Jack and the Beanstalk
With a story from Joseph Jacobs
Episode 8 - Friday, 17 January 2020
I can't imagine there is anyone who doesn't like the story of Jack and the Beanstalk. It is truly an ancient tale, its origins stretching back perhaps five thousand years, according to the University of Durham.
It is an often repeated tale, too, appearing in many versions.
This one is based on Jack and the Beanstalk as told by Joseph Jacobs, though I have rewritten it to give it my own flavour. And I have added a twist on the end.
It is not the only "boy who steals the ogre's treasure" story that Jacobs wrote, and I will no doubt visit other versions at some point.
It is a fun tale, though, and I can understand why it has been so popular as a Christmas Pantomime over the years.
Listen using the player, or grab it from your favourite podcast service. And if you like it, please leave me a review somewhere. And don't forget you can track me down on Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook.
Welcome to another edition of Deep in the Dark forest, a podcast for lovers of the finest tales, old and new, famous or forgotten.
I am CC Hogan, and this week you and I are back in the land of panto with the well-known tale of Jack and the Beanstalk. But before that, just a general hello to all those who have been liking my little show and my thanks to you for listening. I don’t just do this for myself, I do it for you too – a lover of good tale.
Now, Jack and the Beanstalk is very much an English tale, though its origins, like many tales, lie in a very distant past indeed! Perhaps as old as five thousand years. But this is my version, based on the one told by Joseph Jacobs in his book of English Fairy Tales. You can get it from Amazon (I earn a tiny commission if you do). See the link in the transcript.
So, without further ado, this is the tale of Jack, the beanstalk, and a very angry ogre!
Jack and the Beanstalk
Adapted by CC Hogan from the story by Joseph Jacobs
Once upon a time, a long time ago, there lived a poor widow who shared her life with just two others; a son named Jack, and a cow named Milky-White. A poor family in a poor land, they were, and had nothing to live on save the milk the cow gave every morning with her love, which they carried to the market and sold. But one morning, Milky-White, standing forlorn in her stall, gave no milk, not one drop, for she had no more milk to give.
“What shall we do, what shall we do?” said the widow, wringing her hands. She sat on the pail and looked up at her son.
“Do not be sad, dear mother,” said the ever-bright Jack. “I am sure there is work to be had. Someone must have need for my strong arms.”
“We’ve tried before, my son, and no one would take you,” said his mother. “All are poor here. Sad to say, we must sell Milky-White, and with the money we raise, do something together to make our living. Start a little shop, perhaps.”
“If we must we must, mother,” said Jack; “’Tis market-day today, and I’ll sell Milky-White soon enough, and then we’ll see what plans can be made.”
Jack took the old cow by the lead and he led her through the gate and down the long path to the distant market. The same path that he travelled every day carrying the buckets of milk. On this day, as he and Milky-White plodded along, they came across a strange old man, sitting on rock, chewing on a stalk of grass.
“The top of the morning to you, Jack,” said the old man, a curious smile on his old lips.
“Good morning to you too, sir,” said Jack, puzzled by how the old fellow knew his name.
“And where be you off to this fine and bright day?”
“I’m off to market, sir,” said the polite boy. “For I am to sell our cow to whoever will buy her.”
“Well, now, you look a proper sort of feller to sell cows,” said the man, his eyes twinkling. “And I wonder if you be so fine that you can answer a puzzle. How many beans make five?”
Quick of mind and tongue was Jack, and he gave the answer in a beat. “Two in each hand, sir, and one in my mouth!”
The old man chuckled. “As right as a lord, Jack. What a fine mind you be having! I can see you cannot be fooled.” He opened his hand, and lying in the palm were five beans. “Oh, look! Here are the very beans themselves, don’t you know!”
Most peculiar they were, twisted and turned as if they had been coiled upon themselves.
“So, Jack,” said the man. “Since you are so fine, and your mind as sharp as a new pin, I am sure you can see what a wonder these are.” He looked up, smiling. “You are good boy, Jack, and seeing that you are, I could be minded to make a small trade. That old dry cow, for these beans. What say you, now?”
“I say to get away with you!” said Jack; “Wouldn’t you like for me to trade a good cow for five beans?”
“Ah! But you don’t rightly know what fine beans these be, clever Jack,” said the man. “If you be planting them today, by the morrow, they will reach the sky.”
Jack turned his head to one side. “You think?”
“Indeed I do, for it be true as this day is long. But I will be fair, sensible Jack, and should they not grow as I say they will, come find me, and you can have your cow back. Now what say you?”
Jack smiled, thinking he had the better of the deal. “That I will do,” said he, and he swapped Milky-White’s rope for the beans and pocketed them quickly. Then, bowing once, for he was taught well, he ran back to his poor home and mother.
“You are back quickly, Jack?” exclaimed his mother. “Far too quickly to have reached the market. But I see Milky-White is gone. Have you sold her? Did you get a goodly price? Will we be eating again?”
“You’ll never guess, mother,” said Jack, smiling proudly, with a glint in his merry eyes.
“Oh, goodness, Jack! No, let me guess, you good boy. Five pounds; It must be five pounds, on my heart. More? Ten then? Oh, goodness me. At least ten! Fifteen perhaps? Or Twenty? No, never twenty!” said his mother, laughing.
“Better than all that, my mother,” said Jack, opening his hand. “Look at these five wonderous beans. Magical they must be, for if I plant them today, by the morrow…”
“Five beans!” shouted his mother, her voice as shrill as a laying hen’s. “You are fool, a total and utter idiot, a dolt of the worse kind to give away my precious Milky-White, the best milker in these poor lands, and the primest of beef to boot, for nothing more than five stupid beans!” She raised her mop and banged him around the head. “Take that, you fool. Take that you dunce! Take that you dullard! And as for your magical beans, out they go!” And she smacked his hand sending the beans sailing through the window into the garden. “Off to bed with you. Not a spoonful shall you drink, nor a mouse’s nibble will you swallow this night.” And with that, she turned her back with her arms folded fiercely, and the boy wandered quietly to his small room, his head bowed, and his heart full of sorrow for being such a fool and upsetting his mother so much.
Sleep was a stranger as the moon rose, but at last his eyes closed and he slept, twisting and turning restlessly.
When at last, the sun rose, a dancing light flickered across his simple cot. And such a strange light it was. It moved and twitched, and filled the room with a yellow-green hue. Jack sat up. “What a strange thing,” he muttered. “For the morning sun always fills my window with its golden glow!” And so he leapt to his feet, pulled on his shirt and britches and ran to the window.
There, rooted hard in the garden was a beanstalk. Not a little beanstalk or even a great bean stalk, but one so mighty it reached up and up and up until it brushed the very sky itself.
“It was true,” whispered the boy. “The old man told the truth to me. See? I am not such a dullard after all.”
For a moment, Jack thought to go rushing to his mother, to show her how clever he had been, but the beanstalk called to his curiosity, and a great leaf hung just by his window. Jack smiled the smile of the adventurer, pushed open his window, and leapt onto the leaf.
The beanstalk was no ordinary beanstalk at all, but grew like a maiden’s braid, twisting and turning into the sky. A perfect ladder for the curious boy. Up he climbed from leaf to leaf, following the braid round and around. For so long he climbed, until the misty clouds brushed his face and he emerged into the dazzling sky. And there, where the beanstalk thinned and turned its leaves towards the sun, was a long, broad lane. Into the grey distance travelled that lane, up and down over the hills and valleys of the sky.
Off Jack trotted, his eyes so wide. He danced over the hills and wandered through dreamy dales till, at length, he came to a great tall house. And standing there on the doorstep, was a woman. Taller than his mother’s cottage, was she, as tall as a pear tree.
“Good morning,” said Jack, bowing so politely. “I have travelled long today since dawning light. I have climbed and trotted till I am near to falling. Would you be so kind as to give me some breakfast?”
“You be wanting breakfast?” said the giantess, chuckling. “If you don’t move along quickly, young lad, it is breakfast you will be! For my man is an ogre, and there is nothing he loves more than a fine young boy toasted on the grill and served in my home baked bread. So, get along with you sharpish, for he is not long to be coming home.”
But Jack looked up with pleading eyes. “Please, madam, I have not eaten since yesterday morn, for I was sent to bed without my supper and I began my journey before the lark had eaten hers. If I have nothing to eat, I might as well be grilled for I will die of hunger.”
The wife of the ogre shook her head, for she was a gentle soul on occasion. “Come on, then, boy,” she said. “But be quick about it.”
She took Jack into her kitchen and served him a goodly chunk of strong cheese, a tear of her bread, and a small cup of rich milk. Jack ate these as quick as he might, but he was only halfway through the delicious cheese when the house began to tremble. Thump! Thump! Thump! Jack looked up as the heavy steps shook the ground.
“Oh, my goodness gracious me!” exclaimed the giant. “That be my old man, the ogre himself. What shall I do?” She picked up the hapless boy and spun in a circle. “In there,” she cried. “Quick, quick, now lad. Into my oven and be thee quiet as a mouse!” Jack leapt into the blackened oven, and the giant slammed shut the iron door just as the ogre stepped into the tall house. Jack spied him through the small grate in the oven door.
To be sure but the ogre was a giant and a half. He was thickset with broad shoulders. His beard as long as his braided hair, and his hat sat atop his head as wide as a roof. From his wide belt hung three whole calves, strung up by the heels. He unhooked them with his great hands and thumped them down on the great kitchen table.
“Here be a goodly breakfast, wife,” said he, his voice rumbling like distant thunder. “Grill these well for I am mighty hungry!” And then, the ogre lifted his head. His nostrils flared wide, and he took a long, long sniff. “Now, what be this I smell?” His eyes narrowed, and a wicked smile touched the corners of his mouth.
I smell the blood of an Englishman,
Be he alive, or be he dead,
I’ll have his bones to grind my bread.”
His wife flicked a glance at the oven, then she put her hands on her hips in a bossy way.
“Stuff and nonsense, dear one,” she said. “You would smell an Englishmen in a dead raven’s nest you would. You be dreaming, I say. Or you are just smelling the bones of the last lad you gobbled up for your supper.” She tut-tutted, as was her way. “Go thee to the trough and wash your hands and tidy yourself, and I will have your breakfast prepared for you.”
The ogre, looking a little glum, thumped back into the garden to wash himself at the trough. Jack pushed open the oven door, ready to flee, but the Ogre’s wife shook her head quickly.
“Not yet, young lad,” she whispered. “Wait till he’s snoring. He always likes his rest after a full breakfast. And I will feed him a goodly one to send him to his dreams, and then I am off about my chores.”
Jack waited patiently, cross-legged in the giant’s oven, while the ogre crunched his way through one roasted calf after another, the hot dripping running into his beard. And after the last bite and swallow, the ogre went to his iron-clad chest, and from it he pulled bags of gold. He set them on the table, made himself comfortable, and coin by coin, he counted through his fortune. And sure enough, before he was through just one bag, his head nodded forward, his eyes closed, and a great snore rumbled through the table, the floor, and shook the house itself.
The giantess was nowhere to be seen, so Jack carefully pushed open the oven door, and crept from his hiding place on the tips of his toes. Silently, he reached up to the tabletop, and took one of the bags of gold. It was heavy, and he almost grunted aloud as he tucked it under his arm, sneaked out of the cottage, and ran all the way back to the beanstalk. There, far below, was his mother’s garden. So he dropped the bag, watching till it landed in the poor dust, then slid down the beanstalk, round and round the twisted stems till he was back at the cottage.
“Mother, mother!” he cried. “See the beanstalk? ‘Twas magic, indeed. And see what I have found!”
Jack and his mother lived happily on the gold for many moons. They had food every day and the mother bought herself several fine dresses and Jack new shirts and britches. But fortunes end, and soon the bag was empty.
So, early one morn, before the larks had broken their fast, Jack once more climbed the mighty beanstalk. And as before, he climbed above the clouds till he reached the broad lane, and he trotted along happily over dale and hill until he once more reached the tall house. And there, on the doorstep, was the giantess.
“Good morning,” said Jack, bowing so politely. “I have travelled long today since the dawn, and I am full of hunger. Would you be so kind as to give me breakfast?”
“Be thee gone, boy,” said the giantess. “for my man will have you for breakfast as he pleases.” And then she peered at the lad a little more closely. “Are you not the boy who came here once many moons ago? For me thinks I recognise that hungry face. And ‘tis a strange thing, but that very day, one of my man’s bags of gold went astray.”
“That be a strange thing indeed, madam,” said the polite, clever boy. “And I may have a tale to tell, but I am so hungry after my journey, that I can hardly speak!”
The giantess looked at him slyly, her curiosity shining from her eyes, so she took him in and gave him fine cheese and bread. But hardly had he began his breakfast than a thump, thump, thump rattled the walls and table. Jack grabbed his food and hid in the oven as quick as he could.
The ogre, upon entering the kitchen, took a long sniff through his flaring nostrils.
I smell the blood of an Englishman,
Be he alive, or be he dead,
I’ll have his bones to grind my bread.”
His wife tut-tutted, took the calves from his belt, and cooked him a rich, greasy breakfast as he liked it. When he had swallowed the last crunchy morsel, the ogre called out. “Wife, bring me the hen that lays the golden eggs, so I might see what riches she has for us this day.” So his wife sat the hen before him on the table and went about her chores. He stroked the golden-red head and whispered, “lay me a little egg, dear hen.” And sure enough, with a cluck, the hen laid the shiniest golden egg you ever did see. The ogre patted the hen upon her head, and he laid his own upon the table, and was soon snoring so loud it rattled the very rafters.
Jack, seeing the giantess was nowhere to be seen, crept out of the oven on tiptoe, caught hold of the golden hen, and was off before you could say “Jack Robinson.”
But as he ran, the hen clucked and squawked, as a hen does, and the ogre was startled awake.
“Wife, wife, what have you done with my golden hen?” Jack heard the ogre roar.
“Why, my dear?” replied the wife.
But jack heard no more, for he vanished over a hill and raced to the beanstalk. He skidded and slipped down the twisted stalk, clutching the hen as tightly as he dared, and with a shout of joy, landed in the garden.
“Look, mother,” he called, rushing into their cottage. “Look what I have brought you!”
And he sat the hen upon the table, leant close, and whispered, “lay me a little egg, dear hen.” And the hen happily obliged. And every day, they would sit their feathered friend on the table, and she would lay them another golden egg.
Riches sometimes beget riches, and sometimes they beget greed. And soon Jack wished for more than their already great wealth. Was there more to be had from the house atop the beanstalk? The boy would try his luck!
Once again, he scaled the heights of the mighty beanstalk, and he trotted merrily along the lane, over hill and dale, till he reached the tall house. But, being of a fine mind, as the old man had told him all those moons ago, he made a different plan, and, treading quietly, hid behind a bush. By and by, the giantess pushed through the door to fetch water from the trough. Jack, as quick as he could, slipped in through the door into the kitchen, and hid in a giant copper, pulling closed the lid.
He had been there but a minute when thump, thump, thump, the ogre stomped into the kitchen followed by his wife. The ogre stopped and took a long breath, his nostrils flapping in and out.
I smell the blood of an Englishman,
Be he alive, or be he dead,
I’ll have his bones to grind my bread.”
The ogre looked at his wife who was tapping her foot impatiently.
“I smells him, wife,” protested the ogre, “I smell him for certain!”
“Then if you do, husband, and if that be that little rogue what that stole your gold and the hen that lays the golden eggs, then he’s as certain as anything to have hidden in the oven!”
They stomped to the oven, and clanged open the door, but to the ogre’s surprise, it was empty! The wife glared at her husband.
“And there you be going off on your fee-fi-foing and your great sniffing again, and he ain’t here. It be either the little chap I baked for you last night, or that nose of yours needs seeing to, it does! For you can’t tell the difference between a live’n or a dead’n, you can’t!”
So, the ogre, thus scolded, sat down for his beefy breakfast. But after every mouthful he would mutter to himself. “Fee-fi-fo-fum, I could have sworn I smelt something…” And he searched the larder, the drawers, the cupboards, and the pans. Everywhere he searched but one place only; the copper.
After breakfast, the ogre called to his wife. “Bring me my harp of gold, wife, for I would hear it sing.” She sat it on the table before him, and the ogre leant close and whispered, “Sing, little golden harp, sing!” And the harp sang in the sweetest of voices until the ogre’s head settled on the table and his snores rattled the spiders in their webs.
As quiet as a mouse was Jack. He lifted the lid on the copper, climbed down, and crept to the table. Reaching up, his took the harp, held it to his chest, and dashed to the door.
“Master! Master!” cried the harp in her beautiful voice.
The ogre sat up and roared. He pushed back his chair, stamped upon the stones, and raced after the boy.
Jack ran faster than he had ever run before.
“Come back here, thief!” cried the ogre, thundering down the lane. But Jack twisted and turned around rocks and trees, and the ogre could not catch him. But still, at the beanstalk, the ogre was barely twenty long strides away, and he saw Jack disappear through the ground like it was nothing but clouds. The ogre stopped at the stalk, wary that the green ladder could not carry his mighty weight. But the harp cried out: “Master! Master!”
The ogre swung himself onto the beanstalk, which shook and shuddered, and he crashed down through the leafs after this prey.
Jack slid down the stalk faster than ever before, hearing the ogre getting closer and closer.
“Mother!” cried Jack. “Mother, oh, mother. Bring me an axe and quick!”
The widow dashed from the cottage with an axe, but when she saw the huge ogre climbing down from the clouds, she froze in fear like a statue. Jack jumped down from the last great leaf. He took the axe from his mother’s frightened grasp, and he swung with all his might at the great stalk.
The first strike cut a quarter, and the second cut a half. The ogre, feeling the stalk tremble below, stopped and hung on tightly. The third strike cut three quarters, and with a mighty final strike of the axe, Jack cut clean through the beanstalk. The great plant quivered and fell, and with it the ogre, who crashed upon the ground, breaking his crown, and was buried by the falling beanstalk till he was as dead as any of his breakfasts.
Then Jack showed his frightened mother the golden harp and made it sing for her. And from that day on they lived in riches and happiness. And Jack married a princess, bringing her home to his mother’s cottage where they lived happily ever after…
And there the tale often ends. A tale of greed and theft. But was that all there was to tell? Is that really the end of the story? For one day, the hen grew old and barren, and on another day, the harp tarnished and fell silent, and on yet another, the princess went home to the king. And Jack and his mother once more were hungry.
But across the county, the old man patted Milky-White on the head, for he knew another tale. He had cared for Milky-White until once more she became the best milker in the land, and with more beans, he bought other old cows from young, greedy fools, and brought them back to milk also. And so it had continued from bean to bean, cow to cow, till he had the largest herd of milkers in all the land, and was wealthy beyond the imaginings of a window and her greedy son.
And if you don’t remember that ending, well, I did say it was my version. This is not me moralising really, but just deciding that a little balance was in order. The ogre was a baddy who like eating boys, and his wife was only a little better. But Jack was plain greedy and a thief. And he didn’t exactly report the hungry ogre to the authorities.
I am a little concerned that in this poor land, no one noticed the beanstalk. It reached to the clouds, you would think someone might have spotted it! And in my version, it is even worse, for there must have been beanstalks everywhere following the old man trading beans for cows, and a veritable gang of annoyed ogres!
This tale has appeared in many versions over many centuries, and even Joseph Jacobs has a couple – I will revisit this as Jack the Giant Killer at another time. According to Durham University, it is classed as “the boy who stole the ogre’s treasure,” that being the common theme among them all. I will look at the age of fairy tales in a blog at some point soon.
That was a slightly longer story, so I will leave you to get on with your day, or snuggle down to sleep, depending on when you listen to me. And don’t forget to sign up to my newsletter on the website, follow me on Twitter and Instagram, and please leave a review wherever you found me. Links in the show notes.
You have been listening to Deep in the Dark Forest. I am CC Hogan, and I wish you good fortune as you travel on your way.