Two illustrations reprinted in Iona and Peter Opie’s The Classic Fairy Tales (1974). From a 1794 edition of Tommy Thumb’s Song Book, for all little Masters and Misses (p63), we see the giant’s refrain:

Fee Faw Fum

Then, in The History of Tom Thumbe (1621 edition), from the “gyant” while searching for Tom (p40):

Now fi, fee, fau, fan,
I feele smell of a dangerous man:
Be he alive, or be he dead,
Ile grind his bones to make me bread.

Onto Jack the Giant Killer (1761 edition, p63):

Fee, fau, fum,
I smell the blood of an English man,
Be he alive, or be he dead,
I’ll grind his bones to make my bread.

The Opies footnote the pattern as “perhaps the most famous war cry in English literature” (p63), common to British tales of giants and ogres, in numerous versions, such as:

Fe, fi, fo, fum,
I smell the blood of an Englishman;
If he have any liver and lights
I’ll have them for my supper tonight.

But as to its origins? Thomas Nashe cautions in Haue with You to Saffrom-Walden (1596, p48):

O, tis a precious apothegmaticall Pedant, who will finde matter inough to dilate a whole daye of the first inuention of Fy, fa, fum, I smell the bloud of an Englishman.

Which brings to mind this woodcut from an 1840 edition of Jack the Giant Killer (p59):

Jack the Giant Killer

Still, leaving Opie, a two-part footnote in Jacobs’ English Fairy Tales (p152) tantalizes. First, in the 1889 The Folk-tales of the Magyars, Kriza et al. review cross-cultural olfactory keenness of folk creatures, and include this elf king’s version (p341):

With fi, fe, fa, and fum,
I smell the blood of a Christian man,
Be he dead, be he living, with my brand,
I’ll clash his harns frae his harns pan.

Then, in his introduction to Perrault’s Popular Tales (pCVI/II), Lang traces the blood-scent archetype back to at least AeschylusEumenides from 458 BC, wherein the Furies trace the scent of Orestes (“The smell of human blood gives me a smiling welcome” (l252))—although their apothegms miss apophony.

2 Responses to “Fe Fi Fo Fum and Apothegmatical Pedantry”

  1. Juan Cruz Says:

    Fi fa fo fum i smell the blood of an englishman is also the lyric of a song argentinian band called “Sumo” the song is Crua chan

  2. Troll Hunter – movie review | Ian-Luke Penwald Says:

    […] stick with these days) or ‘the blood of a Christian man’ as in records dating from 1889.  In this film, it’s definitely the blood of the Christian man that the Trolls find more to […]

Leave a Comment