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Fables and Fairy Tales. 0019: Anon., The History of Jack and the Bean-Stalk

Author: Anon.
Title: The history of Jack and the bean-stalk. Printed from the original manuscript, never before published
Cat. Number: 0019
Date: 1807
1st Edition: 1807
Pub. Place: London
Publisher: B. Tabart, At the Juvenile and School Library, No.157, New Bond-Street
Price: 6d
Pages: 1 vol., 34pp.
Size: 11.5 x 7.5 cm
Illustrations: Frontispiece plus two further copper-plate engravings

Images of all pages of this book

Page 004 of item 0019

Introductory essay

On this occasion, there is no reason to disbelieve Tabart's proud boast that his tale has been 'Never Before Published' (title-page), for this is a copy of the very first known edition of 'Jack and the Bean-Stalk'.

Having said this, the tale was certainly known in some form before 1807. The second edition of Round about our Coal-Fire: or Christmas Entertainments, published in 1734, contains a short burlesque narrative entitled 'Enchantment demonstrated in the story of Jack Spriggins and the Enchanted Bean' which pokes fun at bean-stalks and cities in the sky. Jack kills a giant and becomes rich, and even though the tale is meant to be read as an attack on the presence of the supernatural in literature, this short piece contains many of the elements of the tale which would become a standard part of the fairy tale repertoire a century later (Opie 1980: 222-226; Carpenter 1984: 274-75).

But wherever the publisher Benjamin Tabart, or his editor, Mary Jane (or possibly William) Godwin, derived their story of 'Jack and the Beanstalk', it was their version which remained the standard text (see essay accompanying 0043 for details of the Godwins' involvement with Tabart's venture). The only major difference between the Tabart text and most modern day re-tellings is that Jack is carefully exonerated in advance from his depredations from the giant. Before he even approaches the giant's castle, from which he will steal the hen that lays the golden egg, the giant's money bags and his magic harp, Jack has met a fairy who explains that all these things rightfully belonged to Jack's father, whom the giant has killed. Jack becomes therefore an avenger of his father's death and an instrument of the fate which always ensures that natural justice prevails, rather than the indolent, happy-go-lucky adventurer which he seems to be at the beginning of the tale and which he probably was while the tale remained in the oral tradition.

Other, later versions of the tale in the Hockliffe Collection stay true to this emphasis of Tabart's edition. Indeed, while 'Park's Surprising History' (0033) simply abridges the Tabart text, the third version in the Hockliffe Collection (0021), by George Cruikshank (1853), has become much more overtly moral in its tone. Jack's mother and sister (a totally new character) are praised for keeping their cottage clean and working hard to obtain a precarious livelihood, and the author even interjects the adage that 'It is not poverty which makes people dirty, but idleness and ignorance' (p.6). The butcher who tries to dupe Jack out of his family's one remaining possession, their cow, is taken to task for his irresponsible, cruel behaviour. His cunning is shown to come to no good in the end as well, when he falls over, hurts himself, and looses the cow which he has just cheated Jack to obtain (p.7). There are strong warnings about lying (p.8), and about the wickedness of intoxicating drink too (p.31). The most explicit merging of the fairy story and the moral tale is to be seen in the reason given for the sudden appearance of the fairy in Jack's life. In Tabart's version, the reader had been told that the fairy had transgressed against certain rules which govern the behaviour of fairies, that her powers had been suspended as a punishment, and that she had only regained them on the day that Jack went to market to sell his cow (p.14). In the later edition by Cruikshank, the fairy tells Jack in no uncertain terms that it is only his willingness to go out and seek a job which qualifies him to fulfil the fate which awaits: 'I have long wished to employ you in a difficult and important matter,' the fairy tells him, 'but I could not trust you whilst you were so careless and idly disposed; but now, that you have thus shaken off that slothful habit, and have determined to be active, diligent, and trustworthy, I no longer hesitate, and shall therefore prepare you for the duties you will have to perform' ( p.10). It is also perhaps worth noting that Cruikshank adheres more strictly to its nominal historical setting. All versions from Tabart onwards agree that the action takes place in King Alfred's England. Only in the later version is this followed up, as if the influence of Sir Walter Scott had made its impression even on fairy tales. Thus the giant becomes a Danish raider, Jack's father turns out to be a Saxon knight, Sir Ethelbert, and King Alfred himself appears at the end of the tale to dispense justice and rewards, before the beanstalk is consumed in a magnificent firework display (p.32).

Unfortunately, a large chunk of this Cruikshank version is missing. It was first published in 1853, but this version probably dates from a few years after that. The version of the tale published by A. Park (0033) is also difficult to pin down. An Archibald Park was operating at the address given on its title-page - 47 Leonard Street, Tabernacle Walk, Finsbury, London - from 1836-41, but the work might also have been published by Alexander Park (perhaps Archibald's son) who occupied the same premises from 1842-1863 (Brown 1982). Whenever it was published - and a date around 1840 seems most likely - this is the best illustrated of the versions in the Hockliffe Collection. These high quality wood engravings do much to compensate for a text which is highly abridged, although it does still manage to retain all of the salient parts of the 1807 Tabart narrative.

For more information on Tabart's ground-breaking project to bring out a new series of fairy tales, of which his Jack and the Bean-Stalk forms a part, see the essay accompanying 0043.

Opie, Peter and Iona, The Classic Fairy Tales, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1974, rpt. London, 1980

Carpenter, Humphrey & Pritchard, Mari, The Oxford Companion to Children's Literature, Oxford: OUP, 1984

Brown, Philip A. H., London Publishers and Printers, c.1800-1870, London: British Library, 1982