Tales Of Men & Women  by Stone Riley                     www.stoneriley.com                     Website Edition © 2007 by Stone Riley, all rights reserved

The Fisher King, Jack’s Version

a folk tale

If I may, I'd like to offer you now one of the oldest stories that we have in the English language.  For all I know perhaps it's the oldest story in the world that's been told and retold continuously.  You see, before the English were in Britain there was another race there whom we call the Ancient Celts.  And before the Celts there was a race in Britain that we call the Picts.  And before the Picts there was a race for whom we have not even heard a name.  These were the folks who stood up the first stones at Stonehenge, built tall Silbury Hill and the great long barrows across the countryside wherein to bury their dead, and much else too.  Well, these people had a great story, their national story, I suppose.  And they told it to the Picts.  And the Picts told it to the Celts.  And the Celts told it to the English.  And the English told it to me.  So now I'm going to tell it to you unless you stop me.  It's called The Fisher King.

Of course, you understand, it has been told and retold from mouth to ear and ear to mouth so many times that I do not know the way those old folks told it.  Just like every teller since them, I must just try to do it justice the best way that I can.

One time in the island of Great Britain there lived a boy named Jack.  Now, Jack was an excellent boy.  He was quick in mind and body, strong, and able, modest, generous and polite.  He was helpful, kind, courteous and obedient.  He was the best boy you can possibly imagine.  And the way that came about was like this: You see, on the very day when Jack was born – that very same day – his father was killed in a war and so his mother resolved to raise him somewhere quite apart from the corruptions of human society.  She took him off to a little cabin deep in the woods where almost no one ever came and lived there with him.  And there he grew up with the forest – the trees and animals and earth and sky – with them as his parents almost as much as she was.

But then one sunny summer day, alas, Jack was fifteen.  He was out near the edge of their wood – way out where the little road went by – looking for a rabbit to kill for their dinner.  Just then three soldiers happened by along the road on horseback.  Jack had never seen anyone on horseback and he was just amazed.  He said to himself, "Here are some men going somewhere from somewhere else and they have surely seen many things.  I have been nowhere and seen nothing."  So he walked out to the side of the road with his mouth hanging open.

Now I must tell you, these were soldiers of King Maxin and Maxin was a good king.  He made certain that his soldiers treated his people properly.  So now these three were quite polite.  They pulled their horses to a stop when they got near and one of them, the sergeant, called to Jack: "Hey there, boy, come talk to us, won't you?  If it's not too much trouble, maybe you know a shady spot beside some water where we can rest.  It's time for our lunch and our horses are tired."  And indeed, Jack did know a very pretty spot, a bit of meadow near a stream, and quite near by.

So then, while the men lay munching and chatting on the soft grass, and their big horses wandered about munching the grass, Jack dashed home to the cabin as fast as he could.

"Mother!"  Jack cried, "There are soldiers bound for London, bound for the king's own house" (for so they had told him) "and I must go with them.  I must!  I must!"

The woman's heart sank in her breast but her son was fifteen now.  She, being an excellent mother, knew that now he had been called so he must go.  She wiped her hands on her old blue dress.  She turned away so that he would not see and wiped her tears.  She packed him food for the road, a real packful, and gave him his best walking stick and got his best pair of shoes onto his feet.  She kissed him and said a blessing on his head, and off he dashed back to the soldiers by the stream and declared they must take him with them.

Now this was fine with them.  They slapped him on the back and said things like, "Brave boy!"  and "You seem a likely lad".  They said, "We'll make you a soldier too."

So off they went at a good pace with Jack trotting right along beside, for he was fast and strong.  The rest of that day and half the next on the road through hills and farms and villages like Jack had never seen, through towns with streets and markets crowded full of more people than he had ever thought there could be in the whole world, until they came to the walls of great London town itself and went right in through big gates.  In they went to the very center of the great town where stood the house of King Maxin, a huge great hall.  They left their horses with a porter at the door and just walked right in.

Now it was lunch time again and the hall was full.  There was King Maxin himself at the high table far in front wearing his crown, with his queen at one side and his general of the army at the other.  And all around were countless tables of soldiers over here, and clerks over there, with another whole army of cooks and waiters and waitresses to bring their food.  It was all abustle, I may tell you, full of clatter and talk.  And those three soldiers marched right up to the high table way in front, right before the king, and made their report about the job that they'd been on and the king listened and thanked them courteously and bade them to places of honor at a table nearby.

So there stood Jack then, all by himself in the middle of this throng, before the very King of Britain, and the king looked down at him and he looked up at the king.  Then, after a bit of silence, the king raised his eyebrows kind of humorously and asked, "Well, boy, who are you?'

And Jack answered, "Jack?"

I must tell you something.  This was an excellent boy, the finest boy that you can possibly imagine, but he was still a boy.  I mean that he lacked discernment.  He lacked judgment.  When choices were placed before him he could either stand paralyzed in total indecision or else he would just jump on something without knowing why.  So it was now.  Knowing not what else to say, Jack spoke up strong.  He said; "I want to be a soldier!"  And the king smiled.

Three months they trained him.  Three hard, hard months.  Jack was already fast and hardy on his feet but they taught him to walk for three days and nights without sleeping, because when there is war a soldier must go where he is sent.  He was already accurate with the bow but they taught him to shoot fast too, for when there is war a soldier must do all the damage that he can.  He could already hit a running deer with the light spear but they taught him to throw the heavy spear for when there is war a soldier must kill men.

Then finally came the very day when his training was done and he was finally given to a company, the very first day when he came to sit with his new mates at their meal.  The fellows shook hands all around and slapped his back and put him in a seat way down at the far end of the table.  And that very noon a certain merchant came to King Maxin's hall.  This was a woman merchant, a trader in agricultural produce, I think.  Her name was Andromeda, I think, and she was well known to the king.  He liked her because she always brought the news and she always told it straight.

Well, this merchant lady strode into the hall and right up to the front and before Maxin could even invite her to sit down for the meal she spoke to him; "Oh good king, I have seen a marvel!  I have seen a marvel with my own eyes!  And I have come here by the straightest road to tell you."  She was calling out loud so everyone would hear and everybody hushed.  She said; "Way off north in your lands by Scotland, I stood on a high steep hill and looked down into the thickest forest in the world.  It is a wild wood full of giant brambles, full of broken trees and dire bogs, empty of the human race, echoing with cries of unknown beasts.  And at its heart there shines a blue lake clear and glistening as the blue summer sky.  And there upon the lake shore a mighty castle stood, built of huge boulders like the giants used to use in olden days.  It is the strongest castle in your realm, for I have seen them all.  And as I watched, the castle vanished."

Oh, well!  Amid the hubbub of everybody talking again, the king leaned over to his wife and whispered, "'Dear, if such a fortress stands in my realm then surely I must send someone to find out."

And the queen nodded, saying; "Yes dear, I think you must."

And then the king leaned over to his general and said out loud, "Well, if such a fortress stands in my realm then surely I must send someone to find out."

And the general said real sharp, "Yes sir, I'm sure you must."

And the soldiers all were talking among themselves, for if someone would be sent they knew it would be one of them.  But that forest sounded pretty tough.  There could be lions and elephants and crocodiles in there, or even dragons.  And that magic castle!  They were soldiers, not sorcerers.  So the soldiers were all elbowing each other and saying; "Hey Ed, how about you?"  and "I don't know Bill, how about you?"

You can guess what happened then.  Jack looked around at his new mates and the idea struck him that he had scarcely been anywhere and scarcely seen anything, unlike these other good fellows.  And he thought he'd better speak up quick before one of them did.  So he called out, "I'll go!"  A hush fell on the room again and everybody looked around wondering what fool had said this.  So Jack leaped to his feet and waved his hand and cried again, "I'll go!  I'll go!"  The king, I may tell you, was just delighted.

They put him on an excellent fine horse.  They stuffed his pack with supplies.  They gave him a lovely broad strong sword and a purse with money.  The merchant told him precise directions how to find the wood, but no one could tell him how to find the castle at its heart.  They had the army band playing "Happy Trails To You" and everybody waving from the doorsteps and windows when Jack rode out of town.

Seven days' ride, following the directions exactly.  Then on that seventh day, he found that the road had brought him by a very thick wood.  Riding on along, very soon he found a path that led from the road down into the woods, so he turned his good horse down into it.

He found the path was very narrow and twisty and it kept on pretty long, but the blue sky was perfectly clear above and there were soft fallen leaves underfoot.  The forest stood straight up high on either side just beyond his stirrups, so thick with briars and twisted branches that it seemed like midnight in there, and strange loud inhuman voices were crying near and far.  The awful noises did cast a shiver in his bones but the narrow path was open and sunny and no creature showed itself.

At a turn in the trail he glimpsed a beautiful lake some ways ahead, and the castle on the shore.  Then soon he was there on the lake shore with the castle right in front of him indeed.  It had very high walls, an enormously tall tower, all built from huge stones.  And there was a door just standing open like company was expected.  Jack stopped and sat on his horse and looked.  He did not know what to do.  He stood there staring, totally lost in wonderment, not even scratching his head, and sat so long that dusk came on and then there were lights inside.  Finally he just climbed down and tied his horse to a bush and walked on in.

There was a feast going on, with a table and chairs, but there was only a very small company.  There were some young women, three of them there were, and the radiant beauty of their faces struck our young man's heart.  And there was an old man lying on a sofa, an old man with a long gray beard and a gold crown on his head.  This old king had a big bandage covering his whole side, a bandage soaked with blood that dripped down onto the floor, and now and then he moaned with pain.  The place was lit with hidden lamps that shone both dim and bright to make the air truly shimmer.

As Jack came into this strange hall the ladies immediately ran to take his hands and they brought him to the table to a chair.  They brought a plate and cup and food and drink but he found that he could not eat, not even enough to be polite, not a single morsel nor one sip.  He was sore afraid to do anything wrong, you see.  What would happen, he was fearing, if he scraped his knife across the plate or dropped his cup, or if the wine was strong and he got drunk and laughed out loud?

After awhile the beautiful young women silently cleared the dishes away and then came back into the chamber in a very strange procession.  They came back in and slowly walked around the room.  The beautiful young lady who went in front was wearing a lovely long pale blue gown that sparkled like the new snow on a hilltop against a bright winter sky, and she held a large bowl up in her hands.  This large bowl was all made of gold and silver and set with jewels that shot out beams of light.  As they walked, the ladies sang together in a harmony that stirred his soul and echoed from that amazing bowl through the air into his heart.

But that was soon over too and then they came to take Jack's hands again.  They smiled at him very sadly.  They led him up to a room in the tower and put him to bed.  He tossed there all the night, half awake and half asleep in fitful dreams.  Through all of these amazing marvels Jack had spoken not one word.  He did not know what people wanted him to say, so he said nothing at all.

When Jack awoke the castle was gone.  A cold breeze touched his cheek and he awoke there on the ground.  The sun was up but it was a chilly morning.  His horse stood tied where he had left it.  He looked around, wondering if the castle had been real at all.  There was the path up into the woods so he mounted and started up, but as he rode into the path the clearing seemed to close behind him.  As he rode, he heard a loud rustling of leaves behind, and the groan of branches bending, and when he turned in the saddle to look, the forest was reaching across with limbs and vines to fill the path as if it had never been.  On and on he rode, but very slowly because he could not stand to hurry away.  And when Jack got up onto the road at last, he looked behind.  The path was simply gone

He sat there on his horse and gazed at the tangled wilderness and felt a terrible pain in his heart.  And you must know it was an empty awful lonely ache in his heart in just the same place where the ladies' glorious song had chimed before.  That was a pain that no one can feel and remain a child.

So what could poor Jack do now?  With so much beauty lost, with his heart awakened to so much mystery that simply vanished, what could he do now?  He began to wander.  He became a doer of good deeds and a lonely tramp upon that land.  Good work did come into his hand for him to do.  Yes, many's the time he came upon a crew of workmen mending a bridge or boat or fishing weir and stopped to lend a hand.  Many's the time he found a lost child in a wood or crowded marketplace.  Many's the time when he brought meat to an empty table.  He did grow in experience just as his body grew, and the gifts he gave were recompensed by gifts given to him.  Good work did come into his hand and he did it, but he was always alone, scarcely even telling anyone his name, always with that deep loneliness and pain inside his eyes, and for seven years he wandered.

But then there was another summer day when Jack found that the road had come along beside a wild thick wood off in the north by Scotland.  And the road took a turn and another turn and another turn still and came along beside a little clearing in the forest edge and there an old decrepit tumble-down cabin stood.

Jack stopped and sat his horse and gazed, wondering if any soul might dwell in such a miserable shack where the winter wind must howl right through and rains of spring must pour inside.  But just then, an old woman in a ragged blue dress rushed out from the sagging doorway toward him on hobbling legs.  The ancient woman hurried to him, calling in alarm as loud as she could; "Young man!  Young man!  I pray, please help me!  For the sake of pity help me!"  And she hobbled close enough to fling herself and cling to his leg there where he sat upon his horse.  The old woman looked up and begged; "Protect me!  If ye be a true good man, protect me!  My husband is coming home and he will beat me because I have no food!"

I must tell you something.  In that land there was a law in those days that every man was king of his own house, though low and wretched it might be.  Whatever a man might do in his own place, none but a higher king could lawfully say him nay.  But King Maxin wasn't there to see things done, so Jack tied up his horse and found a stump to sit upon to wait.  He had no wish to break the royal law but simply hoped that some good thing to do might come to hand.

He didn't need to wait for long.  Very soon the earth began to shake with terrible great stamping footfalls.  There came a roaring voice from out beyond the trees, bellowing; "Feed me!  Feed me now!"  And very soon from out beyond the trees there came a terrible great brute of a man stomping the ground as he ran.  He was eight feet tall at least and shoulders broader than he stood tall, chest like a great oak tree's trunk, arms and legs as thick as any branches.  His hair stood up in spikes all twined with twigs and leaves.  His long sharp yellow teeth were tusks like a wild boar's tusks and he had breath that you could see.  When this awful fellow saw Jack waiting there he grinned horribly and bellowed; "Ye little one!  Ye best had flee, or be my dinner!"

Jack stood up though, and did not run.  He first held up a stout club that he had, thinking that a simple show of firm resolve might do the trick.  But the huge beastly man quickly drew a long broad sword and swung and snapped the staff in two as if it were a twig, so Jack must draw his sword as well.  The battle then grew fierce.  The beastly fellow was not fast, but very strong.  He swung hard and though Jack stopped it with a clang that shivered in his arm, he was shaken long enough for the fellow to swing again.  Again the shivering clang and yet again; Jack scarce recovered from each strike and he must step back slowly, his knees buckling as he took the seven blows, fearful that some root would reach to trip him up and he would fall.

At last, when strength was almost gone, he knew what he must do.  He knew what must be done.  For pity's sake, for hope of justice, Jack gathered all the power he had left, coiled his legs like springs and leaped up high into the air, reached to swing, and sliced the fellow's head clean from his shoulders so it tumbled on the ground.

"Oh thank you!  Thank you!"  the old woman cried as she came running on her crippled legs.  She knelt to kiss Jack's hand.  She kissed his hand and asked if there were anything which she could do in recompense for his great deed of charity and justice.

Jack shook his head and looked down at the dead man's grinning face upon the ground.  Sadly did he shake his head.  At length he spoke; "Perhaps there is some good from this.  Perhaps you can guide me."  He looked into the woman's smiling eyes.  "There is a castle somewhere in these woods.  I was there long ago, although perhaps in just a dream, and I've dreamed of it ever since.  Perhaps you know the way."

And she answered that indeed she did for she herself served at the castle fetching wood and water.  So up onto the horse he climbed and she pointed so that his eyes followed her pointing hand.  Somehow the narrow lane into the dark wood stood there now, beside the cabin just before his eyes.  There stood the narrow path now, open and sunny as before.

The good horse nickered happily and took him into the path with scarce a touch upon the reins.  They came upon the first bend of the winding way and he turned in the saddle to speak his thanks.  He looked back just in time to see the cabin and the woman and the man's body and the severed head just vanish clean away, and so Jack spoke his thanks into the air to both of them, wherever they might be.

The path was just as long and winding as before but now the cries of unknown beasts seemed naught to fear but only seemed to beckon him onward.  As he saw the lake below, dusk fell but then he was there at last.  He stood there once again at the castle's open gate.  Once more the lights inside were lit so down he jumped and in he strode without a moment's wait.  Once more the little company was there, the beautiful young ladies and the old gray moaning king upon the couch.  The oozing bandage was still dripping blood.  Once more the lovely maidens ran to take his hands but this time Jack said to them; "No, wait."  He went to the king instead and knelt and tenderly lifted the old man's hand.  Jack kissed the frail old bony hand and spoke; "Uncle, please tell me; what ails thee?"

The old man sighed, sighed very deeply twice and thrice.  His voice came thin and trembling and yet loud with passion, crying out: "Oh!  Oh!  Long have I waited for one who would come and ask!  Long have I waited, and now you are come!"

And so the old man told his tale.

He had been king of Britain long long ago, before Maxin's great great grandparents ever lived.  This was no tangled wilderness then, but a famous lovely land of crops and cattle, human beings, honey bees, cattle and sheep, darting swallows, prowling foxes, noble stags and does.  And this deep lake had been a treasure known throughout the world for its beauty and its healing powers.

But then there came a day the king went fishing on the lake, a thing he loved to do, out in his little skin boat upon the deep water with a stout pole and line.  That day he cast his line deeper than he had before and found a strong great fish was hooked.  He pulled with all his might and saw a huge salmon glimmering as he hauled it up, a fish with every rainbow in world beaming from its scales.

He got the huge beauteous fish into his little boat all right, but then the salmon spoke.  This salmon looked up into his eyes and shouted loud with a voice that seemed to shake the sky; "O man!  O man!  You must put me back!  I am the spirit of this place."

But the king could only think how beautiful it was and how fortunate a man would be to have it for his own.  He answered, "No, I shall not put you back.  I shall roast you at my fire and eat you on my plate.  Then your powers will be mine."

And as the king dipped his paddle to push the little boat back toward the shore, a powerful drowsiness came on him so he felt his body sag.  And as he grounded on the shore and tumbled out, this great gaping wound opened in his side and began to pour forth blood.  And as he crawled in through the castle door, he saw the land growing up in tangled briars.  And as he dragged himself onto this couch and drooped his head in pain, he felt the castle vanishing around him.

When the tale was done, the feast went on as it had done before, except the ladies smiled right gladly while Jack ate and drank his fill.  The strength and joy of life came into him with every bite.  Afterward the ritual procession came forth as before, except this time the wonderful bowl's beams of rainbow light shot through and through him.  This time Jack gazed full on the gold and silver bowl and felt its radiance fill him as the wind fills out a billowing sail.  He felt the ladies' glorious song ring from the very castle stones and glowing air, not only echoing in his heart but through and through his soul so that he knew not what his soul was anymore, and what were air and stone.  Soon, just like before, they led him up to the tower room and so to bed.  He fell asleep quickly and this night he slept more soundly than he had in years, with dreams full of every pleasure.

Jack awoke with sunlight on his cheek, he thought, but when his eyelids fluttered open found not only sunlight had caressed his cheek, but too that the lovely maiden of the blue gown was bending over him to give a tender kiss.  The maiden smiled into his eyes and spoke; "All things await thee."  She pointed with her graceful hand toward a little window of the tower room through which the dawn light beamed.

So up he jumped and to the window ran.  Looking out, in great happiness he beheld the fearful wilderness was gone.  He beheld there in its place fine fields tall with standing grain, green orchards heavy with their fruit, good lanes with oxen pulling laden wagons on along, thatched roofs from which the hearth fire smoke was drifting up, stands of woodland where the deer and foxes ran, and all of this stretched mile on mile off everywhere into the distant hills as far as he could see with wrens and swallows darting through the sky.  He heard the splash of oars, herdsmen calling cattle to the fields, women singing as they hoed the garden plots, children chanting at their merry games.  He saw the lads and maidens strolling arm in arm down shady ways and heard a thin sweet melody breathed on the wind, and spied to find the distant hillside where a piper played.

Jack then felt a weight upon his head and reached up a hand and touched there what he found.  Upon his head there was a kingly crown.