dolmens and standing stones

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Giants in literature and legend

'Fe, Fi, Fo, Fum!' said Quintin.

'I smell the blood of an English woman… doesn't rhyme,' said Miranda.

'They say that some of these fairy tales go back to the Bronze Age.'

'Well, in that case, some of the stories in Arthurian legends and medieval romances must do as well,' suggested Miranda. 'They abound in giants. King Arthur is a giant killer. He indulges in an orgy of giant-killing in the Middle English story Of Arthour and of Merlin. He kills one at the top of Mont-Saint-Michel in Normandy in the Alliterative Morte Arthure. Medieval romance has the eponymous hero Sir Eglamour of Artois fight with one, as does the principal hero of the romance Octavian, and also Sir Bevis of Hampton, Guy of Warwick and the Arthurian legend of the Fair Unknown…'

'Merlin was supposed to have brought Stonehenge over from Ireland, where it was called the Giant's Ring.'

In Geoffrey of Monmouth's History of the Kings of Britain?'

'Twelfth century.'

'I know. Geoffrey of Monmouth chronicles the arrival of the Trojan Brutus to these shores. Brutus found Britain filled with giants when he arrived, so he killed them all. But look at all the prehistoric monoliths in Britain. Huge stones, like the ones at Avebury, in Wiltshire, with its enormous ditch. You can see where the idea might have come from. And the tors on the tops of hills in Devon and Cornwall – it looks as though huge stone discs have been placed there in a pile by giants. Perhaps that's where the idea of giants living at the tops of mountains comes from.'

'In Norse mythology, giantland lies across the sea,' said Quintin. 'Thor once spent the night there sheltering in a giant's glove.'

'And in the Icelandic sagas as well,' said Miranda. 'A hero in a legendary Icelandic saga is taken across the sea to giantland hanging in the claws of a vulture, when he comes to the end of the line, so to speak – a stretch of water that he cannot otherwise cross. Then a giant rows out to the vulture's nest and says: "Where is that little child I saw?" But the Ancient Greeks had giants as the enemies of their gods also. The Titans. Atlas was one. Prometheus was another. He was laid out on a rock and his liver was pecked away by a vulture all night, but renewed again every morning. As though such a thing might be a suitable punishment for someone associated with reincarnation.'

'Odysseus, of Ancient Greek legend, found islands full of giants when he was trapped in an enchanted sea after a storm, on his way back from the siege of Troy,' said Quintin. 'The cyclops was one of them.'

'Maeldun found similar islands of giants when he was trapped in an enchanted sea,' replied Miranda, 'in a story from Irish mythology copied into a book dating to around the turn of the twelfth century.

'It shows that medieval legend might have been tapping into deeper levels than some might think,' said Quintin.

'More recently as well,' said Miranda, 'William Blake conjures the Giant Albion as a central character in his own personal myth. Jerusalem: The Emanation of the Giant Albion.'

pelargonium

Take a quick tour

The Central Line passes through a succession of places in time and location where giants are to be found in literature, legend or mythology. Click or tap on the circles and tunnel markers to dive deeper into the discoveries that Quintin and Miranda have made. Alternatively, click or tap on the large orange button for a quick journey through the summaries. Click or tap on any summary to dive deeper.

Giants

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Medieval Icelandic Sagas

The Saga of Arrow-Odd

13th century, Old Norse.

'Where’s that little infant I saw here just now?' says the giant.

Scandinavian Mythology

Snorri Sturluson: The Prose Edda

13th century, Icelandic: numerous copies in Iceland, Copenhagen.

Thor ventured outside and saw a giant lying on the ground.

Medieval Icelandic Literature and Greek Mythology

Scandinavian giants and the titan Prometheus

13th century AD, Icelandic | 8th century BC, Ancient Greek.

The giant Prometheus was chained by Zeus to a pillar on a mountain, and every day an eagle came and pecked away at his liver, and every night it grew back again, and the next morning the cycle would start anew.

Ancient Greek Mythology

Hesiod: Theogony

8th century BC, ancient Greek, composed (reputedly) at the base of Mount Helicon, Boeotia, Greece.

The Titans on Mount Othrys and the gods on Mount Olympus fought together for ten long years.

Ancient Greek Mythology

Homer: The Odyssey

8th century BC, Ancient Greek.

Odysseus is carried off into an enchanted ocean, first of all to a sort of Paradise, then to a land of giants on the other side of the sea and an island beyond the winds, then to another land of giants…

Ancient Greek Mythology

Homer: The Odyssey

8th century BC, Ancient Greek.

We all felt the blood drain from our faces as his immense size began to loom over us.

Ancient Greek and Old Irish Literature

Odysseus and Maeldun

8th century BC, Ancient Greek | 12th century AD, Old Irish.

Odysseus hurled insults at the giant, who threw a rock at their ship which nearly sent it crashing back to shore.

Maeldun came to an island where two giants were working away in a giant smithy.

Medieval Icelandic Sagas

Eyrbyggja Saga

13th century, Old Norse, Iceland.

He was all coal-blue, and every bone in him was broken.

Medieval Icelandic Sagas

The Saga of Illugi, the Foster Son of Grid

13th century, Old Norse.

The mother is assaulted by seven giantesses every night who tear her to pieces. But she does not die, and like Prometheus before her, she recovers every morning.

Medieval Icelandic Sagas

The Saga of Grettir the Strong

14th century, Old Norse.

'Now it is to be said about Gretir, that he struck one blow after another until the giant was dead.'

Irish Mythology

The Voyage of Maeldun

12th century, Old Irish. Lebor na hUidre (Book of the Dun Cow), Royal Irish Academy, Dublin, Ireland.

Maeldun and his crew found themselves on an island inhabited by giant ants. Each ant was the size of a foal.

Irish Mythology

The Voyage of Maeldun

12th century, Old Irish. Lebor na hUidre (Book of the Dun Cow), Royal Irish Academy, Dublin, Ireland.

A giant emerged from a forge and threw a huge ball of glowing iron towards their ship.

Irish Mythology

The Tuatha de Danaan: A Rowan Tree

pre-12th century – present. Old Irish | Modern Irish, folklore.

A giant with only one eye had agreed to guard the tree, provided he was allowed to eat its berries.

Irish Mythology

The Ulster Warrior Hero Cú Chulaind

12th century, Old Irish. Royal Irish Academy, Dublin, Ireland.

One test brings Cú Chulaind into a magic mist, where he is quickly accosted by a giant.

Medieval Romance

The Romance of Sir Guy of Warwick

13th century, Anglo-Norman French, British Museum, Corpus Cristi College Cambridge: 14th and 15th century Middle English translations, National Library of Scotland, Bodleian Library Oxford.

The giant was called Ameraunt.

Medieval Romance

The Romance of Sir Bevis of Hampton

12th century Anglo-Norman Boeuve de Haumton | 14th century Middle English: National Library of Scotland, Cambridge, Manchester, Naples.

The giant was incredibly strong and over twenty feet tall. He picked up a stick, walked over to the gates and had a good look at Bevis.

Medieval Romance

The Romance of Sir Bevis of Hampton

12th century Anglo-Norman Boeuve de Haumton | 14th century Middle English: National Library of Scotland, Cambridge, Manchester, Naples.

His eyebrows were a span in length, set two feet apart and he carried an enormous club, made from the entire trunk of an oak tree.

Medieval Romance

The Romance of Torrent of Portyngale

14th? century Middle English in unique 15th century manuscript: Chetham’s Library, Manchester MS Chetham 8009.

'I believe there is a Christian man close by,' said the giant.

Medieval Romance

Octavian

13th century, Old French: 14th century Middle English versions at Cambridge University Library, Lincoln Cathedral Library, British Library.

All the people ran to get a glimpse of this giant, but as soon as they did so they ran twice as quickly in the opposite direction!

Medieval Romance

Sir Eglamour of Artois

14th century, Middle English: 15th and 16th century manuscripts at Cambridge University Library, Lincoln Cathedral Library, British Library, Bodleian Library.

'Thief!' cried the giant, and he strode towards Sir Eglamour with an iron club in his hand.

Medieval Arthurian Legend

Thomas Chestre: The Fair Unknown

14th century, Middle English, British Museum, Lambeth Palace Library London, Bodleian Library Oxford, Biblioteca Nazionale Naples.

When the Fair Unknown approached a fire in a forest clearing, he saw two giants.

Medieval Arthurian Legend

Thomas Chestre: The Fair Unknown

14th century, Middle English, British Museum, Lambeth Palace Library London, Bodleian Library Oxford, Biblioteca Nazionale Naples.

The Fair Unknown, the maiden Elaine and her dwarf rode towards the city and caught sight of a giant on one of the bridges.

English Poetry

William Blake: Milton and Jerusalem

1757-1827, English poet, artist and engraver. London.

'First Milton saw Albion upon the Rock of Ages Deadly pale outstretch’d and snowy cold, storm cover’d, a Giant form of perfect beauty outstretch’d on the rock…'

Medieval Arthurian Legend

The Middle English Tale of Sir Perceval of Galles

14th century, Middle English, Lincoln Cathedral Library.

'By the grace of God, I shall kill all giants like you!' replied Sir Perceval.

Medieval Arthurian Legend

Chrétien de Troyes: The Knight of the Lion

12th century, Old French. Middle English translation, 14th century, British Library.

Sir Yvain rode onto the plain and a giant advanced towards him.

Medieval Arthurian Legend

The Story of Sir Tristrem

14th century, Middle English, National Library of Scotland.

Trystram followed the blood stains to the giant’s castle and found the hand lying on a table.

Medieval Arthurian legend

Of Arthour and of Merlin

14th century Middle English. National Library of Scotland MS Advocates 19.2.1, the Auchinleck Manuscript; Lincoln's Inn Library, Hale MS 150.

Many giants were fighting alongside King Rion…

Medieval Arthurian Legend

The Alliterative Morte Arthure

14th century, Middle English, Lincoln Cathedral Library.

"When Sir Arthur the king had killed the giaunt, then blithely fro Barflete he buskes on the morn."

Arthurian legend | Welsh Mythology

Geoffrey Chaucer: Canterbury tale of Sir Thopas | The Mabinogion: Culhwch and Olwen

14th century Middle English, a handful of manuscripts and numerous printed copies | 14th century Middle Welsh, unique manuscript, National Library of Wales

Culhwch approaches the giant's fortress and meets with a shepherd whose dog is the size of a fully-grown horse.

English Pantomime Tradition

Jack and the Beanstalk

18th century, English fairy tale.

Jack climbs up to the very top of one of the beans when it has grown and finds himself in giantland.

Prehistoric or late-Medieval English Folk-Art?

The Cerne Abbas giant in Dorset and the Long Man of Wilmington in East Sussex

Prehistoric?–16th-17th century folk-art, Cerne Abbas, Dorset | South Downs near Alfriston, East Sussex, England.

It has always been a legend that Britain was inhabited by giants in prehistoric times.

Scottish folklore

The Hebridean Island of Skye

Neolithic and Bronze Age remains and the folk stories that accompany them, Skye, Inner Hebrides, Scotland.

A giantess threw rocks against her counterpart on the island of Raasay and left many small islands in the sea between them.

Folk Legends

Geoffrey of Monmouth: The History of the Kings of Britain

12th century, Latin, manuscript copies at Cambridge University Library; Stadtbibliothek, Berne, Switzerland; Bibliothèque Nationale, Paris.

The giant Gogmagog was twelve feet tall.

Prehistoric Britain

Geoffrey of Monmouth: Merlin and Stonehenge

12th century, Latin, manuscript copies at Cambridge University Library; Stadtbibliothek, Berne, Switzerland; Bibliothèque Nationale, Paris | Last phase c. 2300 BC, Bronze Age stone circle, Salisbury Plain, southern England.

Merlin oversaw the transportation of the Giant's Ring onto Salisbury Plain from a place far to the west.

Medieval Arthurian Legend

The Story of Sir Tristrem

14th century, Middle English, National Library of Scotland.

Trystram managed to deliver a blow with his sword that took off the giant’s foot.

Medieval Arthurian Legend

The Carle of Carlisle

17th century, post-Medieval, British Library.

Sir Ironside wore his armour at all times, because there was no let up in his war with the giants.

Medieval Arthurian Legend

Sir Gawain and the Carle of Carlisle

Middle English, c. 1400, National Library of Wales, Aberystwyth.

The Carle measured two yards across at the shoulders and was nine yards in height.

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