The Selfish Giant: a story about creating friendship, forgiveness and peace
This lesson idea has been adapted (with permission) from excellent material published by the What-if Learning project. We strongly commend its approach to considering how the taught school curriculum can be adapted to reflect positive school values.
Oscar Wilde’s classic short story The Selfish Giant is used to explain how narratives can offer new ways of thinking about ourselves and our world – but also shows how any new ideas need to be evaluated for their relative worth.
Did Oscar have in mind the Gospel story of Jesus meeting Zacchaeus the tax collector, when he was writing this story? It’s possible: the parallels are close and are worth drawing out on a compare-and-contrast basis.
- Analysing the structure of a famous short story and its ‘effect’ on the reader
- Using adjectives to explore the emotional development of a key character
- Exploring how objects in a story can also be symbols
- Considering how source material (in the Christian Bible) might be adapted for use in a story
- Discussing genre: fantasy
Begin with a series of quick role-plays: one of giving and/or receiving a gift that someone might want (a box of chocolates, perhaps), another of giving and/or receiving a gift they would not want (such as a single sock)
Discuss whether words could be ‘gifts’, how they could be good or bad gifts, and how we need to think about the gift that is made by words and whether we want to receive it or not.
Then share the story of The Selfish Giant together.
Afterwards, place a ‘gift bag’ on the front table and ask pupils what ‘gifts’ the story might have given us. For example, it might have provoked thoughts that challenge us to be less selfish. Children’s suggestions can be written on cards and placed in the gift bag.
Discuss the story together.
- Characters: Who are the main characters? Who is your favourite character and least favourite character, and why?
- Narrative: What problems or challenges do the different characters face in the story? How do they overcome them?
- Setting: Where does this story take place?
- Genre (fantasy): Is this story like any other stories you’ve heard? What’s similar or different about this one?
- Symbolism: The wall is a symbol of the giant’s attitude to other people. What do you think it was ‘saying’ to the children in the story? Notice also how the changing seasons don’t change inside the garden, once the wall is built.
- Sum up the key points of the narrative as bullet points.
- List adjectives describing the giant both before, and after, he meets the little child. Draw the wall and write on it the ‘before’ adjectives. Draw the big axe and write next to it the ‘after’ adjectives.
- What series of feelings do you think the children experienced in the garden before it was built, outside the garden after the wall was built, then inside the garden after the wall was broken down? Write these feelings as ‘thought bubbles’ around the wall.
- The ‘little child’ is meant to be Jesus Christ (note the ‘wounds of love’). What do you think Oscar Wilde was saying about Jesus in this fantasy story? (What effect does Jesus have on the giant?) Do you like or dislike the way he portrays Jesus in this story? Why?
- Do you think this story has an underlying message? What is it? Do you agree or disagree with it, and why?
- Compare the story of The Selfish Giant with the Bible story (Luke 19:1-10) of Jesus meeting Zacchaeus the tax collector. What parts of both stories are similar or different? (For example, think about the tree.) How do you think the unusual physical size of the giant or Zacchaeus might affect the way they treat other people or are treated by them? What do you think the message of both stories might be?
- Sometimes, The Selfish Giant is published in books with a different ending, which doesn’t mention the Jesus-child at all, or the giant’s death. Why do you think a publisher might do this? How do you think this changes the way the story works? What do you think Oscar Wilde might say about this if he was asked?
Review what you have learned from the story using the suggestions in the gift bag (the ‘gifts’ the story might have given us) as prompts. Give each child a small gift template and invite them to write on it what gift the story has made to them. Collect the templates in, with a view to displaying them.
Add the following question to the display: 'We receive gifts from stories. How do we decide if we want them or not?' Later, type up the pupils’ words and thoughts and add them to the display, mounted on gift paper.