Jack the Giant-Killer

A hero of nursery tales, probably first developed in the Elizabethan age, though it has only reached us in complete form from publications in the eighteenth century. It was thought to have flourished in Arthur’s time.

Born in Cornwall, the son of a farmer, during the reign of King Arthur. Cornwall was, at the time, terrorized by a giant who lived on the top of a mountain. Jack heard that anyone who slew the giant would have all his treasures as a reward, so he dug a pit for the monster and buried a pick-axe in its head when the giant tumbled in. The giant’s name was Cormoran.

He was then captured by the giant Blunderboar, but killed him and his brothers. Word of his accomplishment spread, and he was commissioned to slay a number of other giants, which he always accomplished through wit, skill, and trickery – he tricked a Welsh giant into killing himself.

He first appears in the Arthurian legends as a servant of Arthur’s son and, in the course of his service, obtained a cap of knowledge, a wonderful sword, shoes of swiftness and a cap of invisibility. He saved Arthur’s son from a devil and visited Arthur’s court. For his bravery he was appointed to the Round Table. Thereafter, Jack sent the heads of all the giants he killed to King Arthur. He continued to rid the land of giants and eventually married a duke’s daughter. He was given a noble dwelling by Arthur, and lived happily ever after.

There is no evidence that Jack was a genuine hero of early tales, but he may be a composite of several, being invented around 1700. Classical influences may have played some part in his creation, for there are marked similarities between his character and that of Perseus, who killed the Gorgon Medusa and married Andrometa. Even his attributes are similar.