"Jack and the Beanstalk" is a classic English fairy tale with unknown origin. It was first published at the end of the 18th century in a collection of folktales, but the most commonly known versions are found in Andrew Lang's children's book "Jack and the Beanstalk," first published in 1890, and in the tale of the same title recorded in Joseph Jacobs' "English Fairy Tales," also from 1890. Even though the versions differ, they share most of the characters and the symbolism.
The name Jack is commonly used in fairy tales as a symbol for a clever but unreliable character who starts off poor and stupid with an unpromising future, but ends up rich and respected by using his wits. Other Jacks in fairy tales are "Jack the Giantkiller" who starts off as a poor farmer's son but cleverly tricks and slays giants and gets to marry an aristocrat, and "Lazy Jack" who does everything to avoid physical work, but still ends up rich through marriage. There is also a "Stingy Jack" who tricks the devil in Irish folk tales and ends up roaming the world, which is where "jack-o-lantern" is derived.
Beans are a staple food of the poorest people in society as they can be quickly grown virtually everywhere. Unlike meat and milk, they are easily available. The trade Jack performs by exchanging the cow for the beans is therefore a symbol of a particularly bad business, as the mother probably grows her own beans in the garden. The small and unassuming shape of the beans, however, hides nourishing and tummy-filling qualities, and in the case of Jack, beans ultimately lead to a better future.
The beanstalk in all of the story variations symbolizes Jack's fast social climbing. Beanstalks grow quickly, and in Jack's case they can reach heaven overnight. By climbing the beanstalk, Jack also climbs out of his poverty and comes up to heights that were not possible to reach before he had the ladder. The beanstalk, as it turns out, can be climbed up, and down, and in the giants case the stairway to heaven symbolizes the downfall from the social ladder as he falls to his death when Jack chops off the stem.
Giants in fairy tales are stupid beings who make up for their mental shortcomings through physical presence and use of violence. They are used as symbols for obstacles that can be overcome through cunning and planning, since their size prevents people with normal shapes to fight them. Other giants in stories can be found in the biblical tale of David and Goliath, in "The Valiant Little Tailor" by the Brothers Grimm and in "Jack the Giantkiller" found in Joseph Jacobs' English fairy tales collection. Oscar Wilde's "The Selfish Giant" is not as violent as his colleagues in other fairy tales, but still nasty enough to exclude playing children from his garden until he is reformed.
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