I’ve written about reading to my kids an edition of The Three Little Pigs that completely ditched any concept of personal responsibility, making the two pig casualties simple victims of fate. The latest fairy tale to make me wonder about its lessons is Jack and the Beanstalk.
As with the pigs, Jack comes in many versions. The one we read was a Golden Books edition, which I think are supposed to be the standard for children’s classics. I hope I’m wrong about this, and there is a Jack with better morals out there.
Jack makes bad choices, but benefits from them. He is absolved of his poor bargaining decisions because of a freak bit of luck. There’s no way he should have traded his cow for a few beans. His mother was right to give him hell about it. Out of a thousand kids who traded for magic beans, 999 of them went to bed hungry and rose hungry the next day, and that was the end of it.
It was pure luck that Jack happened upon the only trader offering legitimate magic beans. This happenstance made a stupid decision look good. It made his mother look like an overbearing scold, when she was really the sensible one. We never hear about Jimmy and the Beanstalk, or Stanley and the Beanstalk. You know why? Because their magic beans were hoaxes. They got spanked and sent to bed. In the morning, they ate dirt for breakfast. No happy ending there.
Jack gets lucky. In the morning there is a giant beanstalk outside his window. Jack climbs it up into the clouds – probably not the wisest decision, but I’ll give him a pass on that one. At the top, he finds a castle. He goes inside. I would too.
Inside the castle, Jack discovers a giant. This giant has two noteworthy possessions: a goose capable of laying golden eggs and a magic harp. Without any hemming or hawing, Jack decides to steal these things. Jack spends so little time weighing the morality of this theft that we cannot tell if he would act similarly in a neighbor’s house, or if this is a special case because giants are different and therefore okay to steal from.
Jack hurries down the beanstalk with his booty. Naturally, the giant chases him. In some versions, Jack chops down the beanstalk; in this one the beanstalk falls of its own accord. This is a relief, since it negates the burden of explaining to my children why Jack stole from the giant and then murdered him. The theft issue is quite enough.
But it’s really not so bad. You see, unbeknownst to Jack, the giant stole the goose and harp from Jack’s dear departed father. It was justice in the end, expunging Jack’s crime of stealing. Again, dumb luck bailed out Jack. Though Jack stole from pure greed, the giant’s estate couldn’t press charges because the items were pilfered by their rightful owner. It all makes me wonder from whom Jack’s father stole the stuff in the first place.
Legally, Jack is off the hook. Morally? Well, that’s a discussion you’ll have to have with your child.