Amid a history full of battles and kings, there is another, eerier Britain, steeped in legend, full of dark forests, druidic mysteries and creatures usually only seen out of the corner of the eye.
The Land of the Green Man is Carolyne Larrington's journey through the supernatural landscapes of the British Isles: the marshes and moors, riverbanks and rockpools that given rise to myths of a myriad of creatures.
As well as elusive creatures such as barghests and selkies, goblins and water-horses, there are the giants who bestrode the land in ancient times and, as Carolyne explains, two of them, Gog and Magog, have long watched over London.
Giants are traditionally associated with wild, uncivilised places, the high moorland or the mountains; in British folk-tale they are traditionally rather stupid, throwing stones about and acting in impulsive rage, in ways that change the landscape completely. Yet Anglo-Saxon tradition imagined the giants of the past as city-builders and skilled workers in stone.
The Anglo-Saxons did not know how to build in stone when they first arrived in the British Isles in the fifth and sixth centuries, preferring wood and wattle-and-daub for construction. Those splendid cities: Verulamium, Deva, Eboracum (St Albans, Chester and York, respectively) built by the Romans were probably scarcely maintained after the legions were recalled to Rome, and their stone structures must have fallen into dangerous disrepair. Only later in the Anglo-Saxon period did the immigrants start to build in stone, often dismantling parts of surviving Roman buildings to provide ready-worked stone for their new projects. Quite a few Old English poems refer to stone buildings as ‘the ancient works of giants’. The poem The Wanderer associates crumbling, snow-covered walls with giants, while in the wisdom-poem known as Maxims II, cities (ceastra – deriving from Latin caster ‘camp’), with splendid stone ramparts are said still to stand; they are described as orþanc enta geweorc (the well-thought-out work of giants). This resonant phrase haunted JRR Tolkien, professor of Anglo-Saxon literature at Oxford, who chose Orthanc for the name of the great tower of Isengard, the headquarters of the wizard Saruman, in The Lord of the Rings.
Gog and Magog, (the biblical giants mentioned as a pair in Revelation 20 rather than Geoffrey of Monmouth’s single emblematic giant), are patrons of the City of London. Enormous wooden statues of the two giants stood for centuries outside the Guildhall; their first incarnation was burnt up in the Great Fire of London, while the second pair, installed in 1708, were casualties of the Blitz. Their current replacements, carved by the sculptor David Evans, stand nine foot three inches tall and were installed inside the Guildhall once more in 1953 (see picture). Magog traditionally bears a phoenix on his shield, symbolising rebirth from fire. Since 2006, Gog and Magog have once again led the annual procession at the Lord Mayor’s Show. Reconstituted by the Worshipful Company of Basketmakers, these huge wicker figures are light enough to be carried, though they are perhaps as dangerously inflammable as their unfortunate predecessors. Their cousins include the Gigantes celebrated yearly in September in Barcelona, and the hugely popular marionette Giants who have appeared more than once in Liverpool, dramatising the city’s connection with the Titanic in 2012, and its history in World War I in 2014.
These urban giants fulfil multiple roles. In Thomas Boreman’s Gigantick History, published in 1741, they are said to symbolise the fact that ‘just as much as those huge giants exceed in stature the common bulk of mankind’, so the City of London towers above all others in defending ‘the honour of the country and the liberties of this their City’. But Gog and Magog have a larger function, I think, speaking very clearly to the dualities which giants symbolise. On the one hand, in their embodiment of nature, as huge and terrifying, they are co-opted to warn all supernatural evil forces that the City can call on powerful and determined guardians to repel its enemies. ‘Our’ big friendly giants make valuable allies and dangerous foes. And on the other hand they re-introduce the natural, the non-human into the city. They remind the city-dwellers that there are forces which, despite their ingenious technologies, their concreting over the clay, humans cannot control, and which they must remember to propitiate. Gog and Magog also recall to the merchants and moneymakers of the City how the land and its resources underpin the wealth generated in the buildings they guard; they foreground an ecological awareness in the metropolitan environment, bringing nature back to spaces where the green world seems to have been banished.
The land of Britain traditionally is shaped, originally inhabited and guarded by giants. The giants of London intersect with the modern conception of the Green Man and other protective nature spirits, the spirits who bring the green into the city, the wild back into the civilised and who call into question the idea of progress and culture. Yet there’s always something melancholy about giants; they seem to belong definitively in the past and their legends are often sorrowful in complicated ways. The Anglo-Saxons understood this when they associated giants and ruins, both markers of a time gone before, a time which can never be recovered.
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