October 10, 2017


        Jack and The Beanstalk is one of those “problematic” tales, in which the hero is far from admirable and his quest is nothing nobler than greed.  Jack’s a quick thinker, but no one who knows him wants to hire him, which is understandable given his light fingers and general dishonesty.  The ogre’s wife is probably the nicest character, and she just gets taken advantage of.  (You can refresh your memory of the story by reading it here.)  So what is there to like about this story?  The beanstalk, of course!  What a wonderful image it gives us, starting with magic beans, representing infinite magical possibilities.  Then there’s the beanstalk itself, growing overnight until it reaches the sky.  It’s especially pleasing that it grows right up past Jack’s bedroom window so that he can climb straight out of his bedroom and up to the sky.
        And then there’s the sky at the top of the beanstalk: a solid sky country.  This is no cloudy, heavenly realm of air and wind.  It’s got a broad road and a great, tall house.  It’s also got magical things in it: magical hen, magical harp, ogre...  I presume it’s got all manner of other magical things in it, too, which we might have heard about if Jack had been more inclined to gathering knowledge rather than gold.
        Here are a few fun depictions of that wonderful beanstalk.  In the first one, the oldest, it looks as if Jack’s climbing the vine to escape his mother’s wrath.  In any case, the perspective is charmingly topsy-turvey so that Jack’s cottage looks huge and the ogre’s castle looks tiny, and Jack himself looks quite shrunk, too.  It also makes it look as though the ogre’s house is the flower blooming at the top of the vine, rather than being built in the sky on its own, with the vine simply reaching up toward it.  This wood block print has some really nice textures, especially the thatch and the tree in the background.  A very different version of the sky is imagined by George Cruikshank.  Although his vine looks much taller - even reaching above the clouds - his rocky sky looks as if it’s actually attached to the earth after all.

        Walter Crane shows us the lower portions of the beanstalk, with Jack’s cottage and angry mother in the background again, but no view of skyland or ogre’s castle at all.  And finally, a modern imagining in scratchboard.  This also gives us no view of what the skyland might look like, but does give us the dizzying perspective of a beanstalk that really has reached as high as the sky.  The town way down there on earth has telephone poles, but no sign of cars or other people about.  As for this climber, I’m holding out hope that, unlike Jack, he’s actually interested in exploring and mapping the world he finds. After all, it must be an amazing place!

[Pictures: Jack and the Beanstalk, woodcut from Round about our Coal-Fire, 1734 (Image from The Classic Fairy Tales by Iona and Peter Opie);
Jack Climbing the Bean Stalk, illustration by George Cruikshank from The History of Jack & the Bean-Stalk, 1854;
Jack climbing, color wood block print by Walter Crane from Jack and the Beanstalk, 1875 (Images from SurLaLune);
Beanstalk, scratchboard by Doug Smith (Image from RonSusser.com).]

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