The intimate stranger

Arthur Rackham: illustration for Jack the Giant Killer
Arthur Rackham: illustration for Jack the Giant Killer

Jeffrey Jerome Cohen Of Giants:
Sex, monsters, and the Middle Ages
Medieval Cultures Volume 17
University of Minnesota Press 1999

Consider these monsters — the Titans, Goliath, Grendel, Gogmagog, Ysbaddaden, Ymir, the Giant of Mont-Saint-Michel, Harpin de la Montagne, the Green Knight, the Carl of Carlisle, Gargantua, the Brobdingnagians, the giants in Jack and the Beanstalk and Jack the Giant Killer, King Kong, Roald Dahl’s BFG, the jolly Green Giant — which speak to us variously of terror, comedy, cannibalism, rape, sadism, dismemberment, stupidity, folk humour, folk wisdom, advertising and, usually, maleness. And, of course, size matters… What is there about these figures that simultaneously repels and attracts us?

You might suspect that any academic title with the word “sex” in the title is probably Freudian in inspiration. With Of Giants one of the jumping-off points is the psychoanalytical approach of Jacques Lacan which, as I understand it, in part reinterprets Freudian theory through linguistic criticism. In this book this approach can result in what almost seems a parody of the academic verbal jungle: “a gestalt radically estranging subjectivity from somacity… This misconstruction is a kind of teratogenesis… The giant can be perceived only synecdochically…”

But persevere! For this book reveals an aspect of medieval literature that is rarely confronted and more usually shied away from. As Cohen points out, it was as long ago as 1936 that J R R Tolkien put the monsters in Beowulf at the centre of academic criticism instead of the periphhery; and monsters are of course what the general reader – maybe you or me – unhesitatingly goes for. The same applies to Arthurian and other fantasy literature of the Middle Ages, and Cohen addresses this, though in rather more difficult language. The author suggests that the giant is crucial to an understanding of the way identity is formed. He (and it is usually, but not always, a “he”) has a frightening otherness and yet is strangely familiar: he is what the author and others call an “intimate stranger”. In other words, what is seen as something inhuman outside ourselves is but a projection of an aspect of our personality.

In examining the transformations of the Giant from a rapacious terrifying ogre to a figure of comic stupidity Cohen draws mainly on examples “within a specifically English national imaginery”, from Anglo-Saxon portrayals, through Geoffrey of Monmouth’s ‘history’ in the 12th century and on to the giant as an embodiment of national identity (as in the London Gogmagog figures). Simultaneously the medieval romance tradition saw the giant as an idealised hero’s monstrous adversary, but even by Chaucer’s time he was treated as a figure of fun. After an exploration of how the giant can somehow transform into a saintly being — perhaps for us the Beast in Beauty and the Beast illustrates this well — Cohen finally examines how, as in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, the Giant gradually shrinks in stature to become a kind of twin that the hero cannot do without lest he lose his own sense of identity.

So, persevere with Cohen’s complex discussion and you may gain insights into how these creatures – and we ourselves – tick.


A revised review from 2001

14 thoughts on “The intimate stranger

    1. I think the monsters are still there: Greed, Bullying, Conglomerates, Paedophilia, War, Dictators, Pollution. It’s just that in a global village single heroes are inadequate and we all feel powerless as a result. And it’s going to get worse.


        1. Education then must be the hero, but there won’t be a final victory over Ignorance, just intermittent successes if collectively we are vigilant, supportive and proactive. But as educators we both know that, Stefy. Chins up!


    2. With trailers on TV for Godzilla’s release later this month, it looks like we’ve still got monsters. Somewhere recently I saw an interesting take on “sympathetic monsters.” As with Frankenstein’s monster, we feel compassion for Godzilla. I suspect that response is rather complex, composed of at least two elements:

      – Both the Frankenstein monster and Godzilla arise through “our sins.”
      – As a kid at least, he must have represented all the power I didn’t have in the world. As in, “Yeah, yeah,” Superman could leap tall buildings in a single bound and all that, but watching Godzilla gnaw on train cars drew me right in.

      Yep, I still enjoy the occasional trip to Monster Island, and eagerly await this latest installment.


      1. I’ve only seen a trailer for the new Godzilla but it looks promising (as much as you can tell from as that jump cutting). I suppose the classic celluloide sympathetic monster, more sinned against than sinning, is King Kong.


  1. Sounds like a fascinating book, but the language is very off-putting. Though I guess it would expand one’s vocabulary.
    I’ve always viewed giants and monsters as a symbols for what we fear the most, or stand ins for what we fear most in ourselves. And really, you can’t have a hero without a monster to battle. I see the hero as battling whatever evil is represented by the giant.
    Over the years our fears have changed so our monsters have changed. Here in America our fears of governmental power has grown in paranoid intensity. Is it any wonder two of the most popular “monsters” in literature thirst for ultimate power? Lord Vader and Lord Voldemort aspire for ultimate control. They are giants in the sense that they are physically stronger than those around them and both have harnessed the dark side of the supernatural, giving them god like abilities. I wonder what Cohen would think of them?


  2. Here in the UK the fall-out from the Snowden revelations have had a similar impact on the public view of central government, but more cynical than paranoid. Many of us do have a deep mistrust of corporate power — especially their use of the media (Richard Murdoch’s News Corp springs to mind) — transglobal multinationals and banking CEOs having become the latest bogeymen.

    I think without checking that Cohen does allude to such abuse of power, though the only commercial ‘giant’ I recall him referencing is the cartoon character advertising tinned vegetables, not a terribly terrifying figure but deliberately so, I fear.

    My long-held assumption has been that giants are projections of our earliest concepts of fathers as often distant but powerful figures, huge in stature and perhaps threatening because so, whether or not they were the latter in reality. I think — again without looking up chapter and verse — Cohen does cover this aspect. But probably with that off-putting language you mention, Sari.


  3. To create any interest, an antagonist needs to be terrifiying. Sheer size was originally enough to provide this, but the ‘giant’ concept has now expanded so that various other attributes replace or augment the size/strength advantage. Guile or magic are still always necessary in the solution. That Green Knight twist is an interesting one. A “can’t lick ’em; join ’em” solution?


    1. I agree with you on this, Col (no, I didn’t mean to sound surprised!) — among other things it’s about the balance of power and that’s not always dependent on size.

      The Green Knight twist — Cohen argues it’s more than this, that the Knight created the illusion of size and invincibility under the aegis of Morgan le Fey, and that he was human all along.


      1. I don’t think I like Cohen’s viewpoint on that one. I prefer the reality of the original invincibility, and a process, as you have mentioned, whereby a means is found to bring the monster to vulnerability or redemption.


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