And now, for something completely different.
It's funny how things get lost in time. In the beginning, everyone knows what happened. Everyone was there, even people who weren't, and everyone has their own version of the tale to tell. So the stories move on from there. Other people hear them, and they combine details from different accounts, or add their own. They forget pieces, and eventually all you're left with is a small bit of the original still intact, and anything surrounding those bits of truth is so different as to make the fact indistinguishable from the rest of the fabrication (for at that point, one can see that most, if not all, of the tale is fabrication).
And no stories have suffered from this fate quite so harshly as nursery rhymes. You would be hard-pressed to find someone these days who truly remembers Jack Horner, much less why he might have ever been in a corner with a pie of any sort; or why Mary's lamb was ever worth mention.
Honestly, I don't know the truth of those stories, either, though I'm sure all those answers you get from history buffs are no more accurate than anything I might tell you on the matters. But I do know some things about one of your nursery rhyme people. That fellow was also named Jack. It was quite a popular name back in the day, and a popular nickname, too. This particular Jack you probably know as Jack-be-Nimble, though I can assure you that no one ever called him that to his face. At least, not unless they managed to figure out his tale. And few ever did, since Jack was not given to boasting. He was a simple man of simple dreams, and I don't think he ever quite took to the notoriety his story lent him.
What's that? How do I know? Well, you see, I was there when it happened.
I know I don't look so old as that, but I assure you it is true. No, don't ask. Goodness, child, don't you know it's rude to ask a woman's age? At any rate, I am not in any of your nursery rhymes, and tonight I will tell you one of those. Tonight, I will tell you of Jack.
As I said, Jack was a simple sort of person. As a boy, he would spend the spring and the fall tending the fields, as we all did, and he would waste long summer afternoons at the pond fishing with the other boys, or chasing girls with frogs and other crawling critters. I would tell you not to follow his example, but boys will be boys. No amount of scolding from their mothers could get those boys to stop, and I doubt anything I might say would keep you from doing the same. Eventually boys grow out of such things. Yes, you will, too, if you ever wish to win the heart of a girl. And yes, eventually you will want that, too, as unlikely as it might seem right now.
And so it was that Jack grew up, and he learned to leave the poor frogs and creeping things in the pond, where I'm sure the critters would have rather been, anyway. And Jack turned his thoughts toward finding himself a wife.
The girl he chose was hardly the fairest in the village. Her cheekbones were a bit too broad and her lips a bit too thin, but she was still a handsome sort of girl, and to Jack, she was as an angel come to earth. It really came as no surprise to the rest of the villagers. He had spent many a summer specifically tormenting her with worms and salamanders and all sorts of things. And so it was that at first, she disdained his advances, but we should forgive her this. After all, just as boys are wont to go digging through mud for strange creatures, so are girls wont to be offended by them, and to not take kindly to the boys who are constantly bringing them around. But she, too, was growing up, and eventually she learned to see past the boy with the frogs to the young man that Jack had become.
Soon enough, the young couple was talking of marriage, and so it was that young Jack approached the girl's father to ask for her hand. But while the rest of the village thought it was a fine match, the girl's father, Old Mr. Barnam, did not see it as such. True, few fathers see their daughters' suitors as worthy, but Old Mr. Barnam felt particularly strongly about this, for the girl was his only daughter, and indeed his only family, as his wife had died giving birth to the girl and he had never taken another. So when Jack proposed to court his daughter, Old Mr. Barnam turned Jack right out of his house, and forbade him from so much as speaking to the girl, and the girl from speaking to him.
Of course, Jack was very saddened by this, but the girl was heartbroken. She went to her father and begged him to reconsider. Now, Old Mr. Barnam was a stubborn creature, but he was no match for the stubbornness of his daughter, and after a week of her begging and pleading, he finally relented. That is not to say he gave Jack his blessing, no. But he did agree to reconsider, and what he reconsidered was this: If Jack was indeed to take the hand of his daughter in marriage, then he would have to prove himself to be strong, and capable, and also lucky.
And so he devised a series of tests for Jack to perform and had them set in writing by the mayor of the town (who had insisted that if the matter was to escalate so, he needed to be involved to make sure the tests were done fairly and that Old Mr. Barnam did not go back on his word). It was agreed that should Jack complete all the tests in a satisfactory manner, then Old Mr. Barnam would have to let Jack marry his daughter. If Jack failed, then Jack would have to leave the village and find a wife elsewhere.
Poor Jack, unfortunately, had little say in the matter. But he agreed to do the tests all the same, for he was very much in love with Old Mr. Barnam's daughter.
Old Mr. Barnam thought it was a good plan. After all, Jack was not exactly an extraordinary individual. If by chance he performed well in one of the tasks, it was unlikely he would do so in the others.
The first test was to be a test of strength, for Old Mr. Barnam would not have his daughter go to a man who could not properly protect his daughter. It was decided that the next time a traveler passed through the village, Jack would challenge the man to a fight. If he won, it would prove Jack was strong enough to defend the girl against those who might harm her, but if he lost, Old Mr. Barnam would declare that Jack was unfit to be his daughter's protector, and Jack would have to leave the town.
And so they waited, and waited, and finally a traveler came along the road through the town. He was a tinker, young and spry of step, his back not yet bent under the weight of the pack he carried on his shoulders, and Old Mr. Barnam saw him and smiled to himself. Surely, he thought, this was a man of the road, and Jack would be no match for him. So, the villagers gathered around the tinker, and they explained to him the situation, and Jack came forth to challenge him to a fight.
At first, the tinker was hesitant, but the villagers said this and that (several of them suddenly remembered things they had broken that needed mending), and eventually the tinker agreed. He unslung his pack and raised his fists, and Jack, though normally a very peaceful fellow, did the same.
One hears many tales of great bouts between men, of the quick jabs of strong fists and of delicate footwork. I assure you this fight was not one of those. In fact, the whole ordeal lasted for only a minute, at which time the tinker managed to catch his foot in the grass, and Jack, being an opportunist if not a fighter, proceeded to sit solidly on the poor man's stomach. The tinker tried to get away, but he was not a very big man, and Jack, having spent many a year with his feet buried in soil under the golden rays of the sun, was quite enough to keep the man from rising. The mayor declared Jack the winner, and congratulated him on passing the first test.
This did not please Old Mr. Barnam. He tried to argue with the mayor that this had not truly proved Jack's strength, but only his sturdiness, though the words Mr. Barnam used at that time were far less flattering. The mayor was obliged to point out the contest rules. Jack was to win a fight against the next traveler who came to the village, and Jack had undoubtedly done that. Old Mr. Barnum huffed, but in the end he conceded. After all, there were still two more tests.
The second test was to be a test of capability, for Old Mr. Barnam would not have his daughter marry a man who could not provide for her. Now, Old Mr. Barnam's fields had lain fallow for some time, for they were too broad for Old Mr. Barnam to till by himself, and he would not have his daughter push a plow. So it was decided that when the next harvest came, Jack would prove himself on Old Mr. Barnam's fields. Oh, no, he was not to plow them and set them right again for Spring, for no man could expect to accomplish such a task single-handed. Rather, Jack was given a day to gather from the lands of Old Mr. Barnum enough food to provide a banquet for the villagers. If he succeeded, then the villagers would gather together and the food would be turned into a wedding banquet, but if he failed, Old Mr. Barnum would declare that Jack was unfit to provide for his daughter, and Jack would have to leave the town.
And so Jack rose early, before the sun, and he took a wheel barrow and some thick gloves, and he made his way through Old Mr. Barnam's fields. Up and down the rows he went, back and forth across the land, searching for plants that had managed to survive so many years without tilling. And so it was that he came across a basket filled with apples. Jack looked around, but saw no one, and so he scooped up the apples in the basket and placed them into his wheelbarrow. Some time later, he happened upon a very neat pile of squash, and these he also placed in the barrel with the apples.
And so it went throughout the day, such that at the end of it, Jack had gathered barley and carrots, beets and tomatoes, several eggs and a jar of sweet honey, and even a small pig that had been tethered to a post, in addition to the apples and squash. I assure you, it was quite enough for a feast.
When Old Mr. Barnum saw the gathered foodstuffs, he grew angry. He told the mayor that Jack was a thief, but Jack insisted he had found every bit in Old Mr. Barnam's fields, and readily agreed to give it back to its proper owner, should anyone claim such things had gone missing. And so Old Mr. Barnam and the mayor went through the village and asked everyone there if they happened to be missing this-or-that, but none of them seemed to remember losing such things. Indeed, no one even claimed to recognize the apple basket, or the honey jar, or even the pig.
Since there was no evidence that Jack had stolen anything, the mayor declared that Jack had passed the second test. Of course, Old Mr. Barnam was less than happy with this, and argued with the mayor that the test had been to prove Jack was capable in hard times. And the mayor was, of course, obliged to point out the contest rules. Jack had only to find enough food for a feast in Old Mr. Barnam's fields. How the food got into the fields had never been specified.
This only made Old Mr. Barnam even more angry, but he grudgingly conceded. After all, there was still one more test, and this was a test that was entirely in Old Mr. Barnam's hands.
The third test was to be a test of luck. And this is the part where things will start to sound familiar to you. You see, we used to test luck by jumping over candlesticks. Yes, it was a very old tradition, even when I was your age, and now hardly anyone remembers it at all. Of course, as children we would do it for fun, but there were more formal candlestick jumping ceremonies held as well, for when one really needed to prove fate was on their side, and this was to be one of those. Jack would don a pair of white linen slippers, and he would have to jump over the flame of a candlestick. That doesn't sound very tricky, does it? I assure you it becomes far more tricky when one must neither singe one's slippers nor extinguish the candle's flame. Candle flames are very delicate things. And Old Mr. Barnam had prepared a very special candle just for this occasion.
The candle had eight wicks on eight stems, all united at the base. Each stem was tall enough to reach a man's thigh, and they were so thin that even the slightest tremor would make them sway back and forth, setting their flames flickering with the movement. If Jack could jump the candlestick without extinguishing any of the flames, then he would have the hand of Old Mr. Barnam's daughter in marriage, but if he failed, Old Mr. Barnam would declare that Jack did not have the favor of the fates needed to win his daughter's hand, and Jack would have to leave town.
To everyone's surprise, Jack did not look worried when he saw the candlestick Old Mr. Barnum had prepared for him. He simply nodded, pulled on the slippers, and jumped, just like that. Before most people had quite realized what had happened, Jack was on the far side of the candlestick, all eight flames burning brightly behind him as the eight stems of the candle swayed gently.
The mayor inspected Jack's linen slippers, and as no sign of burn or singe could be found on them, the mayor declared that Jack had completed the final task and was thus to be married to the girl that was Old Mr. Barnam's daughter.
Now, Old Mr. Barnum was furious. He demanded to know how it was Jack could jump the eight-stemmed candle so easily. Jack simply nodded his head and said, “I spent many a year chasing critters and hopping frogs in the pond. The only way to catch the best frogs is to be better than they are at jumping.”
Yes, he had learned to jump while chasing frogs in the pond, and so completed the third and final task. He and the girl were promptly wed, and they lived happily for many, many years. And the girl decided that perhaps frogs and other crawling things from the river were not so bad, since they had helped her husband become her husband, and Jack always made sure they had white shoes to wear at the end of the harvest season, even if they had no reason to be jumping candlesticks. And all the townsfolk, who thought the whole matter had been quite silly to begin with, decided that it was well and good that the matter had finally been taken care of, and they went about their lives in the normal fashion.
As for Old Mr. Barnum, you must not think to harshly of him. When he finally saw his daughter's happiness, he relented and gave them both his blessing. In time, he found he enjoyed having a son around, and even more did he enjoy his grandchildren, though they, like their parents, were nothing particularly special as children go. For him, they were as angels come to earth, and you can bet he was just as protective of them as he had been of the girl who was their mother.
Yes, I suppose it is a very different story than the one you are used to hearing, but I tell you it is the true one, for I was there, and yes, child, I do always wear white shoes after the harvest.