Retold by E. Nesbit
Illustrated by Matt Tavares
Pencil and watercolor
Typeset in Garamond
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.