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?