John and the Beanstalk (feature for Ano Ne Magazine)
I’ve been fascinated by fairy tales and fairy lore for as long as I can remember. Far more than contemporary fiction, as a child it was the tales of Grimm, Arabian Nights and Hans Andersen that really gripped my imagination. My mother had several old collected editions of these tales dating from her own childhood which she only produced at bedtime to read to us. With their classic Golden Age illustrations those books were for me hallowed tomes, things to be held in reverence which inspired my eventual path as an illustrator.
When Fukuinkan Shoten approached me to select and illustrate a classic English fairy tale I delved deep into research and initially proposed some rare tales that have yet to be adapted into picture books, however after discussion with my editor we eventually settled on the exuberant tale of Jack and the Beanstalk, as there is no ‘default edition’ of this story as a picture book in Japan. Fukuinkan wished to produce a classic, traditionally retold and illustrated version that will become the benchmark interpretation in Japanese.
Jack and the Beanstalk has everything – magic, a mysterious stranger, ogres, a cloud world, and is packed with dramatic crescendos which would be a joy to illustrate. But more than this, the tale of Jack poses numerous unresolved questions both about Jack and of the land above the clouds, and the more I analysed these thematic conundrums the more fascinating the story became. To explore these aspects and offer solutions was both a challenge and a great pleasure.
Jack and the Beanstalk is an ancient story passed down orally by storytellers from generation to generation. Partial elements from early versions have been recorded from at least as far back as the 17th Century and there are several variations, however the tale popular today has derived from two printed versions, a somewhat dogmatic adaptation by Benjamin Tabart published in 1807, later retold by Andrew Lang, and a more robust rendering later in the nineteenth century by Joseph Jacobs.
I based my re-telling on Jacobs’s version which is regarded as the one that’s closest to the oral traditions, and with the most energy and directness, although it lacks a redeeming motive for Jack’s repeated raids up the beanstalk. Jack is unashamedly a thief, the reader is almost tempted to feel pity for the ogre and his accomplice wife. In Tabart’s version of the story Jack is given an excuse to punish the ogre, as the house in the sky is said to have once belonged to Jack’s father, who was killed by the ogre and Jack and his mother reduced to destitution. Though such a plot tidily wraps up certain aspects of the story it’s a more laboured and moralising version. Overall then I chose to allow Jack to be a plucky scoundrel, I believe the ambiguity of his morality adds greatly to the story. Readers question Jack as much as the ogre.
Once I began on the illustrations other questions immediately demanded analysis. Who is the mysterious stranger who gives Jack the beans? What does he want with the old cow? Is it simply an excuse to give the beans to Jack? It seems Jack has been chosen to ascend the beanstalk, but why? And what happens to the cow thereafter? These are questions that almost require another book to explore, and I felt it best left unresolved in the text. The illustrations however could perhaps provide a few hints as to the fate of the cow and the connection of the strange man with Jack.
In the illustrations I tried to add details that make it as believable as possible. Although the story is a fantasy it has to be a logical world, so I began asking myself more questions. Accepting the absurdity that clouds can support a magical world in the first place, I wondered, does the ogre and his wife inhabit the cloud-world alone, or are there other houses, other inhabitants? As the clouds drift apart how do they get around? The ogre devours children and cattle, but from where does he get them? Above the clouds? Or does he have a way to descend to earth to prey on the people below? He obviously has a particular dislike of ‘Englishmen’.
If the clouds can magically support fields and buildings then they would certainly support sailing boats too, and one thing there is plenty of in the sky is wind power! So in my world the clouds are islands of structures, settlements, fields and trees, connected by sky boats powered by wind, kept aloft on wisps of cloud. The ogre would have his own vessel to go hunting above and below the clouds.
In addition to children and cattle one thing he almost certainly would come across all the time is birds! These would be like snacks for a hungry ogre, and so the kitchen has lots of birds and bird-cages. Considering the mechanics of the ogre’s realm enriches the fantasy of the story, there are connections with flying creatures throughout the book.
Another theme is the historical setting. I based the story in the period known as the Dark Ages in Britain, the time after the departure of the Roman Empire up to the Norman conquest. Around the 6th century AD the land was overrun by tribes of Angles (from southern Denmark) and Saxons (from Germany) – hence Anglo-Saxon – while the original inhabitants were gradually pushed to the far corners of the country. Folklorists have theorised that some stories of fairies and other creatures have their origins in tales told by Anglo-Saxons about the mysterious and secretive original tribes of the land – the Britons. My ogre then is a vestige of the older, defeated culture, and thus distinctly “Celtic” in dress and manner, whereas Jack and his mother are Anglo-Saxon.
The struggle between Jack and the ogre is not only one of boy versus monster, but also a clash of cultures, of ancient races versus new invaders. This, then, is why the ogre hates “Englishmen” so much!
Then consider the ogre’s wife. Though a tall woman she’s not an ogre herself, yet she’s happily married to one. She doesn’t seem a particularly evil character, but is nevertheless willing to chop up and cook children for her husband’s dinner! What becomes of her after her husband’s demise is never explained in the old tales, however I imagine she comes off quite well in the end – she keeps the great house, and is free of the ogre, who could not have been the easiest of partners.
Historically Jack himself is almost certainly related to that other great “Jack” in English fairy tales – Jack the Giant Killer, another tale I’m very fond of, and currently the subject of an upcoming Hollywood movie, though it’s a sad story of violent persecution from the point of view of the endangered giants! The two fairy tales have much in common, in some versions of Jack and the Beanstalk the ogre shares a name (Blunderbore) with a giant in the other tale. All these stories probably come from the same group of orally related tales, condensed and honed over many years to the stories we know today. And yet there is one big difference often overlooked (and certainly missed by Hollywood) – In the Beanstalk tale Jack is faced by an Ogre, not a Giant – there is a clear difference. Ogres are always man-eaters, the definition of an ogre is that they eat people. They’re often hideously ugly and although sometimes big, they’re not as big as giants! On the other hand Giants are often portrayed in the old tales as simply very large men, slow-witted, covetous, destructive and occasionally murderous perhaps but not usually cannibalistic.
We have only to consider the items stolen by Jack to confirm this: bags of money, the golden egg laying chicken, and finally the harp – if these were ‘giant sized’ Jack would not be able to carry them. If on the other hand they were ‘human sized’ they would be too small for a Giant to worry about. So definitely, not a giant, but a large ogre. Hollywood take note!
Unusually for fairy tales Jack does not marry a Princess after his return, but instead goes into business with his mother touring their treasures around the country. I really like that idea, it gives the story an earthy realism after the fantasy of the ogre. They become rich, and live happily, they need no more than that. I’m still wondering about the green man who bought the cow though, what happened to the two of them? Perhaps the ogre’s wife knows something, but she’s not telling….!
(This post is the English-language transcription of a feature I put together for the October 2012 issue of Ano Ne magazine in Japan.) Jack to Mame no Ki (Jack and the Beanstalk) retold & illustrated by yours truely and translated by Yuko Obika, is available internationally from Amazon Japan.