Friday, July 23, 2010

Jack and the Beanstalk

First of all, I wanted to say thank you to those of you who took the time to let me know how much you enjoyed last week’s story. I greatly appreciate it, and I hope you continue to enjoy my humble offerings.

As for today’s story, I’ve always had one big problem with it. In its original telling, Jack climbs the beanstalk and robs the giant with no just provocation. We are asked to assume that just because he is a giant, he is evil, and that stealing from him is justified. Breaking and entering, theft, even bigotry. Jack is, in essence, the villain of the original story. So the biggest difference you’ll find in my version is that I’ve turned the giant into a clearer bad guy.

I have also made a few ommissions. The giant’s cry of “fee-fi-fo-fum,” the hen that laid golden eggs, Jack’s repeated trips up the beanstalk, and the singing harp. In fact, I did try to incorporate the singing harp into my version, but I found she did not fit. As it is, I am working on an original story called “The Singing Harp,” which I am hoping to share with you all in the near future.

ack’s life was very dull. He never went on an adventure. He never went anywhere, did anything or met anyone. Every day was the same routine. He woke up, milked the cow, put away the empty milk pail, did his chores, tried milking the cow again, failed again, got shouted at by his mother for continuing to waste time milking the cow when she was clearly as dry as a bone, went to bed. Just dull. Dull dull dull dull dull!

Which makes for a very boring story, so it’s a good thing something happens in a minute.

His father had disappeared many years ago and he and his mother (and Cowsie, the cow) were alone. They were also very poor. The farm had long ago dried up, work was scarce, Jack’s mother was getting older and weaker, and if their luck didn’t change soon they would likely starve to death.

Other than that, though, very dull.

In the end Jack’s mother made a decision, which, as you may have noticed, mothers tend to do quite frequently. Jack was to go to market and sell their only possession: Cowsie. This was bad news for Jack, who loved the cow like a sister. On the other hand, it was worse news for the cow who, being unable to give milk like she used to, would probably be sold to a butcher or a tanner, a prospect which does not appeal to a cow of spirit at all.

But Jack had no choice. It was either sell Cowsie or they would be as dry as she was. So the next day he led the cow to market to be sold, but when they got there the merchants and vendors all laughed at him. Especially when he told them what price he was asking. “Ten pounds!” they cried, incredulous. “That cow doesn’t even weigh ten pounds!”

“Well, five pounds then,” said Jack.

“Moo?” said Cowsie, who resented being marked down so drastically.

“I’ll give you five beans for that old thing,” said one merchant. Jack was almost as insulted as Cowsie about this deal, but they needed food and beans were better than nothing, so he agreed to the trade. As Cowsie looked on in horror, Jack handed him the rope around her neck and the Merchant reached into his pocket and dropped five beans into Jack’s hand.

“Goodbye forever, Cowsie,” said Jack.

“Moo,” said Cowsie, very sadly.

When Jack got home, however, having sold the family’s only possession for five beans, his mother was furious. Jack, of course, had no explanation for his actions and was still sulking about losing Cowsie anyway. In a rage, Jack’s mother snatched the beans from Jack and threw them out the window. Poor Jack was sent to bed without his supper. Not that there was any supper in the house, but it was a symbolic gesture just the same.

The next morning, Jack woke up feeling terrible. He had done something awful and now he and his mother would starve to death. On top of which someone in the village was probably going to have Cowsie for dinner! He decided to go back to market and try to find a job. If nothing else, maybe he could buy Cowsie back. He got up, washed and dressed quickly and ran out the front door before his mother woke up. He felt certain that she would be angry with him, and thought it best to avoid her.

But when he got outside he saw something new. You see, when Jack took the beans, he didn’t realize what he was getting. He had thought it rather odd that the Merchant had the five beans right there in his pocket, but was so broken up about Cowsie that he had forgotten it. The truth is that earlier that same day, the Merchant had received them from a Strange Old Man as payment for a small morsel of bread.

“Five beans for a loaf of bread?” the Merchant had asked. “Why should I?”

“My friend,” said the Strange Old Man. “These beans are magic. Plant them in the light of a full moon and they will grow into something spectacular.” The Merchant didn’t believe it, but took pity on the Old Man and his unfortunate smell and made the trade.

When Jack’s mother had thrown the beans out the window, they had magically planted themselves in the ground. And, growing in the light of the full moon, had sprouted into an enormous beanstalk reaching up to the heavens. Jack was intrigued and amazed. He knew he had to go to market to get a job, but after such a dull life as he had led, simply couldn’t resist the prospect of a real adventure. He started to climb the beanstalk.

It was a difficult climb and it took Jack the better part of the morning. Finally he reached the top and, incredible though it may seem, he found a giant golden castle on the clouds. Driven by curiosity, the promise of adventure, and the knowledge that if he didn’t his story would come to a crashing end, Jack made immediately toward the castle. Frightened but excited, Jack knocked on the massive front door. And who should answer it but a giant! A woman as tall as a mountain! Jack, unfortunately, was one of those men who was always intimidated by tall women, so he was more than usually nervous at the prospect of meeting a giant.

“Who is there?” she said, because Jack was so small compared to her that she simply couldn’t see him.

“It is I, Jack,” said Jack as loudly as he could. “A poor farm boy who has traveled very far…and very high.”

“Well, young man,” said the giant. “You must come in, then.” Much to Jack’s surprise, the giant (whose name was Nelphina) was very kindly and took pity on Jack, who hadn’t had a good meal in days. She fed him and let him rest on a few of her husband’s handkerchiefs, folded up. She took very good care of young Jack. The truth was that Nelphina was grateful for Jack’s kind company for, you see, she was not very happy in life for reasons that are about to become pretty obvious.

Because that night Nelphina’s husband came home. Nelphina’s husband was a brute of a giant called Dobson. He went out drinking every night and came home angry and cruel. Nelphina knew that Dobson would not like to know that his wife was offering hospitality to Jack, so when she heard her husband come home, she shut Jack up in a bureau drawer. Luckily it was one of those drawers that locks, so Jack was able to watch the proceedings through the keyhole.

“Welcome home, husband,” she said as Dobson entered. Dobson seemed impossibly huge and his very presence inside the room seemed to defy conventional laws of physics…or is that getting too technical for a fairy tale?

“Welcome home?” cried Dobson, drunk and angry. “I’ve come home to barns that have been cleaner than this place. And you call yourself a wife!?!?” Angrily, Dobson reached out a massive hand and struck Nelphina hard across the face. Without another word he lumbered off to bed. Jack, watching from his hiding place inside the drawer was shocked. He had only known Nelphina for a short time, but couldn’t believe that she would put up with that. So when Nelphina let him out again, he was furious.

“How can you let him treat you that way?” he said.

“It’s not as bad as it seems,” she replied. “He only does it when he’s drunk. Not that I can remember the last time he came home sober. I guess I was inattentive in my housework today. I was just so busy helping you, Jack.”

“Perhaps we can help each other,” said Jack, a plan forming in his brain. “My mother and I are very hungry, and I was going to seek work to earn money to feed us. You’ve been so kind to me, would you let me work here? In your home? I will work very hard.”

“I don’t doubt that you would, Jack,” said Nelphina. “And I would like someone to help me keep this place clean. I will give you a job.” Jack was delighted. “But we must keep it secret. If my husband found out you were here, there would be dire consequences…for both of us.”

So for the next few weeks, Jack lived in the bureau drawer and worked in the giants’ castle. He used a polished bottlecap as a mirror, a thimble as a washbasin, he even made a bed for himself out of a sponge and some toothpicks which he tied together with dental floss in a way that would be of absolutely no use to him back home.

He helped Nelphina by cleaning in the hard-to-reach places and by persuading spiders and other pests to leave. In addition to room and board, Jack earned a large salary which he put aside to give to his mother when he returned home. The giants had a lot of gold, but instead of giving him coins (which were about five times bigger than Jack) Nelphina used a nail to chip off tiny pieces for him to put in his sack. He would have to wait until he visited the jeweler’s to know for sure, but Jack didn’t need to know the exchange rate to know that he and his mother would be set for life.

Between chores, he and Nelphina would talk. Jack told her that Dobson was wrong to hit her the way he did and that she should stand up for herself. In doing so, since this story took place once upon a time and long ago, Jack was making enormous leaps forward in the field of women’s rights. And it worked. Little by little, every day, Jack was convincing Nelphina.

Then, one night, Dobson came home early, and drunker than usual. When he saw Jack, he mistook him for a cockroach and tried several times to smash him. Jack tried to convince him that he had the wrong number of legs for a cockroach, but his very small protests fell on deaf (or at least very large) ears. Jack was able to get away and seek refuge in his drawer, but the noise brought Nelphina who was shocked to see her husband trying to step on her friend.

“Stop!” she cried. “That little man is my friend!”

“How dare you bring strangers into my castle, woman!” And he reached out a hand to strike her, but Nelphina struck him first. “I will not be treated so cruelly anymore,” said Nelphina. Well, Dobson was mad before, but now he was furious. He turned his rage to Jack and in the most horrible Ogrific voice imaginable he bellowed, “Get out!!

Jack, for his part, didn’t need telling twice. He grabbed the sack of gold he had earned as payment and ran. But Dobson, who didn’t know Nelphina was paying him for his services, thought that Jack was stealing his gold. So he gave chase. Jack was small enough to elude Dobson for most of the race to the beanstalk. He climbed down quickly and ran to find his axe, for he knew that Dobson was right behind him. As he was searching, he found his mother, who had thought that Jack had run away after she had been so cruel about his beans a month ago.

“Oh, Jack! You’re home!” she cried, very happy to see him.

“Where is my axe, mother? I have to chop down this beanstalk!”    

Jack found his axe and chopped the beanstalk down. All the work he had done in the giants’ castle had made him very strong and it was easy to chop down the stalk. Soon it began to give and topple over. And as it fell, Jack could hear Dobson the Giant screaming as he fell faster and faster, further and further. At last there was a deafening thud…then silence. The Wicked Old Giant was dead.

Jack was glad to be rid of the giant, and to be home again with his tresaure…but at the same time he felt sad that he would never see his friend Nelphina again. Just the same, he went straight to the market the next day and bought back Cowsie (“Moo!” she said excitedly when she saw Jack) whom the butcher had decided to try and fatten up before he slaughtered her. Had Jack come home even one day later, he would’ve missed her entirely. He was also able to buy lots of food, new clothes, medicine for his poor old mother, and hire a few workers to help get the farm back on its feet.

Several weeks after his return from the beanstalk, Jack was sitting in his favorite chair on the front porch, hanging out with Cowsie. “You know, Cowsie,” he said as the sun sank slowly in the west, “I think things are going to turn out happily ever after for all of us.”

“Moo,” said Cowsie.


If You Liked My Story, You Might Enjoy:

  • Jack and the Beanstalk (1952) Starring Abbott and Costello
  • Fun and Fancy Free (1947) Walt Disney movie featuring 'Mickey and the Beanstalk'
  • "Faerie Tale Theatre" (TV) Starring Elliot Gould and Jean Stapleton
  • "Into the Woods" Broadway musical incorporating several Grimm fairy tales; Jack sings 'Giants in the Sky' in which he tells of his adventures with the giants
  • Jack and the Beanstalk (1967) Starring Gene Kelly
  • "The Stinky Cheese Man and Other Fairly Stupid Tales" by Jon Scieszka and Lane Smith; Jack is the master of ceremonies in this bizarre take on fairy tales, spending most of the book trying to evade the giant
  • Giantland (1933) Early black and white Mickey Mouse short; forerunner of 'Mickey and the Beanstalk'

NEXT WEEK: "The Frog Prince"

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