Study Guides on Dramatizations by the Ferrum College Jack Tale Players

Prepared by Tina L. Hanlon, Ph.D. and R. Rex Stephenson, Ph.D.
Ferrum College, 2000-2010


The Jack Tale Players were founded in 1975 to perform music and stories of the Blue Ridge to elementary school children. The first full performance of a Jack Tale Show was at Callaway Elementary School  in December 1975 (Franklin County, VA). A 30th anniversary performance was given in the same auditorium in December 2005. The company has traveled close to a million miles and performed to over 850,000 people in 34 different states. Read more in AppLit's Article on The Jack Tale Players.

The Jack Tale Players Celebrated their 30th Anniversary in December 2005!!

Anniversary press release......Jack Tale Players web site


Have you seen a Jack Tale Players performance?  If so, send your reactions and comments to Tina Hanlon at Ferrum College.

Two Lost Babes


Jack Fear-No-Man

The Three Old Women's Bet



Hardy Hard Head

Wicked John

Jack and His Lump of Silver

Jack and the Robbers

Jack and the Hainted House

Jack and the King's Girl

Jack Tale Players on the steps of Sale Theatre, Ferrum College
Photo by Diane Hailey, 2/19/01

Activities for Students Standards of Learning Covered by Study of Folktale Dramatizations
Article on The Jack Tale Players The Script as Story Theatre
Essay on Wonder Tales in Appalachia Guidelines for Teaching with Folktales and Other Folklore

Annotated Bibliography of Appalachian Folktales

Unit Lesson Plan on Mountain Humor in Folktales and Other Media

Background on the Folktale "Mutsmag" - by Tina Hanlon

        "Mutsmag," like the many Jack tales told by storytellers in the southern Appalachian mountains, was brought to America by Europeans who settled the region between the eighteenth and twentieth centuries. Mutsmag is a female giant killer similar to Jack in many stories of man vs. giant that have been traced back to medieval times and legends of King Arthur. Mutsmag is also related to fairy tale heroines who survive dangerous or demeaning experiences after their mother dies (such as Snow White and Cinderella), and those who endure bullying and neglect from two selfish, less intelligent sisters. After using her wits and a humble knife inherited from her mother to outsmart a giant and his wife, Mutsmag earns a reward of gold from the king.

        The version of "Mutsmag" performed by the Jack Tale Players and written by Stephenson in May 2000 is based on a lively oral tale collected by Richard Chase. Christie Edwards found an unpublished version of this tale in the James Taylor Adams collection of folklore. (Read the full text of this tale, called "Munsmeg," in AppLit's Fiction and Poetry section.) Adams' papers in the archives of the Blue Ridge Institute at Ferrum College contain tales collected for the Works Progress Administration in the 1930s and 1940s. A slightly different version of the same tale appears as "Mutsmag" in Chase's 1948 collection of Appalachian folktales, Grandfather Tales. As storytellers often do, Stephenson has changed some details and blended motifs from related folktales. This new dramatization puts extra emphasis on Mutsmag's cleverness, as she has to outwit her mean sisters and a group of robbers, as well as the giant and his wife.

        "Mutsmag" is most closely related to the Scottish folktale "Molly Whuppie," which was published in the late nineteenth century by the prominent folklorist Joseph Jacobs, in English Fairy Tales. Molly and her sisters are abandoned in the woods by poor parents who don't have enough food for their family (like Hansel and Gretel). They seek shelter from a woman who warns them that her husband is a giant. When he returns home exclaiming "Fee, fi, fo fum,/I smell the blood of some earthly one," he plans to eat the three girls. Molly helps her sisters escape by exchanging necklaces with the giant's three daughters, so that he kills the wrong girls in the night. Later a king gives Molly three challenges; stealing the giant's sword, taking a purse full of gold from under his pillow, and stealing a ring from his finger. After Molly succeeds at each dangerous task, she escapes on a magic bridge of one hair, and each of the sisters is rewarded with marriage to one of the king's sons.

        "Mutsmag," like some variations on the Cinderella story, puts more emphasis on positive mother-daughter bonds, because Mutsmag's mother dies, rather than abandoning her deliberately, and she leaves Mutsmag the old knife, possibly realizing that the sisters would squander their inheritance of food and property, while resourceful Mutsmag would use her humble knife repeatedly to her own advantage, as more flamboyant male heroes use gleaming swords to fight their enemies. Mutsmag is never a passive victim, a braggart, or a disloyal or vengeful sister like some girls in fairy tales. She also relies less on magic than Molly Whuppie and other folktale giant killers. It is always Mutsmag's watchfulness and ingenious actions that save the sisters' skins and finally destroy the giant and his wife. When the Jack Tale Players' giant falls down and breaks in two, his demise is reminiscent of the giant falling to his death in "Jack and the Beanstalk." (See bottom of page at Jack and the Beanstalk Project for Walter Crane illustration of Jack's giant falling.)

        Another unusual feature of "Mutsmag" is that the heroine is not rewarded with a handsome royal husband as Molly Whuppie is, but with money she can use to pursue an independent life like many traditional male heroes. "Muncimeg and the Giant" is another Appalachian version of this tale published by Gail Haley in Mountain Jack Tales (1992). The narrator, an old mountain woman based on Haley's own grandmother, asserts before beginning the tale, "We women do just as well at earning our fortunes as any man can do, and sometimes we do it a whole lot better" (p. 89). However, this version has more of the traditional motifs found in European tales; Muncimeg relies on a magic ring and earns princely husbands for herself and her sisters. Stephenson's contemporary adaptation combines the different versions by giving Mutsmag a choice of rewards. She chooses to take gold from the king and seek more adventures before settling down, while the prince hopes she'll marry him later.

       Stephenson, who has three daughters, said he likes dramatizing folktales about girls because “a father of girls is always interested in strong female characters. You hope all your kids would turn out like Mutsmag, would stand up to people and make right decisions based on what they want out of life rather than what is expected of them” (October 1, 2001). Stephenson wrote a picture book version of Mutsmag for AppLit in 2002.

       Chase's Grandfather Tales contains other Appalachian folktales featuring strong heroines, including "Ashpet," "Whitebear Whittington" (also published as a 1994 picture book called Snowbear Whittington, by William H. Hooks), "Catskins," and "The Two Old Women's Bet." For more details on these and other tales, see Strong Women in Appalachian Folktales.

Illustration from Robin Muller's picture book,
Mollie Whuppie and the Giant

(Buffalo, NY:  Firefly, 1982)

Mollie is the British ancestor of the heroine
Mutsmag in Appalachian folklore.


Discussion Questions on "Mutsmag"

  1. How does Mutsmag's mother help her or influence her throughout the tale even though she dies in the beginning?
  2. How does Mutsmag compare with Cinderella, Ashpet, Catskins, Snow White, or other fairy tale heroines you might know, or other girl characters in modern books or movies?
  3. How does Mutsmag compare with Jack, especially when he encounters giants?
  4. How does Mutsmag help her sisters? Do they deserve her help? If not, why does she help them?
  5. How does Mutsmag's character change a little (or develop) during the Jack Tale Players' version of this tale? Does the change help her? Do you like her better at the end?
  6. Compare Mutsmag's method for destroying the giant with the methods used in other versions of this tale or "Molly Whuppie."
  7. If you were Mutsmag, would you choose the gold or the prince? Why?
  8. Do you think Mutsmag will return and marry the prince? Why or why not?
  9. Tell your own story of an adventure Mutsmag and the prince might have if Mutsmag comes back.
  10. Compare the endings of different versions of "Mutsmag" or "Molly Whuppie." Which ending seems most satisfying to you? Which one makes Mutsmag or Molly appear most heroic?

See also:

More background on "Mutsmag," "Molly Whuppie," and related tales in AppLit's Annotated Index of Appalachian Folktales

Munsmeg as collected by Richard Chase and James Taylor Adams

Mutsmag - an online picture book adaptation by Stephenson, illustrated by school children who saw the Jack Tale Players dramatization. Background on this version and more illustrations are given in the Introduction to Mutsmag.

Mutsmag as retold by Gurney Norman (and other background on Jack and Molly/Mutsmag tales in same web site)

  Look at pictures of Jack Tale Players Performance of "Mutsmag" and "Ashpet," May 17, 2000.

For other comments and photos, see Strong Women article, Mutsmag index page, and top of Stephenson Bibliography page.

Background on the Folktale "Ashpet" - by Tina Hanlon

       "Ashpet," collected by Richard Chase, is found in the Blue Ridge Institute's unpublished WPA files and in one of Chase's books. Originally told by Mrs. Shores of Wise County, VA, Chase's published version with background notes is found in Grandfather Tales (1948).  The Jack Tale Players began performing R. Rex Stephenson's dramatization of "Ashpet" in 1998. Audiences of all ages recognize in the course of the story that Ashpet is the Appalachian counterpart of Cinderella (also known as Ashputtle in the Grimm Brothers’ nineteenth-century German collections).  

     Although Stephenson doesn’t include the more violent images in older German and Appalachian versions of the tale, such as the stepsisters’ slicing off parts of their feet to try on the heroine’s slipper, or harsh punishments for the stepmother and sisters at the end, the stepmother’s sharp tongue and the fierce arguments between the two mean stepsisters throughout the drama cause audiences to roar with laughter while also recognizing how vain and selfish these characters are. The girls are heartless in their treatment of Ashpet, and also in their confrontations with an old woman who could lend them some coals to light their fire. One of the most meaningful touches in Stephenson’s adaptation is the girls’ repeated taunts when they call the neighbor woman “old, ugly, dirty, poor and different.” Jody Brown (a Ferrum English professor and actor with the Jack Tale Players for many years) achieves a remarkable combination of dignity and mystery when she plays the old woman who insists, “If you want some fire, you have to brush my hair.”

     Of course, good-hearted Ashpet is the only one willing to comb the old woman’s hair in exchange for fire, and offers to help her clean house. Like Jack and other heroes in many folktales, Ashpet receives magical assistance in return for acts of kindness. When she is left behind to clean up while the others go off to a church meetin’ to see the prince, the old woman (like the fairy godmother in some Cinderella stories) uses magic rhymes to finish the housework and conjure up a horse (played by two actors who “neigh” and stomp around for a few seconds) and clothing for Ashpet. Since the Jack Tale Players typically use few props or special costumes besides an occasional apron, shawl, or rough wig, the long red skirt and gold slippers that Ashpet puts on over her blue jeans and bare feet turn her into a beautiful heroine just as striking as more sophisticated Cinderellas in dazzling ball gowns and glass slippers. 

     Moreover, Ashpet’s request for a red dress and her deliberate act of kicking off one shoe when she later slips away from the prince show that she takes some initiative in bringing about her own happy ending. As Jane Yolen argued in her 1977 article “America’s ‘Cinderella,’” the seemingly passive heroine of “Cinderella” is more active in traditional variants than she is in popular watered-down versions by modern American storytellers such as Walt Disney. Like other contemporary adaptations of “Ashpet” (such as Tom Davenports 1990 film set in World War II), Stephenson’s script shows that compassion and self-confidence are as important as beauty and obedience in the Appalachian Cinderella. The lovestruck prince keeps the audience laughing at the end as he fends off the stepsisters who fight over him and runs around holding the gold slipper up to the feet of audience members, while the narrator tells of his finding big feet and small feet, sweet-smelling feet and not so sweet ones. But he is determined to find the girl he loves, while Ashpet, with moral support from the motherly old woman, waits patiently apart from the comic commotion until she is found by the fireplace and agrees to marry him in her remarkable red dress. Thus, this tale has a more traditional ending than "Mutsmag."  More background on other versions of  "Ashpet" and related tales in AppLit's Annotated Index of Appalachian Folktales.

Discussion Questions on "Ashpet"

  1. When did you first realize this was a Cinderella story?
  2. How does "Ashpet" differ from versions of "Cinderella" you know?
  3. How is it the same?
  4. Why do you think the mountain storytellers left out the dress ball and replaced it with going to church?
  5. How does the performance show that the stepsisters do not deserve good fortune as Ashpet does?
  6. Mrs. Sigmon is not a fairy godmother, nor is she a witch.  What kind of character would you say she is?  What do she and Ashpet have in common?  Why does Mrs. Sigmon help Ashpet and not her stepsisters?
  7. How do the differences between "Ashpet" and other Cinderella stories affect your view of the characters?
  8. How do the comical parts of the performance affect your reactions to the characters?
  9. Do you think the prince deserves to marry Ashpet?  Why or why not?
  10. How does Ashpet compare with Mutsmag or Catskins as the main character of a folktale?

Ashpet Crossword Puzzle (based on the version in Richard Chase's Grandfather Tales)

Background on the Folktale "Catskins"

See background on Mutsmag, above, for notes on Appalachian folktales with female heroes. Like "Ashpet," "Catskins" is an Appalachian version of a fairy tale that is similar to "Cinderella." It is one of many tales about a girl who dresses in clothes made of "many furs" such as catskins or a donkey skin or rabbit skin. In other similar tales, it is a "rush cape" or moss gown or wood. Often this clothing is a mark of shame, like Cinderella's ashes, because the heroine is treated like a lowly servant, or she wears the demeaning clothing while escaping from a dangerous or unhappy situationsometimes even threats from her own father. Like Cinderella or Ashpet, she loses her true identity but the tale shows how she finds her rightful place in the world. When she is pressured to marry someone undesirable, Catskins delays by asking for spectacular dresses. In this version dresses as bright as the sky, the moon, and the sun, as well as the magic flying box, link Catskins with mythic heroines in other stories who are closely connected with celestial or natural elements. Although Catskins has to endure more insults and use more tricks in order to triumph in her second home, or place where she obtains work, the Daughter there is kind to her, unlike the many mean stepsisters who have parallel roles in other tales. See the bibliography page "Catskins" for more details on Appalachian variants of this tale and parallel tales from other cultures, including another dramatization within the play Sing Down the Moon: Appalachian Wonder Tales by Mary Hall Surface and David Maddox. Some of the discussion questions above for "Ashpet" might be applied to "Catskins" as well as the questions below.

Discussion Questions on "Catskins"

  1. How is Catskins similar to the heroine in "Cinderella" or other tales like "Cinderella" (such as "Ashpet")?
  2. In "Catskins" and other similar folktales, the heroine wears catskins or a rabbit skin, or donkey skin or other furs. How does this strange clothing represent the problems of the main character? How does it help her succeed in the end?
  3. Why does Catskins ask for beautiful dresses? How do the dresses help her reach a happy ending in the story?
  4. Did you expect Catskins to marry her first employer's son? Why or why not?
  5. What are some of the tricks that people play on each other in this tale? Which tricks help Catskins succeed?
  6. What kinds of magical help does Catskins receive in this tale?
  7. What kinds of help does Catskins receive that don't depend on magic?
  8. Why don't her employers recognize Catskins at the king's parties? Would you call her appearances in very different clothing a magical transformation?
  9. Do you think cake would be a good cure for love sickness? What makes Catskins' cake special?
  10. The narrator in this dramatization of "Catskins" says "everybody got what they deserved" in the end. Do you agree? Why or why not?

Arrow Look at illustrations of "Catskins" by kindergarten students

Background on the Folktale "Jack Fear-No-Man" (also known as "Jack and the Giants")

A wide variety of stories in which Jack or some other hero of humble origins defeats one or more giants has been told in Appalachia and other parts of the world for centuries. The giants are usually bloodthirsty but gullible and not very intelligent. Rex Stephenson's giants all have one head in this tale, but they stomp around to emphasize the fierce and comic nature of folktale giants. The hero uses trickery to win contests with the giants and often tricks giants into killing each other or themselves. It is especially common in Celtic and English tales for the hero to fake the slitting of his own stomach and thus provoke a giant to cut open his stomach. See Jack and the Giants for more details on Appalachian tales, with links to older versions of giant tales, illustrations, and other background material. AppLit's page on "Jack and the Varmints" or "The Lion and the Unicorn" lists more tales in which the hero is a braggart who tricks a series of beasts or giants (as in the European tale "The Brave Little Tailor").

Read Rex Stephenson's retelling of "Jack and the Giants" at this link.

arrow  See photos and brief video clips of the Jack Tale Players performing "Jack Fear-No-Man" at this link (in account AuntTina7).

Discussion Questions on "Jack Fear-No-Man" or "Jack and the Giants"

  1. Why does Jack decide to go after the giants in this tale?
  2. Why does the king (or queen in some performances) want to be rid of the giants? How does this compare with the reasons for defeating giants or witches in other stories?
  3. Which details indicate that Jack won't be able to defeat the giants with physical strength?
  4. How does Jack use the giants' own weaknesses against them?
  5. Which of Jack's tricks do you think is most clever, or humorous? Does Jack seem different in this tale because he works alone, with no magic or earthly help?
  6. How do the giants, and the hero's contests with the giants, compare with those in "Mutsmag" and "Jack and the Bean Tree"?
  7. Which details indicate that Jack is an ordinary country boy, even though he is involved with royalty and giants throughout this story?
  8. Why do you think stories about little or ordinary people defeating giants are so popular?
  9. How does Jack's use of the butcher knife in the end compare with Mutsmag's use of the knife her mother gave her?
  10. What other stories, or movies, about people encountering giant animals or monsters are similar to tales about Jack and giants?
  11. In the twentieth century, when people cut down too many trees in the Appalachian mountains, many forests were damaged temporarily or permanently. How does a conflict over trees function in this tale?
  12. If you have seen a performance of "Jack Fear-No-Man" and also read "Jack and the Giants," compare the story theatre version and the written tale.

Note: Paul Brett Johnson's picture book Jack Outwits the Giant is a featured youth book in the Roanoke Valley Reads program in Fall 2013.

Background on the Folktale "Jack and the Robbers"

"Jack and the Robbers," which appears in Richard Chase's The Jack Tales, is an Americanized version of Grimms' "The Musicians of Bremen" and the British tale "How Jack Went To Seek His Fortune." While the tale seems to be better known in the United States than in Great Britain, it has also been found in Scotland and Ireland. Chase collected versions of the tale from R. M. Ward and Elisha Rasnik Ward titled his version (which includes a swarm of bees and a flock of geese) "Jack and the Rogues." In October 1995 Orville Hicks, a North Carolina storyteller, told the story at the Blue Ridge Folk Life Festival on the campus of Ferrum College. "Jack Goes to Seek his Fortune," a similar tale collected by James Taylor Adams in southwestern Virginia, is reprinted at this link in AppLit. See also "Jack Runs Off" and Ray Hicks' Jack Tales picture book with CD, published in 2000. These and other versions of the tale are described on the bibliography page Jack and the Robbers.

Emily Rose Tucker plays Jack with his animal helpers at Ferrum College in 2007.

This tale is especially popular with young audiences because of the array of animal characters, who seem old and useless at the beginning, but succeed in scaring off the robbers in the end. Many performances are followed by a shorter version re-enacted with members of the audience taking the animal parts.

Discussion Questions on "Jack and the Robbers"

  1. What lessons does Jack learn from his experience(s) with the animals?
  2. What do the animals learn?
  3. How do the talking animals make this tale different from other folktales you have seen, heard or read? Are the animals more like people, or real animals, or both?
  4. Explain how the robbers are scared off in this tale. How does the climax of this tale compare with other stories in which evil or dangerous characters are defeated in the end?
  5. From the Grimm Brothers' Fairy Tales, compare "The Bremen Town Musicians" with "Jack and the Robbers," or compare "How Jack Went To Seek His Fortune" from Joseph Jacobs, English Fairy Tales, 1890. List similarities and differences in the two stories.
  6. In Jacobs' English version of this tale and some others (one told and written by Donald Davis, for example), Jack and the animals simply run off to seek their fortunes. They haven't been punished or threatened in the beginning before they run away. Which beginning works best for you? Why? 

 Look at the Jack Tale Players' drawing of Jack striding off to seek his fortune, by Berkeley Williams, Jr. (his cover illustration for Richard Chase's The Jack Tales), and read background on the illustration at Ferrum College.

Background on the Folktale "Jack and his Lump of Silver"

        "Jack and His Lump of Silver" was collected from Raymond Sloan by Stephenson in the early 1980’s. Sloan, a native of Ferrum, VA, had heard the story from his father P. T. Sloan, a teacher and rural mail carrier in the Ferrum area. Raymond Sloan was a collector for the WPA writers' project, as were Richard Chase and James Taylor Adams. Stephenson has published the folktale in ALCA Lines: Journal of the Assembly on the Literature and Culture of Appalachia (vol. VI, no. 1, 1999), and in play form as "Foolish Jack" in The Jack Tales, published by I. E. Clark. Click for full text of the folktale with background by Stephenson, and additional notes on versions of this tale.

        The story begins with Jack working as a silversmith's apprentice in a little village called Ferrum. With a lump of silver he is off to seek his fortune, but encounters a number of shysters who entice him to make one bad trade after another. In addition, the animals that Jack trades for have no desire to be with him and tell him so.

        Not only is this folktale interesting because it is set in Franklin County and recalled by a native, but because it features clever talking animals and appears to be the only true Jack Tale collected on the east side of the Blue Ridge in Virginia.

Discussion Questions on "Jack and his Lump of Silver"

  1. How does each person and animal Jack encounters persuade him to trade what he has? Does Jack have good reasons for giving up any of the things?
  2. Have you ever traded something and then wished you hadn't made the trade? How did your trade compare to Jack's "swapping"?
  3. How are the relationships between Jack and the animals different in this tale and in "Jack and the Robbers"?
  4. Does Jack appear to be more foolish in this tale than in other Jack Tales? Is he more foolish than the husbands in "The Three Old Women's Bet"?
  5. Do you know any other stories about silly or gullible people? These tales are sometimes called "sillies." Why do you think people like to tell stories about foolish behavior?

See also:

Bibliography of Dramas and Tales by R. Rex Stephenson

R. Rex Stephenson Faculty Web Page, with Jack Tales photo

Unit Lesson Plan on Mountain Humor in Folktales and Other Media by Judy A. Teaford

Photos of Richard Chase at Ferrum College

Complete List of AppLit Pages on Folklore

This page's last update: 8/19/13
Links checked 11/4/05

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