Sunday, August 19, 2007

The Stupidity of Giants

I was reading "Jack the Giant Killer" to my son (who is six) last night. The version comes from a book from the 1920s called Once Upon a Time (q.v.). The cover suggests the wonders inside. The tales were written, rather "rewritten" since they are all ancient classics, by Katherine Lee Bates (most famous for writing the words to "God Bless America"). The illustrations are by the great and gifted Margaret Evans Price. My mother had bought a copy at a garage sale when we were kids. As adults, my sister and I sought out copies of our own (the garage sale copy not having survived our childhood). Bates does a great job with the writing, which flows and is informed by a poet's sensibility. Some of the language is too archaic for my kids so I update it improvisationally. Not all the stories are popular with them but all of us like "Jack the Giant Killer." It includes several beheadings, a hanging, one inadvertent suicide and death by pick axe (all for giants, of course).

Reading it again yesterday, I was struck by how dense these giants are. Giant number one, Cormoran, is killed when he is lured into a pit by Jack. After he tumbles into the pit, Jack strikes him "a terrible blow on that empty skull" with a pick axe. Stupid. The next Giant, Thunderdale, catches Jack asleep in the woods. (I guess Jack, despite his reputation for cleverness, can also be charged with some stupidity. When he is found asleep in the woods by Thundredale, Jack is wearing the belt given to him by the grateful Cornish people that identifies him as, "the valiant Cornishman who slew the giant Cormoran." Not a good idea to where such a label when you're snoozing in giant country). Anyway, Giant number two picks Jack up and puts him in his pocket. When he gets back to his castle (despite being complete clamwits the Giants are always very rich) he sticks Jack in a high-up room. Thunderdale then goes off to get a Giant friend to come for dinner (Jack is on the menu). Jack can't find a way out of this room, but he does find a coil of rope. Thunderdale has obligingly announced his plans, allowing Jack to work up a plan. Jack ties two slip knot nooses into the rope, which he drops over the heads of the two giants when they walk under the window where he has been imprisoned. Both are strangled in two minutes. Stupid times two.

The next giant is stupidest of them all. This is the two-headed Welsh giant. Bates's illustration depicts this one as a greasy open-mouth breather. Jack, a tired traveler, knocks on his castle door, not knowing a giant lives there. The Giant invites Jack in for dinner. His motives, as one may guess, are not pure. Jack, however, having no other choice and coveting some marvelous possessions of this Giant, stays the night. While he's trying to get to sleep, however, Jack hears the Giant muttering his plans to prevent Jack from seeing "the morning light because he will "dash his brains out quite."

These Giants need a seminar or a handbook or something. Rule number one: Don't mutter your plans to kill a victim while he sleeps where he can hear you. This, of course, is in the vein of the "Fee Fi Fo Fum" mistake of the stupid giant in "Jack and the Beanstalk". This is the same mistake made by every villain in James Bond stories. There was a fabulous Saturday Night Live skit once which brought all the Bond villains together to discuss their problems. They worked out that the thing they should do when they next capture Bond is to kill him. Don't tell him your plan then set him up in some torture chamber set on auto-kill. Just shoot him. Maybe Ian Fleming had these fairy tale giants in mind while he was writing Goldfinger etc.

Coming back to Jack, having been supplied this bit of intelligence regarding the two-headed giant's pans, Jack the Giant Killer slips out of bed and puts a Jack-sized log in his place. The Giant comes in with his club and smashes the log.

Query: Why did the Giant not notice that he was beating on a log? Wouldn't a log struck with a club sound different than a boy? (Sorry for that image but one can't help wondering).

Query: Why did the Giant go whistling out of the room that night after his terrible deed instead of looking to see what he had done to Jack?

These were stupid, fatal mistakes. Jack wakes up the next morning and heads down to breakfast, which is a washtub-size helping of hasty pudding. The Giant plays it cool. Jack does too. He claims to have slept well except for when a rat scurried over him and slapped him with his tail a few times. The Giant is flummoxed but they eat together. Jack, however, only scoops the pudding into a leather bag under his jacket. And then, he famously challenges the Giant to a challenge. Jack can cut himself open and let out his breakfast without doing himself any harm. Can the Giant do the same? You guessed the ending. The most colossal act of stupidity in English literature - an act befitting a stupid Giant.

This Giant was known to possess four wonderful things, which Jack had determined to get for himself the moment he agreed to stay the night. These are a cloak of invisibility, shoes of swiftness, a cap of knowledge (which gives all the right answers to any questions) and a sword that can cut through anything. With these tools at his disposal, the last few Giant killings are pretty much a cake-walk. The Giants are still dim, but they never would have a chance even if they were Einsteins.

Of course, I never noticed any of this when my Grandma read this to me or when I read it myself as a child. Kids are credulous or willing to suspend disbelief. I couldn't help raising a few of these points to my own kids. I don't want to ruin the magic of fairy tales for them, but I also don't want them to be simps, like these Giants.