Jack and Jacob

[This post is a little self indulgent, and a bit off topic from what we normally post. My apologies. The reason should be clear at the end.]

Back when I was a wee little vorjack, my grandfather would always tell me Jack stories. These were little folk stories common in the southern appalachians.

Some Jack stories have fairy tale elements: kings, giants and dragons. You’re probably familiar with Jack the Giant Killer or Jack and the Beanstalk. My grandfather’s stories were always more mundane. They were stripped down Horatio Alger stories; no so much rags-to-riches as rags-to-financial-self-sufficiency.

The typical story had a small young man named Jack out in search of his fortune. Along the way he would have to outwit his larger, oafish older brothers (Will and Tom traditionally) and get cheated by a prosperous but conniving farmer. He would eventually outmaneuver the farmer with some clever wit or some homespun common sense, marry the farmer’s daughter and become prosperous.

Now open your bible to the story of young Jacob, about Genesis 25:24 to about Genesis 30:43. Jacob is a small young man out in search of his fortune. But first he must outwit his larger, oafish older brother (Essau) and he’ll get cheated by a prosperous but conniving farmer, his uncle Laban. Eventually Jacob outmaneuvers Laban with some clever animal husbandry, marries both of the farmer’s daughters and becomes prosperous.

Tricking the Trickster

The parallels are interesting. Both Jack and Jacob are archetypal trickster characters. And when the trickster is your hero, you can’t just have him launch into his pranks. The other guy has to start it. And so, Jack and Jacob get taken.

In Jack stories, this frequently involves squeezing more work out of the poor boy. In one story I remember, the conniving farmer orders Jack to plow until he can no longer see. Once the sun goes down Jack starts to unhitch the mules, only to turn around and find the farmer handing him a lantern. Once the lantern has burned out the sun is starting to rise. Keep plowing, boy.

Poor Jacob works for his uncle for seven years so that he can marry Laban’s daughter Rachel. Finally, on the day of the wedding, Jacob lifts the veil and finds the Laban has switched Rachel with his other daughter Leah. Ha! Sorry, Jacob, you got the wrong daughter. Seven more years of work if you still want the other one.

(You may notice that the women are practically non-entities in these stories. That’s the proof that they’re stories for young boys, for whom girls are still alien creatures.)

Brains over Brawn, Looks and Money

Eventually, the trickster wins by outsmarting his rival. In another Jack story, the conniving farmer is despairing the number of suitors after his daughter. In frustration. he tells his daughter that he’ll throw a dance, and whoever she’s dancing with at the end will be her husband.

Jack overhears, and convinces the other suitors that he just saw the daughter eating ramps (wild garlic) and that if they were going to get close to her they’d better eat ramps as well. While the other suitors are chowing down on ramps, Jack chomps on some breath mints that he’d palmed earlier. When the dance occurs, the daughter – who was sensible enough to have never touched a ramp – cannot tolerate the breath of any suitor except Jack.

The idea that eating ramps can protect you from the smell of ramps is a questionable bit of folk wisdom. (in my experience, the only thing that works is moving to another state.) But our boy Jacob uses an even less likely bit of ancient wisdom to make his fortune.

It stems from an agreement between Jacob and Laban: Jacob would watch Laban’s flocks, and in return Jacob would get to keep those sheep that were spotted and speckled. Sneaky Laban tried to cheat, by removing all the speckled sheep from his flock before Jacob could even begin. Where would Jacob’s wages come from now?

Jacob decided that is there were no speckled sheep in the flock, then he’d make his own. In the ancient world, it was believed that a baby would be affected by what the mother was looking at during the moment of conception. So Jacob took branches and cuts strips of bark off, making them striped and speckled. He placed the branches near the watering trough where the sheep would breed. And so many striped and speckled lambs were born, and Jacob’s fortune began to grow.

Just Another Tall Tale

So where exactly do these parallels come from? Barring a time machine, the most obvious answer is that the storytellers took the Jacob story as a model. But the men from the region I’ve met were not the sort to look to the Bible for bedtime stories. Religion is a sober thing, not a source of entertainment.

I kind of like the idea that there’s just something natural and intuitive about the shape of the story. When telling stories to a young grandson, what better hero than a strapping young lad. I like the idea that men have been telling such stories to sons and grandsons for over 2,500 years.

Unfortunately, my own grandfather is no longer telling these stories. He died last weekend, after long life, and surrounded by friends and family. He left behind a sprawling family, a hundred whittled toys, the lingering smell of pipe tobacco and fragments of stories like the ones above. I can no longer remember more than a few bits and pieces, but I hope that there are others who are passing down the old Jack stories, along with the love of a story well told.

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