By Dr Oliver Tearle
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.
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’, 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.
Image: via Wikimedia Commons.