The Lows and Highs of Fifteen Dogs (Part 2)

Click here for Part 1

Andre Alexis’ novel, Fifteen Dogs, has its moments of elevated hopefulness. Before diving into the storylines of two dogs whose intelligence leads them towards meaningful lives, I must pause to reflect on what I feel is a major weakness of the novel, a tragedy wrought by the author’s hand.

Among the dogs there are five females, only three of which live much beyond the initial escape and the first twenty pages of the novel. Yet the narrative perspective never enters the minds of these female dogs. They are described only externally by the narrating voice or by the male dogs. Given the philosophical tone of the story, a huge absence is felt of the female voice responding to the moral and social issues the dogs face.

Two of the dogs, Bella and Athena, bond almost as sisters. So why is this relationship, this unique sense of loyalty, never explored in first-person narration? Without the female voice, we’re not even sure how the females refer to themselves or one another. When Atticus, alpha of the pack, develops a confusing attachment to Rosie, a German Shepherd, the question of “could it be love?” cannot be answered because we never get to look into Rosie’s mind, and never attain her opinion of their relationship.

Where is the character of the female philosopher, who explores her sense of self, endures through sadness, and engages in meaningful reflection? It’s a point of angst and disappointment that she was mute throughout this novel.

If this crucial missing character is at all redeemed, it is through the relationship that Majnoun, the black-haired poodle, forms with a human woman, Nira. Rescuing Majnoun and tending to him after a serious injury, Nira proves to be a respectful master. After the initial surprise of realizing his intelligence and ability to mimic some English words, she thoughtfully communicates with him. She has the magical opportunity of being able to speak with her dog and have them understand one another, and through their dialogue she shares her views on stories, god, power, and love. As Majnoun’s understanding of the confusing nuances of human language deepens, the two develop the intimacy of confidants. As the best of friends do, they learn about each other on their own terms, respecting the differences in their values, and share a strong sense of loyalty that weaves their fates together.

In my eyes, Majnoun’s story represents the pinnacle of fulfilling social integration, finding a sense of belonging and friendship, while the story of Prince, a mutt who composes poetry, exemplifies meaningful introspection, a mastery of language, and the achievement of self-affirmation: deeply-felt satisfaction in recognizing your own value.

As someone who enjoys poetry, I became particularly fond of Prince’s storyline. The novel is interspersed with his playful experiments in the dogs’ new language. The poems generally depict what you would expect a dog to value: visceral illustrations of the sights, smells, sounds, and textures of nature, but with the self-conscious touch of his new awareness of time and death.

As another treat, each poem contains a hidden message. Initially, a message only stood out to me in one poem, and it wasn’t until I reached the novel’s endnote, which describes the genre of the poems, that I went back and searched through each poem more thoroughly. To give away only a hint, I’ll tell you about two effects that made this treasure-hunt fun. The first is that uncovering the message requires you to read the poems aloud, drawing out the syllables until the words blend and lose their individual meaning. To eavesdroppers, my recitation must have sounded like growling and as incoherent as the language of dogs. The second effect is that the hidden words reveal an endearing quality of the poems that underscores the connection Prince feels to his pack-mates despite the tragedy that befalls them.

When the dogs are eventually separated from one another, and Prince finds himself alone near the end of his life, he begins to worry that his way of speaking and his poetry will die with him. He believes that he will leave no legacy, and yet Prince nurtures a sense of self-affirmation, recognizing that his unique identity, perspective, and poetry are dear to himself. Dogs can be a source of unconditional love, and with that same affection, Prince is an example of how someone can come to find value and love in themselves.

In Fifteen Dogs, life is sweepingly depicted as violent, chaotic, and tragic. Yet the potential for happiness that human consciousness nurtures is so precious that even the gods are captivated by it. I’m willing to wager that you will be captivated, too.

Contributed by Sonia Urlando


Between Gods and Dogs: A Fable about Human Nature (Part 1)

Fifteen Dogs
Illustration by Alexandra Portoraro

Have you ever wished you could speak with and understand your dog? With their sympathetic eyes and joyful energy, dogs can be uplifting companions through the toughest times and the worries of every day. When our minds are preoccupied with regret and anxiety, dogs can bring us into the present moment and make us feel loved just as we are.

Andre Alexis’ novel Fifteen Dogs gives you that chance to see humanity reflected back at you through the minds and senses of dogs.

The novel is highly commended; this November it was awarded the Rogers Writers’ Trust Fiction Prize and the Scotiabank Giller Prize. It’s also a fairly short read despite covering a great scope, and it’s sure to leave a lasting impression.

With this novel in your hands, your viewpoint as a reader (and as a human) is a very privileged one. You get a glimpse of a ‘high’ realm of the gods and Fates: their whims, conflicts, and interferences in the world; as well as the ‘down-to-earth’ perspective of the lives of dogs. But the real subject under the microscope is the nature of human consciousness.

Is the gift of consciousness always coupled with misery? Such a heavy question is handled playfully when Greek gods Hermes, a notorious trickster, and Apollo make a bet on whether an animal would be just as miserable as humans seem to be if they were given human intelligence. Apollo takes the pessimistic point of view, while Hermes stakes his wager on happiness at the end of the animal’s life. By their divine intervention, the lives of the visiting dogs at a veterinary clinic are radically altered.

When the dogs are granted human intelligence, their language expands and becomes more complex. They invent concepts, they self-reflect, and they analyze all that was once familiar and instinctual. Through their enlightened perspective, humanity’s existential questions are made strange and amusing. Almost immediately upon escaping the veterinary clinic, Majnoun, a black-haired poodle, suggests that the dogs resist their impulse to run free and chase squirrels with the spontaneous creation of the question: “why?”

Here’s where Fifteen Dogs innovates its genre. Subtitled as “An Apologue”, the novel draws from this age-old storytelling method, which features animals whose traits serve as a metaphor for human behaviour. However, since the characters are animals, the genre usually addresses the instinctual side of our nature. The animals run themselves into the thick of trouble in order to convey morals about how we should curb our impulses to achieve our goals.

Seeming also to borrow from the genre of the parable, this novel devises a platform for the animals to explore the elevated questions that plague the human mind: What does it mean to fight for a principle? What power does language carry? What does it mean to be ourselves? What is our purpose in the world?

Morality isn’t clear-cut, however, as the dogs face major points of contention. They become divided into those who fully embrace their changes, and those who desperately try to recreate their old state of being and become, dare I say, dogmatic. Those who consciously try to act out what it means to be a dog and force this upon their pack-mates encounter more philosophical quandaries. Tragically, they also enact an analogy for war, violence, and fearfulness that humans witness too often.

Things look grim for Hermes’ chances, but through these dark events, two of the dogs in particular offer some hope that their intelligence will bring them happiness. Through creativity and friendship, these two remind us of the things in life that we hold precious. Come back for part two—it’ll end on a brighter note, trust me!

Contributed by Sonia Urlando

All Hail the Gods of Cinema: A Review of Avengers: Age of Ultron

I want to be a superhero—really badly. When someone asks me, “if you were a superhero…”, I respond with a full run-through of my back-story, my sidekick, my side-squirrel super-pet, and the stitching pattern on my tastefully cut leather boots. It pays to be ready, you see, when the Avengers’ recruitment agent inevitably comes knocking.


Their recruitment oversights aside, the Avengers are a pretty awesome bunch. They were and are the fuel of many daydreamers’ fantasies, and some of those daydreamers are apparently rather good at making movies. Enter 2012’s Avengers and its sequel, Avengers: Age of Ultron. I find it very hard to disprove that Avengers was amazing. It set up all the right themes, each character had some sort of development, and ultimately the new team was formed. Also, the Hulk punched a Chitauri space-whale in the face. Just sayin’.

From the apocalyptic epic-ness that was Avengers, where-oh-where could Joss Whedon go from there? Well, to the Age of Ultron. Complete with a new, snarky AI villain, the Age of Ultron deftly lived up to the foundation set in Avengers. Ultron, our titular bad guy, was incredibly well done. He brought a depth to the Avengers that was perhaps lacking. Created from Tony Stark’s desire to “save everyone”, Ultron took one look at the internet and decided he was quite capable of doing that himself, thanks. He then goes on to recruit a pair of “enhanced” siblings, Wanda and Pietro Maximoff, though we know them better as Scarlet Witch and Quicksilver. Their addition was a welcome layer to the already multifaceted story line. Seeking revenge for the death of their parents and protection for each other, they acted as the perfect foil to Ultron with his single-minded goals. They give Ultron opportunities to explain his logic and reveal his motivations, which in turn gives the viewer much-needed glimpses into the depths of his mind. Once the siblings realize that perhaps their goals are a bit different from Ultron’s after all, they split up from him and become fully fledged characters in their own right.

The Avengers as a team are pitch perfect. They play off each other extremely well, with plenty of one liners and “bro-moments”. Even the characters without their own movies (of which I am counting the Hulk, sorry Edward Norton and Eric Bana), felt like real people, and their relationships were also well-developed. This, of course, must lead to a mention of the possible romance between Black Widow and the Hulk. Opinions are torn, but I must say, it was… okay. None of the other team members were particularly available to have love interests, and as far as romances go, it was kind of cute. Well, as cute as it can be when one is a green rage giant and the other can kill people with her pinky. Angst-ridden and melodramatic, yes, but let us not forget: this movie was based on a comic book. Angst and melodrama are the bread and butter of that medium.

And, of course, Vision: the final addition to this expansion of the Avengers’ story. Hoy. In a movie where there is already a super powered AI, the inclusion of another could have been superfluous. But it wasn’t. With perhaps five minutes of screen time, Vision is damn cool. I give props to whoever made the decision to have Paul Bettany in a costume rather than having a CGI rendering of Paul Bettany in a costume. It lent an element of realism to the SFX visual extravaganza that was Age of Ultron. Vision’s final conversation with Ultron brought the movie to a contemplative close and confirmed that all Ultron really needed was a hug.

Age of Ultron was flashy. It was over-the-top. It had good characters and silly jokes. It epitomized all the requirements for a summer blockbuster and then some. It also had superheroes and supervillains and all the stuff in between. And, with a whole new generation of daydreamers, isn’t it precisely what we wanted?

-Contributed by Rej Ford

Such a Terrible Room: Bluebeard’s Castle and Erwartung at the Canadian Opera Company

0102 – John Relyea as Duke Bluebeard and Ekaterina Gubanova as Judith in the Canadian Opera Company production of Bluebeard’s Castle, 2015. Conductor Johannes Debus, director Robert Lepage, revival director François Racine, set and costume designer Michael Levine, and lighting designer Robert Thomson.  Photo: Michael Cooper Michael Cooper Photographic Office- 416-466-4474 Mobile- 416-938-7558 66 Coleridge Ave. Toronto, ON M4C 4H5
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There is without a doubt something about opera that lends itself to otherworldliness. The magic of music and stage has, since opera’s inception in the late sixteenth century, often drawn on mythology and folklore for subject matter. The Greek myth of Orpheus and his descent to the underworld to rescue his wife, Eurydice, has been retold countless times in operas by Monteverdi, Gluck, Offenbach, and others. The four operas of Wagner’s Ring Cycle involve characters from Norse and Germanic myth, including gods like Odin and Thor and mythical creatures like valkyries, giants, and dwarves. And these are only the best-known examples of fantasy in opera.

The Canadian Opera Company’s 2014-2015 season ends with a speculative work: a double-bill of Bela Bartok’s Bluebeard’s Castle and Arnold Schoenberg’s Erwartung, a remount of a COC original that first premiered in the early nineties. Both are early twentieth century operas with similar psychological themes. They complement each other well: Bluebeard, through the discoveries made by Judith, can easily be classified as horror, and the plight of the woman in Erwartung is one of pure terror.

Bartok was a prominent Hungarian composer, musician, and collector of folksongs in the early twentieth century. His contributions to the field of ethnomusicology, particularly in Eastern Europe, were particularly significant, and his love of folk music and tales comes across in many of his compositions. Bluebeard’s Castle comes from a French folktale in which Bluebeard’s young wife finds the bodies of her husband’s former wives locked in his castle.

The COC’s production begins on a dark stage surrounded by a golden frame. Bluebeard enters at the front of the stage, solemn and foreboding, followed by Judith, his new wife. He doesn’t seem like he really wants her there, suggesting she leave and return to the life she had before, but she insists.

The music moves them into the set and the story as Judith enters the dark castle. Its walls weep, but if she’s second-guessing herself it doesn’t show. She asks why it is so cold and sad; she wants to heal Bluebeard, to  fix him. He may want the same. They come to seven doors lining a hallway and she requests they be opened to let in the light and the truth. The castle groans in pain at her suggestion; it is almost a character in itself, a part of Bluebeard that needs to be cared for by Judith as much as he does. “Are you afraid?” asks Bluebeard. “No,” Judith replies. Her white dress billows and trails around her like a ghost as she moves across the stage. It becomes steadily more bloodstained with every door she opens.

Bluebeard gradually opens the first three doors. The first burns like a furnace or like hell and the castle bleeds as she looks upon his torture chamber. The second, blaring white light and brass, reveals  his armoury, and the third, his treasury, burning like pale fire. But there are bloodstains through these doors and darker secrets still. Perhaps he sees her as a saviour: someone who will bring light into the castle and onto his dark past.

Bartok’s score moves between complex, all-out motion to a single bassoon line throughout; a reflection of the edge the characters stand on as well as the mood of the weeping castle. The fourth door reveals a garden and some of the softest, loveliest music in the opera. Judith has some hope that perhaps it’s not all bloodshed and violence, and picks a flower. The set at this point is really incredible, using a projection on the stage to show the trees and setting a moment of peace. But the illusion is shattered when she picks a flower and finds it covered in blood. “Who has bled to water your garden?” she demands, but he knows she won’t like the answer and keeps quiet.

The fifth door shows his vast kingdom before them, clouds, lakes, and land that will all be for Judith. The music at this point is an amazingly loud brass choir so glorious it made my hair stand on end. In gazing proudly at his realm, Bluebeard seems, for a moment, truly happy. But Judith cannot share his emotion, as she sees only rivers of blood and stained earth before them.

As the sixth door is opened, downstage slowly fills with water; a lake of tears. He avoids her initial questions about his former loves, but when she confronts him about their bodies, which she believes she will find behind the last door, he gives her the final key. At the seventh door, his three former wives come up silently out of the bloody lake. They look like ghosts, but Judith says they are still alive. They are his queens of morning, noon, and evening, and Judith will join them in night. They dress her in robes and jewels and lead her back into the seventh door. Darkness falls on the bloodstained stage, and Bluebeard sings of eternal night while the castle shines behind him.

The opera is light and dark and covered in blood, endlessly creepy but also very emotional. Bluebeard is not exactly sympathetic but he is hardly depicted as just a murderous tyrant; the characters, both of them, have more depth to them than first appears. Written in an age when it was first really taking hold, there are strong psychological themes at work in both this and Erwartung, the second act.

Erwartung, by Schoenberg, similarly works with themes of women, weird relationships, and psychology. The opera only lasts half an hour and the plot is simple: the woman, the only real character, wanders through the forest seeking her lover, whom she eventually finds dead. The COC’s production shows everything through a white screen upon which handwriting is projected; the woman is in a psychiatric hospital relating her story to a psychiatrist, whose notes are what we see on the screen.

As she recounts her story she removes her straight jacket like an angelic escape artist to reveal a white gown similar to Judith’s. A bright moon shines above like an operating light. At one point, shadows carry off her hospital bed like pallbearers.

At one point she thinks she’s found her lover in the dark forest, and her singing and the effects at this point genuinely instilled fear into the audience. We felt her terror and her anger as she accuses her missing lover of infidelity, and we felt her hopelessness when she finds him dead and wanders off into the night of the hospital. Branches and blood move across the stage as in Bluebeard, and it’s no wonder these operas are often performed together.

 -contributed by Risa Ian de Rege

Impractical Immortality: Do You Really Want to Live Forever?

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Well, do you? Really?

The idea of immortality, in one form or another, comes up frequently in speculative fiction: elves, Timelords, divine beings, cursed humans, and undying monsters are all easy to find between pages and on screens. Immortality is often a flexible concept, ranging from gods that are all-powerful and cannot die but can—with the right spell, artifact or leverage with another rival god—be subdued, to creatures that can be slain but never fall prey to disease or the ravages of time. The latter includes Tolkien’s eternally beautiful elves and the sometimes benevolent—but usually malicious—Immortals of author Tamara Pierce’s fantasy kingdom Tortal.

Freedom from mortality may sound appealing to some of us, but as a wise wizard once said, “Humans do have a knack for choosing precisely those things which are worst for them.” Immortality is easily one of the worst things that heroes and villains have ever sought after.

For starters—there’s a catch. Always. Immortality comes at a price.

Sometimes the magic that makes you immortal also makes you susceptible to other, unfriendly forms of magic, or you find yourself unable to leave the cloister that the Sangrael is housed in, lest you lose all that you’ve gained. Maybe you get eternal life, but not eternal youth with it. I’m sure the Greek goddess Iris’ lover, who was granted the former but not the latter, would have much to say on the subject.

It is also likely that your immortality is dependent on you having your magic McGuffin on or near your person at all times, meaning that you’re at a disadvantage in life. Your magic ring or medal will be stolen, I promise you. It’s only a matter of time. In this case, the price of immortality is a life of looking over your shoulder, guarding your prize because your eternal life depends on it.

In other cases, the cost of immortality is too hideous to contemplate. Aloysius Crumrin, the aged warlock in the Courtney Crumrin comic series, is offered eternal life by an old flame—in the form of vampirism. He turns immortal life down but does accept her last elixir vitae; the potion lets him live a little longer despite his wasting illness. “Do I want to know what’s in it?” he asks the vampire. “No,” is her firm reply, and seeing as she herself keeps living by draining the life of others, it’s for the best that Aloysius doesn’t question her further.

And of course you’ll be lonely. How could you not be? You’ll outlive everyone you love.

In Ella Enchanted, the fairy godmother, Mandy, tells her goddaughter Ella that the Faeries tend to earn the ire of even their dearest human companions: “We’re immortal. That gets them mad…. [your mother] wouldn’t speak to me for a year when her father died.” The benefit of living to see a whole family line grow is somewhat tempered by knowing that you will have to bury them all.

Similarly, Skysong, the baby dragon who is born in Tortal away from other dragons and is raised by human mages, will outlive her guardian and all the mortal animals who become her friends.

And speaking of being lonely, it must be said that Captain America—who managed to survive a crash landing in the Arctic and being frozen there back during World War II—is starting to look very lonely, having outlived most of his comrades. He is stuck existing in a world that he doesn’t really belong to.

Even if you do your best to fit in the world you find yourself in, you won’t. Yuta, the protagonist of a manga series called Mermaid Saga, tries to live like a normal man after gaining immortality. But his wife can hardly fail to notice that, though she grows old over the years, he remains the young man she married. “I’m afraid of you,” she tells him. And who could blame her?

Finally, just what are you going to do with all that time?

Bowerick Wowbagger the Infinitely Prolonged devotes himself to insulting everyone, forever. If that sounds lame, consider that living forever will leave you running out of hobbies soon enough. You will run out of places to see and things to do because you will simply have too much time on your hands. If you have no plan, you’re doomed.

All that can truly occupy the immortal is watching history being made. This is a dubious prospect; ask the elves of Middle Earth. They never fail to seem jaded about the decisions made over the years, or the doings of the mortals around them. Elvenkind has simply seen too much to fully trust any other race; they remember too much.

Watching eras pass is bad enough, but living through them is much worse. Yuta lives through feudal wars, famine, the bombings of World War II, and murderous multigenerational feuds among those he befriends. Madame Xanadu loses her young lover in the witch-burning fervour of the Spanish Inquisition. And Wolverine seems to do nothing but get caught up in somebody’s war. For every triumph of humanity there are a dozen failures. History is a harsh place to live.

Take the Fame lyric “I’m gonna  live forever” literally and what you have is masochistic madness.

In the genres that ask “what if…?” any exploration of immortality yields fascinating answers. The concept of immortality and the presence of immortal characters in fiction forces us to take a long look at the way we live our lives. An immortal traveler who has seen far too much once said that “A longer life isn’t always a better one.”

What happens if you do away with mortality, a fundamental part of our humanity ? Nothing that we would ever really want.

-contributed by Miranda Whittaker

Sandman : Handful of Dust

sandman shushes me
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When a young Neil Gaiman first approached Vertigo comics about The Sandman, he was pitching a simple revival of the 70s series of the same name by Joe Simon and Jack “The King” Kirby. But DC editor Karen Berger insisted that while they keep the name, Gaiman should create a new character.

And thank goodness he did, for otherwise the world would have been robbed of something beautiful. Running from 1989 to 1996, for a total 75 issues collected in 10 volumes, The Sandman managed to create its very own expansive self-contained mythology.

The original artists Mike Dringenberg and Sam Kieth fashioned the title character after Gaiman himself. The Sandman, also known as Morpheus or Dream, and by many other names, carries with him an aura of inhumanity. While early issues exist in the DC comic universe with appearances by The Martian Manhunter and John Constantine (hellblazer), the creators quickly realized that Sandman should be a world unto itself, and so that is what it became. Sandman used several different types of stories to keep itself going and to keep it feeling new and alien all the way through to its final issue, but over its run, three types of stories were prevalent.

The Sandman was able to hold on to many overlapping threads throughout its near decade-long run, with characters who appeared in early issues later returning to have their stories told in elaborate detail. This worked well for the first main kind of story that was used. While several volumes are focused on the Sandman himself, there are also a number of stories in which the title character only appears in a minor capacity, and sometimes he fails to appear at all, instead being merely alluded to or referenced by the other characters. These stories were all set in the present and centered on ordinary people who are pulled into problems or adventures that they don’t understand, becoming involved with magic and monsters.

But even when Dream himself didn’t appear, Gaiman never lost focus on what the series was about. Even in these more domestic stories, the focus is on these ordinary people’s dreams, and the effect that dreams can have on the waking world. Whether it be the story of a young woman named Barbie who becomes trapped in her own dreaming, or of a girl named Rose who finds herself with mysterious powers, the underlying idea behind the story is always clear—what is important are the dreams that these characters have, and how these dreams provide a glimpse into the effect that Dream has on the world he inhabits .

The next kind of story that Gaiman used most often involves the various preexisting mythologies that the world has to offer. In The Sandman, the deities from various cultures and mythologies coexist. This allows Dream to engage with different stories from various mythologies, and allows Gaiman to teach the reader about histories and mythologies that they might not have been exposed to otherwise.

The Sandman also includes Biblical figures such as Cain and Able, who in the series exist as servants to Dream in his mystical realm. Cain is doomed to always kill his brother and Able is doomed to be endlessly resurrected. The devil himself is a key figure in several volumes, with Dream actually visiting hell to sort out his conflicts with the infamous fallen angel Lucifer. One such conflict is when Lucifer decides to retire and leaves Dream in charge of hell, leading to all sorts of problems .

Dream also has stories with characters cut from Egyptian mythology, such as the cat god Bast, and characters from Norse mythology, such as Thor, Odin, and Loki, with the latter two becoming important figures in The Sandman’s later volumes. The three Fates from ancient Greek mythology also figure, and in the end they become Dream’s most important foes.

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But the third—and probably my personal favorite—kind of narrative that The Sandman employs is historical: the blending of the Sandman’s unique and eerie magic with historical figures and events. This is used to showcase the Kings of Rome and Marco Polo, and, most notably, is used when Morpheus visits the dreams of William Shakespeare, helping to inspire some of the famous playwright’s most beloved works. In issue 19, collected in the third volume Dream Country, Shakespeare’s company puts on A Midsummer Night’s Dream for Morpheus, with actual Fairy Folk sneaking into production. This issue is the only comic book to ever win the World Fantasy Award.My favorite example of this blending of history and fantasy will always be from Volume 6, Fables and Reflections, in which Dream inspires the broken and suicidal Joshua Abraham Norton in the year of 1859 to become the self-proclaimed Emperor of America, a real historical figure who solved social disputes in the city of San Francisco.

The Sandman is an intelligent, unnerving saga that follows an inhuman, monstrous magical figure. It traces his deeds and misdeeds throughout history with his siblings Destiny, Despair, Desire, Destruction, Delirium, and Death. The Sandman is a unique and beautiful series, and should always be remembered both as one of Gaiman’s crowning achievements and as one of the greatest creations of the comic book medium.

-contributed by Ben Ghan

The Giants Made Me Eat My Spinach: From Then to Now

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.

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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”.

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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