About the Author:
I am a fourth-semester student in Enriched Pure and Applied Science, and soon to be a mathematics student at McGill University. I am passionate about science, literature, and philosophy. This text, which I wrote for Reflections, explores our relationship to the Gigantic and the Miniature which, as I claim, are connected to our fear of the natural world. I wish to thank Professor Rebecca Million for suggesting I submit this piece, and the Dawson English Journal for the honour of being published.
“If you want to overcome the whole world, overcome yourself.”
– Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Demons
Prof. Rebecca Million
English 102: Life as Exhibition
Overcoming our Fears: The Gigantic and the Miniature in The Odyssey and Folktales
Susan Stewart, in her essay On Longing, defined the gigantic as the “overly natural” (Stewart 70) and the miniature as “the overly cultural” (70). These two intertwining themes are present in the founding stories of the universe, for instance, in the form of Gaia in Greek cosmogony and the giant Ymir in Norse mythology. In Homer’s Odyssey, as well as two folktales, Tom Thumb and Jack and the Beanstalk, the gigantic represents the fear of the natural world and the miniature, the desire to contain and master it.
In book IX of The Odyssey, the Cyclopes represent the feebleness and terror of humans in front of the immutable landscape. One of the first things Odysseus emphasizes about them is their uncivilized, barbaric lifestyle. Odysseus describes Polyphemus, the Cyclops who held him hostage, as follows: “[he] slept in this cave alone […], knowing none but savage ways” (Homer 492). The gigantic is regarded as brutish, cannibalistic, and threatening to humans. Odysseus describes how “(n)or reply nor pity came from him, but in one stride he clutched at my companions, […], then he dismembered them and made his meal” (496). This passage highlights the vulnerability and powerlessness of humans, whose strength is rendered useless in the face of “infinity” (Stewart 70) or, in other words, the gigantic. It is said of Polyphemus that “he seemed no man at all of those […], but he seemed rather, a shaggy mountain reared in solitude” (Homer 492). This comparison to a mountain further demonstrates the connection between the overly large and nature, as it suggests that the Cyclops and the cave form one entity, or rather that the Cyclops represents the cave itself, of which humans are afraid. Stewart writes, “The gigantic becomes […] an interface between the natural and the human” (Stewart 71). The Cyclopes are a bridge between humans and nature, as they resemble humans in almost every way, except for their disproportionality, which is reminiscent of the vastness of the landscape. Homer, through the Cyclopes, demonstrates how the gigantic is associated with the natural world and the fear it induces.
The story of Tom Thumb, an English folktale whose author is unknown, shows how the miniature empowers humans. Unlike the Cyclopes, who are the incarnation of the “overly natural” (70) mentioned previously, Tom is unnatural in his conception, seeing as he was conceived by a fairy who was pleased by “[…] the droll fancy of such a little person among the human race” (“Tom Thumb”). This characteristic is the defining factor of the miniature, the fact that it is against the natural order and has been mechanically engineered to adopt such proportions. Upon meeting a cat, Tom appears to be “dreadfully frightened; for old Gumbo, the giant […]” (“Tom Thumb”). The use of the cat in this scene is significant, as to Tom it represents the gigantic and the indomitable fear of the natural world, while to us humans, cats are tamed creatures which we have subdued to our will. Tom’s story is empowering to the reader because, as the landscape is shrunken down, we rise above it. The adventures Tom goes through subvert traditional knightly scenery for domestic images; for instance, one of his heroic prowesses is to escape from a “batter-pudding” (“Tom Thumb”). These encounters threaten his life and give the regular-sized characters around him a sense of invincibility. Tom Thumb restrains the epic tale of the hero’s journey within a comprehensible space. Instead of fighting against unfathomable forces of nature, he fights the world contained within the domestic sphere. This miniaturization of the knightly tale gives secondary characters and readers alike a sense of control over a world which has been proportionated in a way that makes humans appear gigantic.
The contrast between the gigantic and the miniature displays how humans attempt to overcome their innate fear of the natural world. In the folktale Jack and the Beanstalk, the protagonist Jack climbs into the sky where he meets a man-eating ogre, associating the sky with the gigantic. The ogre in this story and the Cyclopes in The Odyssey are both portrayed as cruel, monstrous enemies, personified as the presence of the natural world, highlighting the human fear of nature. Odysseus, talking of the Cyclopes, says, “[They] have no muster and no meeting, no consultation or old tribal ways” (Homer 492). This barbarization hints at the fact that this fear stems from the uncontrollability of nature, which cannot be subdued entirely to the organized, heavily structured worldview of western societies. He continues by saying, “(i)n ignorance leaving the fruitage of the earth in mystery to the immortal gods, they neither plow, nor sow by hand” (492). Odysseus seems to associate this supposed disinterest in utilizing natural resources as a sign of primitiveness, as if culture and nature were opposed. Similarly, the miniature acts as a response against this irrational fear of the primeval landscape. On Tom Thumb’s tombstone reads: “Here lyes Tom Thumb, King Arthur’s knight” (“Tom Thumb”). The reason why he is elevated as a hero is, perhaps, because he succeeded in achieving what humans cannot: to master their environment. The miniature empowers the reader by containing the uncontrollable within a comprehensible space. By miniaturizing the world around us, the landscape blends in with the domestic, which can be controlled, allowing us to master our fear of the natural world.
The gigantic is the expression of a fear of the untameable presence of Mother Nature, whereas the miniature is a defense mechanism to overcome said fear. These two themes are fundamentally inseparable from one another and are both defined in relation to human beings. The representation of the gigantic in Homer’s The Odyssey and Jack the Beanstalk illustrates our detachment from nature, while in reality, we are an inherent part of it. This disjunction between two seemingly distant worlds—human and the natural—must be broken to advance towards overcoming our fear and reshaping our society in a sustainable way.
“The History of Tom Thumb.” Gutenberg Project, 2008, www.gutenberg.org/files/1988/1988-h/1988-h.htm#link2H_4_0001.
Homer, and Robert Fitzgerald. The Odyssey. Vintage Books, 1990.
Jacobs, Joseph. Jack and the Beanstalk. A.L. Burt Company, 1895.
Stewart, Suzan. On Longing. Duke University Press, 2012.