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Gurney Norman on Jack Tales

He [Gurney Norman] spent 30 of his 37 years in Kentucky. His father a coal-miner, he considers himself a mind-miner. He was in the Creative Writing Program at Stanford in 1960 with Ken Kesey, Larry McMurtry, Peter Beagle, and James Baker Hall. He did two years as an Infantry lieutenant and two as a fire lookout. In the mid-60's he was editor of The Hazard Herald, a town newspaper in Kentucky. Except for regular visits homeward he's been in Menlo Park, California for the last six years. The tale below and one to follow in the next issue will appear in a collection of Gurney's stories called Ancient Creek, being published by Random House late in 1975. - SB

Introduction to Jack

When white people first settled in the Southern Appalachian mountains in the 18th century, they brought with them, in addition to their tools and skills, minds loaded with imagery from their Anglo-Celtic origins.

The settlers were from the British Isles mostly, England, Scotland, Wales and Ireland. Many were Scotch-Irish, descendants of people twice transplanted, from Scotland to Ireland, and now across the waters to the "new world."

Although these people had come to live in a new world, the stories and songs, the legends and lore that filled their talk and their dreams, were very old indeed. Among the stories brought "across the waters" by these settlers is a series of tales known as the Jack tales.

We all have heard the story of Jack and The Beanstalk. But it isn't commonly known that this same legendary Jack had many other adventures besides his contest with the giant who lived in the castle at the top of the beanstalk.

"Jack and His Comrades," "Jack and His Master," "Jack and Old Firedragon," "Jack in The Giant's Newground," are only a few of the titles of the score or more tales in which Jack appears as the hero, often with his brothers Will and Tom as secondary characters.

Aside from the tales as literary marvels in themselves, and the fact of their antiquity, the crucial fact about the Jack tales as far as present-day Americans are concerned is that they are still being told by Appalachian story-tellers who inherited them, live, from their ancestors.

There are of course not nearly as many traditional tale-tellers active in the mountains as there were before new roads and railroads brought the dubious benefits of modern American culture to the hills, back around World War One.

And by the time I was a boy growing up in the Kentucky mountains in the 1940's and 1950's, old-time story-tellers were definitely a dying breed.

But some tellers yet remain, and excellent ones. In recent years they have become the subject of another round of attention, not only from professional folk-lorists, but from the current generation of young people in the region, whose interest in and reverence for older people and older ways is a good deal stronger than among their counterparts in the cities.

What these contemporary young mountain people recognize and appreciate is that story-tellers like Ray Hicks, of Beech Mountain in Avery County, North Carolina, are links in an unbroken chain of ancient cultural inheritance. They embody a living oral literary tradition that reaches farther back in time than even the scholars and folklorists are able to say precisely. Stories told hundreds of years ago in crofters cottages in the Scottish Highlands, and around peat-fires in peasant homes in Ireland, are still being told by Mr. Hicks and his fellow tale-tellers around the Appalachian region. And people are listening.

Meanwhile, here I am, Gurney M, Norman, grandson of Gurney W. Norman, (who grew up in Avery County, North Carolina and migrated to Eastern Kentucky in the first decade of this century) sitting at my writing desk, college-educated and Jungian shrunk, self-conscious and full of deliberate intent, presumptuously setting out to write original, "modern" tales featuring the legendary Jack, and his brothers Will and Tom.

What, one may well ask, is going on?

It would take more space than I have here to fully answer that question. And even with more space I probably couldn't, for in all honesty, I really don't know what's going on. When I write Jack tales, I'm operating out of instinct mainly. I'm curious to see what will happen when I mix my own imagination, and my perception of the modern world, with the stories I heard old men and women tell when I was a boy, with stories I have read, with certain kiddie cartoons I have seen on Saturday morning TV.

So far what's happened is three Jack tales, intended more or less as sequels. After "Jack and The Monster" comes "Jack and His Ego," (in the next issue of CQ). It's a story about ego as a monster, and the kind of help that errant heroes need sometimes when they stray too far from their neighbors and friends who are, after all, their sources. The third tale is called "Ancient Creek." That's a magical kingdom I know about, a wonder-working power-place on the ground. "Ancient Creek" is about revolution and defeat, about spiritual renewal, renewal of the earth, renewal of tradition, renewal of nature itself.

While it's true that I don't really know what I'm doing when I write my Jack tales, I am able to say that what satisfies me most about them is the sense that I'm participating in one of the more hopeful conversations going on in America, in this time of generally unhopeful talk. The conversation is about the latent power of native tradition, power that, upon rediscovery, is released as a spiritual impulse looking to find expression in a healthy politics.

As people all over the country discover new uses for many of the old tools and skills and ways of living and relating, so are they finding new uses for traditional forms of art, and literature. Reading the old stories, listening to them, one gets a glimpse into the minds of earlier people, whose lives were incredibly difficult but who managed somehow, not only to survive but to thrive, as individuals and in community. One gets a glimpse of the sturdiness of people a few generations back, and by that I mean psychological sturdiness. No doubt they did their share of worrying, because the means of life were so uncertain. But worry is something different from what we moderns call anxiety. You can worry and still keep on keeping on. Anxiety immobilizes. As we can see through the old tales like the Jack tales, old-time people never lost their capacity for positive action, never lost confidence In themselves as people capable of action.

I take Jack's native energy, wit and ingenuity as qualities that begin to define courage. Jack is occasionally foolish and naive, and his foes may temporarily overwhelm him with an evil spell of some kind. But Jack is representative of the common people he lived among and who produced him in that, above all, he is never a quitter. Jack hangs in there, and with luck and pluck and persistence, and a little help from his sorcerer-friends, he usually manages to land on his feet in triumph.

Access Footnote

The best scholarship on the tradition of the Jack tales has been done by Richard Chase, whose book. The Jack Tales, published in 1943, is a classic of its kind. Chase gathered other Appalachian folk tales and published them under the title Grandfather Tales.

Leonard Roberts' books. Old Gieasybeard: Tales From The Cumberland Gap, and South From Hell-Fer-Sartin are equally indispensible to anyone interested in Appalachian literary tradition.

Ray Hicks' telling of the Jack tales is recorded on a Folk Legacy album titled "Ray Hicks, Folk Tales."