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Annotations for Jack and the Beanstalk

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Jack and the Beanstalk Project at the University of Southern Mississippi 

Jack and the Beanstalk Stories collected by D. L. Ashliman


The annotations for the Jack and the Beanstalk fairy tale are below. Sources have been cited in parenthetical references, but I have not linked them directly to their full citations which appear on the Jack and the Beanstalk Bibliography page. I have provided links back to the Annotated Jack and the Beanstalk to facilitate referencing between the notes and the tale.

Note about the annotated version: Andrew Lang's version of Jack and the Beanstalk is based on the first literary, or recorded, version of the tale published in 1807 by Benjamin Tabart. While Tabart's is not the definitive version--there is no true definitive version--it has many intriguing elements most likely created by Tabart himself. Joseph Jacobs later recorded a version for his book, English Fairy Tales (1890), that is considered to be closer to a majority of the tale's oral variants. It is also the version most commonly used in fairy tale collections. I chose to annotate Jacobs' version for this reason.

To compare the two versions, you can read the Tabart/Lang version on SurLaLune at Jack and the Beanstalk. I discuss many of the significant differences between the two versions in the annotations below.

1. Poor widow: Traditionally, widowhood is often a noble but poverty-stricken status. The death of the father also accounts for the humble means of the family which is shown throughout the story.
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2. Jack: Jack is a common, almost generic, fairy tale name, the name of a trickster in many folktales. Jack as a "hero is generally unpromising at the start of the tale, young, poor or foolish, but through a combination of luck and craftiness he triumphs against the odds. The morality of such tales is often dubious; they spring from the folk tradition which celebrates the wiles and audacity of the trickster figure" (Jones 1995, 243). Below are some collections of "Jack Tales" in print.

The Jack Tales by Richard ChaseMountain Jack Tales by Gail E. HaleySouthern Jack Tales by Donald Davis

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3. Cow named Milky-white: In some variants of the tale, the cow is named Milky-white. The cow is simply an animal to be sold in this version of the story. In some newer versions of the tale, Jack considers the cow to be his dear friend and pet. He is reluctant to sell the cow for this reason. Milky-white plays a comedic role in Stephen Sondheim's fairy tale musical, Into the Woods. While the cow is still sold for beans, at the end of the "cow as pet" versions, Jack uses his new wealth to buy back Milky-white.
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4. Gave no milk: In some versions, the narrator explains that Milky-white has ceased to produce milk and must be sold so the family can survive. Psychologists consider the end of the cow's milk to symbolize the weaning process, marking the end of Jack's prolonged infancy and childhood. Now Jack must leave home and provide for himself and his mother as an adult.
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5. With the money, start shop, or something: Note that Jack's mother considers a solution which will not rely on his energy, skills or wits to support them. The poor widown would hopefully be able to run a shop herself.
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6. Wondered how he knew his name: In this version of the tale, this mystery is never solved. Who is the funny-looking old man and where did the magic beans come from? In Tabart's version of the story, a detailed explanation is provided. The mysterious man and his beans were sent to Jack as a test by a fairy, the fairy godmother to Jack's dead father. She sets up the circumstances to test Jack's courage and worthiness to reclaim his rightful inheritance from the giant.
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7. Five: Five is the number of beans most often described when a number is provided in the tale.
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8.  "Two in each hand and one in your mouth," says Jack, as sharp as a needle: The narrator is employing irony when describing Jack as being as sharp as a needle, a phrase that is usually complimentary when describing intelligence.

Maria Tatar states: "Contrary to conventional wisdom, which identifies fairy-tale heroes as active, handsome, and cunning, Jack and his folkloric cousins are decidedly unworldly figures, innocent, silly, guileless. Yet Jack (like most simpletons, numbskulls, and noodles) slips into the role of a cunning trickster. In fairy tales, character traits shift almost imperceptibly into their opposites as the plot unfolds" (Tatar 2002, 134).
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9. Beans: "Sow beans in the mud, and they'll come up like trees." This is an English proverb with which Neil Philip speculates that Jack's beans might be of the runner variety. Runner beans are the fastest growing and the tallest bean (Philip 1997, 106).

The beans and the resulting beanstalk place the story in the realm of peasants and the lower classes. Beans are a common food, available to the masses, not confined to the tables of the wealthy. The lower classes would be able to identify a bean and perhaps nourish dreams of their own beanstalk into the heavens when hearing this story.
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10. Dusk: Note that the narrator makes sure to note that the magic beans are planted before nightfall in keeping with the mysterious man's instructions.
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11. Take that! Take that! Take that!: Jack's mother is not above corporal punishment in this version of the story. Corporal punishment is not common in the Jack and the Beanstalk tale.
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12. Here they go out of the window: The planting of the beans takes on many forms in the variants of the tale. In most versions, the beans are thrown out the window by Jack's mother, not planted, but still grow magically on their own overnight. In other versions, Jack's mother spits the beans out the window in disgust with her son's folly. In Tabart's version, Jack plants the beans: "...I may as well sow them.' So he took a piece of stick, and made some holes in the ground, and put in the beans."
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13. And now off with you to bed. Not a sup shall you drink, and not a bit shall you swallow this very night: Considering the family has little or no food, especially now that the cow is gone, Jack's punishment meets his "crime" very well. However, this punishment is one usually given to young children and emphasizes Jack's role as a child, not an adult, in his home.
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14. Beanstalk: According to Maria Tatar, the "beanstalk has a certain whimsical inventiveness, for beanstalks are notoriously unstable and usually require staking to remain propped up" (Tatar 2002, 131).
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15. It reached the sky: Stairways to heaven have long been a part of folklore. One of the earliest stairway to heaven stories is that of the Tower of Babel in the Old Testament. The people try to reach heaven in their pride by building a large tower. As a result, God is angered by their audacity and confounds the language of the people. The tower is also destroyed.

Other folkloric stairways include Jacob's Ladder, Yggdrasil, the South American world-tree, and the Bodhi tree. Yggdrasil is an ash tree which connects the underworld, the earth, and the heavens in Norse myth (Philip 1997, 107). The South American world-tree "serves as a bridge between two worlds (Tatar 2002, 131). Buddha sat under the Bodhi tree when he received his enlightenment.
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16.  Jack climbed: In Jacobs' version, Jack just climbs up the beanstalk without much thought or any consultation with his mother. In Tabart's version, Jack consults his mother before climbing the beanstalk although she objects to the climb.
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17. A great big tall house: The house is most often described and illustrated as a large castle. Visit the Illustrations of Jack and the Beanstalk page to see some illustrators' visions of Jack, the beanstalk, the Giant, and the castle.
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18. A great big tall woman: The giantess, as the ogre's wife and probably as an ogre herself, is unexpectedly helpful to Jack. Some variants of the tale do not include the ogre's wife at all, confining the conflict to Jack and the giant. Other versions replace the wife with a servant girl, sometimes an unwillingly captive, who willingly helps Jack in his escapades. Jack helps the servant escape and in some versions marries her.

Note that all of the female roles in the tale are ones of ultimate control and mothering to their male counterparts. Jack is sheltered by his mother. The giant is appeased by his wife even when she is in a servile position. She corrects him and tells him to wash his hands before eating. In versions in which the fairy appears, she is also benevolent and helpful to Jack. In many ways, the women are in control of the men in the story.
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19.  Polite-like: Since we learn soon enough that the ogre's wife is not opposed to broiling young men for her husband's meals, we have to wonder why she is so kind and helpful to Jack. The most reasonable answer in the story's context is that Jack is charming and polite, winning her good graces.
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20.  Ogre: In folklore, ogres are giants given to eating human flesh.
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21. She bundled Jack into the oven: Unlike the oven in Hansel and Gretel, the oven is a place of safety for Jack. The irony is that Jack will be broiled in the very oven he hides in if he is caught by the giant.

In his analysis of Hansel and Gretel, Hans Dieckmann's Jungian analysis interprets the oven as a womb symbol or symbol of birth and transformation (Dieckmann 1986). Considering Jack's transformation from child care receiver to adult caregiver in this story, Dieckmann's analysis could also apply to this tale.
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22. Fee-fi-fo-fum, I smell the blood of an Englishman, Be he alive, or be he dead, I’ll have his bones to grind my bread: I prefer the last line in Tabart's version of the giant's rhyme:

'Fe, fa, fi-fo-fum,
I smell the breath of an Englishman.
Let him be alive or let him be dead,
I'll grind his bones to make my bread.'

The ogre's heightened sense of smell provides suspense and horror to the story. It also marks him more as an animal, an ogre, and not human.

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23. The scraps of that little boy you liked so much for yesterday’s dinner: In this version, this is the closest justification we have for Jack's abuse of the giant. The giant eats humans and thus needs to be destroyed.
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24. Bags of gold: Across variants, most of the items Jack steals from the giant are associated with gold. A bag of gold, the hen that lays golden eggs, and the golden harp are all associated with gold in this story and the most popular items described.
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25. Took one of the bags of gold under his arm: Some versions of the story, such as Tabart's version, make Jack a righteous trickster character by justifying his thievery from the giant. Jack learns that the giant murdered his father and stole his treasures, so Jack is only reclaiming what is rightfully his. "This castle was once your father's, and must again be yours," explains a fairy to Jack. However, many versions of the story give Jack no other justification than his own poverty and that the giant wants to eat him.
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26.  Hen that lays the golden eggs: Even if they don't lay golden eggs, egg-laying hens have always been valuable commodities, especially before breeding increased the output of hens.

The gold laying hen is similar to other stories in which animals create gold. In Donkeyskin, the king's donkey defecates gold pieces. In the story of , a donkey spits out gold pieces.
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27.  Jack Robinson: Jacobs has fun by referencing another Jack in folklore, this time the phrase, "Faster than you can say Jack Robinson!" The phrase dates to at least 1778 since it appears that year in Fanny Burney's novel, Evelina. The origins of the phrase are obscure and still under debate today (Wilton Wordorigins.org).
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28.   Jack was not content: Knowing the storytelling and folkloric rule of three, we know as readers and listeners that Jack must visit the castle one last time with different results from his last two visits.

Maria Tatar writes: "Jack has been seen as a capitalist risk taker who has the kind of entrepreneurial energy required in the new economies developing in the British Empire. His expropriation of the 'uncivilized' giant has been read as an allegory of colonialist enterprises" (Tatar 2002, 138).

The number and/or pattern of three often appears in fairy tales to provide rhythm and suspense. The pattern adds drama and suspense while making the story easy to remember and follow. The third event often signals a change and/or ending for the listener/reader. A third time also disallows coincidence such as two repetitive events would suggest.

The reasons and theories behind three's popularity are numerous and diverse. The number has been considered powerful across history in different cultures and religions, but not all of them. Christians have the Trinity, the Chinese have the Great Triad (man, heaven, earth), and the Buddhists have the Triple Jewel (Buddha, Dharma, Sanga). The Greeks had the Three Fates. Pythagoras considered three to be the perfect number because it represented everything: the beginning, middle, and end. Some cultures have different powerful numbers, often favoring seven, four and twelve.
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29.  The copper: Acopper is a vessel, usually a large boiler, made of copper.
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30. Golden harp: The harp is one of the oldest string instruments in the world. While modern harps are over five feet tall, early versions of the instrument were much smaller and could conceivably be tucked under Jack's arm for a quick escape (Philip 1997, 111).
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31.  Jack had a start and dodged him a bit and knew where he was going: Jacobs includes several explanations for Jack's ability to elude the giant who is larger and can run faster than Jack. While we do not have the mystery of the magic beans solved in Jacobs' version, he provides more rationale for the smaller, possibly illogical events which are not connected to magic.
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32. Ogre fell down and broke his crown, and the beanstalk came toppling after: Jacobs uses a humorous reference to another Jack, this time the Jack in the Jack and Jill nursery rhyme, to gloss over the ogre's death:

Jack and Jill went up the hill,
To fetch a pail of water;
Jack fell down
And broke his crown,
And Jill came tumbling after.

Jack's defeat of the giant is reminiscent of the Old Testament story, David and Goliath. In that story, the boy David slays Goliath, a giant, with a rock from his sling shot.
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33. He married a great princess: Jacobs includes a fairy tale princess bride with his ending of the tale. Most versions do not include a marriage for Jack unless he has rescued a princess or servant girl from the giant's castle. Tabart's version does not mention a wedding. Many versions simply state that Jack and his mother live happily together for many more years.
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34. They lived happy ever after: And so Jack and his mother--and in this version Jack's bride--life happily ever after with a traditional romantic fairy tale ending.
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©Heidi Anne Heiner, SurLaLune Fairy Tales
Page created 6/1999; Last updated 8/1/2013