Giants. From the English fairytale “Jack and the Beanstalk” to the most recent iteration in the anime and manga Attack on Titan, giants are a well-established element of fantastical stories. However, as with all story elements, they are subject to evolution. Giants in some form or another had existed in folktales and stories well before Jack and his beans were conceptualized in the late 1790s. Greek folklore is thought to contain the first of the giants in its stories of Kronos and his cohort, who both gave birth to and terrorized the gods. Legends continued to spring up around the world, culminating in Ireland with the story of Fingal (or Fionn mac Cumhaill), who is the vertically-enhanced being responsible for the Giant’s Causeway. By then, giants were an integral part of European folklore, eventually coming to England with the well-known tale of Jack and the Beanstalk.
In Jack’s story, the giants are a thinly-veiled metaphor that essentially admonishes people not to be little brats or else they’ll be stepped on. It is a cautionary tale used to remind children that the world is not a forgiving place. What better way to scare them than to tell them of huge humans, with human desires and emotions, but with devastating strength and a penchant for vendettas? This metaphor has been reused constantly across almost every tale involving giants since then, from Roald Dahl’s BFG to J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter. In both, the giants are, for all intents and purposes, just tremendously big people. Though perhaps not as lucid as Jack’s giants, they still demonstrate extremely human traits. These giants also have rather blatant similarities in the messages that they are attempting to convey. The world (giants) is big and scary, and if you aren’t nice to it, it won’t be nice to you. And it may even squash you anyway.
Along comes the twenty-first century, and, apparently, a new set of rules. The anime and manga, Attack on Titan, takes the giant and gives it an entirely new spin. The giant is still big. Still bad. Still very much set on stomping. However, any human emotion, desire, or purpose has been utterly erased. These giants exist for one purpose: slaughter.
This complete reversal of everything giants had been, stylistically, up to that point, brings with it an entirely new metaphor. “Jack and the Beanstalk”, BFG, Harry Potter, and Fingal’s stories had all been written with nineteenth and twentieth century criteria. The giants in those stories were created to underline the age-old ideas of what it means to be good. Thus, it was important to see some part of ourselves in the creatures intended to be the externalizations of our punishments should we fail to be good. Attack on Titan departs from this line of thought. Its giants are pure and animalistic. Gone is “eat your vegetables, dearies, or you’ll be pulverized”. These giants seem to have a much deeper, much darker purpose—one that would take volumes to analyze, but seems to boil down to this: climate change, wonky political systems, and “don’t nuke your neighbours”.
Every part of a story exists for a reason, and all parts are subject to revision as society and media changes. Whether it be to inspire kids to go to bed on time or to highlight the various fallacies of modern society, giants are one such part.
-contributed by Rej Ford