The Last Giants By Francois Place (original title: Les derniers géants), winner in the picture book category of the 1993 Prix Sorcières, is a fictional account of a 19th-century naturalist whose discovery of a race of giants ultimately leads to their destruction, despite his personal sensitivity and respect for them.
In 1849 Archibald Leopold Ruthmore purchases a very unusual piece of scrimshaw; it appears to be a giant’s tooth intricately carved with all sorts of images, including a map showing a land of giants.
The hopeful explorer sails to Calcutta, before travelling on to Burma, where Ruthmore and his group of porters tackle water rapids and dense jungle. An attack by a head hunting tribe leaves Ruthmore’s entourage decimated. Those who survive desert their leader, but Ruthmore refuses to give up his dream, and continues on alone to eventually discover a mysterious valley inhabited by nine giants and giantesses.
They were covered from head to foot – including their tongues and teeth – with a dizzying maze of extremely complex lines, curves, twinings, spirals and speckles. Given time, one could discern recognizable images within this fantastic labyrinth: trees, plants, animals, flowers, rivers, oceans – a veritable symphony of the Earth that echoed the music of the nightly invocations.
Ruthmore lives with the giants for almost a year, taking meticulous scientific notes. He is generously welcomed into their society and responds with warmth and an open mind. Eventually, however, Ruthmore returns to “civilization” and publishes his findings. Having raised enough money to mount a return expedition, Ruthmore sets out once more to find his friends. But this time his journey ends in tragedy not triumph.
Deep within me, I could see how my stupid determination to reveal the secret of their existence had brought about this terrible calamity. My books had killed them more surely than a regiment of artillerymen. Nine Giants who dreamed of the stars, and a little man blinded by his lust for glory: that was our entire history.
A thought provoking book about the power of knowledge, the ethics of science, about what it means to be human, and mankind’s role in the greedy desecration of the earth, this is the first book I’ve read this year that I’ve wanted to buy multiple copies of just to give away to people (the last book I felt like this about was Patrick Ness’ A Monster Calls).
The story is beautifully and evocatively written. Indeed, when I first read it, I was so convinced by the text that I had to double check that this was a fictional work, not a republished 19th century account from a real explorer. Perhaps the fact that Warner Bros have optioned the film rights to this book tells you something about how thrilling the story is. The fact that that The Last Giants is also one of Michael Morpurgo’s favourite ever books perhaps tells you something about the heart and storytelling of this special story.
Francois Place’s subdued watercolour and pen illustrations are haunting, appropriately old-fashioned and ungimmicky. They look just like the plates hidden behind tissue you might find in a beautifully musty book in an antiquarian’s shop. Place has also illustrated Toby Alone and Toby and the Secrets of the Tree, two utterly brilliant, award-winning chapter books by Timothee de Fombelle.
If you’re looking for a picture book for older, thoughtful readers, or for one to provoke conversation when talking about scientific exploration, or simply a book with an exciting story suffused with just enough magic to take your breath away but leave you believing utterly in every word on the page, The Last Giants is for you.
Inspired by the tattoos worn by the last giants, the girls and I decided to tattoo each other. Using cake decorating pens the girls went wild with doodles all over my arms and hands.
There was something hugely satisfying for them in drawing all over me – this was an activity they went at with such gusto I was a little bit taken aback!
M didn’t want any tattoos, but J was delighted to get some (she’s always enjoyed painting all over herself if given half a chance).
The tattoos were barely visible after a good soak in the bath, and certainly were completely gone after a couple of days.
Whilst drawing tattoos we listened to a mixed bag including some sea shanties Ruthmore might have sung on his epic journey across the oceans:
Other activities we could have done inspired by The Last Giants include:
Today’s post is my latest contribution to Gathering Books’ Award Winning Book Challenge. I’m really loving the challenge so far – already I’ve discovered some exceptional books as a result of taking part. To discover some other award winning books, do check out the March round up of reviews from bloggers taking part in this challenge.