In his TEDSalon NY2013 talk, “The Unheard Story of David and Goliath,” Malcolm Gladwell posits that the long-held belief that the Biblical tale is a “metaphor for improbable victories” is false. Any reader able to place the story in its proper context will see that when the Philistines put forth their champion, the giant Goliath, they expected him to engage in hand-to-hand combat. He was armored and heavily armed–more than ready for the challenge. But King Saul allowed the ambitious young shepherd David to combat the giant. He was armed with a sling, not a slingshot, as is commonly believed, having used it previously to thwart lion and wolf attacks on his flock. According to Gladwell, the sling is a leather pouch with two cords able to project a stone or a bullet toward the enemy with seemingly superhuman force, up to thirty-five meters per second. Although David wore no armor and was of average size, he represented artillery in this battle. Goliath, on the other hand, was a foot soldier, and an unwieldy one at that. As the story goes, David hit Goliath between the eyes, killing him instantly.
Malcolm Gladwell’s conclusion: the story of David versus Goliath shows us things are not always as they seem. In this case, the giant didn’t stand a chance.
J.K. Rowling made great use of the conflation of the ordinary and the extraordinary in her creation of the character Rubeus Hagrid for her Harry Potter series. Hagrid, as he is commonly known, is the son of a wizard and a giantess, twice the size of an average human male, with a wild, shaggy beard and coat. He has an affinity for dangerous magical creatures but his soft heart beats for all living things, especially, perhaps pertinently, for misfits.
According to the Harry Potter Lexicon, Hagrid’s childhood home was in the “West Country,” probably referring to Devon, Somerset, and Cornwall, “where many of our folktales about giants come from: Jack the Giant Killer and Jack and the Beanstalk to name a few. Many Cornish rock formations and ancient stone-age stone rings have long been associated with giants.” J.K. Rowling does everything by design, and it appears she used the beloved Hagrid to redress some common notions about the misunderstood beings.
The earliest giant tales are from mythology. One of the best known fairy tales, “Jack and the Beanstalk,” retains a vestige of ancient spirituality.
The desire for a means of ascending to the sky is as old as the Tower of Babel and Jacob’s Ladder. Asia has the story of the branch of the Bodhi of Buddha which grows rapidly towards the sky once it is planted. Although he is not as old as these stories, Jack, the infamous trickster and beanstalk climber, has been around for several centuries.1
Competing versions of the story portray Jack as an amoral (or immoral) trickster and as a well-meaning dupe forced to kill a giant to save his own life. The latter is presently the best known, the one most likely to be found in picture books and animated features. However, the trickster versions have historically been most common, with oral tales telling of giants who mind their own business and are slaughtered for revenge or economic gain (or both).
The notion of a giant race of beings populating the land before the arrival of humankind is a nearly universal one, from the Titans of Greece, to the Frost, Fire and Mountain Giants of Norse mythology, to the Native American Paiute stories of beautiful giants from the land bordered by the Sierra Nevadas and the Rocky Mountains. According to legend, Britain was first called Albion, named for the giant king who ruled there. When Brutus and other Trojans escaped imprisonment in the south of France following the Trojan war, they sailed to the fabled island where they came upon a remnant group of giants who were eventually driven into the mountains and caves of the west country.2
From powerful forces beyond human control (Titans), to loyal friend (Hagrid), and everything between, our perception of giants likely says more about us than it does about them.
A list of fairy tales from A Book of Giants3
- Jack and the Beanstalk (England)
- The Giant and the Dwarf (Georgia)
- Fin M’Coul and the Cucullin (Ireland)
- Sneezy Snatcher and Sammy Small (Cornwall)
- Hams, the Horn, and the Magic Sword (Jutland)
- King Johnny (Slavic)
- Conall Yellowclaw (Ireland and Scotland)
- The Giant in the Cave (Ireland and Scotland)
- The Brave Little Tailor (Germany)
- The Giant Who Had No Heart in His Body (Norse)
- The Three Golden Hairs of the King of the Cave Giants (Germany)
- Prince Loaf (Romania)
- Jack the Giant Killer (Cornwall)
- Jack and the Giant Cormoran
- Jack and the Giant Tantarem
- Jack and the Welsh Giant
- Jack, the King of England’s Son, and the Giant with Three Heads
- Jack and the Giant Thunderdell
- Jack, the Giant Galligantua, and the Enchanter
1. Heiner, Heidi Anne. “History of Jack and the Beanstalk.” SurLaLune, accessed December 23, 2017, http://www.surlalunefairytales.com/jackbeanstalk/history.html
2. “Albion.” Wikipedia, accessed December 23, 2017, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Albion.
3. Manning-Sanders, Ruth. A Book of Giants (United Kingdom: Methuen & Co. Ltd., 1963).
Image Credit: By Prawny at Pixabay.com, CCO Creative Commons
As an aside, I hope you enjoy this bit of Canadiana, from the long-running CBC children’s program The Friendly Giant.