Thursday, March 26, 2020

Review: Christian Bärmann’s “The Giant Ohl and Tiny Tim”

(Review written by Lily Stejskal)

Giants typically get a bad rap in fairy tales, so if that’s where you met all your giants, you might automatically assume they were all evil and hateful towards humans. Our folklore “giants”: Charles Perrault, Joseph Jacobs, and the Brothers Grimm, all seem to agree that giants are liminal—neither fully human nor fully beast. They universally portray the non-human parts of giants as evil or wrong, just because they’re different.

Translated and edited by Jack Zipes
I must admit I have never met a giant, but if they exist, I’m sure I’d be just as likely to meet a gentle giant, like Christian Bärmann’s Giant Ohl, as the vicious giants littering more famous fairy tales.

After reading The Giant Ohl and Tiny Tim, I’m honestly surprised that Ohl even had the courage to try living among humans. Humans like Jacobs’ “Molly Whuppie” and Perrault’s “Little Thumb” steal from the giants they encounter. Then, when the giants try to retrieve their stuff, they’re killed (just read “Jack and the Beanstalk”). Sometimes the humans even kill giants just for the heck of it, like in “Jack the Giant Killer”.

Even in one of the kinder tales about giants—Grimm’s “The Young Giant”—there’s the underlying message that humans and giants can’t mix. In this tale, a baby no bigger than a human thumb (much like Little Thumb), is nurtured by a giant. Male giants are apparently able to “suckle at their chest”, but this results in the boy growing so big that he eventually becomes a giant himself.

However, this giant clearly believes humans have no place among giants, because he gives the supersized boy back to his human parents. But the parents don’t want him back. This leads the boy to hurting and deceiving others. If either side had accepted him, perhaps he would have turned out alright. But in the Grimm’s world, it’s simply not possible for giants and humans to live together in harmony.

Gulliver Awed by Three Giant Beggars in the Land of Brobdingnag
by Paul Gavarni, 1862. Courtesy National Gallery of Art, Washington
With all that in mind, when our gentle Giant Ohl is told by a fortune teller that he’ll find happiness with humans, why does he believe them? The book doesn’t say. I can only give kudos to Ohl for being brave enough to seek out companionship among the creatures who have caused his kind such pain.

Ohl is lucky because the humans in this book don’t automatically label him as evil.  They’re afraid of him, and probably willing to kill him to protect themselves, but are also curious about him, which is why, intentionally or otherwise, they end up giving him a chance.
That’s progress as far as I’m concerned.

Ohl may not suckle any human children, but he certainly loves them and knows how to be kind to them. He carries them on his back as they take summer trips together. None of this would surprise a modern audience, but it may have surprised people at the time. Bärmann wrote in the years surrounding World War I, right after the Victorian era, when parenting was often done at a distance and playtime wasn’t a high priority in many households. In that way, perhaps The Giant Ohl was ahead of its time.

Any fairy tale scholars out there have ideas about why Bärmann had such love for giants? Information about him online has been tough to find. His Goodreads page says that he was a German painter who published most of his work in the early 1900s. At first, I thought it might stem from a general cultural shift between the time of Perrault (the 1600s) and Grimm’s (early 1800s), but that doesn’t fully explain it. Because Joseph Jacobs, of the infamous Jack stories, was a contemporary of Bärmann, and clearly had zero fondness for giants. (Fun fact: Jacobs was from Australia!)

I can see why Jack Zipes chose this story to revive as a part of his new “Forgotten Fairy Tales” series. If you’re a fan of Roald Dahl’s The BFG or Harry Potter’s friend Hagrid, you should check out The Giant Ohl. You can purchase it directly through the Wayne State University Press' website and I think you’ll find it delightful.
L'ogre et le petit poucet
by Honore Daumier, 19th century. Courtesy National Gallery of Art, Washington

About the reviewer:

Lily Stejskal has enjoyed reading, telling, writing, studying and re-imagining fairy tales, as well as other stories, all her life.  She started seriously interpreting and analyzing fairy tales at age fourteen. This served her well in college, where she studied English and Psychology.  Since then, Lily has been working on new fairy tale retellings and other types of fiction, for both children and adults.

1 comment:

  1. Lily's review is simultaneously charming and sophisticated. Perfect for a meaningful discussion of fairytales.