Thursday, May 5, 2011

The Monsters and the monsters

Wednesday’s class presented us with an interesting and challenging task: to identify the motives of Monsters and to classify different kinds of Monsters according to their respective motives. I present here my own system of classification, but before I explain it, I would like to consider the word Monster itself. I think one ought to distinguish the Monsters in a story from monsters in the abstract. “The Monsters and the Critics” deals primarily, I think, with the former, the draco rather than the draconitas. Someone in class mentioned that every Monster needs a Monster-slayer (and vice versa), and it is helpful to bear this fact in mind when reading myth or fairy-story. Most non-human antagonists (and even some “human” ones), whatever their motives, are Monsters within a story. Grendel, Smaug, Shelob, and Bilbo’s Trolls have vastly different origins and motives, but as far as the protagonists are considered, they are all Monsters: they exist, and they must be overcome, regardless of any more complex considerations of the nature of Evil and the question of “solving” it. While I agree with the comment that being a Monster depends on the story-teller’s point of view, I think it is wrong to say that being a monster depends on it. Smaug is certainly a Monster from Bilbo’s point of view, though presumably not from his own. But whether or not he is a monster is a matter separate from anybody’s point of view and should be analyzed as such. To that end, I have identified two (possibly three) categories of “Monsters” and have tried to determine their relation to monsterhood.

The first category, and the largest, is composed of Slaves. The word slave indicates unwillingness and coercion, and that is precisely why I think it applies to this category. Many of Sauron’s servants, even those who are not slaves in the strictest sense, serve him unwillingly, or at the very least had at one point no intention of serving him. The Quenta Silmarillion explains that the original Orcs were captive Elves who “by slow arts of cruelty were corrupted and enslaved.”[1] Tellingly, the text goes on to say that “deep in their dark hearts the Orcs loathed their Master whom they served in fear, the maker only of their misery.”[2] Into this category one may place as well the many nameless men who serve Sauron (though not, perhaps, their captains and leaders); Sam wonders of the dead Southron in Ithilien whether “he was really evil of heart, or what lies or threats had led him on the long march from his home.”[3] And one ought also to include those beasts who seem to have been forced into Sauron’s service, like the black horses stolen from Rohan,[4] and perhaps the Mûmakil.

I think a distinguishing feature of these “slaves” is that one feels genuinely sorry for them, however horrible or cruel they might be. Gandalf says to Denethor, “I pity even his slaves,” and Gandalf is right to do so.[5] And there are a few instances in which Sauron’s slaves are shown to be not so very different from the Free Peoples; the conversation between Gorbag and Shagrat, for example, in which the two reveal fears, desires, and uncertainties concerning Sauron’s rule, humanizes the Orcs somewhat, so that they appear more misguided or coerced than properly Evil.

Into this category I also place, perhaps controversially, some of the primary antagonists of The Lord of the Rings, namely Gollum and the Ringwraiths. As someone pointed out in class, Gollum came upon the Ring accidentally, and his evil deeds (which are many) seem to stem from this unwitting submission to the Dark Lord, a submission that Gollum (or at least Sméagol) resents.[6] Gollum is a slave to Sauron, and perhaps this explains why Gandalf and Frodo pity him so greatly. The Ringwraiths belong here as well, I think, because they too (some of them in any case) seem to have entered Sauron’s service unintentionally. Sauron was so convincing as the well-intentioned Annatar that he persuaded even some of the Elves to trust him; presumably the same ruse ensnared the Ringwraiths, and The Silmarillion states that some of them resisted Sauron’s power while they could.[7]

The next category I call monstrous creatures. This category is comprised of the beasts who serve Morgoth and Sauron. Let us not forget that trolls, along with Carcharoth, dragons and various other breeds, were created by Morgoth to serve him; their wills are therefore naturally inclined to Evil. I also include here various animals, like wargs, wolves and bats, whose natural urges (in fairy-stories) tend towards consumption, aggression, and destruction and so coincide with the purposes of both Dark Lords. It’s hard to ascribe any real agency to these monsters, and I think they are of the same order as the “hungry monsters” mentioned by Prof. Fulton-Brown. They are not worthy of pity in the way that the slaves are because there is (or was) no reluctance to serve Evil, but since they are by definition incapable of distinguishing Good from Evil, it’s hard to consider them properly Evil. (I think the lesser Spiders belong here as well, since their relation to Shelob and Ungoliant is more or less the same as that of, say, Trolls to Morgoth).

It thus seems incorrect to say that monsters deserve to be called Evil. That dubious honor falls to the group I name the Villains. These, I think, can on the whole comfortably be called Evil. Morgoth, Sauron, the Balrogs, the Mouth of Sauron, and various spies (like Bill Ferny) belong here. Villains are those who willingly enter Evil’s service; many have endeavored to corrupt Slaves and create monsters. Therefore, all Men, Valar, and Maiar (indeed members of any race endowed with Free Will) who knowingly chose Evil over Good deserve to be classed as Villains. One may point out that Melkor, Sauron, and the Maiar who became Balrogs were perhaps originally convinced they were doing Good (as was the case with Saruman), but one should not forget that Morgoth and Sauron repeatedly squandered opportunities to repent of their misdeeds despite knowing they had chosen an Evil path. Perhaps there should be a subset of this group, the Lesser Villains, to include those who more or less match the definition of Villainy but for whom one might still feel pity – those who are “guilty, with an explanation,” like Saruman, Ar-Pharazôn, and Gríma. Perhaps the Lesser Villains belong with the Slaves; I can’t say.

I struggle with the question of Ungoliant and Shelob, however. They are, to my mind, the most horrific and frightening of all the enemies faced by the Forces of Good because they are so completely foreign. Morgoth and Sauron desire supreme power, yes, but at least their motive is understandable (even though it’s wrong). The two Great Spiders wish not to rule but to consume, to consume so thoroughly and completely that the the world would be left a dry husk. One gets the impression that they would eat even stone if they could, and in the end Ungoliant seems to devour herself in her hunger.[8] I associate mindless consumption with Monstrous Creatures, but there seems to be something sapient and malicious about the Great Spiders. My instinct is to say that they are somehow Evil, in fact more Evil (if possible) than Morgoth, but whether they deserve their own category or whether they are merely the ultimate examples of the category of monstrous creatures I cannot say.

Both Villains and monsters can be Monsters, but I think it’s wrong to conflate Villains with monsters. Grendel is a Monstrous Creature, and there are several episodes which make him seem exceedingly like Ungoliant (whichever category she is in); he might even be a Slave, though I myself find there is no textual basis for such a claim. But he is certainly not a Villain, and since he is therefore effectively deprived of free will, it is quite hard to say that he is Evil. The same can be said of most of the Monsters in The Lord of the Rings: they are servants of Evil, yes, but they are not Evil themselves. But I don’t think that distinction adds any credence to Edmund Wilson’s argument that they are bad Monsters; rather, it makes the Villains all the more villainous and the struggle of the Free Peoples all the more compelling.

G. Lederer

1. J.R.R. Tolkien, The Silmarillion (New York: Del Rey, 1997), 47.
2. Ibid., 47.
3. J.R.R. Tolkien, The Two Towers (New York: Del Rey, 1982), 317.
4. Ibid., 46.
5. J.R.R. Tolkien, The Return of the King (New York: Del Rey, 1983), 95.
6. “He got up and clenched his long hand into a bony fleshless knot, shaking it towards the East. ‘We won’t!’ he cried. ‘Not for you.’” Tolkien, Two Towers, 263.
7. Tolkien, Silmarillion, 346.
8. Ibid., 87.


  1. I see now that some book titles are not italicized. I apologize for this error; I wrote the response in Word and pasted it onto the blog, and apparently the italics didn't consistently survive the transition.
    -G. Lederer

  2. I'm not sure where this fits best, but I've ben thinking about it and this discussion of the classes of monsters seems like an appropriate venue. to me, 'monster' seems to be a catch all word for anyone or anything standing between the labeler and whatever is viewed as perfection. This is closely related to a characteristic I find in most monsters--monsters have none of our sense of 'rational self interest,' which is needed to be a part of society. Because of this, we cannot understand them. Monsters are sociopathic creatures--that is why we can lump Shelob, personified greed, and Stalin in one category. What unites them is that they defy our rational attempts to understand others' actions.

    This is why I agree that orcs don't seem to be monsters--as twisted as they are, it doesn't seem like they have lost that fundamental rationality and enlightened self interest that divides the reasonable from the monstrous.


  3. I agree with your distinction between the reasonable, if misguided, Villains and the malicious but only bestial Monsters. However, I also wanted to put forth the idea I had in class, of how we might regard monsters as both natural and very human. I think it’s very important to Tolkien that monsters not simply represent distilled Greed, Lust, Wrath, etc. That would make them entirely too human, and monsters are meant to be precisely the opposite. However, it can’t be denied that these monsters are deeply tied to humanity in some way.

    Therefore, I think monsters are a special set of problems. They are what is external and inhuman, but still inextricably tied to what it means to be human—I mean threats like disease, war, famine, death, which we personify and think about and, in the end, help us define what it means to be human in the same way that a shore defines the sea, or black defines white. In John Gardener’s ‘Grendel’, the monster of Beowulf is told he is “the brute existent by which they [humanity] learn to define themselves. The exile, captivity, death they shrink from—the blunt facts of their mortality, their abandonment…You are mankind, or man’s condition: inseparable as the mountain-climber and the mountain.”

    ~Sarah Gregory

  4. Excellent distinction between Monsters and monsters, and within the category Monsters, between slaves, monstrous creatures and Villains. I think this helps us greatly to see why Monsters are so important to the stories, while at the same time making sense of our difficulties in distinguishing between monsters and Villains: both are Monsters, but only those who act with actual malice are Villains.


  5. The category of ‘slave’ “Monsters” is very insightful; you recognize that the majority of these perceived Monsters are forced to act in accord with the will of evil. I’ve always thought Orcs and Trolls occupied a strange place in Middle Earth; they are beastly and have largely animal motivations, and yet they talk and act on motivations beyond mere instinct. There really isn’t anything comparable to that in our primary reality, and so I’m always unsure how to feel about these creatures. I absolutely agree that Gollum and the Ringwraiths fit into this category, in both cases because they were ensnared by the Rings with no knowledge of the effect those rings would have. The wraiths were lured with power, and so not entirely blameless, but Smeagol came upon the One Ring purely by accident – the Ring was only trying to get back to Sauron. This is why (as I hinted in my introductory discussion board post) Gollum is my favorite character in LotR: his doom came upon him completely coincidentally. Smeagol may have already been a selfish, sneaky thing, but had it not been for the Ring, he would never have killed Deagol, been shunned by his people, hidden in the mountains, wasted away into an unrecognizable creature, been tortured in Mordor, and ultimately died at Mount Doom. I find this to be unspeakably tragic, that he would suffer so much because of a mere accident.

    I hadn’t thought about what you call “monstrous creatures” in this way before, but you make an excellent point that they act on their animal instincts and, when they act on other motives, they are acting in accord with the will of evil, being linked to that will through their creation by Melkor. I find dragons in this category to be problematic, though. While they are creations of Melkor and in line with his evil will, they aren’t “hungry monsters” in the sense that they are only acting on instinct, trying to survive. Dragons are sentient and possess a strange ability to affect the minds of those who speak with them; they often use this ability to cause trouble (as with Turin), rather than to meet any genuine needs they have. While their will is not entirely their own, they do seem to choose to do ill simply for the sake of doing so, and I think this would categorize them as evil.

    I think your definition of a “villain” is very accurate: those with free will who chose evil. Some of them seem to have been unfairly persuaded (Grima, Ar-Pharazon), but they were ultimately still free to choose, and they chose poorly. I agree that Ungoliant and Shelob are problematic, but I would still categorize them as evil villains. To some extent they act on a base instinct to feed and survive, but they are sentient beings who choose to consume far beyond their needs and who actively seek to destroy that which is good (Ungoliant consumes the light of the Two Trees, and Shelob prefers the taste of Elves and Men to that of Orcs).

    NB: I think it telling that in the indices for LotR, Tolkien groups “Persons, Beasts, and Monsters” under one category, distinguishing between beasts and monsters. I think this shows that Tolkien fully understood the similarities between these categories, and the subtle distinctions that separate them.


  6. I find this article very helpful and insightful. The ‘free-will’ distinction being the clarifying marker of ‘villains’ is particularly insightful. I find it difficult and overly dramatic to call many humans “Monsters” or “monsters” - even in cases like that of Josef Mengele or H. H. Holmes or Josef Fritzl, who most assuredly could be put into this category even by one who is not attempting to be dramatic. They are, without a doubt, villains. And they did, without a doubt (in my mind, because of their status as Men) have free will, which they used to do the things they did.

    Assuredly the Mengeles or Holmeses or Fritzls of the world are in many ways more like Saruman than they are like Gollum, or Orcs, particularly those that Sam overhears in Mordor. I am also very grateful that you did not put into this category natural disasters - I believe that their lack of sentience cannot classify them as Evil. They just Are, and insofar as they Are the way they Are, they cannot be truly hated or blamed. Villains Are, but they Are not because that is how they Are; they Are because they chose to be (I apologize for the capitalization; I found it necessary).

    I also am not sure where to classify Dragons. Any ideas?