Perusing the stats on this blog, I’ve learnt that a lot of people get directed to it while searching information about Jack and the Beanstalk. I’m not surprised; I reckon Jack’s popularity in folktales is second only to Cinderella’s.
The equivalent of Hans in German folklore and Ivan in Russian tales, Jack is a seemingly irresponsible and often morally ambiguous lad who ends up being a hero. He is, of course, a trickster. Jack is everyman, a symbol of the ordinary working class fellow who is up for turning the tables on the ruling masters and cocking a snook at fate itself. He appears in various folk traditions around the UK. Halloween pumpkins are also known as Jack-the-lanterns and show Jack at his devilish best. Jack-in-the Green used to be a staple of Mayday parades, where a person covered in foliage cavorted with the crowds. It’s a long-held tradition that is being revived in many parts of the UK.
The most popular Jack story in Western Europe and the United States is the one about the beanstalk, closely followed by the [in my opinion, vastly superior] Jack the Giant Killer. There are lots of others, of course, all with regional variations. Believed to be of German origin, although there are indications that they might also be part of earlier Viking lore, the Jack tales were carried to the US by English immigrants. Here they became widely popular, establishing an entire genre of Appalachian Jack stories.
The version of Jack and the Beanstalk I tell the most is based on the Joseph Jacobs version of 1890. It was not the first to appear in print. That is believed to be Benjamin Tabbart’s, which appeared in 1807. Tabbart, ‘moralised’ his version, giving Jack a justification for robbing the giant by making the ogre a thief who had attacked and murdered his father. It’s a tradition that is often adhered to by modern storytellers, especially when translating the tale to film or television. The Disney versions, as well as an Abbot and Costello retelling from the 1950s, really stress this.
Jacobs stuck to the version he had heard as a child, which gives no reason for Jack robbing the giant except that he wants the loot for himself. Jacobs insisted children could figure out for themselves that murder and robbery were wrong, whoever and for whatever reason they were committed.
So what does the story mean? According to the child phycologist and author Bruno Bettelheim, it’s a story about growing up. A tale about the difficult transition from childhood to adulthood! Like the father in Rapunzel, Jack’s mother seems afraid of letting go of her offspring. She belittles him to make sure he stays dependent on her. When Jack does dare take an initiative, he returns home with what she considers the perfect proof for his inability to survive in the outside world. Five silly beans for a cow!
But life has a surprising and reliable habit of making sure things follow nature’s path. The beans turn out to be magic and before long Jack is up in the clouds exploring and testing out a new world, seen through the eyes of a young person with new found powers. What’s important here is that Jack climbs the beanstalk by choice. It’s the first thing he ever does without being asked to. Viewed in this way, the beanstalk is, of course, a very obvious symbol. The initiative results in Jack establishing the fact that he has the power to change his predicament.
Bettleheim sees the ogre’s wife as a second mother, a nurturing one this time. The places she hides him in when the giant returns, are all reminiscent of the womb. This reading suggests that through his adventure, Jack is reborn as a new person.
It’s also interesting to note that the last thing Jack acquires from the giant is the talking harp. This symbolises the enigmatic, the magic of art through which Jack will learn to appreciate things not easily quantified or explained, like gold or jewels.
Chopping down the giant beanstalk, Jack leaves his troubles behind. Gone is the ogre, and the poverty. Jack is a new man, confident in his new found wealth and powers. He even comes to terms with his mother, and they both live in comfort for the rest of their lives.
No matter how you tell Jack and the Beanstalk, there will always be the issue of Jack stealing from and killing the giant. I’ve published two versions of the story. The first was a picture book especially for WH Smith’s in 2002. Sadly, only the Korean version is still in print. The second is for older children, in The Giant Book of Giants, which is in print in around 10 different countries. In both versions, I have the giant falling into a river and being swept away to sea, where he can hurt no one again. When I’m telling the story, though, I usually have the giant plummeting to his death. I’m not sure if this is the right thing to do. But stories mirror real life. Some bits you can come to terms with, some you can’t. What do you think?