Saintly Thoughts

Musings on Jack and Giants

Of late I find myself musing upon the classic story of "Jack and the Beanstalk".  Often dismissed as "mere" escapism, I take it as a given that stories which stand the test of time, especially those that are disseminated for generations via oral traditions bereft of the archival support of the written word, speak to deeply felt human needs, desires, and fears--that is, they touch at the basis of what it means to be human.  What meaning then might we attribute to this story?  G.K. Chesterton once succinctly quipped that the meaning of this story is that "giants should be killed because they are giants". 

Very well then, what is the defining characteristic of a giant?  Why, the answer lies in the very name giant: that is, giants are very big!  Now it might be argued that this is not the prime source of antipathy that Jack has towards the giant in the story, for certainly there are other more hideous traits exhibited by the giant other than his size.  For the giant was a rapacious and greedy consumer of men (including -- at least in some versions of the story--Jack's own father and by extension the giant was the source of Jack's familial poverty).  Or, might admonish my critics, look at the character of the giant's wife, who though not much smaller rather extended hospitality and matronly care towards Jack.  Very well, I would reply, I suppose not all big things must be destroyed; perhaps something large and imposing if restrained by a deeply felt sense of love, devotion, and care might be suffered to live--but wise exceptions to the rule does not itself destroy the general rule of thumb that giants are to be destroyed!  For I suspect that the gentle giantess is by far an outlier, and stories of giants generally confirm this suspicion.  Take, for instance, the BFG in Roald Dahl's story of the same name, a single (and, it might be added, unusually small) giant concerned with the safety of children amidst a whole brood of wanton bone crunchers.

So granted, bigness (as with all things) may be tempered with charity.  But what is it about bigness that makes one monstrous?  For I suspect, had the giant in Jack and the Beanstalk been smaller and less powerful, he would not have behaved the way that he did.  If the giant had been the same size as Jack, I suspect that the smell of human flesh would not have so inflamed his bloodlust, knowing as he did that Jack was as able to kill and consume him as he was to kill and consume Jack.  This is not to say that a smaller giant may not have had some desire to rule and overpower others with his strength so that he might slate his lusts, only that recognizing the relative uncertainty of attaining to his desires, he might have displayed some more of the prudence becoming of a human person.  If fact, I would wager, that the giant may not always have been a giant.  Perhaps the giant was once no larger than Jack, but as he gave himself over to his lusts and desires--first, perhaps by means of trickery and shiftiness and later, as his size and power grew, more rapaciously and overtly--he grew by degrees larger and larger.  If you would allow me to be so bold, I might even suggest that Jack himself, if he is not careful, having eaten of the giant's food and plundered the giant's magical sources of wealth and pleasure, may find himself slowly turning into a giant.  How long before he, in his hubris and pride, develops a taste for human flesh?  And here we come to the point, bigness in relation to others makes one wicked because it gives one power over others.  Power over others creates desires that, if not tempered by an equally powerful sense of love and restraint, cause one to wish for monstrous things, up to and including the desire to consume the life of others.

I suppose the lesson here contains in equal measure both some hope and some terror.  Terror because, if I am correct that the giant was once no more than an ordinary man, then there may be some element of giant in all of us which any person might succumb to given the opportunity.  Hope because, insofar as a giant may be constrained by charity, even a wicked giant might be reformed and shrunk back down to a size more befitting a human being.  

But while this icon of the giant as an image of the powerful and rapacious soul gives us one aspect of the importance of this story, there is another more sinister meaning hidden in the depths of this tale.  For insofar as a society is an image of the human person and the giant is a large person, so the giant represents characteristics of a massively large societal entity such as a government or a corporation.  In his power and rapaciousness the giant might be considered another symbol of the leviathan as an image of the awesome power of the sovereign made famous by Thomas Hobbes' classic text of the same name.  Hobbes was specifically referring to the supreme power in society in the person of the supreme monarch, but we can manipulate this image to perceive a plethora of "little" leviathans represented by the disseminated sovereignty of the corporate structure.  If it sounds odd to your ear to conceive of the power of a corporation in this manner, remember that in the classic common law sense a corporation is a piece of the sovereign power of the State set off from the whole to fulfill a specific purpose, either geographically (in the case of a county or city) or purposefully (in the case of a hospital, university, or business).  Now again, this is not to say that the natural rapaciousness of such "giants" cannot be contained by good laws, orders, and customs (to paraphrase Machiavelli), however it is to suggest that left to their own devices and constrained by nothing more than the rapaciousness of the desire for profit and conquest, these giants will gobble up all things human that fall within their grasp, converting what was once the nobility of individual human personality into the bloated desiring thing that the giant represents.

Perhaps you think this is a bit of a stretch, that I have contorted this allegory out of all conceivable shape?  I do not deny that this description contains some logical leaps, this is hardly good philosophy.  However, this sketch is meant merely to fire the imagination, to awaken those slumbering to the conceivable horrors that modernity has unleashed upon the modern world in the form of such massive unnatural persons.  For the giants have always been with us, and always will be--this does not abdicate our human responsibility to keep them in check lest they grow beyond all bounds.