Ah, giants. Clumsy, not very bright, slightly thuggish, ham-handed, hairy brutes, with gruff voices and violent tendencies. They’re slain by valiant knights in shining armour, to win castles and ladies and that kind of thing. Right?
The old tales from the British Isles hold traces of a different story altogether.
When Ronnie and I first got the idea for our new storytelling piece, we were talking about the Green Man, and about the fact that much alluring folklore, but virtually no old story, exists about him. It’s almost as if the he is so obviously present in our lives, in the plants all around us, that it would be too obvious to point out. (More on that later on.)
The conversation went from plants to soil to substrate. What about the rock that lies underneath all of the vegetation? where does that come from in our stories? and why is it, even today, that those rocky outcrops and cliffs on the coast, the Logan stones, and the Tors on Dartmoor, are given so much character, reverence even?
British folklore is awash with stories about landscape and rock and hill. Many a local folk tale will assure you that islands and land formations were built by giants. The rivers Tavy and Torridge were originally giants fighting for the love of a water sprite. The countryside is littered with stone circles, Giants’ Dances transformed by magic.
So instead of our received science on glaciers and geological processes, in folklore these energies become giants, the first ones, the power behind the rocks of the land. And when humans come into the picture, with their pride and their need to conquer, they set about trying to tame nature itself: to conquer the giants.
Very occasionally, we found that humans can share with giants. One of my favourite tales is of the Cornish giant at Carn Galva, so keen to play quoits with his human friend, and patting him on the head in jest. The giant’s strength was so great that he accidentally crushed his friends’ skull and killed him. You can still hear his mournful cries ringing around the land: “oh, my lad, my lad, why didn’t they make the shell of thy noddle stronger?”
Many other stories talk of giants being shape shifters, and testing the integrity and courage of humans. The famous story of Gawain and the Green Knight takes up a theme echoed in many older stories, of the giant asking for his own head to be cut off, as long as he can return the favour. The giant is fierce to those who do not make the grade, but benevolent to those few humans who prove themselves worthy. Gawain, the golden boy, is one of these, yet still he feels his honour is tainted.
And even when the giants of the old tales are violent and bloodthirsty and fierce, perhaps they had reason? There is something in these stories suggesting that giants are guardians of the landscape, and disappointed with the casual wastefulness and selfishness of humans. Such themes have not disappeared into the ancient past. Having worked with some of these stories over the last year, it’s very clear to us that the giants are still here.
Sorrowful, yes; primitive, perhaps; but giants are also a fundamental part of the folklore of the British landscape. Perhaps we need to listen to their story.
‘Giants! Stories from the Bedrock of the British Isles‘ by Lisa Schneidau and Ronnie Conboy will be at the Methodist Hall in Totnes on 24th February, and we are planning other performances throughout the year. You can find out about our latest shows here.