Sunday, May 8, 2011

The Bones of the Monster:

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.

--Mattias Darrow


  1. Well said! Monsters cannot be allegories or succumb to rational criticism because they are, by definition, beyond reason and criticism. An excellent answer to our conundrum in class.


  2. Perhaps monsters, like all other characters, originate as representations of an idea (honesty, bravery, greed...) but later develop into individuals. If we look at the dragons in The Hobbit and in Beowulf, they are beasts who love hoarding gold. Moving past this simple description, if we look at the book Grendel, the dragon has a personality, has a rational behind his gold hoarding. We see the dragon as a character, not as an object or obstacle to get past. Is that what we as readers want, though? To RELATE to our monsters? I say a hearty "hell no". While it certainly enriches a story, to understand every character's perspective, having sympathy for the devil often questions our morals and if what we're doing is right. If we look at Sam's mistrust of Golem, at first it seems blind hatred until we understand Golem's backstory. Then we feel pity for the poor creature. Is that right? He's still a conniving, malevolent force that deters Frodo on his path to saving Middle Earth. I think I prefer to have my good guys and bad guys in black and white.

    A. Demma

  3. I love how you've managed to distinguish between the part and the whole here, between (as you put it, "the bones of the monster" vs. "the monster 'incarnate'." I was struggling with this myself during class. I think that this is very well the best way in which we can come to terms with our dilemma of classifying monsters. The fact that monsters live in the secondary reality in a way makes the answer to this problem obviously unattainable. They live within faerie, and we are not meant to understand how the laws of faerie operate; thus, we should not be able to understand the monsters. Yet just as we recognize some elements in faerie, connections between the primary and the secondary reality, we can understand the “bones” of this monster, such as malice or greed, like the spiders or dragons. But when we witness the whole of the monster and it’s physicality in the secondary reality, emphasized by the protagonists attempts to defeat it, defining them abstractly as “embodiments of vices” seems to completely deny the physical realness of the monster as an individual outside of what is human. These definitions blatantly ignore the “other-ness” of the monster which gives it such prominent presence in the secondary reality. Thus, the mystery of the monster is the only way in which it exists in a reality. Without the mystery, it falls out of secondary reality into the primary, but in the primary it loses its physicality and fades into purely imagination.

  4. Part of the problem of criticism, which I think was point in class discussion, is that it can present us with false choices (i.e. monsters must be incarnations of vice or representations of natural phenomenon or echoes of ancient predators, etc.). Monsters are themselves characters in a story and as such they are not universally the same anymore than the so-called heroes are. So some monsters can be one or more of the above at the same time, or just oversized giant bugs that want to eat you. But just as importantly, they are story characters.

    The problem with some critics is not just that they were trying to understand and rationalize the monsters, but that they were deconstructing and reducing the monsters, and therefore the story as well which destroys them both. I don’t see anything wrong with trying to understand or even rationalize monsters, especially if we read a story as being deeper than an entertaining yarn. If there is a deeper meaning, a greater narrative metaphor, then the monsters too are a part of that. If you wish to pursue this meaning, then seeking to understand what the monsters represent (if anything) is as worthwhile as trying to understand what trees and silmarils and jewels represent.

    For example, Icarus was not just some boy, he was also a representation of hubris because of the flight too close to the sun. However, this understanding should not lead to the conclusion that the Icarus was ONLY hubris and not also an escapee from the minotaur’s labyrinth. To do so, destroys the story through reductionist analysis. I think this same exercise can be applied to monsters as long as it is done in way that recognizes and maintains the integrity of the story. Monsters can’t be too far beyond our capacity of reason, otherwise we shouldn’t be able to effectively employ them in stories. Bear in mind that the invention of many fantastic beings (monsters or not) like the domoviye, djinn, giants, sun gods and the like were there themselves the result of human reason in the effort to explain and make sense of the more puzzling aspects of our world.

    -Jason A Banks

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  7. This post struck me as extremely insightful, so well done.

    What it made me think of was the concept of "taste" that we talked about earlier this quarter. Tolkien said that certain languages appealed to him more than others: some had a certain flavor that was particularly appetizing. This feeling, this "taste," defies rational's something you feel inside you.

    I think that monsters add a similar taste, or feeling, to a story (or a secondary reality). You say that monsters are "the product of a dark corner of the human heart and can therefore be pondered and feared". I really like this idea, but I'm going to re-work it a little for the sake of my "taste" argument. I would like to suggest that monsters are both the "product" of a dark corner of our hearts, and also the gateway to that portion of our sensibility.

    For me, that dark corner of our hearts always exists, and monsters are always there. They can either emerge from it through creation (as a product), or can be brought forth by some external reference (such as their presence in a story). Once they are evoked, we are suddenly made aware of this "dark corner" inside of us. A new taste arises in our sensibility. Monsters allow us to tap into this “dark” taste. Monsters make us feel something, and even if we can’t describe what that feeling is, it affects us, and attracts us to monsters.