking he breaks a window and jumps inside, demanding to know what he’ll get if he can kill the giant. “I’ve heard tell there’s enough treasure in his cave to make a man rich for life,” the mayor assures him. “You’re welcome to all of it, if you can kill him. But you must mend that window.”

Jack brushes off this admonishment. He collects a pickaxe, shovel and horn, plus some long planks, and that night rows over to the island where Cormoran lives. His activities well disguised by the giant’s own thunderous snoring, Jack works at the cave mouth all night, digging a huge pit and covering it over with planks, then covering the planks with seaweed. By sunrise the trap is ready. Jack stands on the far side of the hidden pit and starts blowing at his horn. Cormoran wakes in a bleary fury and races to silence the intruder; instead he tumbles into the pit and Jack finishes him off with a blow from the pickaxe. Digging a channel from the pit to the sea, Jack turns the pit into a pool so that all of the sea creatures can feast on the corpse. He then raids the cave, piling chests of gold and jewels into his boat, and goes calmly home.

To his credit, he does much good with that money. Not only does he set up his parents on the best farm for miles around and shower his mother in beautiful jewellery, he gives gold away to anyone who needs it like a one-man super charity. The councillors issue him a sword and a belt embroidered with the catchy slogan: Here’s the valiant Cornishman/ Who slew the giant Cormoran.

Jack and the Giant Tantarem

But this encounter leaves Jack with a bloodthirsty new hobby. Instead of staying in town and enjoying his hero status, he sets off on a walking tour of Wales, hoping to kill a few more giants.

He strikes lucky almost at once, because turns out there’s a giant looking for him. Cormoran’s cousin Tantarem lives in a nearby wood and, having heard of his relative’s execution, is determined to take revenge. It’s not that hard. While travelling through Tantarem’s wood, Jack stops to rest and falls asleep – Tantarem spots him and the belt gives it all away. Here’s a tip, Jack, if you’re going giant hunting, maybe don’t advertise that fact on first sight? Fortunately for him, Tantarem doesn’t plan on just killing him. He wants to cook Jack and eat him. Lifting the sleeping boy onto his shoulder, he sets off for his castle.

Jack wakes to leaves brushing over his face and quickly realises what’s happened. It’s a bad situation from every angle – Tantarem has killed so many people that the path underfoot is lined with human bones and the closer they go to the castle, the more bones Jack sees. Once inside Tantarem locks him up and goes to fetch water to boil him in. Jack’s prison is a room overlooking the castle’s main door, with a barred grating instead of a window. The bars are very closely spaced for a giant but Jack can fit his head through. He considers trying to squeeze through the rest of his body, but when he looks down the drop is too great.

Tantarem has left a coil of rope in the room. He’s good at killing, not so much at this imprisonment business.

Jack has just laid hands on the rope when he hears the giant coming back and switches plans. Quickly knotting a noose, he throws it through the bars and the loop lands neatly around Tantarem’s neck. As we have already established, Tantarem is not clever – he shouts at Jack instead of pulling off the noose. Jack starts pulling. By the time Tantarem realises what he’s doing, it is too late. Half-throttled, he’s defenceless when Jack slides down the rope and cuts off his head.

Jack and the Welsh Giant

And still that’s not enough for the pint-sized killing machine! He continues his travels through Wales and, having neglected to bring a map, gets himself thoroughly lost. No problem, though, he finds what he’s really looking for. As night falls in the wilderness he sees a light and follows it to a huge house, where he knocks at the door. “‘Tis the valiant Cornishman,” he calls, “who slew the giant Cormoran. Food and shelter does he lack – open then to little Jack.”

You are scary as hell, little Jack. I would be pushing things against the door myself, but the occupant opens up. He’s big even for a giant and has two heads, who have a habit of talking to each other like no one else can hear. Having very obviously plotted Jack’s death, he smilingly invites the boy in and shows him to a room. “It’s pleasant dreams I will be wishing you,” he says. “And should there come any noises in the night, don’t you be scared now. ‘Twill only be the dratted rats at their dancing, whatever.”

Jack is not fooled. He stays awake, listening to the giant’s muttered conversations with himself. Once he knows what’s being plotted he tucks a chunk of wood between the bedcovers and hides in a cupboard. When the giant sneaks in and hammers the bed with his club, he thinks the splintering wood is the sound of Jack’s bones cracking – apparently he doesn’t think of looking for blood – so when Jack bounces out for breakfast the next morning it is an unwelcome surprise. Jack seizes the opportunity to mythologise himself some more, pretending that the blows of the club felt like flicks of a rat’s tail and he slept straight through them. The puzzled giant dishes up vast bowls of porridge and Jack continues his charade by tipping most of the meal into a bag hidden inside his coat, so it looks like he can eat as much as his host.

“I could eat that much again,” he announces. “But first I’ll show you a trick.” He slits open the bag, letting the porridge gush out, and challenges the giant to do the same. The poor stupid creature accepts the challenge and cuts open his stomach.

He loses.

Jack, the King of England’s Son, and the Giant with Three Heads

While Jack has been busy killing giants, other people have been dealing with their own problems. A princess has been carried off by a demon to its stronghold in Wales and an English prince goes riding to her rescue, only to be caught by bandits on the road, stripped of his horse and valuables, and left pretty much helpless.

Lucky for him, he meets Jack and not being a giant, is treated well. Hearing the whole story, Jack suggests they travel together. “But where shall we sleep this night?” worries the prince, who has no money to pay for a room. “No matter,” Jack assures him. “A mile or two from here lives a giant with three heads. I was on my way to kill him. It’s in his castle we’ll sleep this night.” That is one SERIOUSLY WARPED world view. The prince is told to wait outside and, not knowing Jack very well yet, frets over his new friend’s safety. We know it’s the giant who is in trouble.

Jack bounds up to the castle and knocks on the gate, bringing the resident giant to look suspiciously down at him with all three of its heads. Introducing himself as ‘your poor cousin, Jack’, the boy proceeds to tell the giant that the prince of England is leading an company of sixty thousand men down the road on a giant-slaying expedition. The giant can handle a few hundred soldiers but a whole army is beyond him. Panicked, he asks Jack what he should do, and is advised to hide. So Jack locks him in his own vault and goes to fetch the prince. They spend a comfortable night, then load up one of the giant’s horses with as much gold as it can carry and the prince sets off again on his rescue mission.

“What news now, poor cousin Jack?” asks the giant, when Jack finally comes to let him out. The imaginary army are now marching on to Scotland, having helped themselves to treasure and a new horse, which means Jack deserves a reward for his timely warning – he’s set his eye on a tattered cap and coat, moth-eaten slippers and a rusty sword which, by the laws of fairy tales, must naturally be the most valuable items in the castle. The cap will tell you whatever you wish to know, the coat will make you invisible, the shoes will take you wherever you need to go and the sword will cut through anything. How can any of these things benefit the giant if they are Jack sized? As bribes, perhaps? He does not want to give them up, of course, but being genuinely grateful for what he thinks is a great favour, he hands them over.

Kitted up with the tools of invincibility, Jack considers killing this giant like he’s done to all the others, but can’t quite bring himself to do it. This is progress!

Instead he catches up to the prince and joins in the rescue mission, using his new powers to arrive at the castle first. He expects to find the princess chained up or charmed to sleep or at the very least imprisoned, but instead she’s holding court over the castle like a proper evil queen. Nevertheless, she is enspelled – the demon has made her see things the way he does. When told the prince is coming, she pretends to be delighted and orders a banquet prepared. All the traditional praise is thrown over him like flowers, assurances that he’s her white knight and deliverer and they’ll be together forever. If he can find her handkerchief, that is. If not, she’ll hang him from the castle wall.

Lady, you should really marry Jack. He’s into that kind of thing.

The task seems easy, as the prince has seen her tuck the handkerchief into her bodice, but during the night she calls to her demon and has him carry it away to his den. What a very obliging kidnapper. Jack is watching, however, and follows unseen. He takes the handkerchief back and gives it to the prince. “I knew you would easily find it,” the princess laughs.

That night, she kisses the prince on the mouth and sets him a new task. “Tomorrow morning you must show me the lips I last kissed tonight,” she purrs, “or my executioner will cut off your head.” The prince is troubled and confused. Anyone can see it’s a set up. During the night the princess once again summons the demon and tears strips off him (metaphorically!) for his failure with the handkerchief. “But now we have the prince in our power,” she concludes, calming, and kisses him on the lips. With that, she sends him back to his den.

Where Jack appears from nowhere and cuts off his head. In the morning, when the prince produces the head, the princess falls into a dead faint and wakes completely pure of heart – well, so she says, and no one’s arguing. She cannot remember a thing that’s happened since her abduction. To my deep disappointment, she marries the prince, who knights Jack and wisely tries to keep him at court. Jack, however, has not given up on giant killing and has the whole of England to scour for new targets.

Take the princess with you, Jack! THIS COULD BE TRUE LOVE.

Jack and the Giant Thunderdell

He doesn’t. He finds two more giants instead, minding their own business in a cavern. As they have only one head between them, they are throwing it between them in order to talk. Jack leaps between them and runs the head through. “That was almost too easy,” he says, and goes looking for treasure.

What he finds is a hallway leading deeper under the hill, into a huge dining room. Bones are scattered everywhere and the sound of crying fills the room. My outrage on behalf of the dead giants is considerably lessened when Jack finds a pantry full of live men and women, all of whom he compensates for their horrific ordeal by sharing out the giants’ treasure. One of the captives happens to own a nearby castle and they all head over there to celebrate life. It’s quite well-fortified, but then they hear the giants’ nephew Thunderdell is on the warpath and they know the castle defences won’t be enough.

Jack laughs. “Now you shall see some sport,” he says and goes stand alone on the drawbridge, slicing it up with his sword so it’s nothing but a gangway. When Thunderdell arrives, gnashing his two sets of teeth and whirling his club, he is singing the traditional giant hunting song, with minor variations. “Fee! Fi! Foh! Fum! I smell the blood of a Cornishman! Be he alive, be he dead, I’ll grind his bones to make my bread!” Jack is prepared with a counter song. “Here’s little Jack, the Cornishman,” he calls out, “Who slew the giant Cormoran. If you can touch him, ‘fore or ‘hind, I give you leave his bones to grind!” With that he leaps up and runs around and around the moat, his magical shoes giving him such speed that Thunderdell cannot quite catch up. Adding to the confusion, Jack keeps slipping in and out of his coat, appearing and disappearing like a mirage.

Unaided by magic, Thunderdell wears out fast. Jack ends the game by jumping onto what’s left of the drawbridge. It cannot take the giant’s weight and Thunderdell falls through into the moat. As he struggles to get out, Jack slices off both heads. “I told you I’d show you some sport,” Jack says lightly to his stunned audience, and heads inside to continue the party.

Jack, the Giant Galligantua and the Enchanter

Jack continues travelling. At length he comes to a wasteland, where the only landmark is a huge mountain and a tiny cottage at its foot. Within lives a very old, half blind man with a very long white beard. Though he has not much to offer, he agrees to let Jack to stay the night, possibly just because he wants someone to talk to. “Once, and not long ago, this hovel was a palace,” he says sadly, “and I was a strong and happy man, lord over wide and fertile lands, to the east, to the west, to the south, farther than eye could see. All gone, all changed!”

This is all thanks to the giant Galligantua. He wanted to marry to the old man’s daughter, and the old man said no. That’s not an answer the giant was willing to accept, so Galligantua called on his bestie the Enchanter to make father and daughter pay. The Enchanter came down from the mountain in a flaming griffin-drawn chariot, turned the girl into a doe and all the people of the land into birds and beasts. To finish his task thoroughly, he then turned the land itself into a wasteland and the girl’s father into the tottering old man he is now.

“Would he had killed me!” mourns Jack’s host. “For whilst I live I nurse the crazy hope that my daughter will one day be rescued.” This is no time for modesty – Jack points to his belt and announces his intention of saving the girl. Plus killing the giant, of course. The old man is not  immediately convinced, and not just because he finds the belt very hard to read. The gate at the top of the mountain is guarded by the Enchanter’s griffins, and anyone who wants to pass through must somehow elude their beaks and claws.

Jack, however, is well prepared for that. Early the next morning he bounds up the mountain with his magic shoes, beheads the griffins with his magic sword and comes up to the gate untroubled. A horn hangs there, with magic writing underneath it that Jack can understand because of his magic hat. It essentially says ‘this is the doom horn, blow this and your enemies are goners’.

WHY WOULD YOU HANG THIS ON YOUR FRONT GATE. WHY.

Jack, of course, snatches it up and blows it. The giant pokes his head out to see what’s going on; Jack cuts it off. He blows twice more and the castle begins to fall apart. The Enchanter, bat-winged and wearing a dramatic pointy hat, screams furiously in the ruins, presumably wondering why he left the horn there too. Jack blows it three more times. The Enchanter burns up completely, leaving only the echo of his screams behind.

The enchanted animals, among them the white doe, come running from the rubble. As the mountain sinks away and the Enchanter’s magic fades, Jack finds himself surrounded by newly restored humans in a beautiful green land. The old man becomes a good-looking middle-aged duke, his hovel becomes a palace and the doe becomes a beautiful girl. To my continued disappointment, Jack marries her instead of the murderous princess, and despite now being a duke-in-waiting-by-marriage, he keeps on slaughtering giants until the end of his days. By the time of his death, there is only one giant left in the country, the three-headed one who unknowingly gave him the tools of his trade and whom he never went back to kill. That giant eventually dies of old age, and then there are none of his kind left.

Though they come from different fairy tales, I find it very easy to believe this Jack actually is the one who grew the beanstalk. It would be the logical backstory. He’s certainly ruthless enough for the robbery and murder, and completely unashamed of it. I do accept that the giants often have it coming, what with slaughtering humans wholesale, but Jack is so obviously having fun. He’s terrifying. So is the princess, but I kind of wish she’d stayed that way and become a Welsh Princess Blue-Eyes. Did the demon really kidnap her at all, or did she kidnap him?

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