“I should like to record my own love and my children’s love of E.A. Wyke-Smith’s Marvellous Land of Snergs,” reads an endorsement on the cover of that book. The endorser is J.R.R. Tolkien, and it was very kind of him to offer the guidance. Without him, it is likely we would only have visited a rather haphazard derivation of the Land of Snergs, and not the real place. Although one catches some fragrance of Tolkien on the way through Wyke-Smith’s book, the stronger odor is of Roald Dahl. A hobbit might suggest himself to the reader as a lovely elaboration upon the Snerg concept, but the sloppier Oompa Loompa shambles much more loudly to mind. And one cannot help tripping over the reformed giant Golithos, if one has ever read The BFG.
Roald Dahl is famous and beloved for recklessness, but the trajectories of that recklessness are curious. Wyke-Smith’s Golithos is a seven-foot ogre who has vowed to stop eating children, confining himself instead to a diet of vegetable matter. He is gentlemanly; apparently his departure from the essence of ogrish behavior reforms his entire person. But an ogre’s an ogre, no matter how resolute. Though “[n]ot a child had passed his lips for years,” the appearance of two such morsels upon his threshold plunges Golithos into vile, calculating recidivism.
Dahl’s BFG (Big Friendly Giant), on the other hand, is a rube. He stands at a ridiculous twenty-four feet, his syntax is a wreck, and his sense of humor is flatulence-based. His only good quality is that he alone of the world’s giants will not eat children and chooses to subsist, rather, upon the bloodless snozzcumber. A mother would invite Golithos to Sunday dinner. She is barely convinced the BFG belongs in her own home’s playroom, shut up in a ratty paperback. But in battering Golithos’ giant-nature into the BFG’s graceless extremity, Dahl also eventuates the borrowed ethical resolution to true reformation. Wyke-Smith condemns his whitewashed gentleman ogre. Dahl’s unsavory BFG is redeemed.
This is a big deal for a giant. We can be sure of it, because the rest of the BFG’s colleagues join lost Golithos in the fantasy judgment. Integrity allows the BFG no loyalty to his race, and he sees it to a fitting doom. C.S. Lewis gives us the good Narnian giants Wimbleweather and Rumblebuffin, but also hands us over to a much larger group of Gentle Giants, who maintain the tiresome charade for the chance to put us in a pie. George MacDonald, in “The Giant’s Heart,” demonstrates the magnitude of giantkind’s malice with the case study of Thunderthump, who hides his heart so as to avoid its demands that he stop kidnapping, fattening, and eating children.
Contemporary children’s literature has worked to gain sympathy for hyenas, monsters, witches, and vampires. But efforts to reform giants instruct us to save our energy. J.K. Rowling, foremost among magical revisionists, fails to redeem the giant race even after making a forceful narrative case for the possibility. The net gain has been negligible. An occasional giant will come out a benign dolt, but most remain treacherous murderers—Dumbledore was right about Snape, but not about giants.
Why, then, the historical concern with redemption for giants? Classical fantasists do not habitually investigate the souls of goblins or trolls for potentially redeemable stuff. But there is very little of us in a goblin or troll. They are monsters, thoroughly. A giant is merely big, so why should he be bad? Size is an accident of the body with no claim upon the soul, or so it would seem. Here is why, again, we must consider Dahl’s perspective, which has its strength in being physical. A July 11, 2005 New Yorker profile reported, “Dahl once said that adults should get down on their knees for a week, in order to remember what it’s like to live in a world in which the people with all the power literally loom over you.”
Anyone who has cared for children knows how much more smoothly things run when might makes right. But then, we are no better than giants if this becomes a governing principle rather than useful shorthand for the complicated daily politics of turning small savages into large philosopher-kings. Although the BFG is inarticulate, unsightly, and inconvenient, he is good. That is what children need from parents: not intelligence or refinement, but goodness. They need to be raised by someone who would eat snozzcumbers to his dying day rather than take one bite out of a tiny, defenseless, delicious person.
The giant is fantasy’s thought experiment as to whether a thing will be bad simply because it is big enough to get away with badness. Alas, the exaggeration of size nearly always reveals an exaggeration of corruption. G.K. Chesterton has the moral for us in Orthodoxy: “There is the chivalrous lesson of ‘Jack the Giant Killer;’ that giants should be killed because they are gigantic.” The sons of Anak linger in human memory. Golithos can know and proclaim what is right, but we cannot trust his will to protect us when life lands us upon his doorstep, juicy and tender. He is too big.
Presented with 1 Samuel 17 as a text, one variety of homiletician will ask his listeners, “What’s the giant in your life?” He would serve them well to cast them not as David, but Goliath. Goodness calls us not only to bear up under suffering, but to refuse to cause suffering when doing so would bring us pleasure or ease. Little as we would like to find ourselves within the power of Golithos, it is far worse when we find within ourselves the power of Golithos.
Here the fantasists cleverly have their readers do the work of literary irony. They give us a giant story to read to our small ones. Gather round, sweet children: a giant will teach you about the danger of giants. Well, they might be giants someday too if all goes well. They must know both Thunderthump and the BFG, Golithos and Frodo, caution and hope, if they are to grow into the gentleness than can only come from a surpassing strength. This is important, little ones, so be quiet and listen, or I’ll sit on you.
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