Giants have been an iconic figure since storytelling began. We all had a favourite giant as children with popular culture littered with giant figures. Such lovable characters such as Gulliver, St. Micheal, and the BFG are flanked by the bean stalk giants and those who would grind bones into bread.
We’ll start in Scotland with the tale of the King of Lochlin’s three daughters.
The King of Lochlin’s Three Daughters
There was a king over Lochlin, once upon a time, who had three daughters. They went out on a day to take a walk, and there came three giants, who took with them the daughters of the king, and there was no knowing where they had gone.
Then the king sent word for the wise man of the place, and he asked him if he knew where his daughters had gone. The wizard said to the king that three giants had taken them with them, and they were in the earth down below, and there was no way to get them but by making a ship that would sail on sea and land. So it was that the king set out an order, any one who would build a ship that would sail on sea and on land, that he would get the king’s big daughter to marry.
There was a widow there who had three sons; and the eldest said to his mother, “Cook for me a bannock. I am going away to cut wood and to build a ship that will go to seek the daughters of the king. Give me a big bannock; it will be small enough before I build a ship.”
He got it and went away. He arrived where there was a great wood and a river, and there he sat at the side of the river to eat his bannock. A great Shape came out of the river and she asked a part of his meal. He said that he would not give her a morsel, that it was little enough for himself. He began cutting the wood, and every tree he cut would be on foot again; and so he was till the night came.
When the the night came, he went home mournfully and tearfully. His mother asked, “How went it with thee to-day, my son?”
“But black ill,” answered the lad. “Every tree I would cut would be on foot again.”
A day or two after this, the middle brother said that he himself would go; and he asked his mother to cook him a cake; and in the very way as it happened to his eldest brother, so it happened to him. The Shape came from the water and asked a part of the cake. He gave it her. When she had eaten her own share of the bannock, she said to him that she knew what had brought him there as well as he himself, but he was to go home, and to be sure to meet her there at the end of a day and year; and that the ship would be ready at the end.
It was thus it happened. At the end of a day and a year the widow’s young son went, and found the ship floating on the river, fully equipped. He went away then with the ship, with a following of gentlemen, as great as were in the kingdom, to marry the daughters of the king.
They were but a short time sailing when they saw a man drinking a river that was there. They asked him, “What art thou doing there?”
“I am drinking up this river.”
“Thou hadst better come with me, and I will give thee meat and wages, and better work than that.”
“I will,” said he.
They had not gone forward far, when they saw a man eating stoats in a park.
“What art thou doing there?” said he.
“I am here going to eat all the stoats in this park.”
“Thou hadst better go with me, and thou wilt get work and wages better than raw flesh.”
“I will,” said he.
They went but a short distance when they saw another man with his ear to the earth.
“What art thou doing there?” said he.
“I am here hearing the grass coming through earth.”
“Go with me, and thou wilt get meat and better wages than to be there with thy ear to the earth.”
They were thus sailing back and forwards, when the man who was listening said, “This is the place in which are the king’s daughters and the giants.”
The widow’s son and the three who had fallen in with them were let down in a creel in a great hole that was there. They reached the house of the big giant.
“Ha! ha!” said the giant, “I know well what thou art seeking here. Thou art seeking the king’s daughter, but thou wilt not get that, unless thou hast a man that will drink as much water as I.”
He set the man who was drinking the river to hold drinking against the giant, and before he was half satisfied the giant burst. Then they went where the second giant was.
“Ho, hoth! ha, hath!” said the giant. “I know well what sent thee here, thou art seeking the king’s daughter; but thou shalt not get her, if thou hast not a man who will eat as much flesh as I.”
He set the man who was eating the stoats to hold the eating of flesh against the giant, but before he was half satisfied the giant burst. Then he went where the third giant was.
“Haio!” said the giant. “I know what sent thee here; but thou wilt not get the king’s daughter, by any means, unless thou stayest a day and a year by me, a slave.”
“I will do that,” said he, and he sent up in the basket, first the three men, and then the king’s daughters. The three great men were waiting at the mouth of the hole till they should come up, and they went with them to the king, and told the king that they themselves had done all the daring deeds.
When the end of a day and year had come, the widow’s son said to the giant that he was going.
“I have an eagle that will set you up to the top of the hole,” said the giant.
The giant set the eagle away with him, and five stoats and ten for a meal for her; but the eagle went not half-way up through the hole when she had eaten the stoats and returned back again.
“Thou must remain by me another day and year, then I will send thee away,” said the giant.
When the end of this year came he sent the eagle away with him, and ten stoats and twenty. They went this time well farther on than they went before, but she ate the stoats and turned back.
“Thou must,” said the giant, “stay by me another year, and then I will send thee away.”
The end of this year came, and the giant sent them away, with threescore of stoats for the eagle’s meat. When they were at the mouth of the hole the stoats were eaten, and she was going to turn back; but he took a steak out of his own thigh, and gave this to the eagle, and with one spring she was on the surface of the earth.
At the time of parting the eagle gave him a whistle, saying, “Any hard lot that comes on thee, whistle and I will be at thy side.”
He did not allow his foot to stop, or empty a puddle out of his shoe, till he reached the king’s big town. He went where there was a smith in the town, and asked him if he wanted a man to blow the bellows.
“Yes,” said the smith.
He was but a short time there when the king’s big daughter sent word for the smith.
“I am hearing,” said she, “that thou art the best smith in the town; but if thou dost not make for me a golden crown, like the one that I had when I was with the giant, the head shall be taken off thee.”
The smith came home sorrowfully, and his wife asked him his news from the king’s house.
“There is but poor news,” said the smith. “The king’s daughter is asking that a golden crown shall be made for her, like the crown that she had when she was under the earth with the giant; but what do I know what likeness was on the crown that the giant had?”
The bellows-blowing servant said, “Let not that set thee thinking; get thou for me enough gold, and I will not be long making the crown.”
The smith got gold as he was asked, with the king’s order. The servant went in to the smithy, shut the door, and began to splinter the gold asunder and to throw it out of the window. Each one that came the way was gathering the gold that the bellows lad was hurling out. Here, then, he blew the whistle, and in the twinkling of an eye the eagle came.
“Go,” said he to the eagle, “and bring here the golden crown that is above the big giant’s door.”
The eagle went. She was not long on the way, and brought the crown back with her. The lad gave it to the smith, who went merrily and cheerily with it to the king’s daughter.
“Well then,” said she, “if I did not know that it could not be done, I would not believe that this is not the crown I had when I was with the big giant.”
The king’s second daughter then said to the smith, “Thou wilt lose thy head if thou dost not make for me a silver crown, like the one I had when I was with the giant.”
The smith took himself home in misery; but his wife went to meet him, expecting great news and flattery. But so it was, and the bellows-blower said that he would make a silver crown if he could get enough silver.
The smith got plenty of silver with the king’s order.
The servant went and did as he did before. He whistled; the eagle came.
“Go,” said he, “and bring hither here to me, the silver crown that the king’s middle daughter had when she was with the giant.”
The eagle went, and was not long coming back with the silver crown. The smith went merrily, cheerily, with it to the king’s daughter.
“Well, then,” said she, “it is marvellously like the crown I had when I was with the giant.”
The king’s young daughter said to the smith that he should make a copper crown for her, like the one she had when she was with the giant.
The smith now was taking courage, and went home much more pleasantly this turn.
The lad began to splinter the copper, and to throw it out of each door and window; that now they were from each end of the town gathering the copper, as they were gathering the silver and gold. He blew the whistle, and the eagle was at his side.
“Go back,” said he, “and bring here hither to me the copper crown that the king’s young daughter had when she was with the giant.”
The eagle went, and was not long going and coming. He gave the crown to the smith, who went merrily, cheerily, and gave it to the king’s young daughter.
“Well, then,” said she, “I would not believe that this was not the very crown that I had when I was with the giant underground, if there were a way of getting it.”
Here the king said to the smith that he must tell him where he had learned crown-making, “for I did not know the like of thee was in the kingdom.”
“Well, then,” said the smith, “with your leave, oh king, it was not I who made the crowns, but the lad I have blowing the bellows.”
“I must see thy lad,” said the king. “He must make a crown for myself.”
The king ordered four horses in a coach that they should go to seek the smith’s servant. When the coach came to the smithy, the lad was smutty and dirty, blowing the bellows. The horsemen came in and asked for the man who was going to look on the king.
“That is he yonder, blowing the bellows,” said the smith.
“Ooo! ooo!” said they, and they caught him and threw him head foremost into the coach, as if they had a dog.
They went not far on their journey when he blew the whistle. The eagle was at his side.
“If ever thou didst good for me, take me out of this, and fill it full of stones,” said he.
The eagle did so.
The king was out waiting for them, and when he opened the door of the coach, he was like to be dead with the stones bouncing on top of him. He ordered the servants to be caught and hanged for giving such an affront to the king.
Then the king sent other servants with a coach; and when they had reached the smithy, “Ooo! ooo!” said they. “Is this the black thing the king sent us to seek?”
They caught him and cast him into the coach as if they had a turf peat.
But they went not far on their way when he blew the whistle, and the eagle was at his side.
“Take me out of this,” said he, “and fill it with every dirt thou canst get.”
When the coach reached the palace, the king went to open the door. All the dirt and rubbish fell about the king’s head. Then he fell into a great rage, and ordered the horsemen to be hanged immediately.
Then the king sent his own confidential servant, and when he reached the smithy, he caught the black bellows-blower by the hand.
“The king,” said he, “sent me to seek thee. Thou hadst better clean a little of the coal off thy face.”
The lad did so; he cleaned himself well, and right well, and the king’s servant caught him by the hand and put him into the coach.
They were but a short time going, when he blew the whistle. The eagle came, and he asked her to bring the gold and silver dress that was with the big giant here without delay, and the eagle was not long going and coming with the dress.
The lad arrayed himself in the gorgeous robe. When they came to the palace, the king opened the door of the coach, and there was the very finest man the king ever saw.
Together they entered the palace, and the lad told the king how it happened to him from first to last.
The three great men who were going to marry the king’s daughters were hanged, and the king’s big daughter was given to him to marry. They made them a wedding the length of twenty days; and I left them dancing, and I know not but that they are cutting capers on the floor till the day of to-day.
Glover, W. J. (1920). British Fairy and Folk Tales. London: A. & C. Black.
One of our favourite tales of giants is that of Archibald Leopold Ruthmore’s from The Last Giants by François Place:
When Archibald Leopold Ruthmore finds a giant tooth, he becomes convinced that giants are still living somewhere in the world and sets out to find them. In deepest Asia, he discovers a community of giants, who welcome him in and take care of him as he observes their way of life. However, eager to share his discovery, Ruthmore exposes their existence to the rest of the world, and the giants fall victim to curiosity, thoughtlessness and greed. Illustrated with water-colours, this tale is set in the 1800s with a moral very relevant to our own times
Were giants only the things of myth and legend? Or is there more truth to these old tales?