Thursday, 4 June 2015

Mythical Creatures: The Giants of England - Part Two

Cormoran by yusef-abonamah
Cornwall has its own popular tale of giants and of Jack, although without the beanstalk.  Stories of Jack the Giant Killer have been present in Cornwall for centuries, with the earliest telling of how Jack came to St. Michael’s Mount to rid the place of the giant Cormoran.  And Cormoran was not the only giant killed by the fabled Jack.  In the following tale Jack goes onto to vanquish many more giants, each more fantastical than the last.

Jack the Giant Killer

When good King Arthur reigned, there lived near the Land's End of England, in the county of Cornwall, a farmer who had one only son called Jack. He was brisk and of ready, lively wit, so that nobody or nothing could worst him.
In those days the Mount of Cornwall was kept by a huge giant named Cormoran. He was eighteen feet in height and about three yards round the waist, of a fierce and grim countenance, the terror of all the neighbouring towns and villages. He lived in a cave in the midst of the Mount, and whenever he wanted food he would wade over to the mainland, where he would furnish himself with whatever came in his way. Everybody at his approach ran out of their houses, while he seized on their cattle, making nothing of carrying half a dozen oxen on his back at a time; and as for their sheep and hogs, he would tie them round his waist like a bunch of tallow-dips. He had done this for many years, so that all Cornwall was in despair.
One day Jack happened to be at the town-hall when the magistrates were sitting in council about the giant. He asked: 'What reward will be given to the man who kills Cormoran?'
'The giant's treasure,' they said, 'will be the reward.'
Quoth Jack: 'Then let me undertake it.'

Jack the Giant-Killer Illustration by Arthur Rackham
So he got a horn, shovel, and pickaxe, and went over to the Mount in the beginning of a dark winter's evening, when he fell to work, and before morning had dug a pit twenty-two feet deep, and nearly as broad, covering it over with long sticks and straw. Then he strewed a little mould over it, so that it appeared like plain ground. Jack then placed himself on the opposite side of the pit, farthest from the giant's lodging, and, just at the break of day, he put the horn to his mouth, and blew, Tantivy, Tantivy. This noise roused the giant, who rushed from his cave, crying: 'You incorrigible villain, are you come here to disturb my rest? You shall pay dearly for this. Satisfaction I will have, and this it shall be, I will take you whole and broil you for breakfast.' He had no sooner uttered this, than he tumbled into the pit, and made the very foundations of the Mount to shake. 'Oh, Giant,' quoth Jack, 'where are you now? Oh, faith, you are gotten now into Lob's Pound, where I will surely plague you for your threatening words; what do you think now of broiling me for your breakfast? Will no other diet serve you but poor Jack?' Then having tantalised the giant for a while, he gave him a most weighty knock with his pickaxe on the very crown of his head, and killed him on the spot.

Jack then filled up the pit with earth, and went to search the cave, which he found contained much treasure. When the magistrates heard of this they made a declaration he should henceforth be termed
and presented him with a sword and a belt, on which were written these words embroidered in letters of gold:

Jack the Giant-Killer Illustration - artist unknown
'Here's the right valiant Cornish man,
Who slew the giant Cormoran.'
The news of Jack's victory soon spread over all the West of England, so that another giant, named Blunderbore, hearing of it, vowed to be revenged on Jack, if ever he should light on him. This giant was the lord of an enchanted castle situated in the midst of a lonesome wood. Now Jack, about four months afterwards, walking near this wood in his journey to Wales, being weary, seated himself near a pleasant fountain and fell fast asleep. While he was sleeping the giant, coming there for water, discovered him, and knew him to be the far-famed Jack the Giant-Killer by the lines written on the belt. Without ado, he took Jack on his shoulders and carried him towards his castle. Now, as they passed through a thicket, the rustling of the boughs awakened Jack, who was strangely surprised to find himself in the clutches of the giant. His terror was only begun, for, on entering the castle, he saw the ground strewed with human bones, and the giant told him his own would ere long be among them. After this the giant locked poor Jack in an immense chamber, leaving him there while he went to fetch another giant, his brother, living in the same wood, who might share in the meal on Jack.
After waiting some time Jack, on going to the window, beheld afar off the two giants coming towards the castle. 'Now,' quoth Jack to himself, 'my death or my deliverance is at hand.' Now, there were strong cords in a corner of the room in which Jack was, and two of these he took, and made a strong noose at the end; and while the giants were unlocking the iron gate of the castle he threw the ropes
Jack the Giant-Killer Illustration by Hugh Thomson
over each of their heads. Then he drew the other ends across a beam, and pulled with all his might, so that he throttled them. Then, when he saw they were black in the face, he slid down the rope, and drawing his sword, slew them both. Then, taking the giant' s keys, and unlocking the rooms, he found three fair ladies tied by the hair of their heads, almost starved to death. 'Sweet ladies,' quoth Jack, 'I have destroyed this monster and his brutish brother, and obtained your liberties.' This said he presented them with the keys, and so proceeded on his journey to Wales.

Jack made the best of his way by travelling as fast as he could, but lost his road, and was benighted, and could find no habitation until, coming into a narrow valley, he found a large house, and in order to get shelter took courage to knock at the gate. But what was his surprise when there came forth a monstrous giant with two heads; yet he did not appear so fiery as the others were, for he was a Welsh giant, and what he did was by private and secret malice under the false show of friendship. Jack, having told his condition to the giant, was shown into a bedroom, where, in the dead of night, he heard his host in another apartment muttering these words:
'Though here you lodge with me this night,
You shall not see the morning light:
My club shall dash your brains outright!'
'Say'st thou so,' quoth Jack; 'that is like one of your Welsh tricks, yet I hope to be cunning enough for you.' Then, getting out of bed, he laid a billet in the bed in his stead, and hid himself in a corner of the room. At the dead time of the night in came the Welsh giant, who struck several heavy blows on
Jack the Giant-Killer Illustration by John Leech
the bed with his club, thinking he had broken every bone in Jack's skin. The next morning Jack, laughing in his sleeve, gave him hearty thanks for his night's lodging. 'How have you rested?' quoth the giant; 'did you not feel anything in the night?' 'No,' quoth Jack, 'nothing but a rat, which gave me two or three slaps with her tail.' With that, greatly wondering, the giant led Jack to breakfast, bringing him a bowl containing four gallons of hasty pudding. Being loth to let the giant think it too much for him, Jack put a large leather bag under his loose coat, in such a way that he could convey the pudding into it without its being perceived. Then, telling the giant he would show him a trick, taking a knife, Jack ripped open the bag, and out came all the hasty pudding. Whereupon, saying, 'Odds splutters her nails, hur can do that trick hurself', the monster took the knife, and ripping open his belly, fell down dead.

Now, it happened in these days that King Arthur's only son asked his father to give him a large sum of money, in order that he might go and seek his fortune in the principality of Wales, where lived a beautiful lady possessed with seven evil spirits. The king did his best to persuade his son from it, but in vain; so at last gave way and the prince set out with two horses, one loaded with money, the other for himself to ride upon. Now, after several days' travel, he came to a market-town in Wales, where he beheld a vast crowd of people gathered together. The prince asked the reason of it, and was told that they had arrested a corpse for several large sums of money which the deceased owed when he died. The prince replied that it was a pity creditors should be so cruel, and said: 'Go bury the dead, and let his creditors come to my lodging, and there their debts shall be paid.' They came, in such great numbers that before night he had only twopence left for himself.
Jack the Giant-Killer Illustration by John Leech
Now Jack the Giant-Killer, coming that way, was so taken with the generosity of the prince that he desired to be his servant. This being agreed upon, the next morning they set forward on their journey together, when, as they were riding out of the town, an old woman called after the prince, saying, 'He has owed me twopence these seven years; pray pay me as well as the rest.' Putting his hand into his pocket, the prince gave the woman all he had left, so that after their day's food, which cost what small store Jack had by him, they were without a penny between them.
When the sun got low, the king's son said: 'Jack, since we have no money, where can we lodge this night?'
But Jack replied: 'Master, we'll do well enough, for I have an uncle lives within two miles of this place; he is a huge and monstrous giant with three heads; he'll fight five hundred men in armour, and make them to fly before him.'
'Alas!' quoth the prince, 'what shall we do there? He'll certainly chop us up at a mouthful. Nay, we are scarce enough to fIll one of his hollow teeth!'
'It is no matter for that,' quoth Jack; 'I myself will go before and prepare the way for you; therefore stop here and wait till I return.' Jack then rode away at full speed, and coming to the gate of the castle, he knocked so loud that he made the neighbouring hills resound. The giant roared out at this like thunder: 'Who's there?'
Jack answered: 'None but your poor cousin Jack.'
Quoth he: 'What news with my poor cousin Jack?'
He replied: 'Dear uncle, heavy news, God wot!'
'Prithee,' quoth the giant, 'what heavy news can come to me? I am a giant with three heads, and besides thou knowest I can fight five hundred men in armour, and make them fly like chaff before the wind.'
'Oh, but,' quoth Jack, 'here's the king's son a-coming with a thousand men in armour to kill you and destroy all that you have!'
'Oh, cousin Jack,' said the giant, 'this is heavy news indeed! I will immediately run and hide myself, and thou shalt lock, bolt, and bar me in, and keep the keys until the prince is gone.' Having secured the giant, Jack fetched his master, when they made themselves heartily merry whilst the poor giant lay trembling in a vault under the ground.
Early in the morning Jack furnished his master with a fresh supply of gold and silver, and then sent him three miles forward on his journey, at which time the prince was pretty well out of the smell of the giant. Jack then returned, and let the giant out of the vault, who asked what he should give him for keeping the castle from destruction. 'Why,' quoth Jack, 'I want nothing but the old coat and cap, together with the old rusty sword and slippers which are at your bed's head.' Quoth the giant: 'You know not what you ask; they are the most precious things I have. The coat will keep you invisible, the cap will tell you all you want to know, the sword cuts asunder whatever you strike, and the shoes are of extraordinary swiftness. But you have been very serviceable to me, therefore take them with all my heart.' Jack thanked his uncle, and then went off with them. He soon overtook his master and they quickly arrived at the house of the lady the prince sought, who, finding the prince to be a suitor, prepared a splendid banquet for him. After the repast was concluded, she told him she had a task for him. She wiped his mouth with a handkerchief, saying: 'You must show me that handkerchief tomorrow morning, or else you will lose your head.' With that she put it in her bosom. The prince went to bed in great sorrow, but Jack's cap of knowledge informed him how it was to be obtained. In the middle of the night she called upon her familiar spirit to carry her to Lucifer. But Jack put on his coat of darkness and his shoes of swiftness, and was there as soon as she was. When she entered the place of the demon, she gave the handkerchief to him, and he laid it upon a shelf, whence Jack took it and brought it to his master, who showed it to the lady next day, and so saved his life. On that day, she gave the prince a kiss and told him he must show her the lips tomorrow morning that she kissed last night, or lose his head.
'Ah!' he replied, 'if you kiss none but mine, I will.'
'That is neither here nor there,' said she; 'if you do not, death's your portion!'
At midnight she went as before, and was angry with the demon for letting the handkerchief go. 'But now,' quoth she, 'I will be too hard for the king's son, for I will kiss thee, and he is to show me thy lips.' Which she did, and Jack, when she was not standing by, cut off Lucifer's head and brought it under his invisible coat to his master, who the next morning pulled it out by the horns before the lady. This broke the enchantment and the evil spirit left her, and she appeared in all her beauty. They were married the next morning, and soon after went to the Court of King Arthur, where Jack for his many exploits, was made one of the Knights of the Round Table.
Jack the Giant-Killer Illustration by Arthur Rackham
Jack soon went searching for giants again, but he had not ridden far, when he saw a cave, near the entrance of which he beheld a giant sitting upon a block of timber, with a knotted iron club by his side. His goggle eyes were like flames of fire, his countenance grim and ugly, and his cheeks like a couple of large flitches of bacon, while the bristles of his beard resembled rods of iron wire, and the locks that hung down upon his brawny shoulders were like curled snakes or hissing adders. Jack alighted from his horse, and, putting on the coat of darkness, went up close to the giant, and said softly: 'Oh! are you there? It will not be long before I take you fast by the beard.' The giant all this while could not see him, on account of his invisible coat, so that Jack, coming up close to the monster, struck a blow with his sword at his head, but, missing his aim, he cut off the nose instead. At this, the giant roared like claps of thunder, and began to lay about him with his iron club like one stark mad. But Jack, running behind, drove his sword up to the hilt in the giant's head so that it fell down dead. This done, Jack cut off the giant's head, and sent it, with his brother's also, to King Arthur, by a waggoner he hired for that purpose.
Jack now resolved to enter the giant's cave in search of his treasure, and, passing along through a great many windings and turnings, he came at length to a large room paved with freestone, at the upper end of which was a boiling caldron, and on the right hand a large table, at which the giant used to dine. Then he came to a window, barred with iron, through which he looked and beheld a vast number of miserable captives, who, seeing him, cried out: 'Alas! Young man, art thou come to be one amongst us: in this miserable den?'
'Ay,' quoth Jack, 'but pray tell me what is the meaning of your captivity?'
'We are kept here,' said one, 'till such time as the giants have a wish to feast, and then the fattest among us is slaughtered! And many are the times they have dined upon murdered men!'
'Say you so,' quoth Jack, and straightway unlocked the gate and let them free, who all rejoiced like condemned men at sight of a pardon. Then searching the giant's coffer, he shared the gold and silver equally amongst them and took them to a neigbouring castle, where they all feasted and made merry over their deliverance.

Jack the Giant Killer Concept Art by John Dickenson
But in the midst of all this mirth a messenger brought news that one Thunderdell, a giant with two heads, having heard of the death of his kinsmen, had come from the northern dales to be revenged on Jack, and was within a mile of the castle, the country people flying before him like chaff. But Jack was not a bit daunted, and said: 'Let him come! I have a tool to pick his teeth; and you, ladies and gentlemen, walk out into the garden, and you shall witness this giant Thunderdell's death and destruction.'The castle was situated in the midst of a small island surrounded by a moat thirty feet deep and twenty feet wide, over which lay a drawbridge. So Jack employed men to cut through this bridge on both sides, nearly to the middle; and then, dressing himself in his invisible coat, he marched against the giant with his sword of sharpness. Although the giant could not see Jack, he smelt his approach, and cried out in these words:
'Fee, fi, fo,fum!
I smell the blood of an Englishman!
Be he alive or be he dead,
I'll grind his bones to make me bread!'
'Say'st thou so,' said Jack; 'then thou art a monstrous miller indeed.'
The giant cried out again: 'Art thou that villain who killed my kinsmen? Then I will tear thee with my teeth, suck thy blood, and grind thy bones to powder.'
'You'll have to catch me first,' quoth Jack, and throwing off his invisible coat, so that the giant might see him, and putting on his shoes of swiftness, he ran from the giant, who followed like a walking castle, so that the very foundations of the earth seemed to shake at every step. Jack led him a long dance, in order that the gentlemen and ladies might see; and at last to end the matter, ran lightly over the drawbridge, the giant, in full speed, pursuing him with his club. Then, coming to the middle of the bridge, the giant's great weight broke it down, and he tumbled headlong into the water, where he rolled and wallowed like a whale. Jack, standing by the moat, laughed at him all the while; but though the giant foamed to hear him scoff, and plunged from place to place in the moat, yet he could not get out to be revenged. Jack at length got a cart rope and cast it over the two heads of the giant and drew him ashore by a team of horses, and then cut off both his heads with his sword of sharpness, and sent them to King Arthur.
After some time spent in mirth and pastime, Jack, taking leave of the knights and ladies, set out for new adventures. Through many woods he passed and came at length to the foot of a high mountain.
Jack the Giant-Killer Illustration by Arthur Rackham
Here, late at night, he found a lonesome house, and knocked at the door, which was opened by an aged man with a head as white as snow. 'Father,' said Jack, 'can you lodge a benighted traveller that has lost his way?' 'Yes,' said the old man; 'you. are right welcome to my poor cottage.' Whereupon Jack entered, and down they sat together, and the old man began to speak as follows: 'Son, I see by your belt you are the great conqueror of giants, and behold, my son, on the top of the mountain is an enchanted castle; this is kept by a giant named Galligantua, and he, by the help of an old conjurer, betrays many knight and ladies into his castle, where by magic art they are transformed into sundry shapes and forms. But above all, I grieve for a duke's daughter, whom they fetched from her father's garden, carrying her through the air in a burning chariot drawn by fiery dragons, when they secured her within the castle, and transformed her into a white hind. And though many knights have tried to break the enchantment, and work her deliverance, yet no one could accomplish it, on account of two dreadful griffins which are placed at the castle gate and which destroy everyone who comes near. But you, my son, may pass by them undiscovered, where on the gates of the castle you will find engraven in large letters how the spell may be broken.' Jack gave the old man his hand, and promised that in the morning he would venture his life to free the lady.

Jack the Giant-Killer Illustration by John D. Batten

In the morning Jack arose and put on his invisible coat and magic cap and shoes, and prepared himself for the fray. Now, when he had reached the top of the mountain he soon discover the two fiery griffins, but passed them without fear, because of his invisible coat. When he had got beyond them, he found upon the gates of the castle a golden trumpet hung by a silver chain, under which these lines were engraved:
'Whoever shall this trumpet blow,
Shall soon the giant overthrow,
And break the black enchantment straight;
So all shall be in happy state.'
Jack had no sooner read this but he blew the trumpet, at which the castle trembled to its vast foundations, and the giant and conjurer were in horrid confusion, biting their thumbs and tearing their hair, knowing their wicked reign was at an end. Then the giant stooping to take up his club, Jack at one blow cut off his head; whereupon the conjurer, mounting up into the air, was carried away in a whirlwind. Then the enchantment was broken, and all the lords and ladies who 'had so long been transformed into birds and beasts returned to their proper shapes, and the castle vanished away in a cloud of smoke. This being done, the head of Galligantua was likewise, in the usual manner, conveyed to the Court of King Arthur, where, the very next day, Jack followed, with the knights and ladies who had been delivered.
Whereupon, as a reward for his good services, the king prevailed upon the duke to bestow his daughter in marriage on honest Jack. So married they were, and the whole kingdom was filled with joy at the wedding. Furthermore, the king bestowed on Jack a noble castle, with a very beautiful estate thereto belonging, where he and his lady lived in great joy and happiness all the rest of their days.

Another story from Cornwall tells of the giant Bolster, who fell in love with Saint Agnes.  The story itself is re-enacted every year in Cornwall on May 1st using giant puppets and local performers.

The giant Bolster puppet
The Giant Bolster

This mighty man held especial possession of the hill formerly known as Carne Bury-anacht or Bury-anack, "the sparstone grave," sometimes called St Agnes' Ball and St Agnes' Pestis, but which is now named, from the use made of the hill during the long war, St Agnes' Beacon. He has left his name to a very interesting, and undoubtedly most ancient earthwork, which still exists at the base of the hill, and evidently extended from Trevaunance Porth to Chapel Porth, enclosing the most important tin district in St Agnes. This is constantly called "The Bolster."
Bolster must have been of enormous size: since it is stated that he could stand with one foot on St Agnes' Beacon and the other on Carn Brea; these hills being distant, as the bird flies, six miles, his immensity will be clear to all. In proof of this, there still exists, in the valley running upwards from Chapel Porth, a stone in which may yet be seen the impression of the giant's fingers. On one occasion, Bolster, when enjoying his usual stride from the Beacon to Carn Brea, felt thirsty, and stooped to drink out of the well at Chapel Porth, resting, while he did so, on the above-mentioned stone. We hear but little of the wives of our giants; but Bolster had a wife, who was made to labour hard by her tyrannical husband. On the top of St Agnes' Beacon there yet exist the evidences of the useless labours to which this unfortunate giantess was doomed, in grouped masses of small stones.

St. Agnes Head, Cornwall
These, it is said, have all been gathered from an estate at the foot of the hill, immediately adjoining the village of St Agnes. This farm is to the present day remarkable for its freedom from stones, though situated amidst several others, which, like most lands reclaimed from the moors of this district, have stones in abundance mixed with the soil. Whenever Bolster was angry with his wife, he compelled her to pick stones, and to carry them in her apron to the top of the hill. There is some confusion in the history of this giant, and of the blessed St Agnes to whom the church is dedicated. They are supposed to have lived at the same time, which, according to our views, is scarcely probable, believing, as we do, that no giants existed long after their defeat at Plymouth by Brutus and Corineus. There may have been an earlier saint of the same name; or may not Saint Enns or Anns, the popular name of this parish, indicate some other lady?Be this as it may, the giant Bolster became deeply in love with St Agnes, who is reputed to have been singularly beautiful, and a pattern woman of virtue. The giant allowed the lady no repose. He followed her incessantly, proclaiming his love, and filling the air with the tempests of his sighs and groans. St Agnes lectured Bolster in vain on the impropriety of his conduct, he being already a 
The Giant Bolster and the Six Mile Stride by George Cruikshank
married man. This availed not; her prayers to him to relieve her from his importunities were also in vain. The persecuted lady, finding there was no release for her, while this monster existed, resolved to be rid of him at any cost, and eventually succeeded by the following stratagem:-- Agnes appeared at length to be persuaded of the intensity of the giant's love, but she told him she required yet one small proof more. There exists at Chapel Porth a hole in the cliff at the termination of the valley. If Bolster would fill this hole with his blood the lady would no longer look coldly on him. This huge bestrider-of-the-hills thought that it was an easy thing which was required of him, and felt that he could fill many such holes and be none the weaker for the loss of blood. Consequently, stretching his great arm across the hole, he plunged a knife into a vein, and a torrent of gore issued forth. Roaring and seething the blood fell to the bottom, and the giant expected in a few minutes to see the test of his devotion made evident, in the filling of the hole. It required much more blood than Bolster had supposed; still it must in a short time be filled, so he bled on. Hour after hour the blood flowed from the vein, yet the hole was not filled. Eventually the giant fainted from exhaustion. The strength of life within his mighty frame enabled him to rally, yet he had no power to lift himself from the ground, and he was unable to stanch the wound which he had made. Thus it was, that after many throes, the giant Bolster died !

The cunning saint, in proposing this task to Bolster, was well aware that the hole opened at the bottom into the sea, and that as rapidly as the blood flowed into the hole it ran from it, and did
"The multitudinous seas incarnadine,
Making the green one red."
Thus the lady got rid of her hated lover; Mrs Bolster was released, and the district freed from the presence of a tyrant. The hole at Chapel Porth still retains the evidences of the truth of this tradition, in the red stain which marks the track down which flowed the giant's blood.

Our next tale comes from Norfolk and tells of the Tom Hickathrift, almost a giant himself, who defeated the Giant of Smeeth, who was ‘so malicious that the local people would go twice the length that their journey should take in order to avoid crossing the common.’

Tom Hickathrift's grave, Tilney by Nicky Stockman
Tom Hickathrift and the Giant of Smeeth

In the churchyard of the church of All Saints, in the village of Tilney All Saints, lies a long narrow stone.  It’s about 7ft long and broken in two places.  It lies just beyond the eastern end of the church.  It has been worn smooth by wind and weather, but it’s said that years ago, carved into the stone, there was a circle with a cross inside it and beneath it a straight line.
The stone marks the grave of Tom Hickathrift, and it marks the end of a story that began many hundreds of years ago in the city of Ely.
In Ely, there once lived a man called Thomas Hickathrift.  He was married to a ramping girl called Joan.  They had a son, and they called him Tom, after his old father.  He grew up, and when he was old enough, he went to school.  But Tom had no head for his ABCs or his 123s.  All he wanted was to sit in front of the fire and warm his hands.
Old Thomas passed away, leaving poor Joan to raise the boy alone – and it wasn’t easy.  By the time Tom was ten years old, he stood 8ft tall in his stockinged feet.  His hands were the size of shoulders of mutton, and he’d eat enough mean in one day to satisfy five full-grown men.  His old mother had to work her fingers to the bone, and her bones to the marrow, to keep the boy alive.
One day she came into the parlour after a hard day’s work, and saw Tom’s enormous back hulking in the firelight.  His great red hands were stretched towards the heat.  He was whistling tunelessly between his teeth.  Joan flew into a fury: ‘Can’t you do something useful, Tom!  You’re a waste of your time!  You’re a waste of my time!  You go to Stamford’s barn and fetch some straw for the floor of the house!’
In those days they had straw on the floors of their houses as we have carpets today.  Tom lumbered to his feet.
‘All right then, Mother.’
He ducked under the lintel of the doorway.  He strode across the fields until he met Farmer Stamford: ‘My old mother asked me to fetch some straw from your barn.’
‘You take as much as you can carry, Tom.’
Famer Stamford soon regretted his words.  Tom went into the barn and piled stook upon stook until he’d got himself half a ton of straw.  He roped it round and swung it onto his shoulder.  Then he set off for home with the straw on his back, whistling all the way.  Farmer Stamford stood and stared in astonishment.

Tom Hickathrift Illustration - artist unknown
From that day onwards there was no more hulking in the firelight for Tom Hickathrift.  The story of his prodigious strength was out.  Soon the world and his wife wanted Tom to work for them.  At that time, there was a woodman living in Ely.  He’d felled a mighty oak tree and he needed some help to lift its trunk onto a cart.  He asked Tom and five other strong men to give him a hand.  All morning Tom stood with his arms folded, and watched the five men as they set to with levers and winches – but the oak wouldn’t budge.  In the middle of the day, when he’d eaten his baggin and wiped the grease from his mouth with the back of his hand, Tom said: ‘Stand you aside.’He reached down, curled the fingers of one hand around the stump of a branch, lifted the trunk, swung it round, and lowered it onto the cart.  The woodman was amazed.
‘Well, Tom!  What can I give you as payment for your trouble?’
‘I’ll tell you what,’ said Tom, ‘I’ll have a twig for my old mother’s fire.’
Beside the tree that had been felled was another still standing.  Tom wrapped his arms around the trunk and heaved it out of the ground, roots and all.  He lifted it onto his shoulder and set off striding across the fields towards Ely, whistling as he went.
It wasn’t long before Tom Hickathrift was famous the length and the breadth of the Fens.  At every fair, from Swaffham to Spalding, from Cottenham to Kings Lynn, he was a champion at the wrestling, boxing, tossing the cannonball, and all the other sports of the time.  Even today, in a field in the parish of Terrington St. Clement, a millstone lies half-buried in the ground that Tom is said to have thrown for a wager from the Tuesday Market place in Kings Lyn, some 6 miles away.
A brewer in Kings Lynn needed a man to bring barrels of beer from Kings Lynn to Wisbech.  When he saw Tom Hickathrift at a hiring fair, he seemed to be the very man for the job.
‘Now then Tom,’ said the brewer, ‘If you’ll work for me, you can have as much beer as you can drink, as much meat as you can eat… and a new suit of clothes besides.’
That was a payment after Tom’s heart, and he readily agreed.  The brewer told him how he was to lead his horses pulling the great brewer’s cart, piled high with barrels, from Kings Lyn to Wisbech.  Tom listened and nodded.
The World's Legends: He was the strongest man in England by Mike Lea
Now, at that time, between Kings Lynn and Wisbech, on the Smeeth – the great common that belonged to the ‘seven towns of the Marshland’, Walpole St. Peter, Walsoken, West Walton, Terrington, Clenchwarton, Emnett and Tilney – there lived a giant.  He’d made his home in a cave on a low hill in the middle of Smeeth.  Tom Hickathrift stood tall, but this was a real giant.  He towered as high as a house.  His eyes were like barber’s basins.  His favourite sport was twisting the heads from his victims, and hanging them from the branches of an oak tree that grew on the top of his hill.  All that was left of them he would devour, crunching their bones and licking their blood from his fingertips.
On account of this giant, the brewer gave Tom one last piece of advice: ‘Now then Tom, when you lead the horses pulling my cart, don’t take the short cut over the Smeeth.  You go the long way, by road, d’ye understand?’
Tom nodded, ‘All right then.’
The next day Tom started work, and for a few weeks, he did what he was told.  But on his diet of strong meat and strong beer he grew stronger and bolder than he’d ever been before.  One day, he was leading the horses out of Kings Lynn when he saw the track that led to Smeeth.  He thought to himself: ‘Well, why not give it a try… gain the horse or lose the saddle, as the saying goes…’
He pushed open the gate and led the horses through.
When he came to the Smeeth, the giant nosed him.  (A giant’s nose is always more fine-tuned than his eyes or his ears.)
He came sauntering out of his cave, with a great gap-toother grin stretched across his face.  If there was one thing he loved more than human flesh, it was a barrel of ale.
‘How now rogue, what brings you here so bold, in throwing open the gate and leaving the road?  I’ll make an example of you to all the rogues under the sun.’
He pointed to the spreading oak on the height of his hill.  It was festooned like a Christmas tree, with grisly trophies.  Severed heads were hanging by their hair, some old with white bone jutting through blotchy blackened skin, some fresh with red blood dripping and dribbling still.
‘D’ye see this tree?  I’ll hang your head the highest of them all!’
Tom reached under the back of one of the brewer’s horses.  He picked up a handful of horse-muck.
‘You will, will ye?’ he said, ‘I’ll tell you what… you can have a turd in the teeth for all your taunting talk!’
He hurled it and struck the giant’s cheek.  The giant bellowed with rage.  He ran into his cave, and returned with a club in his hand as big as a mill-post.
‘Here’s the twig that’ll make you see sense!’
He strode down towards Tom… and it was at that moment that Tom Hickathrift realised his mistake.  
Tom Hickathrift and the Giant of Smeeth - artist unknown
He’d come without a weapon.  All he had was the whip for driving the horses.  He looked to left and right.  There were no young trees he could pull up by the roots.  What was he to do?  Then, all of a sudden, he had an idea.  He unharnessed the horses.  He ran to the side of the brewer’s cart.  He curled his fingers under it an lifted.  The cart toppled over and the barrels rolled across the ground.  From the underside of the cart he snapped one of the iron axles.  From the end of the axle he broke away the wheel.  With the axle in one hand as a club and the wheel in the other as a shield, he stepped forward to the fight.

The giant brought his club swinging down through the air, but Tom jumped aside so that it caught the rim of his wheel and cracked it.  The giant dropped to his knees with the strength of the stroke.  Tom jumped into the air and gave him such a thwack on the side of the head with the axle that the giant was sent staggering left and right.
‘What!’ shouted Tom, ‘Are you drunk on my strong beer already?’
Then they set to like hammer and tongs.  All day they fought, making the hard ground soft, and the soft ground hard, with the fury of their fighting.  By the end of the afternoon the giant was wet with sweat and blood.
‘How now rogue,’ he roared, ‘let’s have a little pause and drink some of that beer of yours.’
‘I may be a fool,’ said Tom, ‘but I ain’t such a dolt as all that.’
And he gave him another hefty whack.  By the time the sun set, the giant was lying with his face in the grass, bellowing and begging for mercy.  But Tom gave him no quarter.  With the whip and the axle as noose and tourniquet he tore the giant’s head from his shoulders.  Then he fitted the axle and the cracked wheel to the cart.  He pulled it upright, piled up the barrels and harnessed the horses.  Soon he was leading them into Wisbech, whistling as he went.
The story of Tom’s triumph spread like wildfire.  The people of Wisbech lifted him onto their shoulders and carried him to the Smeeth.  The people of the seven towns of the Marshland came swarming to their common.  Sure enough, they found the giant’s body… and then they found his grimacing head.  They lit a huge bonfire, and all that day there was feasting, dancing and celebration.
Village sign depicting Tom with the wheel and axle by Nicky Stockman
At the end of the day, when everyone had gone home, Tom ventured into the giant’s cave.  There he found amongst a huge pile of gnawed bones, a great quantity of gold, silver and copper coins; the emptied pockets of the giant’s victims.  There was treasure enough to make him rich for life.
With the money, he paid for the building of a beautiful house called Hickathrift Hall.  His old mother came to live with him.  And from that day onwards, he was no longer known as Tom Hickathrift, but as Mr. Thomas Hickathrift, gentleman.
It’s said that years later he killed another giant, on the island of Thanet in Kent, and that afterwards the King himself dubbed him ‘Sir Thomas Hickathrift’.  It’s also said that it’s thanks to Tom that there are no lions, bears or wolves on British soil.
That’s a maybe… but what certainly is true is that, for all his strength and courage, Tom proved no match for old age.  When he was 100 years old, and felt that his time had come, he hobbled out of his all.  A huge stone ball was lying on the ground.
‘Wherever this ball falls, there you must lay my bones to rest.’
Tom threw the boulder which hit this face of the church wall. His grave lies under the left hand side of the window. by Nicky Stockman
He gave it a tremendous kick.  It flew through the air and cracked the east wall of Tilney church.  Where the ball fell to the ground is where Tom is buried.  Over his grave a stone was set.  Carved into the stone were no words, for Tom had never mastered his ABCs.  Instead, there was just a circle for the cartwheel and a straight line for the axle with which he’d fought the giant and saved the Smeeth all those years ago.
And Tom has never been forgotten.  Throughout the marshland and the fens, if there’s a dew-pond in a field, the chances are it’ll be known as Tom Hickathrift’s washbasin.  If someone puts up a grandiose pair of gateposts, they’ll be known as Tom Hickathrift’s candlesticks.  If a building is somehow in the wrong place (like the tower of West Walton church), it will have been lifted by Tom for a wager and put down slightly askew.  If you want to catch a glimpse of Tom, you can go to Walpole St. Peter; there’s a small carving of him on the outside wall of the north chancel.  But the best place of all is not in Norfolk at all: it’s in Saffron Walden, where Tom and the giant are modelled in plaster on the outside gables of the Sun Inn, on the brink of doing battle.

Useful Resources

English Fairy Tales by Joseph Jacobs
Popular Romances of the West of England by Robert Hunt
Mythology of the British Isles by Geoffrey Ashe
Norfolk Folk Tales by Hugh Lupton
Giants, Monsters & Dragons: An Encyclopedia of Folklore, Legend, and Myth by Carol  Rose

No comments:

Post a Comment