Beyond The Pale

Archetype, On Jack

Note: This post contains inappropriate language for the NWAG crowd. Please don’t read on if you intend to become offended.

After the dam broke I was empty

damned to stare across empty fields

washed clean of the bits that I’d scattered

empty bottles and fragments of thought

scared paper so I scrambled about for

pieces untouched in the flood I

gathered those stones like books

stacked on the shelf to begin again.

We need to talk about Jack, the wildcard, the unknown element in the equation. We met him for the first time when we were children just his age, and he did the impossible. He brought the big man down, cut the beanpole from below the giant, which would have been enough, but before he did that, he did what only the brave or the stupid—two traits always attributed to our antihero—would do, he ascended into the very castle of the Cyclops and stole away his greatest treasure. This was when we thought that we could be mythic, that we were meant for something more than our parents and teachers could ever imagine. But Jack’s feats weren’t only of the mythic type, for being the trickster, how could he help but get into trouble. Jack the giant-killer was also became Jack flash under ignoble circumstances, for in a spate of hyperactive unwillingness to go to bed, he sat himself on a candle and lit himself aflame.

Jack haunted our dreams as Jack Ketch, the executioner whose bloodied axe longed to sever spine and drip with our own guilty fluids, but as with all childhood frights, those dreams faded until all we saw in the night was a set of glowering eyes over a marble floor.

And then we thought we were through with Jack, so we grew to adulthood without ever recognizing the way that he had touched us, the way that he had changed our lives forever until someone else explained to us our history. Wait did I say “our?” It should be “Jack’s.” Or are they the same? What has he been up to in those years since we last saw Jack? Where did he go after he cut down that gigantic garden plant and burned his britches in that flame? I’ll tell you this, he didn’t just fade away into the dark of the subconscious. Oh no. He lit a fire in those dark corners to drive us to madness in every moment that the thought of becoming the expected began to assault our minds. Just look into the mythology of any culture, and you will find him there. We find him in the garden, disguised as a lizard. We find him refusing to bow before man, begging leave to tempt. We find him in the guise of the animal trickster, Coyote. But in these guises, we give him less than his due. We call him Devil, Tempter, Evil. He is really the trickster.

He is only us, us as we sometime imagined that we could be.

So where has he gone, what has he been up to in the years since we lost track of him, excepting that unfortunate incident in the garden?

Well, he assaulted the Tower of London at just that moment when Alchemy promised to grant us the secret of eternal life, sprinkling his heavy gold into the cauldron that Newton and the Immortal had prepared. So Jack became alchemist, turning our gold into lead. He learned that the world was written on parchment and reality could change with a word, but rather than save us from ourselves he screamed, “Fuck that shit!” into the dark, eloquent if nothing else, and stole a tattoo artist’s gun to write a new world into the skin of his sister. He sank into the ocean to rest in the white beaches of the dead, only to come back and banish the old gods from our seas.

And now he’s found his way into pop culture, perhaps afraid we’ve forgotten him. Jack the Coiner became Jack Bower, Jack Sparrow, Jack Ryan, Jack O’Neil, and the list goes on and on and on.

But if you’re wondering at his motivations, at why he would help us or why he didn’t, then you’ve missed the point because as I hinted before, he is only us as we wish to be. Jack doesn’t really think. He acts. The motivation, well, nothing but experience. The beast that rides his shoulder and goads him into every misadventure is you and me, just as he is the imp that pushes us toward our greatest achievements and defeats—those are the same thing too.

Jack is archetype, the one we love to hate, but still we love.

If you want to know more about Jack, to see him in all his glory, allow me to recommend some reading: Check out The Baroque Cycle by Neal Stephenson, Quicksilver first. After you’ve finished with those, read Hal Duncan’s Vellum and Ink, but prepare to be offended because Jack doesn’t care what you think. He isn’t what you want him to be, only what you need him to be.


November 5, 2009 - Posted by | Archetype, Poems, Rant


  1. If you want a light-hearted adventure with Coyote and his friends, with a kick in the butt included, check out Thomas King’s Green Grass, Running Water, which comments on the state of treaty relations (hence the name) and the images of Aboriginals in pop culture.

    Comment by Arvallian | November 5, 2009 | Reply

    • Thanks Arv, I’m always looking for new book suggestions. I’ll check that out as soon as I get back to the states.

      Comment by davidjgross | November 9, 2009 | Reply

  2. Can Jack be the one we’ve decided we no longer love but only hate?

    Comment by wordorgy | November 30, 2009 | Reply

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