CM . . .
. Volume XI Number 20 . . . . June 10, 2005
In a little cove by the sea lived an old widow with three sons. Tom, the eldest, was as handsome as the day. The middle son, Bill, was as clever as a cat. But the youngest, Jack, was neither handsome nor clever, and gave his mother much trouble besides.
Brave Jack and the Unicorn is a Newfoundland version of Rumplestiltskin or many old folk tales which involve brothers who rise from poverty to riches. Like the old tales, Jack, the youngest, is kind and compassionate while his brothers are haughty and selfish. Jack is kind to an ant and receives a magic whistle in return which will summon thousands of ants to help him. He is kind to an old woman, who gives him a wonderful cloak, and to an old man, who gives him new boots and three needles which can pierce anything. Jack uses these magic items when he decides to try for the hand of the princess. He passes his three allotted tasks, but he needs the princess and her own magic to escape the magician who has the princess in his power. When the magician is defeated, Jack's brothers (who have been put to work in a rock quarry for failing their tasks) are released and given jobs "to govern over the northernmost reaches of her realm" while Jack marries the princess.
Janet McNaughton says that this story was inspired "by listening to Newfoundland folktales while I was working with (Andy Jones) and students of MacDonald Drive Junior High." It did not seem to me to have much of Newfoundland in the story, except for "in a cove by the sea" and the second task, which was to climb a mountain of ice, an obvious reference to an iceberg. Golden apples, unicorns, and dragons do not seem to have much to do with Newfoundland, but much to do with traditional folklore. Born in Toronto, McNaughton now lives in Newfoundland and is an expert in folklore.
The author has made the story unnecessarily complicated by adding the "chase scene" in which the magician pursues Jack and the Princess, changing into different creatures (salmon, dragon, rabbit) as they try to stop him. She has said that this part of the story was adapted from a tale she heard told by a "Newfoundland fiddler and raconteur extraordinaire." I felt it would have been better as a separate story.
The illustrations are by Susan Tooke from Halifax, Nova Scotia. They are done in bold acrylics on watercolour paper and often take up most of the page. Colours are rich and have a medieval quality about them.
Brave Jack and the Unicorn could be used as a supplement to a unit on folklore, or simply as a good read-aloud story for younger children. There are plenty of elements of traditional tales: three brothers, three tasks, three needles; youngest wins; goodness overcomes etc. which can be discussed as typical of this type of story.
Helen Norrie is a Children's Literature specialist who has taught at the University of Manitoba.
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Copyright © the Manitoba Library Association. Reproduction for personal use is permitted only if this copyright notice is maintained. Any other reproduction is prohibited without permission.