Giants in War: Frost Giants & Firbolgs
When I attended Balticon 50 over Memorial Day Weekend, I had the pleasure of seeing an amazing panel that looked at created religions in science fiction and fantasy. I arrived early and had the opportunity to speak to the panelists, one a longtime author (Lawrence Watt Evans) and one a fan with a history degree. We spoke about many topics, but when I realized how similar the myths about giants in war were, I was fascinated.
Giants have a broad appeal in myth and legend, and appear in two broad categories: individual giants, and races of giants. I was surprised at how often the various races of giants lost when they fought, given the advantages that height and strength offered to individual giants in combat, until I did more research and looked at what different cultures’ stories about giants, and particularly giants in war, had in common.
The American frontier gives us tall tales like Paul Bunyan — who was probably based on real French-Canadian timbermen — and his blue ox, Babe, rumored to be responsible for the creation of the the Great Lakes, among other landmarks.
Japan gives us the tale of Daidarobotchi, a figure whose existence seems meant to explain certain natural phenomenon, as his sleeping form is said to resemble a mountain, and he appears responsible for the split double peaks of Mount Tsukuba, having dropped it when weighing it against Mount Fuji — a feat that would certainly require a giant!
The stories about Daidarobotchi remind me of Atlas, the Greco-Roman Titan, cursed to hold up the sky — he’s identified with the Atlas Mountains, created after Atlas was turned to stone when Perseus forced him to look at Medusa’s head.
It seems to me that what a lot of the stories about individual giants are linked to explanations of geology, and belong to the class of myths that are more about explaining natural phenomenon than retelling real — albeit exaggerated — events. They have more in common with stories that establish the reason for the seasons than those that mythologize the origins of a war.
But we also see fairy tales like Jack & the Beanstalk, where Jack climbs the beanstalk and discovers a Giant with an excellent nose and murderous intent. The Biblical Goliath is such a prototypical giant that his name is practically synonymous with the term.
Giantism, like Dwarfism, is a real condition that affects people. It is a likely contributor to tall tales, folklore, and myths about giants. Zhan Shichai, a Chinese man who toured the world as “Chang Woo Gow” was likely over eight feet tall. He’s far from the only Chinese giant, as the Emperor apparently employed a multitude of giants to guard the Peking Gates.
There are also cases where some people are characterized as giants, but were not affected by a misfiring of their pituitary gland. They were just abnormally tall. It seems to happen pretty often in the British Isles, actually. William Wallace was a Scottish hero, a knight who drove the English out of Scotland and was named Guardian of the Realm until he was betrayed and King Edward of England killed him. John Kelly of Killanne was a giant of a man who fought in the Irish Rebellion.
Races of Giants
The Greco-Roman tradition of course brings us the giant Cyclopses, who represented one of the obstacles that Odysseus had to overcome in the Iliad. The Daitya, who appear in Hindu mythology and fight the Devas — the Gods — out of jealousy, were also a race of giants. The Lenapé Nation has a legend about a race of Giants who protected all the local animals from being wasted by early hunters.
The Biblical Nephilim are described as the giant hybrids of angels and humans, whose existence the flood wiped out… although the term also appears in Numbers, to describe the Caananites that the Israelites drove out of Canaan during the founding of the Kingdom of Judea. Goliath was a Philistine giant, descended of a banished tribe, and lived many years after the original conquest of Canaan — David’s defeating a giant in war was one of the ways he proved himself a true king of Israel.
Irish mythology has what I consider the clearest example of my point, though most scholars do not consider it to be based on historical truth (of course, most scholars didn’t think the Trojan War really happened either, so your mileage may vary there). The Fomorians are described as the original native people of Ireland, then were defeated by Partholón — whose people were later wiped out by plague. The giant Firbolgs arrived next, but did not encounter the the Fomorians. The Firbolgs were driven into the sea by the northerners, the Tuatha de Danann, but the Fomorians stuck around and interbred with the conquerors. Eventually, the Tuatha de Danann were in turn driven out of Ireland by the arrival of human warriors in possession of iron.
In Norse mythology, the Jötunn — better known as frost giants — were banished from Asgard by the Aesir. As with the Tuatha and the Fomorians, many of the most famous figures in Norse mythology have the blood of many races in them. Loki’s ancestors include both Aesir and Jötunn, as do Odin’s. Is this a mythical testament to hybrid vigor? Or just acknowledgment that, as with many other circumstances in history, war and conquest leads to intermarriage and mixed-race children.
I didn’t think much of these old myths about driving out or conquering giants until I came across a reference in Julius Caesar’s Gallic Wars to the diet of the Germans of the era. It turns out that warrior societies — as opposed to societies like the Spartans, who valued soldiers — tend to have hunter-gatherer diets, or are at least more prone to eating meat and milk, and therefore growing larger than their agricultural counterparts. The Romans viewed their size as just one more way that the Germans were barbaric, and given the general view of giants in myth — as primeval creatures associated with the wilds, frequently in conflict with the gods — I suspect it’s a common viewpoint.
Something similar happened in Africa with the Bantu Tribes, pre-industrial groups whose way of life is primarily vegetarian and agricultural. Their hunter-gather neighbors dominated them at various points in history. It reminds me of the fate of the Gauls — the people who lost the Gallic wars in what later became France and Belgium — who lacked the structured military levies of the Romans and the warrior strength of the Germans.
Giants in War
It’s those military levies that matter, though — and, of course, the iron-working that allows for agriculture to flourish. On an individual level, large men make impressive, intimidating warriors. No matter how skilled a bantamweight fighter is, he’s going to lose against a heavyweight fighter of commensurate skill. There are good reasons that men like Goliath and Ereuthalion were made the champions of their armies; size is intimidating.
But when we’re looking broadly at societies, with few exceptions, a disciplined army of small men with a regular supply of food and superior technology will defeat even the fiercest group of giants in war.