Friday, May 6, 2011

The Importance of Having Monsters

What is a monster? It’s a question that we have been struggling with in class, but which I think there might actually be a solution for. As I was reading the various texts I was musing on this very question. Monsters appear in all kinds of places, they can be beastly or humanoid, they can be intelligent or stupid, nothing specific about their characteristics seems to lead to anything. However there is a common factor for all monsters, and while it may seem obvious it is actually the crux of the matter. Monsters are scary. Monsters are there to frighten us, and every kind of monster plays on different fears of ours. They can be evil, because evil is frightening after all, but more often than not they’re more bestial and lack the true malice needed for evil. This is what Tolkien himself does with his monsters throughout his body of works.

So what makes these monster’s scary? Monsters often share certain characteristics, but they also differ based on which fears they call to. For example, in The Hobbit, all of the monsters live in darkness, and they all want to eat Bilbo. The fear of being eaten is rather self-explanatory, but there’s something to this darkness thing. Sure being a afraid of the dark is a pretty common fear, but at its core it’s really about being afraid of the uncertain. Monsters live in uncertainty in that the best monsters are the one that some part of us never entirely disbelieves. In the darkness what monsters are watching us with strange attuned eyes. This is demonstrated extraordinarily well with Gollum (who is certainly a monster in The Hobbit though more on that later), where Tolkien describes him watching Bilbo from the darkness with his large green eyes. There’s a blood-chilling terror when you stand alone in a dark room and feel like you’re being watched. In the dark we only see silhouettes of things and our imaginations run wild and things which seemed laughable in the light seem all too possible.

Each of these monsters also plays on their own individual fears. The fear of spiders is represented by the various Giant Spiders throughout the Tolkien books, but they also have deeper roots in terror. These spiders are terrible forces of blind hunger, but they have a certain cunning. Spiders set traps of webs which tangle up their pray, and their venom paralyzes, playing on the fear of being unable to move. Also these of all the monsters in these books they are the closest thing to being real, though thankfully never growing that big. Dragons are scary because they are so very good at killing things, and they will do it for something as simple as stealing a chalice. The dragons in Tolkien’s books are large Wyrms with thick hides sharp claws breaths like furnaces, and they’re clever too. They are devious and they bend all of their evil towards the pettiest of goals. They make us feel helpless. There is no reasoning with dragons, they are extremely hard to kill, and some, specifically Glaurung, can even dominate our minds and take away our free will.

Gollum presents a difficult problem, in that he is hard to categorize as a monster. This problem comes from the very different ways which he is presented in The Hobbit, as opposed to his character in The Lord of the Rings. This difference can arises from the fact that he is a monster in the former, and a villain in the latter. But what is the difference between the two? There is some overlap between these distinctions, there are monstrous villain, and villainous monsters. The difference lies in their role in the story, and because of this villains and monsters have a distinct characteristics. As I have already posited, monsters exist to be scary, whereas villains are dark mirrors which we use to view protagonists. Because of this there must be points of comparison between the hero and the villain, some commonality in nature, motivation, or character, which is corrupted. Gollum demonstrates this particularly well. In The Hobbit he has some similarities to Bilbo, but these certainly aren’t the focus, rather he is there as a creature in the dark who wants to eat Bilbo. However in The Lord of the Rings one of the first things the book does with the character is establish his backstory which explains how he used to be a hobbit (or hobbit-like creature) corrupted by the power of the Ring. Throughout the book he serves as a warning to Frodo of what will happen if he fails. He also is a foil for Sam, who above everyone else we see resists the temptation of the Ring, and opposes the wickedness of Gollum at every turn.

Monsters can reveal things about heroes, and villains can be scary, but the distinction usually very clear. Both are important for the growth of heroes. And with that I will end this blog post with a question for anyone who still has to do some comments. Based on this model (or if you really disagree then in spite of this model) what do monsters and villains reveal about the nature of heroes. What is a hero, and what role do they fulfill in the grand scheme of the story?



  1. If you believe in the monomyth concept then you will be aware of the different stages: call to adventure, refusal of the call, supernatural aid, the crossing of the first threshold, the belly of the whale, the road of trials, the meeting with a goddess, woman as a temptress, atonement with father, apotheosis, the ultimate boon, refusal to return, the magic flight, the rescue from within, the crossing of the return threshold, master of two worlds, and finally freedom to live.
    Will obviously this is an oversimplification of any complex story, no doubt that it's still somewhat applicable to the structure of Tolkien's works. And especially applicable to the role of monsters in relationship to heros. The stage in which monsters are often presented is the trials stage. The best example of this stage is the Hercules legend from Greek mythology. Hercules must defeat a series of monsters in order to gain his God status back.
    This shows that the monsters serve as obstacles that the hero must overcome during the course of his journey. What the monsters represent, be it evil or rather the primitiveness of the natural world is debate-able and depends upon the story.

  2. I like very much the way in which you distinguish Gollum's role in The Hobbit from that in The Lord of the Rings, but I wonder what this does to your definition of monsters as "scary": are villains not scary? Or just not in the same way monsters are?


  3. I enjoyed this post! But I, too, would like to explore your definition of monsters—namely, that they are “scary.” Do you think there is a particular kind of fear that monsters create in us and our heroes? Does this particular scariness perhaps separate them from villains (who, as you acknowledge, might also be quite scary)?

    I ask because I think the “scariness” standard must be a bit more specific if it is to work. As it stands, I am not sure the distinction between monsters and villains is perfectly clear. You write, “monsters exist to be scary, whereas villains are dark mirrors which we use to view protagonists.” And while you acknowledge that monsters might be foils and villains might be frightening, I think the overlap is significant enough to raise questions about this framework.

    Perhaps the most potent monsters are those in which we glimpse the dark reflection of our hero. In “Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics,” Tolkien writes that there are moments in which the dragon “approaches draconitas rather than draco: a personification of malice, greed, destruction (the evil side of heroic life)” (17). In my mind, the most horrifying part is in the parentheses, that the dragon personifies the dark possibilities of heroism—ambition might turn to greed, and courage might turn to cruelty. Maybe the dragon’s presentation in this way means it is an exception to the monster rule, in which case it might be more productive to discuss other examples. But I do think Beowulf’s dragon is all the scarier for the question it prompts: heroes may know how to fight scale and flame, but do they know how to contend with the monster in themselves?


  4. I think your last question really hits the nail on the head, so to speak. The monsters, while they are evil and scary, are not really meant to merely frighten children. The monsters, if we can say that they exist for a particular reason, exist in order to provide our heroes with adversity that they must overcome, challenges by which they can prove themselves. We often limit our scope of monsters in the books to large, non-human creatures, like trolls, spiders and dragons, but if one views monsters as some sort of not-quite-human thing (instead of inhuman), it becomes apparent that all of the major characters go through some sort of trial with this conception of monsters. Frodo defeats Shelob, Gandalf the Balrog, Aragorn braves the Kingdom of the Dead and, among many more examples, Merry battles the Witch-king of Angmar. Obviously, one must expand the term of "monster" in this interpretation, and one does run the risk of becoming implicated in some complications with the broader legendarium, but the basic function that many of the monsters play appears to fit into this characterization. Tolkien, as evidenced by his Beowulf article, might argue that it would be wrong to interpret the monsters and other sentient challengers to our heroes as metaphors for the personal struggles of the heroes or the challenges they must overcome to be successful. Yet this interpretation is not dependent on metaphor. Whether one sees the monsters as stand-ins for other, more metaphysical beasts, or creatures of flesh and blood that happen to exist in the story (as Tolkien might argue), the monsters aid the heroes in confronting their insecurities and accomplishing their ultimate goals. Indeed, no matter how one interprets the monsters, the monsters do help reveal the inner strength of the heroes of the story.

    Ro Ca

  5. You make a good point that the one universal defining characteristic of monsters is that they are scary. They are scary in different ways, but what we fear about them is always something related to an innate fear we have as human beings: pain, death, being trapped, the unknown. I think these fears are a different thing than the ‘fears/traits personified’ or ‘ancestral memory’ we discussed in class; they stem from our basic instincts, but are made more complex by our higher mind and our more complex understanding of the world. By this I mean we, as humans, do not only feel fear, but also think about it, categorize it, rationalize it, understand the cause of the fear as natural, unnatural, evil, etc.

    I agree that one thing that sets villains apart from monsters is that they are shadows of the protagonists; they are more like ‘us.’ One thing that makes monsters so scary is that they are undeniably “not us;” they are a different species, their behavior is unpredictable because we don’t necessarily understand their motivations. I think this is why we can categorize some people as monsters (Hitler, Stalin), because their actions have become so incomprehensible to us, so inhuman, that they have become “not us.” Or at least, we hope so.


  6. The way that I always delineated villains from monsters, when approaching the sea of ‘bad guys,’ was based on what was recognizably human. That could mean physically, mentally, or otherwise, but my conviction was always if it seems human in whatever way is most important to the ‘bad’ that we see in it, it’s a villain. If it doesn’t, it’s a monster. The result of that was always that the scariest part about a villain was that you could see any reasonably human character into turning into one within the context of a story. Turning into a monster would take some sort of supernatural intervention and, what’s more, under the definition that I was working with, as terrifying as the prospect of something familiar turning into something monstrous, if a human did turn into a monster, it wasn’t the a human any more (think zombie apocalypse scenario). I think this is compatible with what you’re saying here about the point of similarity between the protagonist and an antagonist-villain. As to what all this reveals about a hero, I suppose that depends on the hero, the villain and the story, but I suspect that more often than not, the aspect of the hero that is revealed will e something that the plot, and the trend of character development, needs him to overcome.

    E. Moore

  7. Interesting stuff!

    A couple of thoughts: you remind me that the term monster derives from monstrum which meant omen, portent, or sign. You also remind me of this recent post on the symbolic value of monsters with is reference to the work of C. S. Lewis, discussed fairly recently