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"Jack and the Three Sillies" - or - "Jack's Wife"


Overview: There are many variations on this old tale about noodleheads or sillies or foolish people. There is usually a series of three individuals or couples or groups doing something incredibly stupid such as trying to get the moon out of a pond where they see its reflection, or showing ignorance of everyday practicalities such as how to put on pants. Often the main character sets out to find others who are as foolish as his or her spouse or fiancé(e). It is interesting that in some of the Appalachian tales, the main character is Jack's wife and the sillies are all men.

Chase, Richard. Jack and the Three Sillies. Illus. Joshua Tolford. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1950. Picture book. The narrator says he's only heard one tale about Jack marrying. Jack's wife learns that others are more foolish than he is after he brings home a rock he acquires in a series of Jack and the Threee Sillies coverfoolish trades (see Foolish Jack). Like the young bridegroom in European variants, the wife returns to Jack after traveling to find other sillies; she finds people (both men and women) trying to get the moon's reflection out of a pool, trying to pull a plow themselves instead of using their mule, and trying to get a man's head through a shirt without cutting a neck hole in it. The wife gets money from each of the people she helps. The well-designed illustration repeated at the beginning and end sums up the whole story. The book contains no notes but a short introduction to the tradition of stories about Jack. There is an emphasis on the oral tradition as the story's source, with “Told by Richard Chase” on the title page. The narrator says, “Jack?—Why he was a boy lived back in old times.  I reckon he lived somewhere here in the mountains. There’s a lot of tales on Jack.” He ends with “And the last time I was down there they were both of ‘em gettin’ on well.”

“Jack and the Three Sillies.” Told by Richard Chase. Richard Chase Tells Three “Jack” Tales from the Southern Appalachians.  LP. Sharon, Conn: Folk-Legacy Records, 1962.

“Jack and the Three Sillies.” Told by Orville HicksCarryin’ On: Jack Tales for Children of All Ages. Audio cassette. Whitesburg, KY: June Appal Recordings, 1990. The plot is very similar to the one told by Chase, except that one man can't get into a sweater rather than a shirt.

"Jack's Wife." Told by Omope Carter Daboiku. Recorded in Stories from Around the World, Lesson #1. Cincinnati, OH: Kaldy Studios, 2003. This excellent African American storyteller from Ironton, Ohio stresses that not many tales are told about Jack's wife. Years after Jack wins his wife by making her laugh (for the story being alluded to here, see Jack and the King's Girl), Jack is lazy and stupid. Tired of doing all the work on their farm, his wife leaves to visit her mother, vowing not to return unless she finds three people as bad as Jack. She learns that you have to be careful what you promise, because she encounters three foolish men on her trip. One is trying to pull a cow onto the roof to eat grass, and is reluctant to change his family traditions by using a tool such as a scythe to cut the grass and then throw it down. Another doesn't know how to put on his long johns without jumping into them on the clothesline, which takes months each year and causes broken bones. The third is trying to carry sunshine into the house in a wheelbarrow to dry the clean floor. Each one gives the wife money in return for her advice that will save him time and money. She plans to treat her mother and herself, but then realizes she also has to return to Jack now because he's not as stupid as the people she encountered. After her mother gives her a bit of advice, Jack's wife gives him something he likes to eat and drink, and he then asks what he can do for her.

"Foolish Jack." In Stephenson, R. Rex.  Jack Tales Too! Stories from the Blue Ridge Mountains. Salt Lake City, UT: Encore Performance Publishing, 2004. Story theatre dramatization, as performed by The Ferrum Jack Tale Players. In this combination of the foolish swapping plot and the three sillies, Jack's mother sends him to get $100 from a banker for repairing the roof. Jack trades the money for a series of animals that he is told have great attributes, including a duck that supposedly lays golden eggs; in the end he trades for a rock to throw at a frog and misses. His mother sends him to find people as foolish as he is, and to get the $100. He gets the money by helping a man who thinks the moon is in a well, a couple trying to plow the field without using their mule, and a couple who don't know how to cut a neck hole in the man's new shirt. This script also includes "Jack's Mother's Second Marriage," "Jack and the Mean Old Man," and "Soldier Jack."

"The Three Sillies." In Roberts, Leonard. South From Hell-fer-Sartin': Kentucky Mountain Folk Tales. U of KY Press, 1955. Rpt. Berea, KY: The Council of the Southern Mountains, 1964. pp. 131-33. This version is like European tales in which a young traveling man happens to stay with a girl and her parents who are foolish enough to predict doom because an ax is sticking out of the ceiling in their cellar. The stranger travels "a long way" to see an old woman trying to get a cow on the roof to eat grass by pulling it up the chimney, a man who doesn't know how to put his trousers on, and some people thinking the moon's reflection is a cheese they can rake out of the river. The man returns to the home of the original family to tell them "they's the three silliest he'd ever seen."

"Molly, Jack, and the Sillies." In Shelby, Anne. The Adventures of Molly Whuppie and Other Appalachian Folktales. Illus. Paula McArdle. Chapel Hill: Univ. of NC Press, 2007. pp. 70-77. Very similar to the tales retold by Richard Chase and Orville Hicks, above. Molly is the heroine of most of the tales in this collection, married to Jack in a couple tales near the end after she rescues him from a giant. She acknowledges at the end of this tale that there are silly women as well as men "in the world." For more on Shelby's book, see Appalachian Folktale Collections K-Z.

"The Three Sillies," In Peck, Catherine, ed. QPB Treasury of North American Folktales. Illus. Charles Blake. Introduction by Charles Johnson. New York: Quality Paperback Book Club, 1998. (Also published as A Treasury of North American Folktales, Norton, 1999.) Reprints a number of Appalachian other folktales and tall tales as well. See bibliography of Appalachian Tales in General Collections.

"Jack and the Big Ol' Rock" and "The Three Sillies." In Kindt, Carol Lee and Linda Rockwell High. Once Upon a Mountain Tale: Eight Jack and Grandfather Tales. Lakeland, TN: Memphis Musicraft Publications, 1995. Accompanied by music and drawings with which children can make puppets and backdrops. "Jack and the Three Sillies" is divided into two tales, in the first of which Jack takes the cow to sell it because he and his wife have no money, but the cow becomes troublesome so he engages in a series of trades for a pig, a goose, and a cat, until he has a "big ol' rock" for a doorstop. His wife says it's the silliest thing she's seen but Jack says plenty of people are sillier without having such a good rock. "Travelin' Song" is about going down the road to sell the cow and subsequent verses tell of the treasure Jack will take to his wife. In the second tale, the swapping part is reduced to one sentence about Jack's wife being "really upset when Jack traded away their cow for a big ol' rock, rather than sell her for fifty dollars." The wife finds three sets of silly people as in Chase's tale. "As Silly As Jack" is a song for Jack's wife. Both songs have lyrics by Linda High.

Exercise on Appalachian Language in Jack and the Three Sillies - by Ann Fulcher and Tina L. Hanlon

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See also:

Swapping in "Foolish Jack" tales. The outcome is different after Jack's seemingly foolish trade in "Jack and the Bean Tree" (or "Jack and the Beanstalk") is scorned by his mother, when the seeds he acquires send him up the magic beanstalk to find a fortune.

Two or three women make fun of their foolish husbands in variants of "The Two Old Women's Bet." 

"The Three Foolish Bears," as told by Ruth Casey (b. 1897). Collected in Cedartown, Polk County, West Georgia, in the Appalachian foothills. In Burrison, John A., ed. Storytellers: Folktales and Legends from the South. Athens, GA: U of GA Press, 1989. A squirrel finds three animals as foolish as his fearful bear friends: a turtle who tries to climb a rock instead of walking around, a rabbit who waits for rain instead of drinking in the stream, and bear who waits for plums to fall instead of eating the ones on the ground. Burrison's notes call this "an unusual animal version of type 1384, 'The Husband Hunts Three Persons as Stupid as His Wife'" (p. 353).

"Dick and Dock." Told by two Berea boys from Perry County and Knox County, KY. In Roberts, Leonard. I Bought Me a Dog: A Dozen Authentic Folktales from the Southern Mountains. Berea, KY: The Council of the Southern Mountains, 1954. Two foolish boys bungle a series of tasks in destructive ways, including Dick cutting his head off when it's caught between two rocks and sewing it back on. Finally Dock kills himself jumping out of a tree after a squirrel, and Dick doesn't realize at first Dock is dead, just thinks he's dressed up like the President as the people carry his body away. Roberts refers to the anecdotes in this narrative as the "Pat and Mike" genre. The motif of jumping like a squirrel is found in northern Europe. This tale is also in Roberts' South From Hell-fer-Sartin': Kentucky Mountain Folk Tales. Lexington: U Press of Kentucky, 1955. Rpt. Berea, KY: The Council of the Southern Mountains, 1964. No. 56. This section of Jokes and Anecdotes contains many "numbskull" tales about Irishmen and other fools or sillies.

"Presentneed, Bymeby, and Hereafter" and "Sam and Sooky." In Chase, Richard. Grandfather Tales. Illus. Berkeley Williams, Jr. Boston: Houghton, 1948. pp. 125-38. Two noodlehead tales in which wives make foolish mistakes. In the first one, a wife keeps misunderstanding her husband's oral instructions about saving supplies for "present need," "by and by," and "hereafter," and she gives their valuables away to people whom she thinks have those names; he plans to leave her until she inadvertently scares away robbers and gets their money so her husband doesn't leave her yet and she never has to work again. In the second tale, Sooky is completely incompetent with household duties and in the end, becomes convinced she's not herself. Chase divided up a long tale from his informants and made some changes to form these two. In his frame story, Old Rob proceeds to tell "a tale that's the other way around" after "enough throwin' off on the womenfolks," so he tells "The Two Old Women's Bet" next (p. 138). 

Compare the Appalachian tales with:

"The Three Sillies" in Joseph Jacobs. English Fairy Tales, 1898. Reprinted online at Rick Walton, Children's Author: Classic Tales and Fables. In this version, a young man finds three people as foolish as his fiancée and her parents, who predict doom for silly reasons; he encounters a man trying to jump into his trousers while they are hung up, a woman trying to feed her cow on a grassy roof, and a crowd who thinks the moon's reflection means the moon has fallen into a pond.

"The Six Sillies" from Andrew Lang's The Red Fairy Book is is also online at Classic Tales and Fables. It is also reprinted online with an 1890 illustration at the University of Virginia Electronic Text Center. This young man finds a group trying to put walnuts in a cart with a fork, a man trying to get a pig up a tree to eat acorns, and a man trying to get in his trousers while they are tied up in a tree.

The Grimm Brothers. "Clever Elsa" or "Clever Elsie." Elsie is as foolish as the brides in tales listed above, but Hans marries her anyway. A trick he plays while she is sleeping instead of working makes her doubt her own identity, so she runs away. A reprint from Edgar Taylor's translation of the Grimms' first 1812 edition is online at Household Tales in the Legends and Sagas section of The Internet Sacred Text Archive. In Tales Collected by the Brothers Grimm is a reprint of Margaret Hunt's translation (London: George Bell, 1884), from the Grimms' last revised edition. 

Clouston, W. A. The Three Great Noodles. This is chapter VII in The Book of Noodles: Stories of Simpletons; or, Fools and their Follies. London: Elliot Stock, 1888. Reprinted in The Internet Sacred Text Archive. This chapter discusses different old versions of tales about the three noodles or sillies.

Goodman, Michael L. Jack and the Three Sillies. Orem, Utah: Encore Performance Publishing, 1996. A short play for young people based on European and American tales. The sillies include a woman trying to catch sunlight in a box, milkmaids who have trouble counting, newlyweds with feuding in-laws, and a man trying to put on his pants. Sample from script available at publisher web site. The place is described as "a small country not renowned for anything" (iii, 1). Costume notes specify "eastern European peasant style clothing" (16).

"Fool John." Cajun tale in the Deep South section of Nancy Van Laan's With a Whoop and a Holler: A Bushel of Lore from Way Down South. Illus. Scott Cook. New York: Atheneum, 1998. Van Laan blended several folklore sources and left out more violent actions. The collection includes comical illustrations, a regional map, notes and bibliography. See bibliography of Appalachian Tales in General Collections for more on this book. See "Foolish Jack" page for another John Sot (or Sotte) tale similar to this one.

Silly, Silly, Silly. By Canadian dramatist/educator Lois Walker and a team of teacher-writers. A readers' theatre script, a variation on "the English noodle story about a young man searching for someone sillier than his bride-to-be." Available from Scripts for Schools, with description and sample pages online.

"There's Bigger Fools than Tildy." In Stiff as a Poker: A Collection of Ozark Folk Tales. Collected by Vance Randolph. Illus. Glen Rounds. Notes by Herbert Halpert. 1955. Rpt. New York: Barnes and Noble, 1993, pp. 49-51. Tildy is afraid a butcher knife stuck in a rafter might kill her future child. Tildy's fiancé Tom returns to her after he finds fools who are trying to jump into pants that are hanging on a rope, move a meeting house to hide a mess on the front steps, and carry sunshine in the house to dry a clean floor. Notes identify a number of tale types combined here.

"The Foolish Bride," as told by Leo Drake, an Afro-American master storyteller from Alabama. In Burrison, John A., ed. Storytellers:  Folktales and Legends from the South. Athens, GA: U of GA Pr, 1989, pp. 151-53. The foolish girl lets syrup spill while helping her family think. Her fiancé finds a woman trying to carry sunshine around the house to dry the back porch, a man trying to pull oxen over the roof of his house, and a man trying to hold up his hog to make it root for food. The couple gets married but the wife continues to be foolish, losing the food and money she was to save for Mister Hard Times.

Kellogg, Steven. The Three Sillies. Candlewick Press, 1999. See cover and review of this picture book with cartoonlike comedy, at

Zemach, Margot. The Three Sillies: A Folk Tale. 1st ed. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1963. Picture book.

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