Author Topic: Seven More Things to do with Giants by Jubal  (Read 1261 times)


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Seven More Things to do with Giants by Jubal
« on: October 24, 2020, 12:36:43 PM »
Seven More Things to do with Giants
By Jubal

Sinbad Plots Against The Giant by Maxfield Parrish
Used under CC license by, Maxfield Parrish (1870-1966)

Giants are a core part of many fantasy settings, and there are very good reasons why. Literally larger than life, giants are a core part of mythologies worldwide. They provide over-size mirrors for us to hold up to ourselves, with our passions and our best and, more often, worst sides oversized along with them. Whilst there's a fairly standard fairytale giant that commonly appears in fantasy settings - big, brutish, kicking houses down and getting outwitted by farm-lads - the possibilities of giants are actually much wider across world folklore and literature. In this article I explore a few more options and thoughts on how you can use giants narratively to best effect, whether for an RPG, a story, or anything else you might be working on.

Giants around the world

A few of the other items in this article draw upon folklore from parts of the world outside the Anglosphere and Western Europe more generally. Giants are often assumed to be the creatures of a standard jack and the beanstalk narrative, usually presented, but a huge range of world cultures have some sort of giant myths, and not necessarily ones in keeping with our standard understandings of giants as brutish antagonists.

In Somali folklore for example giants like Biriir ina-Barqo are heroic characters: it's perhaps a peculiarity of western myth that whilst super strength is seen as a good power - a sign of heroism - super size is generally seen as a negative. This need not be the case.

There's also no reason why giants can't travel, and arguably many reasons why they should in a fantasy setting. The prodigious size and appetites of a giant both give them the ability to travel and many reasons for leaving (one too many disappeared sheep) or heading for new places (how many lords would like to hire a literal giant for their army)? As such, it is perfectly explicable to have a giant who is from outside the mainstream culture sphere of your setting. One caution to perhaps give with that would be to avoid the "monstrous races" trap in which giants are solely coded as a foreign "other" to your default setting area: whilst this trope did exist in medieval writing, there's a fair point that uncomplicated use of this sort of portrayal has had a very dark historical pedigree, especially in the colonial era. Nonetheless, there's a lot to be said for portraying giants who come from a variety of different cultural backgrounds, and for upending the idea that it's necessarily the protagonists who travel to the giant rather than vice versa.

Giants as endurance hunters

If we're going with bad giants that eat people, how they hunt is worth considering regarding their threat to other characters around them. This is one place where I disagree with Dael Kingsmill's brilliant video on giants: her view is that giants, being big, should also be fast, able to catch up with horses. There's undoubtedly a good chase scene there, but I think that it somewhat clashes with our view of giants as lumbering, and that we can do scarier things as alternatives. Whilst the giant's long legs of course would give a giant a short speed advantage, big bipedal predators like Tyrannosaurus were probably ambush, not pursuit, predators: and besides, there's a far scarier thing we can do with giants as predators, which is to scale up the predation strategy of arguably the most successful apex-predator meat-eating species in earth's history: us.

Humans don't hunt by outrunning things, and we don't usually hunt by ambushing them: we are neither faster over long or short distances than a quadruped like a deer. What we're really good at, instead, is walking. And keeping walking. And keeping walking. A prey animal can run as fast as it likes - we'll catch up eventually. We don't need huge amounts of food and can keep going for days and eventually most things will get tired before we do. Endurance predation is the hominid strategy: and giants, being hominids scaled up, could very validly become scaled up endurance predators.

Dear reader, apply this to a giant hunting you and it's terrifying. Sure, you can saddle up on your horses and outride the giant: the giant doesn't care. He can still see you (an extra five or ten feet of height gives a good vantage), and possibly smell you too if we're going with giants having the blood-smelling fairytale characteristic. So he'll keep walking after you, quickly but never running - and also never stopping. Your horses can outpace him for hours: he can keep walking for days. You could try and hide, but how well can you mask your smell? You could hope the horses sate him, but do you want to negate the rest of your speed advantage? There are probably at most small settlements anywhere near, and you'll have to decide if you want to risk setting a hungry man-eating giant on innocent villagers for the slim chance offered by safety in numbers.

The endurance hunting giant presents a more tense, longer-term potential threat, and a difficult tactical and moral situation, and I personally tend to find those more narratively interesting than a rapid chase - your mileage may vary, but it's an option to have in mind.

Giants finding humans cute

Humans' inevitable reaction to tiny things is to find them cute. If confronted with an entire village full of waist-high or knee-high people, many people's first instinct would be to see them as children. Especially if you're not going for explicitly evil or man-eating giants, one could plausibly and amusingly have giants with exactly the same reaction to human beings around them. What if a giant just thought you were kind of adorable, and didn't really see you as a serious being?

Now, there are some narrative issues with this, the biggest one is that protagonists often really don't like being talked down to. Nonetheless, especially for a lower level group where they don't pose any threat to the giant, this does make for a narratively interesting problem: it may well be that the giant has something that you need, or can do something that you can't, on account of being a giant, but how do you persuade them to help you? What does a giant want, and how can you get the giant to take your request seriously? Perhaps indeed they never do take you or your request seriously, and you have to find some way to get them to treat it as playing along with your "little game".

Giants as resource denial

I feel that we're sometimes insufficiently imaginative in the threat that bad giants pose. The tendency is that the threat of the giant is direct and physical - the problem is that the giant wants to eat you. Sometimes there's also a power structure issue: the king is, or has, a giant and you need to defeat it, David and Goliath style.

David and Goliath by Carravagio
Used under CC license by, Caravaggio Wikimedia

But societal power and direct murder aren't the only ways that a giant's strength can allow them to be a threat. Think of the various things humans need for life - whether that's water, food, shelter, company - and it quickly becomes obvious that, especially for resources that are already stretched, the power of a giant can simply be in denying resources to other people. This could be either unintentionally, perhaps we can't hunt because the giant is eating all the wild oxen, or entirely intentionally, if say the giant has a hidden cave that only he has the strength to open the giant door of, and he keeps a key resource hidden in there and forces people to do things for some limited access to it.

This particularly struck me in the Somali myth of Xabbed ina-Kammas and Biriir ina-Barqo, where Xabbed, the evil giant, doesn't eat people, and he doesn't - he just uses his prodigal strength to put giant rocks over all the wells in the area and then extorts camels from people to eat, only allowing them access to their wells if they provide him with food. This is a really interesting way of playing the giant, one that recognises and emphasises his incredible strength, but without him being reduced to a symbol of brute force. We're more uncomfortably reminded in Xabbed's story about very human ways of using power and strength to extort, rather than simply as brute force, and that can very effectively set the giant as villain apart from other monsters and make their role more individual.

Giants as role embodiments

We accept the idea that giants are larger than life versions of things we do as humans, but often this is restricted to general traits - like appetite, or boastfulness - or to roles in kingship or war, where the giant's prodigal strength could be seen as a natural qualification. But we can also scale up other traditional roles and embody them in giant form. We could have a mother-giantess that looks after the women of a particular valley, or a smith-giant who teaches the craft to young artisans, or a woodcutter giant who lives out in the wilds and watches out to help those who venture into the woods alone. A particular inspiration for this is the Musgoso, a giant from northern Spain, who is a "shepherd of shepherds" and looks after the herdsmen on the mountain hillsides, being called upon when they are under threat.

We often give these sorts of hyper-embodiment roles to elderly characters - but giants, great in size where the elderly characters are great in age, can also work well for them. Much like an older character's age, a giant's size can set them in a somehow magnified position, and give them an easily visible hook that displays why they in particular have this role. Some roles don't work well for this - especially those that rely on nimbleness or dexterity, so a giantess as the embodiment of roguery and theft probably isn't on the cards. Nonetheless, if our characters are going to go and seek help or take an NPC to the master of their craft, having that character be a giant can be an interesting and less immediately common way of setting them apart and one that, because the scaling up of the giant's size somehow logically fits with the scaling up of their societal role, oddly does work on an intuitive level.

Giants as heroes

As noted above, giants' size is often portrayed negatively: we tend to like stories of the smaller, quicker witted hero defeating the bigger, lumbering villain. The idea of the giant as villain isn't universal though: we've met the giant heroes of Somali myth already in this piece, and the legendary ten foot tall Emperor Keikō of Japan also deserves a mention among other giant heroes worldwide. For these heroes, their giant nature allows them to fight otherwise impossible enemies, achieve tasks no other person could, and may be a sign of particular favour or being marked out for big things in some way (no pun intended!)

There are some interesting twists one could run on moving giants into a more protagonist role - Gullivers' Travels in Liliput, where Gulliver, there in the role of the giant, has a variety of demands made of him by his tiny hosts, and those sorts of situations can provide excellent opportunities for particular sorts of adventure. It's important that where the protagonist and hero is bigger than surrounding people, that we establish clearly the morality of the situation through other means, though: nobody wants a situation where the giant hero just splats tiny enemies with relative ease and there's no sense of threat or challenge. Rather, we have to focus on the giant's size enabling them to take on proportionally bigger challenges that ordinary people could not - and perhaps also we need to establish that size isn't everything, with potential drawbacks to being a giant whether that's the cost of food, the inability to fit into the same sized spaces as everyone else, or the jealousy or hatred of others.

Giants as landscape designers

One thing that giants are especially good for, compared to other kinds of monster, is having roles in shaping the landscape and world around them. This is because they combine the scale and strength needed to feel like potential landscape-shaping creatures with enough rationality and humanity to allow them to do so in a more thought out way than, say, a hydra or most dragons. The real world has plenty of examples of this, from the giants' causeway to the 'cyclopean walls' of Mycenean Greek cities made of stone blocks that seemed otherwise unmoveable.

All too often, the worlds of fantasy settings lack the powerful link between creatures and the land around them which is a massive part of most real-world mythologies, settling into being a generic backdrop of trees and hills. Linking stories and creatures like our giants back into that landscape, even when they're not visible, can be useful in a number of ways. First, it can be a trailer: you set up the sheer enormity of the giant when you see the huge lake that locals say he dug one day just so he could have a bath big enough to sit in, or the mountain ravine that she cleft out with her axe because she was angry that the mountain was bigger than she was. Second, it can show the giant as existing beyond, and potentially having utility beyond, its role as a combat encounter. Could the characters trick or bribe a giant into reshaping the landscape to their benefit in some way? Third, it can create a sense of spectacle and draw characters, players or readers back towards the physicality of the world they're moving through.


As a final point, it's worth me pointing you to a few other sources that sparked this thinking. Most notably, I mentioned Dael Kingsmill's ideas for giants video above, and friend of Exilian James Holloway's Monster Man podcast also has lots of episodes with giants (seriously). I hope you find these useful additions to your thinking.

So there you have it - some more ways and thoughts on how to use giants and why they can be such useful and versatile parts of a setting. Have you had particularly good uses of giants, or have you used one of the tropes discussed in this article? Do let me know in the discussion below!

« Last Edit: October 24, 2020, 05:43:57 PM by Jubal »


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Re: Seven More Things to do with Giants by Jubal
« Reply #1 on: October 24, 2020, 05:11:37 PM »
Great article!

Your mention of the hunt reminded me of attack on Titan, have you seen it? A team begins hunting the giant but the tables are turned and a situation emerges much like you describe: fleeing on horses for hours then attempting to hide.
The resource denial is explored a little in those series too.

They are your more traditional man eating baddy giants, but quite terrifying.
Not multiple sentient giant arachnid insurance policemen from Winnipeg


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Re: Seven More Things to do with Giants by Jubal
« Reply #2 on: October 24, 2020, 10:53:20 PM »
So I've never seen Attack on Titan but I did play the weird multiplayer video game someone put out once, which was An Experience to say the very least...
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