Brief Description   
References to Giants in Tolkien's Writings   
Giants in Various Myths   
Further Readings   

Brief Description    

The giants are the most mysterious race in Tolkien's writings, because there are very few references to them and almoust no explanations of their origins. Therefore we can neither adopt the "traditional" stereotype of what giants are nor form a clear picture of them from Tolkien's notes. It might have been some branch of Men, or maybe the whole race was imaginary even in Middle-earth, a legend rather than a true thing.

References to Giants in Tolkien's Writings    

Most references are found in The Hobbit, though they are not very imformative. Giants are mentioned several times in the episode of the storm in the MistyMountains:

There they were sheltering under a hanging rock for the night, and he lay beneath a blanket and shook from head to toe. When he peeped out in the lightning-flashes, he saw that across the valley the stone-giants were out and were hurling rocks at one another for a. game, and catching them, and tossing them down into the darkness where they smashed among the trees far below, or splintered into little bits with a bang. [...] They could hear the giants guffawing and shouting all over the mountainsides. [...] "This won't do at all!" said Thorin. "If we don't get blown off or drowned, or struck by lightning, we shall be picked up by some giant and kicked sky-high for a football." [...] As they passed under the arch, it was good to hear the wind and the rain outside instead of all about them, and to feel safe from the giants and their rocks.
The Hobbit, Chapter Four, Over Hill and Under Hill

Here giants appear as physical beings, just like trolls or orcs, however, they are closely associated with the phenomena of the nature. Hurling rocks at one another might be just a poetical or mythical explanation of actual things happening during the storm in the mountains. One can find counter-arguments to such opinion:

"I must see if I can't find a more or less decent giant to block it up again," said Gandalf, "or soon there will be no getting over the mountains at all."
The Hobbit, Chapter Six, Out of the Frying-Pan? into the Fire
Some say that he is a bear descended from the great and ancient bears of the mountains that lived there before the giants came.
The Hobbit, Chapter Seven, Queer Lodgings

In the first quote Gandalf refers to the new goblins' entrance through which they brought the party inside the tunnels. Again, he might be using this metaphorically or ironically given that he speaks to the dwarves and the hobbit, who are used to hearing tales about giants and dragons, but the statement also sounds rather serious since it comes from Gandalf himself - the great wizard, who knows many creatures and many races. The second quote speaks about Beorn, and here giants are imagined like a race that drove out the bears from the mountains, which implies that it is a strong race, and probably currently dominating in the mountains (apart the goblins, whici, presumably, spend most of the time underneath).

The view that giants are mythical beings can also be supported.

"Gandalf, Gandalf! Good gracious me! .... Not the fellow who used to tell such wonderful tales at parties, about dragons and goblins and giants and the rescue of princesses and the unexpected luck of widows' sons?
The Hobbit, Chapter One, An Unexpected Party - Bilbo
Poor Bilbo sat in the dark thinking of all the horrible names of all the giants and ogres he had ever heard told of in tales, but not one of them had done all these things.
The Hobbit, Chapter Five, Riddles in the Dark - Bilbo thinking about one of the riddles
But cropping out of the ground, right in the path of the stream which looped itself about it, was a great rock, almost a hill of stone, like a last outpost of the distant mountains, or a huge piece cast miles into the plain by some giant among giants.
The Hobbit, Chapter Seven, Queer Lodgings
They had hardly gone any distance down the tunnel when a blow smote the side of the Mountain like the crash of battering-rams made of forest oaks and swung by giants.
The Hobbit, Chapter Twelve, Inside Information

In all the quotes above giants appear as characters one can find in tales, strong and dangerous, and, apparently, of huge size, as shown in the quote about the Carrock. The mythical origins are also reflected in the concept that Ents are often referred to as giants in The Lord of the Rings.

I always felt that something ought to be done about the peculiar A. Saxon word ent for a 'giant' or mighty person of long ago — to whom all old works were ascribed.
The Letters of J.R.R.Tolkien, 157 To Katherine Farrer 27 November 1954

Thus from the very beginning 'ent' must have been associated with the word 'giant' or the concept of 'might person of long ago'.

‘All right,’ said Sam, laughing with the rest. ‘But what about these Tree-men, these giants, as you might call them? They do say that one bigger than a tree was seen up away beyond the North Moors not long back.’
The Lord of the Rings, {Book One}?, Chapter One, A Long-expected Party

Can we say that giants were associated with walking trees in the simple minds of the hobbits? Such claim would be slightly contradictory with regard to another reference:

Sam stared up at the inn with its three storeys and many windows, and felt his heart sink. He had imagined himself meeting giants taller than trees, and other creatures even more terrifying, some time or other in the course of his journey; but at the moment he was finding his first sight of Men and their tall houses quite enough, indeed too much for the dark end of a tiring day.
The Lord of the Rings, {Book One}?, Chapter Nine, At the Sign of the Prancing Pony

Here giants appear simply as huge ceatures and we are not told how Sam imagines them.

Another interesting thing is that giants are often mentioned in association with stone work.

At Helm's Gate, before the mouth of the Deep, there was a heel of rock thrust outward by the northern cliff. There upon its spur stood high walls of ancient stone, and within them was a lofty tower. Men said that in the far-off days of the glory of Gondor the sea-kings had built here this fastness with the hands of giants.
The Lord of the Rings, {Book Three}?, Chapter Seven, Helm's Deep
And there where the White Mountains of Ered Nimrais came to their end he saw, as Gandalf had promised, the dark mass of Mount Mindolluin, the deep purple shadows of its high glens, and its tall face whitening in the rising day. And upon its out-thrust knee was the Guarded City, with its seven walls of stone so strong and old that it seemed to have been not builded but carven by giants out of the bones of the earth.
The Lord of the Rings, {Book Five}?, Chapter One, {Minas Tirith}?

Tom Shippey tels us how Tolkien might have come up with his personal interpretation of orţanc enta geweorc, which is usually told to be the cunning work of giants.

Tolkien perhaps read the first word not as an adjective but as a name, so that the phrase now means Orthanc, the ents' fortress
{Tom Shippey}?, J.R.R.Tolkien - Author of the Century

Whatever the true story, it is almost obvious that to the hobbits of the Third Age the great works by the great people of the past looked splendid. 'Giant' then could refer, as in some mythologies, not only to size, but also to the enormous strength and spiritual splendour. This is perhaps what we can guess from other quotation:

`Behold the Argonath, the Pillars of the Kings! ' cried Aragorn. `We shall pass them soon. Keep the boats in line, and as far apart as you can! Hold the middle of the stream! ' As Frodo was borne towards them the great pillars rose like towers to meet him. Giants they seemed to him, vast grey figures silent but threatening.
The Lord of the Rings, {Book Two}?, Chapter Nine, The Great River

Of course the direct reference is to the colossal size of the pillars, yet we may read between the lines and see the connection between the splendour of the Kings (in the past, so probably a legend already) and the physical size of the sculptures representing them. Connections with size only are, of course, also used:

‘Who’s this young giant with the loud voice?’ he whispered. ‘Not little Pippin! What’s your size in hats now?’
The Lord of the Rings, {Book Six}?, Chapter Eight, The Scouring of the Shire, Fredegar

If giants in LotR and the {Third Age}? are but a legend to the ordinary people, in Farmer Giles of Ham we get a different picture of this race. The giants here are rude and uncultured folk, and troublesome at times. They are explicitly human-like (for example, use pots for cooking), but very large. Their size is explained much like it would be in any fairytale:

He brushed elms aside like tall grasses; and he was the ruin of roads and the desolation of gardens, for his great feet made holes in them as deep as wells; if he stumbled into a house, that was the end of it.
Farmer Giles of Ham

Giants in Various Myths    

Usually creatures referred to as giants are imagined as humanoids of spectacular size and strength. Often they are depicted as stupid or violent, though others imagine them friendly and wise.

There are references to giants in ancient literature: Homer's Odyssey includes Cyclopes, the Bible has Goliath and even an entire race called Nephilim.

The greatest likelihood is that Tolkien's giants had to do with Germanic vision of them. In Germanic myths, giants, or Jotuns, are an opposition to the gods. It is said that frost giants will defend the Aesir in Ragnarok and bring about the end of the world. The Aesir themselves are akin to the giants, and various stories mention their inter-marriages. The offspring of giants and gods often are imagined as monsters.

Folklore of Wales and Ireland has tales of combat with giants, and ogres or trolls, giant-like creatures, occur in many countries' folklore.

Further Readings    

  • Jacob Grimm's elaborations on giants in his Deutsche Mythologie [1]
  • A general overview of 'Gigantomachia' the wars of giants and gods in Greek mythology [2]
  • Titanes, Gigantes and Cyclopes in Greek mythology [3]
  • An entry in the Encyclopedia of Arda [4]
  • Robert Graves' Greek Mythology, esp. chapter 4 & 35-37
  • Geoffrey Ashe Mythology of the British Isles, esp. chapter 6-12


Not only are giants, according to legend, said to have been the first inhabitants of Britain, British Folklore - especially that of southern Britain - is rather rich in tales of giants. Tolkien, with his passage in The Hobbit, may have been alluding to the legend of the giant on Windover Hill who was bitter enemies with the giant on Firle Beacon, several miles away. In the midst of an argument one day, they flung boulders at one another, until one rock killed the Windover giant, stretching him out on the slope where his outline is preserved.

Old English often has "eald enta geweorc" for large stone buildings or monuments and there the parallels to Tolkien's Ents can be observed. Also Tolkien's first approach to giants - or Monsters in general - the Úvanimor, who are quite stereotypically described as monsters, giants, and ogres, reminds of the Biblical Nephilim as well as the Titanes and Gigantes of Greek myths or the the offspring of Tiamat in the Mesopotamian tales... -- ChW

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