What They Told Jack

1. Don’t get too caught up in stories. Imagination has its uses, but keep yourself grounded in the real. You have a place in your village economy; learn that as early as possible and grow your resources in a sober and responsible way.

2. Measure success by how high you climb, not by the heights you achieve. Seen as such, your father’s abandonment is your legacy. Starting in such poverty, you succeed if you reach the socio-economic norm your friends have begun with.

3. Learn to play every song you hear. If forced to choose, though, pick the sleepy ballad over the rowdy dance number. Any fool can rouse the crowd; real art lies in the space between drowsy and dreaming.

4. Above all, be true to yourself. (May I say parenthetically that this was no help at all because Jack, only partway toward manhood and lacking a father after whom he might pattern himself, had no finished self to which he could be true. He may have needed that incomplete adolescent quality to serve as our protagonist, but, seriously, how could it help guide him?)

5. Assorted bits of advice that might have been useful in other contexts: floss daily, learn a foreign language while you’re young, pass only on the left, always wear sunscreen, and never trust a Sicilian when death is on the line.

What They Should Have Said More Clearly to Jack

1. Cleverness has its place, but don’t overdo it. As rewarding as it is to be right when everyone else is wrong, you should still take the established path more often than not. Gambles rarely pay off; that’s why we call them “gambles.”

2. Granted, an offer too good to be true is usually a scam. However, the reverse does not follow: an offer that appears as a scam—say, three beans for the primary domestic animal of your mother’s homestead—is not necessarily a bargain in disguise.

3. It’s good to be handsome, but charm will take you only so far.

4. In subsistence farming, a cow is a crucial economic asset. If you and your mother are in extremis, you must negotiate the sale of that asset for maximum return. Doing otherwise repudiates not just your mother’s labor but your mother herself. Put in blunt Marxist terms, the peasant class is the sum of the value of its agrarian product. Getting a bad deal in the sale of the cow is tantamount to undervaluing the life she has sacrificed in nurturing it.

5. Point 4 bears repeating: Your mother works her ass off for you; make sure you appreciate her.

6. “Magic” is a relative term. There is, of course, something magical in the spring growth. If you have seen the greening of a field in May, if you have watched as leaves and stalks grow broader by the day until the vista outside your door takes on a new and brighter color, then you know what magic is. Ancient peoples imagined deities of every sort to explain that life-giving phenomenon, so you can be excused for being attracted to it yourself. Do not confuse that general process with any concentrated form of it, however. Magic of that sort is diffuse and generalized; no one, least of all a tramp in patched and motley clothes, can concentrate it into something you can hold in your hand or slide into your pocket.

Understanding the Misunderstanding

1. His mother did say, “Sell the cow for as much as you can get.” Knowing Jack, she ought to have made her instructions more specific. Examples of recent comparable transactions might have clarified the stakes.

2. It’s hard to prepare for snake oil salesmen. Modern states have enacted buyer protection services, which should tell us, if nothing else, that Jack was hardly the only naïf to fall for patter like the tramp’s.

3. “Magic” (that word again) is good marketing. If a retailer could demonstrate such a quality in his product—which was not the case in Jack’s exchange—I might make such a purchase myself.

4. Never underestimate the allure of the possible when measured against the humdrum of the certain. Jack and his mother faced disaster even if he’d negotiated more successfully along conventional lines. His return with provisions sufficient for the remainder of the year would not have averted long-term crisis, only forestalled it. Perhaps, subtly recognizing his mother’s desperation, he chose to hear her instructions in a manner that gave him the greatest latitude to chance the unpredictable. His decision may have been foolish, but it held the potential to solve their structural poverty rather than float them from one disaster to the next.

5. In sum, we have to ask ourselves whether to read Jack as merely gullible, as a charmed soul whose every decision was destined to work to his benefit, or as someone more subtly cunning than everyone else.

Quick Observations on His Mother’s Reaction

1. She had a right to be pissed, but she may have worsened things with her temper. Consider, for instance, that only one of the three magic beans actually sprouted. What became of the other two? Might they, if properly cultivated rather than violently tossed out the window, have led to adventures of equal wonder and equal eventual remuneration? Take this analogy: you’d be livid if your son spent thousands of dollars on lottery tickets, but wouldn’t you check whether any of them won before you tore them up?

2. She was, I suspect, angrier with herself than with her son. Jack is a character type, the clever fool, with whom you can never really be mad. She should have known he would do something foolish when she asked him to sell the cow; that was his nature, and if she was not responsible for creating it in him, she at least had all his lifetime to recognize and study it. Really, she simply should not have trusted him with so important a responsibility.

3. Leave it at this, though, because it is the most pertinent point: she did have a right to be pissed.

On the First Climb

1. Let us be grateful Jack did not suffer from aerophobia. The willingness to climb a vine growing thousands of feet into the clouds calls not just for the suspension of disbelief—the vine, after all did not even exist the morning before—but for the even rarer ability to suspend oneself at great heights.

2. It’s difficult even now to determine the complicity of the giant’s wife. Did she agree to feed the hungry Jack out of charity or as part of a plot to keep him for her husband’s breakfast? Do we read her as suffering in her marriage, as someone chafing against the giant’s tyranny, or as an equal partner in the monstrousness? Keep in mind, she did hide Jack inside an oven; perhaps she intended to cook him and simply lost the moment.

3. Jack might have chosen any of a hundred wonders in the giant’s castle, but—in most un-Jack-like manner—he selected (that first time) a bag of gold. Consider the rare utility of that decision; through it, he secured his mother’s comfort for the foreseeable future and likely the remainder of her life.

4. Note as well the furtive nature of Jack’s escape. By waiting for the giant to fall asleep, he chose the least risky path—if less risk can be applied to any enterprise that requires you to clamber up vegetation to a height that should concern air traffic controllers. It’s tempting to declare Jack has grown more conservative, more aware of the potential repercussions of his actions. Subsequent actions undermine that conclusion, of course, but we ought to credit him with sober decision-making at least this once.

A Fe-Fi-Fo-Fum Interlude

1. Admit it, the giant’s line is the only part of the story you can still recite. The rest is all a bit blurry: Jack, some beans, and a more or less happy ending. But that weird chant, that “Fe-fi-fo-fum,” lingers. It’s the residue of a lost world. Everything else comes from Jack’s perspective, where he’s the intrepid David out to destroy the towering Goliath. Wouldn’t the giant tell it differently, though? Mightn’t he use that harshly musical language? And wouldn’t he make it a rousing account of the injustices done to him and his?

2. The point I’m driving at is alterity. When the giant speaks, we hear the words of the Other. His song is the scrap of folk memory that suggests an entire culture erased through the manifest destiny of Western cultural expansion. Jack’s story casts him as that thing of darkness, that Caliban, yet some sliver of his experience endures against Jack’s triumph.

3. Can we consider, too, the pedagogical context of the story’s 19th century telling? Fe-fi-fo-fum calls to mind Latin conjugations, those endless hours of schoolroom repetitions most auditors would have endured. How much are we to read the giant as evil because he suggests the tyranny of the schoolmaster? And, as such, how ironic to see the giant as the exemplar of classical learning against the ‘street-smart-aleck’ nature of our You-Only-Live-Once Jack.

Dismissing the Second Climb

1. Call it adventurous, if you will. Call it the impulse of an adolescent free spirit. Call it the inevitable need of the gambler to return after he’s beaten the casino once. I just call it greedy.

2. Give Jack some credit, though, for selecting the hen when he might have settled for a second bag of gold. In so doing he made a bid to establish himself as part of the bourgeoisie. A hen that lays golden eggs promises sustained income, a continual return on investment, rather than a single large payoff. It shows him husbanding resources for the first time, and I use that word “husband” by design: he will have to assume a head-of-the-household role at some point, and even he seems to recognize that swapping cows for beans and climbing stalks into the clouds are unsustainable practices.

3. You’d like to have seen more niftiness to the plan, though. I’m not encouraged for his chances of long-term success when I see him neglecting even modest changes to his approach. Climb, grab, and flee may have been reasonable when he didn’t know what to expect, but for a second venture? Not so much.

On the Final Climb

1. It’s a fairy tale, I get it. And, as such, the number three plays a useful, rhythmic function. Do, do again, and do a third time with complications and resolution. The blues works the same way. Still, even Jack must have sensed he was pushing his luck.

2. Of course the giant was on to Jack. Those in power—and wealth is always a form of power—necessarily use force to retain that power. The giant might conceivably have overlooked the loss of one bag of gold (accounting errors take place in even the most well-run corporations), but he could not ignore the loss of his one and only golden-egg laying hen. Jack left a calling card that second visit, and the giant (as his wealth made clear) was no dummy.

3. As a result, that third trip—made after Jack had already secured his mother’s homestead and provided himself a sustainable livelihood—signaled a showdown. Something would have to give: Jack’s run of good fortune, his liberty to climb to the sky as he liked, or his life.

4. And for a magical golden harp? Please. Short-term financial exigency is one thing, and securing a career as a golden-egg harvester another, but risking your life for art? I just don’t see it. Take just one of those eggs, cash it in, and buy yourself a harp on Earth. Jack’s way is just malicious.

5. I do like the story’s touch, though, that Jack’s song upon the harp put the giant to sleep long enough for him to make his escape. (It’s good he thought to learn his lullabies.) And I hope I don’t seem to contradict myself: art’s not worth risking your life over, but it can sometimes save your life. I’d suggest the difference is crucial.

6. As a final touch, I have to ask: am I the only one frightened at the thought that Jack managed to chop the beanstalk down with only three blows of his axe? As someone afraid of heights myself, I’m agitated after the fact that Jack risked his life on something so high and frail.

The Aftermath

1. What are we supposed to think happens in the Happy Ever After? Does Jack settle into the staid life of a gentleman farmer? I, for one, don’t see it. Not from our Jack. At best I see him moving to the city and doing well for a time in stocks or grain futures. There’d be risk even there, though, since he’d be a mark for every speculator trying to raise capital for a new venture. And that’s not to mention the gold-diggers.

2. And what are we to take from the story itself? There’s no moral, no “The boy who repeatedly risks it all gets the fortune.” I have three sons myself; I’d be disappointed to see any one of them pattern himself after Jack.

3. No, the story works only when we recognize it as something entirely within the realm of story, within the realm of art itself. “Jack and the Beanstalk” has no application in our world, the world of gardens and eager adolescence, and that seems its central point: sometimes a story’s job is nothing more than to give us a glimpse of the world above the clouds. There is nothing outside the text of the story, and it refers only to itself, only to its own dream of a blank page above everything else.

4. So maybe we ought to consider the story process itself as an exchange analogous to the cow-for-beans swap. When we listen to such a tall tale, something so full of wind that it floats, we trade something solid and real: our time and the opportunity to do other things. And what, besides such hot air do we get in return?

5. Let’s call it, then, art of a peculiar and subversive kind. If we could undo the exchange, take back the swap, how might we spend our time elsewhere? Might we apply ourselves to learning basic economic principles? To conjugating Latin verbs? To reviewing literary criticism as it’s developed over the last five decades? I leave it to you to supply other possibilities: it’s your time outside the time of story. What better ways might you spend it?

6. So end with this: I’ll take Jack’s bargain myself, at least for now. That tale I choose to hear, that story I pick up to read, may have no more worth than three ordinary beans. I know I often regret it, but I do keep taking the chance. Because sometimes that man in motley really is offering something magic, and if you’re careful, it just might take you higher than you bargained for and, bewaring giants, the view from there is awfully rich.  

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