You got a receipt for that beanstalk, Jack?

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.

bad boy Jack

Let’s hope there’s a reform school at the top of this thing.

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.

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Sole survivor little pig laments brothers’ misfortune

My sons have a Three Little Pigs book. I thought this was the same story I had known as a child. But after reading it for the 300th time, I decided it really isn’t the same story.

It’s like the same story. The pigs build houses out of different materials, and the big, bad wolf summarily blows them down, or not, depending upon the construction rating of the materials. Yet there is one key element missing that makes it completely different from the story I knew.

In the story I recall, the straw pig and the sticks pig were warned that their materials were inadequate in the face of the wolf’s hurricane threat. The pigs go on to use these substandard materials in open mockery of the danger.

In my kids’ book, the pigs are turned out of their mother’s house as young adults, with no discernible construction know-how. They build their respective houses of the first materials they encounter, and they do a fine job, considering their lack of both experience and hands. No one advises them, and they are unaware of the danger posed by the wolf. This small difference changes the entire meaning of the story.

Pigs who are warned about the dangers of cutting corners in their construction projects, make the story about consequences of lazy, negligent decisions. These pigs ignored the risk because taking it into their calculations was inconvenient. They wanted quick and easy housing, so they took out the fairy tale equivalent of interest-only mortgages.

The straw and sticks pigs lived just long enough to realize the error of their ways, because there are no second chances for foolish fairy tale pigs. Their flimsy houses were no protection against the wolf and they were eaten up. This harsh punishment is why it is important to learn life’s lessons quickly.

The third little pig took his time and did it right. Hard-working and conscientious, his reward was not that he became a reality show star, or undeservedly wealthy. His reward was simply that he did not get eaten up. He lived on in the security of his sound judgment and prospered through the sweat of his own brow. But most importantly, he didn’t get eaten up.

There is a clear connection between actions and consequences in this story.

The pigs live

In this Disney film version, the two lazy pigs actually mock the third pig’s industry. They all take refuge in the house of brick and survive. Judging by the wall art, they are more fortunate than their father.

When the pigs are not warned about the quality of their building materials, the end results are much more dependent upon fate than upon the respective decisions of the pigs.

Each of the pigs uses the first building material he finds. No one says, “You know, for a little extra money, you could go with brick and really up your anti-wolf rating.” The material used is the result of happenstance.

The third little pig is just plain lucky. He happens upon a cart of bricks. He acts exactly as the others acted, and his life is saved by circumstance. He is not eaten up only because he was in the right place at the right time.

There is a certain amount of right place, right time in life, but our actions affect the chances of our being in that sweet spot. I don’t want my boys stumbling upon random materials out of which to build their lives, thinking there’s nothing to be gained by doing a little work to find out which is best. Sometimes it feels like the big bad wolf is bound to eat us up no matter what we do. But we have the power to give ourselves a fighting chance, if we work at it.

I’m going to have to warn those pigs myself. I’m going off script, old school. Those pigs will know exactly what they’re getting themselves into. So when two get eaten up, it will still be sad, but we won’t be mourning a tragedy devoid of rhyme or reason.

He was a good bear before Hollywood got to him

As a child, I never took interest in Winnie-the-Pooh. My only exposure to what seemed a hopeless band of anthropomorphic misfits was television. TV convinced me Pooh was merely a chubby ne’er-do-well with no sense or self-discipline, who would accidentally strangle himself if left to his own devices.

His friends were no more interesting. There was some kind of mule with chronic fatigue syndrome, whose pity parties wore thin. There was a pig in a sleeveless jumpsuit, and a boy who looked like he needed to eat some meat and potatoes.

I don’t remember all the characters because I never enjoyed the films. I began avoiding Winnie and his crew. I avoided them without a backward glance for about 40 years.

Then a thoughtful person gave my son a Winnie-the-Pooh storybook. I had never consider Pooh as literature because I’d been turned off by him as television. Having seen what Hollywood did to Tarzan and The Little Mermaid this isn’t surprising.

When my son asked me to read from his Winnie-the-Pooh treasury, I winced. I wanted to make up the story instead of reading it. I wanted to say, “Once upon a time there was this ridiculous bear who only wanted honey, and since he had no sense and he could not control his desires, he got his head stuck in a pot of honey and had to live with his head inside the pot for the rest of his pitiful life. The end. And let that be a lesson to you, young man.”

I did not say this; that would have been lazy parenting, and the boy’s mother was sitting within earshot. I did the honorable thing: I tried persuading the boy he would prefer Green Eggs and Ham. When that failed, I sighed and began reading.

To my surprise, the literary Winnie-the-Pooh is quite well done. This Milne fellow knew how to tell a story with charm. Winnie is not nearly so vacuous as in his films. He makes up witty little songs, and though he possesses less forethought than is to be hoped, he does spend some time on afterthought.

Humble Winnie

They were simple times, before all the glamor and glitz, but they were good times. (Image: E. H. Shepard)

Rabbit’s desire to keep his home free of unwanted visitors is relatable to any middle-aged man. The only thing that would make him more perfect is if he came to the door waving an 80-year-old shotgun he never owned shells for.

I remember Piglet to have been portrayed as cowardly on TV. TV didn’t uncover the real depth of Piglet. Piglet has a keen sense of discretion. He is willing to accompany Pooh in pursuit of a couple of potentially hostile Woozles, but when he and Pooh are outnumbered he reads the writing on the wall. Piglet knows how to count and when to cash out. Now, if only he would cash out of that 1920s bathing suit.

We haven’t met Eeyore yet. No doubt, he will turn out to be a grizzled veteran of the Boer War, suffering from a tail wound and in constant pain from a bullet lodged in his hip. What once seemed like incessant complaining will surely be words of wisdom from a hero of the siege of Kimberley.

Though we got off to a rocky start, I like Pooh now. I like the way his stories are written. There is a unique talent for storytelling in the books. I hope it doesn’t take my boys 40 years to appreciate that.

Discovering the magic of Story

I mentioned last December that I was reading A Christmas Carol to our six-year-old at bedtime. Until then, we’d been reading children’s books. I could knock off a children’s book in under five minutes, kiss him, tuck him in, and be back downstairs without missing too much action from whatever sporting event I was watching.

It was great for me as a sports fan, and it kept up the routine of a bedtime story, but there wasn’t much else to it. Meanwhile, the boy was progressing as a reader in his own right, but he viewed reading as a chore.

As I read him the original version of A Christmas Carol, I noticed he paid more attention, rather than just counting it as time spent with Daddy, and more importantly, a precious delay in bedtime.

Maybe he needed something more engaging than the average children’s book when not doing the hard work of reading himself. Maybe he didn’t enjoy reading because he’d never been hooked on the idea of Story. He’d never been bitten by the bug that makes a person need to know what happens next.

After Christmas, instead of going back to children’s books, we moved on to Grimm’s Fairy Tales. As with Dickens, we stayed away from watered-down versions. We went full-strength, with all its violence and villainy. If you think this is too much ugliness for an innocent first-grader, just listen to a few of them have a conversation or look at what they’re watching on TV.

Admittedly, the lessons of Grimm’s are sometimes questionable. In the story about the shoemaker’s elves, the elves do wonderful favors for the shoemaker, right up until the shoemaker shows his gratitude by leaving them presents. His presents motivate the elves to abandon him, leaving the impression he would have been better off as an ingrate.

But these iffy morals lead to questions. They let us talk about the story, which the children’s books seldom did. They make us think.

I bought a kids’ version of Grimm’s for him to read to me. For a while, reading it was something he wanted to be rewarded for. The other day, he told me he’d read ahead, on his own – something he’s never done before. He’s started reading to me at bedtime.

Grimm's for all ages.

Nighttime reading for father and son.

Maybe he’s just naturally maturing, or maybe he’s discovering the magic of Story; maybe both.

I’m saving Hans Christian Andersen for when we’re done with Grimm’s. I want him to be a practiced listener when we get to Andersen. While many of the lessons of Grimm’s boil down to “Don’t be stupid” or “Watch your back,” Andersen’s morals are often less ambiguous, while at the same time, more complex. There are tales of self-sacrifice, which is not only a good thing to hear once in a while, it usually makes for an interesting story.

Hans

Give us a little magic to dream on, Mr. Andersen.

Hans Christian Andersen resides in my personal Pantheon of Storytellers. I’m not sure how comfortable he is there, wedged between Twain and Thurber, but that’s his problem. I’m hoping he can foster a love of Story in my son, and maybe even get him to like reading a little. You’ve got to admire anybody who’s still giving out gifts 140 years after his death.