Friday, April 20, 2012

Jack and the Beanstalk: A Boy Climbs to the Sky, Returning as a Man

This post continues a review of ten fairy tales that parents deem too frightening or morally ambiguous, according to an online article from The Telegraph, February 12, 2012 ( Fairytales-too-scary-for-modern-children-say-parents.html). Previous posts have considered the tenth most objectionable tale, “Queen Bee,” through the third, “The Gingerbread Man.” The tale that parents find second-most objectionable is “Jack and the Beanstalk,” another tale from the oral tradition and later recorded by an Englishman. Please read a full version of it at http://www.surlalunefairytales. com/jackbeanstalk/stories/langbeanstalk.html.

Here is a summary of "Jack and the Beanstalk."

Many of you will remember that Jack is the poor, hungry son of a widow, but many of you may not know that in the original, Jack is also the son of a fine, noble knight who was deposed and killed by the giant now residing in Jack's first home. Jack and his mother have been reduced to a little family of two with nothing except a cow that they milk each day. By selling the milk, they survive, but one day, the cow does not deliver and with nothing left to sell--not even a stick of furniture, the widow, herself too weak to travel, sends Jack to town to sell their last asset, the cow.

Along the way, Jack meets a butcher who trades Jack five beans for the cow, pleasing Jack and displeasing his mother who expected and needed money so she sends Jack to bed without supper. In some versions, in a fit of rage, Jack's mother flings the beans out the window; in other versions, Jack plants the beans. Regardless, they sprout and rise, creating a huge stalk overnight. Upon awakening and in opposition to his mother’s will, Jack investigates, climbing the stalk into the heavens where he’s met by an angelic figure.

She tells Jack that the castle and all it contains are his inheritance, that his father once owned all the wealth before the giant stole it from him. Thus, according to this version of the tale, Jack is not a miscreant. He’s not stealing, but reclaiming what rightfully belongs to him. Jack then is the boy who becomes a man, the provider and landed gentry, a hero asserting his rightful place in the world, not by sheer mischief but by daring and courage.

The giant’s wife, an imposing sentry, greets Jack and provides him with food and a safe haven in exchange for his labor. When the giant approaches, she also protects Jack by hiding him in a wardrobe and in some versions, the tea kettle or the oven as the giant bellows,"Fee, fi, 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!"

Like all royalty in far off times, the giant, living in a nobleman’s castle perched atop a very high rocky plateau on the edge of fairyland, can smell a commoner from a great distance. The rarefied air in which the giant lives, untainted by the filth of poverty or the rot of hunger, is not for the Jacks of this world; indeed, the giant asserts that a commoner is little more than grist for his mill. The giantess, never clever about Jack’s intentions, is however very clever at re-directing and misdirecting her giant husband. She settles him down by feeding him well and bringing his favorite items to him: first his golden egg-laying hen, next his bags of gold coin, and finally his golden harp.

Jack takes back each of these and makes his escape easily until the harp alerts the giant, crying “Master! Master!” Jack must flee, his life on the line, but thanks to a rock in the giant’s path and the giant’s fall, Jack gains just enough distance and time to succeed. Then he and his mother chop down the beanstalk to the skies, and the giant crashes to the ground, breaking his neck. The giantess also fell to her death, down the stairs in the castle, also breaking her neck and leaving no one to pursue Jack. He and his mother are poor no longer, and we are told, they live happily ever after.

From this summary, you can see that much of the moral ambiguity does not exist. If Jack were not the rightful heir to the wealth, then his deeds would be hard to explain. He’d be little more than the archetypal trickster, a mischief-maker whose actions cause great harm. We know that however much in need he may be, he should not become a thief to resolve his lowly circumstance. As the son of a knight, however, Jack has a solemn, honorable duty to fight for the right, to save his father’s estate, and rescue his mother from sickness and despair. Moreover, the giantess and giant, who killed Jack’s father and Jack’s siblings, are interlopers; justice must be served. Thus, a theme of this tale is similar to one revealed in Medieval Romance tales featuring chivalry: a knight has a duty to serve God, King, and family in that order. Jack must serve his family, and in doing so, he transitions from boy to man.

Another lesson drawn from “Jack and the Beanstalk” is that the love of gold is an evil. The giant not only kills for gold, he loves it so much that it functions as a dessert after his big meals. He calls for the hen to lay more golden eggs, his money bags so that he can count his gold again, and his harp so that it may lull him to sleep with its music. Jack does not seek gold, according to the story. He even accepts beans in place of money for the family's only asset, Milky White, the cow. For Jack, gold is the reward for exacting justice.

A third lesson from this story involves magic or good fortune. You'll recall that Cinderella succeeds because of her pure nature, but just as important is her great, good fortune: a loving mother, birds that help Cinderella accomplish impossible tasks, and a tree that manufactures fine clothing, transforming her into a beautiful woman with whom the Prince falls in love.

Nature is also beneficent to the dwarf in “Queen Bee.” Again, it is his good character and willingness to live peaceably among the bees and birds that persuade Nature to favor him, but favor him it does. Nature helps him overcome the challenges put before him, and as a result, he wins a bride and a fine estate.

Jack meets a man who possesses the means for Jack to reach the heavens, his true home. There, a lovely, angelic woman informs him about his true parentage and warns him how difficult his quest will be. Perhaps the most magical of all is the hen bewitched to produce golden eggs, affording Jack and his mother the opportunity to rebuild the life they were destined to live. The moral then seems to be that good fortune comes to those who are deserving and courageous enough to do their part.

Given all these lessons, Jack and the Beanstalk is another tale that parents could tell their children, helping them to know that bad fortune need not define us, that we can rise above it with good character, courage, and a healthy ration of luck.

Reading Challenge:

Enjoy a modern version of “Jack and the Beanstalk,” part of the HumorHub network, posted at

“Once upon a time, on a little farm, there lived a boy named Jack, He lived on the farm with his mother, and they were very excluded from the normal circles of economic activity. This cruel reality kept them in straits of direness, until one day Jack's mother told him to take the family cow into town and sell it for as much as he could.

“Never mind the thousands of gallons of milk they had stolen from her! Never mind the hours of pleasure their bovine animal companion had provided! And forget about the manure they had appropriated for their garden! She was now just another piece of property to them. Jack, who didn't realize that non-human animals have as many rights as human animals perhaps even more did as his mother asked.

“On his way to town, Jack met an old magic vegetarian, who warned Jack of the dangers of eating beef and dairy products.

“’Oh, I'm not going to eat this cow,’ said Jack. ‘I'm going to take her into town and sell her.’

"’But by doing that, you'll just perpetuate the cultural mythos of beef, ignoring the negative impact of the cattle industry on our ecology and the health and social problems that arise from meat consumption. But you look too simple to be able to make these connections, my boy. I'll tell you what I'll do: I'll offer a trade of your cow for these three magic beans, which have as much protein as that entire cow but none of the fat or sodium.’

“Jack made the trade gladly and took the beans home to his mother. When he told her about the deal he had made, she grew very upset. She used to think her son was merely a conceptual rather than a linear thinker, but now she was sure that he was downright differently abled. She grabbed the three magic beans and threw them out the window in disgust. Later that day, she attended her first support-group meeting with Mothers of Storybook Children.

“The next morning, Jack stuck his head out the window to see if the sun had risen in the east again (he was beginning to see a pattern in this). But outside the window, the beans had grown into a huge stalk that reached through the clouds. Because he no longer had a cow to milk in the morning, Jack climbed the beanstalk into the sky.

"At the top, above the clouds, he found a huge castle. It was not only big, but it was built to larger-than-average scale, as if it were the home of someone who just happened to be a giant. Jack entered the castle and heard beautiful music wafting through the air. He followed this sound until he found its source: a golden harp that played music without being touched. Next to this self-actualized harp was a hen sitting on a pile of golden eggs.

“Now, the prospect of easy wealth and mindless entertainment appealed to Jack's bourgeois sensibilities, so he picked up both the harp and the hen and started to run for the front door. Then he heard thundering footsteps and a booming voice that said:

“‘FEE, FIE, FOE, FUM, I smell the blood of an English person! I'd like to learn about his culture and views on life! And share my own perspectives in an open and generous way!’

“Unfortunately, Jack was too crazed with greed to accept the giant's offer of a cultural interchange. ‘It's only a trick, thought Jack. ‘Besides, what's a giant doing with such fine, delicate things? He must have stolen them from somewhere else, so I have every right to take them.’ His frantic justifications remarkable for someone with his overtaxed mental resources revealed a terrible callousness to the giant's personal rights. Jack apparently was a complete size-ist, who thought that all giants were clumsy, knowledge-impaired, and exploitable.

“When the giant saw Jack with the magic harp and the hen, he asked, ‘Why are you taking what belongs to me?’

“Jack knew he couldn't outrun the giant, so he had to think fast. He blurted out, ‘I'm not taking them, my friend. I am merely placing them in my stewardship so that they can be properly managed and brought to their fullest potential. Pardon my bluntness, but you giants are too simple in the head and don't know how to manage your resources properly. I'm just looking out for your interests. You'll thank me for this later.’

“Jack held his breath to see if the bluff would save his skin. The giant sighed heavily and said, ‘Yes, you are right. We giants do use our resources foolishly. Why, we can't even discover a new beanstalk before we get so excited and pick away at it so much that we pull the poor thing right out of the ground!’

“Jack's heart sank. He turned and looked out the front door of the castle. Sure enough, the giant had destroyed his beanstalk. Jack grew frightened and cried, ‘Now I'm trapped here in the clouds with you forever!’

“The giant said, ‘Don't worry, my little friend. We are strict vegetarians up here, and there are always plenty of beans to eat. And besides, you won't be alone. Thirteen other men of your size have already climbed up beanstalks to visit us and stayed.’

“So Jack resigned himself to his fate as a member of the giant's cloud commune. He didn't miss his mother or their farm much, because up in the sky there was less work to do and more than enough to eat. And he gradually learned not to judge people based on their size ever again, except for those shorter than he.”

What is the moral of his modern story? What are the themes that you can infer from the story’s details?

Writing Challenge:

Create another modern version of Jack and the Beanstalk. You could even tell it from the Giant’s point of view.

GUM (Grammar, Usage and Mechanics):

The giant and Jack face off in a sort of duel (a competition between two people), each fighting the other for possession of great wealth. In doing so, Jack demonstrates his dual (consisting of two parts) nature: a boy who trusts a stranger on the road to town and a man who wins justice for his fallen father.

The difference between these two words and their meanings is a single vowel. A duel, spelled with an e, is a contEst while dual, spelled with an a, is two pArts in one object.