Illustration by Ella Dolbear Lee from Fifty Famous Fairy Tales by Rosemary Kingston, 1917.
Illustration by Ella Dolbear Lee from Fifty Famous Fairy Tales by Rosemary Kingston, 1917.

“Jack and the Beanstalk” is one of the classic, well-known fairy tales. The version I read is from Joseph Jacobs’ English Fairy Tales, first published in 1890.

Jack is a young lad living with his widowed mother. Their only means of income is a cow whose milk they sell at market. When this cow stops giving milk one morning, Jack is sent to the market to sell it. On the way to the market he meets a funny-looking old man who knows his name and offers to give him “magic” beans in exchange for the cow. We never find out who this man was or how he knows Jack.

Jack takes the beans in exchange for the cow but when he arrives home without money, his mother becomes furious and throws the beans out the window. She hits Jack and sends him to bed without supper. He is treated here like a child rather than a young man. “Jack” is a typical fairy tale name. Generally, Jack is a hero who is unpromising at the start of the story young, poor or foolish, in this case all three. As we’ll see, Jack usually triumphs against the odds through luck or craftiness.

As Jack sleeps, the beans grow into a gigantic beanstalk. Jack climbs the beanstalk without telling his mother and arrives in a land high up in the sky where he follows a road to a house. Of course, it’s the house of a giant ogre. He enters the house and asks the ogre’s wife for food. She gives him food, perhaps because he is so charming. The giant returns and senses that a human is nearby:

I smell the blood of an Englishman
Be he alive, or be he dead,
I’ll have his bones to grind my bread.”

However, Jack is hidden by the giant’s wife in the oven. She convinces the ogre that he is just smelling last night’s dinner, a little boy. After the giant has breakfast, he settles down to count his money and then falls asleep. Jack steals a bag of gold coins and makes his escape down the beanstalk.

Jack repeats his journey up the beanstalk two more times, of course there has to be a total of three times. The second time he is again helped by the wife, but on the third visit he sneaks into the house without her knowledge. The second time, he steals a hen that lays golden eggs and the third time a magical harp that plays by itself. In the last time, he is almost caught by the giant who follows him down the beanstalk. Jack calls his mother for an axe and chops the beanstalk down, killing the giant.

Jack and his mother become quite rich by selling the golden eggs. He marries a princess and they all live happily ever after.

I think one reason I like fairy tales is that so often, the underdog ends up winning. Jack isn’t brave, smart or strong. I get the feeling he went up the beanstalk out of curiosity more than anything, and it was probably better than facing his angry mom. He takes advantage of the situation, though, using circumstances to he best interest. I do like how Jacobs makes sure to tell us that the ogre does eat humans, so Jack stealing from him is perfectly reasonable and doesn’t make him evil in any way.

Thursday’s Tales is a weekly event here at Carol’s Notebook. Fairy tales, folktales, tall tales, even re-tellings, I love them all.

Thursday’s Tale: Jack and the Beanstalk


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