Who Wrote the Story of Jack and the Beanstalk?

A brief history of fairytales and folktales: The ultimate narrative shapeshifters

So, who wrote Jack and the Beanstalk? Well, it depends on whether you’re asking who created Jack and the Beanstalk or who was the first to write it down. The answer is a little more complicated than you would think! Folktales like Jack and the Beanstalk are integral to our storytelling culture, passed down through generations, evolving across seas and land via word of mouth. Fairytales are tricky to attribute to anyone because most were created before the days when most people could write. Fairytales, or folktales, were an important part of entertainment because, if you think about it, it was before the days of books or television; they were a wonderful way to delight, entertain, ‘instruct,’ and pass the time.

Fairytales, or folktales, were ‘shapeshifters.’ The story would differ depending on who told it and where. There are multiple versions of all our favorite tales, and Jack and the Beanstalk is no different! Fairytales generally define any short story that traveled orally. Although they would have the same basic prop devices and characters, the meaning and plot would change according to the times; hence why it’s tricky to trace specifically who wrote Jack and the Beanstalk. Fairytales are like a (magic!) mirror for the times they were spoken in, and they can tell us a lot about the ways of life and beliefs people had in the times they were said in.

Who first created Jack and the Beanstalk?

So, who created Jack and the Beanstalk specifically? Some folklorists now believe that they have traced the tale back by more than 5000 years, making it one of the oldest fairytales we know of! Although it was maybe not the version we know today, there was a boy, a ‘monster’ of sorts, and an ascent ‘upward’ into the sky. It’s thought it was part of a collection of stories called, ‘The Boy who Stole the Ogre’s Treasure.’

If we were to say who created Jack and the Beanstalk truly, the real answer would be a diverse and broad range of our ancestors. Fairytales were told while at work – while out in the fields, spinning or weaving, or nurseries – and at one point became so popular that there were designated ‘story-telling’ salons, which sounds like a lot of fun! The fact that they’re still around in various disguises, retold and performed and sung about today with delight and relish is a testament to how enduring fairytale’s powerful influence. Has anyone heard of Disney, by any chance?

Who wrote Jack and the Beanstalk first, then?

Jack Spriggins and the Enchanted Bean (1734)

It’s thought the first written version of Jack and the Beanstalk was titled, ‘Jack Spriggins and the Enchanted Bean.’ Published in 1734 in London by a certain J. Roberts, it was included in an anthology called ‘Round about our Coal Fire, or; Christmas Entertainment.’ The story itself is an exuberant and furious version of Jack and the Beanstalk (that is to say, pretty strange!), and the man who wrote it – Dick Merryman (thought to be a pseudonym) – claims it was told to him by his ‘old nurse.’ This would make sense considering that many fairytales of the time would have been exposed to children by their carers, often nannies or wet nurses. However, it seems apparent that this version of the story wasn’t written for children, and the character of ‘Jack’ was a lot more ambiguous than in later versions. The giant was named ‘Gogmagog,’ a legendary giant in Welsh and English mythology.

‘The History of Jack and the Bean-Stalk’ by Benjamin Tabart (1807)

Then, in 1807, Benjamin Tabert included it in his ‘Collection of Popular Stories from the Nursery.’ This version was heavily ‘moralized’ – with Jack being a sympathetic character who was entirely justified in his treatment of the giant. This was when folktales started to become popular to be said to children with some element of ‘instruction’ in them (teaching children how to behave and the nature of right or wrong).

In this version of the story, Jack avenges his father. The moral implications of the story were more straightforward, with a concise narrative of ‘good’ triumphing over the ‘evil’ of the giant.

‘Jack and the Beanstalk’ by Felix Summerly (1845)

The next notable publication was ‘The Home Treasury’ in 1845. Written by Henry Cole, under the pen name of ‘Felix Summerly’ (which we think sounds like a clever writerly cat!), this version was accompanied by beautiful illustrations made from woodcuts of famous pictures. This made it more popular than its previous incarnations.

‘Jack and the Beanstalk’ by Joseph Jacobs (1890)

And lastly, the most reprinted version today was Joseph Jacob’s version, first published in 1890. Besides having a most magnificent mustache, Jacobs was a folklorist who was intent on writing down the stories his nannies told him when he was a child. Believed to be the closest to the oral tradition, Jacob’s version lacks the obvious moralizing of Tabart’s tale but generally synthesizes elements of those that had come before.

Before the more recent renditions of fairytales, with clear moral undertones, folktales were fascinating as they revealed the complexities and quirks of human nature, illuminating that the world is not black and white and everything is sometimes not all as it seems. This can promote interesting wee conversations with kiddos getting to grips with the concept of justice, right and wrong, and the power of kindness vs. cruelty. In addition, we can take a closer look at the subtext through the plot and characters. What is not explicitly stated in the story? And how do we know? Why did Jack take the beans in the first place, you think? Was he taking a calculated risk? Was he hungry? Or was he being plain silly?

FEEEE, FIE, FOE, FUM! I smell the blood of an Englishman!

So where did this monstrous rhyme come from, we wonder? Usually accompanied by the giant’s heavy ’footsteps,’ it’s synonymous with Jack and the Beanstalk and recalled with terror and delight by younger listeners. But, again, it’s unclear who made the rhyme as it’s most definitely older than the written story itself and was a common rhyme in England in the Middle Ages. It’s scattered through various plays and poems in different disguises, all with a slight twist on the alliterative first syllables. A version of it was even in Shakespeare’s ‘King Lear’ in 1606.

It’s thought that the enduring popularity of some fairytales relies on the repetitive nature of the rhymes and idioms contained within. For example, in the story of Little Red riding hood, we all remember, “MY! What big ears you have! Myyy. What big eyes you have!” Repetition is a crucial aspect of learning for children, as it aids memory and language acquisition. This is why we have so many popular nursery rhymes and songs that we teach our little ones from an early age. They’re fun and a fantastic way to introduce them to new vocabulary, rhythm, rhyme, and speech patterns.

“If you want your children to be intelligent, read them fairytales. If you want them to be more intelligent, read them fairytales.”

It’s not for nothing that a very famous and delightfully scruffy scientist once said: “If you want your children to be intelligent, read theme fairytales. If you want them to be more intelligent, read them more fairytales”.

One of the fascinating parts of fairytales is reading children’s different versions and seeing how language affects their interpretation and where their sympathies lie. Do they think Jack is a foolish boy? Do they sympathize with the giant having to put up with an intruder? What about the giant’s poor wife, who only wanted to feed a ‘hungry’ Jack? Fairytales are powerful conduits to explore with children the character’s motivations and underlying subtexts that may not be apparent without some further digging and discussion.

The final answer?

So, who wrote Jack and the Beanstalk? Final answer? Collectively, Jack and the Beanstalk has been carved and sculpted from many different imaginations and circumstances, with varying intentions and underlying messages. Fairytales are like ‘cultural mirrors,’ shaping and being shaped by the people and traditions that carved them. But, if you want to ask, who wrote Jack and the Beanstalk as it’s known today? Joseph Jacob’s rendition may be your closest bet to the tale we know and love.

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