“Jack and the Hopsack”
by Lavrans Reimer-Møller
Once, in a big valley where everyone worked together to make a good life, there was a boy named Jack. Jack was the youngest son, and, as you know, many times the youngest has it the worst. He got the hand-me-downs and the leftovers and the kicks and cuffs. So Jack, like so many youngest sons before him, learned to get along by being a little smarter, a little quicker. He also had his special luck, which was in the form of a nugget of gold. Now it was only fool’s gold, as he found out later from the grand-dad who had given it to him, but it was his luck nevertheless.
Jack’s family had a farm at the near end of the valley. They grew most of the usual things that a family in the valley needed to get by; but they also grew something that everybody else needed to get by as well, as was the custom. The thing they grew at Jack’s family’s farm were the hops.
The big brewmaster, at the other end of the valley, would collect the barley and wheat and rye from the farmers each harvest, and he would make the beer and ale for the winter season. But he most of all needed the hops from Jack’s family’s farm to make the beer and ale taste just right. Growing those hops, getting them to the brewmaster at the right time was the one big thing that people respected Jack’s family for.
But this last year, there was a disaster of sorts at the hops farm. Jack’s oldest brother, the one who stood to inherit the farm someday, had come down sick. Some in the valley thought he was getting too lazy to haul the hops and was faking his illness; the rest believed him to be too stupid to commit such a clever fraud. The next oldest son had run off to be a Viking and was nowhere to be found, having disappeared the previous Spring. The daughters in the family were much too busy primping and preening for the steady flow of suitors who kept coming by to be bothered to think about such a dirty job as hauling hopsacks. Mother and Father were just to old and feeble, so it fell to Jack to try to save the family’s reputation.
The first thing in the morning on the day that the hops had to be delivered, Jack was up early. He had his usual breakfast of leftover gruel, and then packed up for his journey. He didn’t have much to bring along- just his little bag with his lucky fool’s gold nugget and a hop sack that, while it was lighter than it looked, was as big as he was. With a whistle and a skip, he set off, knowing that he had to get to the brewmaster’s by sundown that day.
He hadn’t more than left the front gate when he came to a big stream and the old bridge that spanned it. And there on the bridge was the old bridge troll. Now this old bridge troll was almost the last of his kind- very old, and, some thought, not too bright- but a fearsome troll nonetheless.
The troll looked down at little Jack and his hopsack and said, “And who is this that would cross my bridge? You must pay the bridge troll the bridge toll!” Jack knew that his father or his oldest brother usually had a bit of something to give to the troll and there was no problem. But Jack had nothing to give the troll.
“You can’t cross unless you pay the toll!” the troll bellowed again. “What’cha got in the sack, boy?” Jack shuddered. If he gave the troll the hops, there would be no point in making the trip, and he and his family would be ruined. He was about to turn back, when he remembered his lucky fool’s gold.
Reaching into his belt-pouch, he found the little nugget and pulled it out and held it up to the light, hoping that it would glimmer enough to trick the greedy troll.
“This more than this little bridge is worth, but I must cross, so here it is!” he shouted. His hand was trembling so badly though that when he tried to hold out the nugget, it slipped from his sweaty little fingers. With a flip and a twist and a glitter, it bounced on the bridge railing three times, and then fell over the side of the bridge into the water below.
The troll, in his foolishness and greed, jumped up onto the bridge railing to peer down and see the little piece of what he thought was gold. But instead of the gold, what he saw was his own reflection in the water. Now the only thing that can really scare an old troll is another troll- so when the bridge troll saw this hideous beast glaring up at him- why he jumped at least 6 feet straight up in the air in fright! When he landed, he dug in his claws and ran as fast as he could to get as far away as he could.
This was good for Jack, except that when the troll took off, in his haste, he unfortunately ran right over poor Jack and trounced him rather badly. So there sat poor Jack, battered and bruised, but still determined to get the hops to the brewmaster by sundown. He had no more than started his trip down the long winding road through the valley when he came to a hilltop, and there he got a great idea. He could see that the road wound back and forth from one side of the valley to the other so that all the farms could get on the road easily. But it might take him too long to go that way. He could see the brewmaster’s house way off in the distance at the far end of the valley, and he decided then and there to take a short cut. So he took off in a straight line, as fast as he could, right across the farmer’s fields of wheat and barley and rye, straight for the brewmaster’s house.
Now Jack was still at that awkward stage that boys go through, and it wasn’t an easy trip. He stumbled a lot, and running through the briar and bramble hedges that separated the farms, he got a bit torn up. But he persevered, and at last he arrived at the brewmaster’s big old brewhouse.
Hans, the big old brewmaster was known and feared throughout the valley as a hard man, and when Jack approached him he was trembling with fear. If anything went wrong with the ale, the hellriders in the night would come at Midwinter Night and carry me away, he thought. Exhausted and near collapse, he threw the hopsack up onto Hans’ big broad porch. Hans picked up the sack, and with a cry of outrage, threw it right back at him!
“What is this? Who said you could carry the hopsack? Where are your brothers? And why is this hopsack EMPTY!!”
Jack looked with horror at the ragged and torn sack. The troll, making its hasty exit, had stepped on the sack with its big troll claw and had torn a hole in it. And in his haste, Jack had run the whole length of the valley, never looking back, and all the hops had leaked out of the sack behind him as he ran.
“The ale this year will not be good. You have failed me, and your family, and the whole valley. Begone!” So Jack, dragging the torn hopsack behind him, went back the farm. He took the long winding road, and it took him till well after moonrise that night to return home.
He told his waiting and anxious family the whole story of the troll and the torn hopsack and how he had failed the brewmaster and his family and the whole valley. His father just shook his head, and told him to go up to the attic, and stay there.
And so it went. All through the season, as the days grew shorter, Jack was kept upstairs in exile, only let down to do the dirtiest of chores. The folk of the valley had to put up with the flattest and sourest ale in recent memory, and they cursed his name, and that of his family. And on the shortest and coldest night of the year, Jack cowered in his dusty attic, fearing the worst. He could swear that he had heard the hooves of the hellriders high above him that night, but he guessed that he was too worthless to be taken, even by them.
Then, when Spring finally came round to warm the land, things began to change. The story of how young Jack had tricked the troll began to make the rounds, and he was well-spoken of for his cleverness. His good luck had apparently left him when he lost the nugget, but maybe it would return. And the farmers all up and down the valley noticed something strange. Along with the wheat and barley and rye, they began to notice a new bud poking its head up from the freshly plowed earth. They weren’t sure at first what it was, but word spread that it wasn’t a weed, and that maybe they should let it grow until they could see what it was.
And when it came to be harvest time, they now saw that the little plant had grown into at big plant, one that was covered with- hops! The folk of the valley realized that a great stroke of good fortune had come to them. Now they could take their barley and wheat and rye, and their fresh spring water and their yeast and add the hops they now all had in their yards and make their own ale and beer! No longer would they have to drag their grain sacks all the way down the valley to the brewmaster’s big old brewhouse.
They decided that it was time to pay a visit to the old hops farm at the near end of the valley. Jack’s older brother had decided to escape from his family's disgrace, and the last of the sisters had finally been married off, so it was just Jack’s mother and father who greeted the friendly crowd that came to their gate. The folk were in an especially good mood, as the troll had never returned, and they got across the big old troll bridge for free.
When they told Jack’s folks the good news, Jack was finally brought down from the attic, and given new clothes and boots to wear, and a big horn of fresh brewed ale to celebrate. And when Jack got older and wiser, he became the new brewmaster, and when his name grew up from Jack to John, they gave him the oldest and best name in the valley- John Barleycorn.
© Marklander 1996