This October, Destiny Books will publish John Matthews’s new book, Spring-Heeled Jack: From Victorian Legend to Steampunk Hero, but the subtitle belies that actual contents of the book, which focus on trying to prove that Jack was actually a modern psychical eruption of ancient mythology, a sort of Freudian return of the repressed in the form of a cri de coeur of liberty and nature against the tyrannical forces of urbanization, industrialization, and centralization. Personally, I think it overreaches.
Spring-Heeled Jack was the collective name for a large number of disparate sightings of a terrifying figure variously described as ghostly or diabolical in form who would jump out and scare Londoners from the 1830s down to the 1870s. (The last sighting supposedly happened in 1904.)
Matthews’s book is heavily padded with newspaper articles, which take up much of the text, and consequently there is surprisingly little in terms of analysis for the length of the book. In what analysis there is, Matthews begins to discuss his belief that the legendary terror was a modern eruption of ancient mythology. His discussion is marred with the usual errors of writers not entirely familiar with the Gothic tradition they seek to explicate. For example, he alleges that Charles Dickens invented the use of ghosts in Christmas stories with his Christmas Carol (1843). Dickens was writing in a long tradition of Christmas ghost stories, which began as oral storytelling and by Dickens’ day had seen decades of published Christmas ghosts.
Matthews compares the story of Spring-Heeled Jack to Victorian beliefs in ghosts and the supernatural, and he suggests that there is a connection between the character and the popularity of the Jack-in-the-Box, where the Jack was often considered to be a representation of the devil. (Compare the toy’s French name, the “boxed devil.”) Chris Upton had suggested the same thing in writing for the BBC several years ago, and many writers on Jack the Ripper have offered similar thoughts. It is not an unreasonable argument. Less impressively, fringe historian Andrew Collins once proposed that Spring-Heeled Jack, the Jack-in-the-Box, and Jack Frost are all reflexes of a mythical Lord of Misrule named Ak. Matthews doesn’t endorse this theory wholesale (or is even aware of Collins’s claims), but he agrees that the Spring-Heeled Jack is connected to the Lord of Misrule. He notes that Jack appeared in Punch and Judy shows in place of the devil for a time, and Punch was a sanitized form of the Lord of Misrule.
This is somewhat debatable; Punch is an Anglicized form of Pulcinella, an Italian stock character of uncertain origin. His connection to the Lord of Misrule is often asserted (as on Wikipedia) but is not universally agreed. The character contains aspects of trickster figures, but to call him a survival of them is a bit like claiming Bugs Bunny is a survival of the ancient Trickster god. Inspired perhaps, but not really a survival in the literal sense.
This is also the problem with an additional portion of the writer’s analysis. He goes on to argue that Spring-Heeled Jack is a conglomeration of medieval and antique folklore, including tales of devils and demons, pagan nature deities, and ghosts. He further posits that the widespread use of the name Jack for various fictional figures, from Jack the Giant Killer to Jack Frost to Jack-o’-Lantern (and let’s add Jack Sprat for good measure) is not merely due to the moniker “Jack” being the early modern equivalent of “average Joe” due its ubiquity but rather a deep and mystical connection to ancient myth and legend.
By making this claim, he then associates Spring-Heeled Jack with Jack of the Green, better known as the Green Man (though that name was coined in 1939). Here he considers the decorative motif of the vine-covered man found in medieval and modern stonework to be the same as the garland-covered May Day character. So, even though this mythic nature figure is not particularly old in his familiar form—the tradition derives from the May Day festivals of the 1500s and 1600s—Matthews views the Jack of the Green as a direct lineal descendant of pagan nature gods. As such, he makes a quite unsupportable connection between the Celtic and/or Druidic nature deities and Enkidu, the wild man of the Epic of Gilgamesh. He also wrong calls the epic “Sumerian” (it is Akkadian in its standard epic form) and ascribes it to 700 BCE, though it dates back at least a thousand years earlier. There is no connection between Enkidu and Celtic lore that we know of except that both represent the wild aspects of nature.
Matthews also falsely alleges that the Green Man figure is tied to the loss of forests that he believes accompanied the building of cathedrals in the Middle Ages due to the amount of scaffolding needed for the construction! According to Matthews, stonemasons carved Green Man figures into churches like Rosslyn Chapel to appease pagan gods whose forests had been destroyed. Good to know that all the farmers who ever leveled a forest are dwarfed by the needs of a single cathedral! Needless to say, this quasi-mystical view of the Green Man, so Victorian in its claims, is not supported by mainstream views.
He has a lot more supposed influences on Jack, from Robin Hood to Lucifer to what seems to be Margaret Murray’s imagined witch-cult in Western Europe, but there isn’t really much of a point in continuing on in analyzing Matthews’s claims. He seems unaware that the argument he is making is not factual but polemical: He believes that industrialization cut human beings off from nature, just as city-based governing authorities (secular and religious) curtailed traditional human liberties, and therefore the collective unconscious rebelled against the evils of city life by resurrecting ancient pagan nature gods in quasi-diabolical form. This is an unprovable claim, and one that rests on the ideological claim that industrialization and urbanization are bad and an organic granola country lifestyle is a unique good. It also overreaches in that every cultural expression can be said to reflect, often unconsciously, at some level the culture in which it emerged, but some specific evidence is needed to show that there were direct connections beyond merely existing in its own culture. Here Matthews fails. He has no direct evidence, only comparisons of tropes and types, some of which—if not most—are likely coincidence.
7/31/2016 10:22:32 am
"The character contains aspects of trickster figures, but to call him a survival of them is a bit like claiming Bugs Bunny is a survival of the ancient Trickster god." Heh- many years ago, I wrote a school paper making exactly this claim.
7/31/2016 01:25:13 pm
Interesting regarding the deforestation of England. Other than widespread agriculture I have always posited that a percentage of the issue was the need to keep up navel ships to run the empire.
7/31/2016 11:38:35 pm
James Burke mentioned in one of the Connections episodes that the British Navy was concerned about the amount of wood glassmakers were using. And of course charcoal production was always a problem. (Most people used charcoal instead of firewood).
8/1/2016 03:16:32 am
It wasn't that most people used charcoal instead of firewood- charcoal was produced by a time-consuming and thus quite expensive process. Before the invention of coke, though, charcoal was the best fuel for reaching the temperatures necessary to melt metals.
7/31/2016 01:30:29 pm
Oh yeah thanks for the info about the prolification on the name Jack used for various supernatural figures/forces. I always wondered if it was a coincidence or some actual connection existed that I couldn't find.
7/31/2016 02:38:17 pm
Jason, I might be mistaken, but wasn't it said that spring-heeled jack's attacks were sexual in nature or that they were implied to be? I don't know if John Matthews points this out, but I would assume if that was the case, that spring-heeled jack was always a fictional projection of the suppressed sexual nature of the Victorians and their conservative views.
7/31/2016 03:25:02 pm
According to Matthews, one of the later accounts seem to describe a rape in which the victim described the attacker as Jack. The first wave of sightings involved no actual crimes. I didn't analyze all the accounts myself, so I can only go by what he said.
7/31/2016 03:06:47 pm
The name John is also called Jack.
8/1/2016 03:16:59 pm
Jack or Jacques was also the nickname of James. The first "Union Jack " aka the Kong's Colors (not the current flag of the UK) was called that because it created after Scotland and England were united under James V of Scotland after Elizabeth I death. The combination of the cross of St. George and St. Andrew on the flag were credited to this event, and Jack was in reference to James.
8/1/2016 03:20:48 pm
I really wish there was an edit function here... I meant the King's Colors.
7/31/2016 05:32:10 pm
how about the Bojack Horseman
7/31/2016 05:39:31 pm
I agree that Matthews seems to have overreached. Since it's been over 110 years since the last alleged sighting of Spring-heeled Jack, I take this to mean he was around for a short time, but didn't have the staying power of other legends.
7/31/2016 09:45:48 pm
Frankly I found the Spring-heeled Jack episode of he Fox show Houdini & Doyle to be more plausible than Matthew's assertions.
8/1/2016 03:10:20 pm
Yeah the street scenes are waaay too clean. But still fun show.
8/1/2016 03:19:36 am
The Amazon page about the book doesn't make it clear how far back before Spring-Heeled Jack the author has gone in the investigation of apparitions. There were quite a few earlier in the 1830s, and the reference point for press reports seems to have been, not any "Jack" but the Cock Lane Ghost of 1762:
8/1/2016 08:50:00 am
"Jack of the Green, better known as the Green Man (though that name was coined in 1939)"
8/1/2016 12:06:31 pm
Per Wikipedia, "Lady Raglan coined the term "Green Man" in her 1939 article "The Green Man in Church Architecture" in The Folklore Journal."
8/1/2016 01:55:59 pm
When I read that the term dated to 1939, I checked Frazer's "Golden Bough," which usually has at least a mention of every name, but he only gives "Jack-in-the-Green," "Little Leaf Man," "Green George," and "the May King," so I figured it must be correct.
Pop Goes the Reason
8/1/2016 02:09:16 pm
The Green Man is a reasonably common pub name in England, mostly it seems in the south. Many of these pubs date back to the early 19th century and some well beyond that.
8/1/2016 02:22:30 pm
It's complicated. Nathaniel Hawthorne gives the context neatly in "The May-Pole of Merry Mount":
8/1/2016 02:55:09 pm
Oops- forgot to mention the Green Knight (as in Sir Gawain and...)
8/2/2016 02:22:53 pm
Clearly the figure Lady Raglan refers to as "The Green Man" pre-dates her article by centuries - but the question is, did she coin the term to refer to this figure?
8/2/2016 02:24:12 pm
Sorry - the above was a reply to David Bradbury's reply including a Nathaniel Hawthorne link.
8/2/2016 03:39:41 pm
Yes, that's why I put "It's complicated". It's actually even more complicated than I thought, because Lady Raglan was using the term "green man" specifically to refer to a type of architectural decoration, and I can well believe that she was the first to do that, regardless of the many earlier uses in other contexts [note how the introductory paragraph of the Wikipedia article begins with the words "A Green Man Sculpture"- it really needs rewriting or retitling because the sculpture-type is not the dominant use of the term].
8/1/2016 12:10:21 pm
After looking up some more information on Spring-Heeled Jack, I actually came across a couple other sources (outside of his wikipedia entry) that says his earliest appearance was in 1837. Not to get too ahead of myself, but it should be considered how that was the year where Queen Victoria came to power, marking the official beginning of the Victorian period. It would be interesting to find out what other urban legends involving ghostly figures were appearing in England just around that same time. This is just my guess, but if there are any, I bet they would share some key characteristics in their legends, that not only could be similar to Spring-Heeled Jack, but would also reflect the emerging Victorian era beliefs of the time.
8/1/2016 02:27:03 pm
As I posted above, there were various manifestations of "ghostly" figures in the 1830s, well before Victoria's accession. Typically they preyed on young women out alone, and one 1836 case illustrates a reason why: a "ghost" which tried to scare two men had three of its ribs broken by them.
8/2/2016 03:47:44 pm
Rummaging a bit further, it looks as if there would easily be enough early 19th century ghost scams to fill a substantial book. One from Collingham, Yorkshire, in February 1834, sounds like an early episode of Scooby Doo, complete with cowardly hounds- the "ghost" in that case being a man with a speaking-trumpet, employed to lead the authorities away from poachers.
8/1/2016 03:41:22 pm
For a good non-woo book about jack and his ilk see https://www.amazon.com/Spirits-Industrial-Age-Impersonation-Spring-heeled/dp/1499268777/ref=sr_1_12?ie=UTF8&qid=1470080424&sr=8-12&keywords=springheeled+jack
8/2/2016 07:13:46 pm
Thanks! Got it for my Kindle. Fascinating read- it's particularly interesting to see how a lot of the things that seem so completely weird to us about SHJ as a folkloric figure actually make perfect sense in context.
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