The Beanstalker

We all know the story of Jack and the Beanstalk, in which a poor boy is scammed into trading his cow for a few beans. Except it isn’t really a scam, because the beans automatically grow into a beanstalk, which leads to a sky castle inhabited by a very rich giant. Jack proceeds to steal the giant’s stuff, and when the ogre comes after him, he chops down the beanstalk and kills his burglary victim. I had intended to write about this fairy tale anyway, but after my post about Humbaba that turned out to largely take his side, it struck me that the two have a clear similarity. In both cases, we have a protagonist taking something that isn’t his to take, and killing the rightful owner/protector when he tries to stop the thief. Also, both Humbaba and Jack’s nemesis are giants, hence only partially human and more acceptable to exploit.

It’s no wonder that The Annotated Classic Fairy Tales compares the tale to British colonialism. Not that I think this was originally the intent of the story, but it’s the same sort of justification that imperialists would use to exploit other nations. And we know Jack is British from the giant’s rhyme calling him an Englishman, in a rhyme that had initially been associated with a giant named Thunderdell in some variants of the tales of Jack the Giant-Killer. Maria Tatar identifies this two-headed giant as Welsh, which would explain why he specified that Jack was English, but his Wikipedia entry identifies Thunderdell’s home as Cornwall. In the now-familiar beanstalk story, the giant lives in the clouds, and is presumably not subject to any earthly country.

The issue of Jack’s thievery was not overlooked by earlier authors or scholars, with an 1807 written version by Benjamin Tabart having a fairy tell the boy that the giant had killed and robbed Jack’s father, meaning that the young hero was only retaking what was rightfully his. Joseph Jacobs felt that Tabart made the story too moralistic, and put out a written version more in line with the story he knew from his childhood, with Jack having no clear moral justification for taking the giant’s treasures, and taking advantage of the ogre’s kindly wife as well. On the other hand, even in this version, the giant is shown to be a member of the idle rich. He admires his treasures, but doesn’t really put them to use, while Jack uses them to feed himself and his mother. Seen from this point of view, Jack is still a thief, but in a wealth-redistributing way like Robin Hood.

Tatar also notes the similarity of Jack’s beanstalk to other mythological constructs that connect earth and sky, like the World Tree and Jacob’s ladder, while also pointing out that beanstalks are typically quite unstable. And anyone familiar with Bruno Bettelheim’s Freudian interpretations of fairy tales will not be at all surprised to find that he focuses on the phallic nature of the plant. I’m not sure whether there’s ever been a version that explains how the seeming swindler at the beginning of the story happened to have magic beans that would get someone to the giant’s domain, or why he was so eager to give them away, but I wouldn’t be too shocked to see if this has been covered. Within the context of the tale, however, it doesn’t really need to be explained, as fairy tales pretty much always have elements that defy explanation.

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8 Responses to The Beanstalker

  1. The musical Into the Woods! It makes a lot of comments on a variety of familiar tales including Jack, as well as comments on life in general, and ties them all together, and I’m kind of surprised you’re not familiar with it (at least, I would have expected you to mention it if you were). In that musical, Jack gets the beans from a baker who needs the cow to counteract a curse the witch from Rapunzel put on his family, and HE’D gotten the beans because his dad (who was also Rapunzel’s birth dad) had picked them up when he was robbing the witch’s garden that first time around– which inspired her to curse them as well as take Rapunzel in the first place. It’s all very complicated and interconnected and awesome. Honestly, if you really aren’t familiar with it, check it out– you’d really like it.

    • Nathan says:

      What, I never told you the story about how I was supposed to see Into the Woods with my German class in the ninth grade, but it snowed so we couldn’t go? As for why I never watched it after that, I have no clue.

      • I watched it with a bunch of HCers in Jeanette Rosmus’s room at the end of freshman year, among other places (saw it on stage in high school), but you might have been one of the many people who had gone home by then.

      • Nathan says:

        Perhaps. It’s next on my Netflix queue now.

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