CM . . .
. Volume XII Number 9 . . . . January 6, 2006
In this unusual, bizarre, sometimes poignant, and morosely humourous folktale of what happened to Jack, the famous and legendary medieval Giant Killer, Canadian author-illustrator Judd Palmer picks up the story 70 years later as the land's once popular and most heroic knight writes his memoirs. While several generations have passed since an aging Jack slew what he records was the last of the giants, he lives on. Shriveled, wrinkled, wizened, and pensive, Jack, his bladder growing more "disobedient," sits at his desk "like a crumpled wad of paper." He thinks, "Who gives a ferret's fart if I lie a little? They're my memoirs, and I can remember whatever I like." And that's just what Jack does in The Giant Killer, Palmer's fifth in the “Preposterous Fables for Unusual Children” series.
Based on the English "wonder" and "droll" folktales, “Jack the Giant Killer” and “Jack and the Beanstalk,” this variant tale mischievously deviates from the traditional. In Palmer's version, Galligantus was not the last giant in the universe slain by Jack for the hand of the beautiful princess Amelia. As Palmer tells it, Jack leaves out one further victory in his memoirs - the one-upmanship not of the celebrated Giant Killer, but of the very, very last giant, Pantagruel, who outsmarted and hid from Jack long enough to die of old age. Jack has spent the rest of his days lamenting this lost conquest. As a result, he and his princess-wife, who is still under the spell of the Sorcerer's enchantment, have not lived happily ever after in the folktale tradition; their childless marriage has gone sour. The once beautiful Amelia either sleeps or walks about the castle "eyes unblinking and seeing nothing" in a ghost-like trance and in an unkempt state in her slippers and nightgown.
And now, waiting to die, Jack sits wistfully on a pile of golden eggs wishing and hoping for just one more giant to slay and one more beautiful princess to rescue. A knock on their castle door, the first in decades, is about to change their lives forever. Two mysterious, questionable, and grotesque-looking visitors, one an armless and legless Captain Bleak, who introduces himself as the Whaler-King and sits egg-like like a "lump" in a wheelchair, and the other, Bleak's first mate, Stout, whose face is like "a pile of rock," bring news from the Siberian North. "There be a Giant there," they announce, a giant who has been trapped in an iceberg for ten thousand years...until now. A strategy unfolds. Captain Bleak, killer of giants with "flukes" and "spouts" offers his ships. Jack, infamous killer of giants with two feet, provides the weapons of his former successes - his Helmet of Knowledge, his Boots of Swiftness, his Invisible Cape, his trusted steed, the Golden Hen, and his noble sword, CloudSlicer.
The ragged and motley crew of limbless, arthritic, and unlikely giant killers set sail with renewed vigor in pursuit of fame and glory. When they reach their northern destination, they bunk down for the night amid frost and snow drifts. Intrigue unfolds as Amelia wanders off, and the sly, evil and not-to-be trusted Bleak, who has planned all along to slay this last giant himself, attempts (with Stout's help of course), to steal Jack's weapons while he sleeps. But Jack is not to be foiled. He leaps upon his Golden Hen, and with a "cluck they are aloft," speeding after the giant. In a "preposterous" twist to the tale, Amelia befriends and saves this lonely giant (who is not an ogre after all) from Jack and Bleak. Good triumphs over evil, and the characters are finally set free from their own individual torments. The conniving Bleak meets his end in the depths of the cold arctic sea, slithering down the gullet of the Cod King; Stout sails Bleakless into the wide open ocean; the Sorcerer slithers out of Amelia forever; and Jack the Giant Killer happily becomes just "Jack." As the story ends, and, in the tradition of all folktales, Jack, Amelia, and their new-found friend Edward, the Giant, really do live happily ever after.
The Giant Killer is a well-written, easy-to-read, quirky, "off-the-wall," character-driven story told in the third person narrative. The oil on canvas cover illustration of a very senior, white-haired Jack, dressed in his suit of armor with sword drawn, looking up and standing minutely in the shadow of an unseen giant, leaves no doubt that this is going to be a "preposterous" tale. Palmer's 12 black and white, full-page pencil drawings further extend, enhance, and capture the absurd and the macabre of the story. The illustrations are simply drawn in a child-like manner with a hazy and grainy texture to convey the ghost-like and ethereal mood of the tale.
Palmer is a wordsmith who plays on the weaknesses, peculiarities, and eccentricities of his characters, such as Jack's realization that he is not as young as he used to be: "There is a loud creak, and for a moment Jack thinks the visitor must have swung open the rusty-hinged gate. Then he realizes it was his knees that made the noise as he stood." Then there is Jack's inability to get Captain Bleak's name straight; Jack calls him, to Bleak's chagrin, Captain Bleeb, Captain Gleak, Captain Blear, and Captain Fweet. Palmer excels at rich word pictures, such Amelia's and Edward's interpretation of the universe, "unhindered light of the stars and the endless heavens."
His attention to detail, particularly his vivid and graphic description of the anatomy and insides of the giants Jack has ingeniously slain after he has entered either their noses, mouths or ears, would certainly appeal to readers. Palmer uses metaphor to portray Edward's colossal size - "from above the clouds, it appears as if his head is a ship on a foggy sea" and simile to accentuate feelings - "her old bones feel as heavy as boulders," and to emphasize extremes - "Amelia sits like a bean in the Giant's outstretched palm." Although set in England and the Siberian North in the Middle Ages, the tale is effectively told in the present tense, thus including the reader in the story as it unfolds. As well Palmer adds contemporary references such as sleeping bags, tents, zippers, a wheelchair, broccoli, arthritis, salami, an automobile mechanic, and a grassy plain near Moose Jaw (some Canadian content) to give the idea that events could be happening "now." After all, this is a "preposterous" tale. Palmer includes flashbacks to connect the reader to his version of Jack's past. For example, in one chapter he revisits a 14-year-old Jack who sold his cow for magical beans (Jack and the Beanstalk), but as Palmer's Jack reveals, he was tricked; the beans were not magical, and there was no beanstalk.
The Giant Killer is not a true fable (there are no animals, just the Golden Hen who does not speak). However, there is a moral to the story and a lesson to be learned as Jack finds out. It is a lesson that would also apply to the children reading the story, especially those who are conscious of their self-image and what their peers think of them. And that is, being "you" is okay.
As a tale intended for children ages 10-13, The Giant Killer has several drawbacks. First of all, there are no youthful protagonists with whom children can identify, only a brief reference to Jack as a teenager. This age group probably will not be interested in Jack's and Amelia's loveless, dull marriage; they may not get the subtle antagonistic innuendos and insults between the two. However, Palmer attempts to portray their relationship in terms that children may understand. Jack calls Amelia, "my little toad-spittle" and "my beloved buttock-boil." She retorts back, "You are as constant as my arthritis" and as "dependable as flatulence after broccoli." Secondly, this is not a fast-paced tale nor is it a happy one until the final chapters. Even though this is part of Palmer's plot structure, there is the possibility that he could lose this audience. Therefore, it is recommended that The Giant Killer be introduced after children have read and are familiar with the original "Jack" tales. Palmer's book would be ideal for a classroom study of folklore variants where students could have fun not only comparing similarities and differences but appreciating Palmer's textual and visual artistry. With 28 short chapters in the two-to-five-page range, combined with Palmer's witty dialogue, The Giant Killer is an excellent classroom read-aloud tale.
Lois Brymer is a recent graduate of the University of British Columbia's Master of Arts in Children's Literature Program.
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Copyright © the Manitoba Library Association. Reproduction for personal use is permitted only if this copyright notice is maintained. Any other reproduction is prohibited without permission.