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Sunday, 27 September 2009

Profile: Jack (of the beanstalk fame)

Name: Jack (a name incidentally that has been the most popular choice for British parents naming their sons for 13 years running, apparently mothers say Jack suggests 'honesty, trustworthiness and hard work' - hmmm).

Age: Not as sprightly as he looks; there's no dating the oral story but the first recorded mention of him is in a burlesque version of the tale in an early eighteenth century chapbook called Round about our Coal Fire; or, Christmas Entertainments, which is described as 'giving a particular Account of Jack’s arrival at the Castle of Gogmagog; his rescuing ten Thousand Ladies and Knights from being broiled for the Giant’s Breakfast; jumping through Key-holes; and at last how he destroyed the Giant and became Monarch of the Universe'. It's an amusing and rather saucy version of the tale which disappointingly ends with the author assuring readers that 'enchantment proceeds from nothing but the Chit-Chat of an old nurse, or the Maggots in a Madman's brain.'

Benjamin Tabart's 1807 version The History of Jack and the Bean-stalk is the oldest surviving literary version that resembles the tale we're familiar with today - although in this more moral version Jack is told by a fairy that the giant had murdered his father when he was a baby, forcing his mother into hiding, and taking the castle that was rightfully theirs. The same year a verse version was published called The History of Mother Twaddle, and the Marvellous Achievements of Her Son Jack, by B. A. T, in which Jack swaps a goose for the magic beans rather than a cow.

Location: He originally came from England, or possibly Germany (there's just no pinning these fairy tale characters down!). Not to be confused with the other English giant killer called Jack who managed to knock off a lot more giants (this is a fantastic link looking at Jack the Giant Killer and its Arthurian links, not to be passed by). The two Jacks feature together as old men in one of my favourite fairy tale books from childhood - Are all the Giants Dead (1975) by Mary Norton, which is illustrated by Brian Froud.

Relationship status: In Joseph Jacobs' version, which is the one most of us grew up with, 'he married a great princess' but in many of the others he ends up living happily ever after with his mother (serves him right).

Hero or bad boy?
It depends who you're talking to; in Round about our Coal Fire; or, Christmas Entertainments we are told 'there was never such a dirty, lazy, tatter-de-mallion Dog as Jack in the World'.

In Tabart's version he is a hero and a lovely boy who 'could not bear to deceive his mother' when instructed by the fairy to venture up the beanstalk without telling her.

In Jacobs' he is more of a Jack the lad;
"Cheer up, mother, I’ll go and get work somewhere," said Jack.
"We’ve tried that before, and nobody would take you," said his mother; "
In Roald Dahl's version (from Revolting Rhymes, 1982)  his Mum is the baddy - beating Jack with the handle of the vacuum cleaner - but she gets what she deserves:
'By Christopher!' Jack cried. 'By gum!
The Giant's eaten up my mum!
He smelled her out! She's in his belly!
'I had a hunch that she was smelly.'
(and so Jack learns it's a good idea to take a bath every day).

In 'Up the Down Beanstalk: A Wife Remembers' by Peter S. Beagle from Troll's Eye View (2009) Mrs Eunice Giant tells us he, 'was a nice boy, really, for all the vexation he caused. They always are; I've never eaten a bad one yet.'

Tabart's version strove to justify Jack's behaviour and at least in Jacobs', and the many versions it inspired, the Giant does gobble up little boys and girls, which sort of makes him fair game, but I'm always slightly worried by the misguidedly sanitised versions, such as the Ladybird one my sons own, in which the giant doesn't eat people at all - calling instead 'fee fi fo fum watch out everyone here I come' before scoffing a load of roast potatoes. Somehow this tale of Jack stealing all the Giants treasure, murdering him and then living happily ever after doesn't feel like a good story to be telling my children!

Places to look for him online:
You can see the original Tabart text, together with two later versions and a useful essay at the Hockliffe Collection.

SurLaLune features an annotated version of Jacobs' tale, together with a wealth of useful information on its history and modern interpretations, as well as lots of illustrations.

You can see Edith Nesbit's version and several others at the University of Southern Mississippi's Jack and the Beanstalk and Jack the Giant Killer project.

You can see an 1897 version from the 'Kris Kringle Series' at the Rosetta Project.

There is an interesting look at the history of the tale focusing on the traditional English pantomime version of it here.

In the latest issue of Cabinet des Fées you can read a lovely retelling of the tale from the point of view of the harp by Alex Wilson.

And now a little on Fee Fi Fo Fum and its variants - a common cry of giants in folklore and fairy tales, it also appears in Shakespeare's King Lear - Edgar, when disguised as mad Tom, says;
'Child Rowland to the Dark Tower came,
His word was still 'Fie, foh, and fum,
I smell the blood of a British man'
In Jacob's version of the fairy tale Childe Rowland the cry belongs to the King of Elfland who says,
"Fee, fi, fo, fum,
I smell the blood of a Christian man,
Be he dead, be he living, with my brand,
I'll dash his brains from his brain-pan."
There's an interesting blog post here that delves further into the history of the phrase.

To end, and in the disappointing absence of any real magic beans being available on the internet, I offer this peculiar link to a magic plant company.

The lovely illustration above is by Liverpool based artist Cate Simmons, you can see more of her fantastic work on her flickr page.

Any more Jack links? Please feel free to add them below.


  1. Wow Claire! This is fantastic! I am going to point my fairy tale studies students to it. You've given me a kazillion things to look up and enjoy!