We discover in the examination of Monsters a problem. Each time we get the beast up on the table the poor creature shudders and dies, and the darn dumpster behind the Literature Department is already full. We can no more discover the reason for the Monster’s death by analysis than we can by analysis discover the reasoning behind the Monster’s life. A waste.
Tolkien points out this paradox in Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics, and Jane Chance adds to it: “The rational human or the critic seems not only a monster but a murderer, a homicide like Grendel”. But then Monsters were not created for the understanding of rational humans, who, like birds before mirrors, are easily ensnared by paradoxes. In fact, monsters were made to eat them.
In seriousness, though, I would like to discuss two aspects of the Monster as a literary device: The Monster’s paradox and how it bestows animation, and the Monster as guardian of the secondary reality.
During class on Wednesday, we encountered some of the hairier corners of the monster’s paradox. We asked questions like ‘are they evil?’, or ‘are they beasts?’ and discovered that they defy simple classification, that as soon as one category was defined, another disintegrated. For instance, it is always tempting to wonder if Monsters might merely be a personification of negative human qualities. However, as soon as we think of a dragon as ‘merely’ a personification of greed, we find that the dragon has become ‘mere’ indeed, an allegory lacking any mystery or majesty. Hark! I hear the fatal tone of the EKG…
I feel what is at issue here is comprehension. The murderous, rational human when seeking to understand something relies on creating equivalencies: allegories, analogies, and the like. The same is true when the rational human tries to make something understood. We rely on these tools as the currencies of understanding. The problem, then, of using any of these things to understand the place of Monsters in mythical text is that it presumes that Monsters are meant to be understood, or to embody something that we seek to understand about ourselves or the world. This is not really the case. There is a great deal of the human world (as opposed to the physical, or scientific, world) that is not to be understood beyond their encounter, for which the currencies of understanding are wooden money. Monsters, as creatures of art and imagination, are a part of that world and likewise cannot be fully understood through equivalencies any more than can death, faith, or love.
It is in fact this property of the Monster that allows it to live in fantasy. The paradox of comprehension is, as I have said, is a trait common to many elements of the human world and does not hinder their expression. In fact, it is crucial if the reader is to apprehend the monster as a creature beyond full comprehension and yet dear and important to the reader—‘alive’. If the monster is perceived as being too simple, the product of an equivalency, then it is no longer a creature of imagination but has in some sense descended to the physical world as yet another piece of flowing information to be perceived, understood, and passed on. In other words, Monsters are the product of a dark corner of the human heart and can therefore be pondered and feared. An allegory, as a product of rationality, need not be feared and really gives very little to ponder. These are the bones of the monster, and cannot compare to the Monster ‘incarnate’.
Moving on, we are presented with another question: if the Monster is a part of the human world then why does it require a secondary reality to find expression? Yet this is a misleading question because of course it does not require a secondary reality any more than the secondary reality requires the monster. Of course other literature is capable of confronting very similar issues under certain circumstances—otherwise it would fall prey to the same criticism as Beowulf. The difference is that in literature without Monsters the narrative is usually driven by a character’s apprehension of the mystery of being human, and the process of systemizing the mystery for comprehension. (It does not, in good literature, ever reach full comprehension—the story is in the struggle.)
Fantasy, however, is a little more complicated. The point of the story is not for the protagonist to understand the Monster, any more than he must understand the air of the secondary reality of which he is a part. His is to overcome, or not. It is the reader who is left with the task of understanding, and the Monster is such a prominent feature of the secondary reality that it appears to be a key to understanding the whole.
Of course, the reader cannot fully understand the secondary reality any more than he can fully understand the Monster, but it is the desire to understand that is key. In terms of suspense, this forms a suspense arc with no resolution, in which we wonder about the Monster but will not be answered. It makes the reader aware (consciously or no) that the answers to his questions do not lie in the physical world and therefore appear to be beyond human grasp. In this way, Monsters are a way in which the reader comes to apprehend the boundary between the prime reality and the secondary reality. While the Monster retains his mystery, the boundary stands. If the Monster can be reduced to a systematic allegory, the boundary will fail and there will be no secondary reality.