The Original Story of “Jack and the Beanstalk” Was Emphatically Not for Children

If, like me, you once tried to plant jelly beans in your backyard in the hopes that they would create either a magical jelly bean tree or summon a giant talking bunny, because if it worked in fairy tales it would of course work in an ordinary backyard in Indiana, you are doubtless familiar with the story of Jack and the Beanstalk, a tale of almost but not quite getting cheated by a con man and then having to deal with the massive repercussions.

You might, however, be a little less familiar with some of the older versions of the tale—and just how Jack initially got those magic beans.

The story first appeared in print in 1734, during the reign of George II of England, when readers could shill out a shilling to buy a book called Round about our Coal Fire: Or, Christmas Entertainments, one of several self-described “Entertaining Pamphlets” printed in London by a certain J. Roberts. The book contained six chapters on such things as Christmas Entertainments, Hobgoblins, Witches, Ghosts, Fairies, how people were a lot more hospitable and nicer in general before 1734, and oh yes, the tale of Jack Spriggins and the Enchanted Bean, and how he became Monarch of the Universe. It was ascribed to a certain Dick Merryman—a name that, given the book’s interest in Christmas and magic, seems quite likely to have been a pseudonym—and is now available in what I am assured is a high quality digital scan from Amazon.com.

(At $18.75 per copy I didn’t buy it. You can find plenty of low quality digital scans of this text in various places in the internet.)

The publishers presumably insisted on adding the tale in order to assure customers that yes, they were getting their full shilling’s worth, and also, to try to lighten up a text that starts with a very very—did I mention very—lengthy complaint about how nobody really celebrates Christmas properly anymore, by which Dick Merryman means that people aren’t serving up as much fabulous free food as they used to, thus COMPLETELY RUINING CHRISTMAS FOR EVERYONE ELSE, like, can’t you guys kill just a few more geese, along with complaining that people used to be able to pay their rent in kind (that is, with goods instead of money) with the assurance that they’d be able to eat quite a lot of it at Christmas. None of this is as much fun as it sounds, though the descriptions of Christmas games might interest some historians.

Also, this:

As for Puffs in the Corner, that is a very harmless Sport, and one may ramp at it as much as one will; for at this Game when a Man catches his Woman, he may kiss her ’till her Ears crack, or she will be disappointed if she is a Woman of any Spirit; but if it is one who offers at a Struggle and blushes, then be assured she is a Prude, and though she won’t stand a Buss in publick, she’ll receive it with open Arms behind the Door, and you may kiss her ’till she makes your Heart ake.

….Ok then.

This is all followed by some chatter and about making ladies squeak (not a typo) and what to do if you find two people in bed during a game of hide and seek, and also, hobgoblins, and witches, and frankly, I have to assume that by the time Merryman finally gets around to telling Jack’s tale—page 35—most readers had given up. I know I almost did.

Image from Round about our Coal Fire: Or, Christmas Entertainments (1734)

The story is supposedly related by Gaffer Spiggins, an elderly farmer who also happens to be one of Jack’s relatives. I say, supposedly, in part because by the end of the story, Merryman tells us that he got most of the story from the Chit Chat of an old nurse and the Maggots in a Madman’s brain. I suppose Gaffer Spiggins might be the madman in question, but I think it’s more likely that by the time he finally got to the end, Merryman had completely forgotten the start of his story. Possibly because of Maggots, or more likely because the story has the sense of being written very quickly while very drunk.

In any case, being Jack’s relative is not necessarily something to brag about. Jack is, Gaffer Spiggins assures us, lazy, dirty, and dead broke, with only one factor in his favor: his grandmother is an Enchantress. As the Gaffer explains:

for though he was a smart large boy, his Grandmother and he laid together, and between whiles the good old Woman instructed Jack in many things, and among the rest, Jack (says she) as you are a comfortable Bed-fellow to me —

Cough.

Uh huh.

Anyway. As thanks for being a good bedfellow, the grandmother tells Jack that she has an enchanted bean that can make him rich, but refuses to give him the bean just yet, on the basis that once he’s rich, he will probably turn into a Rake and desert her. It’s just barely possible that whoever wrote this had a few issues with men. The grandmother then threatens to whip him and calls him a lusty boy before announcing that she loves him too much to hurt him. I think we need to pause for a few more coughs, uh huhs and maybe even an AHEM. Fortunately before this can all get even more awkward and uncomfortable (for the readers, that is), Jack finds the bean and plants it, less out of hope for wealth and more from a love of beans and bacon. In complete contrast to everything I’ve ever tried to grow, the plant immediately springs up smacking Jack in the nose and making him bleed. Instead of, you know, TRYING TO TREAT HIS NOSEBLEED the grandmother instead tries to kill him, which, look, I really think we need to have a discussion about some of the many, many unhealthy aspects of this relationship. Jack, however, has no time for that. He instead runs up the beanstalk, followed by his infuriated grandmother, who then falls off the beanstalk, turns into a toad, and crawls into a basement—which seems to be a bit of an overreaction.

In the meantime, the beanstalk has now grown 40 miles high and already attracting various residents, inns, and deceitful landlords who claim to be able to provide anything in the world but when directly asked, admit that they don’t actually have any mutton, veal, or beef on hand. All Jack ends up getting is some beer.

Which, despite being just brewed, must be amazing beer, since just as he drinks it, the roof flies off, the landlord is transformed into a beautiful lady, with a hurried, confusing and frankly not all that convincing explanation that she used to be his grandmother’s cat. As I said, amazing beer. Jack is given the option of ruling the entire world and feeding the lady to a dragon. Jack, sensibly enough under the circumstances, just wants some food. Various magical people patiently explain that if you are the ruler of the entire world, you can just order some food. Also, if Jack puts on a ring, he can have five wishes. It will perhaps surprise no one at this point that he wishes for food, and, after that, clothing for the lady, music, entertainment, and heading to bed with the lady. The story now pauses to assure us that the bed in question is well equipped with chamberpots, which is a nice realistic touch for a fairy tale. In the morning, they have more food—a LOT more food—and are now, apparently, a prince and princess—and, well. There’s a giant, who says:

Fee, fow, fum—
I smell the blood of an English-Man,
Whether he be alive or dead,
I’ll grind his Bones to make my Bread.

I would call this the first appearance of the rather well known Jack and the Beanstalk rhyme, if it hadn’t been mostly stolen from King Lear. Not bothering to explain his knowledge of Shakespeare, the giant welcomes the two to the castle, falls instantly in love with the princess, but lets them fall asleep to the moaning of many virgins. Yes. Really. The next morning, the prince and princess eat again (this is a story obsessed with food), defeat the giant, and live happily ever after—presumably on top of the beanstalk. I say presumably, since at this point the author seems to have entirely forgotten the beanstalk or anything else about the story, and more seems interested in swiftly wrapping things up so he can go and complain about ghosts.

Merryman claimed to have heard portions of this story from an old nurse, presumably in childhood, and the story does have a rather childlike lack of logic to it, particularly as it springs from event to event with little explanation, often forgetting what happened before. The focus on food, too, is quite childlike. But with all of the talk of virgins, bedtricks, heading to bed, sounds made in bed, and violence, not to mention all of the rest of the book, this does not seem to be a book meant for children. Rather, it is a book that looks back nostalgically at a better, happier time—read: prior to the reign of the not overly popular George II of Great Britain. I have no proof that Merryman, whatever his real name was, participated in the Jacobite rebellion that would break out just a couple of years after this book’s publication, but I can say he would have felt at least a small tinge of sympathy, if not more, for that cause. It’s a book that argues that the wealthy are not fulfilling their social responsibilities, that hints darkly that the wealthy can be easily overthrown, and replaced by those deemed socially inferior.

So how exactly did this revolutionary tale get relegated to the nursery?

We’ll chat about that next week.

Mari Ness lives in central Florida.

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