Giants in the Earth

I was up early last Tuesday morning, taking a last lingering look at the line-up of planets in the pre-dawn sky. Although it wasn’t a conjunction in any real sense any longer, it was—in many ways—the most spectacular sight of the last month. Mercury, Venus, Mars and Jupiter were visible; a new moon was momentarily caught in the branches of my neighbour’s tree; twice I saw the incandescent streak of a meteor and, to cap it off, although the cloud veil seemed too thin for a storm, lightning flashed across the sky several times.

It was a bit of a worry, really. If I up and move to another country shortly, it won’t come as a complete surprise. Seven years ago I looked out my kitchen window at a new moon around this same time of year and—as a direct consequence—wound up living in New Zealand. I worked at the high school in a tiny town nestled against the Blue Mountains of West Otago: Tapanui, the edge of the rainbow.

On my first major trip around the South Island, I headed down to Gore, round to Queenstown and Arrowtown, where I visited several movie locations from The Lord of the Rings, before returning through Central Otago.

Michael Ward talks about donegality in Planet Narnia: The Seven Heavens in the Imagination of CS Lewis. By it, he means a defining but ordinary quality. As I drove through Central Otago with its strange rock formations, bleak uplands, steep stony chasms and snowgrass, I didn’t know the word ‘donegality’. But I did have the strongest sense that, if any place on earth really encapsulated Ettinsmoor from The Silver Chair, this was it.

It felt like giant country.

As I drove into Ettrick, the very name of the town seemed to confirm that sense of ettins nearby. When I investigated the local legends shortly afterwards, I wasn’t surprised to find the Māori equivalent of the ettin: Kopuwai, a brutish giant able to step from one mountain to another but now petrified as a pillar of rock on top of the Obelisk Range. 

Just before I left for New Zealand, my first fantasy was published by Evergreen Books. And do mean ‘just before’: the publisher received the shipment of Merlin’s Wood the day before I left. Merlin’s Wood contains some barely-disguised ettins: I was sitting at my computer dithering about to call the alien creatures I’d just ‘invented’ when my eye lighted on The Silver Chair. Thus the giant green giraffe-like horses in Merlin’s Wood became the ettii.

In Merlin’s Wood, they were wholly a work of imagination. However the decision to use the name eventually led me, as I prepared the sequel, to explore Lewis’ clues in On Stories about his own inspiration: that the medieval hero Gawain felt giants blowing after him on the upland fells. When I came across Lewis’ words ‘etins aneleden him’ for the first time, I felt as if some anchors of my soul had been instantly and explosively sheared away and I was being whirled upwards by mystery.

As it transpired, ‘etins aneleden him’ isn’t a quote from Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. But the idea is there.

Indeed, the giants of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight (of which the Green Knight himself is one) persuade me more than ever that the donegality of The Silver Chair is Thursday. As mentioned in the previous two posts, this donegality is a play on the Norse word for ‘giants’, thurses.

It also puns on Thor (after whom Thursday is named), his Roman equivalent, Jupiter (which, as a planet, is a gas giant) and picks up on the folklore of the Scottish Borders.  

Unanswered from those two posts is the question of what impelled Lewis to take his adventure about giants into the underground world of the Green Witch. To understand that, I believe we need look at the interplay between two of Lewis’ favourite works. We must turn again to Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. This medieval poem starts by tracing Britain’s founding back to the fall of Troy. Scholarly tradition, of which Lewis was surely aware, asserts the unnamed traitor at the beginning of the poem is Aeneas, founder of Rome.

Lewis’ lost translation of the Aeneid (edited by AT Reyes) has not only been found but shown to have never been far from his mind. David Downing in Journeys to the Underworld in the Aeneid and The Silver Chair has pointed to many allusions within The Silver Chair to the Aeneid.

I want to take his insights further. He points out the sibyl (of Cumae) agrees to act as a guide to Aeneas in his visit to the underworld.

A curious detail in The Silver Chair may be significant here: Jill, Eustace and Puddleglum fall into the letter E.

And the letter E, as the first-century priest Plutarch discussed in On the E at Delphi, is associated with the oracle at Delphi and with the enigmatic prophecies of a sibyl. She sat on a tripod in an underground cavern, above a fissure believed to emit a mind-altering gas. She babbled in riddles or heavenly tongues, responding to the inquiries of worshippers. Her priests, beating drums or cymbals, would interpret her utterances. She was called the Pythia or Pythoness, after the serpent slain by the god Apollo.

Is it just coincidence that the Lady of the Green Kirtle turns into a python just before Rilian kills her?

Is it just coincidence that Plutarch interpreted one meaning of the E as simply ‘if’?  ‘If’ is the word of choice; is it again just coincidence that The Silver Chair is all about the consequences of choice?

Or that the Pythia, the serpent at the heart of the world, is a faint allusion to both Thor and Jupiter at one and the same time?

The Midgard Serpent, once battled by Thor, is the serpent at the heart of the world. The heart of the world was established by Jupiter who sent two eagles flying around the earth. They met at Delphi, establishing its right to a ‘navelstone’ and indicating it was the centre of the world.

On that navelstone was an E. 

Perhaps ‘if’ is indeed at the heart of the world. Surely the most famous chapter of the New Testament is 1 Corinthians 13—not just the love chapter, but the freewill chapter too. It alludes to that E at Delphi, across the bay from Corinth.

‘If,’ Paul started, ‘I speak in the tongues of men and of angels…’

And then he finishes with the ultimate statement of what a true giant in the earth should be.


  1. James

    Can I just ask, wouldn’t Thor’s father (Wotan?) equate to Jupiter in the Roman Pantheon? (ie. being king of the gods and all that?) or where does Wotan fit in? Don’t want to nitpick so much as try and get it straight in my head…

    • An excellent point, James.

      It’s a good idea to reset your thinking to the classical and medieval parallels, rather than the modern ones.

      Wotan was the Norse equivalent of the Roman messenger god, Mercury.

      Hence Wednesday (named after Wodan/Wotan/Odin) is ‘mercredi’ in French (after Mercury). The lily lake or silver sea at the end of The Voyage of the Dawn Treader is a motif of Mercury and thus one small reason why I think that story’s donegality is Wednesday, not the Sun, as Michael Ward suggests.

      Thursday (after Thor in English) is ‘jeudi’ in French (after Jove or Jupiter).

      Tuesday (after Tiw in English or Norse Tyr) is ‘mardi’ in French (after Mars). Here I agree with Michael Ward about the donegality of Prince Caspian, although not for the reason he gives. It is Mars, but only because Mars and Tuesday are intimately connected.

  2. Moderator

    I was thinking more from the point of view of ‘The Ring’ (Wagner). I still don’t see how Thor’s Dad does not equate to Jupiter. Zeus carries across from Greek Mythology, so surely the Norse God-in-charge might carry across also (?). (Can you be more specific as to why you think that?)

    • Odin/Woden/Wotan is generally regarded as a fairly latecomer to the Norse pantheon, especially in terms of his kingship. He’s a war god – whereas the chief Greek and Roman gods are more concerned with weather (as in storms, thunder and lightning) and fertility in their desire to copulate with everyone in sight.

      Rather than think of the modern pantheons, this goes back to the Roman idea of functionality (which gets reflected in the equivalences of the Days). Thor was the thunder, lightning and storm god: hence the parallel with Jupiter. Woden was the trickster: hence the parallel with Mercury. Both Woden and Mercury were also associated with writing – Woden with runes and Mercury with the alphabet.

  3. Moderator

    Ah, I see!

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