Jack and his tale are rarely referenced in English literature prior to the eighteenth century. It is often thought that the first written version of Jack and the Beanstalk was titled, ‘Jack Spriggins and the Enchanted Bean” which was published in 1734 by J. Roberts of London. The giant’s catchphrase “Fee-fi-fo-fum! I smell the blood of an Englishman” appears in William Shakespeare’s King Lear (c. 1606) in the form “Fie, foh, and fum, I smell the blood of a British man” and something similar also appears in ‘Jack the Giant Killer’.
In some versions of the tale, the giant is unnamed, but many plays name him Blunderbore, a giant of that name also appears in the 18th-century tale ‘Jack the Giant Killer’. In ‘The Story of Jack Spriggins’ the giant is named Gogmagog.
‘Jack the Giant killer’ is set during the reign of King Arthur and tells of a young Cornish farmer’s son named Jack who is strong and clever. Jack encounters a livestock-eating giant called Cormoran (Cornish for the Giant of the Sea) and lures him to his death. Jack is dubbed ‘Jack the Giant-Killer’ for this heroism & takes the giant’s wealth. The ascription of Jack in relation to Cornwall suggests a Brythonic (Celtic) origin. This plot summary is based on a text published c. 1760 by John Cotton and Joshua Eddowes, which in its turn was based on a chapbook c. 1711 (Chapbooks were cheaply made, affordable, paperback booklets, with stories often read to an audience).
Image: Jack and the Giant Killer chapbook. See the full version here.
The early Welsh tale ‘How Culhwch won Olwen’ tentatively dated to c. 1100, features Arthur and his knights which take up a significant portion of the tale, but it begins, and ends, with Arthur’s cousin, Culhwch. The young man is cursed by his step-mother when he refuses to marry her daughter; a curse to never marry any except for Olwen, daughter of the dreaded giant Ysbaddaden Bencawr.
The famous Danish writer Hans Christian Anderson wrote a fairy tale called ‘Jack the Dullard’ in 1855 and although this is not the story of Jack & the Beanstalk, this tale, along with others such as ‘How Culhwch won Olwen’ may have influenced modern day playwrights, such as Ben Crocker, where the giant wants to marry the princess.
On film, Jack and the Beanstalk appeared early on in film-making, which shows it’s immense popularity. In 1902 a silent movie version hit the screens for the first time, this version, directed by George S. Fleming and Edwin S. Porter was for the Edison Manufacturing Company. Read the plot here.
The 1952 film starring Abbott and Costello the giant is blamed for poverty at the foot of the beanstalk, as he has been stealing food and wealth and the hen that lays golden eggs originally belonged to Jack’s family. Brian Henson’s 2001 TV miniseries Jack and the Beanstalk: The Real Story vilifies Jack, reflecting Jim Henson’s disgust at Jack’s unscrupulous actions.
Jack’s tale may have roots which go back even further…studies at Durham University and the Institute for the Study of Literature and Tradition at the New University of Lisbon, looked at similarities in 275 stories or ‘Tales of Magic’ listed in the Aarne-Thompson-Uther Index (ATUI). Jack and the Beanstalk, also known as ‘The Boy Who Stole Ogre’s Treasure’, was traced back 5,000 years when eastern and western Indo-European languages split. An ancient tale passed down by word of mouth through many generations. The story also has strong links to Norse folklore and it is believed that the vikings picked up the tale on their travels.
Images: vintage Jack & the Beanstalk