Jack the Giant-Killer


Jack the Giant-Killer
   This story - or rather, this string of episodes attached to one hero - is known to have existed in a *chapbook of 1711, now lost, and is mentioned by several 18th-century writers as having pleased them greatly when young; the earliest surviving text, entitled The History of Jack and the Giants, is from the 1750s or 1760s. Several of the giants Jack kills are localized in Cornwall. He defeats them by traditional tricks - he lures one into a pit and beheads him; foils an ogre's murderous plan by substituting a log for himself in bed, thus seeming invulnerable; and convinces the ogre that he has just slit his own stomach open, so that the latter kills himself in trying to do the same. He gains various treasures and rewards, and rescues princesses. The central section has a more sustained plot, in which Jack becomes servant to King Arthur's son and breaks the spell on a princess whom Arthur's son wants to marry. The final sections are again episodic, and mainly humorous, though one ogre does utter the famous rhyme known already in Shakespeare's time (see King Lear, iii. iv):
   Fee, fau, fum,
   I smell the blood of an English man,
   Be he alive, or be he dead,
   I'll grind his bones to make my bread.
   The popularity of these chapbooks is shown by frequent casual allusions in 18th- and 19th-century literature. They formed the basis for many retellings, the first being in J. O. Hal-liwell, Popular Rhymes and Nursery Tales of England (1849); the full chapbook text is in Opie and Opie, 1974: 47-65, and a summary will be found in Briggs, 1970-1: A. i. 329-31. An oral version was collected in Herefordshire in 1909 (Leather, 1912: 174-6; Philip, 1992: 11-17).

A Dictionary of English folklore. . 2014.

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