Tag Archives: giants

Giant’s Daughters, Cobblers and Erratic Rocks


Last month I talked about giants who were “proto gods” and giants who were Lords and Barons, “sociopolitical” giants if you like. This month I have two more giant types for you. These I have come to consider as the “psychological” and the “geological” giants.

Despite being famously antisocial giants do seem to enjoy games and a common feature of the stories is a series of tests or challenges. Those who attempt the tests and fail get eaten but those who succeed can win the giant’s daughter. Giants may be outsized, gross and dim but their daughters are almost exclusively smart supermodels of human compatible height equipped with magical skills. This is handy for the would be hero who finds they cannot clean the giant’s stable, thatch their barn with multicoloured feathers, or any of the other tasks set for him. He is saved from becoming breakfast by the giant’s daughter: she sends him to sleep and when he wakes the work is done! Passing the tests is rarely the end of the story and the lovers have to escape… at which point the tale morphs in to “motif D672 The Obstacle Flight”. As the fortunate pair gallop away on a horse with ears full of food, chucking towels and combs behind them (which turn into rivers and woods), we realise why the girl has none of her father’s attributes: it is not a giant story at all, it’s a ‘uniting with the inner spirit’ story. The giant could just as easily be, and often is, a wizard, a fairy or even a plain old king. These then are the “psychological” giants whose size is only there to add weight to the obstacle they form between the protagonist and their inner self.

The Geological giants are an untidy lot. They are forever dropping things all over the countryside. Their quoits, chairs, building materials and even bodies litter the landscape. Probably the most famous is the belligerent, Welsh, big bloke who decided to flood Shrewsbury by damming up the river Severn with a spadeful of clay. He had been walking around for some time carrying his murderous load when, somewhere near Wellington, he asked directions from a cobbler with a big sack of worn out shoes he was taking home to mend. “Why do you want to go to Shrewsbury?” asked the shoemaker and was duly shocked by the giant’s explanation. With the quick wit common to his trade the cobbler answered “Oooh, it’s a long way to Shrewsbury, further than you’ll get today or tomorrow, or probably the day after that.” and to emphasise his point he tipped out the sack of wrecked and useless footwear saying “I’ve just come from Shrewsbury and I’ve worn out all these shoes on the way!” “What?” roared the giant, “My arms are aching already, I’m not walking all that way!” so he tipped the earth off his spade and headed back to Wales. The large heap of earth is still there, visible across the Shropshire Plain, and forms the hill now known as The Wrekin.


Responsible for glacial erratics, gorges, hills, the odd island and every lump of granite in Cornwall, the geological giant is easily identified and their genesis is explained by their story. Although in some ways the simplest of the giants, they have some common ground with the elementals. The powers that they metaphorically represent are slowly working away all around us. Rain and wind steadily excavate metamorphic upthrusts, rivers carve away at hillsides and massive glaciers drop their cargoes of displaced stones wherever their journey ends. The stories may be set “Once upon a time” but the giants are very much still with us.

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

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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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Giants and Revenge


As I explained in December I am researching for my spring and autumn tours at the same time, themed “Giants” and “Revenge” respectively. All very straight forward… until you come across a story that sits in the part of the Venn diagram where the two circles overlap and could be used in either set. The most surprising of these is probably the most well known story of the big people going.

This tale is turned in to pantomimes on a regular basis and is a staple of children’s literature. As with any well known trope from olden times it has started coming under fire from modern ethical watchdogs. It’s easy to see why too. The problem being that the protagonist, one “Jack”, who is established early on as somewhat easily led, can appear as rather racist. After a giantess lets him in to her husband’s castle and feeds him, the ungrateful simpleton repays this kindness by stealing from the giants not once, but three times! Whilst trying to escape justice after his third larceny he brings about the death of his understandably enraged victim. It is presented as un-premeditated but I think it would still attract a charge of murder if it came to court. One would hope that even UKIP supporters would see that this is a bad way to treat people from other lands who are a bit different from us and most definitely not the model for a foreign policy.

So where, I hear you ask, does the overlap with the revenge theme come in? Well, in my usual fashion I have been hunting through my library, comparing different versions and digging out the earliest manuscripts. In the case of Jack And The Beanstalk (which in case you hadn’t realised is the story in question) this takes us back to 1807. At this time the story contained an encounter with a fairy when Jack reaches the top of the beanstalk. This fairy tells a chilling story of Jack’s kind and generous father who was tricked, robbed and murdered. The perpetrator of the deed, whilst burning down their manor, spared the infant Jack and his mother on the condition that she never tell Jack about his father. The wicked murderer come arsonist is, of course, the giant and the fairy points out quite distinctly that the giant’s wealth was taken from Jack’s father and is rightfully his.

This episode, which is conspicuous by its absence from the majority of later re-tellings of the tale, casts Jack’s behaviour in a very different light. No longer a wayward, sizeist, thug, Jack is the true avenger, reclaiming his ancestral rights and handing out the ultimate punishment to the original villain of the piece. The worrying bit is not just that the story has been reproduced so often without this justification for Jack’s criminal spree, but that doing so has done nothing to harm it’s popularity, many of us falling into despising the giant based on heresay and rooting for his downfall with no hard evidence that he has done wrong to anyone.

Fascinatingly the fairy also admits that she was influencing Jack when he exchanged his cow for a handful of beans, which explains how he goes from being laughably gullible at the beginning of the yarn to a cool master of negotiation, concealment and escape by his first encounter with the giants.

So, it always pays to do your research, even when you think you know the story, possibly especially then… and I had better get back to mine, there are giants and avengers to sort out and they keep getting mixed up!

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

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Thinking Big


Well, it’s that time again, when we take stock of the year that has passed and prepare for the year ahead. My annual autumn tour of dark and scary stories has come to it’s end (thank you to all who came along). Both the “Dark Arts” tour and my spring outing “Away With The Fairies” were longer tours than in previous years and the number of people packing the venues has increased, even to the point of people sitting on the floor because there were no chairs left. On the down side I lost one of my favourite summer gigs as the National Trust at Corfe had to tighten their belt and reduce their budget for performers, hopefully I’ll be able to return to it’s picturesque ruins next year.

The thing I have been working on this year and intend to bring to fruition in 2015 is getting a full year ahead of myself. This is so I can match the lead in times for Arts Centres to broaden my scope socially and geographically. The effect at the moment is of course that I am doing twice as much work for little perceptible result. I feel very much like Alice when the Red Queen makes her run very fast but they don’t move at all and the Queen says “You have to run much faster than this if you actually want to get somewhere!”

So I am now doing research for both the spring tour and the next autumn tour which will be “Giants” and “Revenge!” respectively. I started off with a trawl through the many small pamphlets and booklets I have of folklore by county. Cornwall and Yorkshire both seem to have been thoroughly overrun by giants. Over the border in Somerset there have been a few, Shropshire had it’s share, Hampshire – a couple, even Norfolk boasts the tale of the outsize Thomas Hickathrift. Wiltshire, though short on stories, is dotted with the graves of the excessively large (mostly on the tops of hills and bearing a strong similarity to Neolithic chambered tombs or long barrows).

Our own county of Devon should, one might think, provide an ideal landscape for people of vast stature to stomp about. I can imagine the piled granite of the tors giving rise to any number of yarns about monsters of stone. Nevertheless, after a first look we appear to be rather short of titans in the Devonshire folklore. I suppose I could have a go at Geoffrey Of Monmouth’s tale of Brutus, the hero after whom Britain is allegedly named, landing at Totnes. Here Brutus and his companions, who have sailed from Italy via assorted points in the Mediterranean, Spain and France, first encounter the native occupants of the Isle. These are giants. Despite the obvious superiority of the indigenous population Brutus and pals are victorious slaying all the giants save for one named Gogmagog, who is saved for a show fight with Brutus’ friend and second in command, Corineus. After receiving a couple of cracked ribs Corineus loses his temper, picks up Gogmagog, runs to the sea and throws him over the cliff to meet a messy doom on the jagged rocks beneath.

I have never felt any great affinity for this episode of Geoffrey’s fantastical history though, and I’m not sure it can be considered local folklore. It does however contribute to a theory I have about the origin of some giant stories… but if you want to know what that is you’ll have to come to the show! Right, better go and find some more giants; if Jack can do it so can I!

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The Wrath Of Thor


I’m taking a set of Viking tales out on tour at the end of February, which is, for me, a return to what I started with. At my very first storytelling I told three tales of the Norse gods, one of which, “The lay of Thrym” more commonly known as “The Theft Of Thor’s Hammer”, has remained in my ‘ready bag’ almost continuously for the twenty something years since. Almost. There are many reasons why a teller will drop a story, maybe we become over familiar and begin to gabble through it, or some other tale with too similar a theme takes our fancy; fear that one may be struck by lightning is not generally amongst them.

Possibly the most accurate image of Thor on the internet by Canadian artist Daniel Andrews. Note: iron gloves, belt of strength, sensible clothes, red hair and beard, iron hammer, absence of winged/horned helmet. You can find more of his work here http://danielandrews.ca/

Thor is the popular, people’s god, the adventuring bearded redhead who protects mankind, gods, elves and dwarves from the constant threat of the Frost Giants with the aid of his magic hammer, Mjollnir. One morning Thor woke up to find Mjollnir had been stolen. After much hullabaloo in Asgard, the home of the gods, it transpired that the thief was none other than Thrym, the king of the giants. Thrym’s terms for the return of the hammer are that Freya, the beautiful fertility goddess, is sent to be his bride. When the gods cook up a plan to send Thor in a wedding dress and veil he is at first somewhat reticent but eventually Loki, offering to tag along as a bridesmaid, persuades him. The ensuing scene in the giants hall builds as Thor all but gives himself away, while Loki cleverly keeps the laughably dense Thrym in a state of ignorant excitement until Mjollnir is brought forth to bless the wedding. After Thor is reunited with his weapon it is all downhill for the giants and, leaving them lying in the blood drenched hall he and Loki head back across the sky in Thor’s chariot. The thunder rolls, the rain falls and the ice of winter is washed away.

This tale is rooted in the very serious struggle against the cold northern winters, but in a time when the Scandinavians felt familiar enough with Thor to not only worship but have a laugh with him, it developed in to a comic interlude in the mythological cycle with the reluctantly cross-dressing sky god as the main source of the humour. As my own performance of this classic developed I portrayed Thor as less and less intelligent. Audiences were increasingly amused by my befuddled thunderer.

One fine sunny, summer’s day I was playing a festival in Romsey, a great location with around 150 people gathered to enjoy live music, beer and storytelling in a historic garden. After a couple of other stories, I launched in to “The Theft”. About half way through, just as Thor and Loki were preparing to set of for Thrymheim, it began to cloud over. Then the rain began to fall, harder and harder, until the audience had to run for cover. A month later I was the entertainment for two hundred eager scouts huddled around a camp fire. Once again the weather was clear and fine until I began “The Theft”, whereupon it quickly deteriorated in to driving rain. We decamped to the marquee where it was almost impossible to finish the story because of the water thrashing against the roof. When another beautiful day was ruined as the same thing happened for a third time, this time augmented with thunder, that I recognised the pattern and began to worry about lightning strikes.

You can’t leave a good story untold though, so when I was telling some friends about the experiences above I ended with a public apology to Thor, and have taken care ever since to keep my portrayal of the God of Storms a bit more respectful. So far it seems to be working, I have not been struck with a hundred thousand volts and even this summer I was able to get to the end of the tale with the sky blue and the audience dry. It will probably get a few tellings on my Viking Raid in Feb and March*, if I do it well enough it might keep it from snowing.

*Currently confirmed dates:
Thursday 28th Feb The Ale House, Reading
Sunday 3rd March The Elm Tree, Cambridge
Monday 4th March The White Lion, Norwich
Tuesday 5th March The Devonshire Arms, Cambridge
Saturday 9th March The London Inn, Morchard Bishop, Devon

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