“Jack and the Beanstalk" is one of the most well-known fairy tales in our modern culture. There are many variations of the tale, but the one feature that defines it, is the beanstalk. This soaring magical plant gives people access to an upper world. For the common people of the past, it represented wish fulfillment. Jack, who is poor like them, has the opportunity to have his fate changed—a wish they all likely hoped would be their reward. In most versions, Jack brings back a magical object that helps his family elevate themselves financially, showing a victory of the poor over the rich. As the giant falls to his death, so have all the big, strong, and powerful barriers in Jack's life. The story gave children hope that what happened in the tale (overcoming great obstacles) could also happen in real life. For the upper class of the past, Jack represented the world of magic and an opportunity for education. Fairies and magic were often used to fascinate the audience while subtly teaching important values. As children heard about the magic beanstalk, the enchanted treasures, and the mythical giant, they are also learning about social class barriers. For instance in a version published in 1908, a fairy reveals to Jack that everything the giant has really belongs to him, thereby justifying his thefts. Even though Jack and his mother have enough in the end to rent a castle, they chose to stay in their humble cottage. The beanstalk is the unifying element utilized to prompt people to dream, to hope, and to learn their place in the world.
Jack and the Beanstalk” has been modified for centuries to reflect the realities of life and to give hope for transcending obstacles. The story continues its relevance through retellings that illustrate equality in gender roles as well as hope for the weak, small, and poor. The unifying image of the beanstalk offers a glimpse of the magical and an experience with the supernatural. It is a tale that is likely to continue to be popular for its flexible narrative structure and hopeful message. Why do you think this story continues to be popular? What is your favorite version?
Jim and the Beanstalk (Raymond Briggs)
One day Jim wakes up to find a giant beanstalk outside his window. He climbs up and finds a castle. Jim travels to the castle for breakfast. An old giant answers the door. Toothless and weary, the giant shares his meal, despite a desire to eat the boy. After the giant complains his eyesight is too bad to read his books, Jim offers to help him. Jim measures him, travels back down the beanstalk, and meets with an oculist. After working all day and night, the oculist finishes a pair of glasses for the giant. Jim carries them up the beanstalk. This same pattern is followed for false teeth and a wig. The giant is so elated about his new look, he sends Jack home safely and gives him a large gold coin.
The History of Mother Twaddle and the Marvelous Achievementof Her Son (by Paul Galdone)
This narrative is adapted from one written by B. A. T. that appeared in London in 1807. Old Mother Twaddle finds a sixpence and sends her son, Jack, to the market to buy a goose. Instead, Jack trades it for a bean. Scolded by his mother, he leaves the house to plant the bean. In the morning, a large beanstalk has grown. Jack climbs it and meets a fair maiden who warns him to leave. He begs her to allow him to stay, so she agrees to hide him. When the giant arrives he says, “Fe, fi, fo, fan! / I smell the breath / of an Englishman!” The maiden coerces him to first drink some strong wine. He leans back so far that he falls over and goes to sleep. Jack comes out from hiding under the bed, snatches a large knife, and chops off the giant’s head. He sends for his mother, so they can enjoy a goose dinner. Jack marries the damsel that helped save him.
Jack and the Bean Tree (Gail E. Haley)
Jack and his mother are poor mountain folk. His older brothers and paw are fighting in a war. The pair run out of food. Like many of the other versions, idealistic Jack trades his cow for magic beans which become a beanstalk. When Jack reaches the top, he meets a lady, Matilda, who is married to a giant. She helps him out and hides him. Jack travels up it three times, stealing a cloth that prepares and cleans up meals, a dancing hen that lays golden eggs, and a singing harp. Each time the giant recites a different chorus related to his smell of the boy. Matilda knows it is Jack, yet she hides him in a different place each time. His first two robberies lead the giant to believe his neighbors are stealing from him, so a war begins between them. After each trip, Jack is content for a while, but he returns to the top of the stalk to find something more. In the end, the giant dies when Jack chops down the stalk while he is still climbing down. The story ends with Jack and his mother receiving a letter from his paw and brothers informing them that they will be home soon.
Jack and the Beanstalk (Steven Kellogg)
This version is from Joseph Jacobs’ tales (published in 1889) with only a few minor wording differences. Kellogg adds to the narrative with his pictures. On the front end paper, he illustrates the origin of the giant’s riches—stolen from pirates—and on the title page, Jack's meeting with the princess he will later marry is depicted. Jack lives with his mother, a poor widow. Their cow stops giving milk, so Jack travels to the market to sell her. On the way, he trades the cow for the magic beans. His mother is furious, so she throws the beans out the window. The next morning, Jack wakes up to see the beanstalk. He climbs it and meets the giant’s wife, who helps him. When the giant returns, he recites the well-known “fe, fi, fo, fum” chorus. Jack visits three times—each time stealing something—gold, a goose, and a harp. As he flees the final time, the giant chases him and falls from the beanstalk to his death. Jack and his mother are now rich. Jack marries the princess. The back endpaper depicts a happy scene with Jack, the princess, and their three children.
Waynetta and the Cornstalk (Helen Ketteman)
Waynetta and her mother live on a ranch that has dried up so much they have to sell all their longhorns. As Waynette takes the last one to market, she comes across a man who trades it for some magic corn. The next morning, she climbs the large stalk that appears. At the top, she meets a giant cowgirl who informs her that the giant stole items from her mother. When the giant arrives, he uses a variety of “fee, fie, foe” chorus. From her hiding places, Waynette sees a miniature longhorn that produces golden cow patties, a teeny lariat that never misses, and a tiny bucket that doesn’t run out of water. Once the giant falls asleep, she takes off with the rope and longhorn. Her mother is pleased with her plunder, but she points out that money and a magic rope cannot bring about the rain water they need. Waynette goes back up the stalk to steal the bucket. The giant sees her taking it and pursuits her down the tall stalk. The mother chops it down. When the giant falls, the mean is knocked out of him. Waynette and her mother get their ranch up and running again. The giant and his wife help them out with the work.
Jack and the Beanstalk (E. Nesbit)
The text was originally published in 1908 in The Old Nursery Stories. Jack is a lazy daydreamer who lives with his widowed mother. She works all day while he creates things from books and makes up his own poems. When they are in dire straits, Jack is sent with the cow to sell it for five gold pieces. He runs into the butcher on the way who convinces him to sell it instead for a handful of colorful beans. When the beans grow into a large plant, Jack climbs to the top where he meets a fairy. She tells him the kingdom used to be his father’s, but a giant stole it from him and all the people are trapped in trees. The fairy reveals that he daydreams all the time because he is searching for this place. Jack is greeted by an old lady at the castle. He eventually steals the golden egg laying hen, the bags of gold, and the self-playing harp. The giant falls to his death in pursuit of him. Jack and his mother live well off the items from the castle. The giant’s death frees the people in the kingdom where his wife rules them fairly.
Kate and the Beanstalk (Mary Pope Osborne)
Kate lives with her mother in a humble cottage. After a hard winter, Kate is sent to sell the cow to get money for food. Kate meets a beggar who trades her for four magic beans. She cannot sleep during the night, so she takes a walk and finds the beans have grown into an enormous plant. She climbs it. At the top she meets a fairy who challenges her to take back three items that were stolen from a now poor family. Kate gets into the castle by posing as a servant (twice she disguises herself to look different). She steals back the items, only to find out they belong to her. The fairy tested her to make sure she is worthy. Kate and her mother move into the castle and live happily ever after.
The Giant and the Beanstalk (Diane Stanley)
This version is told from the perspective of a compassionate giant named Otto. He loves his pet hen who lays golden eggs. One day, he catches a boy, Jack, breaking into his house and stealing his beloved pet. Otto follows Jack down the beanstalk and goes in search of him. He meets Jack’s mother at the bottom who tells him that Jack only stole the hen to sell so he can get his cherished cow back. The giant tells her to keep the golden egg, but he wants the hen back. As Otto searches for Jack (of “Jack and the Beanstalk”) he is mistakenly sent to other residents of the Nursery Rhyme community—Jack B. Nimble, Jack Sprat, Jack and Jill, and Little Jack Horner. Finally, at “The House that Jack Built” Otto locates and buys the boy’s cow back for him. Finally, they meet and trade pets. When Otto returns, he positively inspires his fellow giants to be more “civilized.”