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GuzBoroda at DeviantArt
GuzBoroda’s Forest Ogre at DeviantArt

Honestly, I expected a little more information from the online world regarding ogres. Oh, it’s there, don’t get me wrong, but for a figure so common to folklore, what exists is remarkably thin and remarkably technical alike. Though perhaps it’s that word, common, that is the problem. Nothing aristocratic about the ogre, not like those fatal seducers of the night, vampires and succubi. A less generous person might say that there’s little about the ogre to tart up.

I chose the image above because it captures a number of iconic features about an ogre all at once that I will enumerate as follows: 1) big 2) strong 3) dumb. From which I will further note: there is a fair amount to say about ogres, but largely in a reflective kind of way.

They’re Big

Not quite giant big, perhaps, but ogres are bigger than your average human. There’s nothing to say that they have to be big (outside of the late 20th century sources such as the Monster Manual and MMPORGS like World of Warcraft), that’s simply how we’ve grown to understand them. When they show up in folklore (Inea Bushnaq’s Arab Folktales, for example), they’re not necessarily horrible at first, but revealed through the story to be ogres, by which we are given to understand that they eat people, namely, they intend to eat our hero. We have to allow some leeway in this case, though, as the translation may be a problem. The vast preponderance of sources say that ogres are big. Let’s leave it at that for now.

One other matter related to big: the belly. Many, many ogres are pictured with the massive stomach of an overeating fighter. The rest of their body isn’t corpulent, so we’re not talking merely fat. There’s a lot of muscle down there.

They’re Strong

While there’s no real scale in the picture above to tell us how big the Forest Ogre is (those trees could be any age), the beast has massive arms riddled with defined muscles. He’s also holding a big ol’ club. He can do a lot of damage. Not much more to say about this.

They’re Dumb

How do we know this particular ogre is dumb? How do we know that any particular ogre is dumb? Remember what I said about getting reflective?

Physical traits that signify stupidity: head to body ratio; eye to head ratio; teeth (quality, quantity, hygiene); head shape; hygiene generally; clothing and accessories.

Let’s start with the head, the seat of intelligence. Typically we do a one-to-one sort of correlation, the bigger the head, the bigger the brain, but there are ways to unseat this assumption. If the proportions between body and head are not maintained – as exhibited below in Leonardo da Vinci’s famous Vitruvian Man sketch –

Da Vinci's visual explanation of the Golden Mean
Da Vinci’s visual explanation of the Golden Mean

– then something is clearly wrong. “Wrongness” does not mean stupidity. Excessive brain power often leads to evil, as in the case of many, many super villains of the Marvel and DC universes. Evil is also wrong, whereas being smart is typically “good.” Notice the correlation, inscribed by Leonardo above: proportionate is good and disproportionate is bad. I’d be shocked if this wasn’t believed before and that good Leonardo (himself doubtless proportionate) wasn’t simply visualizing what lots of folks believed at the time, but this is an early demonstration nevertheless. See, it’s not just symmetry that is beautiful to our eyes. It is also relationships. In the ogre’s case, the head is often too small, suggesting that for all its shape, it’s little better than a tool-using beast. In fact, go ahead and browse DeviantArt for ogres (here), or do an image search (here) and you’ll find brutish looking creatures who often share features with apes.

Namely! Small and deep-set eyes. Ogres are clever enough to use tools (clubs and sharp things that can pass for knives), maybe set the odd trap or two, and you can tell by their beady eyes and thick brows. Not necessarily thick eyebrows, mind you, but the protruding bone that might (physiologically and evolutionarily speaking) serve to protect the eyes from something beating on them from above. Say, an elder sibling who wants to use you as a chew toy. (I’m not saying that ogres chew on other ogres, but come on… You know they do.) I’m not sure why we associate small and deep-set eyes with low cunning, but we do. Eyes are the windows to the soul, right? Can’t see’em, then you can’t trust the owner.

Next on the list is teeth. Ideally, we only see someone’s teeth when they’re talking, smiling, laughing, or eating, and generally we’re not focusing on them at any of those times. The Forest Ogre at the top or the fighting beastie below.

Matt's Monster Blog
Matt’s Monster Blog

With ogres, we do see their teeth. Many of them. The Forest Ogre has a major underbite, which essentially gives it inverted fangs (dangerous!) while simultaneously veering outside of our norms (probably dumb!) for a twofer. The ogre directly above (clearly a giant one, given the size of his club) is a mouth breather, which allows us to see his teeth (dangerous!) and demonstrates his lack of culture (probably dumb!) for another twofer. Add in too many teeth (sharklike) or too few teeth or outsized teeth for extra danger and dumb.

by Miles Teves
by Miles Teves

Also, tusks are good.

There’s no real way to tell hygiene from most of these pictures, although the mask above with all of the ear hair sprouting from the ogre’s chin is a typical gauge. How do you visualize smell in a non-anime way? In prose we can go on and on about their rank odor, or we could show gobbets of flesh between their teeth, but most images of ogres aren’t of them eating, but preparing to kick your ass. Not that the eating ones don’t exist…

Monument in Bern, Switzerland
The Child Eater (Monument in Bern, Switzerland)

Clothing and accessories. You may have been wondering about this inclusion, but consider: ogres are dumb, therefore making things must be difficult for them, correct? Therefore their clothes will be rude (vis a vis the second ogre’s loincloth/toga, above) or ornamented with what look like teeth (top ogre, above). This does the job of equating “dumb” with “primitive,” or simply “not as advanced as we are.” Consider that we dress to impress. (Not everyone, no, not you, but that other guy… over there. Yeah, we’re talking about him. Not you. Never you.) Clothes are functional. (Pockets! Stay warm! Protect yourself from cooking grease or stray tools! More pockets!) They are symbolic, as anyone who has done any investigation of folk costume knows, or, by the same token, as anyone who owns a sports jersey knows (contemporary life’s folk costume, brought to you by the NFL). They massage our bodies into shapes and silhouettes pleasing to members of whichever gender is observing. They indicate wealth, sexuality (if, for no other reason, than by covering up our genitalia). Ogres one and two (above) show a general disregard for protection, and only share in common a covering of their crotches. On the other hand, they maximize the reveal of their muscles. Both of them collect and accessorize with things that indicate their prowess – the top ogre with teeth (presumably of kills), the second with weapons he’s left embedded in his club (presumably of kills).

Conclusions: ogres value strength and are as ashamed of their bodies as contemporary humans are. They value little else (ergo: dumb, probably). They have few skills (can’t make their own clothes; ergo, dumb). They don’t trade.

Mind you, I’m cherry-picking my images. There are plenty of pictures that show even more warlike ogres with bigger hammers and halberds and axes (never swords, which maybe take some skill to use?) and plenty of pictures with some minimal armor or helmets, which amplifies the strength part and makes me wonder who exactly does their smithing.

Some questions are better left unanswered.

Corollaries and History

Ogres eat people. We’d call them cannibals if they were people who ate people, but they’re not people, they’re ogres, so in a sense they’re no better than tigers or lions or some other animal that eats people. The fact that they look like people would seem to make them more horrible, though, as if ogres were a branch of humanity gone wrong. If they were somehow wrapped into the Old Testament, we might say they bore the mark of Cain, but they are creatures of legend and folklore, not even mythology. Okay, sure, Saturn devouring his children has some definite ogrish overtones, but Saturn was a titan. Totally different.

Goya painted this on his dining room wall.
Goya painted this on his dining room wall. Pass the peas.

The Wikipedia entry on ogre spends some time on its etymology and dates it back to 12th century French. The subsequent elaboration suggests that, by one reading, ogres are the inhabitants of the land of Logre, which is Britain by yet another reading, which suggests that the legendary enmity between the French and the British goes back a long, long way. Another suggestion is that the word is related the Latin Orcus (and therefore to Tolkein’s orcs). Nothing concrete, nothing clear.

Gustav Doré's illustration of an ogre
Gustav Doré’s illustration of an ogre

Personally, my feeling is that ogres represent the pathologizing of human behavior we cannot or refuse to understand. The same thing now happens when, in a press release or a pundit commentary upon some horrific act (mother drowns her own children! man dismembers victims and buries them in the yard!), we call these people “monsters.” Make no mistake, those people are people. That what they did (and do) is horrific is beyond a doubt, but the question remains as to whether we do ourselves a disservice in trying to comprehend how they came to that place. Do we not try to understand because we could be infected with their madness or evil (cf. Harley Quinn)? Is it, in fact, impossible to comprehend? Is it not worth understanding, because the depth of the behavior, evil or cruel or mindless, is so great so as to render the effort too great?

What is true historically is true here: if we re-categorize the worst of humanity as no longer human, we save ourselves. Suddenly, being human is not longer merely the species Homo sapiens sapiens, it is also a club from which members may be ejected – though critically, one may typically only enter it by birth. Historically, class determinations inclined us toward who was a real person (nobility didn’t mix with the lower classes). Unsurprisingly, we did the same sorts of things with the Age of Exploration and people who looked different from us and wore different clothes and ate different food and shared different hygiene amongst themselves. As a result, for example, laws against interracial marriage in the U.S. were not ruled unconstitutional until 1967 (Loving v. Virginia).

Ogres, in other words, are the absolute worst humans can be in a very primitive sense. They offend our sensibilities with their actions and their actions are reflected in their bodies, grown out of proportion, more clever than smart, ruthless and merciless, and preying on their own kind – or what used to be their own kind.

One Ogre Each in History and Fiction

Wikipedia goes on to suggest that the myth of the ogre may have started with the actual serial-killing crimes of one Gilles de Rais (1404-1440), which I find plausible only if you assume no one had any imagination or that anyone killed children before 1404. Gilles de Rais may have given a face and a name to the crime, but was he the first? Seems unlikely.

In fiction, I’m not going to get into folklore (where there accounts of ogres aplenty), and instead suggest Robert Louis Stevenson’s Mr. Hyde, the good Dr. Jekyll’s counterpart and dark reflection. Hyde is not simply evil (as with Star Trek’s mirror universe episode, “Mirror, Mirror”, 1967). Hyde is ugly, physically powerful, and cunning. Though never described as an ogre – he is a “morally free” human – his actions fit the bill.

I’m sure there are more “ogres” out there. Go on. You’ll find them.

The Ogre, Redeemed

Let’s summarize. Ogres are: big, strong, dumb. Corollaries include carnivorous, dangerous, cunning. As with anything and everything, sooner or later people (writers, storytellers, game designers) start taking liberties. This might be for tension (he’s even bigger and even stronger and he’s got armor!) or it might be for the sake of originality (this ogre is smart! or does magic!).

DWJ Ogre Downstairs

In 1974, Diana Wynne Jones (Howl’s Moving Castle) wrote The Ogre Downstairs. The title character is a beyond-stern man with two boys who has married a woman with three children of her own. He’s big (compared to the kids), he buys them magic chemistry sets (danger!) and he’s mean. Turns out, he’s also misunderstood and boy, from 21st century eyes is this book a bit of a weird doozy. DWJ kept going places with the narrative I didn’t expect.

Ogre, Ogre

In 1980, it’s Piers Anthony’s turn with the half-ogre Smash. Spoiler alert: his human half allows him smarts and kindness. More spoilers: happy ending.

10 years later, William Steig pens Shrek!, from which, 11 years after that, we will get a hit Dreamworks film.

Steig's Shrek Dreamworks' Shrek

Oh, he’s gross alright, but his eyes aren’t too big and while he makes earwax candles and a good fart joke, deep down he’s basically a good guy.

The redemption of ogres is not about behavior. The loutish step-father is a lout but not evil (not by most standards of the times, anyway). Smash is not cruel, but stupid. Shrek is gross but not stupid or evil, in fact, he’s got some brains on him. The redemption of ogres has more to do with the redemption of ugliness, whether that is physical or behavioral ugliness.

In other words, don’t judge a book by its cover. Those gobbets of meat hanging from that guy’s unflossed teeth? That’s tenderloin, not baby. Go say hello.

Related Reading

The Myth of the Golden Ratio (Vitruvian Man)


2 responses

  1. That was an awesome write up about ogres. I loved the first picture, that is how I see them mostly in my mind. The apes analogy was good. I do think Tolkien changed the view of ogres when he introduced orcs, which come in a variety of sizes, shapes and intelligence. They are all depicted the same however (orcs or ogres) as big, brutish, and cunning but stupid. Except for modern writers, who romanticize all faerie or mythological monsters, and shift focus onto the monstrous deeds of humans; basically taking the fear out of the unknown and circling it back onto civilized society.

    Not that humanity hasn’t bred it share of “monsters”.

    I never thought of Mr Hyde as an ogre, but now that you pointed it out I don’t know how I missed the correlation. And wasn’t Smash just so cuddly-cute?

    Still, I doubt I’ll be saying “hello” to any ogres I meet anytime soon, even in a fantasy novel that writes them as wizards and misunderstood creatures to be protected.

    Great post, thanks for the smiles and grimaces.


    January 3, 2013 at 2:31 pm

    • thanks for stopping by! The obvious parallels of Mr. Hyde make me wonder who else I’ve missed. And one that got lost in the rest of the writing as a “good ogre” would undoubtedly be Marvel’s Hulk, who is even green! No baby-eating, though. No, sir.

      January 3, 2013 at 2:48 pm

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