Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Giants: Medieval Monster to Tabletop Terror

             It is unsurprising that the giant, a prevalent theme throughout medieval texts, as well as being described at length in Of Giants, Sex, Monsters and the Middle Ages, would appear in the popular roleplaying game Dungeons and Dragons. However, what may come as something of a surprise is the relative closeness these modern interpretations have to their storied ancestors. In appearance, dress, actions, and habits the giants of Dungeons and Dragons (in particular the Hill Giants) adhere to classic ideals surrounding the giants, penned in such texts as The Travels of Sir John Mandeville.
               The most obvious connection to be established is the massive size of the giants being portrayed. This continual focus on the stature of the creature could be seen as the continual appearance of excess in society. With the remainder of such a trait/concept in society, it is unsurprising that the giants of legend as well as their actual forms would remain significant in modern media. This is especially true based on the continual depiction of the giants as having distinctly human features, compared to the other more “bestial” creatures throughout the Dungeons and Dragons Monster Manual.
               A smaller and more easily overlooked similarity is the creatures preference of extreme environments. Throughout The Travels of Sir John Mandeville the importance of climate and surroundings is continually stressed; the more severe the area the more monstrous its inhabitants. The same is explicitly stated in the Dungeons and Dragons Monster Manual in regard to the giant race: “Giants and titans tend to lair in extreme environments, including scrublands, mountain peaks, volcanic calderas, and searing deserts.” While the in-game purposes of this can be summarized as simply the establishment of character/location, the actual lore reasoning is a bit less clear. While their connection to the natural world is noted in the Dungeons and Dragons universe, this living preference could be linked to the giants’ continual representation of excess, with their extreme size and being only truly fitting in in an equally extreme environment.

               Also to consider is Dungeons and Dragon’s description of the giants as a wicked, malicious race. With D&D essentially being a world of infinite possibility and change, it comes as something of a surprise that the giants are virtually never depicted in a heroic, or even neutral role. The argument could be raised that this is due to constraints of the games format itself, with the size difference between a giant and almost any other race an adventurer can assume being too great to make it a feasible option. However, this argument loses credibility in when considered alongside the novels written regarding the Dungeons and Dragons world. Even in these, where portraying a giant as a hero would come (one would think) as little issue, the massive humanoids are always cast as the aggressor/villain. Such adherence to the medieval depictions of giants as monstrous kidnappers and annihilators could potentially be a sign of man’s continual uneasiness towards this particular race of monsters, the massive creatures twisted mirroring of human traits and ideals too much to overlook. 

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