An Australian Version of ‘Jack and the Beanstalk’

This is my own version of ‘Jack and the Beanstalk’, more or less transcribed from the way I tell it when storytelling (I have edited it to make it read better). My telling was originally based on Joseph Jacobs’ version (Tale 13 in English Fairy Tales [1890]. Jacobs, who grew up in Sydney, says in his endnotes, “I tell this as it was told me in Australia, somewhere about the year 1860.”). Much of the language of Jacobs’ version remains in my version. It is possible to read his text with either an English or Australian accent. Both fit the language he uses. Over successive oral retellings, I found myself bringing out the Australian reading with the addition of a few distinctively Aussie expressions and imagery drawn from the Australian bush yarn tradition. Then one day, during a long car trip with children in the back seat, my telling extended to include a drought that was afflicting Jack and his mother, a rich squatter who dammed the creek upstream of their selection, and an ogre who used his magic harp to stop the rain falling. My children then continued to request repeats of this version, so some of the drought theme has remained in successive versions. I have included some of the physical gestures and non-verbal sounds that I make while telling the story to an audience. These are written in italics, usually inside square brackets.

Jack and the Beanstalk

There was once upon a time a poor widow who had an only son named Jack, and a cow named Milky-white, and all they had to live on was the milk the cow gave every morning. They lived in an old bark hut, out in the bush where the tall gum trees stand.

Every morning, Jack was up with the kookaburras, bright and early, and he’d pull on his strides and pull on his coat [mimes pulling on trousers and coat], and he’s out to the paddocks to find Milky-white and bring her in for milking. He’d milk her into an old tin billy can (squirt, squirt, squirt, squirt [milking gesture with hands]) and then bring it inside, usually with a couple of ticks and a grasshopper floating in it. (“Strain ’em out with yer teeth,” says his mother. “They won’t hurt yer.”) While Jack was out with the cow, his mother would have got the fire going and walloped up a damper or some johnnie-cakes for breakfast. Jack’d set the billy on the fire to scald the milk, and all the cream’d rise to the top. They’d scrape that off and that’d do them for butter for their bread. The milk they didn’t drink in their tea they’d haul into town to sell, and that was what they lived on.

But it had been a very dry year and even the spring rains had failed, and Milky-white’s pasture was looking pretty dry and dusty. It wasn’t long before there was no feed left for Milky-white, and one morning she gave no milk at all. Then they knew they were in trouble.

“What shall we do, what shall we do?” said the widow, wringing her hands.

“Cheer up, mother, I’ll go and get work somewhere,” said Jack.

“We’ve tried that before, and nobody would take you,” said the widow; “They said you were too young to be doing a man’s work. There’s nothing else for it – we must sell Milky-white.”

“All right, mother,” says Jack; “there’s an auction down at the sale yards today. I’ll sell Milky-white, and then we’ll see what we can do.”

So he took the cow’s halter in his hand, and off he started. He hadn’t gone far when he met an old swagman, who said to him: “Gooday, Jack.”

“Gooday, yerself,” said Jack, and wondered how he knew his name.

“Well, Jack, and where are you off to?” said the swaggie.

“I’m off to the sale yards to sell our cow there.”

“Oh, you look the proper sort of fella to sell cows,” said the man; “Bet you don’t know how many beans make five.”

“Two in each hand and one in your mouth,” says Jack, as sharp as a needle.

“Right you are,” says the man, “and here they are, the very beans themselves,” he went on, pulling out of his pocket a number of strange-looking beans. “As you are so sharp,” says he, “I don’t mind doing a swap with you – your cow for these beans.”

“Go along,” says Jack; “wouldn’t you like that?”

“Ah! you don’t know what these beans are,” said the man; “if you plant them overnight, by morning they grow right up to the sky.”

“Really?” said Jack; “you don’t say so.”

“Too right! And if it doesn’t turn out to be true you can have yer cow back.”

“Alright,” says Jack, and hands him over Milky-white’s halter and pockets the beans.

Back goes Jack home, whistling a tune and rattling the beans in his pocket. [whistles ‘The Black Cat Piddled in the White Cat’s Eye’ and mimes wiggling hands in pockets].

“Back already, Jack?” says the widow. “How much d’you get for old Milky-white?”

“You’ll never guess, mother,” says Jack.

“Oh, you don’t say. You must have done well,” says the widow, getting all excited “What was it? Five pounds? Ten? Fifteen? It couldn’t have been twenty, could it?”

“Told you you couldn’t guess. Have a look at these beans,” and he pulls them out of his pocket and puts them into the widow’s hand. She stared at them with her mouth getting wider and wider. “They’re magical,” he says. “Plant them one night and next mornin’…”

“What?” says the widow. “You gave away Milky-white, the best milker in this part of the country, and prime beef at that, for a useless set of beans?” And she grabbed the wooden spoon by the stove and started laying into the back of Jack’s legs with all her might. “Take that! Take that! Take that! That should knock some sense into you. And as for your blummin’ beans…” and she threw them out the door as far as she could. “Now get out of my sight. Get to bed. It’ll be the hungry gut for you tonight, and that’s more than you deserve.”

So Jack trudged off to his little bed of straw in one corner of the hut, grumbling to himself, both with his hollow belly and with his wounded feelings, hurt that his mother had not given the beans a fair go, until at last he dropped off to sleep.

When he woke up, the hut looked different from usual. The sun was shining into part of it, and yet all the rest was quite dark and shady. Jack jumped up, pulled on his strides and pulled on his coat [mimes pulling on clothes], and stepped out of the door of the hut to see what was doing. And what do you reckon he saw? Well, the beans his mother had thrown out the door the night before had come good. And I don’t mean just normal-sized bean plants. This beanstalk was as big around as a Murray River red gum, and taller than the mightiest mountain ash in the Highlands of Victoria. Jack looked up and up [looks up] until he just about cricked his neck, and still he couldn’t see the top.

“Well,” he thinks, “I’d better see if the swaggie was telling the truth about it getting up to the sky.” So he took hold of one of the leaf stalks, set his foot on another, and he climbed that beanstalk like you’d climb a ladder [mimes climbing]. And he climbed and he climbed and he climbed and he climbed and he climbed and he climbed and he climbed, till at last he reached the sky.

And when he got there he saw a long straight track going off into the far distance. “Nothing ventured, nothing gained,” thinks Jack, and he set one foot in front of the other and started off tramping down the track. And he tramped and he tramped and he tramped till he came to a big tall homestead, with a big wide verandah, and a big tall door at the back of that verandah. And coming through that big tall door was a big tall woman.

Jack steps up to her, bold as brass. “Goodday, mum,” he says, polite as you like. “You couldn’t spare me a bite to eat, could you?” ‘Cause you’ll remember he hadn’t had any tea the night before, and he was hungry as a hunter.

“It’s breakfast you want, is it?” says the great big tall woman. “It’s breakfast you’ll be if you don’t move on from here. My old man’s an ogre, and there’s nothing he likes better than boys broiled on toast for his breakfast. You’d better hightail it out of here before he gets back from the paddocks.”

“Oh, please, mum, give us just a little bit, mum. I’ve had nothing to eat since yesterday morning, fair dinkum, mum,” says Jack. “I may as well be broiled as die of hunger.”

Well, the ogre’s missus wasn’t so hard-hearted after all. Looks like the custom of giving rations out to hungry travelers was known even up the beanstalk. So she took Jack into the kitchen and gave him a hunk of bread and some dripping to spread on it, and some tea to wash it down with. But Jack was only half way through his tucker when…           Thump!          Thump!          Thump!          [The “Thumps” are spoken in a sing-song voice, rising to the fourth note on the middle “Thump”, then back down to the tonic for the last.] The ground shook and the house shook to the sound of giant footsteps coming closer.

“Heaven help us! It’s my old man,” said the ogre’s wife. “What on earth shall I do? Come along quick and jump in here,” and she bundled Jack into the oven just as the ogre came in.

He was a big bastard, no question. He was carrying a whole bullock under his arm, and he slung this down on the kitchen floor and said, “Here, wife, cook this up for me breakfast.” Then he stopped stock still and sniffed the air.

[Sniff] “Fee [sniff] Fie [sniff] Foe [sniff] Fum,

I smell the blood of an Englishman,

Be he alive, or be he dead,

I’ll have his bones to grind my bread.”

“Do you, dearie?” says the big tall woman. “It must be the leftovers of that little boy you had for tea last night. They’re still in the chook bucket, y’know. Now you sit down and I’ll cook up yer breakfast.”

So the ogre sat down and before long his wife plonked a whole roast bullock on the table in front of him and he ate it up in one sitting.

Then he sung out, “Wife. Bring me one of my sacks of gold.” And she brought a sack that jingled when she plonked it onto the table. The ogre tips it out onto the table and out poured a whole lot of gold nuggets as big and bright as any of the nuggets from the mines at Ballarat. Then the ogre started counting them back into the sack. “One, two, three, four…” [mimes lifting and placing the gold from table to sack]. But soon his eyelids started to droop, and his head started to nod [nods head], and before too long he was stretched back in his chair [leans back in chair] and snoring so loud that the whole house shook.

Then Jack opened the door of the oven just a crack, and he saw that the coast was clear. So he snuck out of the oven as quiet as a mouse and crept across the kitchen floor up to the table. As quiet as he could, he lifted the sack of gold and tucked it under his arm [mimes lifting sack and tucking it under arm], and he was off and away out of the door before you could say “Jack Robinson.”

Then he bolted down the track as fast as his legs’d carry him, swung down onto the beanstalk, and he climbed down that beanstalk as fast as a possum down a gumtree. And he climbed down and climbed down and climbed down and climbed down and climbed down and climbed down and climbed down [mimes climbing down], until he could see down below him the big sheet of bark that did for the roof of his mother’s hut. He jumped off the beanstalk onto the hard, dry earth and called out, “Mother, Mother. Come and have a look at this.” And he showed his mother the sack of gold. “Now I’ll be able to buy us a new cow and a new house and maybe a horse and gig for getting into town…”

But the widow said, “Steady on, Jack. We don’t want to blow this all at once. We’ve got to make it last, ‘cause we don’t know where the next one’s coming from.” So they lived carefully, taking one nugget to the bank at a time when they needed money. But before too long there were only four nuggets left, then there were only three, then two and then one. Then Jack knew he’d have to try his luck up the beanstalk again.

So the next morning, he was up with the kookaburras, bright and early. He pulled on his strides and pulled on his coat [mimes pulling on trousers and coat].and stepped out of the door of the hut into the morning light. He took hold of one of the leaf stems of the beanstalk, set his foot on another, and he climbed up that beanstalk like you’d climb a ladder. [mimes climbing] And he climbed and he climbed and he climbed and he climbed and he climbed and he climbed and he climbed, until he reached the sky. And there was the long straight track stretching away into the distance. So Jack set one foot in front of the other and he started off tramping. And he tramped and he tramped and he tramped, until he came to the big tall house with the big wide verandahs and the big tall door at the back of the verandah. And coming through the door just at that moment was the big tall woman.

Up steps Jack, bold as brass. “Good morning, mum,” he says, same as before. “You couldn’t spare us a bite to eat, could you?”

“Go away, young fella,” says the big tall woman, “or else my old man will eat you up for breakfast.” Then she looks at him with narrowed eyes. “Hold your horses – aren’t you the young fella who came here a few months back? Y’know, last time you was here, one of my old man’s bags of gold went missing.”

“Is that so, mum?” says Jack. “I might be able to tell you a bit about that, but I’m that hungry, I can hardly speak unless you can spare us a bite to eat.”

Well that got her attention, and she was so curious that she took him in and gave him some bread and dripping to eat. But he had only had a couple of bites, munching as slow as he could, when… Thump!          Thump!             Thump!     The ground shook and the house shook, and the big tall woman bundled Jack into the oven as quick as she could.

In came the ogre and slung a whole bullock down on the kitchen floor same as last time, saying, “Here wife. Cook this up for me breakfast.” But it wasn’t long before he got a whiff of Jack, and he started in sniffing the air again:

“[Sniff] Fee [sniff] fi [sniff] fo [sniff] fum,

I smell the blood of an Englishman,

Be he alive, or be he dead,

I’ll have his bones to grind my bread.”

“Do you, dearie?” says his wife. “Must be the leftovers from that child you had for tea the other night. Come on. Sit down and I’ll get you a feed.” So the ogre sat down and it before too long, the big tall woman had the bullock cooked for him, put it down in front of him, and he ate the whole animal at a single sitting.

Then he called out, “Wife, bring me the chook that lays the golden eggs.” And the big tall woman came in with a chook under her arm and plonked it onto the table in front of the ogre. He pointed his finger at the chook [points finger]. “Lay,” he said, and the chook laid a golden egg, that shone like the biggest nugget that ever came out of the Ballarat gold mines. The ogre rolled that egg around and around the table with his fingers [mimes rolling egg around on tabletop], until his eyelids started drooping and his head started nodding [nods head] and before long he was leant back in his chair [leans back in chair] and snoring so loud that the whole house shook.

Then Jack peeped out of the oven and he saw that the coast was clear. So he snuck out of the oven and crept across the kitchen floor as quiet as a mouse till he came to the ogre’s table. Then, quiet as he could, he lifted the chook and tucked it under his arm [mimes picking up chook and tucking it under arm], and he’s off and away out of the door as quick as you could “Jack Robinson.” But just as he was slipping out the door, the chook gave a cackle and the ogre woke up with a snort. And as he legged it down the track, Jack heard him singing out, “Wife! Wife! Where’s me chook gone?” But Jack was running as fast as his legs could carry him, and he didn’t hear any more. Then he reached the beanstalk, and swung down onto it, and he climbed down that beanstalk like a possum down a gumtree. And he climbed down and climbed down and climbed down and climbed down and climbed down and climbed down and climbed down, until he could see the bark roof of his mother’s hut below him. And he jumped off the beanstalk onto the solid earth and sung out, “Mother, mother. Come and have a look at this.” And he showed her the chook.

“That’s a nice fat Isa Brown,” she said. “She should be a good layer.”

“She is. Have a look at this,” says Jack, and he pointed at the chook and said, “Lay!” And the chook laid a golden egg. His mother couldn’t believe her eyes. She was very pleased with Jack.

Well they lived very comfortably on the money they got from taking those golden eggs to the bank, but Jack couldn’t stop thinking about what else he would find at the top of the beanstalk. He thought he’d try his luck one more time. So one morning, he got up with the kookaburras, bright and early, and pulled on his strides and pulled on his coat [mimes pulling on trousers and coat], and stepped out of the door and up to the beanstalk. He took hold of one leaf stalk and set his foot on another, and he climbed that beanstalk like you’d climb a ladder [mimes climbing ladder]. And he climbed and he climbed and he climbed and he climbed and he climbed and he climbed and he climbed, until he reached the sky. And there was the long straight track in front of him, so he set one foot in front of the other and got walking down it. And he tramped along and tramped along and tramped along, until he came to the big tall house with the big wide verandahs and the big tall door at the back of the verandah. But this time, Jack didn’t wait for the big tall woman to come out of the big tall door. He hid in the scrub until he saw the big tall woman come out and carry the chook bucket round the corner of the house.

Then Jack nipped up the steps and in through the kitchen door and hid himself as quick as he could. But he didn’t hide in the oven this time. He looked around and saw the copper, a big tub people used to use for boiling up the clothes on washing day, sitting upside-down in the corner of the kitchen. It was big enough for Jack to fit in it, so he lifted up the edge and climbed underneath. He was just in time, too, cause that minute, the door opened and the big tall woman came in, and not long after…      Thump!          Thump!          Thump!   … the ground shook and the house shook, and in came the ogre carrying a bullock by the tail. He slung it down on the kitchen floor and said, “Wife, cook me this up for my breakfast. [Sniff] Hold your horses…

“[Sniff] Fee [sniff] fi [sniff] fo [sniff] fum,

I smell the blood of an Englishman,

Be he alive, or be he dead,

I’ll have his bones to grind my bread.”

“Do you dearie,” says the big tall woman. “Well if it’s that little beggar who was here last time, he’ll be hiding in the oven.” And they both rushed over to the oven and opened the door, but Jack wasn’t there. Then they looked under the table – no Jack – behind the chair – no Jack – in the pantry – no Jack. They looked everywhere they could think he’d be hiding, but they didn’t think of looking under the copper. Jack thanked his lucky stars.

“There you go again with your fee-fi-fo-fum,” she said. “You’re probably just smelling the leftovers of the boy you had for tea last night. Sit down and I’ll cook you yer breakfast.”

So the ogre sat down and it wasn’t long before the big tall woman brought out that whole roast bullock and plonked it down in front of him, and he ate at a single sitting. Then he sung out, “Wife! Wife! Bring me my magic autoharp. Those clouds out there are holding a lot of water and we’d better make sure that none of it falls to earth.”

Well Jack heard that, and his ears pricked up. Then the big tall woman brought out an autoharp that shone like solid gold and plonked it down in front of the ogre. He pointed at it and said, “Sing them songs to stop the rains.”

“Oho!” thinks Jack to himself. “So that’s why it’s been so dry down our way lately.”

Then the autoharp started to play all by itself, the strings strumming with no one touching ‘em and the keys going up and down like an invisible hand was working ‘em. And the most beautiful clear chords rang out, like the singing of the stars on a still clear night in the desert. And before too long the ogre’s eyelids start drooping, his head starts nodding, and he leant back in his chair snoring so loud that the whole house shook.

Then Jack peeps out from under the copper and saw that the coast was clear, and out he comes, quiet as a mouse, and snuck across the kitchen floor to the ogre’s table. The autoharp was still strumming away, and Jack thought, “I can’t let the ogre keep this weather magic and stop us from getting our rain like this.” So, as carefully as he could, he lifted the autoharp and tucked it under his arm. And he was off and away before you could say, “Jack Robinson.” But just as he was going through the door, the autoharp sings out, “Master! Master!”

The ogre wakes up with a snort and jumps to his feet. Then Jack knew the chase was on and he bolted as fast as his legs would carry him. Jack had the head-start on the ogre, but the ogre’s legs were longer, and he would have caught Jack if Jack hadn’t been ducking and dodging into the bush on either side of the track. The ogre couldn’t get his big body through the trees and bushes as fast as Jack, so Jack managed to stay just out of his reach. Even so, the ogre got closer and closer to Jack, and he was just reaching out to grab Jack by the back of his collar, when Jack suddenly dropped down and out of sight.

The ogre stopped running in surprise and looked down to see where Jack had gone, and there he saw Jack climbing down that beanstalk like a possum down a gumtree. Well, the ogre didn’t like to trust his weight to such a ladder, so he stood up the top for long enough to give Jack another head-start. But then the blessèd old autoharp sings out, “Master! Master!” again, and the ogre swung his legs over the edge and onto the beanstalk. Jack felt the beanstalk shiver and shake, and looked up to see the ogre’s great hobnailed boots coming down fast over his head. So he got a wriggle on.

Well, Jack climbed down, and the ogre climbed down, and Jack climbed down, and the ogre climbed down, and Jack climbed down, and the ogre climbed down, and Jack climbed down, and the ogre climbed down, and Jack climbed down, and the ogre climbed down, and Jack climbed down, and the ogre climbed down, and Jack climbed down, and the ogre climbed down, until he could see the roof of his mother’s hut below him. “Mother! Mother!” he sung out at the top of his lungs. “Bring out the axe. Bring out the axe.”

His mother come out of the hut with the axe, but when she looked up and saw the legs of the giant climbing down through the clouds she stopped stock still in fright. But Jack was close enough to the ground, and he jumped off the beanstalk and grabbed the axe from his mother. He swung it at the beanstalk as hard as he could and chopped it half way through. The ogre felt the beanstalk shiver and shake, and looked down to see Jack with the axe swung back for the second stroke. “Stop! Stop!” he yelled, but Jack didn’t stop, and the next stroke he struck chopped that beanstalk clean in two. Down it came with an almighty crash, and the ogre came tumbling after. And he hit the ground that hard that the dust came up like a Darling River dust storm. But he’d broken his crown, and never got up again, and Jack and his mother breathed a sigh of relief.

Then Jack showed his mother the golden autoharp, and told her about it singing the song that stopped the rains. “I wonder if it plays songs that’ll bring the rains,” said the widow. So Jack said to the autoharp, “I’m your new master now. Sing a song to make it rain.” And the autoharp started playing by itself again, but this time the song it sang sounded like the dinging and danging of fat drops of rain on a tin roof after a baking hot day at the end of a long dry spell, the sort of sound that’ll make country people look up in wonder from whatever they’re doing and sing out, “You little ripper! Send ’er down, Hughie!” And sure enough, the clouds burst and the rain came down in sheets, and Jack and his mother put their heads down and bolted for the hut. And they stood there looking out the door at the rain pouring down like a waterfall, with the steam rising off their clothes, laughing.

After that, they didn’t want for rain, or for just the right amount of sunshine, and the pasture and crops grew like billy-o. And with the money they made from selling the golden eggs they soon bought another milk cow, and though she never gave as much milk as Milky-white, they had plenty of other ways to put food on the table. And the golden autoharp, when it wasn’t singing weather songs, played some good old-time tunes whenever they felt like having a bit of a knees-up or a sing-song of an evening. So they never wanted for anything again, and both of ’em lived happy ever after.

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