The Sad Princess

The Sad Princess, academically referred to as “H341 Suitor test: making the princess laugh” is, by my unofficial estimate the second best known Jack tale, and the only well known tale that does not end with a dead giant somehow.

The Russian version as represented in a New Jersey cut-out doll collection.

This folk tale is not peculiar to Jack. He is but one of many folk-tale protagonists inserted into this story, This tale may originate in Persia, and well-known versions of it are found in India, Russia and Germany. It likely came to Britain with the Saxons, as there is a Norwegian version starring Hans.

In many versions, Jack’s brothers try first, and fail, and Jack goes reluctantly or goes to the palace for different reasons and only succeeds by accidental slapstick.

The version in Beanstalk and Beyond is not as straightforward. You can find that plot in children’s books, but in his autobiography, Jack has other problems.

To be sure, there is a slapstick incident which causes the otherwise morose (a modern diagnosis would be depressed) princess to laugh out loud. That single incident, though , rewards Jack with nothing more than a temporary, tactical reprieve from his predicament.

Jack rarely names female characters unless he knows for a fact they are dead, or does not care about their fate. In the book, he uses the name Diana, though that is only a part of a long Roman name.


All my drafts use a different name. Diana was a compromise with the editor – and I do not remember why.

She is better known, within Jack’s world, as Bedwyr’s daughter. Bedwyr is the Celtic version of the Roman name Betavir, which became Bedevere by the time the French romance authors were done with it. He is a knight of the Round Table, and one of Arthur’s (or Artorius) longest serving knights.

My research summary, which does not specify sources as it is an internal document about fictional people, has this to say of Bedwyr:


Bedwyr is one of Arthur’s three original companions. He is a legendary horseman who specializes with the spear. His left hand, his shield hand, is missing three fingers. He wears a diadem of honor, and holds a seat at the Round Table.

Bedwyr line art.jpg
Bedwyr, Betavir, Bedevere, just don’t call me late for dinner.

His official Roman name is Betavir Petrarcius, but he answers to any reasonable attempt. His family estate is in the south of England in Glouchester. He has been charged with other estates throughout Wales, and around the vicinity of Lugalvalium. His brother is Lucan “the Butler” who commands the watch at Camelot.

Betavir distinguished himself battling with Arthur against rival warlords and the Giant of Mt. St. Michael. He is also good friends with Cauis (Kay).

Diana encounters a 12 year old Jack while she is in her late teens. They are both hiding from Bedwyr’s guards in an abandoned turret at his current seaside fortress. Jack is hiding from Bedwyr’s guards because he is trying to escape the castle, where he has been imprisoned for banditry. Diana hides from the guards because she is on suicide watch, and is supposedly confined to quarters.

She tells Jack,

“ My father has a wager out. He has offered my hand and my dowry to any prince  who could make me happy. Several princes and bards have come and failed. … You succeeded for several seconds, but that moment has passed.”


Diana is Bedwyr’s oldest child, daughter by his first wife, who has died. This tragedy, and abuse at the hands of Bedwyr’s second wife exacerbate what is likely chronic depression anyway.  That’s all my invention. The folk tales stop at sad, and do not, as a rule, elaborate as to why.

I have to say, I am pretty proud, just in terms of plot mechanics, at the means by which Jack wins Bedwyr’s wager, though not the Sad Princess; Jack has other priorities.
For the record, Diana’s fate at the end of the novel is not based on any particular folk-tale, but is actually part of an attempt to instill an actual plot arc across these otherwise loosely connected tales.



The Folklore based on Jack’s Autobiography

My novel, Beanstalk and Beyond is really just a collection of folk and fairy tales strung together to form a novel. What those tales all had in common was the central character, Jack.

In transforming those tales into something coherent and readable by modern adults (officially, Jack is not a children’s book, but historical fantasy) I stretched these things well beyond their folkloric motifs.

So we’re going to spend a few posts visiting the source material, skipping the Beanstalk and all its variants, because everyone knows that already.

The cover art for my edition.

Somewhere in junior high I stumbled upon The Jack Tales Folk Tales from the Southern Appalachians collected and retold  by Richard Chase. (My personal copy is the 1973 Houghton Mifflin edition, but it has been in print since 1943.) Chase wandered around the depression era mountain South and collected these Appalachian versions of otherwise mostly English folk-tales. He then edited and sometimes re-wrote them for  for a more general children’s audience – much to the annoyance of more academic folklorists.

At about the same time I discovered Dungeons and Dragons.  My attempts to make Jack into my player-character didn’t work out for game design reasons, but in the process I cobbled the disjointed series of tales about him into a loose biography of sorts: which tale happened in which order.

Another guy rewriting Jack’s life for his own purposes. [photo source]

It seemed that no one else had done this; that Jack’s life beyond the beanstalk was a scattering of obscure folk tales, and that’s it. So I took upon myself the task of compiling a more credible biography.

What became of my failed D&D Character

I thought, seriously, about placing him in some timeless 19th century but somehow feudal  Appalachia, and there are some compelling elements of such a setting. It wouldn’t feel like everyone else’s medieval fantasy world for one. I decided, though, that Jack is essentially a character of this world – though a skewed version – and it would not do to create such a cognate from whole cloth.

Later, as I considered the possibility of publication, I made the commercial decision to put some distance between my Jack, and that of Mr. Chase. One source placed Jack the Giant Killer as a contemporary of King Arthur, and that became canon to me as soon as I encountered it.

Jack is a no more than a sidebar to the whole Arthurian saga. Thus, I can draw from the deep well of Arthurania without having to trudge through all the armored pomp that it is centered on.

A good deal of effort has gone into some historical accuracy, but they are called the Dark Ages for a reason and, more importantly, there are fantasy elements that are clearly made up. So Jack’s autobiography (of which B&B is just the start) is fantasy more than Serious History, but it is Hard Fantasy. The myth and magic have limits and rules which I am aware of, even if the characters are not.

Jack portrait
An early reference sketch for the book.

From Jack’s perspective, the characters running in and around Camelot are the sidebar. The core of the story is still lifted from folk tales, compiled by Chase and others. This is the hub for a series of posts looking at the source tales.

The Sad Princess

Notes from Leprecon 44

Last month I was part of Leprecon 44, a sci-fi/fantasy convention held in Phoenix.  I ran my game, moderated some panels, and took some notes.

I moderated a Game Master panel. You have to be careful with these, particularly if the panelists are all also game designers (3 out of 4 of us were) because we are likely to slip out of running a game and into designing a game, which is a different panel. I’d give us a C+ for staying on topic.

Bottom line is a good GM works with the players to tell an engaging story. (Panelist Eric Wile stressed the term “engaging”). Ken St Andre (who wrote Tunnels and Trolls) felt it was more about stakes. If the stakes are high for the characters, engagement must follow.

You have to read your players. Getting a player to look up from the rules and actually use their imagination is a skill that can be taught, but not everyone wants to learn. And, alas young GM’s, there is no substitute for experience. If you want to become a good Game Master, run a lot of games.

I learned a lot from the Alex Pescador panel on scripting for comic books.

Pescador is the sketch with a dialogue bubble.

I must confess that I have been to a lot of panels and am getting to the point where I rarely learn anything new. But Alex taugfht me about page layout for print (not at all straight-forward), the various bubble styles, and , as you can see, what a box-line is.

Also, he passed out free comics.

Comixology is doing to comics what Amazon does to the rest of media.

I did a panel on “Where Artists get their ideas” which was anecdotal, but not terribly enlightening. (Their heads – that’s where they come from). But I did meet Lubov and Annette Sexton-Ruiz who are both fascinating just to talk to.


The screenwriting panel had only John Proudstar, and I merely attended. The notes above sum it up pretty well.

UPDATE LINKS: How to pitch a TV Show from TV Writer’s Vault.

ScreenCraft’s guide to Screenwriting Formats

And I sat on a panel, not as a moderator, but as an actual panelist about alternate  and fictional history, which is the general course of this blog, and took no notes, because I had to really pay attention. Sorry.

I guess you’ll just have to keep reading….

Rules of Magic

Magic needs rules to be an effective story-telling device. Even though you are channeling enough Power of the Cosmic Chaos through your body to melt a skyscraper, there are rules, right?

Well, there should be.

And even though I hear people at workshops and cons gush over the works of Brian Sanderson as if he invented the concept, Hard  Magic – meaning magic with rules that the reader is in on – has been around since the 1970’s with Jack Vance and Larry Niven (yes, he wrote fantasy once in a while and oh, yeah, Dungeons and Dragons – which was literally a set of rules for using magic.

(Yes – I am aware that Gary Gygax, who wrote the original D&D books, was heavily influenced by Vance. )



Sanderson’s Laws are not laws about magic (compare with Lydon Hardy’s Master of the Five Magics, which actually spelled out the laws of magic in a prologue) but instead govern writing about magic.

The primary source is essays on his blog.  I’ll summarize the actual laws here with links to the relevant essay:

Sanderson’s First Law of Magics: An author’s ability to solve conflict with magic is DIRECTLY PROPORTIONAL to how well the reader understands said magic.


Sanderson’s Second Law can be written very simply. It goes like this:

Limitations > Powers

[The limitations on magic are more interesting than the power of magic – my summary]

Sanderson’s Third Law of Magics 

Expand what you already have before you add something new.

Which is really general world-building advice applied to magic systems.

For my fiction, which all shares the same essential cosmology, I relied upon a different law:

Clarke’s Law: Sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.

Thus I cooked up the Central Galactic Wish Machine, a matter/energy converter that ca be controlled by thought. In the Go Action Fun Time Universe, the Titans stole one and brought it with them when they fled to Earth to escape law enforcement.

More about that here.

Soon enough, those wily little humans learned how to use it (the technical term was spellcraft) – at least in a limited fashion, and magical mayhem ensued.

This is also the premise behind the magic in Beanstalk and Beyond, except few of the characters (and certainly not the narrator) have an inkling of the true backstory behind it all.

The game mechanics of GAFT go one step further stating that :

Magic is a hand-wave for forces that cannot be explained by physics. (If you can explain it with physics – do that.)

Magic is a status unto itself: there are forces that only affect magic, and there are things that are immune to magic.

Every parameter in magic is randomly determined. You do not have a range of 60’. You have a range of 1d6x15′.

All magic has a duration (randomly determined, natch.)

Let me note here that by forbidding permanent magic, we eliminate a lot of the world-breaking potential of magic.

When I ran the Antediluvain FRP game, using my own rules (of course) each of the five distinct civilizations practicing magic had distinct systems. To simulate (enable) this I drew inspiration from (stole from) different published magic systems. The Atlanteans used the old ICE Rolemaster system, the Gondwannan civilizations borrowed from various editions of D&D (So the Ophirian Detect Magic [AD&D2E] differed from the Stygian Detect Magic [3E] ) Imperial Tang used Palladium, and so forth.

That might seem like a lot of bookkeeping, but I chose those books because they were on my shelf.

If you are just writing narrative fiction, of course, you don not have to, and probably shouldn’ t explain all the technical nuances of spellcasting to anywhere near that detail. But you should know.

You are the expert.

Which brings me to my own humble law of fictional world building: If you don’t know – then nobody knows.

[This sets up an upcoming entry about magic vs technology.]

Giants That fell From the Sky (Giant Primer part 5)

Last of a five part Primer on Giants (which starts here).

The religious mysteries of the various cultures that surrounded the Mediterranean Sea basically start with some sky god knocking up the earth goddess. Some have a prologue of sorts where an unknown (and bored) creator diety brought all creation into being, and then that god – or his son, knocks up mother earth, and the action starts.

Invariably, though, He spills his seed upon the ground, and that makes a mess of paradise.

You know what this means, right? Yes. Aliens.

When I expand upon that notion (wholly unsupported with actual fact – so that we’re all clear) I think of Titans. First, because you can derive a narrative like this fairly cleanly from known mythology. Second, because I happen to know a good bit about that mythology and third because Titan is easy to spell and type.

Also, the Titans were big. Sources that agree on nothing else agree on this. Big horny giants from the sky. Aliens.

The Titans

Atlas – via Wikipedia commons

Here’s how I have imagined it for my time-traveling superhero RPG Go Action Fun Time:

As the Old Galactic Empire fell apart, during what we call the late Pleistocene,  a starship made its way out into the frontiers of the Galaxy, far beyond any working jump-gate, and took orbit around our small planet. The starship was crewed by refugees, or revolutionaries, or criminals, depending upon your perspective, but none disagree that they were no longer safe in known Imperial Space.

They set up operations on a small continent (Atlantis – as it would turn out), tectonically unstable, but rich in resources. The operation was to be brief – a rest stop to re-supply the Mother Ship – but something went Very Wrong in orbit, and the landing party found itself stranded in this primitive paradise. Or, alternately, depending on the source, the Mother Ship recalled them and when they refused to go, they were abandoned. Or, they were simply abandoned.

The Titans, like most advanced races, found it easier to adapt themselves to an environment rather than the other way around, and they assumed a form modeled on one of the most versatile species in extant in that biosystem at the time – namely hominids. Except they adopted a really astonishingly large version of it.

(c) Watts Gallery; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation
Titans – doing what they do best.

They possessed star-age technology, but little infrastructure to support it. For that they needed labor.  The legendary Hectonchirie and Cyclops were gigantic automatons, but even these great things were insufficient. They began modifying the local fauna, creating giant chimeric monsters to serve as beasts of burden.

Even this proved unsatisfactory. The local hominids seemed puny, but they were relatively bright and versatile. What could we do with them to make them a little larger?

Among their wondrous artifacts, though, was a “wish machine”, a matter/energy converter that can be controlled by thought; the pinnacle of Titan technology, and almost certainly stolen by this particular group.

Sheltered by their isolation, and cushioned by their stolen technology, their passions ran unchecked by hardship for centuries, and the whole planet became their footstool. Their civilization was a long, destructive party that raged for thousands of years. But their slaves kept learning, and became more and more independent, running a shadow society around and in spite of the quarreling Gods, who took it all for granted until it was far too late.

Civil war, a slave insurrection, and tectonic instability finally caught up to them, and they were forced to abandon their civilization. Many abandoned the planet altogether, but a few remained: The Titans, the Aesir (who would inhabit North America until the end fo the Ice Age),  the gods of Egypt and Mesopotamia and Greece. But they were too few to call a civilization, and the world, as it were, had passed to humans.

The Nephilim

Good, clean Biblical fun.

Closely related to this are the Nephilim – mentioned in the Bible and consequently speculated upon by all manner of new age and fundamentalist Christian wackos to the point where it’s not even fun anymore.

For my money Nephilim = Titan. The outcome was the same.


A nice clean summary:

The Muans (Giant Primer pt4)


Kumbhakarna the rakshasa out for a stroll.

The third of our giants who grew from the ground are the Muans. The series starts here.

Muans ( a term made up well after the fact) are a race of supernatural immortals native to southeast Asia. Their lost history informs the legends and myths behind the Asura and Devas and Jinn and Oni of more recent human cultures.

The term comes from the pseudo-scholarly work of Col James Churchward at the end of the 19th century. While he was in error about just about everything in his speculative account of a prehistoric south-pacific lost continent, we have appropriated the name anyway.

The lower sea levels of the late Pleistocene revealed the fertile hills of a great peninsula stretching from south-east Asia, across what is now called Oceanea, and nearly to Australia. Across these muddy hills, a large and aggressive strain of Homo Erectus concocted a civilization of sorts that we now call Mu.

That Homo Erectus inhabited this peninsula is a paleo-archaic fact. Beyond that, we speculate that they developed a civilization of sorts, and then a mighty civilization. That civilization allowed them to grow – physically – into something much larger and fiercer than their humble Homo Erectus progenitors.

Homo Erectus topped out at 6’ or so, which was enormous compared to contemporary hominid species. While they matched modern human in size, their skulls were smaller and flatter. This did not stop them from using fire and devloping a distinct style of tool making often referred to as Acheulian culture. (So if you need a name that is not Mu – there you go).

Let us imagine now that some of these fellows went beyond fire and finely chipped stone axes; that they created a genuine civilization of some sort on the muddy shores of that ice-age subcontinent. What might remain? Not much, the rising seas would not have been kind. But folklore in that part of the world goes back a looong way.

Hawaiian lore speaks of a transpacific civilization before the Polynesian culture which conquered the island around the 13th century. This civilization actually had very little structure. The people hunted and fishing, shared everything communally, and disputes were settled by the eldest among them. This speaks more of a low population density than any particular enlightenment.

Southeast Asian folklore is filled with ogre-like creatures with fangs and occasionally too many limbs or heads. These creatures were slavers and cannibals. Until you get to Hindu myth – which is never that simple.

Ravana fighting Indra and his elephant because politics.

The Asuras and Rhaksasas of Vedic myth opposed the gods (specifically they opposed Indra and his allies), and often behaved badly towards those ends, but not all were evil. Most adhered to a fairly ascetic life, and the differences between the Asuras and the gods seem mostly political.

Asuras and Raksasa are shape-shifters, and come in a bewildering variety of forms.

Let’s put this together in a single (wholly fictional) narrative:

At least a half million years ago, the advancing Acheulian civilization stumbled upon the secret of eternal life. Perhaps it was gift from Outside Forces, perhaps it was derived from purity of spirit, perhaps they developed it through science. Remember: humans got from wild wheat fields to landing on the moon in just over 5000 years.

So the Muans had biological regeneration, shape change, and dimensional manipulation (to carry some legends forward). That’s better than computers and gunpowder. Respect.

It may be that the price of eternal life was never having children.  If so, it seems the Muans found a way around it, but the results might have been horribly mutated: the Oni of Japanese myth, and a tribe of descendants crossing Africa and eventually working northwards up the Atlantic to become the Fomorians.

Muans themselves lived by a strict moral code. They worshipped no gods, and indeed spat upon all supernatural notions. They fought one another, but never to the death, and serious disputes were always arbitrated by other Muans. They had an ascetic philosophy of continually improving oneself – for what else is the point of eternal life?

But Muans regarded all other human variants as little more than animals, suitable only as slaves, and occasionally food. Hece their reputation in folklore.

As the ice age ended, about 15,000 years ago, the waves would start to overtake their homeland. Crushed for resources, the Muans began to battle one another – unheard of to that point. Even so, a series of volcanic eruptions about 8000 years ago would have sealed their doom as a coherent people. The survivors wandered inland, and disappeared into myth.


Mu in general:

Homo Erectus


Other Mythology

Asuras are mythological lord beings in Indian and Persian (Ariæns) texts who compete for power with the more benevolent devas (also known as suras).[1] Asuras are described in Indian texts as powerful superhuman demigods or demons with good or bad qualities. The good Asuras are called Adityas and are led by Varuna, while the malevolent ones are called Danavas and are led by Vritra.[2] Other specific sections of Asuras exist, and they are known as Daityas, Anavayas, and Raksasas.


The Fomorian Giants

Fomorians came in all shapes and sizes

The Fomorian Giants are the great race that plagued successive generations of settlers or would be conquerors in prehistoric Ireland. Accounts differ, wildly, but what most have in common was that they were giant, often misshapen, and fond of the sea.The Irish Celts, from where this legend sprang, claimed to be the fifth distinct people to occupy the emerald isle. The Fomorians plagued peoples one through four; though they, themselves, are not counted among those races. It seems are large mutant friends were happy to raid and even occupy the land, but never really settled it enough to be considered a native race.

What accounts the Celts gave were then recorded post Christianization, with that medieval compulsion to somehow Christianize everything.  According to the Christianized version, the Fomorians were the descendants  of Ham, the cursed son of Noah, and this accounted for their disfigurement. These notions, so you know, barely line up with the Biblical material, have no basis in known archeology, and are often wildly racist.

That said, the notion that the Fomorians came from Africa is not out of the question.Prevailing currents make it far easier to sail north from the west coast of Africa than the reverse. Sub Saharan Africans of any tribe would have seemed quite alien in prehistoric Ireland.

That would not necessarily make them giants, but the Bantu people have folklore about poorly behaved, mutant giants called Zimwi, but we might as well call them ogres. (more on the origin of ogres and the word ogre in later entries). Maybe a group of them went sailing one day, and couldn’t find their way back.

It is equally plausible (actually more so) that they were of Germanic or even Pictish origin. They could even be the southern cousins of the Jotun.

It seems more fun to say that they were a tribe of African ogres who migrated, intentionally or otherwise by boat to the north Atlantic.

The most famous description of a Fomorian has then with one eye, one arm and one leg, which seems inoperable. There are many differing descriptions of their mutations, so let’s say that none looked alike. A surplus or deficit of limbs, eyes, ears and mouths may have been common. Some even had a surplus of heads (AKA Ettins). They tended to have darker skin, but even this was not universal among them.

Fomorians could farm (or so claimed the Irish Celts) but preferred the sea, perhaps living on fish, and even whales. Later, as humanity expanded, they became fond of plunder. Fomorian evolved in later Irish to mean pirate.

art by Andrew DeFelice

The original etymology of the term Fomorian (I am using a very anglicised variant here) is contested. There is a theory that it meant under the sea instead of from the sea. Perhaps some had gills.

There is also a theory that the term meant lower demons – though this seems to be a Christian interpretation. What is not in dispute is that some Fomorians had magic powers over weather and darkness. Maybe magical ability was a mutation as well.


Fomorians were a match for all but the mightiest heroes of Irish mythology, and given that their ranks are populated with a scattering of giants and wizards and super-human warriors, this would take some doing. While they were driven out, finally, by the Tuatha DeDann, Fomorians were said to raid well into the era of Celtic legend.




What most people don’t know is that the Fomorians were an actual race of giants who lived in ancient Ireland around 1500 BC, during the Bronze Age. Their territory included Ireland, the Inner and Outer Hebrides islands, the Shetland islands, Orkney islands, Pomorania/Pomerania, and Scandinavia, in regions that overlap with the Norse gods. Historically their realm was called Lochlann.


African Zimwe

Image Credit

Andrew DeFelice