Posted by: Brad Nixon | November 22, 2009

Fee, Fie, Fo, Fum

Where did they go? I’ve been thinking about all those Giants: the Giants of my youth that inhabited the books I read and, before that, the books my mother read to me or stories she told me. At some point, the distinctions between the two become blurred for any child lucky enough to have parents who read to them. Anyone who’s done it knows the initial joy: “Read me a story!” As any parent knows, there’s something mysteriously compelling for children about those oft-told tales. A child will listen to a story or a song or watch a video they’ve seen twenty times before, in endless repetition.

Those stories from my earliest memory were the tales of Jack the Giant Killer, always set in some English (or Cornish or Welsh) dim past when Arthur was King and Giants inhabited enchanted castles. The depredations of those Giants upon the local populace required the intervention of the clever, ubiquitous Jack, to either slay them or bring them into line. I don’t think that Jack and his Giants play much of a role in the stories of today’s kids. They’ve been replaced by Ninja Turtles, Power Rangers and, god help us, Teletubbies, although, mythopoetically speaking, the same underlying themes are still at work.

Whatever version of the story was the object of the particular bedtime, Jack was inevitably called upon to step forward and save a village or captured maiden from the thrall of some fierce local Giant, usually about 18 feet tall with two or more heads. Jack, not just by force, but by cunning,  as well, would overcome the Giant and rescue all involved.

HERE is one version of this fairy tale.

If you read to your kids or tell them stories, whether it’s a great story or a trivial one, whether it’s because you did that funny voice when the little billygoat steps onto the bridge (careful! there’s an Ogre under that bridge!) or because it’s just some voice out of the chthonic unknown that resonates in the soul of a four year-old, THAT story is The One. They want it, again and again, in endless repetition.

I understand that culture moves along, and that Giants are replaced by characters from cartoons and movies and television shows. Jack’s wit, as well as his magic cap and slippers that give him supernatural speed have been replaced by more up-to-date appurtenances. What interests me is that, when I lay there under the quilt that my great-grandmother had made, listening to my mother tell me the tales, they were real. I knew that the events were immensely removed from me in both space and time, but I never doubted that Jack had done these amazing things. Kings and warriors in smoky, dimly-lit rude halls had something of the same experience when their bard or poet or scop told them the tale of Gilgamesh or Achilles or Beowulf. Hearing that story, again and again, intoned by a skilled teller, is the same experience I had when Mom told me the Tale of Jack the Giant Killer. And, if I’m anything of a storyteller myself, that is where it began.

This persistent reiteration of stories is the bedrock of culture. It’s what those kings and warriors wanted to hear, and we do still today. If you can cast your memory back you may remember something of that same experience from your own childhood. I can. I can put myself in my bedroom in the little house in Ohio at bedtime; Mom would come in and, for all I know, weary of the tale itself, but game for the telling, would sit on the edge of the bed and either read or, more likely recite from memory with the same skills as the Gilgamesh poet or Homer or the Beowulf bard, the sacred lines,

“Fee, Fie, Fo, Fum.  I smell the blood of an Englishman. Be he live or be he dead, I’ll grind his bones to make my bread.”

(The Giant usually got the great lines.)

Tomorrow, the 24th,  would have been Mom’s 81st birthday. In my memory of being 4 years old, lying in that bed in the little house in Ohio, she would have been 26. I can remember her at that young age, considerably less than half as old as I am now. She gave me stories, and allowed my imagination to run free. Thanks, Mom. I hope everyone’s reading to the kids.

Note: the website administration sometimes adds suggested links below this post. I cannot attest to their relevance or interest.

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Responses

  1. That is very nice Brad, thanks. I didn’t recognize where that was going. I have to admit I got a little bleary eyed.

    Like

    • Yep, well done bro.

      Like

  2. Tears in my eyes, too. Thanks, Brad.

    Like


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