Monthly Archives: April 2015

Size Matters


We all know that ‘giant’ means ‘big’ and unless otherwise stated, ‘a giant’ means a human like, bipedal person who just happens to be really big. You would think that the giant is a fairly simple creature compared to say, fairies or witches, however it doesn’t take much close examination before this happy misunderstanding starts to unravel. In the majority of creation myths I have come across giants were there first, so humans are in fact giant like bipedal persons who just happen to be really small!

It’s not just humans who turn up late to the party; the Greek, Roman, Norse and Celtic gods are all preceded by their giant counterparts. In all these cases the gods interbreed with or directly descend from the giants before fighting with and eventually supplanting them. It is often during, or as a result of, these struggles that some of the giants take up elemental functions as the bringers of winter, earthquakes or drought. It seems that when new gods establish themselves the old gods get demoted to giant status and have to carry the can for anything that goes wrong. It’s not entirely unlike politics.

Giants who were once gods (or were nearly gods but didn’t have the PR), “proto gods” if you like, often retain magical abilities and sufficient knowledge that gods who come after will consult with them in times of doubt. The Norse god Odin goes in disguise to see the giant Vafthrudnir and the two trade questions. Vafthrudnir, who was born before the world was formed, makes their contest “more interesting” by suggesting they stake their heads on the outcome. Odin agrees and after he has learnt all he wants he tricks the venerable Jotun by asking a question to which only Odin could know the answer.

When humans do turn up we very rarely have to deal with the elemental giants, they like to keep that in the family as it were. The typical giant that we encounter will be male. Some are friendly, the Cornish giants of Towednack and Carn Galva offered protection to the humans in their area, usually from other giants. Although they can be tricked many of them are sly and not to be underestimated. It is not at all uncommon for giants to have committed murder and amongst the murderers a goodly proportion are inclined to eat those they have killed. Giant homes tend to the extremes being caves or castles but either way they are heaped with treasure. This is often stolen from the local populace along with livestock and sometimes maidens or wives.

The question is: who are these earthly giants? Are they sad left overs from another race of nearly gods, unemployed elementals as it were? Are they pick and mix monsters, there to add some jeopardy to a psychological adventure? Are they perhaps just big people?

After 1066 the Norman Barons, having taken the land by force, built castles from which they oppressed the Saxon peoples and taxed them for the privilege. The “noble lords” considered the ordinary people to be their property and maintained their hold on the country with extreme violence and persecution. Being military men with the diet that wealth affords, they probably were on average taller (and fatter) than those who toiled in the fields to provide for their voracious appetites, especially when sat on their war horses. It is easy to see how they might be viewed as monsters. Stories in which a plucky lad tricked, robbed and even killed the big bully in the castle would be very popular amongst the downtrodden peasants. Sadly, the stories were just that and any actual uprisings or attacks on the upper crust were punished with death. These “sociopolitical” giants stayed in their castles and, like the gods before them, considered themselves entitled to their privileges won through violence as they morphed in to the British upper class. We might not like it but size really does matter.

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Send In The Lifeboats


One of the facilities provided to us by our brains is the ability to recognise patterns. Obviously I don’t just mean when we are watching midsummer murders with Bob from down the road and he suddenly points at the screen and says “My aunt Betty’s got those curtains!”. No, our pattern recognition includes everything we sense. It gives us a shorthand for managing our interaction with the world based on our experiences rather than having to process everything as a new thing all the time.

It is such a big part of our operating system that our pattern recognisers can get a bit carried away, joyfully offering us faces and animals when we are simply looking at clouds or burn marks on toast. Entertaining and free flowing conversations are the result of our internal librarians coming up with stories that have a similarity to the one that has just been told… and so are the stultifyingly dull ones. The tricky bit for most of us being when the librarians come back from a trip to the hippocampus looking apologetic with only a single, dusty, hand written post-it note, leaving us the option of blurting out what’s scribbled on it in the hope that it will trigger a response from someone else, or standing there silently looking like a rabbit in the headlights while the conversation dies, gasping, at our feet.

I see this ’empty shelf syndrome’ happen quite often after a Talesman performance when the conversation has come round to the fascinating similarities between stories from different parts of the world and someone suddenly discovers the only thing indexed in their frontal cortex that fits with the pattern is the old adage that, when it’s all boiled down, there are only seven stories. Now you’d think that I would be able to launch in to a discourse from there but I’m afraid that shelf in my head was just as much in need of a J cloth and a squirt of Pledge as anyone else’s. Thankfully our pattern recognition includes stalling dialogue and everyone sends out the communication lifeboats of witty interjection and wholesale embarrassment is avoided. Personally I hadn’t explored the root of this widely distributed myth of the reduced lexicon until today. I suspect that since I make my living from finding fresh tales to serve up every few months the mere suggestion that there might be a limited supply sends my subconscious in to denial.

The fabulously named Sir Arthur Thomas Quiller-Couch would appear to be the original author of the “seven plots” concept in the early half of the twentieth century. Fortunately for me his list takes the form of man versus seven adversaries including himself:

  1. man against man
  2. man against nature
  3. man against himself
  4. man against God
  5. man against society
  6. man caught in the middle
  7. man and woman

This clearly falls down on the basis of sexism and also fails to consider that humans might co-operate or do anything other than fight with stuff. Other cataloguers have come up with lists from 4 to 36 plots long, mostly confining themselves to literature or theatre. The most widely known today being Christopher Booker, who has also pegged his socks on the line at the number seven after taking 35 years to write his book. I suppose it will be only polite to give it a read sometime but at 25 quid a throw it won’t be anytime soon. Meanwhile the net has already nicked his list and shared it around. It begins with 1. The Quest and 2. Voyage and Return which, I don’t know about you, just sound rather similar to me. The best of the short lists in my opinion runs to eight thus:

  1. Cinderella: fulfilment after hardship
  2. Achilles: the Fatal Flaw
  3. Faust: or the debt that must be paid
  4. Tristan: the Eternal Triangle
  5. Circe: or the Spider and the Fly
  6. Romeo and Juliet: Boy meets Girl and whatever follows
  7. Orpheus: the Gift that’s Taken Away
  8. The Indomitable Hero: they keep on going whatever the odds

(It is sadly un-attributed in all the versions I found this time round, if anyone knows the original author please let us know).

However, as with all the other lists it misses out the “how it got it’s name” stories. These are not my favourite tales as they rarely have a proper plot. The general form being “Once upon a time a giant tripped over and where his knee dented the ground a pond formed. It is still called Giant’s Knee Pond”. It’s not much of a story but any list that doesn’t cover it is not a complete list of all the stories there are… and if they missed this widely used folk tale what else have they missed?

In the world of folk tales, academics identify stories by the Aarne-Thompson tale type index, a combined work that gives a number to each element of the stories, such as “Transformation to horse (ass etc.) by putting on bridle”, which will be familiar to those of you who came to see “The Dark Arts” tour and is Tale Type D535 in case you were interested. The Aarne-Thompson list Includes several different “How it got it’s name” variations and the index gets to 2500 without counting the decimals. That should see me right for work for some time so I expect I’ll stick with them… and next time I see the pattern of the conversation swinging round to the number of stories in the world I’ll have something on the shelf for my librarians to fetch.

…here’s to living happily ever after, until the next adventure.

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