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The Fairy Tales of Joseph Jacobs

Keep Cool

Return to European Folk and Fairy Tales by Joseph Jacobs

THERE was once a man and he had three sons, and when he died they all had to go out to seek a living. So the eldest went out first, leaving his two brothers at home, and went to a neighbouring farmer to try and get work from him.

"Well, well, my man," said the farmer, "I can give you work but on only one condition."

"What is that?"

"I cannot abear any high talk on my farm. You must keep cool and not lose your temper."

"Oh, never bother about that," said the youngster, "I never lose my temper, or scarcely ever."

"Ah, but if you do," said the farmer, "I make it a condition that I shall tear a strip of your skin from your nape to your waist; that will make a pretty ribbon to tie around the throat of my dog there."

"That doesn't suit me," was the reply. "So fare thee well, master, I must try another place."

"Keep cool, keep cool," said the farmer. "I am a just man; what's good for the man I consider good for the master. So if I should lose my temper I am quite willing that you should take the ribbon of flesh from my back."

"Oh, if that's so," said the youngster, "I'll agree to stay. But we must have it in black and white."

So they sent for the notary and wrote it all down that if either lost his temper he should also lose a strip of skin from his back. But the eldest son had not been in the house a week when the master gave him so hard a task that he lost his temper and had to give up a strip of skin from his back. So he went home and told his brothers about it.

Well, the brothers were savage at hearing what he had suffered. And the second son went to the same man in the hope of getting revenge for his brother. But the same thing happened to him, and he had to come with a strip of skin from his back like his elder brother.

Now the third son, whose name was Jack, made up his mind he wouldn't be done like the other two. And he went to the man and he engaged himself to serve him for the same wage but on the same conditions that his two brothers had done.

The very first morning that Jack had to go out to work his master gave him a piece of dry bread and told him to mind the sheep.

"Is this all I'm to get to eat?" said Jack.

"Why, yes," said the master; "there'll be supper when you come home."

Jack was going to complain when his master called out to him, "Keep cool, Jack, keep cool," and pointed to his back.

So Jack swallowed his rage and went out into the field. But on his way he met a man, to whom he sold one of the sheep for five shillings, and went and bought enough to eat and drink for a whole week.

When he got home that evening his master began to count the sheep, and when he found one was missing, he said to Jack:

"You've let one of the sheep run away."

"No, no, sir," said Jack, "I sold him to a man passing along."

"You shouldn't have done that without my telling you; but where's the money?"

"Oh, with the money," said Jack, "I went and bought me some eats." And he showed him what he had bought.

The master was going to fly in a rage, but Jack said to him: "Keep cool, master, keep cool," and pointed to his back. So he remembered and said nothing more.

The next day Jack was ordered to take the pigs to market to sell them, and after he had cut off all their tails he sold them and pocketed the money; and then he went to a marsh near the farm and planted all the tails in the marsh.

When he got home the master asked him if he had sold the pigs.

He said: "No, they all rushed into the marsh at the foot of the valley."

"I don't believe you," said the master, and was going to get into a rage when Jack said to him:

"Keep cool, master, keep cool."

So he went with Jack to the marsh, and when he saw the pigs' tails all peeping out the marsh he went and plucked one of them out of the ground, and Jack said:

"There, you've torn the tail from the poor pig's back."

Then the master was going to get into a rage again but Jack said: "Keep cool, master, keep cool," and pointed to his back.

Next day the master didn't like sending Jack out with the animals or else he might sell them to get some dinner. So he said to him:

"Jack, I want you today to clean the horses and the stable within and without."

"Very well, master," said Jack, and went to the stable; and he whitewashed it within and he whitewashed it without. Then he went to the horses and killed them and took out their insides and cleaned them within; and then he washed their skins.

In the evening the master came to see how Jack had got on with his work and was delighted to find the stable looking so clean.

"But where are the horses?" he said; and Jack pointed to them lying dead on their backs.

"Why, what have you done?" said the master.

"You told me to clean them within and without and how could I clean them within without killing them?" said Jack.

Then the master was just going to fly into a rage, when Jack said to him: "Keep cool, master, keep cool," and pointed to his back.

So next day the master had sent Jack out with the sheep, but so that he should not sell any of them to get money for his lunch he sent his wife with them telling her to watch Jack from behind a bush, and if he tried to sell any of the sheep to stop him. But Jack saw her and didn't say any thing or try and sell any of the sheep.

But next day, when he went out with them, he took with him his gun, and when the farmer's wife got behind the bush to watch him, he called out: "Ah, wolf I see you," and fired his gun at her and hit her in the leg. She screamed out, and the master came running up and said:

"What's this, Jack, what's this?"

Then Jack said: "Why, master, I thought that was a wolf and I shot my gun at it and it turned out to be the missus."

"How dare you, you scoundrel, shoot my wife!" cried out the master.

"Don't be in a rage, master, don't be in a rage," said Jack.

"Anybody would be in a rage if his wife was shot," said the master.

"Well, then," said Jack, "I'll have that strip off your back." And as there were witnesses pre sent the master had to let Jack take a strip of skin from his back.

And with that he went home to his brothers.

Jacobs' Notes and References

There is no doubt about the European character of this tale, which is found in Brittany, Picardy, Lorraine, among the Basques, in Spain, Corsica, Italy, Tyrol, Germany (though not in Grimm), among Lithuanians, Moravians, Roumanians, Greeks, Irish, Scotch, Danes, Norwegians (Cosquin, ii., 50). The central idea of the Rage-Wager is retained throughout, and in many places the punishment is the same the loss of a strip of skin. In all but three instances the story is told of three brothers, which practically proves its identity. I have given the Irish version in More Celtic Fairy Tales.

The "sells" however change considerably, though in most of them the final dénouement comes with the death or wounding of the wife. The pigs' tails incident is also very common and is indeed found in another set of tales, more of the Master Thief type. Campbell's No. 45 had an entirely different set, some of them very amusing. Mac-A-Rusgaich has all three meals at once and lies down. He holds the plough and does nothing else; he sees after the mountain; literally casts ox-eyes at the master, and makes a sheep foot-path out of sheep's feet. I have taken from Campbell the direction to wash horses and stable within and without, though it does not occur elsewhere. Yet Mac-A-Rusgaich has a bout with a giant, in which he slits an artificial stomach, like Jack the Giant Killer; and this incident occurs in four other of the European tales, again showing identity. "Keep cool" is thus an interesting example of identity of framework, with variation of incident.

Jacobs, Joseph, ed. European Folk and Fairy Tales. New York: G. P Putnam's Sons, 1916.

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Page created 4/15/05; Last updated 10/22/07