A Summary and Analysis of ‘Jack and the Beanstalk’

By Dr Oliver Tearle (Loughborough University)

What is the story of ‘Jack and the Beanstalk’ all about? And what is the moral of this story? It’s one of the best-known and best-loved fairy tales in Britain, and also – as we will see – one of the oldest.

‘Jack and the Beanstalk’: plot summary

First, a very short summary of the plot of the Jack and the beanstalk tale (or a refresher for those who are some way out of the nursery). Jack is a young and rather reckless boy who lives with his widowed mother. They become increasingly poor – thanks partly to Jack’s own carelessness – until the day comes when all they have left is a cow, which Jack’s mother tells him to take to the market to sell for money. Unfortunately, while on his way into town, Jack meets a bean dealer who says he will pay Jack a hat full of magic beans for the cow.

Jack, delighted to have been made an offer on the cow before he’s even reached the market, lives up to his reckless reputation once again and agrees to the deal. He returns home with no cow and no money and only a hat full of beans to show for the journey; his mother, needless to say, is less than happy with this outcome, and hurls the beans out into the garden in her anger. They both retire to bed without having eaten, as they have no food left.

However, when Jack wakes the next morning, he finds that the magic beans scattered across the garden have grown into a giant beanstalk outside his window. He promptly climbs it – as you do – and finds a whole new land at the top. Wandering among this land, Jack comes upon a huge castle and sneaks his way inside.

The giant, who owns the castle, returns home and smells Jack, proclaiming: ‘Fee-fi-fo-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.’ Jack steals a sack of gold from the giant’s castle before swiftly making his escape back down the beanstalk.

However, this is a fairy tale, which wouldn’t be complete without obeying the ‘rule of three’. So, Jack duly climbs the beanstalk twice more and steals from the giant twice more. The giant wakes when Jack is leaving the castle the third time, and chases Jack back down the beanstalk.

The quick-thinking Jack calls for his mother to throw down an axe for him; before the giant reaches the ground, Jack chops down the beanstalk, causing the giant to fall to his death. Jack and his mother live happily ever after, and are never poor or hungry again, thanks to Jack’s burgling skills. Who says crime doesn’t pay?

‘Jack and the Beanstalk’: analysis

‘Jack and the Beanstalk’, like a great number of fairy tales, has a curious and complicated history. The story’s earliest incarnation of in print was as ‘The Story of Jack Spriggins and the Enchanted Bean’ in 1734; it underwent some tidying up (with a large dose of moralising added for good measure) in 1807 in Benjamin Tabart’s ‘The History of Jack and the Bean-Stalk’, although the elements we most associate with the story were given the definitive treatment in an 1890 version.

All this would suggest that the tale of Jack and the beanstalk is relatively recent, especially when so many other classic fairy tales have medieval prototypes in world literature.

But in fact, researchers at the universities in Durham and Lisbon believe that the essential story of ‘Jack and the Beanstalk’ dates back over 5,000 years, or two whole millennia before Homer. This prototype of Jack’s beanstalk antics is classified by folklorists as ATU 328 The Boy Who Stole Ogre’s Treasure. Like ‘Rumpelstiltskin’ and ‘Beauty and the Beast’, this story appears to be thousands, rather than hundreds, of years old.

As we implied above, there is something immoral in the story’s essential message: steal from others to get yourself out of poverty, and you will triumph. The killing of the giant is self-defence, admittedly, but we can see why Victorians might have been a little queasy around the central thrust of the story.

So in some versions of the tale, such as the one the Opies include in The Classic Fairy Tales, a back-story is included, which informs us that the giant actually stole his riches from Jack’s father, whom he killed out of jealousy and greed. The giant’s wealth, then, is ill-gotten, and Jack, in stealing from him, is in fact only reclaiming what is rightfully his.

This addition makes the tale more palatable to younger readers whose parents want to use the fairy tale for moral instruction as well as entertainment, and, after all, Jack is still far from perfect. His lack of foresight and rashness lead to his selling the cow for such a low price.

‘Jack and the Beanstalk’ has endured because it contains so many of the classic ingredients of the fairy tale: the plucky young hero who’s down on his luck, the evil villain, the happy ending. And it’s been around for a long time: if those scholars are correct in their analysis, the original for the story has been around for almost twice as long as Homer’s Iliad. That’s some literary pedigree.

The author of this article, Dr Oliver Tearle, is a literary critic and lecturer in English at Loughborough University. He is the author of, among others, The Secret Library: A Book-Lovers’ Journey Through Curiosities of History and The Great War, The Waste Land and the Modernist Long Poem.

2 thoughts on “A Summary and Analysis of ‘Jack and the Beanstalk’”

  1. this post remind monkey of post apocalyptic novel what have name Not Even Light. chapter 14 start like this.

    Maybe you’ve wondered what first got me thinking about setting on my own along strange paths. I know it sounds farfetched, but it was an Old Days tale that a traveling storyteller told my cohort. Before he did, he said it’d strike us at first as just a story for the youngest kiddies, but if we gave it some thought, it’d say a lot to us or even to olders–or it should. Maybe you’ve heard the story, too. It’s called Jack and the Beanstalk.
    In the beginning, there’s this kiddie Jack scratching out a one-day-at-a-time life–eating, sleeping, chores, and not much more. My attention had started to drift off because it sounded like a story about farm life, but when the storyteller said a funny-looking man offers Jack what he claims are magic beans in trade for Jack’s cow Milky White and Jack says yes straightaway, I got more mindful and wondered what kind of bonehead would trade something as rare and important as a cow for a handful of beans without proof that they were magic. I listened carefully to the rest of the story then, about how Jack climbs the magic beanstalk that shoots way up into the sky overnight after his pissed-off mother throws the beans out the window. Jack makes three trips up the beanstalk, each time stealing from the man-eating giant who lives in the sky. After Jack steals a singing harp on his third adventure, he slags the giant by chopping down the beanstalk while the giant is chasing him down to the earth from his kingdom in the clouds. Jack does well for himself in the story. After he kills the giant, he grows more and more rich and mates up with a beautiful princess. The way the storyteller made it sound, those were his rewards–but I wondered, rewards for what exactly?
    Now most–no, all the rest of my cohort wouldn’t have dreamed of swapping a cow for a handful of beans to begin with or climbing up into the sky a first time like Jack did much less two more times knowing that a bloodthirsty giant was lying in wait. It was just a silly story to them, and they listened to it with about as much interest as a donkey would have. But I could hardly keep the questions bubbling up in my head from spilling out and interrupting the storyteller. Who was the funny-looking man, and why had he picked Jack to trade with, I wondered. Was he working for the giant? Why would Jack have been so quick to believe the beans were magic? Why did Jack decide to climb up the beanstalk again after the first two times? He knew the giant would be waiting to bushwhack him, kill him on sight, and grind his bones up. Jack already had the giant’s bag of gold coins and a hen that laid gold eggs, so he’d already be rich forever because in Old Days you could buy anything you needed or wanted with gold. So why did Jack go back up and try his luck a third time? And why’d he risk his neck for a useless singing harp? And who were those other boys the giant had grabbed and murdered and eaten? Was it luck or magic or brains or all three that helped Jack kill the giant? And after all his adventures, why would Jack just give up excitement for contentment? I waited until the storyteller finished and then let loose. The storyteller stopped me before I got all my questions out and said I should think hard about those questions and the best answers would come to me without his help. I tried to get some talk about Jack going with my cohort later, but they weren’t interested, so I mulled over my questions by myself for the next couple days.
    In Jack I came to see myself. No, of course I wouldn’t actually climb a magic beanstalk, outfox and slag a man-killing giant, and get rich and pair off with a beautiful girl. But the story got me thinking about leaving the farm and testing myself and growing up on my own by using my brains and taking advantage of whatever luck came my way–you know, like Jack did.
    So now you know what first got me dreaming about roading the trails through the Big Woods far from the farm. That storyteller’s words were my magic beans and maybe Bors had become my giant in some way that I didn’t yet understand. My own life and the lives of many others might be the prizes I’d steal away from him. Maybe I’d get lucky and Dyani would wind up being my beautiful princess. Who knew? Hadi had said we were all walking around in an old story. Well, yes, we were, but as we pushed on to find our hidden treasure, I knew that I was also the creator of a new story–the one I’d started piecing together for myself long before I left White Cedars. And now back to it.

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