All over the world there are myths and legends concerning beings of human appearance but prodigious size and strength, commonly referred to as giants. Fairy tales such as Jack and the Beanstalk have formed our modern perception of giants as stupid and violent monsters, frequently said to eat humans. In cultures as diverse as ancient Greece, Scandinavia and the Indian subcontinent, giants are almost invariably associated with chaos, wild nature and conflict with both gods and heroes. The overwhelmingly negative nature of the lore concerning giants, as well as its ubiquity across the world in otherwise totally unrelated nations, seems to suggest that there is a germ of truth in the old tales. Was there, perhaps, at one stage in the dim and distant past a gigantic, brutal race that walked the earth, oppressing humanity and giving rise to dark race-memories that ever since have forever made the giant a figure of fear and loathing? The sacred texts of many different religions almost uniformly equate giants with evil. In the Bible there is the tale of David and Goliath; In the Vedas and Puranas there are the Daityas, who fought the Hindu gods known as Devas; and in the Jewish Torah further giants are reported, including the Anakites, the Emites and the Rephaites. There are the occasional ‘big friendly giants’ that appear in the books of Roald Dahl and others but by and large in literature these more benign examples of the species are overshadowed by the sinister connotations of beings such as Anne Rice’s Taltos. Another view of giants is that they symbolise immense primal forces, neither good nor bad, but simply larger than life in every way.
While Greek giants could be ‘gentle’ guardians, such as Talos, the gigantic bronze man who defended the island of Crete, others, such as Geryon, were predators, preying on unwary travellers. The race of one-eyed giants known as Cyclopes, meanwhile, were initially regarded as creative craftsmen who helped the smith god Hephaestus in his volcanic forge, crafting special armour, such as Hades’ helm of invisibility, the thunderbolt of Zeus and Poseidon’s trident. Yet they were also portrayed as lawless, rebellious shepherds, such as Polyphemus in Homer’s Odyssey, who ignored divine laws and preyed on mortals. The brother of Polyphemus was Orion, a gigantic and handsome hunter, who could walk through the oceans with his feet on the seabed and his head above the waves. He was raised to the stars upon his death to form a constellation. According to the poet Hesiod, the gigantes were the children of the Titans Tartarus, lord of the Pit, and Gaia, the earth mother. They were involved in a conflict with the Olympian gods called the Gigantomachy, which they lost. The Greeks believed some of them, like Enceladus, to lay buried from that time under the earth and that their tormented quivers resulted in earthquakes and volcanic eruptions. Another giant was Atlas, who bore the heavens on his shoulders as punishment for having fought against Zeus with the other Titans.
The British Isles are sometimes referred to as the land of the giants and Celtic mythology is full of tales of giants, both good and bad. All over Britain and Ireland, giants were believed to have built the remains of previous civilisations: the Old English poem Seafarer speaks of the high stone walls that were the work of giants; the massive basalt columns of the Giant’s Causeway on the coast of Northern Ireland were attributed to construction by giants; and stories of how giants threw stones at each other were used to explain many great stones on the landscape of England and Wales. In the small Scottish village of Kinloch Rannoch a local myth concerns a hill that apparently resembles the head, shoulders and torso of a man, and has therefore been termed ‘the sleeping giant’. Apparently the giant will awaken only if a specific musical instrument is played near the hill. Many giants in English folklore were noted for their stupidity: a giant who had quarrelled with the Mayor of Shrewsbury went to bury the city with dirt; however, he met a shoemaker, carrying shoes to repair, and the shoemaker convinced the giant that he had worn out all the shoes coming from Shrewsbury, and so it was too far to travel. In the Historia Regum Britanniae Geoffrey of Monmouth relates that Albion was only inhabited ‘by a few giants’ when Brutus and his fellow Trojans arrived. To this day the British landscape bears the impression of the giants that may have walked there in ancient days, most famously in the two chalk figures that mark the hills of southern England – the Cerne Abbas Giant and the Long Man of Wilmington.
Norse mythology holds that the entire world of men was once created from the flesh of Ymir, a giant of cosmic proportions. This perhaps explains why giants play such an important role in the songs and sagas of northern Europe. The frozen land of Jotunheim was full of gigantic beings who were the sworn enemies of both gods and men: frost giants, fire giants and mountain giants. The dark trickster god Loki mated with a giantess to produce his three demonic children, Hel, Fenrir and Jormungand. There are numerous tales of the heroic struggles of the race of gods known as Aesir against the giants, which will culminate in Ragnarok, the final battle at the end of time. It is not only giants but their many relatives, including Trolls, Ettins and Ogres, that appear in the old tales. The eponymous hero of the Anglo-Saxon epic Beowulf confronts the loathsome Grendel, who is said to be of the ‘Troll-kind’. An old Icelandic legend says that two night-prowling giants, a man and a woman, were traversing the fjord near Drangey Island with their cow when they were surprised by the bright rays of daybreak. As a result of exposure to daylight, all three were turned into stone – a recurring motif in the lore concerning giants and their kin. An example of another giant of folklore (Slavic this time) is Rübezahl, a kind giant from Wendish folk tales who lived in the Giant Mountains (nowadays on the Czech-Polish border).
Giants of course also appear in a great many fairy tales and folklore stories, such as Jack and the Beanstalk, The Giant Who Had No Heart in His Body, Nix Nought Nothing, Robin Hood and the Prince of Aragon, Young Ronald and Paul Bunyan. Surprisingly, however, modern day fantasy authors have never really made the most of giants (in my view anyway) in their novels. Fantasy giants constantly seem to be pigeon-holed in the stock role of either a ‘henchman’ or a ‘sidekick’. Examples of the former include Tad Williams’ Hunen in Memory, Sorrow and Thorn and the giantlike race that live beyond The Wall in George R R Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire while the latter include Loial in The Wheel of Time and the half-giant Hagrid in the Harry Potter novels. There are also some more interesting, original creations, like Tolkien’s Ents in Lord of the Rings and the race of intelligent, benign giants in Guy Gavriel Kay’s The Fionavar Tapestry, which do not easily fall into either category. I am still waiting, however, for a giant character to appear as a main villain or protagonist in a major fantasy novel and see no reason why this should not happen. After all, we only have to look at mythology and folklore to see plenty of examples of interesting, intelligent, heroic (or otherwise) giants like Orion, Polyphemus, Bran the Blessed and Grendel who played central roles in the old tales. Nevertheless, even if giants no longer walk the earth, it seems almost impossible to deny that once upon a time, in the dim and distant mists of prehistory, our ancestors may have encountered beings of gigantic proportions – beings who inspired in them both awe and fear.