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.
I am an author and researcher focusing on pop culture, science, and history. Bylines: New Republic, Esquire, Slate, etc. There's more about me in the About Jason tab.
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