Showing posts with label English Folktales. Show all posts
Showing posts with label English Folktales. Show all posts

5.20.2011

Jack and the Beanstalk (1991)

Retold and Illustrated by Steven Kellogg

Colored inks, watercolors and acrylics

15 Point Clearface

Morrow Junior Books

Steven Kellogg is one of my absolute favorites.I believe he is unparalleled when it comes to drawings which are playful, detailed, lively and - most of all - do not merely illustrate, but add significantly to the text, compelling the narrative onwards at a velocity not normally found with a picture book.

According to the jacket for this book, before undertaking this project, he signed up for a summer course on folktales in children's literature at Columbia University. "I chose to undertake Jack and the Beanstalk, recalling my childhood fascination with Jack's sense of adventure and his conquest of the dramatic skyscapes despite the daunting yet intriguing frightfulness of the ogre's Fee-fi-fo-fum."

Meanwhile, in the Author's Note which precedes the tale, he tells us that his version is based on the version written by Joseph Jacobs in 1889. Kellogg wanted to remain faithful to the spirit of the original language, "retaining some now-remote phrases like 'start shop' and words like 'peltered' because of their contribution to the character of the tale."

Open it up to the first page, however, and you may think you're in the wrong story. The most gruesome 'giant' I've ever seen in a Jack story, wearing the fur of a sabertooth, appearing from out of a malestrom and holding a ship full of pirates hostage. Everything about the pirate ship is fully realized, including the table full of gold and other treasures. Surely, with such a time and effort, these pirates must somehow be pivotal characters...

They're gone after the next page, never to appear again. This is one of Kellogg's tricks, to fill in cracks of the tale in throwaway illustrations before the actual story begins. Other narrative clues hidden inside his pictures reveal from whence came the magic man with the magic beans, and a procession of Medieval lords and ladies who won't be seen again until the very end.

Kellogg's Jack is no fool, nor is he lazy. He is good-hearted and willing to work. The magic beans he receives as payment for the family cow - Milky White - are clearly magical from the get-go, tumbling and floating in his hands, glowing brightly.  The beanstalk they produce the following night is an abstract explosion of color and texture, twisting and weaving and sprouting this way and that away, taking Jack to a land not merely in the clouds, but high above the planet Earth. There are snow-capped mountains in the stars, along with an intricate castle, ladled with thousands - perhaps millions - of stairs, leading to the various towers at whose doorstep awaits a towering female ogre, wearing a necklace of tiny skulls.

There is a page in which the giant finally discovers Jack which I had to quickly flip past lest it fill my son with nightmares, so gruesome and ghastly, it seems death will come to Jack and it will come soon and violently.

"Mother! Mother! Bring me an ax!"
Jack's mother rushed out with the ax in her hand, and Jack gave a chop at the beanstalk, cutting it in two.
The ogre fell down and broke his crown and the beanstalk came tumbling after.


Phew A fitting, wordless epilogue shows Jack as an older man, happily married with a few dozen children of his own, happening across the old magic man, who is still in possession of Milky White. But the epilogue doesn't end there. On the back cover appears the enigmatic portrait of what appears to be the giant's wife, arms raised up before the castle, which is enclosed within an orange sphere, surrounded by dark and stormy clouds.

Click here for more versions of Jack and the Beanstalk!

11.30.2010

Jack and the Beanstalk (2006)


Retold by E. Nesbit
Illustrated by Matt Tavares

Pencil and watercolor
Typeset in Garamond

Candlewick Press

2006 is when this beautiful edition illustrated by Matt Tavares came out, but the story itself is the unabridged text from 1908, published originally in The Old Nursery Stories. At nearly 50 pages, this is the most complete telling I've ever seen of this classic folktale. Nesbit begins with the character's full background:

He was always trying to make things that seemed like the things in books - rafts of sledges, or wooden spear-heads to play at savages with, or paper crowns with which to play at kings. He never did any work; and this was very hard on his mother, who took in washing, and had great trouble to make both ends meet.

Jack is a dreamer, content to lay about in the summer fields and stare at the clouds. He is well-meaning, but always makes a blunder of himself. The debacle with selling the family cow is just one in a series of misadventures. One question which I've always wondered is, does the butcher in his wagon know the magical properties of the beans with which he uses to bargain for the ill-fated bovine? In every version I've seen, the butcher seems to be clearly playing Jack for the fool. Yet somehow, magically, after having been tossed from the window by his enraged mother... It's as though Jack himself produces the magic effect the beans have. As though they really were worthless, until Jack infused them with his own simple, child-like faith...

Tavares does a tremendous job making the beanstalk make spacial sense. In just a couple of illustrations, we see Jack's look of absolute delight as he climbs the stalk. He is clearly several miles off the ground, the surrounding countryside spread out around him, but his eyes eagerly yearning only upwards. However, when he reaches the top of the beanstalk, he finds "the trees were withered, the fields were bare, and every stream had run dry." Not only that, but there are skulls and bones dotting the barren earth.

This was the land which once belonged to Jack's father, who had been king - a fact that not all versions make clear. His father was killed by the vicious giant, who took over the kingdom, turned his subjects into trees, and horded all of the gold for himself. All this is explained to Jack by a tiny fairy. Exposition dispensed with, fairy fluttering off, Jack is now free to do that for which he is destined.

"Now the time has come for you to set things straight. And this is really what you've been trying to dream about all your life. You must find the giant and get back your father's land for your mother. She has worked for you all your life. Now you will work for her; but you have the best of it, because her work was mending and washing and cooking and scrubbing, and your work is - adventures. Go straight on and do the things that first come into your head. This is good advice in ordinary life, and it works well in this land too. Goodbye."

Interestingly, the giant's wife is not a giant at all, but a little old woman who takes pity on poor Jack, and allows him to hide away when her giant husband comes home. Each time, Jack steals one of the amulets of the Giant's power - the goose who lays the golden eggs, the sacks of gold, and the golden harp - and each time the giant's wife allows him to enter, reluctantly. She never seems to realize that Jack is the same child as before.

Also, very interestingly, and a fact I only noticed the second-time through, the giant never utters the words for which he is famous: "Fee fi fo fum, I smell the blood of an Englishman. Be he alive or be he dead, I'll grind his bones to make my bread." Instead he growls simply, "Fresh meat today, my dear. I can smell it."

Finally, harp in hand, Jack races down the beanstalk. This third time, the giant finally realizes what's going on and gives chase. "Jack screamed to his mother for a chopper, and, like the good woman she was, she brought it without asking what it was for."

Once the giant is dead, we see Jack's mother sweeping the front walkway of their tiny cottage, and Jack feeding the chickens while cows graze in the background. The pastoral pleasantness is unchanged. There is a moral here about leading the simple life.

As for the enchanted land up above - well, the fairy told Jack that after the death of the giant the people came out of the trees, and the land flourished under the rule of the giant's wife, a most worthy woman, whose only fault was that she was too ready to trust boys.
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