Sunday, September 23, 2007

deconstructing jack and the beanstalk

Jack and the Beanstalk is an interesting sort of fairy tale.

Like other stories, fairy tales have a function besides mere entertainment value. "Red Riding Hood" serves to warn children not to talk to strangers, who pose the danger of death and sexual assault. "The Frog Prince" is a lesson in honesty and keeping one's word, while "Hansel and Gretel" speaks of the value of courage, teamwork and quick-wittedness. Even the stories of Chaunticleer at least have a sort of gallows humor going for them, the way death can come from any direction, as it too often did during the Middle Ages.

But "Jack and the Beanstalk" is about a boy who breaks some of the oldest laws of civilization, by betraying his hostess and killing her husband after stealing one treasure after another. It's an adventure story, to be sure, but it's not much of a morality tale.

In fact, as fairytale heroes go, Jack is neither particularly smart nor brave, He's just lucky. A stranger tells him that beans are magical, and Jack is gullible enough to trade away his cow for these beans rather than getting enough money from the sale of the cow to buy a calf or a couple goats. To his good fortune, it turns out that the beans actually are magical, and his life changes.

When I was a child, I always assumed that the man who gave Jack the beans was some sort of con artist, taking advantage of Jacks's naivete to get a cow for the cost of beans. But this doesn't make much sense; the man who gave him the beans told him that the beans were magical and they were.

It's far more likely that the man knew they were magical and sold them to Jack to effect change in Jack's life. This deliberate of benevolence sets in motion the events of the fairy tale. In a fit of anger over Jack's apparent foolishness, his mother throws the beans through the window and they grow overnight into an enormous beanstalk that reaches into the very heavens,

At this point Jack goes from the childish faith in believing in magic beans to a more adult outlook that fills him with curiosity and boosts his courage enough for him to seize the opportunity before him and climb the beanstalk.

At the top of the beanstalk, Jack also finds wealth and the story becomes more complicated. In many versions of the story, the items that Jack takes -- gold coins, a hen that lays golden eggs and finally a magic harp that  plays tiself -- belong to the giant, making Jack a simple thief. The Brothers Grimm throw an interesting wrinkle in when they reveal, via Jack's mother, that these things all had belonged to Jack's father until they were stolen years before.

I'd suggest that this doesn't make as big a difference as we might thing. The fairy tales that Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm collected were stories that were told by peasants and lower-class workers all over what we now call Germany. The heroes of the stories invariably were simple people like they were, people who made progress by old-fashioned work or by simple cleverness that in the imaginary fairytale world won them the gratitude of kings and the hands of beautiful princesses.

Fairytale heroes like Jack, in other words, were people who lived under a feudal system where the fruits of their labors were taken from them by kirke and by king, by clergy and by rulers who were distant and removed from day-to-day life. They were unmoveable and unreachable, and lived a life of comfort so far off that they might as well have lived atop a beanstalk in a kingdom in the sky.

In this sense the giant represents the king or lord of the manor. With this reading, "Jack and the Beanstalk" becomes a mildly subversive tale about taking back from the rulers what they themselves have unjustly taken from the people who produced it.

Now let's revisit the man who gave Jack the magic beans. We've already established that he wasn't a simple con artist out for Jack's cow. He knew what the beans would do, and he gave them to Jack so that they would grow the beanstalk. He knew that if Jack climbed the beanstalk it would take him to the giant's castle, and he knew that once Jack was there, he would find the treasure. Presumably he also intended that Jack should take the treasure.

This is no con artist. In the framework of the story, the man with the beans is an agent of justice. He is a Christ figure in the literary sense, giving the oppressed Jack the opportunity to regain what was taken from him and to punish the perpetrator at the same time. If the giant does in fact represent the lord of the manor, "Jack and the Beanstalk" isn't just an interesting fairy tale.

It's positively revolutionary.

Copyright © 2007 by David Learn. Used with permission.

No comments: