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Sunday 27 September 2009

Profile: Jack (of the beanstalk fame)

Name: Jack (a name incidentally that has been the most popular choice for British parents naming their sons for 13 years running, apparently mothers say Jack suggests 'honesty, trustworthiness and hard work' - hmmm).

Age: Not as sprightly as he looks; there's no dating the oral story but the first recorded mention of him is in a burlesque version of the tale in an early eighteenth century chapbook called Round about our Coal Fire; or, Christmas Entertainments, which is described as 'giving a particular Account of Jack’s arrival at the Castle of Gogmagog; his rescuing ten Thousand Ladies and Knights from being broiled for the Giant’s Breakfast; jumping through Key-holes; and at last how he destroyed the Giant and became Monarch of the Universe'. It's an amusing and rather saucy version of the tale which disappointingly ends with the author assuring readers that 'enchantment proceeds from nothing but the Chit-Chat of an old nurse, or the Maggots in a Madman's brain.'

Benjamin Tabart's 1807 version The History of Jack and the Bean-stalk is the oldest surviving literary version that resembles the tale we're familiar with today - although in this more moral version Jack is told by a fairy that the giant had murdered his father when he was a baby, forcing his mother into hiding, and taking the castle that was rightfully theirs. The same year a verse version was published called The History of Mother Twaddle, and the Marvellous Achievements of Her Son Jack, by B. A. T, in which Jack swaps a goose for the magic beans rather than a cow.

Location: He originally came from England, or possibly Germany (there's just no pinning these fairy tale characters down!). Not to be confused with the other English giant killer called Jack who managed to knock off a lot more giants (this is a fantastic link looking at Jack the Giant Killer and its Arthurian links, not to be passed by). The two Jacks feature together as old men in one of my favourite fairy tale books from childhood - Are all the Giants Dead (1975) by Mary Norton, which is illustrated by Brian Froud.

Relationship status: In Joseph Jacobs' version, which is the one most of us grew up with, 'he married a great princess' but in many of the others he ends up living happily ever after with his mother (serves him right).

Hero or bad boy?
It depends who you're talking to; in Round about our Coal Fire; or, Christmas Entertainments we are told 'there was never such a dirty, lazy, tatter-de-mallion Dog as Jack in the World'.

In Tabart's version he is a hero and a lovely boy who 'could not bear to deceive his mother' when instructed by the fairy to venture up the beanstalk without telling her.

In Jacobs' he is more of a Jack the lad;
"Cheer up, mother, I’ll go and get work somewhere," said Jack.
"We’ve tried that before, and nobody would take you," said his mother; "
In Roald Dahl's version (from Revolting Rhymes, 1982)  his Mum is the baddy - beating Jack with the handle of the vacuum cleaner - but she gets what she deserves:
'By Christopher!' Jack cried. 'By gum!
The Giant's eaten up my mum!
He smelled her out! She's in his belly!
'I had a hunch that she was smelly.'
(and so Jack learns it's a good idea to take a bath every day).

In 'Up the Down Beanstalk: A Wife Remembers' by Peter S. Beagle from Troll's Eye View (2009) Mrs Eunice Giant tells us he, 'was a nice boy, really, for all the vexation he caused. They always are; I've never eaten a bad one yet.'

Tabart's version strove to justify Jack's behaviour and at least in Jacobs', and the many versions it inspired, the Giant does gobble up little boys and girls, which sort of makes him fair game, but I'm always slightly worried by the misguidedly sanitised versions, such as the Ladybird one my sons own, in which the giant doesn't eat people at all - calling instead 'fee fi fo fum watch out everyone here I come' before scoffing a load of roast potatoes. Somehow this tale of Jack stealing all the Giants treasure, murdering him and then living happily ever after doesn't feel like a good story to be telling my children!

Places to look for him online:
You can see the original Tabart text, together with two later versions and a useful essay at the Hockliffe Collection.

SurLaLune features an annotated version of Jacobs' tale, together with a wealth of useful information on its history and modern interpretations, as well as lots of illustrations.

You can see Edith Nesbit's version and several others at the University of Southern Mississippi's Jack and the Beanstalk and Jack the Giant Killer project.

You can see an 1897 version from the 'Kris Kringle Series' at the Rosetta Project.

There is an interesting look at the history of the tale focusing on the traditional English pantomime version of it here.

In the latest issue of Cabinet des Fées you can read a lovely retelling of the tale from the point of view of the harp by Alex Wilson.

And now a little on Fee Fi Fo Fum and its variants - a common cry of giants in folklore and fairy tales, it also appears in Shakespeare's King Lear - Edgar, when disguised as mad Tom, says;
'Child Rowland to the Dark Tower came,
His word was still 'Fie, foh, and fum,
I smell the blood of a British man'
In Jacob's version of the fairy tale Childe Rowland the cry belongs to the King of Elfland who says,
"Fee, fi, fo, fum,
I smell the blood of a Christian man,
Be he dead, be he living, with my brand,
I'll dash his brains from his brain-pan."
There's an interesting blog post here that delves further into the history of the phrase.

To end, and in the disappointing absence of any real magic beans being available on the internet, I offer this peculiar link to a magic plant company.

The lovely illustration above is by Liverpool based artist Cate Simmons, you can see more of her fantastic work on her flickr page.

Any more Jack links? Please feel free to add them below.

Monday 7 September 2009

fairy tales and... shadows

'Often he regards his shadow or reflection as his soul, or at all events as a vital part of himself, and as such it is necessarily a source of danger to him. For if it is trampled upon, struck, or stabbed, he will feel the injury as if it were done to his person; and if it is detached from him entirely (as he believes it may be) he will die.'
Sir James Frazer, one of the founders of modern anthropology, reporting on beliefs about shadows in The Golden Bough

Shadows aren't quite of this world; tricky, slippery characters that often dance at the edges of sight; our own a part of us that stays strangely apart. For centuries they've been contemplated and captured by artists, philosophers, psychologists and storytellers (who after all must have originally told their tales in front of flickering fires, inviting the shadows to gather and listen).

In George Macdonald's fairy tale 'The Shadows' (first published in Adela Cathcart, 1864) the shadows do gather by the fireside, although their existence is in danger from 'the various sorts of artificial light'. These are shadows who, for all their grotesque cavorting and mimicry (especially on nursery walls), are not really creatures of darkness - they dedicate themselves to getting people to do good.

In Hans Christian Andersen's 'The Shadow' (first published in 1847) we meet fairy tale shadow of an altogether darker nature. Here's a man's shadow who is able to go off and create an autonomous life for himself. The shadow becomes a man and the man becomes a shadow and like the majority of Andersen's tales there is not much chance of a 'happily ever after'.

In 'The Shadow' Andersen's 'learned man' is at first vexed 'not so much because the shadow was gone, but because he knew there was a story of a man without a shadow. All the people at home, in his country, knew this story; and when he returned, and related his own adventures, they would say it was only an imitation; and he had no desire for such things to be said of him.'

The story he's reffering to is the literary fairy tale 'Die wundersame Geschichte von Peter Schlemihl' (The Wonderful History of Peter Schlemihl) by Adelbert von Chamisso, written in 1813. In it a man gives his shadow to a stranger for a purse of everlasting gold, but without his shadow people fear him, he becomes an outcast afraid to step out in sunlight. It's a fantastic tale, taking in romance, rivalry, ruin and even a pair of seven league boots. Does he get his shadow back? You'll have to read it to see, there's a modern translation from the German available here.

In more recent times Carol Ann Duffy has written a chilling fairy tale about shadows called 'The Stolen Childhood'. One of three tales in a beautiful little book called The Stolen Childhood and other dark fairy tales (Puffin, 2003) the story involves a wicked stepmother who makes an unwise deal with a stranger to get her hands on a pair of magical scissors...
'The stepmother knelt down, silent as poison, and cut along the whole length of the girl's shadow. A breeze blew under it and lifted it gently but the stepmother snatched at it, crumpling it up and stuffing it in her skirt pocket. It felt like the softest silk.'
And so the stepmother steals the girl's shadow and with it her youth, leaving the girl with her own 'heavy and sour smelling' shadow. The story is beautifully written and I don't want to spoil it by telling you the ending, instead I urge you to hunt this book down!

The thought of losing my own shadow sets my teeth on edge so I must be fairly attached to it, or it to me, but in case of the worst - what is the best way to stick a shadow back on?
'If he thought at all, but I don't believe he ever thought, it was that he and his shadow, when brought near to each other, would join like drops of water; and when they did not he was appalled. He tried to stick it on with soap from the bathroom, but that also failed'
Peter Pan (first published in book form in 1911) is perhaps more fantasy than fairy tale but the story certainly contains fairy tale elements (and it's included in the Oxford Companion to Fairy Tales so that's good enough for me!) and in case you've forgotten and you're ever in the unfortunate position of having your shadow snapped off by a window and then rolled up and put away in a draw - you need a Wendy to sew it back on.

Shadows have also been harnessed to tell fairy tales. The ancient art of shadow play has a long association with folklore and was the inspiration for Lotte Reiniger's enchanting silhouette fairy tale films. Jan Pieńkowski also uses the silhouette technique to great effect in his illustrations for The Fairy Tales (Puffin, 2005).

Now, if you're ready, and you wish to wander further into the world of shadows (with your own tucked firmly underneath your arm)...

Explore the role of shadows in art in this article from magazine Tate Etc.

There's a fascinating interview with Victor I. Stoichita, author of A Short History of the Shadow (Reaktion, 1997) in Cabinet magazine.

If you're interested in the Jungian interpretation of fairy tales his collaborator Marie-Louise von Franz wrote a book called Shadow and Evil in Fairy Tales (A.C.G. Jung Foundation, 1974).

And last but by no means least I highly recommend Marina Warner's brilliant book Phatasmagoria (OUP, 2006) which devotes a chapter to shadow in the course of its exploration of the imagination and its relationship to the supernatural.

The wonderful shadow picture above, titled 'At the Foot of the Bed', is by London-based photographer Tom Elkins, visit his website to see more of his work.

Friday 4 September 2009

Must reads - Cabinet des Fées - Issue 8

Cabinet des Fées' latest online issue is absolutely packed with goodies; enchanting poetry, brilliant short stories and a good selection of book reviews. There are some great new takes on old favourites with the harp telling the story of Jack and the Beanstalk (Harp by Alex Wilson), Cinderella's stepmother telling Monsieur Grimm what her step-daughter is really like (In the Ashes by Gerri Leen) and a fantastic blend of science and faeire in Caren Gussoff's Rapunzel story Basic Biology.

Wolves, warriors, princesses, the issue is brimming with fantastical goodness (and wickedness!). Particular favourites of mine were Catherine Knutsson's melancholic but beautiful The Bear and the Bicycle and Mike Allen's stunning offering Stone Flowers, which really had me gripped. All of this and so much more to be lingered over, and look out for the quirky adverts they have been 'forced to include' -  'Has wild magic taken the smile from your baby's lips and the sparkle from her eye? Did great-grandmother's dalliance with a kelpie finally breed true in your darling son? - Granny Mothweed can help' - brilliant!

Tuesday 1 September 2009

Chagford Filmmaking Group

Who are they and what do they do?
Chagford Filmmaking Group are a non-profit, voluntary organisation based in Devon who make magical films of British fairy tales. Originally set up by harpist Elizabeth-Jane Baldry, her sons and their friends as a way of alleviating summer holiday boredom they have now completed five enchanting films and even have amazing artist and Oscar winning conceptual designer Alan Lee (of Lord of the Rings fame) contributing designs. You can find out more from this interview on BBC Devon.

Latest news
Filming has just wrapped for their sixth production, based on the Northumbrian fairy tale The Laidly Worm of Spindleston Heugh (read the story, it's one I'd not come across before and I loved it!). They've also been awarded funding for their 2010 Shared Legends project which will see them collaborating with Centre de l'Imaginaire Arthurien on a film of twelfth century fairytale, Sir Lanval (a verse translation is available here) to be filmed in Brittany and Devon.

How you can get involved
Support their work and join their mailing list to be kept up to date with all of their latest news and events.

All of the wonderful photographs featured in this post are used with permission and have been taken from the Chagford Filmaking Group website where you'll find lots more beautiful stills from their films as well as fantastic trailers and clips.