From Giant-Killer to Beanstalk: When English Jack hit North American via the Appalachians, many Jack stories flourished. The cycle of Jack Tales from Appalachia derive primarily from Grimm, but most scholars credit chapbook Jack the Giant-Killer for the story that we are familiar with as Jack and the Beanstalk. As Children's Literature historian Jack Zipes states in The Oxford Companion to Fairy Tales, the story changes “English Hasty Pudding into American mush, but ends identically to its English forbears.” (p. 268).
There are many Jack stories and Jack and the Beanstalk stories--these originated in Cornwall and are probably Celtic in origin and are interwoven in part with King Arthur tales and feature giants prominently. Some of these bear little resemblance to the gory chapbook tales of Jack the Giant-Killer. Peter and Iona Opie, well-known collectors of early children’s street and nursery rhymes and stories note that Jack was an established figure in the 18th century.
The earliest origins: Jack Spriggins and the Enchanted Bean appeared in a story collection in 1734, with an unarmed giant! Jack and the Beanstalk (as a distinct title) first appeared in print in 1807. It featured a fairy woman who told Jack that the giant had robbed and killed his father. Published by bookseller Benjamin Tabart, this fairytale offering differed from so much of the children’s literature of the time period in not being extremely moralistic, but it did offer justifications for Jack’s actions. The story was included in a collection of tales in 1842, the Home Treasury, but achieved great popularity in 1890 when Joseph Jacobs revisited it in his still-read English Fairy Tales and Andrew Lang included it in his also-still-available Red Fairy Book. Jacobs sited the story in Cornwall and named his giant Blunderbore, a name used in the 1807 version, but he made some other changes that render the story much closer to the original oral tradition of the tale—much less didactic.
The gory strain appears in variants here and there early on, with giants sometimes reminiscent of Blue Beard (kidnapped women who must eat their husbands or die). The choice of weapons varies as well. The pick ax, which is depicted in our Nesbitt chapbook, is an implement common to Cornwall.