King of the Giants

King of the Giants

The Prussian monarch with the tallest soldiers in the world

On Lemuel Gulliver’s second voyage, as told in Jonathan’s Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels, he is abandoned by his crewmates in the extraordinary land of Brobdingnag, where the trees are so tall he could 'make no computation of their altitude' and it took him an hour to walk across an otherwise ordinary field.

The inhabitants are similarly proportioned – 'tall as an ordinary spire steeple', he notes. Even a dog has the mass 'of four elephants'. Gulliver is eventually found by a farmer, who exhibits him for profit. Despite this demeaning experience, the traveller finds some crumbs of comfort. He strikes up a friendship with the farmer’s nine-year-old daughter, whom he calls Glummdalclich – which means little nurse in the giants’ language – because she was small for her age, 'not above forty feet high'.

It is not long before the story of Grildrig, as Gulliver is known, reaches the ears of the royal court. Eventually the greedy farmer, who thinks Gulliver is about to die, sells him into imperial service. Glummdalclich also goes to court to oversee his welfare.

His new master and mistress are the King and Queen of Brobdingnag. At first the King does not believe Gulliver is real, thinking him a “piece of clock-work”, and gets scholars to conclude that Gulliver could not be a result of “the regular laws of nature”. The queen is delighted by her charming and witty new servant. She commissions a box for Gulliver to live in, which despite being luxurious, is little more than a glorified dolls house.

Gulliver entertaining a crowd of Brobdingnagians, under the watchful eye of Glummdalclich (left), his 'Little Nurse'.

Gulliver’s Travels was written in 1726 during a time of relative peace in Europe, the colony of Georgia was yet to be founded and the edges of the map were still not fully coloured in. Indeed, Swift placed Brobdingnag on the unexplored western coast of North America. Readers ate it up.

The book also had another purpose, for the contemporary political situation in Britain was anything but peaceful. The country had gone through its first major financial crash six years earlier when the South Sea Bubble popped and Robert Walpole had emerged as the first de facto Prime Minister.

Swift, an Anglo-Irish clergyman well known as a wit and satirist, had written both for and against the government of the day for decades. He was part of a group of writers engaged in literary warfare against Walpole’s new regime, and Gulliver’s Travels was squarely aimed at the corruption he saw in the heart of British politics.

The story of a land of giants may not have seemed fantastical to some of Swift’s readers. Before people read the fictional account of a giant King treating Gulliver as a curio, reports had circulated of a real-world monarch who was combing Europe for extraordinarily tall men to entice into a regiment of giants.