Monday, 7 March 2011



The Story of ‘Jack and the Beanstalk’ concerns a widow and her son, Jack. The two of them are sinking into poverty and as a last resort the Mother instructs Jack to sell the family cow. On the way to the market Jack meets the Butcher who tricks him into selling the animal for a few beans. Jack’s Mother is furious at this and in desperation hurls the beans through the window and they go to bed hungry. However, the beans are magical and grow into a stalk that reaches the sky. Jack climbs it, discovers an unfamiliar land, and steals a giant's treasure. To retrieve his treasure the giant pursues Jack. But as the Giant descends the beanstalk, Jack succeeds in chopping it down. As a result the Giant  is killed in the fall. We learn that the treasure once belonged to Jack’s father who the Giant killed years before. With the death of the Giant, Jack and his mother live happily ever after, having become  exceedingly rich.

There are many variations of this tale, some allegedly were either transmitted orally or written down.The version I am using was written by Benjamin Tabart in 1807. He claims to have copied it from earlier manuscripts. For our purposes Tabart’s sources do not matter.


The setting of the story is ‘in the days of King Alfred’ around 871-899 AD. The place is ‘a cottage …. In a remote country village many miles from London.’ To get the flavour of this tale and then probe its Archetypal content it would be fitting to describe the SOCIAL CONDITIONS existing in the days of Alfred the Great (831-899 AD) and then compare these conditions with the descriptions given in our story. We need to ask, does Tabart capture the social conditions of King Alfred’s time or does his tale better reflect 19th Century assumptions.


Once I have looked at the Social Conditions,  I am going to explore what is meant by a ‘Giant’. I and many others heard this Fairy Tale when we were young and a definite concept of THE GIANT was conjured up.  We were led to believe that the size of the Giant in this story is somehow equivalent to the height of Gulliver when he visits Lilliput.

Whether this assumption is true or not, I leave you to judge from the evidence presented.

Finally, I shall move to my main topic THE ARCHETYPES in the Fairy Tale. After dealing with one or two lesser ARCHETYPES I shall concentrate most of the discussion around the SHADOW, its various MANIFESTATIONS, and then what happens when the SHADOW is TRANSMUTED.

Let us lead off with the social conditions in the 9th Century AD.

There is an ANACHRONISM when the tale mentions the Giant counting his GUINEAS. There was no such unit of coinage in the days of King Alfred nor was any minted after 1817. From a historical point of view the Guinea originated from a British gold coin that was first minted in 1663. This coin  was minted from gold imported from West Africa. The value was LATER fixed at 21 shillings – known as a guinea. Because it was replaced by the Sovereign in 1817, this suggests that Tabart’s tale, irrespective of whether or not he claimed an earlier manuscript – is fixed around 1807.

Let us look at the social condition of Jack and his Mother that is described in the Tale. We see they live in ‘a cottage’,  located in ‘a remote country village, a great many miles from London’. Jack apparently does not work, for he is described as ‘indolent, careless, and extravagant.’ They were also poor because, ‘scarcely anything remained but a cow’. Even her garden does not grow sufficient food for they have to buy what they need. For good measure, his mother is also described as a widow. Apparently, the cottage is in a fairly dilapidated condition, for when they seize the Giant’s treasure the house ‘is repaired and WELL FURNISHED.’

Evidently, they are at the bottom end of the social structure. With the above facts in mind, we need to see how Society was organized in King Alfred’s day.

The deeper we probe the narrative the more obvious it is that it does not capture the Days of King Alfred. It is unlikely that people at the social level of Jack and his Mother, without any true means of substance would have been in position to own their own cottage.  From the stand point of Alfred’s time there would be no such thing as ‘well furnished’. A 19th century reader would hardly call rude cottages with dirt floors and walls that were likely to be woven reeds chinked with mud (wattle and daub) or small stones, chinked with mud, WELL FURNISHED. The roofs of such cottages were generally thatched reeds. As for keeping warm in winter,  they only had fires, built on the dirt floors. These were  in the middle of the room. Tabart is influenced by his own time and unwittingly slips his situation into the story.


Let us go a little deeper. At that time people in their class would either be serfs or freemen. The Serfs would render so many days of Labour to the Lord of the Manor. On the other hand, Freemen, who were also known as Free-tenants. These were essentially, RENT PAYING Tenant Farmers who owed little or no service to the lord. But in Alfred’s days such Freemen were not so Common, for in the 11th century it has been estimated that such people composed only about 10 per cent of the population. So, Jack, and his mother would fall into one of the two classes. What we see, however, is that Jack seems to have plenty of free time, performs no labour service, yet at the same time no reference is made to paying any rent. The assumption seems to be that they owned their own cottage – hardly likely and were thus free of any obligations. I suggest that once more Tabart is weaving 19th century social conditions into the narrative.

If this was truly Anglo-Saxon England then  it would NOT have been the case that Jack’s Mother BOUGHT the food and just drank the cow’s milk. The Anglo-Saxon  villagers grew their own crops, and kept animals. But a cow and a garden that produced nothing was out of the question: the villagers WORKED HARD because they had to provide all their food for themselves. How was it done? Each family  grew their own corn; they grew fruit and vegetables and took their corn to the local mill for grinding into flour. Enough has been said. Jack could not possibly have idled his time away, or they would long since have starved.
Also depending on the sort of village to which they belonged, they would be expected to contribute along with the rest of the village in paying RENT to the LORD ‘in kind’, that is, with goods instead of with money. 


This would be part of the produce which they grew or some of the animals, geese, hens and other animals. They might even have to contribute cheese and butter. Thus it is seen that Tabart is squeezing the conditions of his own time into those of Jack and his Mother, alleged to be living in the days of King Alfred. 

I must make one final point before moving on. This concerns THE LAW and notions of SOCIAL JUSTICE in the days of King Alfred. As the story progresses we learn that the GIANT had killed Jack’s father, stolen his money and burned down his house. The giant WOULD NEVER HAVE GOT AWAY WITH IT. Tabart misses the mark completely regarding SOCIAL JUSTICE.


There were two key principles in Anglo-Saxon Law. First that a man’s loyalty to his Lord was of greatest importance. A man was expected to obey his lord un-conditionally. In return for this obedience his lord protected his men. If one was murdered, the dead man's family would appeal to the lord to punish the murderer The Lord would see to it that this was done. The second principle was that a man's family and relations would support him in any circumstances. If something had been stolen from him, he would get his family together to punish the thief.

Therefore, had this been truly set in Anglo-Saxon England, the widow would long since have been avenged, her fortune restored, and the Giant punished.

Of course, after all, it is only a story; even so, I hope it is of interest to open it out on several levels.

With that in mind, let us explore the PHYSICAL details concerning the GIANT.

There is something rather strange about the Giant. As I remarked earlier, I, and many others, were brought up with this story and led to believe that the Giant was of enormous size, even taller than a normal house. However, a closer examination of this story seems to undermine such a notion.


We notice there is no mention of his SIZE by anyone in the story except a passing reference to it by his wife.   Even so, she simply says, “for it was well known that HER HUSBAND was a LARGE AND POWERFUL GIANT”, But she does not define HOW LARGE. We shall see when we come to look at her, that this so called “Giant’ was perhaps only a little over six feet tall perhaps. I must emphasise that by comprison with him ordinary people were NOT the size of Tom Thumb. There are several reasons for this:

1. No one refers to his extraordinary height except his wife, later on in the tale

2. The Giant  is ‘given .. apartments’ in Jack’s father’s house. No reference is made to any alterations in either the physical structure of the rooms nor in the furniture to befit his size. One assumes from this that he was perhaps a little more than average height.

3. When Jack is in hiding and watching the Giant. The Giant places a hen in front of him. This hen, at once  lays Golden Eggs. These eggs are taken as normal size. Jack steals the animal and takes it home. The Giant did not need a magnifying glass to see either the hen or the eggs. If the man was of gargantuan height the hen would be the size of a mouse and the  eggs would be the size of  peas.
4. When the ‘Giant’ enveigles his way into the favour of Jack’s father and is taken by him into the library, Jack’s father handed him ‘a favourite book’, once more of normal size.

5. The Giant eventually stabs Jack’s father to death and later kills the Porter and the Nurse. Not, we might add, by picking them up and squeezing them, but presumably the same way that he had killed Jack’s father, by stabbing him. But his REACTION gives away his physical height. After the killing of these individuals Jack and his mother are allowed to escape. Now, notice the FEARFUL reaction of the Giant, “He had his own SAFETY to provide for, as it was necessary he should be gone before the servants returned.” Clearly there is not an enormous difference in scale; the servants are not like miniature people, or ants by comparison. Evidently, the Giant believes they could OVERPOWER him.

6. Because of these apparent anomalies, it might be better to consider the specific meaning the word, Giant’ took on in the 1530s. Apparently from that date the word  ‘Giant’ took on the meaning of those individuals who ‘have ANY quality in extraordinary degree. Well this unnamed ‘giant’ certainly did have distinctive attributes, cruelty, murder, thievery. Maybe he also had a physical build that was somewhat larger than normal. But this, as I said, is not commented on, whereas his other ‘GIANT’ attributes are dealt with at length.

7. In line with the above, the story uses a synonym for Giant when it says “At last THE MONSTER seated himself by the fireside while his wife prepared supper”

8. We can also arrive at the conclusion I have just outlined by bringing the Giant’s Wife into the discussion.  When she first meets Jack, she recognizes that he is ‘a Human Being’ but makes NO COMMENT about Jack’s size. So, it seems to me that she was approximately the same height as Jack. Even when she takes Jack through various rooms, no comment is made about the furniture. In fact “for it was well known that HER HUSBAND was a LARGE AND POWERFUL GIANT”, the assumption being that she was not in any way out of the ordinary. But not so small that she would not be able to serve him food, or look after him in the way she does.

Furthermore, recent studies have shown that the average height in Medieval England, in the area of London where our tale is set, was 5 feet 7 and a half inches for men; for women it was 5 feet 3 inches. Therefore anyone well over six feet in height could easily be considered a Giant without too much alteration needed in furniture or apartment facilities. Obviously if our ‘Giant’ was also of a heavy build it would add to the impression. Perhaps he was about six feet six inches tall – about 1.98 meters.

I think that I enough for now. In the next Post I shall explore the Archetypes as they Manifest themselves in the Story. THE SHADOW will be of particular interest.

I hope I did not take away too much romance from the Tale – anyway, I shall not have nightmares any more.

Any Comments

Picture Credits Wikimedia Commons

SOURCE: “The History of Jack and the Beanstalk’, Tabart, London 1807

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