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Jack and the Beanstalk

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I was recently speaking to a family member about people, and somehow children’s stories. We somehow got onto the story of Jack and the Beanstalk and related this to modern times. The conversation was super interesting, so I want to try to capture that here.


Using the story from Wikipedia, I will break this story up with various elements of commentary.

Jack, a poor country boy, [..]

We start our story with a poor Country boy. This is a children’s story, and most children tend to be poor, and being from the ‘Country’, this is a ‘simple’ boy. Whilst this is somewhat relatable, it is also happening “somewhere that is not here”.

trades the family cow for a handful of magic beans, [..]

We have all seen a young man make poor investments, thinking it is actually a good long-term investment. It’s obvious to most that the swap of a cow for some magic beans is obviously a poor trade. There is no reason to think they are actually magic at all, and in fact Jack has been conned out of his family’s hard earned cow. Some random stranger simply claims they are magic, and Jack being young and gullible, believes they are.

Worth noting at this point also is that Jack is made aware they are somehow magic, but not in how they are magic. If he is aware of the reward possible, he is definitely not aware of the risk.

This story could just end here, where Jack returns home, tries to grow the beans, finds out they are fake and has no path for recourse. The stranger could then skip town with his new cow and sell it on the market at quite a profit.

Instead, this story takes quite a different turn.

which grow into a massive, towering beanstalk reaching up into the clouds.

We are led to believe that Jack did not know how this magic was going to work. The beans could have killed him, or instantly rewarded him (likely as he expected).

In some recalls of this story, Jack goes home to tell his mother, who tells him off and throws the beans out of the window in frustration. This would be much more relatable to a young man, hence why I believe this version of the story is somewhat popular 1.

Jack climbs the beanstalk [..]

We have this investment that already cost the family their cow, and when he goes to evaluate his investment (by planting it), it turns out it requires more investment. This is most definitely relatable. Everybody has seen somebody or themselves buy something which they thought was a good deal, but then later requires further money or time to get any real value out of the investment. Sometimes this pays off, but often you would have been better off paying more.

Jack, like many young men, does not see this problem initially though. Instead of a bad investment, Jack instead sees a problem to solve, an adventure. What he at first thought was a simple investment, has now turned into a challenge.

Note that in some versions of this story, he has already been scolded by his mother. Given the option of swallowing his pride or taking a risk to prove himself right, he chooses to try and defend his pride: “Look mother, I was right to swap the cow after all!”.

and finds himself in the castle of an unfriendly giant.

This climb, not described well here, is really dangerous. Jack could lose his life with the objective of reclaiming his pride, at the cost of a cow. How many young men out there have lost their lives in meaningless pursuits, for little or no apparent value?

Is his pride over one badly invested cow worth such a risk? During the time this was written, in the 1700’s, a cow was a massive investment. It would provide milk each day, which could either be used for its fat, protein and calorie content, or sold to others. It could even be stored for harder times by churning it to butter, or creating cheese. If the cow was to die, they would eat the cow. This cow could make or break the family’s ability to eat, and he just swapped it for some seemingly worthless beans.

It’s actually now worse than this, not only do they not have a cow, they now have a massive beanstalk up to the clouds. This would cast shade on their crops, potentially damage the land or property, and wreak havoc when it falls.

It now gets worse still, once Jack makes the dangerous journey to the top, he finds an unfriendly giant. Jack in his poor investment has now brought danger in many forms to his family.

The giant senses Jack’s presence and cries,


I smell the blood of an Englishman.

Be he alive, or be he dead,

I’ll grind his bones to make my bread.

There is no denying now that this has been a very poor investment so far. Not only have the family lost their cow, they now have a deadly giant to contend with. For this we can thank Jack’s want of a quick-win to shortcut to success and Jack’s childish sense of adventure, that throws danger out of the window.

Outwitting the giant, Jack is able to retrieve many goods once stolen from his family, including a bag of gold, an enchanted goose that lays golden eggs and a magic golden harp that plays and sings by itself.

Jack apparently outwits the giant, but if we’re honest he gets incredibly lucky. Jack will now go on to learn the wrong lesson: to take enormous risks without considering the possible consequences. It’s exactly this kind of thinking that causes so many young men to go on to repeat their risky actions despite only barely making good of them previously. We call this survivor bias, and the luck eventually runs out.

Want a real world example? According to one study, one third of all lottery winners go bankrupt. People with the high risk habit of gambling (which statistically is a poor choice), have this awful habit reinforced by their winnings. They go onto take part in other high risk behaviour, such as poor investments, and the go on to become bankrupt.

Even if Jack is able to escape the giant at this point, it would only be rewarding this high risk behaviour. In the future he is likely to do something of similar risk, and lose everything he gained. There is an old British saying: “easily given, easily lost”.

Jack then escapes by chopping down the beanstalk.

Jack is aware he is currently in large danger, so decides to chop down the beanstalk. For all he knows, the beanstalk falls and crushes his family or himself to death. Again we see Jack take enormous risk to both himself and those around him.

The giant, who is pursuing him, falls to his death, and Jack and his family prosper.

An incredibly lucky escape. It’s entirely possible the giant could have survived the fall, or thrown down a ladder. He clearly knows what and Englishman is, hence why he knows the name and smell. This is not his first time visiting the ground below.

Whilst Jack and his family seemingly made a really good investment here, it is only by shear luck they got away with this. Jack put himself and his family in very serious danger multiple times within this short story, yet he now becomes a hero, because he undid all the things he did wrong, and somehow made a profit in the end.

If this story were to continue, Jack would likely go on to make other poor investments. I’m sure people for miles around will know that a guy named ‘Jack’ will buy anything at any price you put the word ‘magic’ on. After so many ‘magic shoes’, ‘magic seeds’, and other types of apparently magic objects, Jack has either once again badly invested his fortune, or pursued another high-risk adventure which this time may have resulted in death.


For such a simple story, there is a surprising amount of depth here. As a child I was unaware. Jack seemed somewhat like a hero, but in reality Jack was reckless and will likely lead his family to misfortune in the future.

I don’t want to tell children “be boring, don’t have adventures”, but I also don’t want to see children running in-front of cars or trains, taking high risks for the possibility of some reward. Maybe the child bounces off the train/car and receives some massive payout due to health and safety, but more than likely they will die.

I believe it is important we foster a sense of adventure and curiosity in children, but we should also teach them to think critically and learn from their mistakes. When a child takes a high risk and it pays off this one time, we should still make them consider the alternative likely outcome where the something bad happens.

The family member and I went on to discuss how during modern times we are missing such stories, and that new ones may never be created. Stories are told in modern times, but I suspect none of them (at least the ones I know of) will survive hundreds of years.

  1. This also goes to show that since a long time, women have had an important role within many families, often making decisions and acting freely.↩︎