The Wicked Tale of Wicked Jack
A long, long time ago, in the time before the time my grandmother’s clock was new, there was a beautiful village on the shores of Ireland, where fishermen watched the skies and dreamed of sunshine and flat seas. There were farmers too, in their farms, scattered on rolling hills and darkening valleys. In the village itself, there were little cottages curled around the small parish church, a rushing brook, and a hide-and-seek wood.
The one thing that everyone did, whoever they were and whatever else they did, and that was to grow turnips. Every farm, every garden, was full of turnips. Everyone loved turnips and one man loved them most of all, and his name was Jack.
Jack was mean, and never helped the poor. Jack was grumpy, and not just in the mornings. Jack was lazy, and not just on sunny, summer afternoons. Jack was a cheat, and a thief, and a whopping great liar. Once, he tricked an old lady out of her golden tooth. More than once, he stole a kiss of a pretty girl. More than twice, he cheated at cards and drinking games with the men at the inn. But worst of all, he NEVER planted any turnips of his own and ALWAYS stole them from other people’s gardens, trampling all over their plants and flowers and ruining them. All the people of the village and farms called him one thing, and that was WICKED JACK.
A man so wicked was bound to catch the notice of the Devil, and one day they met on the edge of the deep, dark wood. ‘The time has come,’ announced the Devil, ‘for you to pack up your soul and come away with me.’
Wicked Jack wasn’t sure about that idea. He was very fond of being alive. ‘As I am about to go away, Devil,’ he replied, ‘would do me the honour of asking for one little last request?’
‘I may be the Devil, but I won’t have people saying I’m unkind, so go ahead.’
‘I’m assuming that it’s a long way to that fiery place that you call home, as I haven’t a whiff of smoke right here or the vaguest notion of a scream in my ears, and as I am fearful hungry already and I’m only going to get more famished on the way, I was wondering, if you don’t mind, that I might have some of the apples from that tree up there?’
‘Err…yes, fine. Go on, then.’
‘Ah well, that’s where there’s a problem. I put my back out last week dancing with a certain young lady; she was a beautiful young lady I must tell you, and she was well worth the trouble and the pain of it, but I bet you know all about that, and her too for that matter!’ Wicked Jack waited for the Devil to laugh with him. He didn’t. Wicked Jack went on, ‘and now my poor bones can’t be climbing up trees for apples. I think it best if I save my energy for the long and arduous journey ahead of me, especially as it is to be my very last, if you’ll forgive me.’
The Devil sighed, gave Wicked Jack a hard stare, and climbed the tree. It wasn’t easy for the Great Horned One, Devourer of Worlds. After all, he had horns, cloven hooves and little experience in climbing apples trees. However, he soon got to work and had loads of apples in his arms. He started to get down to the tree, but found out that the Master of Underworld and Lord of Lies (that’s him) had been deceived by Wicked Jack. While the apples were being gathered, Wicked Jack had been covering the ground around the bottom of the tree with crosses, so that he could make a trap for the Devil.
This did not please the Devil. He sat down on one of the branches of the tree, with difficulty, because of his arms being full of apples, and ate an apple. And then another one, throwing the cores at Wicked Jack’s head. The Devil sulked for three whole days and nights in the tree. He threw the last of the apples at Wicked Jack and got him right on the back of his greasy head. ‘Right then, I’ve had enough of this,’ he said, ‘take all those crosses away and let me come down, I’ve got better things to do than sitting here taking pot shots at you, you foul thing.’
‘Well, no, I won’t be doing that, because you’ll then be taking me and my soul, and don’t fancy the idea of that as I am so terribly fond of being alive, and all that,’ said Wicked Jack, which, for once, was actually true. ‘Unless… what I propose is this, I let you down and we just forget about all this soul taking business and you go your way and I go mine and you promise to never trouble me for my soul again.’
The Devil agreed, grumbling the whole time, but agreeing never-the-less and went on his way. Wicked Jack watched him go, and then went on his way, to be wicked, over and over again, for years and years.
Until, of course, one sunny autumn day, not at all like today, when Wicked Jack died. Arriving at the Pearly Gates, he begged to be let in to Heaven, but he had been far too wicked, and he couldn’t go in. So, he went to see the Devil, to see if he’d take him. Now, we know that the Devil isn’t unkind, but a bargain had been struck and he could only remind Wicked Jack of their deal, ‘you told me, Wicked Jack, that I could not trouble you for your soul, so it is not mine to take, and you can’t stay here with it in your possession.’ Wicked Jack left sorrowfully, as he had nowhere in the whole of existence to go. Watching him, the Devil called him back and gave him an ember from the eternal fires of his home to light his way and keep him warm.
‘Thank you, Devil,’ Jack said, ‘but this is too hot for me to handle.’ Together, they sat down and carved out a turnip to use as a lantern and popped the ember inside.
And off again went Wicked Jack into the world. He travelled over mountains, into deep valleys, around lakes and along streams, he tramped down muddy lanes and dried up paths, he walked through crowded city streets and quiet village roads. Always alone and always, always, still (slightly) wicked.
Wicked Jack and his lantern were, sometimes, seen by people out celebrating and feasting on All Hallow’s Eve, so it wasn’t long before he was known as Jack of the Lantern, and then Jack o’Lantern. His terrible wickedness and the story about his trap for the Devil travelled with the tale of his wanderings, and people started to make their own jack o’lanterns out of turnips at Hallowe’en time to keep him at bay. Eventually, some of those people travelled too, further away to other places in Ireland and Britain and America and all over the world, and the story of Jack o’Lantern went with them. In America, turnips were replaced pumpkins, as they are easier to grow and to carve. The legend of Wicked Jack grew and changed and travelled back over the big, big sea to Europe, and pumpkins are now a part of Hallowe’en all over the world.
Oh, and before I go, just one last thing: look out for Wicked Jack, because he still walks the land looking for a home…and he’s after yours…