The Folklore Tradition of Jack Tales

The Folktale
Jack Tales
One Tale, Many Tellings
A Composite Summary of Motifs
The Pattern
The Jack Tales Cycle in Perpetuity
Online Resources


American folklorists equate folktales with the German term “Märchen” from schwankmärchen to encompass the concept of the magic or wonder tale. Thompson (Folktale, p.5) emphasized the traditional nature of the material, the “prose tale--the story which has been handed down from generation to generation either in writing or by word of mouth” stating “the oral art of taletelling is far older than history.” His intent apparently to understand the nature of human culture from studying the similarity of stories in the form of tale types and narrative motifs of peoples worldwide. Lindahl defines Märchen more specifically as “a multi-episodic fictional narrative told for entertainment and, though often humorous in effect, not primarily humorous in intent” (37-38).

Another definition of “magic tales” is a type of folktale characterized by its performance aspect. Classically these tales are always told orally, not read from written texts although written forms are part of their history. It is the core of the story that remains the same while the details change based on the time period, the local culture the teller and the audience (Mellor). In his introduction to Jack the Giant Killer, Charles de Lint describes folklore as “a great cauldron of soup into which each generation throws new bits of fancy and history, new imaginings, new ideas, to simmer along with the old. The story-teller is the cook who serves up the common ingredients in his or her own individual way, to suit the tastes of a new audience.” (ii-iii)

Perhaps Jane Yolen put it most succinctly when she stated: “Humans are the animals that tell stories. This characteristic defines us more clearly than the opposable thumb”(Best loved… p 14).

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“…yet the spirit of Jacks of old is in you. It’s a lucky name—as the tales that your people still tell can vouch for.” (de Lint, 119)

While it was surely in use beforehand, the nickname Jack was first recorded in the thirteenth century. By the 15th century, Jack had become a common name to signify every-man with other European forms being Juan, Jean, or Hans. Appearing in nursery rhymes such as “Jack Sprat” as early as 1639 and a character in oral traditions even longer, Jack is lucky, both a trickster and an unlikely hero, sometimes clever, often naïve, but always successful. The most famous Jack tales are “Jack and the Beanstalk” but his greatest fame is as a slayer of giants (Cavendish, 1381). When the Jack Tale cycle migrated from Europe to North America, Jack became an “Americanized farmboy-hero Jack.” (Guiterrez, 85) The first record of Jack in the United States appears before 1800 in Virginia where these tales were “handed down from generation to generation from time immemorial” (Kercheval 1902, 285-86 as quoted by Lindahl (McCarthy 1994, xvii))

“But that was always the way with Jacks, wasn’t it? They were clever and fools all at once.” (de Lint, 169)

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Jack Tales

In the first literary record of American Märchen in 1824, the genre was declared “dead” (Lindahl, 8). Ballad collectors who learned to ask if they wanted tales (which were told to amuse children, not scholars) accidentally rediscovered Jack Tales in the early 1920s. The Jack tales cycle is primarily associated with the North Carolina, Beech Mountain-based tales of the Hicks-Harmon family. Their Grandfather, Council Harmon (1803-1896) remained a famous storyteller long after his death. These were initially recorded by Isabel Carter as “Old Jack, Will, and Tom Tales” (340) and later by Richard Chase who published them in his influential book Jack Tales. While the scholarship and ethics of Chase are questionable, he was one of the three major collectors of British-American Märchen along with Leonard Roberts who collected in Kentucky and Vance Randolph who studied and collected the Appalachian-derived folk culture of the Ozark Mountains. (Lindahl, 10-11)

Gutierrez points out that Jack is a recognizable character who plays in trickster tales and magical stories, but that every tale that includes a Jack is not a Jack Tale. She defines the two features that distinguish Jack tales as structure and characterization (85-86). The tales begin with Jack in humble circumstances, he leaves to better his lot and returns to settle down with vastly improved circumstances. This “lack->lack liquidated” structure can be compared to “a magic sandwich, in which the miraculous events of the hero’s travels are framed by mundane beginnings and endings, the simplicities of home.”(Intro by Lindahl, McCarthy, xviii)

Jack is motivated by poverty. In the journey/quest function, he leaves to better his circumstances or eliminate his “lack.” His success is based on his actions, not always chance, and what is called “luck” might also be described as “success.”(Gutierrez, 87) Jack is a “self-made” man using trickery and quick thinking as his main tools while magic is more likely to be used against him in the American tales. Jack himself must resort to his wits, various helpers offering magical aid and sheer luck to overcome his dilemmas. His quest then is to “liquidate” or eliminate his lack of necessities. Jack is always successful.

“Jack wins out as much by luck as by pluck: Jack’s both foolish and clever.” (de Lint, vii)

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One Tale, Many Tellings

Storyteller Donald Davis describes his surprise when, as an English student, he realized he already knew the stories in Chaucer and Shakespeare’s King Lear. “The characters and settings were different, but the story lines were the same. I had heard them, mostly as stories about Jack when I was growing up”(26). Identifying the story lines or “core elements” of folktales is the basis of Thompson’s (1955) folklore motif index. This index serves to break out the key motifs of folktales linking them to each other by their shared elements, “… the actual subject matter of folktales shows many striking resemblances from age to age and land to land.” (Thompson, 367)

I could not help but be reminded of the ten labors of Hercules (D’Aulaires, 132-146) when I first read “Jack and King Marock” (Chase, 135-150). The elastic nature of folklore is evident in the following versions from the Appalachian tradition of Jack Tales.

  • “Jack and King Marock” Chase (1943): 135-150
  • “Jack and the Giant’s Tasks” Roberts (1955): 33-34
  • “Jack and Old King Morock” as told by Granny Shores, Perdue (1987): 28-38
  • “Jack of Hearts and King Marock” Haley (1992): 67-88
  • “Raglif Jaglif Tetartlif Pole” as told by Leonard Roberts, McCarthy (1994): 180-203
While essentially the same tale, the different tellings highlight the significance of the oral tradition of folklore. You can imagine the legend growing and developing as tellers embellish the details putting their own interpretive “spin” on the tale. Robert’s collected version, “Jack and the Giant’s Tasks,” is roughly 720 words leaving out the forgotten fiancée episode entirely while his own rendering, “Raglif Jaglif Tetartlif Pole,” is based on a telling by his Aunt Columbia. This is 5600 words and much closer to the version collected by James Taylor Adams from Granny Shores. Granny Shores and Aunt Columbia’s versions share incidents and motifs that suggest there may be a connection. While a specific connection is impossible to substantiate, these women lived within 50 miles of one another (McCarthy, 179).

Also collected from Granny Shores, Chase’s version of “Jack and King Marock” reveals his adjustments and bowdlerizing to make these tales appropriate for children. Chase’s skill with language and cadence does “preserve the spirit” (Halpert, 187) of the tales while his re-creations may also be responsible for stimulating an interest in Jack Tales. Rather like reactions to retellings by the Grimms or Disney, Chase seemed to push the purists to action causing scholars to revisit the tellers and not only credit the tellers but also render their versions accurately.

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Looking at folklore indexes, it is possible to classify the type and key motifs common to this Jack tale. The tale type according to Antti Aarne’s system is identifiable as number 313 (the girl as helper in the hero’s flight) and 313C (girl as helper + forgotten fiancée) with types 513, 514 (the helpers) and 577 (the king’s tasks) also represented.

Breaking this down even further, the core elements, described as motifs and basic to folklore study can be identified numerically. These numbers are specific to “the smallest element in a tale having the power to persist in tradition” (Thompson, Folktale, 415). Identifying elements common to the tales above, some of these motifs are listed below.

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A Composite Summary of Motifs

Jack leaves home: Classic in the Jack Tales tradition, Jack leaves home to seek his fortune (or liquidate his lack). King Morock, who can be compared to an ogre, giant or devil, cheats Jack out of his gambling winnings, specifically his daughter.

Jack’s quest after the debtor refuses to pay: Jack undertakes a quest to find the king and collect his winnings getting help along the way. (K231 Debtor refuses to pay)

Freezewell produces magic frost to help Jack find the king: After finding out where the daughters bathe with the help of Freezewell, Jack forces the king’s daughter to show him the way to her house. (D2143 Frost produced by magic; D2144.1.2 Man with power to make everything freeze; F302.4.2 maiden in animal form comes into man’s power when he hides her skin)

Under king’s power, Jack is forced to perform tasks: The king threatens Jack with beheading if he does not complete each of three tasks. (M200ff Trickster undertakes impossible bargain)

King’s relatives aid hero, daughter uses magic objects to help Jack perform tasks: King’s daughter helps Jack, first by giving him seemingly nonsensical advice that Jack does not follow and then providing the tool or completing the task herself. Following this, Jack must identify her disguised form, but she gives him a sign helping him once again. (Motifs include: D483.1 River becomes sea; D815.6 Daughter offers magic object; D1205 Magic shovel; D1206 Magic Ax; D1581 Task performed by use of magic objects; H1331.3 Helpful horse)

Jack and the king’s daughter flee on a magic horse: After that, Jack and the daughter flee from King Morock taking a horse in the night. The king gives chase, but the daughter uses the magical devices related to the tasks to obstruct the path (frequently pulled from the horse’s ear). After they escape, Jack visits his family. (B115.1 animal produces supplies from ear; D672 Obstacle flight—fugitives throw objects behind them which magically become obstacles in pursuers path; D1393ff Magic object helps fugitives)

Jack’s forgotten fiancée: The girl warns him not to let anyone touch his lips, but his little dog gives him a kiss and Jack forgets her entirely. Following this, the girl works for a shoemaker nearby while Jack plans his marriage to another girl. (D2000ff Forgetfulness for breaking tabu; D2003 Forgotten fiancée; D2004.2.1 Dog’s licking of man produces forgetfulness)

King’s daughter tricks Jack: The girl outwits three suitors including Jack causing them to stay up all night and pay her not to tell (K443.2 Clever wife gets money from those who attempt to seduce her. Payment for keeping silence)

Jack remembers-awakens from magic forgetfulness: The girl attends Jack’s wedding bringing a magic box with a banty chicken and rooster. Each time the rooster pecks the hen, the hen describes one of the tasks (D2006.1.3 Forgotten fiancée reawakens husband’s memory by having doves converse)

Jack marries the right girl: Jack remembers, leaves his intended and marries the king’s daughter. They live happily etc.

Jack’s success is based on using King Morock’s magic against him. Finally, it takes magic once again to cause Jack to remember the king’s daughter.

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The Pattern

In brief, Jack tales follow a basic pattern where the hero, Jack, sets out “to seek his fortune.” His kindness to a stranger, cleverness or plain luck give him access to some sort of supernatural help in the form of ordinary objects with magic powers or companion[s] who help him, at other times his cleverness is his only tool. By these means, Jack completes tasks, usually three, and wins the fortune and/or girl before returning to settle down. It is Jack’s characteristics as both naïve and compassionate, crafty and opportunistic that make him successful.

The Jack Tales Cycle in Perpetuity

“…in the Nineteenth Century, literary fantasy went out of vogue and those stories of magic enchantment, heroic quests and courtly romance that form a cultural heritage thousands of years old, dating back to the oldest written epics and further still to tales spoken around the hearth-fire, came to be seen as fit only for children, relegated to the nursery…” (de Lint, ii)

Reading and rereading various Jack tales for this study was a delightful experience. Even studying one tale in different forms was never tiring. Folktales speak to something deeper, something basic to human nature as Thompson might have said. The oral tradition may be less accessible today, relegated to specific storytelling events and tellers, but the tradition of telling stories is no less alive. The formats change, the versions evolve and mutate, but the types and motifs continue to replay themselves. “It is true that fairy tales have an effect, but it is a healthy, nurturing, cathartic effect, not a fault. Using archetypes and symbolic language, they externalize for the listener conflicts and situations that cannot be spoken of or explained or as yet analyzed. They give substance to dreams. Folklore is, in part, the history of mankind.” (Yolen, Touch Magic, 50)

The tales may become better or worse in the tellings and printings, one version adds new flavors while another reduces it to its simplest form, but the tradition remains. Many languages and cultures have Jack tales—these take on the qualities of the culture that tells them. The universal quality of Jack as a recognizable character makes him seem like someone who could show up anytime and gives the tales their enduring quality. He is versatile enough to be adapted to any culture and interesting enough to persevere. He is not dull or moral, but ordinary albeit crafty and lucky.

While the Jack tale cycle belongs to a larger tradition known in Germany, Great Britain, Ireland, the Western Scottish Highlands, etc. the Appalachian Jack easily fulfilled the ideal of unlimited opportunity associated with America at the time these tales crossed the Atlantic. Nowadays, the Jack tale cycle may not be living in the hollers and backwoods, but it continues in storytelling events, classrooms and print. Charles de Lint brought Jack back as adult fiction in his story Jack the Giant Killer. We know Jack well enough to recognize his character in the toe depicted in The Giant’s Big Toe by Brock Cole, in this case, the toe outwits Jack, but the toe’s character is Jack. Tom Birdseye wrote a sequel to “Jack and the Beanstalk” called Look Out, Jack! The giant is Back! Jack is not a character who is going away.

In the tradition of folklore, the stories will vary and the elements may be reinterpreted, we may see the tale from another point of view, but the cycle will persist. Most likely, the tales will retain their purest form in the oral tradition, as that is the true nature of folklore.

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Online Resources for Jack Tales

An Annotated Picture Book List relating to Jack Tales includes a discussion of the tales by Beth Weir of Meredith College, Raleigh, NC.

AppLit Appalachian literature resource for children and young adults was produced by Tina Hanlon, Ferrum College, and Judy Teaford, Mountain State University.

Jack Tales, a project of the Media Working Group is a Jack Tales web resource by Jean Donohue.

Jack Tales and Folklore provides synopsis and links to various Jack Tales told in the Beech Mountain tradition.

Jack Tales, Story lovers SOS: Searching Out Stories provides stories and sources for various Jack Tales.

The Jack Tales Wall shows wall sculpture based on Jack Tales, in Richlands, Virginia.

StoryTelling Wiki is a storytelling resource started by Sabin Densmore and Tim Jennings including Jack Tales.

What are Jack Tales? by Susan Tillotson Light, features papers she produced for the English department at Virginia Tech.

Welcome to Jack Tales was produced by library science student, Wilson Hardcastle as a project on Jack Tales produced at San Jose State University.

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Birdseye, Tom. Look Out, Jack! The Giant is Back! New York: Holiday House, 2001.

Brunvand, Jan, ed.American Folklore: An Encyclopedia. New York : Garland Pub. 1996. 399

Carter, Isabella G. “Mountain White Folk-Lore: Tales from the Southern Blue Ridge.” The Journal of American Folklore 38.149 (1925): 340-374

Cavendish, Richard, ed. Man, Myth & Magic: The Illustrated Encyclopedia of Mythology, Religion and the Unknown. New York: Marshall Cavendish (1995): 1381-1382

Chase, Richard. The Jack Tales. New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1943.

Clarkson, Atelia & Gilbert Cross. World Folktales. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1980.

Cole, Brock. The Giant’s Toe. New York: Farrar, Staus and Giroux, 1986.

Davis, Donald. Jack Always Seeks His Fortune: Authentic Appalachian Jack Tales. Little Rock: August House Publishers, Inc. 1992.

De Lint, Charles. Jack the Giant Killer. New York: Ace Books, 1987.

D’Aulaire, Ingri & Edgar. D’aulaire’s Book of Green Myths. New York: Doubleday, 1962.

Guiterrez, Paige. “The Jack Tale: A definition of a folk tale sub-genre.” North Carolina folklore Journal. 12.2 (1978): 85-109

Haley, Gail. Mountain Jack Tales. New York: Dutton Children’s Books, 1992.

Halpert, Herbert. Appendix. The Jack Tales. By Richard Chase. USA: Houghton Mifflin, 1943. 183-188.

Hearne, Betsy. Beauty and the Beast: Visions and Revisions of an Old Tale. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1989.

Leach, Maria, ed. Funk & Wagnalls Standard Dictionary of Folklore, Mythology, and Legend. San Francisco: Harper & Row 1984, c 1972. 534-535

Lindahl, Carl. “Introduction: Representing and recovering the British- and Irish-American Märchen.” Journal of Folklore Research 38.1/2. 2001. 7-38

MacDonald, Margaret. The Storyteller’s Sourcebook: A Subject, Title, and Motif Index to Folklore Collections for Young Children. Detroit: Neal-Schuman Publishers, Inc, 1982.

McCarthy, William, ed. Jack in Two Worlds. Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 1994.

Mellor, Scott. 2001-2. Department of Scandinavian Studies. Course syllabus. University of Wisconsin. Accessed online: 22 Nov. 2003

Perdue, Charles, ed. Outwitting the Devil: Jack Tales from Wise County Virginia. Santa Fe: Ancient City Press, 1987.

Roberts, Leonard. Sang Branch Settlers: Folksongs and Tales of a Kentucky Mountain Family. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1974.

--- South from Hell-fer-Sartin: Kentucky Mountain Folktales. Lexington: University of Kentucky Press, 1955.

Stone, Kay. “Things Disney Never Told Us” The Journal of American Folklore. 88.347. (1975): 42-50.

Thompson, Stith. The Folktale. Berkley: University of California Press reprinted (1977 c 1946 by Hold Rinehart & Winston).

--- Motif-index of folk-literature; a classification of narrative elements in folktales, ballads, myths, fables, mediaeval romances, exampla, fabliaux, jest-books, and local legends. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1955.

Yolan, Jane. Touch Magic. New York: Philomel Books, 1981.

--- “Introduction.” Best loved stories told at the national storytelling festival. Selected by the National Association for the Preservation and Perpetuation of Storytelling. Little Rock: National Storytelling Press, 1991.

Graphic by Gail E. Haley from: “Jack of Hearts and King Marock” published in Mountain Jack Tales: 75

Inspiration: Songcatcher a film by Maggie Greenwald,© 2000

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Copyright © 2004 - Janet Thompson
Last update 01/15/2004

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