Jack be nimble,
Jack be quick.
Jack jump over
Wikipedia tells us that jumping candlesticks was a kind of medieval sport, where the object was to clear a candle without extinguishing the flame. I’m sorry to tell you, but this has nothing to do with Jack.
First of all, the poem’s speaker is afraid for Jack’s safety. The first two lines are cautions against clumsiness, urging him to proceed with care. No one who worries about you hurting yourself is then going to encourage you to jump over an open flame for no good reason. So it’s very clear that Jack is in a predicament that necessitates his candle-leaping.
Understanding this predicament requires firstly that we set the scene. We know Jack’s environment is spacious enough to allow for quick and nimble actions, such as jumping. And we know that this space contains a single candle (“the” candle, not “a” candle), which is on or near the ground. But it’s not – it can’t be – passively placed on the floor. The narrator, who wants Jack to be careful, screams that he’s got to jump over it. The candle is a threat. It’s moving – it’s coming at him. He has no choice but to jump if he wants to avoid getting burned.
We know that the narrator is on Jack’s side, and that she or he is able to observe his struggle. Yet, she seems prevented from physically intervening. She can only scream encouragement from the sidelines – as though watching some kind of twisted sport.
And, friends, that’s exactly what is happening. The candlestick exists as a weapon in the hands of a very small creature. Someone strong, and fierce, and clever with a weapon, but no taller than calf-height – perhaps a gnome or troll. That Jack needs to be told to jump over the candle suggests that his morals had him at one point passively getting burned rather than attacking the smaller being, who seems to have been armed with nothing but a tool of string and wax.
Significantly, Jack’s supporter in the crowd never advises him to attack. He’s told to be nimble, to be quick, and to jump out of the way – as though he has some known commitment to nonviolence that prevents his fighting back. It would seem as though Jack and his opponent have been forced into the ring to battle against their will. Perhaps this is the punishment for refusing to fight under the reign of an evil tyrant, whose imperialist agenda snagged vassals from every corner of the world. The unnamed gnome who fights with such passion to stay alive may have rebelled against authorities in any number of ways.
This is the grim joke, the twisted amusement of brutal elites – let’s see what happens when we pit Jack the gentle man against Unnamed, the feisty troll. Will Nameless lose his taste for battle when pitted against the passive Jack? Will Jack turn from his morals when his life is on the line, or will he stay true to his nature to the gory end?
Jack’s kindness seems to have won him the support of the people. His only hope is to stay nimble, stay quick, and stay jumping as long as he can.