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Several Uses of Giants
The Giant Just Out of the Way
in the Works of Spenser, Bunyan, and Lewis

Giants are a staple of fantasy literature, employable in many ways, from formidable foes to larger-than-life object lessons. Edmund Spenser, John Bunyan, and C.S. Lewis deployed their giants across this whole wide range of ways—and, more similarly, just out of the Way.

Pure allegory is hard to come by. Lewis, despite the many allegorical elements in his Narnian Chronicles, always maintained that these children's fantasies of his were not allegories. And indeed, if allegory is strictly defined as a one-to-one correspondence between characters (and other plot-elements) and ideas, his stories are not allegory. Lewis' treatment of the very first giant he wrote into Narnia, Giant Rumblebuffin, is a good case-in-point. While it may well be that Lewis includes the giant to make it clear that size and strength alone cannot triumph over the White Witch (evil), Lewis' description of Giant Rumblebuffin uses him more to "realize" the fantasy atmosphere of the story than to make any allegorical point. Rumblebuffin is portrayed as a thoroughly unintelligent, but nevertheless polite, kind, "best of the working-class" sort of character, and when he smiles, Lewis uses the opportunity to invite our more complete participation and belief in the fantasy by adding the parenthetical comment,

(Giants of any sort are now so rare in England and so few giants are good-tempered that ten to one you have never seen a giant when his face is beaming. It's a sight well worth looking at.)1

Giants are thus constructed by Lewis as occurring, if rare, in England, and our belief in them (perhaps even our having seen them) is assumed. Their more common occurrence in Narnia, and their renowned lack of intelligence is set up a few pages later in Mr. Tumnus' response to Lucy's comment, "What a nice giant he is!":

'Oh yes,' replied the Faun. 'All the Buffins always were. One of the most respected giant families in Narnia. Not very clever, perhaps (I never knew a giant that was), but an old family. With traditions, you know.'2

Pilgrim's Progress, by John Bunyan, as the classic Christian allegory might be expected to prove more purely allegorical than Lewis' Narnia—which it does—but it too falls short of pure allegory, as pointed out in an introduction by one of its editors, Roger Sharrock:

[T]he allegory of The Pilgrim's Progress is not intellectual or highly organized as [is] the sophisticated religious allegory of Dante or Spenser. Many of the figures and incidents that spring up along the route are created for the sake of an immediate effect and then passed over when a fresh incident occurs in Christian's progress; they are not closely related to the main structure of the allegory. Such are many of the personages who are simply mentioned for the effect of their names. ... In the same way the allegory is not consistently maintained; realism is always breaking in, because the one truly binding element in the structure of the narrative is Christian's drive onward through dangerous country to the Celestial City, and the stream of adventures that he encounters as a pilgrim.3 As far as Bunyan's giants are concerned, Grim and Maul from the second part of The Pilgrim's Progress serve as good examples of Sharrock's first and second assertions respectively. Grim seems to serve no more purpose than to add to the effectiveness of the chained lions as an obstacle to Christiana and her children and, as a result, to render Great-heart's help necessary in clearing the way for the family.4 Giant Maul, on the other hand, seems a bit more allegorical, representing as he does the power of the world (or perhaps of the institutional church) that tries to prevent pilgrims from leaving "[his] master's kingdom", but his battle with Great-heart, complete with brief break and example of Great-heart's fair play (somewhat reminiscent of Peter's battle with Miraz in Prince Caspian5, by the way), is portrayed very realistically, without much in the way of allegorical significance.6

But in fact, this search for "pure" allegory—in which Sharrock has referred us to Spenser—turns out to be a White Stag hunt that leads us right back into the "real world" that we are trying to escape. Sharrock himself helps make this clear as he goes on in his introduction to set forth a definition of pure allegory that should, with just a little thought, be seen to be quite evidently impossible to completely fulfill:

Allegory is dependent on an intellectual scheme: we can connect symbol and significance neatly with an 'equals' sign, and for a purely allegorical work it should always be possible to compile a table of characters and meanings in two columns which should perform the whole work of commentary. Christian, young Ignorance, Great-heart, and the country through which they go, are not like this. Their moral significance cannot be neatly pared away from the sensuous form in which they are presented.7

Sharrock starts out by positing "a table of characters and meanings", but soon realizes he cannot stop there. The "country through which they go", such as the Valley of the Shadow of Death, By-Path Meadow, and Giant Despair's castle, must also be included. Ultimately, every detail in an allegory, even down to a tiny "key ... called promise"8, can have allegorical significance. But, when an allegory calls an entire world into existence (a world such as Narnia, the world through which Christian travels, or Spenser's Faerie-land), unless the creator of such a world is of far-more-than-human prescience, not every detail of that world can have allegorical significance. What, for instance, is the significance of Giant Despair's rising early, other than that he may catch Christian and Hopeful still asleep in his fields?9 Or of the "ragged snubbes and knottie graine" of Orgolio's "snaggy Oke" club in Spenser's Faerie Queene?10 Doubtless some significance could be found (/created?) for these details, but can we really say that the authors intended such minutiae to have significance? And as soon as ever an idea is given "sensuous form", that form influences how the idea will act in an allegory. All of the battles with Giants Grim, Maul, and Despair in Pilgrim's Progress, and with Orgolio in Faerie Queene are battles with giants—their form (sometimes more than the idea) influences the form the battle will take. Rests and arm- and leg-loppings11 are human/giant-, not idea-battle features. Ideas do not need to rest.

And yet, it is these very "impurities" that give these works much of their power. "Pure" allegory is always in danger of being so pedantic as to be rather uninteresting, or so unreal as to become less believable. As Sharrock aptly points out in a footnote to Christian's sudden discovery of the "key in [his] bosom called Promise": "Bunyan makes his theological point, though with some detriment to the effect of the adventure story."12 My own personal quibble—and one Spenser himself feels he has to justify ("Ne let it seeme, that credence this exceedes," etc.13)—is with Arthur's diamond shield14, which, though allegorically appropriate, would seem to be rather difficult just to lift! But details such as breaks in combat, chivalrous actions, chopping off of arms and legs, and earth-shaking blows that, if landed, would "pouldre[] all, as thin as flowre" and whose very winds astound and overthrow15 are the stuff of adventure and fantasy and lend touchable, comprehensible life to the abstract ideas that these forms embody. It is this incarnational element that makes allegorical fantasy one of the most Christian of all literary forms.

In each of the three authors we have so far considered, giants pop up just off of the quest-path. And in each case, these just-off-the-path giants turn out to be, or to be closely associated with, despair. Bunyan's Giant Despair is, of course, obvious. Spenser's Orgolio is less so. Orgolio is not himself despair (Despair shows up one book after his fall), but his dungeons indisputably produce the state in the poor Redcrosse knight. "O who is it that, which brings me happy choyce/ Of death,"16 are the Redcrosse knight's first words upon his rescue. Orgolio himself, though he is most usually glossed as Pride, seems to me to represent, above all (and like Bunyan's Giant Despair, who "was stronger than they [i.e.: Christian and Hopeful]"17), overwhelming earthly power. In Lewis too, the helplessness of The Silver Chair's three main characters in the face of the "Gentle" Giants of Harfang, is emphasized as soon as they realize their true situation.

'Well, we shall just have to go back, I suppose,' said Jill.

'Easy, isn't it?' said Puddleglum. 'We might try opening that door to begin with.' And they all looked at the [giant] door and saw that none of them could reach the handle, and that almost certainly no one could turn it if they did.

'Do you think they won't let us out if we ask?' said Jill. And nobody said, but everyone thought, 'Supposing they don't.'18

While trapped in Harfang, Puddleglum, Eustace, and Jill are brought to the brink of despair when, while eating the giants' food, they realize they have been cannibalistically eating a Talking stag. "We've brought the anger of Aslan on us," is Puddleglum's gloomy response. "We're under a curse, I expect. If it was allowed, it would be the best thing we could do, to take these knives and drive them into our own hearts."19 They don't, of course (this is, after all, a children's story, and Puddleglum would never go so directly against Aslan's law), and soon after they escape from Harfang—though only to slide down into the hopeless Underworld, where they are brought before its queen for a far more deadly conflict with despair.20

Each of these three entrapments is brought on by a desire for a life of ease that leads the hero (or heroes) to deviate from or to suspend his (/their) quest. In each case, they are then caught unawares and imprisoned by a giant (or giants) more powerful than they. Spenser's Redcrosse knight, to escape the heat, divests himself of his armour and lays himself down by the shaded fountain of a nymph, who likewise had been "tyr'd with heat of scorching ayre" and "Sat downe to rest in middest of the race"21 and whose waters, for this reason, had been cursed by Phoebe, that "all that drunke thereof, did faint and feeble grow."22 As a result of this, and of the distraction of the false Duessa's conversation, the Redcrosse knight is caught weak, unarmed, and unawares by the giant Orgolio. Lewis' characters likewise are, in part, misled into captivity by a false lady, the Lady of the Green Kirtle23, afterwards revealed as the Witch-queen of Underland, captor of the prince they are seeking to release24. But, in the end, they are led out of their true path mainly by their own desire for ease25, just as Christian and Hopeful are misled into the much gentler-seeming By-Path Meadow, in which they are taken by Giant Despair26.

The most significant difference between these three stories is the way in which their heroes escape the captor-giants. The Redcrosse knight is delivered by the timely arrival and chivalrous heroism of Prince Arthur. Christian and Hopeful escape by the power of prayer, the key called promise, and by the unreliability of earthly power as represented by Giant Despair's fits. Puddleglum, Eustace, and Jill are first made to realize their plight and their true destination by Aslan's direct intervention, and then manage to escape out of the open scullery door while the giants are all sleeping or still away hunting, into the narrow cave (too narrow for giants to follow) that then leads them down to the Underworld (from which "few return to the sunlit lands"27). Here Lewis' story is similar to Bunyan's in that by perseverance and by the giants' limitations his heroes manage to escape, but yet resembles Spenser's in that they escape out of the "frying pan" of deep despair only to land in despair's deepest and hottest fires.

Any clear literary-historical relation between these three stories would be difficult to establish (and beyond the scope of this small essay), but, they all three being Christian allegory, the thematic relation betwixt them seems clear. To reductively, but (hopefully) helpfully gloss their common theme: Despair catches us unawares when we are aiming for ease rather than for our true quest: Christian life and service—this because the world we live in is powerful, and far more so than we (especially when unprepared and not thinking on serving our Lord), and aims not for our good or our ease but rather for our harm and our captivity. Deliverance can be obtained by the intervention of loving Truth28 on our behalf, by watchful vigilance and stubborn perseverance29, and by prayer and by trust in God's promises30, for though the earthly power that produces despair is stronger than we, it is limited31 and, in fact, empty32, and cannot stand in the light of God's love33.

There is, of course, no one "right way" to use a giant in fantasy. But there are some particularly good ways, and despair appears to be one of them. Giants are powerful, and when faced with such unopposable power, we despair. Ironically enough, we are most often faced with such obviously insurmountable odds not when we're attacking the problem at hand, but when we are looking for an easy way to do it. There is (generally) no such easy way, and the search for it proves nothing but a self-destructive trap.

If the problem is easy to identify and allegorize, the solution (not surprisingly) proves rather more manifold and complex. Even within the Christian tradition there is more than one solution—or perhaps more than one way to state the same solution. Spenser refers us to friendship. "Two are better than one; ... For if they fall, the one will lift up his fellow: but woe to him that is alone when he falleth; for he hath not another to help him up. ... And if one prevail against him, two shall withstand him; and a threefold cord is not quickly broken."34 Bunyan refers us to prayer and Scriptural promise. "There has no temptation taken you but such as is common to man: but God is faithful, who will not suffer you to be tempted above that ye are able; but will with the temptation also make a way to escape, that ye may be able to bear it."35 Lewis refers us to stubborn belief and observance of the commandments. As Puddleglum puts it (and these words are my personal bed-rock),

I'm on Aslan's side even if there isn't any Aslan to lead it. I'm going to live as like a Narnian as I can even if there isn't any Narnia.36

And as the prince put it, on observing the appearance of the Lion on his shield,

Doubtless ... this signifies that Aslan will be our good lord, whether he means us to live or to die. And all's one for that.37

In the words of three others confronted with a golden image of gigantic proportions, "If it be so, our God whom we serve is able to deliver us from the burning fiery furnace, and he will deliver us out of thine hand, O king. But if not, be it known unto thee, O king, that we will not serve thy gods, nor worship the golden image which thou hast set up."38 Or in those of later men, also before a great empire: "Then Peter and the other apostles answered and said, We ought to obey God rather than men."39

Outside of these things, and just out of this Way, lies despair.


1The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, p.155.

2Ibid., p.158.

3The Pilgrim's Progress, p.16-17.

4Ibid., pp.268-9.

5Prince Caspian, pp.162-7.

6The Pilgrim's Progress, pp.296-8.

7Ibid., p.24.

8Ibid., p.156.

9Ibid., p.151.

10Faerie Queene, I, viii.7.4 and vii.10.7.

11See Ibid., I.viii.10 and 22.

12The Pilgrim's Progress, p.376.

13Faerie Queene, I.vii.36.1.

14Ibid., I.vii.33.5.

15Ibid., I.vii.12.

16Ibid., I.viii.38.3-4.

17The Pilgrim's Progress, p.152.

18The Silver Chair, p.107.

19Ibid., p.115.

20Ibid., see Chapter 12.

21Faerie Queene, I.vii.5.3-4.

22Ibid., I.vii.5.9.

23The Silver Chair, pp.80-81.

24Ibid., p.148.

25Ibid., pp.83,91-92,105.

26The Pilgrim's Progress, pp.149,151.

27The Silver Chair, pp.126-9.

28In Spenser, Una, and by her, Prince Arthur. In Lewis, Aslan.

29Lewis, especially as shown in Puddleglum.


31Lewis and Bunyan.

32Orgolio's collapse in Spenser, I.viii.24.

33Spenser, especially Arthur's shield, I.viii.19,21-22.

34Ecclesiastes 4:9-12.

35I Corinthians 10:13.

36The Silver Chair, pp.156-7 (climax of Chapter 12).

37Ibid., p.164.

38Daniel 3:17-18.

39Acts 5:29.

Sources Cited

The Bible. (KJV)

Bunyan, John. The Pilgrim's Progress. Aylesbury (Penguin Books), 1977.

Lewis, C.S. The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. Bungay (Puffin Books), 1978.

—. Prince Caspian. Bungay (Puffin Books), 1975.

—. The Silver Chair. Bungay (Puffin Books), 1977.

Spenser, Edmund. The Faerie Queene. New York (Longman), 1977.

Original copyright © 1996 by Edward Hewlett.