Puss in Boots, Ogre (Gustave Doré)



In folklore and fairy tales there are, broadly speaking, two types of ogre. The first kind is the “brute.” This sort of ogre is just a big monster who the protagonists discover while the monster’s out doing some casual marauding. He might live in a shack in the woods, or a cave, but more often than not interaction with him is a result of a chance meeting. The other kind of ogre is a “lord,” who lives in a manor house or a castle, is very rich, and brutalizes the locals from this seat of power. We talked a bit about this sort of ogre last week, with “Beauty and the Beast” and “Puss in Boots” as examples. Both of these versions reflect key elements of the idea behind ogres.

Many an anthropologist or folklorist has theorized about where ogres come from, why they strike a chord with us. A popular one is that they (and giants) represent childhood memories of adults; that sense of authority that comes from power, their tendency to prey on children, the dichotomy of ogres and ogresses (which we’ll get to in a bit), and so on. I daresay you can probably think of some adult you knew as a kid who seemed like they might eat children. Probably a very strict teacher. One can also interpret ogres as a bit of parody. Given that many of these tales were recorded/invented in the late Middle Ages and hearken back to older traditions, it’s not hard to see unflattering visions of the period’s lords in ogres. They are, in many ways, the human Id unleashed, exemplifying our most negative attributes. Giants often represent primal forces, dragons often represent chaos, but the ogre ranges from an unpleasant reflection in a dark mirror to the embodiment of all seven sins.

Their ultimate origins, of course, are unknown, because they predate written history around the world. I’ve mentioned before that ogres exist in other cultures. The demon-ogres of the Middle East and Asia spring to mind, such as the Japanese oni or Persian div. The traditions of the Kwakiutl people in the American Northwest have Big Figure, and West Africa has Sasabonsam. The monsters really are everywhere. They fill an ogre-shaped hole in our minds, providing a way for us to see ourselves in another light. You can do a lot with that kind of bone-deep cultural resonance.

For example, where do ogres come from? In most stories they’re already all over the place, infesting the landscape so that knights and humble farm boys can go about the business of finding and killing them. You don’t often hear of a land of ogres, or a nation, things you do hear about with giants and trolls, who are very similar. If ogres are manifestations of the dark side of humanity, perhaps that is because the dark side of humanity is what generates them.

You could have a setting where ogres are just avatars of our baser drives, forming out of the ether. Maybe they’re just the universe reminding us what we are, maybe they’re dark reflections we subconsciously create ourselves, and maybe they’re born out of acts of great communal depravity. An ogre arising near a village recovering from a horrible war could symbolize the atrocities committed during that war. Or you could have a 1930s urban fantasy with stockbroker ogres who represent the greed that led to the market crash. Last week I also mentioned the idea that ogres could be transformed humans. That works just as well here. You could have a setting where, if a man acts enough like an ogre, if he wallows in his dark side, perhaps he transforms himself into an ogre, like Fafnir sleeping on his hoard of stolen gold.

If you do want to have communities of ogres, this approach is also a good way to establish different types of ogre, how they look and act. Most ogres tend to be depicted as either very muscular, to suggest their capacity for violence, or corpulent, to suggest their greed and gluttony. You could have a whole host of different depictions, reflecting some unpleasant human emotion or desire. Things get boring if all ogres look the same. You could have fat ones that reflect gluttony; chinless, inbred ogres like old European nobles, suggesting miserly greed; tumorous, diseased ogres that suggest a soul rotting from within. Any sort of caricature of the human form could work.

On the other hand, not all ogres are the same on the inside either. This seems as good a place as any to talk about ogresses. In many stories the ogress is just as ugly and vile as the ogre (incidentally there also used to be a term “ogree” for child ogres, but it fell into disuse), but this is not always the case. Sometimes they are more beautiful or human looking (in many stories the “ogress” is actually the ogre’s kidnapped human wife; remember, base desires) and often they are more willing to help or aid the hero of the story. There are quite a few where the hero gets to the ogre’s castle and the ogress willingly hides him from her husband, or the ogress shows some moment of pity and compassion. A good example is the Countess d’Aulnoy’s story “The Bee and the Orange Tree” in which an ogress who was about to eat a baby is overcome with motherly love and instead decides to raise it as her own. This dynamic also sometimes crops up with giantesses, but we’ll save that for another time.

This more nurturing, protective behavior, especially directed toward the human hero of a story, puts the ogress in a somewhat maternal light. It’s easy to see why, from stuff like this, some people might suggest the whole “childhood memory of adults” thing. Unfortunately, it’s a bit problematic for storytelling. It reflects an older, less politically correct view of gender relations. Many writers leave it out for a reason, but if you want to use ogres as representations of human nature, well, it’s definitely got some potential. What are gender roles like in ogre culture? Can you have a feminist ogress? You could even have ogres and ogresses resent humanity because we force them into these archetypal roles, what with them being manifestations of our psyches, when the ogres would rather be something else.

A lot of this depends on what sort of story you want to tell. If you want to get existential, by all means do. Ogres are a good fit for such a story, and most fantasy is already fairly shallow adventure stories. Still, even if you don’t want to make some deep, soul searching story that happens to have ogres in it, these themes are still useful. You don’t have to tell your readers all this stuff after all, but if you use it to develop your ogres it can inform the way you write them, and make them more interesting and multifaceted as a result.

Join me next week when we wrap up this series on ogres and talk a bit about the difference between them and giants.



  1. Leave a Comment

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s


%d bloggers like this: