Giants have been a feature in mythology and literature for centuries; Cormoran, Gog and Magog, Goliath, the giant slain by David, Polyphemus (see my post about cyclopes), the Brobdingnag giant, from Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels, the giant from Jack and the Beanstalk and many more. Perhaps based on the discovery of huge bones and enormous stone ‘seats’ the mythology around this particular creature is diverse. After all, if you lived a thousand years ago, knew nothing of dinosaurs, or evolution, or science and you dug up a leg bone taller than yourself you might just think it was from a giant man.
For now, I am going to focus on some of the myths surrounding British giants, and their influence on my culture is everywhere. Here are but a few of our larger inhabitants, now lost in the fog of myth.
Today’s guest is Cormoran. He’s a Cornish giant, who features in Jack the Giant Killer, and gets a rum deal as the first giant slain by Jack, a farmer’s son, who is fed up with the local giant raiding his cattle. Luring the giant into a pit trap the wily lad then goes on to receive the giant’s wealth and magic sword. Continuing his adventures in the world of giant-slaying Jack goes on to slay a two-headed Welsh giant, is captured by Blunderbore, who has sworn revenge for Comoran’s death and held in an enchanted tower. The giant is no match for Jack and ends up as dead as his friend. Not content with this Jack works his way through the giants’ land, eventually rescuing a Duke’s daughter, whom he later marries. It’s the age old story of the simple lad (Jack, David etc.) overcoming adversity, monsters, wicked creatures and ending up rich and powerful, leaving a trail of bodies in his wake – albeit the bodies of said monsters.
So what of Cormoran – what’s his myth? Said to inhabit and to have built St Michael’s Mount, in Cornwall (which got its name because of a said vision of the Archangel in the 8th Century), he rather a feisty fellow, but not endowed in the brain department. ‘Of fierce and grim countenance’ (James Orchard Halliwell-Phillips 1861) the giant is known for terrorising the neighbourhood and making off with cattle and other livestock. Wading across the river he would steal half a dozen at a time, and tie sheep and pigs around his waist. Some folklore states there were two giants – who fought and killed one another – or the giant’s family also resided there. The giant was said to have six digits on each hand (which would have been useful in hauling rock, no doubt). And during an excavation a skeleton of a very tall man (7 feet or more) was found.
Cormelian was the giantess who also inhabited the caves and brought mayhem. Both the giants are thought to have fetched white granite from the neighbouring area and carried it ‘in their aprons’ to build a stronghold. One day when the male giant was asleep Cormelian tried to get closer greenstone, but awoke her husband, who kicked her, making her drop the stone which came to rest alongside the causeway. The, of course, Cormoran encountered a young farmer’s lad and his woes became far worse than a clumsy wife and marital abuse.
Cormoran is sometimes linked with Trencrom – and the two are believed to have thrown rocks back and forth at one another, unfortunately one hit the giant’s wife and killed her.
Interestingly the name Cormoran is NOT a Cornish name – it may be a corruption of Corineus – the legendary founder of Cornwall who was also said to have defeated the giant (Gogmagog) near the region of St Michael’s Mount, as told by Geoffrey of Monmouth’s great Historia Regum Britanniae. The base myth may have been of Brythonic (Celtic) origin, and King Arthur is believed to have smote a giant in roughly the same region.
Then came to [King Arthur] an husbandman … and told him how there was … a great giant which had slain, murdered and devoured much people of the country … [Arthur journeyed to the Mount, discovered the giant roasting dead children,] … and hailed him, saying … [A]rise and dress thee, thou glutton, for this day shalt thou die of my hand. Then the glutton anon started up, and took a great club in his hand, and smote at the king that his coronal fell to the earth. And the king hit him again that he carved his belly and cut off his genitours, that his guts and his entrails fell down to the ground. Then the giant threw away his club, and caught the king in his arms that he crushed his ribs … And then Arthur weltered and wrung, that he was other while under and another time above. And so weltering and wallowing they rolled down the hill till they came to the sea mark, and ever as they so weltered Arthur smote him with his dagger.
There will be more British giants to follow. Maybe the others will have more luck than our friend, the giant Cormoran…. But I doubt it.
The Lore of the Land (Westwood and Simpson 2006).
A Natural History of the Unnatural World (Jo Levy – Carroll and Brown, London)