What’s 20-feet tall, lives in the clouds, and can smell your nationality? That’s right, it’s time to talk about giants. They’re big, they’re loud, and they’re bad guys… usually. Kinda. Really it’s more of a mid-boss situation, except the good ones. Wow, there are a lotta caveats around giants, aren’t there? Well, we’ve got plenty to say on the topic, and only some of it is complaining about The Green Knight!
Generously transcribed by Olivia SB. Volunteer to transcribe a podcast.
Chris: You’re listening to the Mythcreants podcast with your hosts Oren Ashkenazi, Wes Matlock, and Chris Winkle. [opening song]
Wes: Hello and welcome to another episode of the Mythcreants podcast. I’m your host Wes and with me today is:
Wes: Whew, that was quite a climb. Excuse me, I’m out of breath. We’re coming at you, not live, from a cloud kingdom this week because for reasons today’s podcast topic lives in the clouds sometimes, and we needed to do field research to see what the heck is going on with giants in the clouds. And also we recently saw The Green Knight and got weirded out by that scene. So, let’s talk about giants.
Chris: Why are they in the clouds? Is this after Mount Olympus or something?
Wes: There might be a Titan component there, but why a beanstalk? Magic beans?
Oren: Folks, we’re missing a very important point here. Okay, they live in the clouds, whatever, maybe the clouds have better foundations than we thought. But the thing that is really weird about giants is that not only can they smell your blood when it’s still inside your body, they can identify your nationality from it.
(Wes and Chris laughing)
Oren: It’s like, “I smell the blood of an Englishman.”
Chris: They have more advanced science than we do, that’s all I got to say.
Oren: It’s like, if he’d been Welsh, you would have known that? It’s like, “I smell the blood of a Norwegian.” What are you smelling there, man?
Wes: That’s a really good question. I guess Chris is right, they just have talents that we don’t know about.
Oren: Magical smell is not a talent I normally associate with giants, but there it is.
Wes: There it is. We thought talking about giants would be cool today. I like giants because they’re basically ubiquitous. Pretty much every culture has a story about your larger than average humanoid, which is pretty neat. The stories kind of make sense- a big, tall version of you is kind of threatening, especially if it eats Englishmen and drinks their blood. So I think it’s kind of fun. It is definitely far less neat and bad when you get into stories that focus on more monstrous aspects of giants, cause it can encroach into ableist territory, because gigantism is a real thing and people have this, and as long as you are mindful of that when crafting fictional giants you can still have them eat children and whatnot, that’s cool.
Oren: When it comes to giants I just keep thinking of that one SungWon skit where he’s making fun of Marvel villains, and he’s like, “Ooh, he’s a big, bad man, he’s very bad.” That’s kind of what these giants feel like, it’s like, “Oh, hey, we need a guy for our mystical hero to fight. How can we make him scary in a way that doesn’t take a long time to explain?” “Well what if he was just real big? You know, we were messing with Photoshop’s size adjustment tool and he got real big, and now the hero has to fight him, and it’ll be very impressive when he wins.” “Good job.”
Chris: Yeah, the thing I would say about anytime you’re making a humanoid species or what have you, is to make them operate like people, as opposed to being weird and gimmicky and incoherent. So, the thing with giants is there’s a lot of giants that are specifically made to have really low intelligence and act irrationally, and that’s just kind of racist because you’re presenting a human-like group that is clearly designed to be inferior in some ways.
Oren: At that point you’re just doing the orc thing again, but make them big: orcs but big.
Chris: Whereas you could actually make them a lot more interesting if you think of them as intelligent beings that- they can operate differently, but they should still do things that make sense. And if they get angry it should be for a reason, not just cause they’re angry and they go around hitting everything.
Wes: It strikes me as that gained traction probably from The Odyssey, because how do you face such a large threatening enemy other than you’re just simply smarter than them, and it’s really easy cause they’re all kind of foolish. You’re right, it’s just not fair, it’s boring.
Oren: The whole concept of outsmarting a foe that is physically more powerful than you- I get the appeal, that’s pretty standard protagonist-ing 101, because if your protagonist is the big one and has all the advantages it’s like, “Well, okay, I guess they won.” So I get that, it’s not an inherently bad concept, but when you start getting into the concept of like, “Well, there is a whole species of giants and they are all very unintelligent and go around saying ‘grr’ and kind of look like popular imaginations of what Neanderthals might look like, it’s like, maybe not, maybe back off on that, bro.
Wes: Maybe back off.
Oren: Pump the brakes.
Chris: I would say you could also outsmart regular people. The giant doesn’t have to have low intelligence to be outsmarted.
Oren: But he’s a big, bad man. He’s very bad.
(Wes and Chris laughing)
Wes: So make your giants have good, normal intelligence. That’s fine.
Oren: I realized as I was preparing for this episode that I knew basically nothing about giants from folklore or mythology. So I went to the place that we all go when we want accurate information, YouTube. And I got to say, my favorite giants are the ones where Gaia, the Greek goddess Gaia was like, “Man, these Olympians are not great, I don’t like them. They overthrew my children, and they’re my grandchildren, but I don’t like them. They’re my no good millennial grandchildren. So I’m going to get them and I’m going to get them the way I know how, which is that I’m going to give birth to a species of genetically engineered super soldiers. And that’s the giants.” That’s very metal. Good on you, Gaia.
Wes: Yeah. I love that. I like the variety in giants, but I like that consistently a giant is huge, heavy, loud, strong, just by virtue of being quite larger than us, those things remain consistent, but it’s better when giants are also mysterious or ancient. I apply that to Treebeard. I know he’s an Ent, but fight me. He’s a giant: he’s huge, heavy, loud, and strong.
Oren: He’s very big man.
Chris: Maybe he can be both a giant and a tree. Maybe these things can co-exist. Certainly giants, you can add a lot of novelty to them and that won’t necessarily happen if they’re just scaled up people. Not that that’s bad, depending on your setting, to have some people who are just larger, but are just otherwise fairly normal people that we’re used to. But if you’re going to make a big deal about how they’re giants, usually giving them something else- I really do like giants that look like mountain rocks and mountains, or have some other elemental aspects or what have you, or are trees, that’s another option for making them novel and making them stand out and be different.
Oren: A lot of the mythological giants that I found had other non-human aspects. A lot of them were not just humans scaled up, and I think those are more interesting, would be my assumption. I do find it interesting that giants fit so well into our concept of things that are old. They seem old. And they don’t have to be, there’s no rule that says they need to be old, but it sort of naturally seems like they are, that giants are from a past era. And I feel like that might be because a lot of the biggest bones that we dig out of the ground are from species that aren’t around anymore. Blue whales notwithstanding, terrestrial species are on average smaller now than they used to be.
Wes: That lends quite a lot of belief to that, and it’s kind of fun. The longevity of a large creature is interesting as well, unless you have modern medicine, I suppose, and then you can be as tall as me and have a long life expectancy. But yeah, I like the oddities, and Chris talking about stones just reminded me of some of my favorite giants. That episode of Hilda, the Midnight Giant, they’re super, super cute. One giant is just a mountain. She fell asleep and just became a mountain.
Chris: But they still act like people. They’re mountains, but they also act in reasonable ways. One of the things I love about that episode is we draw parallels, because Hilda is dealing with the elves, who are really tiny in this setting, and the fact that the elves are getting annoyed that she’s stomping around their town. And at the same time, the giants are dealing with the fact that “Wow, the world has changed and now there’s all of these really tiny folk down on the ground that we’re always stomping around.” Hilda gets her house stomped at the end of that episode by a giant, but we draw parallels and despite it being a little strange that they can fall asleep and become a mountain for a thousand years and they end up jumping into the sky or something, they still operate like people.
Wes: I like how the other flavor component of that was when the Wood Man is telling Hilda about giants and how, I think Jorgen is the giant that she befriends, the one who had guard duty on the highest mountain. And it’s like, wait, you’re telling me that in the Hilda universe, giants sit on the highest mountain and stare into space because that’s guard duty, like what is up? That adds just such a creepy flavor to it, I love it.
Oren: Netflix, we have ideas for Hilda season four, give us a call!
(Wes and Chris laughing)
Chris: Again, Narnia has some really classic giants. Once again, I do like the gimmick of, “Hey, these look like big rocks. Wait, those are toes.” The Silver Chair, they go traveling, they meet giants. They also meet typical cloud giants that want to eat Englishman, but on the ground. But these ones are much more clever. They’re the ones that are like, “Hey, we’ll feed you and take care of you. No, we don’t want to eat you. That’s not gonna happen.” Wink, wink.
Oren: These are charisma giants.
(Chris and Wes laughing)
Chris: I do think that again, the cannibalism, I don’t know if you would call it cannibalism if they’re giants, but the eating people, I wouldn’t say it’s necessarily bad, but Attack on Titan, the cannibalism is definitely part of the anti-Semitism that’s in that show.
Oren: I actually haven’t seen far enough into it. I’ve only seen the first season, so as far as I know, the Titans are just big, scary bad guys, and I’m not watching any further.
Chris: But the Titans are a little strange because they definitely don’t act like people. They act really unreasonably, they just start sieging the town and just stuffing people in their mouth, and it doesn’t feel like rational behavior. It doesn’t feel like they come there just to feed and then leave again. It’s just they start showing up, and then we find out that people, regular sized people, will turn into Titans. Which makes it even stranger that they just come and siege and just randomly stuff their faces with people.
Oren: The Titans are originally just monsters, they’re monsters that are shaped like giant people, but they aren’t sapient as far as we can tell, and they don’t have a culture. They don’t even seem to need to eat humans, as far as anyone can tell, they just do. And that creates some pretty scary bad guys. And then once they reveal that some of them are being controlled by people- I don’t know what the reveal of this is going to be, cause I’ve only seen season one, but I feel like there’s not any way it’s going to make sense, because we’ve seen that the Titans can overwhelm human defenses and really the only thing stopping them is that they don’t behave with agency and with intelligence, but then we find out there are apparently giants who have that too. So who knows. And from what I understand the plot after season one is a bit of a mess, so that’s about what I would expect.
Chris: That is a good question, as far as we know, I think, at the beginning of Attack on Titan, as far as we know, they are their own species, but as it goes on, it starts to look like that might not be the case.
Oren: Yeah, my understanding is that there’s some problematic stuff that happens later, but I refuse to watch further into the show to find out. What I do want to know is why the Big Friendly, Giant’s job in The Big Friendly Giant is to be a dreamsmith. That is just such an odd job for him.
Wes: Maybe just cause he’s really cool.
Oren: No other giant interacts with dreams, as far as I can tell, the other giants all just eat people.
Wes: Maybe by suppressing that urge to feast on children he realized, “Hey, there’s another way we can do stuff.”
Oren: I have so many questions about how he learned that trade.
Wes: No, it’s a good question. But The Big Friendly Giant is fun just because Roald Dahl is saying, “Hey, people think giants are monsters that eat children, and here’s the one who’s not. I’m just going to subvert this, and why not make him also have dream power because that’s just fun.” It is a good question though, and not a power you often see associated with any other giants.
Oren: Yeah, it was interesting. I actually had to search quite a bit to find stories that use giants as villains, so I found it interesting that when Roald Dahl wrote The Big Friendly Giant, evil giants was enough of a trope that the book became notable for subverting it. It feels like maybe they aren’t as popular now as they used to be. It was just from my own personal research, I haven’t done any studies.
Wes: It makes you wonder how giant, like the word has associations with what image that conjures to mind, has changed. Maybe ogres and trolls were just all giants. And now we very much think giants are just more or less variations on humans, but much larger. So that could be something that Roald Dahl was pushing against, maybe just giant was stand-in for ogre, or something like that.
Oren: It’s gotten more taxonomically specific, is what it is.
Wes: Which is super fun.
Oren: Thanks, D&D. It’s all D&D’s fault.
Wes: It is.
Chris: I’ve seen a lot of stories where giants are encountered or obstacles at some level, but they’re rarely made into their primary antagonists. So it’s something that the hero encounters on their journey out and about, and provides scenery, like in the Hobbit movies.
Oren: So they’re like mid-bosses then?
Chris: They’re mid-bosses or obstacles, or almost like representatives of the environment, of a hostile environment.
Wes: All giants are metaphors.
(Wes and Chris laughing)
Chris: I don’t know if it’s that, it would be too hard to figure out ways for protagonists to actually battle them, especially if they’re really, really large, or it’s just that they don’t stay interesting for that long. It’s like, “Oh, cool. Big mountain people.” And then we look at them and stare, and then the novelty starts to wear off. So maybe that’s the issue, but they do seem to be obstacles and often they’re possibly antagonistic, but they usually aren’t supplying the main obstacles for the whole story.
Wes: I think one of the issues with that is, giants, when they appear, are kind of an elemental or an environmental force of destruction that doesn’t seem like the protagonist can reason with them, or, like Oren mentioned, people have culture, and giants are so one-off that it’s kind of hard to know what any of their motivations are, and so if they’re just more isolated occurrences, you don’t have to delve into that, but because we don’t know what’s going on with them, they make for bad antagonists.
Oren: Yeah, and it’s hard for giants to do a lot of the things that you would want a main antagonist to do. For one thing, it’s pretty easy to find where a giant is.
Wes: “Where’s the giant’s home base?”
Oren: You can’t have the giant antagonist sneaking around and be like, “Well, where’s the bad guy?” It’s like, “Well, I don’t know, look for the ten storey tall man, there we found him.” You can have a hero fight a giant, but it’s not going to be the same kind of fight because it’s an inherently unequal battle, and so your hero is going to need some kind of clever strategy to win.
Chris: A mech suit, probably!
Oren: I mean, honestly, that might actually make it easier if they had a mech suit, cause then they’d be fighting on even ground. Usually they come up with some kind of clever like, “I’ll lure the giant into this canyon and drop rocks on them,” or something. And it’s like, okay, yeah, sure, that works once.
Chris: Have we considered the Godzilla method, where what we’ll do is just have multiple giants and set them against each other?
Oren: And then they’ll just become the characters. Yeah, I mean, sure, that could work.
Chris: And in one movie they’ll be immune to nukes and then the next we’ll just use electricity and it’ll work fine.
Oren: Yeah, well some of them are weakened by electricity and some of them get power from electricity for reasons, who knows.
Chris: It is a little bit similar to the Godzilla problem though, where all of these movies about these gigantic creatures, it’s just hard for the human protagonists to interact with them in any meaningful way, or to affect them in any meaningful way, because they’re so gigantic, and it’s just very difficult to plot around that. And most of the movies, they will do things like, we’ll say that one of the hydra monsters is the bad one, and then we’ll use all of our human ingenuity to get Godzilla where he needs to be to defend Earth against the hydra space invader.
Oren: King Ghidorah, for those of you who are Godzilla connoisseurs.
Chris: Seeing that problem, you could see that really large giants might have a similar issue, where it’s like how do we even interact with them? We’re not on the same scale.
Oren: Yeah. It’s hard to even talk to a giant if you’re a regular sized person. You can do it, but it takes a lot of logistical effort and it’s just easier to write a story around a human-sized enemy.
Wes: Hard to get a giant’s attention or communicate with it is as good as segueway to The Green Knight as we could possibly make.
Wes: So I had to go quickly look at the source material, and there’s one clause that mentions giants and it’s kind of at the end of this thing. Basically like the second part of The Green Knight is saying that he had a ton of adventures, but it doesn’t really describe anything in detail. And so the movie just really did a bunch of random stuff with that, but the line about the giant simply says that la la la, he warred with serpents, bulls and bears and boars and sort of- “and giants that assailed him from the high fell.” So he battled with giants sometimes. And that’s literally it, nothing else.
Chris: That’s all we have in the original.
Oren: “Don’t try it Gawain, I have the high ground.”
Chris: (laughing) Oh no!
Wes: So then in the movie, he’s hanging out with his little Reynard the Fox friend and sees a bunch of giants walking around.
Chris: But first he eats mushrooms just because we need to make it really confusing whether these giants are actually there or he’s imagining them.
Oren: Because this world is otherwise so obviously realistic, it might be weird if there were just unambiguously magic giants running around.
Chris: And I would like to say he wasn’t on shrooms, just because I feel like the filmmaker should be communicating in some way that what he’s seeing is because of the mushrooms. It’s like the unreliable narrator rule. You can’t just say the entire book is non-canonical because there was an unreliable narrator. To use an reliable narrator argument the book has to call into question the specific statements that the narrator makes and everything else is assumed to be true, because otherwise you can’t consume the story questioning whether everything is real constantly, that’s just not feasible. So I would like to say that these giants are real, they are not mushroom influenced because there’s no sign that they are. But, at the same time, he did recently eat some mushrooms. So it’s definitely close enough that somebody could make the argument that they were not there and they were just mushroom hallucinations.
Oren: You could, but why would you? Why bother?
Chris: Because they’re bad and I don’t want them to be real, so I don’t like these giants, can we just make them not there?
Oren: There are two possible scenarios here. One, in the middle of this quest, there was a spot on the screen that literally said interlude and then he saw some giants that looked real ugly and were not well animated, and then he kept going like nothing happened. Or, option two, he got high off some mushrooms he ate, there was a thing that said interlude, and then while he was high off mushrooms he ate, he saw some badly animated giants and kept going like nothing happened.
Oren: Those are the two options and they’re essentially the same.
Chris: (laughing) It’s true.
Oren: I don’t even know what the purpose of having him eat the mushrooms was. I expected he would eat the mushrooms and then because he was high he would have a harder time on his journey somehow? He would be hallucinating and he would nearly walk into a pit, or something? I expected them to have an effect, but that was because I was only about an hour into the movie at that point.
Chris: Because you were a sweet summer child who expected good storytelling from this movie.
Oren: I was still naive enough to assume that anything we saw would matter at any point, which it doesn’t, it never does, and so the giants are pretty par for the course in that regard.
Wes: I mean, it just gets back to our podcast on interludes, when nothing good happens in an interlude (laughing).
Chris: (laughing) Yeah!
Oren: Literally nothing.
Chris: So the giants, I mean, we can all go into all the reasons that they bothered us. One thing that really struck me is the fact that this is surprisingly high in realism, the aesthetics of this film. The aesthetics are gorgeous, the music was gorgeous, I really appreciate those parts. And I really appreciated that we had high enough realism that people had flawed skin, but nobody’s being disemboweled. We can have high realism without being edgy, oh my goodness! Whoa, mind blowing! But then the giants show up, and they are very, very low in realism. And it just does not feel like it fits the aesthetic that the film has clearly very carefully established. And the biggest thing for me was the fact that they’re proportioned like regular women, but they’re really, really large giants. Giants come in a whole range of sizes, these are particularly large ones, like the size of, I don’t know about mountains, but foothills at least.
Oren: Yeah, these are skyscraper-sized giants.
Chris: Skyscraper-sized giants, but they have the same proportions as normal people, and that just does not work. Gravity does not work that way.
Wes: No. It bothered me that they didn’t look stable enough. It’s like if giants were like toothpicks and then they had E.T. eyes. (laughing) That’s a little odd.
Oren: I have to admit I had a different interpretation here, because to me, the beginning of the movie starts off very realistic and gritty seeming, but by then he’d already encountered a headless ghost and a guy who is an Ent who could have his head cut off without dying, so to me at that point giants didn’t break the aesthetic any more than had already happened. Which was again why I was so nonplussed with the possible explanation that this is a mushroom vision, because I just don’t think it matters.
Chris: I think there’s a difference between aesthetics of realism and fantastical elements, having fantastical things doesn’t automatically make the aesthetic low in realism. It’s how they’re presented, and the ghost that doesn’t have her head, she’s not very surreal looking and the Green Knight- in the original poem he’s a dude who’s green, and he has green skin. He sounds pretty cartoony in comparison to the Green Knight that shows up and has a bark mask or face on. So having these giants that are naked women with blue-green or blue-gray skin, they look very surreal in comparison because the actual physics of the situation clearly do not work.
Wes: Yeah, and the CGI rendering, they’re very alien, hairless as well. Like you pointed out, there’s a lot of close, accurate detailing in a lot of the characters in that movie, and then they were so smooth, and there was like a herd of them.
Oren: I’m not a visual effects expert, but to me when I saw that, I was like did someone forget to finish this?
Wes: That was exactly how I felt too.
Oren: I suspect that’s not what happened, I’m sure for some reason they were supposed to look like that. But when I saw it, it just looked unfinished. I was like, that doesn’t look good, and I do not have the expertise to explain why exactly, I just saw it and was like, meh, okay. But we’re done now, we’re done with that. He shouted at them with the axe and then left, good job.
Wes: And then they tried to respond, but they did that thing where presumably either giants don’t speak English or their vocal chords are so large that you can’t really hear them, which is, I guess interesting, but then it’s like, well then how could you ever have a conversation with one in your story? If you want it to be “realistic”?
Oren: Also the fox howls like a wolf in that scene for some reason. And it’s like, that’s not a sound a fox makes. Get outta here, get outta here fox.
Wes: Get outta here! (laughing)
Chris: What does the fox say?
Wes: Oh no, Chris! (laughing)
Oren: It makes kind of a weird screaming sound. It certainly doesn’t sound like that howl.
Chris: So, I did like that their voices were deep. We don’t always need to have conversations, this is a very brief appearance. Technically, I think I there’s no reason they couldn’t have smaller voice boxes.
Oren: Maybe they could have secondary voice boxes installed in their hands, so they could reach out and talk to us that way.
Chris: But having huge voice boxes with really, really deep voices, but then also having them proportioned so they’re like super skinny, those things clearly do not go together.
Oren: It reminds me of how, in A Song of Ice and Fire, the giants are described specifically as having disproportionately wide legs and lower torsos, which is Martin trying to explain how a giant could be very large and not collapse under its own weight. I was disappointed with the giants in A Song of Ice and Fire. They sounded cool and they seemed interesting because they were just people, they were another species, but they weren’t inherently evil, and then I wanted to see more of them, but doesn’t the one giant who has a name die?
Wes: Yes (laughing).
Oren: Doesn’t he die pretty early? And I was like, oh, well, okay. Maybe introduce a few more giants before you start killing them. Cause I thought the giants were kind of neat. I wanted to see more of those guys, and it was like, no, they’re done now. End of that.
Wes: End of that. What about Fezzik from The Princess Bride?
Oren: That’s a real person, right? I don’t know if I would call him a giant.
Wes: I know, but for the purposes of the show, we’re accepting a world where giants are people. I can’t remember if they say that he’s actually from a place where there’s other people like him, but you’re basically saying that humans range to six and a half, but there’s other humans that come from this place and they’re all over eight foot or seven foot or something like that. I don’t mind it, but I feel like what we’ve talked about, the best parts of giants are some kind of mysterious novelty to them, and just being a tall person doesn’t quite bring that much to a story.
Oren: Well, in The Princess Bride, at least in the movie, the only thing they tell us about Fezzik’s backstory is that he was unemployed in Greenland.
Wes: That’s right.
(Wes and Chris laughing)
Oren: And so I don’t think the movie makes any claim that he’s anything other than a very tall, big person.
Wes: Other than Vizzini threatening to go find himself a new giant.
Oren: Yeah, Vizzini is kind of a douche.
Chris: But yeah, I think it’s fine. Cause they can just be, again, more similar and just ordinary people, I think that there’s a place for that too. Him being big is used to give him a role in the story, but I don’t think it’s necessarily needed to provide lots of novelty, because he’s an interesting character, frankly, that just has other ways of providing novelty.
Wes: He has a great gift for rhyme.
Chris: Yes, his rhymes, exactly.
Oren: Well, with that Princess Bride reference, I think that’s a sign that it is about time to end this podcast, as we’re also several minutes over time. Before we go I want to thank a few of our patrons. First we have Kathy Ferguson who is a professor of political theory in Star Trek. Next we have Ayman Jaber, he is an urban fantasy writer and a connoisseur of Marvel. And finally we have Danita Rambo. She lives at therambogeeks.com. We’ll talk to you next week.[closing song]
Chris: This has been the Mythcreants podcast, opening and closing theme, ‘The princess who saved herself’ by Jonathan Coulton.
P.S. Our bills are paid by our wonderful patrons. Could you chip in?