Wonder Tales in Appalachia
by Grace Toney Edwards
Reprinted with permission from Journey Through Fantasy Literature: A Resource Guide for Teachers. Vol. I. Ed. Roberta T. Herrin. Developed during a Teachers Institute sponsored by East Tennessee State University and the National Endowment for the Humanities, 1988–89. The teaching unit on Jack Tales in this volume concludes with a Bibliography by Edwards. Most of the same references are listed in AppLit's Bibliography of Appalachian Folktales under Picture Books, Folktale Collections, and Background Resources.
Tucked away in mountain hollows, nestled in a suburban child's bedroom, strutting on a stage in Whitesburg, and animating classrooms all over the region are bits of mountain fantasy. Better known as Jack tales, these wonder stories derive from an old Germanic oral narrative tradition once designated for the edification of princes. Like so many of the cultural preservations in the Appalachian Mountains, they were packed into the minds of the earliest emigrants and carried across the sea and up into the highlands of the New World. Here they have steadfastly remained; and here they have been discovered in abundance by collector Richard Chase in the 1930's and 40's, by scholars Leonard Roberts and Marie Campbell in the 1950's, and by folklorists and cultural sleuths right into the twenty-first century.
Oral in origin, most of the stories have by now been committed to print. Yet the fixed text that print creates has by no means obliterated the oral tradition. It exists side by side with the books that spring from it. True, the means by which the oral tradition continues has changed over the years; for today Jack tales are more likely to be told in schoolrooms and at folk festivals than by an old granny sitting next to the fire, and the teller is more likely to have read a version of his story in Chase's The Jack Tales or Roberts' Sang Branch Settlers than to have heard it from his grandfather as they shucked corn together. The latter scenario still occurs but is the exception rather than the norm. The very fact, though, that teachers and performers are perpetuating wonder stories gives reason to believe that these audiences will perpetuate them in their own wayspromising Jack and his kind a long, long life.
Who is Jack? And what does he have to do with Jack tales? Well, Jack is a character, usually a young boy, a teenager perhaps, who is central to many of the wonder stories that get labeled "Jack tales." And yet there is a rich body of stories in the same genre that have nothing whatsoever to do with Jack. Their heroes are Muncimeg (or Mutsmag), Wicked John, Catskins, Whitebear Whittington, Ashpet, and a host of others.
But because Jack pops up so frequently in this type of story, his name has come to be the generic signal. Jack's stories almost always follow a formulaic pattern: Jack is the underdog or scapegoat who goes out into the world to try to make his way alone. Invariably Jack faces challenges that his brothers, Will and Tom, fail; but he surmounts them, usually by means of a supernatural helper (such as a bull's horn or a tablecloth or a cowhide). These appear to be ordinary objects, but they have been endowed with magical powers and given to Jack, typically because he has shown human compassion somewhere in his lifetime. With the help of his tokens, then, Jack passes the tests, wins the stakes (usually gold and a pretty girl), and "goes on up to the clearing where he's got him a little house." The storyteller is apt to end with words like these: "And the last time I was up there, he was a-doing pretty good."
The great social leveling process, for which Appalachian Mountain people are renowned, works to make a king as accessible as a blacksmith. Jack, for instance, may walk right up to the king's house and find his highness sitting on the porch. Jack says, "Howdy, King. Have you got ary job of work for me?" And so the plot is off and running. And the listener, or reader, is hooked as he labors with Jack through the cleaning of the Augean Stables or drops with him into the underworld in an adventure paralleling Beowulf's search for the old fire dragon. Here is fantasy, rich, full, and living abundantly in the Appalachian Mountains.