The beanstalk's roots

 

`FE fo fi fum/ I smell the blood of an Englishman/ Be he living or be he dead/ I'll grind his bones to be my bread." That's what giants say, of course, and have done for centuries, in stories, nursery rhymes, children's games - and especially in Jack and the Beanstalk. Although the rhyme is much older than the fairytale, and is even quoted by Edgar in King Lear, it has crept into versions of Jack and the Beanstalk over the past 150 years, and no pantomime adaptation would be the same without it - accompanied by monstrous, thudding footsteps.

The earliest printed version of Jack and the Beanstalk was published in England in the 1730s as The Story of Jack Spriggins and the Enchanted Bean, in a satirical collection of folktales. It is one of the best known of a cycle of Jack stories, including Jack the Giant Slayer; versions of it circulated widely in "chapbooks", the popular English publications printed on a single, folded sheet of paper, illustrated by crude woodcuts and sold for a few pence by pedlars or "chapmen". In 1804 Benjamin Tabart published a Collection of Popular Stories for the Nursery, which included The History of Jack and the Bean-Stalk, set "in the days of King Alfred". This was widely sold in his children's bookshop in Soho by the radical political philosopher, William Godwin, who perhaps detected regicidal impulses in the story. A few years later, the tale appeared in verse form as A History Of Mother Twaddle and the Marvellous Atchievements of her son Jack, which differs from Tabart's version in a number of respects.

In some versions, Jack is an almost chivalric figure, overcoming adversity, slaying giants and surviving trials like any medieval knight; in others he is a cunning trickster figure (a type recognisable from folktales all over the world, especially Africa) who outwits the giant. In the Jack the Giant Killer series of tales, set in Cornwall, the ogres are particularly obtuse and the heroic dragon-slayer figure of myth and epic - Perseus, Heracles, Theseus, St George and Beowolf - has become a comical adventurer with a taste for violence. Jack digs a huge pit for the giant to fall into and then hacks him to death with an pick-axe. In another version, Jack wraps his stomach with cloths to make a huge pouch, which he fills with offal and then slits open, persuading the giant, Blunderbore, that this is a way of enjoying his dinner twice. When the giant slits his own stomach in imitation, "out dropt his Tripes and Trollybubs".

In the version of Jack and the Beanstalk current today, based largely on Joseph Jacobs's English Fairytales (1890), Jack is a simpleton, constantly belittled by his sharp-tongued mother for being a lazy good-for-nothing. He is sufficiently gullible to part with his mother's cow, Milky White, in exchange for a handful of beans from a butcher. In another variant, Jack and his Bargains, Jack is in conflict with his father, not his mother, and he swaps the cow for a magic stick rather than beans. The stick beats his father to a pulp ("up stick and at it") and Jack is established as head of the household.

In The History of Mother Twaddle, Jack is sold the beans by a strange, dwarf-like man with a huge head and magic powers. In her most recent book, No Go the Bogeyman, Marina Warner links this man and the magic beans to the secret, pre-Christian Pythagorean cult. All versions agree that when Jack returns to his anxious mother, she throws the beans out of the window in disgust and when she and Jack wake up the next day, they find that the beans have taken root: "The stalks were of an immense thickness, and had so entwined that they formed a ladder nearly like a chain in appearance."

A ladder reaching to the heavens is a beautifully resonant image which brings to mind Jacob's ladder in the Old Testament; the iconography of medieval paintings in which the celestial realm is depicted as an upper storey of a building; and the Norse cycle of cosmological tales, the Edda, in which the world tree, Yggdrassil, stretches up to Heaven, while its roots reach down to Hell. The ascent to the upper world by means of a tree is one of the many universal folktale motifs in Jack and the Beanstalk which ensure its enduring appeal and announce that we have entered a realm of enchantment and wonder: the seemingly foolish bargain which provides something enchanted, the quest-journey of the hero towards independence, the concealment of the hero by the giant's wife, the series of three thefts - of the goose that lays golden eggs, of the sack filled with gold and the harp - the magical speaking object. The psychoanalyst, Bruno Bettelheim, who wrote extensively about the symbolic function of fairytales as psychological paradigms, reads Jack and the Beanstalk as a depiction of the struggle to reach social and sexual maturity - specifically, to assert adult masculine sexuality. He emphasises the obvious phallic symbolism of the beanstalk growing in the night, and links this to childish anxiety about masturbation. In this somewhat reductive interpretation, all is safely resolved within the confines of the story: "In cutting down the beanstalk, Jack . . . relinquishes his belief in the magic power of the phallus as the means for gaining him all the good things in life. As the story ends, Jack is ready to give up phallic and oedipal fantasies and instead try to live in reality." Happy ever after, of sorts.

Late 19th-century versions attempted to sanitise the story to ensure the moral protection of children by introducing the character of a fairy who meets Jack in the upper world and tells him that the giant had killed Jack's father long ago: desire for retribution then becomes Jack's justification for stealing from the giant. But this is unnecessary: Jack steals from the giant because he is physically overpowering and could kill him; in the tradition of giant slaying and outwitting, he wants to get his retaliation in first.

Whether the impulse is to depose authority figures, to kill or emasculate fathers, to overthrow tyranny, or to simply to keep evil forces at bay, giant-killing in myth, legend and folktale has a timeless appeal, offering great psychological and emotional satisfactions. The attempt to disempower grotesque, terrifying ogres is a venerable one. Brute force and gigantic scale are repeatedly defeated by moral superiority or low cunning in mythical traditions extending in the West as far back as Hesiod's Theogony (8th century B.C.) in which Zeus overpowers a monster with 100 snake-heads, Typhoeus, in his battle for supremacy over the gods, while in Homer's Odyssey, dating from roughly the same period, Odysseus and his men escape from the cyclops, Polyphemus, by blinding him and disguising themselves among his sheep.

We may no longer live in remote villages enveloped in darkness for months and beset by unnamable terrors, but fear is still part of our experience - as adults as well as children - and stories help us to express and allay it. But what is frightening in one culture and period does not necessarily retain its power over succeeding generations. The form inevitably changes, and we can easily become too precious and reverential about the "classic" fairytales, forgetting that even the beloved canon of Grimm and Perrault stories began as anarchic oral folktales, which were constantly adapted and modified in transmission.

Contemporary children's books about giants such as Roald Dahl's Big Friendly Giant and Raymond Brigg's Jim and the Beanstalk take a gleefully comic approach to the old themes. Even the illustrations of Jack and the Beanstalk now tend to be benign, almost cuddly; in children's literature the grotesque is domesticated and real fear has migrated to spectacular screen images, generated by special effects. The pantomime form, too, makes us laugh at what we fear: since the first stage adaptation in 1819 (Harlequin and the Ogre), the resilient pantomime tradition of Jack and the Beanstalk has portrayed the giant as a burlesque figure rather than a threatening, cannibalistic ogre. "Fe fi fo fum"? What's that?

Jack and the Beanstalk is at the Gaiety at varying times daily: 1.30 p.m., 3 p.m., 6.30 p.m., 8 p.m. Booking from: 01-677 1717.