Last weekend in Reykjavik, the renowned French street theatre company, Royal de Luxe, enacted the latest episode in The Saga of the Giants, a outdoor drama for colossal, crane-operated marionettes that has since 1993 unfolded in continental Europe, the UK, Africa and South America. (For a detailed look at the company and a mind-boggling video, refer to my earlier 3QD article.)
Each time Royal de Luxe plays a new location – and this was their Scandinavian debut – Jean-Luc Courcoult, the company director, writes a story especially for the people of that place, a simple story that will reach deeply into their trove of archetypes yet be understood by children under 10. It must be performable by the Giants, too, who are between 20 and 40 feet high, made of carved wood and operated not only by cranes but by numerous actor-technicians manning pulleys and ropes, swarming all over the marionettes. Learning this, one might assume there was a lid on the expressive potential of the Giants. There is, but not in the way that springs to mind. And which is more important? What a giant marionette does, or how it makes you feel watching it? “For years, I wondered how one could tell a story to an entire town,” Courcoult has said. “On a plane to Rio, the idea of using out-size marionettes came to me… People have believed in giants since the year dot. Every culture on earth has stories about them. I find the giant more powerful than God or religion – because it is more make-believe yet more human.”
The Geyser of Reykjavik
For Icelanders, Courcoult wrote “The Geyser of Reykjavik.” There being no natural geyser within city limits, one was created by jack-hammering a square at a foot-traffic nexus downtown, and, every half-hour or so, pumping water in a 3-storey surge into the air – routine mischief for Royal de Luxe. The new geyser was accompanied by a hideous low growling sound, and ruined vehicles were seen all over town, pinned to the asphalt by a 15-foot fork, impaled on a tree, smashed from above by a concrete roadwork barrier. Unusually for the company, which seeks always the advantage of surprise, bits of the story were allowed to circulate well before the show – rumors of an angry giant, with a giant daughter who would come to pacify him. As Courcoult intended, the story dovetailed with the lore of Iceland’s deep past — the Eddas and the Sagas, so full of fateful encounters among giants, and between giants and gods. The Royal de Luxe Giant was understood to be acting out his wrath in dreams or in some other brawling disinhibited state, the geyser wrung from the asphalt being only the first sign of him.
The full story would recall the Norse creation myths laid aside by Vikings on Iceland less than 1000 years ago, their conversion to the new faith coming reluctantly, and later than that of their mainland peers. As the original Giant in The Saga of the Giants was known to have fallen from the sky onto the city of Le Havre, the Giant of Reykjavik was said to sleep uneasily in the earth beneath the town, the angry Icelandic earth only a few tens of millions of years old and still churning, glaciers lurching and sliding over its hottest spots, volcanoes rising from its boulder-strewn lava fields. Iceland straddles the Mid-Atlantic Ridge, part of the world-circling undersea mountain system that separates the North American from the Eurasian Continental Plate. These Plates shift precisely under Iceland, anchored to the Ridge like a clasp on a chain. And beneath all this, interacting with it, there is the Icelandic plume, a self-buoyant hot upwelling of intensely primordial material from the Earth’s mantle into its crust. Countless eruptions and quakes have formed and re-formed Iceland, girdling it with tiny newer islands, the last permanent one, Surtsey – named for Surtr, the furious Norse fire giant – rising from the sea in 1963.
Into this calamitous land – hellish, lunar, achingly beautiful — whose snowy terrain will buckle, split and flow until some unimaginably serene era imponderably far from now, the Royal de Luxe Giants have come to stir up the mythic past. Fire giants and frost giants were in Viking days the personifications of extremes to be endured. Nature was itself a battlefield, with the giants — the rock-hurling, venom-spewing giants, stupid and rageful — impossible for humans to defeat without the gods, their joined battle the cause of otherwise inexplicable natural phenomena. The Reykjavik show, free to all comers and attracting thousands, was a battle of the giants for our own time, fought with noise and will and stealth in the narrow streets, by the freshwater lake and at the windy blue harbor of the world’s northernmost capital.
Another Mission for Little Girl Giant
Happily for Royal de Luxe, the giants of the Eddas and the Sagas were not always disastrous, nor the gods entirely well behaving. There were more complex interactions between gods and giants — seduction, for instance — than battle. Giants could be very wise, like Mimir, from whom Odin purchased for the price of an eye the ability to foresee the future, including Ragnarok, the end of the world. Or they could be the last word in desirability, like Gerdr, a beautiful giantess wooed by Freyr, the Norse fertility god who sent her eleven golden apples and a golden arm ring before she would consent to be his wife. For the Reykjavik show, Royal de Luxe took a cue from the ambiguities inhering in the very oldest legends, pitting Little Girl Giant – the 20-foot time-traveling child who had already eluded an elephant-borne sultan in London and chased down a hidden rhinoceros in Chile – against a fresh antagonist, her father.
Learning of her father’s destructive rampage at the Arctic’s edge, Little Girl Giant, suitcase in hand, came by water to Iceland, there to subdue him. The first anyone saw of her, she was resting from the journey in her pale pink nightdress, reclining in a deck chair atop a hexagonal 19th century bandstand by the lake. Little Girl Giant routinely enjoys a levee that would make Louis XIV appear a figure of radiant simplicity. She commands, for one thing the Sun King lacked, her own camion de musique, a 20-foot float with rock musicians, Les Balayeurs du Desert, who follow her everywhere, playing selections from her personal album of characteristic tracks, Jules Verne Impact. On Day One of the drama as the band geared up, she was tenderly helped into white ankle socks and the astonishing red iron-hinged shoes that are her hallmark: as with a stranger in a myth, it is by these shoes that she is known to take possession of a territory, and if she does not always wear them – she sleeps and dances barefoot – they are nonetheless always beside her. Her one dress is that of a 10-year old school girl of the 1950s – innocence itself, and therefore alluring in the well-chronicled way that is, even so, startling. It is leaf green, cap-sleeved, trimmed in white piping, and mothers and daughters have been seen — in Chile not in Reykjavik — to wear costumes as nearly matching it as they can contrive for a Royal de Luxe appearance in which she figures. On this first morning of the show, she is a giantess with an entourage, gathering her powers for a day of reconnaissance in a new city, looking sleepily around her — at the lake, at the town, at her people. It’s a Friday, so many but not all of her people are young children out of school just for her, brightly hatted to make them easy to keep in sight.
Negotiating the steep downward incline from the lake to the city center is more than Little Girl Giant can do on her own steam, though when walking on flat land she has a charming, natural, arm-swinging gait, and the actors counter-weighting her feet by means of ropes make no secret of how hard it is to produce this appearance of insouciance on her part. Indeed, the appalling effort of keeping her on the march is a big part of the show. Poussez, poussez, the throaty, carnivalesque voice of the actor-boss barks out at his team, who are utterly choreographed, sweating inside their velvet livery, and making awful faces. The noise they must endure is awful too, the iron hinges of the famous red shoes ringing on the cobblestones that line the city streets. It’s a portentous sound barely disguised by the band’s amped music, and every decibel is a calculated result. The huge racketing feet, the beauty and gentleness of the face against the pointed rooftops, recall tales from the Brothers Grimm – and from much further back – speaking to the unfathomable divide between our lower and higher natures. Giants in themselves speak to this divide, the myth of the battle of the giants involving human effort and divine inspiration to overcome innate regressive tendencies. Beneath the cobblestones, conduits of boiling water from Iceland’s geothermal sources keep the surface of the streets too warm to freeze. It is understood now by everyone thronging these streets that the angry father sought by the noisy daughter is in the earth just below, his gnashing distantly audible through the new geyser’s roar. Can he hear her down there? Can he know why she has come?
To stalk a furious father without having a pee is just too much. Crouching near the Lutheran Domkirkja in the center of town, toy-like in its relative size, Little Girl Giant makes water – lots of it – pleasing herself intensely and looking embarrassed not at all. The children in their knitted hats are wild with joy at this. It’s time for the fabled lollipop, long and pink, causing Little Girl Giant to show her carnal aspect and her intricate and frightening tongue – something for the murmuring children to remember always, the aha! of it still years down the line. Her eyes are slitted as she licks, her concentration perfect, she dips and all but swoons. Uniquely at this time she seems alone, disconnected from her people, 20 feet above the city’s major shopping street with townsmen leaning out dormers at her yet somehow in a private space. Finally, a red-liveried actor takes the thing away from her, and sated but brightening, she once again regards her surround, large-pupiled gaze resting for longer than usual on whatever is in its orbit. If you are standing on a corner, which causes her to pivot and linger, this is the best moment to make eye contact with her, for she may give the thrilling appearance of personally taking you in. With eyes the size of searchlights, she can always sweep you, but the air of faint distraction caused at most other times by a multiplicity of foci does not just now obtain; you have beheld her in a private moment, and she will judge you like a cat.
Knowing When to Stop
Poussez! Poussez! The boss’s raspy plosives tell the crew it’s time to lift Little Girl Giant onto the bed of a truck for a ride up the highest hill in town, surmounted by a true architectural one-off, the Hallsgrimkirkja — Reykjavik’s most imposing structure. Begun in the 1940s, the cast concrete Hallsgrimkirkja owes a bit to the geysers, a bit to the Machine Age, and a bit more to the witch’s towers of Oz. Seeing Little Girl Giant in its unlikely adjacence, it’s hard not to conceive of her as the Hyperborean Dorothy, trekking red-shod in dreams where she cannot waking go. It is high noon, the most threatening hour to illusion, for the absence of shadow drains off gravitas to reveal the awful corroded fragility of the mind’s play. Here, where the church – the campy, mathy and strangely moving church – is almost scaled to Little Girl Giant, the public space large enough to encompass her, the absurdity of the Giants kicks in. Perhaps she agrees, for at this summit of the town, beneath a bronze statue of Leif Eriksson not a quarter of her size, she naps. The music winds down, the crowds disperse.
Royal de Luxe Giants have always tended to nap, and they do it with abandon – head thrown back, hands grazing the ground, feet propped up. Never unattended while napping, they nonetheless look unguarded. Having lost consciousness before you, they’ve disarmed you, and always at the perfect time, when you can probably not much longer suspend disbelief. Sleeping or waking, the ceaseless motors in their chests cause their diaphragms to rise and fall – they do not miss a breath, ever. And, lightly, they snore. For the early evening show, in the light that will not subside for many hours yet, Little Girl Giant and her camion de musique will set up at the harbor, where, barefoot, she will be lifted by a crane to dance high in the air, the red-liveried actors struggling horribly with ropes to make her gyrate, point, kick and raise her arms, all of which she does energetically to loud percussive music on this pale-skied night before she finds and subdues her father.
There was a levee, and there is also a couchee. A 25-foot dormitory-style brass bed is rolled out onto a pier in the lee of low buildings, a windbreak for the night. The nightdress replaces the day dress, folded carefully into a basket. Little Girl Giant shelters between a featherbed and a duvet. There, a new topographical element in the cityscape, she will spend the night, and her people will go home aware of her recumbent presence beside the slowly darkening waters of the harbor, and of her father dreaming destructively beneath the land. But not just yet. Les Chaussures! Les Chaussures! The boss calls out to the crew – the shoes, the shoes! A rug is laid down at the side of the bed, and the red shoes, the symbol of the traveler, are placed squarely on it. Without shoes, in the old legends, the journey is broken, and the traveler waits for Heaven to provide the means to continue.
A June to Remember
The Reverend Jon Steingrimsson — an eyewitness — recorded these memories of the Laki eruption in the south of Iceland in June, 1783. “This said week, and the two prior to it, more poison fell from the sky than words can describe: ash, volcanic hairs, rain full of sulfur and salt peter, all of it mixed with sand. The snouts, nostrils, and feet of livestock grazing or walking on the grass turned bright yellow and raw. All water went tepid and light blue in color… All the earth’s plants burned, withered and turned gray, one after another, as the fire increased and neared the settlements.”
The old giants stirred that June at Laki in 1783, with ten eruptive episodes identified, the onset of each heralded by an earthquake swarm that increased in intensity until a new fissure opened. Fire fountains reached heights of 1400 meters, and lava poured from fissures at the rate of about 8,600 cubic meters per second, coming close to the discharge rate of the Amazon River. Shortly after the eruption began, lava reached the Skafta river gorge and flowed towards the lowlands, traveling 35 kilometers in only four days. And the effusion of lava continued to February of 1784. Almost worse than this, and much further reaching, the convective eruption column of Laki carried gases to altitudes of 15 kilometers – gases that formed aerosols causing cooling in the Northern Hemisphere, possibly by as much as 1 degree C, a cooling that is the largest such volcanic-induced event in historic time. As for the ash fall extending all the way to mainland Europe, in Iceland alone it led to wide-scale livestock loss, crop failure, and the death by famine of one quarter of the human population.
Today, Laki is a ten-fissured vent complex, each fissure covered by a continuous row of scoria cones, spatter cones, and tuff cones ranging in height from 40 to 70 meters. You can visit it on a “volcano tour,” minding where you step as always in Iceland when trekking over sites where seismic activity is both a vivid memory and a future certainty. The world-historical and unusually well-documented Laki eruption occurred at a time that folklore had edged out myth – all that giants were supposed to be doing in Scandinavia by the 1700s was hurling rocks at churches.
In our own time, Iceland — one of the most active volcanic regions on Earth — erupts and quakes, and non-Icelanders do not particularly hear about it. Eleven volcanoes erupted between 1900 and 1998 alone, eruptions involving the effusion of basaltic lava. Perpetually snowy, massive Hekla erupted in 2000, and Grimsvotn, near Laki, erupted as recently as 2004. In fact, much of Iceland lies in the path of what geologists call a propagating rift. Jules Verne, beloved inspiration of the Royal de Luxe 2005 show, The Sultan’s Elephant, chose the three-cratered volcano of Snaefell as the starting point for his Journey to the Center of the Earth. In Verne’s own boyhood in Nantes, the Laki eruption and its impact on continental Europe would have been sufficiently within living memory that to enter the crater of an active Icelandic volcano was a most intrepid thing for a character in a novel to do. For Royal de Luxe to bring a fire giant to Iceland speaks not only to its deep past but to its present way of life, which includes forms of preparedness – a special tax on everyone going to a common fund, for instance — for seismic events that produce chaos, swallowing up the homes of citizens. Yet the ultimate form of preparedness, prediction, is a quest one must still battle with giants to succeed in.
The Day of the Giant
Small wonder that on the morning of the day she would encounter her father, Little Girl Giant took time not for the usual levee but for lustration – a shower by the harbor lasting half an hour. High on a hill above the lake, where the historical museum and the Universities are, her father was preparing for her, too. In The Saga of the Giants, the big Giant is sometimes in a fix, parts of his 38-foot body hidden within fiery structures. Once in Le Havre, for example, he was found in a burning house, head emerging from the roof, hands from dormers, looking no more perplexed than usual but even more trapped. The Giant of Reykjavik was first seen around 10 a.m. on May 12, staring angrily into a pan of fire, the growling sounds familiar from the new geyser in town issuing from his lips, which also spat ashy water at bystanders. His lower body was confined inside an overturned bus of great size.
The big Giant never has the freedom of motion of that Little Girl Giant enjoys, and he had less even than was customary in Reykjavik, where there was literally no street wide enough for him to walk on within his scaffolding, a towering 6-storey affair that forbids the Giant to be ambulatory in all but a few cities in the world. Another difference between the original giant and the giant of Reykjavik is the head. The face of the original Giant is a sorrowing, vigilant, blue-eyed countenance – rather Christ-like, and that’s no accident. To see him walk within his scaffolding, regarding with incredulousness the humans far below, actors leaping on ropes from the scaffolding to lift his sandaled feet, is to be on his side. The Giant of Reykjavik, by contrast, was yellow of face and bald of head, his lips set in a sneer. On either cheek were sinuous carvings like those on the Vaksala Runestone, and he wore a permanent and terrible frown. This was a creature to whom there was no appealing; the sight of him and the sound made babies cry. You’re not meant to hope this Giant will be spared, and you don’t hope it. You would like, instead, to see something bad happen to him.
Little Girl Giant has been charged with luring this furious, pagan father of hers off the land – his element – and down to the water, her own. For their first meeting, on the bridge across the lake, they size each other up – it’s a meeting from a fairy tale between an ogre father and an innocent offspring who have never before set eyes on one another. Behind one of her inner tube-sized ears is a bouquet of fresh flowers – she is garlanded for this event like a sacrificial maiden, but otherwise wears her usual Lolita dress and her killer iron-hinged shoes.
This day will see several more encounters of the Giants, as the child lures the father through the town, always closer to the water, where the decisive encounter will take place. Never once does the big Giant nap, and all day one notes still more differences between him and other players in The Saga of the Giants. But the failure to nap is what most sets him apart – the failure to make himself vulnerable. Occasionally he down-focuses, as if auguring from his pan of fire – which never goes out. You feel that although he is malevolent, trapped and being hauled to his doom, he may yet be capable of one more awful feat, that perhaps he is not trapped in the vast bus but coiled in it. The question of what might ultimately happen is not really open, however — the rising generation will indeed subdue the old. While this makes for less drama, it is a sign of a deeper affinity between the Giant of Reykjavik and the chthonic fire giants of Muspelheim – one could, with inspiration, outwit them, but not control them. And there will always be another battle, as the myths attest.
In the bright evening, a high wind coming off the water, so that even in May thousands of Icelanders are in their down coats and fur hats, the scene at the harbor is played out. Having lured her ogre father to the water’s very edge, Little Girl Giant, her camion de musique in tow, walks to the far end of the long pier where the battleship gray vessel of the Icelandic Coast Guard is tied up. The Giant cannot follow her there — she seems somehow under the protection of the long boat painted with Iceland’s flag. She turns around and, facing him, lifts an arm. That’s the sign for a horrifying-looking implement at the end of a heavy-duty crane to get the Giant’s head in its grip and tear it off – not before he looks menacingly at the crowd one last time.
Ashy water gushes from his empty neck – almost another geyser, and it gushes for a long, long time. The crane flings his grimacing head high in the air. When it falls to the surface of the water, there are flames and gas and steam – the hellfire in broad daylight of which Royal de Luxe is justly proud, and which they always deliver. Children howl and cheer, their parents buttoning them tighter into their down coats, for it’s not yet the end of the show, and it’s cold.
A tug rounds the corner of the pier, backing into the slip next to the Coast Guard’s boat. In it are Little Girl Giant’s deck chair and her suitcase – stiff-sided creamy calfskin, it looks like, tagged and stickered from all the ports she’s traveled to. Her work done, she heads for the tug resolutely, waving Queen Elizabeth-style as the crane lifts her from the pier into her chair.
The red-liveried actors jump into the tug after her, the better to settle her there, but also to be taken off themselves – they leave when she leaves, for they are not to be separated from her unless she sleeps, or, as happened last year in London, hurtles off into space-time. Bright-eyed with victory, Little Girl Giant surveys her people but lingers not. The tug pulls out of the slip, fast gaining the end of the pier.
Thinking that Royal de Luxe must now be done, you lift your eyes to a mountain across the blue bay — a table-top mountain, remnant of one of the subglacial eruptions commonly occurring in Iceland that can generate meltwater at twenty times the flow rate of the Amazon River. The discharge rate of water is actually a very fine topic for Icelandic conversations — you are in an island nation where thundering falls are named for horses’ manes, where half the structures are heated by geothermal power, where falling water is power, even in legend, and people can’t fail to be interested in it. But Royal de Luxe is also interested in the possibilities of water, and Royal de Luxe is not done. Two hoses on Little Girl Giant’s tug release streams at a certain angle to its jets, making the air in its wake trembling wet. The sun is high, and a rainbow appears. The Icelanders, cold in the wind, passionately fond of their history and folklore, wave off Little Girl Giant and the actors who operate her as the tug makes for wider water. The music finally stops, the rainbow persists, and you are released.
Bifrost, some of the Icelanders might be musing as they gather up their children to go home — Bifrost, the Rainbow Bridge, the only way there is for the giants to enter Asgard, the realm of the gods.
See also: ROYAL DE LUXE: THE SAGA OF THE GIANTS (3QD, March 26, 2007)
Numerous Internet resources provide photo-documentation of Royal de Luxe events, most notably the Royal de Luxe Group on Flickr, administrated by Kris Blomme (a.k.a. KrieBel), who has compiled an excellent list of external links. http://www.flickr.com/groups/royaldeluxecentral/
For kind permission to use their work in today’s post, I want to thank, in the order their photos appear here, many photographers in Iceland: drengur1, Laufey Waage, Petur Fridgeirsson, Sigurros Engilbertsdottir, Jon Ragnarsson, Adalsteinn Eythorsson, Helgi Halldorsson/Freddi, Karl Gudmundsson, Villi Thorsteinsson, Haraldur Gudjonsson, Helga Eiriks, Elisabet Elma, and Asa Thordur. And one non-Icelandic photographer, Trey Ratliff, a fellow Texan.