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.
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.
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.
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.
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.