Jack and the Beanstalk

Jack and the Beanstalk by Walter Crane

Jack and the Beanstalk by Walter Crane

This is an English fairy tale which first appeared in print in 1807 but was known at least in 1734 in another version.

Something keeps drawing Jack back to that beanstalk, - is it just his new-found taste for gold, or is it the danger, the youthful feeling of invincibility? Or is it an unconscious urge to avenge the death of his father at the Giant’s hands, as explained in a version given by Iona and Peter Opie? There’s a great deal of magic in this story as well as thievery and cannibalism.

Humans have always wanted to get as near to the sky as possible – Prometheus, the Tower of Babel, monasteries perched on top of impossibly high mountains – all the way to space travel. Perhaps it is a metaphor for humanity always wanting to improve itself and reach a higher consciousness.

It is fascinating to learn about what lies behind the story. Nevertheless, I’m always reminded of the Christmas Pantomime of Jack and the Beanstalk I saw when I was a small child; they sang the song, the first line of which has stuck with me since: “Hey little hen, when, when, when will you lay me an egg for my tea?” Here’s the rest:

Hey little hen, when, when, when
Will you lay me an egg for my tea.
Hey little hen, when, when, when
Will you try to supply one for me
Get into your nest,
Do your little best,
Get it off your chest,
I can do the rest.
Hey little hen, when, when, when
Will you lay me an egg for my tea.

It was a World War II song, written in 1941 by Ralph Butler and Noel Gay in reference to food shortages. I guess it resonates because Jack and his mother were so poor before the beans sprouted.

Reference:

Iona & Peter Opie: The Classic fairy Tales, Oxford University press 1974.


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Annotations

Poor widow – in another version it is said that the Giant had killed Jack’s father and stolen the family’s treasures – the hen and the harp – and sworn her to secrecy in exchange for her and her son’s life.

Jack – Innocent, naive and immature when he starts out, each time he climbs the beanstalk, Jack is making a conscious decision for himself- away from dependence on his mother and her low opinion of him. He is courageous in the face of extreme fear. 

Cow – The cow is sacred in India; Egypt’s cow goddess Hathor. The cow’s horns represent the crescents of the moon, and as such she links earth and moon. “The cow is both celestial and chthonic” (Antony Stevens: Ariadne’s Clue). 

Funny-looking old man who knew Jack’s name – a trickster or a fairy? The old man was the catalyst for a change in Jack’s fortunes. “’Tis an ill wind that blows nobody any good.” 

Five – can be seen as numerologically significant. 

The beanstalk reached the sky thereby forming a link between earth and sky (heaven). This could be a reference to the ‘world tree’, which is found in many Indo-European religions, or the Yggdrasil of Norse mythology. 

Ogre’s wife – gives the ogre cheek like the devil’s mother in Grimm’s The Devil and the Three Golden Hairs. Although she is an ogress she protects Jack and helps him more than his mother can at this time. 

Kitchen – a place of nurturing and transformation, preparing food for digestion. 

Oven – symbolises a womb; a dark nurturing place where an idea, a project, or an opus is gestated before coming to fruition. 

I’ll have his bones to grind my bread – try as I might I cannot find the meaning or origin of this saying. 

Bags of gold – the first of three treasures; three is a sacred number. 

Hen that lays golden eggs – second treasure, sustainable wealth, as long as the hen is kept fed and happy. 

Golden harp – third treasure, representing culture, beauty and art. 

Axe – symbolises “divine powers of punishment and retribution, and justice and the law” (Antony Stevens: Ariadne’s Clue). Jack’s mother recognises his maturity by handing it to him. Chopping down the beanstalk is the only way to kill the Giant, but it also acknowledges the culmination of Jack’s quest, and that there are no more treasures to be had where they came from. It is up to Jack now. 

Became very rich and married a great princess – he now needs to balance his masculinity with femininity, symbolised by a wife.

Resources:

Antony Stevens: Ariadne’s Clue


Reflection Questions

These questions are for your own personal reflections on the story. Perhaps not all of them are relevant to you, so answer only the ones which call to you. And if you find a question confronting or disturbing, do seek out a wise and trusted friend or therapist to talk it over with.

I would encourage you as you reflect on these questions to have your favourite creativity materials or a visual journal nearby. Be open to any images that may come to you and concretize your reflections in some sort of art-making.

  • If you read Andrew Lang’s version of Jack and the Beanstalk, you’ll see that Jack’s mother carried the great burden of a family secret, of deaths, theft and great changes in fortune and circumstances. Jack and the Beanstalk is a story of a widow, a single Mum. Perhaps her story is similar to yours. How does the story resonate with you?  How is it similar and how is it different?
  • Jack is an only child, the only child left to his mother. Perhaps you are an only child. Were you coddled or denied? Which parts of Jack’s character do you resonate with?
  • How much are you a risk-taker? How gullible are you? Or are you open to the universe in a what-have-I-got-to-lose kind of way? Are you open to Serendipity and Synchronicity?
  • Do you have a sense of purpose and destiny?
  • What are your most treasured possessions and why?