The story of "Jack and the Beanstalk" seems to be an amalgamation of many of the giant-killing stories such as "Jack the Giant Killer" (which has its links to Arthurian lore), and the tale of "The Brave Little Tailor".
Jack and his widowed mother are a poor family with nothing to their name but the family cow. When the last of their money finally runs out Jack's mother sends him into town to sell their cow at the local village. On the way, however, Jack meets a mysterious stranger who offers him five magic beans in exchange for the cow. Jack accepts the offer and brings the beans home to his mother. Needless to say she is furious and throws the beans out the window. Overnight the beans grow into a massive beanstalk that stretches onwards up into the clouds. Jack decides to climb the beanstalk and when he reaches the top finds a massive castle. He sneaks into the castle to find that it is the home to a Giant, who says:
I smell the blood of an Englishman.
Be he 'live, or be he dead,
I'll grind his bones to make my bread.
Jack is about to run but he sees a bag of the giant's gold, which he quickly nicks before fleeing back down the beanstalk.
The next day Jack, remembering all the other treasures up the top of the beanstalk, decides to give it another crack. He climbs back up and into the giant's castle. Once again the Giant's nose gives him the tip-off that there is a human around, but the Giant's wife hides Jack in the oven until her husband falls asleep. Jack sneaks out, but on his way grabs the goose that lays the golden eggs and takes it with him.
On the third day Jack decides to head up the beanstalk again. His mother pleads with him not to go, but Jack chooses to give it one more time. When he reaches the castle the Giant pulls out a little golden harp that plays music by itself. The soft music lulls the Giant to sleep, then Jack sneaks out and snatches the Harp. But the Harp doesn't like the idea of being stolen and cries out to the Giant, waking him up. The Giant chases Jack down the beanstalk, but Jack reaches the bottom first, grabs an ax and chops down the beanstalk, killing the giant.
The first known printed version of "Jack and the Beanstalk" dates from 1734 and was called "The Story of Jack Spriggins and the Enchanted Bean". Of the numerous variants of the tale printed in the 19th century, the one by Joseph Jacobs (1890) is the most popular (read it here).
Many critics of this story like to point out Jack is a petty thief, who also kills the Giant he robbed. Some versions justify his actions by various means, such as adding a bit about how the Giant killed Jack's father and/or that the Giant stole most of his treasure in the first place. In the latter retellings, such as in Fun and Fancy Free, the Harp is explicitly eager to be liberated from the Giant and helps Jack (or his stand-in) in any way she can. At other times this story gets the Fractured Fairy Tale treatment, showing Jack as a jerk of a robber.
This folk tale provides examples of:
- Adapted Out: A lot of adaptations tend to leave the Giant's wife out.
- Adaptation Species Change: Many versions feature a hen instead of a goose. A few replace the giant with an ogre.
- Anti-Hero: However you look at it, the protagonist goes from gullible fool to thief to killer (albeit in self-defense) over the course of the story.
- Deconstruction: Stephen Sondheim's Into the Woods, Brian Henson's Jack and the Beanstalk: The Real Story and (briefly) Terry Pratchett's Hogfather all have a go at Jack.
- Disappeared Dad: According to most tellings, Jack's mother is a widow.
- Disney Villain Death: Jack kills the Giant by cutting down the beanstalk, making the Giant fall to his death.
- Floating Continent: The Giant's cloud castle.
- Giant Food: Whatever the giant's wife feeds him qualifies.
- Hard Truth Aesop:
- The moral of the story seems to be that you should totally give away something that has a lot of worth for something that seems worthless, because it might pay off by giving you immense wealth.
- There's an animated Fractured Fairy Tale version that portrays Jack's mother as constantly thwarting her son's efforts to enrich them by stealing magical money-making devices from a cruel and magical millionaire, ultimately leaving them both as poor as ever as the narrator openly proclaims honesty and principles are not inherently rewarding.
- I'm a Humanitarian: Perhaps the giant and the witch from "Hansel and Gretel" swap recipes.
- Journey to the Sky: The tale consists of Jack climbing the magical beanstalk that grew overnight out of a set of magical beans he obtained by trading a cow he was supposed to sell for money. When Jack reaches the top, he discovers a castle inhabited by giants.
- Mysterious Benefactor: The man with the beans.
- No Good Deed Goes Unpunished: The giant's wife lets Jack into her home, gives him food and helps him hide from her husband. In return, he steals from her home and eventually kills her husband.
- No Name Given: The Giant.
- The Nose Knows: For most of the tale, the giant's sole indication Jack is there is his scent.
- Our Giants Are Bigger: This variety of giant lives in gravity-defying castles in the clouds.
- Politically Incorrect Villain: The giant hates Englishmen.
- Rule of Three: Gold, Goose and Harp.
- Sell What You Love: Jack and his mother are forced to sell their family cow to make enough money to live. Instead of getting cash for the cow, Jack trades the cow for magic beans.
- Signature Instrument: The giant owns a harp that plays itself on command and lulls him to sleep. A plot point involves Jack stealing it.
- Space Elevator: The magic beanstalk.
- Wealthy Ever After: Jack's happy ending entails getting (or reclaiming) riches from his adventure.
Adaptations with their own trope pages include:
- Jack and the Beanstalk: The Real Story
- Into the Woods, a Stephen Sondheim musical that combines it with several other fairy stories
- Fun and Fancy Free: The Disney version, with a certain mouse playing the part of Jack.
- Jack and the Beanstalk (1974): Anime version of the story from the '70s.
- Puss in Boots: The Shrek Spin-Off has Puss involved in a plot to get the magic beans and use them to get the goose that lays gold eggs.
- Although not a true adaptation, this Jack is a supporting character and love interest in Rapunzel's Revenge.
- Alluded to in the Green Bean Casserole episode of Good Eats. The Giant is upset with Alton, but is appeased by Alton's casserole. Apparently, the Giant is also something of a Henpecked Husband.
- The 2013 film Jack the Giant Slayer.
- The original Harvest Moon game had a part where you could grow a giant beanstalk. This led to fans calling the protagonist, and almost every other male protagonist, "Jack" — despite the fact that his Canon Name is "Pete".
- Fragments of the tale appear in Once Upon a Time, where Prince James and a gender-bent Jack climb the beanstalk in order to rob the giants and kill them all and the last surviving giant is a human-enthusiast. The Beanstalk still stands in the middle of the enchanted forest long after the events of the tale have passed.
- The Doctor Who Expanded Universe book Time Lord Fairy Tales retells this as "Jack and the Wormhole", in which Jack is more of a straight-up hero as the story is also a Twice-Told Tale retelling of the Fourth Doctor serial "The Horns of Nimon".
- Jack is also the title character in the sixth Dark Parables game, Jack and the Sky Kingdom, which paints him as something of a Robin Hood-wannabe and a Lovable Rogue. He assists the Fairy Tale Detective in getting to the Sky Kingdom via the beanstalk, as he left something rather important there when he went treasure hunting there ten years earlier. That something would be his fiancee, Emma. Like all of the Dark Parables, the story connects multiple fairy tales; in this case, Jack's story is joined to that of Rumpelstiltskin and also Tom Thumb. He later returns to also be part of the action in the tenth game, Goldilocks and the Fallen Star.
- Nursery Crime's hero Jack Sprat is a "Person of Dubious Reality (PDR)" who is both the giant killer and the Jack Sprat who "ate no fat," which he has kept secret from his family and friends. When asked why his role spans two nursery rhymes, he says that it's a matter of economy. Throughout the book he also regularly points out that only one of the giants he killed was an actual giant; the rest were just tall.
- Jack makes several appearances in Super Why! This version of him has been age lifted to a teenager (at least 18, since one episode shows him going to college), and gives him a family; parents, a little brother, Whyatt (the main protagonist), and a baby sister, Joy.
- "Jasper and the Beanstalk", a Puppetoons stop-motion short in which a more innocent African-American boy named Jasper plays the Jack role.
- "The House That Jack Built" is a mashup that combines this story with the nursery rhyme "The House That Jack Built".