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
(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
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
'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
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
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
1The Lion, the Witch
and the Wardrobe, p.155.
3The Pilgrim's Progress,
6The Pilgrim's Progress,
I, viii.7.4 and vii.10.7.
I.viii.10 and 22.
18The Silver Chair,
23The Silver Chair,
27The Silver Chair,
28In Spenser, Una, and by
her, Prince Arthur. In Lewis, Aslan.
29Lewis, especially as
shown in Puddleglum.
31Lewis and Bunyan.
32Orgolio's collapse in
Arthur's shield, I.viii.19,21-22.
35I Corinthians 10:13.
36The Silver Chair,
pp.156-7 (climax of Chapter 12).
The Bible. (KJV)
Bunyan, John. The Pilgrim's Progress. Aylesbury (Penguin Books),
Lewis, C.S. The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. Bungay (Puffin
—. 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.