The battle for the heart of Albion

In Plymouth, past the Barbican and past the point where the Mayflower is meant to have set sail, along the coast towards the Hoe beneath the harsh angular stone of the Citadel, look out over the ivy-clad concrete wall to the sea, and then look again with your eyes tuned to the wild.

On the other side of the mouth of the river Tamar, past the boats and development and purposeful activity, there is a piece of untouched land: rock and scrub and grass, it must have been the same for many centuries. The storms will have weathered this place, and plants come and gone. But those standing in this spot would have looked out and seen the same thing; 100 years ago, 500 years ago, in Norman times, Anglo Saxon, Roman times and well before that; human, seabird, giant.

You are standing on Giant’s Leap, the point where the great giant Gogmagog was thrown to his death in the raging seas off Plymouth, right at the very beginnings of Albion, the land of the Britons. According to Geoffrey of Monmouth, writing in the 12th century, Gogmagog was one of the last of the British giants to be killed off by Trojan invaders, the first humans of Albion, led by Brutus and his battle champion, Corineus:

Corineus… heaved Gogmagog up on to his shoulders, and running as fast as he could under the weight, he hurried off to the nearby coast. He clambered up to the top of a mightly cliff, shook himself free and hurled this deadly monster, whom he was carrying on his shoulders, far out into the sea. The giant fell on to a sharp reef of rocks, where he was dashed into a thousand fragments and stained the waters with his blood. The place took its name from the fact that the giant was hurled down there and it is called Gogmagog’s Leap to this day.

The names Gog and Magog appear in the Bible, with Gog as a man and Magog as his land, and there are many references to the names in Jewish, Christian and Islamic traditions. In England, a number of places claim connection to a giant called Gogmagog, or his twin equivalents Gog and Magog. Giant’s Leap could be in Totnes, or even Dover. The two giant Druid oaks, Gog and Magog, still stand proud behind Glastonbury Tor (sadly I think Magog has turned up its acorns and died). The Guidhall in London has two statues of the giants Gog and Magog, and it was at this site that Brutus was meant to have founded the city of London.

Geoffrey of Monmouth’s story was prefaced by another, stranger tale: thirty women, in a sail-less boat from Greece, banished for their refusal to answer to their husbands, landed in these islands many years before Gogmagog. There were no humans to be found here. Their eldest, called Albina, named the place Albion, and the women set about surviving on the natural bounty of the place. The story says that after tasting the flesh of wild animals, they craved the company of men, and were impregnated by earth spirits (or devils) in disguise. In this way, the giants were brought into being. It took Brutus and his conquering mission, many years later, to kill off the progeny of those women and bring human civilization to Albion.

As creation myths for once-proud island nations go, the Albina and Brutus stories don’t sit happily with modern sensibilities. Patriarchy and classical arrogance are rife here, and the conquering men destroy the evil apparently created by the women. Another medieval story even tells of William the Conqueror encountering Gogmagog again and killing him once and for all with his Christian piety. This dubious tale has clearly moved from any notion of story to pure propaganda – those who know my storytelling will often have heard me refer to ‘William the Bastard’ with some justification.

However, I find it strange that in commentaries on these stories, very little mention or thought is given to the giants themselves. The assumption is always that they are stupid, brutish and evil – but was that really the case? They were certainly a threat. I have written before about British stories of giants and how they (as rocks and creatures) formed the landscape. In these tales, perhaps the giants represent the wild, uncivilized part of us, and the wild aspect of the land, that in those far-off days had to be vanquished in order to build our societies.

Today is so very different to the high medieval ideology of Geoffrey of Monmouth’s day. From the rewilding debate that demands natural processes in our landscape, through to the subversion of the notion of ‘freedom’ in neoliberal propaganda, there are so many signs that our culture is starting to crave wildness and freedom. To this modern mythologist, there’s something compelling about a story where humans and earth spirits join to create giant creatures that form and protect the very bones of the land. It talks of co-creation, perhaps a reconnection with the earth. I feel much friendlier towards the giants that old Geoffrey ever did. I find myself contemplating the shallowness of the sea off the Plymouth coast at high tide, and wondering if Gogmagog could have survived.

How thoroughly we have vanquished the wild. Back at Giant’s Leap, two children sail past on their little scooters, safety helmets firmly strapped to their heads (presumably concrete can provide a hard landing from a height of a foot or two). A young couple nestle together by the sea with their speaker blasting out heavy dub, finding their own escape from the city. Even Plymouth Hoe, where Drake’s game of bowls was the height of civilised behaviour, is neat and manicured – and yet our delight in Drake’s story is most evident when he ignores the rules and goes his own way.

Underneath it all is still the land, the same land. Just like that scrap of rock and scrub across the sea, the wild will flourish if it is allowed – in our landscape, and inside us as well. After all, the giants were here first.

Thanks to Tony Whitehead, Phil Smith and Helen Bee for their inspiration.

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