Neither Jack nor his tale are referenced in English literature prior to the eighteenth century, and his story did not appear in print until 1711. It is probable an enterprising publisher assembled a number of anecdotes about giants to form the 1711 tale. One scholar speculates the public had grown weary of King Arthur – the greatest of all giant killers – and Jack was created to fill his shoes.
The tale is set during the reign of King Arthur and tells of a young Cornish farmer's son named Jack who is not only strong but so clever he easily confounds the learned with his penetrating wit. Jack encounters a cattle-devouring giant called Cormoran (Cornish: 'The Giant of the Sea' SWF:Kowr-Mor-An) and lures him to his death in a pit trap. Jack is dubbed 'Jack the Giant-Killer' for this feat and receives not only the giant's wealth but a sword and belt to commemorate the event. Another giant, Blunderbore, vows vengeance for Cormoran's death and carries Jack off to an enchanted castle. Jack manages to slay Blunderbore and his brother Rebecks by hanging and stabbing them. He frees three ladies held captive in the giant's castle.
On a trip into Wales, Jack tricks a two-headed Welsh giant into slashing his own belly open. King Arthur's son now enters the story and Jack becomes his servant. They spend the night with a three-headed giant and rob him in the morning. In gratitude for having spared his castle, the giant gives Jack a magic sword, a cap of knowledge, a cloak of invisibility, and shoes of swiftness. On the road, Jack and the Prince meet an enchanted Lady serving Lucifer. Jack breaks the spell with his magic accessories, beheads Lucifer, and the Lady marries the Prince. Jack is rewarded with membership in the Round Table.
Jack ventures forth alone with his magic shoes, sword, cloak, and cap to rid the realm of troublesome giants. He encounters a giant terrorising a knight and his lady. He cuts off the giant's legs then puts him to death. He discovers the giant's companion in a cave. Invisible in his cloak, Jack cuts off the giant's nose then slays him by plunging his sword into the monster's back. He frees the giant's captives and returns to the house of the knight and lady he earlier had rescued. A banquet is prepared, but interrupted by the two-headed giant Thunderdel chanting "Fee, fau, fum". Jack defeats and beheads the giant with a trick involving the house's moat and drawbridge.
Growing weary of the festivities, Jack sallies forth for more adventures and meets an elderly man who directs him to an enchanted castle belonging to the giant Galigantus (Galligantua, in the Joseph Jacobs version). The giant holds captive many knights and ladies and a Duke's daughter who has been transformed into a white doe through the power of a sorcerer. Jack beheads the giant, the sorcerer flees, the Duke's daughter is restored to her true shape, and the captives are freed. At the court of King Arthur, Jack marries the Duke's daughter and the two are given an estate where they live happily ever after.
Tales of monsters and heroes are abundant around the world, making the source of "Jack the Giant Killer" difficult to pin down, however the ascription of Jack relation to Cornwall suggests a Brythonic (Celtic) origin. The early Welsh tale How Culhwch won Olwen (tentatively dated to c. 1100), set in Arthurian Britain places Arthur as chief among the kings of Britain. The young hero Culhwch ap Cilydd makes his way to his cousin Arthur's court at Celliwig in Cornwall where he demands Olwen as his bride; the beautiful daughter of the giant Ysbaddaden Ben Cawr ('Chief of Giants'). The Giant sets a series of impossible tasks which Arthur's champions Bedwyr and Cai are honour-bound to fulfill before Olwen is released to the lad; and the Giant King must die. Folklorists Iona and Peter Opie have observed in The Classic Fairy Tales (1974) that "the tenor of Jack's tale, and some of the details of more than one of his tricks with which he outwits the giants, have similarities with Norse mythology." An incident between Thor and the giant Skrymir in the Prose Edda of ca. 1220, they note, resembles the incident between Jack and the stomach-slashing Welsh giant. The Opies further note that the Swedish tale of "The Herd-boy and the Giant" shows similarities to the same incident, and "shares an ancestor" with the Grimms's "The Valiant Little Tailor", a tale with wide distribution. According to the Opies, Jack's magical accessories – the cap of knowledge, the cloak of invisibility, the magic sword, and the shoes of swiftness – could have been borrowed from the tale of Tom Thumb or from Norse mythology, however older analogues in British Celtic lore such as Y Mabinogi and the tales of Gwyn ap Nudd, cognate with the Irish Fionn mac Cumhaill, suggest that these represent attributes of the earlier Celtic gods such as the shoes associated with triple-headed Lugus; Welsh Lleu Llaw Gyffes of the Fourth Branch, Arthur's invincible sword Caledfwlch and his Mantle of Invisibility Gwenn one of the Thirteen Treasures of the Island of Britain mentioned in two of the branches; or the similar cloak of Caswallawn in the Second Branch. Another parallel is the Greek demigod Perseus, who was given a magic sword, the winged sandals of Hermes and the 'cap of darkness' (borrowed from Hades) to slay the gorgon Medusa. Ruth B. Bottigheimer observes in The Oxford Companion to Fairy Tales that Jack's final adventure with Galigantus was influenced by the "magical devices" of French fairy tales. The Opies conclude that analogues from around the world "offer no surety of Jack's antiquity."
The Opies note that tales of giants were long known in Britain. King Arthur's encounter with the giant of St Michael's Mount – or Mont Saint-Michel in Brittany – was related by Geoffrey of Monmouth in Historia Regum Britanniae in 1136, and published by Sir Thomas Malory in 1485 in the fifth chapter of the fifth book of Le Morte d'Arthur:
- Then came to [King Arthur] an husbandman ... and told him how there was ... a great giant which had slain, murdered and devoured much people of the country ... [Arthur journeyed to the Mount, discovered the giant roasting dead children,] ... and hailed him, saying ... [A]rise and dress thee, thou glutton, for this day shalt thou die of my hand. Then the glutton anon started up, and took a great club in his hand, and smote at the king that his coronal fell to the earth. And the king hit him again that he carved his belly and cut off his genitours, that his guts and his entrails fell down to the ground. Then the giant threw away his club, and caught the king in his arms that he crushed his ribs ... And then Arthur weltered and wrung, that he was other while under and another time above. And so weltering and wallowing they rolled down the hill till they came to the sea mark, and ever as they so weltered Arthur smote him with his dagger.
Anthropophagic giants are mentioned in The Complaynt of Scotland in 1549, the Opies note, and, in King Lear of 1605, they indicate, Shakespeare alludes to the Fee-fi-fo-fum chant (" ... fie, foh, and fumme, / I smell the blood of a British man"), making it certain he knew a tale of "blood-sniffing giants". Thomas Nashe also alluded to the chant in Have with You to Saffron-Walden, written nine years before King Lear., the earliest version can be found in The Red Ettin of 1528.
The History of Jack and the GiantsEdit
"The History of Jack and the Giants" (the earliest known edition) was published in two parts by J. White of Newcastle in 1711, the Opies indicate, but was not listed in catalogues or inventories of the period nor was Jack one of the folk heroes in the repertoire of Robert Powel (i.e., Martin Powell), a puppeteer established in Covent Garden. "Jack and the Giants" however is referenced in The Weekly Comedy of 22 January 1708, according to the Opies, and in the tenth number Terra-Filius in 1721.
As the eighteenth century wore on, Jack became a familiar figure. Research by the Opies indicate that the farce Jack the Giant-Killer was performed at the Haymarket in 1730; that John Newbery printed fictional letters about Jack in A Little Pretty Pocket-Book in 1744; and that a political satire, The last Speech of John Good, vulgarly called Jack the Giant-Queller, was printed ca. 1745. The Opies and Bottigheimer both note that Henry Fielding alluded to Jack in Joseph Andrews (1742); Dr. Johnson admitted to reading the tale; Boswell read the tale in his boyhood; and William Cowper was another who mentioned the tale.
In "Jack and Arthur: An Introduction to Jack the Giant Killer", Thomas Green writes that Jack has no place in Cornish folklore, but was created at the beginning of the eighteenth century simply as a framing device for a series of gory, giant-killing adventures. The tales of Arthur precede and inform "Jack the Giant Killer", he notes, but points out that Le Morte d'Arthur had been out of print since 1634 and concludes from this fact that the public had grown weary of Arthur. Jack, he posits, was created to fill Arthur's shoes.
Bottigheimer notes that in the southern Appalachians of America Jack became a generic hero of tales usually adapted from the Brothers Grimm. She points out however that "Jack the Giant Killer" is rendered directly from the chapbooks except the English hasty pudding in the incident of the belly-slashing Welsh giant becomes mush.
John Matthews writes in Taliessin, Shamanism and the Bardic Mysteries of Britain & Ireland (1992) that giants are very common throughout British folklore, and often represent the "original" inhabitants, ancestors, or gods of the island before the coming of "civilised man", their gigantic stature reflecting their "otherwordly" nature. Giants figure prominently in Cornish, Breton and Welsh folklore, and in common with many animist belief systems, they represent the force of nature. The modern Standard Written Form in Cornish is Kowr singular (mutating to Gowr), Kewri plural, transcribed into Late Cornish as Gour, "Goë", "Cor" or similar. They are often responsible for the creation of the natural landscape, and are often petrified in death, a particularly recurrent theme in Celtic myth and folklore. An obscure Count of Brittany was named Gourmaëlon ruling from 908 to 913 and may be an alternative source of the Giant's name Cormoran, or Gourmaillon, translated by Joseph Loth as "he of the brown eyebrows".
The foundation myth of Cornwall originates with the early Brythonic chronicler Nennius in the Historia Brittonum and made its way, via Geoffrey of Monmouth into Early Modern English cannon where it was absorbed by the Elizabethans as the tale of King Leir alongside that of Cymbeline and King Arthur, other mythical British kings. Carol Rose reports in Giants, Monsters, and Dragons that the tale of Jack the Giant Killer may be a development of the Corineus and Gogmagog legend. The motifs are echoed in the Hunting of Twrch Trwyth.
In 1136, Geoffrey of Monmouth reported in the first book of his imaginative The History of the Kings of Britain that the indigenous giants of Cornwall were slaughtered by Brutus, the (eponymous founder of Great Britain), Corineus (eponymous founder of Cornwall) and his brothers who had settled in Britain after the Trojan War. Following the defeat of the giants, their leader Gogmagog wrestled with the warrior Corineus, and was killed when Corineus threw him from a cliff into the sea:
- For it was a diversion to him [Corineus] to encounter the said giants, which were in greater numbers there than in all the other provinces that fell to the share of his companions. Among the rest was one detestable monster, named Goëmagot [Gogmagog], in stature twelve cubits [6.5 m], and of such prodigious strength that at one shake he pulled up an oak as if it had been a hazel wand. On a certain day, when Brutus (founder of Britain and Corineus' overlord) was holding a solemn festival to the gods, in the port where they at first landed, this giant with twenty more of his companions came in upon the Britons, among whom he made a dreadful slaughter. But the Britons at last assembling together in a body, put them to the rout, and killed them every one but Goëmagot. Brutus had given orders to have him preserved alive, out of a desire to see a combat between him and Corineus, who took a great pleasure in such encounters. Corineus, overjoyed at this, prepared himself, and throwing aside his arms, challenged him to wrestle with him. At the beginning of the encounter, Corineus and the giant, standing, front to front, held each other strongly in their arms, and panted aloud for breath, but Goëmagot presently grasping Corineus with all his might, broke three of his ribs, two on his right side and one on his left. At which Corineus, highly enraged, roused up his whole strength, and snatching him upon his shoulders, ran with him, as fast as the weight would allow him, to the next shore, and there getting upon the top of a high rock, hurled down the savage monster into the sea; where falling on the sides of craggy rocks, he was torn to pieces, and coloured the waves with his blood. The place where he fell, taking its name from the giant's fall, is called Lam Goëmagot, that is, Goëmagot's Leap, to this day.
The match is traditionally presumed to have occurred at Plymouth Hoe on the Cornish-Devon border, although Rame Head is a nearby alternative location. In the early seventeenth century, Richard Carew reported a carved chalk figure of a giant at the site in the first book of The Survey of Cornwall:
- Againe, the activitie of Devon and Cornishmen, in this facultie of wrastling, beyond those of other Shires, dooth seeme to derive them a speciall pedigree, from that graund wrastler Corineus. Moreover, upon the Hawe at Plymmouth, there is cut out in the ground, the pourtrayture of two men, the one bigger, the other lesser, with Clubbes in their hands, (whom they terme Gog-Magog) and (as I have learned) it is renewed by order of the Townesmen, when cause requireth, which should inferre the same to bee a monument of some moment. And lastly the place, having a steepe cliffe adjoyning, affordeth an oportunitie to the fact.