So you think you know the story of Jack and the Beanstalk, do you?
Do you know all of them?
Relax, I’m going to tell you.
Once upon a time, there was a widow who lived with just her son, Jack, and her dairy cow, Milky-White. Milky-White was the best dairy cow in the county, but one day she stopped giving milk*. So the widow asked her son to take the cow to market and sell her. Jack hadn’t made it far when he was stopped by a mysterious old man who curiously knew Jack’s name*. The old man asked Jack a riddle, which Jack answered easily, and then proposed to swap the cow for a few beans. At first, Jack resisted, but the man convinced the boy that the beans were magic, and that if they didn’t grow right up to the sky, the man would gladly give Milky-White back. Jack eagerly makes the swap and returns home.
At first, the widow is overjoyed at how quickly Jack returns, assuming that he must have got a good price for old Milky-White. But her joy turns to rage when she sees the beans. She chucks the whole lot out the window and sends Jack to bed without any food. When Jack wakes, the house is partially in shadow. He goes to investigate and is awed by the huge beanstalk that does indeed grow right up to the sky. The beanstalk grew right past his window, so all he had to do was jump and climb it like a ladder all the way up*.
He found a straight paved road that led right up to the door of an enormous house. Immediately, he meets a giant woman and asks her for some food because he hadn’t had any dinner the night before. The woman tells him that her husband is an ogre and that he likes nothing more than boiled boys on toast. Well, Jack would rather be boiled and eaten than to go hungry, so the giantess gives him some food. Soon after, the ogre approaches and the woman hides Jack in the oven.*
The ogre has three calves tied around his belt and orders his wife to boil two of them for his breakfast, then speaks the famous lines:
‘Fee, fie, fo, fum,
I smell the blood of an Englishman.
Be he alive or be he dead,
I’ll grind his bones to make my bread.’*
The ogre’s wife effortlessly waves away this suspicion. While the ogre is washing up, Jack tries to escape, but the woman stops him, urging him to wait until her husband falls asleep after breakfast. True to her word, the ogre had his meal, then began to nod off while counting his gold beside a huge chest. Jack snatches a bag of gold on his way out of the house. He drops it from the top of the beanstalk into his mother’s garden and retrieves it again at the bottom.
Jack and his mother lived pretty well off of the bag of gold for a while before Jack decided to try his luck again. She he climbed the beanstalk again and again ran into the big woman. She tried to shoo him away, but then recognised him. It seemed that a bag of gold had gone missing the last time he’d been up there. Jack hints that he might know something about it, only he’s so hungry he can’t remember*.
The giant woman fed him again, and he was barely done with his meal before he was interrupted by the ogre again. As before, he hid in the oven until the giant had had his breakfast. This time, he commanded his wife to bring him the hen that lays the golden eggs, and she did. He commanded the hen to lay, and she laid a solid gold egg. And then he fell asleep. Jack grabbed the hen and ran, but the hen cackled and woke the ogre. But the ogre didn’t see Jack and instead accused his wife of moving the hen.
Jack got away, as he had before, and showed his mother the wonderful magic hen. But now he’d rather gotten a taste for theft because it wasn’t long before he climbed the beanstalk a third time. This time, he was clever. He didn’t go straight to the door and run into the big woman, but waited in a bush for her to come out to fetch water, then darted in behind her and hid in a copper pot. Sure enough, the ogre stomped in, complaining of smelling an Englishman. His wife chided him for confusing a live boy with the dead one she’d boiled for his breakfast, but he wasn’t convinced. Eventually, she suggested that if it was the same boy who had stolen the bag of gold and the hen that laid the golden eggs, he would be hiding in the oven. They rushed to the oven, but of course it was empty, since Jack was hiding in a copper pot.
Still muttering, the ogre demanded that his wife bring him his golden harp. She dutifully obeyed and the ogre commanded the harp to sing. The harp sang until the ogre fell asleep and Jack crept out from his pot. The seized the harp and ran, but the harp shouted to its master and the ogre woke in time to see Jack running off. The ogre chased Jack all the way to the beanstalk, but Jack was faster. He got to the bottom and took an axe and chopped the beanstalk down. The ogre fell to his death*, and Jack and his mother were very wealthy and Jack married a princess and they all lived happily ever after.
*A cow stops giving milk when her calves are weaned. Traditionally, that means that the cow has to then conceive in order to begin providing again. One would assume that Jack’s mother would know that, so if impregnating the cow is not an option, there has to be another reason she’s not giving milk. Being old isn’t usually enough, so I gave her mastitis.
*An unnecessarily creepy detail that I opted to leave out. Among other details I changed about the old man.
*’ So Jack climbed, and he climbed and he climbed and he climbed and he climbed and he climbed and he climbed till at last he reached the sky.’ Actual line.
*Shades of Hansel and Gretel?
*This line seems actually to come from King Leer, ‘Fie, foh, and fum/I smell the blood of a British man’ (Act 3, scene 4), which is kind of weird. But hey, fairytales are weird.
*’ Then the ogre fell down and broke his crown, and the beanstalk came toppling after.’ Actual line.
There are many versions of this story. Sometimes the house is a castle, sometimes the hen is a goose, sometimes the ogre is a giant, and sometimes he doesn’t have a wife. Sometimes the giant, if he has a name, is called Blunderbore, and sometimes Gogmagog. Sometimes Jack is an adult who lives with his mother (and sometimes is unusual in that the story doesn’t always end in his marriage), sometimes he is a child. But the plot is pretty much the same.
Jack and the Beanstalk is also fairly unusual in that the hero isn’t a particularly nice person. He sneaks into a man’s house, gains the man’s trust, robs him, and eventually murders him. There are moralised versions where Jack is told that the ogre is a bad man who murders and robs people (usually Jack’s own father), and therefore the events of the story are a form of retribution. It’s interesting to note that Jacobs, the original collector of the story (Jack and the Beanstalk is not a Grimms story, though it does bear similarity to some of theirs), did not try to justify Jack, insisting that children do not need fairytales to tell them that theft and murder is wrong.
In my version, I went rather the other way. It struck me as odd that people are comfortable with the giant’s death because, hey, he’s a giant, or an ogre or whatever– a monstrous semi-human creature. And since the stories change so drastically to implicate his guilt, could it not be that they were fabricated to begin with? Could it be that he never actually ate people, but that that was just bad press and that ‘grind his bones to make my bread’ was just a figure of speech that was taken out of context? And why were they on the cloud to begin with? Surely something as heavy as a giant would be more comfortable and safer on solid land. There has to be a reason why that’s not an option.
So where does that leave Jack? If the giant is a sympathetic character, then Jack’s treatment of him is unfair. In most of the versions, I heard growing up, Jack was a child, which makes him, to me, easier to explain. Children, while they know theft is wrong, aren’t as good at impulse control. Add starvation, desperation, and a sense of moral outrage (all present in the original), and I think you have a pretty compelling case for why even good kids might take something that isn’t theirs.
I follow in Jacobs’ footsteps and don’t attempt to make what Jack did OK. He definitely had other options. I’m going to quote one of my critiquers because I can’t actually say it any better than he did:
As for Jack… What an ass eh? Like the giant lady woman is literally helping him escape with his life, and keep the big stash of gold, and he goes ‘feck you guys, that golden turkey is mine!’ They should totally eat him, teach that young whipper snapper some respect!
I like to think he learned his lesson in the end. But you guys will have to wait and see if you agree…