I hate Jack and the Beanstalk.
Recently, I’ve been listening to podcasts to figure out ways to improve my writing. One of my favourites is The Creative Writer’s Toolbelt. There’s so much good information to be found here, and Andrew J Chamberlain who hosts the show is easy to listen to, and brings enthusiasm and genuine curiosity to the topics.
This morning I was listening to Episode 39: Harnessing the power of human psychology for your story, in which Andrew discusses the narrative structure of Jack and the Beanstalk.
You know the story, right?
Jack and his mother live in dire poverty. All they have is a smattering of chickens and a dairy cow. The cow stopped giving milk, so Jack’s mother sends him off to market to sell the cow.
<record scratch/freeze frame> She sends him to sell the cow.
Considering how useful cows are, this is a remarkable decision. Cows can be yoked to plough a farm, they provide milk, cream, butter, cheese, fuel (cow pats make excellent fuel), building material (cow pats again), and fertiliser (hello, cow pats). They’re useful in myriad ways and there are good reasons so many cultures, and some religions, value them highly. Eating a cow is economically wasteful, but a cow — I’m calling her Bessy — that doesn’t give milk is a burden.
…. Back to Jack (and his mother)….
Jack’s mother hoped for a fair exchange, but would take what she could get. So, off Jack went to the market to sell Bessy.
Jack’s young and brash, and like most teens he thinks he knows better than his mama, and isn’t really paying much attention to his economic environment, and doesn’t really care about the monetary or social value of Bessy. He ends up easy prey to a conman who gives him a handful of “magic” beans in exchange for Bessy. Soon after he makes the deal, he realises his mistake.
Eventually, he makes his way home with his beans.
Jack’s mother, expecting at least a handful of gold coins, gets instead a handful of beans. She flies into a rage cursing Jack up one side and down the other, and flings the beans out of the window. She sends Jack to bed with no dinner. She spends the evening weeping and eventually falls asleep, spent and hopeless, at the kitchen table.
This is a crucial part of the story. It’s the inciting incident from which the story unfolds.
The crisis of the story is well enough known that I’m going to summarise.
The beans grow into a gigantic beanstalk. Jack climbs the beanstalk and finds a giant’s castle in the sky. Jack steals the giant’s treasures; first gold coins, then a goose that lays golden eggs, and finally a magic harp that plays by itself. The harp cries out for the giant as it’s being stolen, and Jack has to scarper down the beanstalk. When he reaches the bottom of the beanstalk, he chops it down. The giant falls to his death and Jack and his mother, with their newly pilfered wealth, live happily ever after.
It’s a story of economic inequity and overthrowing the bourgeoisie. It seems innocuous enough and our protagonist comes to a happy end, but it’s also filled with difficult choices, poor decisions, and questionable actions.
The decision that troubles me the most is that Jack doesn’t confide in the giant’s wife and elicit her sympathy. When he first knocks on the castle door, it’s the giant’s kindly wife who takes Jack in, offers him food, and lets him stay. I’ve never understood why, when she’d been so demonstrably kind, it never occurred to him to ask her for help. Had he asked, wouldn’t she have given him food or coins to help him along?
The morals are hazy and inconsistent, and the lack of any consequences for Jack’s actions (whether it was not listening to his mother’s directions, or stealing from another people/culture) negates (for me) any lessons it aims to teach.
Perhaps the real lesson is to not send distracted teens to conduct important economic exchanges.
Featured image credit: Agnali/pixabay