In the central McDonald's in Lille, located on Rue de Béthune between the cinemas and the expensive fashion shops, live a pair of giants. You can see them watching you out of the wall, one smiling and one frowning fiercely, behind their tangles of curly beard and their menacing eyebrows. They wear appropriately medieval clothing, tabards and chain-mail shirts, and brandish swords and axes. Night and day, they watch over the crowds passing in and out: the teenagers stopping in for snacks and ice cream on weekend nights after the movies, the young families having lunch on Sunday afternoon.
Everyone can see them, everyone who stands at the counter ordering a "McFish Poisson" or "un menu Maxi Best Of," and brushes past the security guard as they carry their tray of food upstairs. But you think maybe nobody else sees them in quite the same way you do. That is, no one else seems to really be paying attention. You get the impression—standing at the end of the heaving queue, daring to glance sidelong at the massive faces out of the corner of your eye—that other people don't really notice they're there. You've come to live in a universe where giants in the wall are so familiar that nobody takes notice anymore.
The giants are named Lydéric and Phinaert, and they are the patron giants of Lille, the city where I live. What I would like you to understand about these two is that they are real, they are able to move, and they're eighteen feet tall. The images on the wall of McDonald's are only painted pictures on raised wood, but Lydéric and Phinaert really exist as enormous effigies that are kept year-round in the Hôtel de Ville, or town hall. Despite being made of wicker, they are very difficult to lift. Nonetheless, at set times, during festivals throughout the year, they are brought out and carried through the city streets with great honor.
It's considered normal for towns in the north of France to have patron giants. According to material furnished by the tourist office (my mustard-yellow "2006 Lille Guide Book: Chaque pas une découverte—every step a new discovery!"), the origin of Lille's giants is as follows:
In the year 620, Salvaert, a Burgundian prince, escaped from an insurrection and fled toward England with his wife Ermengaert and an escort of loyal servants. As he was crossing the bleak wood of Bois-sans-Mercy, he fell into an ambush led by Phinaert, a bandit lord whose den, the castle of the Buc, towered above the banks of the River Deûle. Ermengaert escaped the slaughter. . . . As she lay asleep at the foot of a willow by a fountain, she was blessed with an apparition of the Virgin Mary. The Virgin predicted the birth of a son who would avenge his father. Ermengaert gave birth to her child, named Lydéric, who was taken in by a hermit. The child was fed by a doe, and Ermengaert was imprisoned by Phinaert.
Twenty years later, Lydéric challenged Phinaert to single combat. This judicial duel took place in Pont-de-Fins before the King of France. Phinaert was defeated, and the King gave Lydéric the castle of Buc, the cradle of the city of Lille, and granted him the title of first prince of Flanders. Ermengaert was set free . . .
This story sums up several of the things I find strange and wonderful about the giants. To wit: they come out of mistily legendary medieval history; they resonate with the most well-known myths about the founders of cities (does not Lydéric, suckled by a doe, invite comparison to Romulus and Remus, founders of Rome, and the she-wolf who nursed them as orphaned children?); and, finally, the bizarreness of their story makes them a wonderfully incongruous pair to find on the wall of McDonald's. After all, when reading this notice of the city's founding, you can't help but notice how violent it is. And yet every summer they come out for the city festivals, Lydéric and Phinaert, the former in his red tabard with his sword slung by his side, the latter in his blue cape, carrying his axe, strolling through the streets of the city together, looking so fraternal you might forget how bloody their story is. That's one of the things I find so amazing about these two—how they can, it seems, leave their blood-feud behind them at festival time.
Most of the time, of course, Lydéric and Phinaert do not walk the streets. They are still the patrons of the city, but you can't see them. The only place you might catch their reflection is in the pictures painted on the wall of McDonald's, where they watch the Lillois ordering their fries. But everyone seems too busy to pay attention, and so the giants stay quiescent and semi-hidden, regarding us out of the architecture.
The first place I saw giants was in Barcelona, on the curving northeast coast of Spain. I was there on a grant from my university, for a week or two, and I will never forget it. Barcelona lies at a curious crossroads of influences and history, partly Spanish but marinated in Catalonian cultural pride, and I suspect that this combination makes it unique in the world. The impressions the city left on me are as mixed as could be imagined: brilliant sunlight on the avenue where acrobats perform for the tourists and merchants sell caged birds, olives from the covered marketplace, poplar-lined parks, a building shaped like a dragon, pulsing nightclubs facing the beach, the statue of Columbus pointing, in the wrong direction, out to sea and toward America. The sound of the strange language, and the strange names of the Metro stations: disentangled, they worked out from Catalan into Diagonal, Dry Town, Ocean Forest, Saints.
I arrived in Barcelona just before April 23rd, which turned out to be the Día de San Jordí, or Saint George's Day (Saint George being the patron saint of Catalonia, as he is of England, though not that of Spain—another symbol of Catalonian independent-mindedness). Celebrations were ramping up mysteriously all around me: the streets were full of bookstalls and flower vendors, men buying roses and women books. In the alleys of the old city, someone gave me a rose made of iron, long and heavy as a church-gate key, and someone else sold me a pastry with a key's shadow burned into the crust.
I saw posters advertising something important to happen that night in the plaza. After dark, I came back. It was a correfoc, a fire-running, and what that turned out to mean was that the plaza was full of hideous monsters: dwarfs with huge heads, green-eyed dragons, great beasts like something out of a medieval cartographer's nightmare—sea monsters and hippopotamuses, animals with one eye—dashing across the cobbles in the flickering light. From the mouths of the huge masks spewed streams of fire. Adults and children laughed and shrieked, taking turns moment by moment to dart after the beasts, to rush across their line of fire and try to avoid scorching their heels.
I stood transfixed in the wheeling darkness, swallowed by the kaleidoscopic flare of arcing light on varnished masks and the shouts echoing off the stones. A torrent of sparks rained over my shoulders. I turned and found myself staring into the face of a dragon, huge and snub-snouted, with glittering eyes. The sparks bit painfully into my neck and wrists. The dragon roared and shot fire again. With a sense of sudden understanding, I laughed out loud, and, like anyone else in the plaza, jumped away nimbly into the darkness, leaving the fire burning on the cobblestones where my feet had been.
That night in Barcelona, something happened to me. That was the first time I encountered demons in the heart of the city, dragons and grotesques beloved of their own people performing in ceremonies that the city held dear. We don't have creatures like that in the traditions I come from, and I had never imagined they were possible—they, or anything like them. I knew that night that there were human hands holding the masks in place, that humans carried the dragons and the "big-heads," the cap-grossos, across the plaza, and held the fire sticks that shot the sparks. I knew that, but it didn't matter. Some spark of imagination and beautiful terror burrowed down through my skin, to my heart, where it has never stopped smoldering.
I staggered back to my rented bed feeling as if I had glimpsed a story from the beginning of time, taking form in a swirl of flickering green and red on the hot cobblestones. It was as if the dreams and imagination of the people who walk the city streets every day had rushed up from under the stones, the human and the not-human coming together, for one night, to dance.
And then the next day I saw the giants, parading down toward the dock. They were taller than a human and they came in pairs. I asked a bystander, who explained: "They represent the neighborhoods. Every part of the city has its giants, you see. There is the lamplighter and his wife; there is the fisherman and the fish-scaler; there is the weaver and the seller of linen. They live in the Ciutat Vella, in the Barrio Chino, in the Port Vell, in El Raval." I watched the giants approach, and turn, and pass, and this thought went through me: how marvelous, to have a pair of giants representing your neighborhood! How great to have the spirit of the place where you live turned into something tall and real: like the spirit of your favorite street-corner, nine feet high, advancing toward you with a pair of expressive eyes and a surprising hat. Less intimidating than the monsters of the night before, and less enormous than I had previously imagined giants to be, that waterside parade nonetheless opened my eyes to the possibilities of incarnating a genius of place in human form, and sent me off on a long-term quest after giants.
The Low Countries—that is, the countries of Belgium and Holland, and Northern France, where it borders the North Sea—are not the only other parts of Europe to have native giant traditions, but it is here and in Catalonia that the tradition seems to be strongest. There exist competing theories as to why this is. One points to the Spanish domination of Flanders, under the reign of Charles V and his descendants, which lasted from 1506 to 1665. This has dubious support, however, especially since their court was centered in Madrid and not Catalonia. The truth seems to be that it's a mystery.
I didn't know all this when I came to Lille, but I soon found out. And as soon as I learned about the existence of giants, here in the rainy North, where I had wound up more or less by accident, I started pursuing them, researching local festivals in the hope of catching one on the move.
The first giant I caught was in Comines, a town on the Belgian border. I took a bus there one October afternoon, an hour-long ride through brick towns and increasingly rural farm country, with old ladies dozing in the front of the bus and teenagers necking in the back. I had seen posters up in Lille advertising the annual "Jet des Louches," which can be translated either as "The Hurling of the Madmen" or "The Hurling of the Spoons," and I was glowing with curiosity.
Comines turned out to be larger than I had imagined. It was all grey flagstones and red brick, like most cities around here. The streets were hung with heraldic banners, embroidered with red and gold lions and keys. A grocer, tending one of the few shops that had stayed open even on this feast day, told me in a gruff accent how to reach the town's Grand'Place: I was to follow the main street for a while, then cross a bridge, and I would reach Belgium. All the action, he explained, was on the Belgian side of town.
I followed his directions and came out onto a large square where a kind of Renaissance festival was going on. I had never been at a Renaissance festival in a place that had actually seen the Renaissance, and the novelty held me in thrall for a while. There were men in floppy hats and people in wonderfully detailed leather-and-velvet costumes with bristling swords, selling souvenir medallions and overpriced flagons of beer and meat pies—just like the King Richard's Faire I went to once in Wayland, Massachusetts, with my father and brother, except that at King Richard's Faire I was in a wooded field surrounded by science fiction fans and members of the Society for Creative Anachronism, and here I was standing on grey flagstones, with the town belfry rising behind me, surrounded by tired parents and sandy-haired children smearing their faces with the gaufres—waffles—covered with chocolate and whipped cream that people like to eat all over the North. And then there was a parade, with squadrons of marching men and children dressed in more detailed heraldic costumes, and a marching band, and floats showing the different stages of the history of the town of Comines, including a huge rolling wagon in the shape of a ladle, with girls in princess hats sitting up top—it turned out that this actually was the Feast of the Spoons—and when the girls threw out handfuls of small wooden ladles to the crowd, everyone leaped for them.
I was feeling very mellow and cheerful by this time. Then, to crown it all, the giant rolled out. The giant of Comines is a tall, brown-bearded man, dressed in a red robe with a yellow stripe down the front. He wears a red hat with a yellow tassel hanging off. On one arm, he carries the yellow and red banner of the city. He is about fourteen feet tall.
I stood in the press of the crowd, old women's elbows digging into my sides and children standing on my feet, and watched the giant approach. Although it felt vaguely rude, I couldn't take my eyes off the place where two gaps open discreetly to either side of the yellow stripe, somewhere between where the giant's waist and knees should be, to let the eyes of the giant-bearers—the two men carrying the giant—look out. Through the little grilled windows, I couldn't read the men's expressions, but they looked intent and focused on their task. Their sneaker-clad feet were visible, just for a few inches, under the hem of the giant's robe. Behind him, as he approached, men came beating tall yellow drums.
I cannot quite describe what it is like, the first time you look up into a giant's face. Until he is almost upon you, you do not have a clear sense of how tall he really is. His head floats above you, large against the sky. His eyes, which might have seemed to be watching you as he approached, are now fixed somewhere on the horizon. He is so big that he cannot see you.
I was reminded of the first time I found myself at the base of a mountain high enough that, when I looked up, the peak blocked out the sun. The awe feels like that. It is, perhaps, like the awe we might feel the first time we look into the distant gaze of an alien form of life. It might be like the awe that people used to feel when they worshipped the larger-than-human images that stood in for their gods.
The giant had already made a circuit of the city streets, for all parades begin and end in the Grand'Place. After passing the place where I stood, he was marched once more around the square and then set down in a convenient but visible corner. The giant-bearers slipped out from behind the flaps of his robe and made their escape, wiping their foreheads and heading for the beer stalls.
I was still focused on the giant, thinking of his impassive face against the blue sky. I am not sure how long I had been staring when I started to realize that behind me in the square, a different tension was starting to grow, like the sea rising. Some people had left the Grand'Place, and others had come pressing in. When I looked around, I noticed that I was now surrounded mostly by men. They were middle-aged men with big Flemish bellies; men who had been selling beer in the fair stalls, still in their velvet hats; young men in track suits with shaved heads and hooded, gloomy eyes. They were watching the Hôtel de Ville, the town hall, on the other side of the square, and they looked as focused as a pack of hunters.
I asked someone: "What's going on?"
"They're going to throw the spoons," he said, focused on the building over my shoulder.
"The members of the Town Council. See? They're heading up there right now."
Sure enough, against the grey balconies at the top of the Hotel de Ville the shapes of men and women were appearing. They were dressed in old-fashioned crimson robes, and from down here they looked tiny as figures picked out against the background of a medieval tapestry. I recognized their costumes: I had seen them earlier in one of the floats, being pulled through the street by horses.
The emotion in the square was becoming palpable. The voices of the men rolled low around me. Some of them shifted physically, as if staking out positions. I took out my camera, since I am, after all, a tourist above all, and it seemed clear that something was about to happen.
Then there was a great cry and the councilors at the top of the building threw something off the top of the porch. Where it fell, the crowd surged, and I was startled by the shock wave that reached all the way back to where I stood in the middle of the plaza. A wooden spoon tumbled down out of the sky toward the place where I stood, and there was a heave of bodies around me. The violence of the motion took me by surprise, and a moment later I was startled to realize how tightly packed the bodies had become, as intimate as sardines. Men dived for the ground, scrabbling for the spoon, and I was rocked and carried backward by the surge.
Astounded at how quickly this had grown serious, I found myself momentarily off balance. Should I be considering all this funny—I was, after all, being pelted by wooden spoons—or worrisome? The councilors were hurling out ladles now in great fistfuls. Everywhere the crowd seized and heaved like earth breaking in a quake. The men threw themselves at each other to seize the spoons, they made outrageous acrobatic leaps, they slapped each others' arms out of the way. It had become a full-contact sport, like rugby or American football.
But it was when the spoons slipped through all their fingers and fell to earth that the battle became really vicious. Three feet away from me, two men nearly came to blows: one middle-aged, with the pink jowls and washed-out blue eyes that suggest local Flemish blood, the other young and track-suited with dark hair and deep-set North African eyes. Both had dived for a ladle, the boy had come up with it, the other disagreed, they were shouting insults in French. They faced off, breathing heavily. Both had friends, who came quietly up behind to form threatening flanks.
A small gap opened round the men as people closed in to watch. Beyond the perimeter, the crowd continued to surge and squeal; from the top of the Hôtel de Ville, the spoons were still coming down. Another convulsion of the mob nearly knocked me off my feet. I couldn't protect my camera, and I decided I couldn't protect myself. I felt too small and out of place.
The Flemish man and the dark-eyed boy were still taunting each other as I made my way toward the edge of the Grand'Place, breathing hard and more anxious than I would have believed possible. I worked my way through elbows and hard, flailing knees. I could not see three feet ahead. I was afraid for my safety, and I knew with a clarity that frightened me that, if I were knocked down onto the pavement, no one would notice or care. Everyone was busy looking up.
I found myself in the corner of the plaza under the bell tower, standing beside the giant. I looked up at his great face silhouetted against the sky. His blue eyes looked off into the distance.
"What is this holiday to you?" I asked him. "What are these people here for?"
He was so much taller than I was that I could barely see his eyes.
"Is this funny, or not?" I asked him.
There was no answer, of course. I stood huddling beside the great, empty crimson and yellow box of his knees and tried to figure out whether I liked him or not, and whether or not I felt comforted.
Later, when the hurling ceremony was over, I went back out onto the cobbled square to look for explanations. The ceremony ended, the tension had dissipated like a dream and everyone was in holiday mood once more. The Town Council members had descended and moved among the crowd, being congratulated or ragged in their heavy robes. Even the sun had come out.
I approached a middle-aged lady, involved in scolding conversation with a young child eating a gaufre, and presented myself as a curious foreigner. "Why do people go after the ladles?" I asked. "Why do you fight each other for them?"
The ladles, the woman explained, were associated with a legendary event in the town's history, half-remembered, half-fiction. A duke, held prisoner by occupying forces in the Hôtel de Ville, had slipped out a message to a collaborator by wrapping it around a wooden spoon which he contrived to drop onto the cobbles; thus was the message carried out, leading to the town's eventual liberation.
"But why are people so eager to catch the spoons?"
"Well, it's a tradition," she said. "And there's a lot of prestige attached. Many people will try to catch more than one because they're valuable. People who don't catch one will sometimes pay to buy one." Indeed, we could overhear a man not far away bargaining to sell an authentic caught spoon to a couple of French tourists for thirty euros. (The spoon itself could not have been worth two.) From his smug expression, the negotiations seemed to be going well.
I tried once more. "But why do people fight each other for them? I saw two men almost ready to hit each other."
She shrugged. The child squirmed, and she caught it by the scruff of the neck. "Sometimes they do fight. Who can say why? Some people are stupid. And anyway, it's tradition, I guess."
Safely back in Lille, I went to the city's biggest bookstore (the Furet du Nord, "The Northern Ferret," so named because when founded the bookshop stood under an old furrier's ensign), and bought a magazine about customs and traditions of the North. Here's what it had to say about giants:
Greek mythology is full of gigantomachies, combats among giants, which are often seen illustrated on temple friezes. The Romans used to hurl wickerwork dummies into the Tiber to celebrate seasonal rituals, and Caesar records in his Gallic Wars that the Celts burned large wicker figurines during their sacrificial rites in honor of the summer solstice.
It's tempting to wonder if the effigy tradition came to Europe from the East via the Iberian Peninsula, since the first recorded mention of a giant monster comes from Portugal, in 1263. By the 15th century, animals and other monsters had appeared in Flanders. In 1398, a giant Saint George battled the dragon in the Belgian city of Antwerp, and in Ath, Belgium, the combat between David and Goliath is reenacted yearly to this day. For medieval people, the figures were a way of approaching Holy Writ, like the sculpted images in churches and cathedrals. During the spring celebrations in Brussels—the Meyboom, or May-tree-planting—the lion and eagle, symbols of the evangelists Mark and John, still bear witness to the religious origins of these beasts.
Gradually, giants came to be seen as the tutelary symbols of their cities. Although they appeared during religious festivals (like the kermesse or ducasse, held on the day of a city's patron saint, or during the celebrations that mark the beginning of Lent), the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries saw a boom in "profane" giants, not drawn from the Bible but representing the people. Since the 1800s, giants have been viewed less as images of Christianity or the pagan past than as incarnations of local history. Some represent mythical heroes, like Lydéric of Lille and Gayant of Douai. Others show the typical face of the people of the town—like Zeph the Miner, of the town of Waziers, symbolizing the mining region with his hat and pickaxe; or the fisherman called "The Icelander" and his wife "Hornpipe," shared giants of the fishing villages that line the River Aa.
Today, the giants continue to represent civic pride and ancient tradition. They are regularly rebuilt or refurbished, using traditional techniques but contemporary materials: instead of wooden frames, giant-makers now prefer wicker and lightweight aluminum. Each year, teams of giant-bearers spell each other during city processions—it takes between one and six men to life a giant, who may be anywhere from eight to thirty feet tall. In many villages, being a giant-bearer is a tradition passed down from father to son. It takes a lot of physical work to carry a giant—and a lot of practice and team coordination, especially when you remember that the liveliest of giants not only walk, but dance!
The article, which is even longer than quoted here, goes on that way for quite some time. One of the most interesting things it describes—and the last I will mention here—is a ritual combat staged every year during the ducasse of Mons, a town not far over the border in Belgium. The combat is called the "Lumeçon," and it apparently dates back to a plague epidemic in 1349, when the city implored the protection of its patron saint. It involves a thirty-foot-long wickerwork dragon, covered in cloth, and a great many human players. "The Dragon is carried into the main square by eleven Men in White and eight Men Dressed in Leaves. The crowd heaves and leaps, trying to snatch one of the lucky ribbons that dangle from its tail. Saint George, mounted on horseback, battles the Dragon, while his eleven assistants (the 'Chin-Chins') confront the Dragon's eleven Devils. After ritual combat with a lance and a saber, Saint George finally takes down the dragon with a pistol shot. Thrilled, the crowd cries out: 'And the people of Mons will not perish!' The future of the city is assured."
Reading this, I find myself inexplicably excited by the description of this combat between man and monster. Perhaps that's because so few monsters are left in the world; there are so few places where you can see the ritual battle between good and evil played out. Perhaps it's because it brings to mind a bullfight, but without the actual blood staining the sand, and the way you come away with a cheated sense that casting a harried animal in the role of evil is misplaced symbolism. Perhaps it has to do with the vague sense of danger that I always associate with the giants of the North: despite their wickerwork placidity, the fixed expressions on their painted faces, I can't keep down the creeping sense that there's some kind of danger associated with giants. Are not giants the proper enemy of man? Hasn't it been that way since beginning times? Shouldn't any ritual involving them include, if they are to be authentic, some sort of battle?
This is why the description of the Lumeçon so obsesses my attention. In that annual spring combat, it seems that it must bring out onto the cobbled stones of Mons' Grand'Place the violence that seems so often hidden, latent, behind those vast bodies. That is what troubled me so much that day in Comines, I think: the swiftness with which the holiday-making turned into competition, how smoothly and easily it moved across the line toward violence. How could the children dribbling cotton candy and chocolate give way with such abruptness to men leaping at each other? Under that sun, how could they have been ready to drop blood on the cobblestones? And for such childish tokens, too.
And what role did the giant play in all of this? Standing silently, watching the people of his city scrabble and shout, almost forgotten in his corner, he was as innocent as the wooden spoons themselves, I suppose, in all the silliness of their ritual. But that suggests, to me, that he must also have somehow been implicated. What are all these rituals—any rituals—except a reminder of what human settlements and human beings can become when we act as something larger and older than ourselves? How can these huge figures, with their swords and weapons strapped to their waists, with their remembered symbolism of a time when their towns and cities battered one another to defeat, be anything except a story of violence and power? Is there any majesty, larger than life, that doesn't conceal a hidden story of blood?
There is violence in beauty. I understood that in Barcelona, when the dragon's sparks bit into my skin like teeth and its huge face laughed over my shoulder. I do not know why I continue to be fascinated by the way that danger sublimes itself into rituals and ceremonies, intrigued by the transformation of fierce impulses into symbols and story. I only know that I follow these symbols whenever I can, and become intoxicated on the confusion they lead me toward.
That is why I continued to follow the giants over the past year, through fright and beauty. And even if I am no closer to understanding their deep reasons, in all their complexity, I will tell you the rest of their stories next time. I wish you a good beginning of spring, from Lille, where the birds are just beginning to sing again in the mornings, and the days are getting longer, like the strides of a giant shaking light down over the world.
 From Pays du Nord: Nord-Pas-de-Calais-Somme-Aisne-Oise-Belgique, No. 69, Janvier-Fevrier 2006. "Géants," pp. 22-55, Frédéric Douchet. Translation and paraphrasing my own.