THE LEGEND OF THE JACK-O-LANTERN
...and its humble beginnings as a turnip...
Or: The Devil & Ol’ Jack, A Folk Tale
In olden days… in a quaint, rural village lived a man of unwholesome and intemperate demeanor who went by the name of ol’ Jack. He was much despised and good folk would often cross to the other side of the road rather than cross paths with mean ol’ Jack. It was well known that ol’ Jack was prone to a bit of nastiness especially after a tankard or two or three of ale had crossed his gullet.
It is said the Devil himself roamed far and wide, in olden days searching for souls to steal. He was much feared by common folk – at least folk with good sense. Now, the Devil loves a challenge and it is ever his peculiar delight to make sport of those prone to wickedness and cunning and guile. When he happened upon the village, the Devil grinned at the tales of ol’ Jack's misdeeds. Here was an opportunity to seize a soul that surely needed stealing!
So it was, the Devil, being a crafty sort, laid a trap for ol’ Jack. He climbed a tree at the fork of the road ol’ Jack was sure to travel and he waited. Patient he was and so sure of his prize he took a short nap, finally rousing himself with a loud snort. Much refreshed and smiling slyly to himself he noted that the shadows grew long, signaling the approach of twilight. It would not be long before ol’ Jack would make his winding, stumbling, drunken way down the road from the village.
For certain, ol’ Jack was in a particularly sorry state that evening. But not so drunk that he didn't hear the whisper of his name among the dry leaves of that tree. “Jaaacccckkkk…" hissed the tree. Staggering across the road and hugging the trunk for support, ol’ Jack tried to focus on the gleaming eyes of the demon who chuckled at him from his perch, a misshapen beast with long arms and dangling legs glistening all dark and oily and darkly red in the deepening shadows... the only discernible feature - huge glowing eyes, flashing with sparks of yellow and green.
Ol' Jack shivered... "Be you a Devil?” slurred ol’ Jack.
"A devil?" the voice mocked, "Nooooooooo! THE DEVIL! Yes!" and fiendish laughter echoed through the dark night causing the common folk to bar the doors, shutter their windows and light the lamps. The innocent huddled together under their quilts, quaking in terror and listened to the howl of the wind and the growing grumble of thunder in the distance. A storm was coming.
Quick as lightning the Devil's long arm snaked out and he snatched ol’ Jack up by the hair of his head, sending his hat skittering down the street along with a thousand leaves from the tree. He lifted ol’ Jack and gave him a shake, holding him aloft so that they might look eyeball to eyeball. "Now Jaaacccckkkk…" it is close you be to meeting your maker, "hissed the Devil, "and it is closer still you be to spending eternity with me! What say you to that? Jaaacccckkkk…" The Devil smiled a most crooked grin.
But ol’ Jack, being craftier than most and becoming more sober by the minute summoned enough courage to beg the Devil, rather loudly it is said for one last favor. In fact, the request was uttered so loudly and in such a whining, slobbering, sniveling manner that it vexed the Devil much and he dropped ol’ Jack with a contemptuous snarl.
Jack landed in a messy tumble at the base of the tree. He groveled and squirmed and rolled in the dust crying all the time, "Have pity! Have mercy! I beg of you a final request!" over and over and over until the Devil pointed a long and crooked finger and yelled, "QUIET!" and at that moment a bolt of lightning struck the ground so close to ol’ Jack that his boots were smoking and his hair was singed black. The thunder was deafening.
There fell a dreadful silence... even the winds died and not a leaf rustled upon the tree. Ol’ Jack covered his head with his coat and quaked, stifling a moan of pure terror.
Well, the Devil was most pleased with himself for that audacious display of power and feeling mildly benevolent and slightly victorious decided to grant ol’ Jack at least a hearing of his last wish. Now the argument went on well into the night with ol’ Jack asking for this or that and the Devil saying no, and no, and no again and again and again... Finally, growing weary of the sport the Devil told ol’ Jack he would hear only one more request.
So, ol’ Jack (thinking the Devil would lose much of his power in sunlight) said, "Alas! I would see the sun rise one last time...."
And the Devil (knowing what ol’ Jack was thinking) said, "The dawn is all I will allow... the dawn and nothing more... so be it."
Just then, a rosy glow appeared on the horizon and ol’ Jack played his last card. He jumped to his feet quite suddenly disturbing the Devil in mid-yawn... "I must leave some token of my passing!" cried ol’ Jack. "I must carve my name into this tree!" The Devil lifted an eyebrow... and ol’ Jack hastily added, "And your name as well... so all that pass the fork in the road from this day forward will remember my sad fate and be ever mindful of how to live proper and decent in the world”, adding “and be truly fearful of thee!"
Now the Devil, secretly pleased with the idea of his name upon that tree, was tired from the long night and weary of ol’ Jack's wheedling tongue, so he forgot one very important thing... ol’ Jack was a liar and a first class cheat. He forgot ol’ Jack had never spent an honest day in his entire life. The Devil tiredly said, "Be done with it then and quickly..."
So, ol’ Jack drew his knife from a sheath in his charred boot and quickly carved a cross upon the trunk of the tree, and another and another - so that the tree was carved all the way around and up and down with crosses. "So it is done!" he cried jumping around the tree in a crazy jig. "I have won! I have bested the Devil himself!"
And the Devil swore and howled and screamed, tore at his ears and gnashed his teeth. His skin turned blood red in the breaking light. His eyes turned black and deadly until the yellow and green sparks narrowed into tiny little slits upon his grim and ghastly visage. All this time ol’ Jack jumped and did little whirling dervish jigs, hollering and hooting and laughing and finally daring the Devil to get down... "Get down if you can Devil-Maaaannnn!"
The Devil, after a while grew calm enough to consider his predicament. It seemed he was doomed to spend the rest of his days in that tree at the fork of the road. Right then and there, an old wives tale was put into circulation. It became known that very day that the Devil must never touch a cross or allow his shadow to touch one either.
It is said only the one who imprisons the Devil can release the Devil. Now the Devil knew the only solution to this dilemma was to strike a bargain. And ol’ Jack, it seems knew this as well. So, during the long, hot hours of the day ol’ Jack made the Devil swear and swear again a solemn oath that he would never bother ol’ Jack again nor seek to claim his soul ever again.
"I swear", said the Devil finally, "I will leave you be for the remainder of your miserable days in this life, if you help me get down from this tree."
But that wasn't good enough for ol’ Jack. He sought a harder bargain. "Not just this life, Devil! But for all eternity! You will leave me be and my soul will be free!"
Quietly; shaking his head, the Devil agreed, knowing as only the Devil can that in this battle there would be no winner – only a delayed comeuppance. Just after sunset and before the moon rose, in that time of day without shadows, ol’ Jack helped the Devil down from his tree. Mean ol’ Jack just could not stop laughing. He bent over double and slapped his knees... holding his sides, wiping his eyes... declaring he would dine and drink on this story the rest of his life - he would never have to buy another tankard of ale for the rest of his days.
"Laugh if you will, Jaaacccckkkk ", hissed the Devil in an ominous tone, as he set foot upon the ground, "Live long, my clever, conniving friend, if you cannot live well. The joke is all on you, I fear. For when you die your soul will find no home in Heaven or Hell." With that said, the Devil disappeared into the darkness, with never a look back at what came to be known as the Devil Tree.
But ol’ Jack paid the Devil's warning no heed and spent the rest of his miserable life drinking and brawling and bragging about the day he bested the Devil. He did not live well and he did not live long. Eventually he died a bitter and lonely excuse for a man, who was buried, as seemed fitting to the good folk, beneath the Devil Tree. And never, it is said did that tree bear leaf again.
Ol’ Jack's spirit drifted in the void of the unknown for a very long time. Finally, and quite by chance he arrived at the gates of Heaven only to be rejected there because of the unseemly and deceitful way he spent his life. Indeed; upon the completion of his heavenly review, it was concluded he had not a single, redeeming quality. "But I bested the Devil, himself!" he cried, "Beat him at his own game, I did!"
"Poor ol’ Jack! That remains to be seen," said the hosts of Heaven. And they banished him from the sight of Heaven for all time. "Be gone! And Back! From whence you came!"
And ol’ Jack fell down and down into the darkness, whipped about by terrible, howling winds and blinded by a fierce, cold, and slashing rain. Seeking warmth and shelter ol’ Jack sought the fiery gates of Hell and fell upon them in a sodden heap.
Alas! Poor ol’ Jack had run out of luck it seems. Knocking at the gates of Hell afforded him no better luck. Because of his solemn oath not to claim ol’ Jack's soul for all eternity, the Devil could not and would not allow him to enter his realm. "Ah! Ol’ Jack," said the Devil. "It was a hard bargain we struck that day so long ago at the fork of the road. But a bargain it was. I may be the Devil but I am demon of my word. No rest has your soul found in Heaven. No rest shall it find in Hell." And with a wave of his long arm, he sent ol’ Jack tumbling into the abyss. "Be gone with you! And Back! From whence you came!" roared the Devil.
But, from the darkness came a deafening racket. Ol’ Jack whined and complained the way was windy and cold and wet... He howled, "I am so very hungry!" The Devil pointed a crooked finger at a turnip growing by the wayside and said, "Eat and be filled. For such is all the sustenance you will ever have. "
Once again, he ordered, "Be gone!"
But ol’ Jack, crunching on the turnip added woefully, "I shall never find my way! It is so very dark! Have pity!"
The Devil, finally having lost all patience, picked a glowing ember right from the fire of hell and threw it straight at ol’ Jack who caught it and placed it inside the turnip to shield it from the fury of the winds and rains of hell. "Be Gone Ol’ Jack! Back! From whence you came!"
Thus it came to pass and rightfully so; ol’ Jack was doomed to wander the void between heaven and hell as a lost soul for all eternity. Some say, he carved a likeness of the Devil himself upon the face of the hollow turnip lantern. To this very day folks say they see ol’ Jack of the lantern or Jack-O-Lantern with his ghostly light wandering the realms of purgatory, ever seeking a place of final rest and never finding it.
Adapted from an 18th Century Folk Myth by yours truly – Otoberwych
this version © 1998