giants


giants
   The word 'giant' has two senses. In the first, it merely refers to a human being considerably larger and stronger than others; in the second, to an alien being who is not only monstrously large but also (usually) malevolent towards humans, and (often) remarkably stupid. In the first sense, several English heroes became 'giants' in local folklore, as when King *Arthur is alleged to have lifted the capstone of a megalithic tomb at Dorstone, and *Robin Hood to have formed two hills when he dropped two sacks of earth he was carrying (both tales are from Herefordshire). Various local heroes too were said to have been abnormally large, for example Piers Shonks of Brent Pelham and the robber *Jack o' Legs at Weston (both in Hertfordshire), *Little John, and Tom *Hickathrift of Wisbech (Cambridgeshire).
   The non-human giant has steadily declined through the centuries from a monster to a figure of fun. In *Beowulf, Grendel and his mother are bloodthirsty threats to humanity, seriously presented as such by the poet; in medieval romances, however, it has become mere routine for a knight to slay a giant; while in local legends it is claimed that the actions of long-ago giants created certain types of landscape feature, though their plans were generally foiled by their own clumsiness and stupidity. They hurled rocks at churches, but missed; carried stones for building, but dropped them; killed one another in stone-throwing battles, or by accident when tossing tools across a valley. However, the giant *Wade and his wife did succeed in building 'Wade's Causeway' across Wheeldale Moor (North Yorkshire); it is in fact a Roman road. Legends about giants are particularly common in Cornwall, and have been since medieval times; *Geoffrey of Monmouth says Corineus, first human ruler of the region, chose it precisely because wrestling against giants was his favourite sport. Giants and giant-killing were a popular subject for *chapbook tales, the best known being *Jack the Giant-Killer and *Jack and the Beanstalk.
   Several of the older *hill figures represented giants. The *Cerne Abbas Giant and the Long Man of *Wilmington still exist, but one *Gogmagog at Plymouth and another near Cambridge are lost, as is an anonymous figure which Aubrey says was on Shotover Hill, near Oxford, before the Civil War. On Kingsland Common outside Shrewsbury there was a turf-cut *maze with a giant's face cut in the centre; at the annual Shrewsbury Show in the 18th and 19th centuries, one sport (called the Shoemakers' Race) was to run the maze and leap on to the giant's eyes (Burne, 1883: 456). This must surely be linked to the well-known local legend of the Welsh giant who set out to bury Shrewsbury under a huge spadeful of earth, but was tricked by a clever cobbler into thinking the town was still many miles away, so that he abandoned his plan, dropping the earth, which formed the Wrekin hill (Burne, 1883: 2-4).
   In medieval, Elizabethan, and Jacobean times, effigies of giants were conspicuous in courtly and civic pageants. The London *Gogmagog figures and the giants in the Midsummer civic parades at Chester and Coventry are well documented; records of Newcastle-upon-Tyne show frequent payments from the 1550s to the 1590s for the upkeep of 'Hogma-gog' and his coat, though it is not said on which date this effigy was displayed. At Chester in 1495, there was a whole family group of them: giant, giantess, and two daughters. Such figures were constructed from wood, wicker-work, and buckram, and lavishly dressed and painted; they were carried through the streets by a man hidden under their robes. The original official intention may have been to symbolize savage forces tamed by civilization (as in the Gogmagog legend), but in practice these town effigies were regarded with pride, amusement, and affection. Only one processional giant survives in England (unlike Belgium and France, where there are many); this is the *Salisbury Giant, now in the museum there (Cawte, 1978: 29-35; Shortt, 1982).
   ■ Local legends involving giants can be found in many regional collections; in Briggs, 1970-1; and in Westwood 1985. There is a lively round-up of Cornish tales by Barbara Spooner, 'The Giants of Cornwall', Folklore 76 (1965), 16-32. For hill figures, see Marples, 1949:159212. For civic processional giants, see F. W. Fairholt, Gog and Magog (1859), 50-63; J. Hemingway, The History of Chester (1831), i. 199-206; J. J. Anderson (ed.), Records of Early English Drama: Newcastle upon Tyne (1982); Hugh Shortt, The Giant and Hob-Nob (Salisbury Museum, 1982); Cawte, 1978: 29-35.

A Dictionary of English folklore. . 2014.

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