In class on Wednesday we discussed at length the nature of monsters and tried to arrive a definition of the category of “monster”. I think that looking at the role of monsters within different mythology and religous contexts can help us understand Tolkien’s conception of monsters. In “Beowulf, Monsters and Critics” Tolkien expresses his belief in the power of the monster within the Pagan mythology. He sees monsters as evoking powerfully the idea of the inescapable doom of men, tragic inevitability of mortality, and the glory of hopeless fight, in a world before Christ. However, when he brings monsters into his own legendarium they are complicated by the Christian elements of his mythos. Thus, looking at the role of monsters in different religious traditions can help us to begin to understand the aesthetic and mythic functions of monster (and contradictions the might introduce) in LOTR.
In “Beowulf, Monsters and Critics” Tolkien discusses at length the significance of the fact that the author of Beowulf was a Christian revisiting themes from a Pagan past. Although the poet introduces Christian elements to the story, such as the fact that Grendel is the descendent of Cain, Tolkien suggests the themes and tragedy of the poem are inherently pagan in origin. Accordng to Tolkien Beowulf themes are fundamentally Pagan because they are “still concerned primarily with man on earth.” The source of tragedy in Beowulf is “inevitable ruin” and “faith in the value of doomed resistance.” These are tragedies that Christians do not feel as immediately because Christ’s sacrifice has allowed death to become an entrance into paradise for the virtuous and faithful.
The definition of “monster” is determined by the religious or mythological framework in which the monster exists. Although we do not know the specific mythology belief of the Pagan inhabitants of England, Tolkien assures us that we can assume they share a few fundamental characteristics with the Norse and Icelandic Gods. The central point of disticniton between Northern gods and Greek gods is that the Northern Gods existed within time and were under seige by the powers of evil. They fight ferociously against “chaos and unreason” but defeat is a possibility if not an inevitability. Pagan monsters are physical beings that are the natural enemies of gods and of men (gods and men are allied). This is fundamentally differtenn from Greek mythology where monsters are enemies of men but kin to the Gods and sometimes protected by them. In Greek mythology the relationship between Gods and monsters is not straightforwardly adversarial. Considering that the Lord of the Rings was created in part as a mythology of England, I think we can assume that the Northern relationship between God and Monster will be most relevant to the legendarium.
In a Christian worldview this definition is necessarily complicated. The Christian God is the all-powerful creator of everything. As we discussed after reading the Dorothy Sayers article, evil then can be understood as the absence of God. God creates evil but only in the sense that the creation of good inevitably gives existence to its negation. However, this view of problematizes the idea of embodied monsters immensely. All creatures and physically existing things were created by God. Beings with free will can become evil by recognizing the not-good and identifying themselves with it. Thus, all truly evil things in Christianity are ultimately perversions of good things. The Devil is a fallen angel. Man was created to be good but can become evil because he ate of the fruit of knowledge and thus came to recognize evil and became capable of consciously pursuing un-good. This doesn’t leave much room for monsters, who are both embodied and inherently evil. Christianity admits of fiends and villains (and orcs!), perversions of the good and creatures who with free-will persue evil. Christianity also allows for beasts who are predators of men but act according to the plans of God, who created all birds and beasts. Beast do not recognize good from evil and therefore, I think, are not evil themselves. However a monster that has physical being and is originally and completely an enemy of men and god is not possible.
What does all this mean for the Lord of the Rings? (I am going to ignore the Hobbit because Tolkien’s letters suggest that it was not created with the Silmarillion in mind and therefore, while interesting when considering monsters in general, is does not really fit in this discussion of the relationship of monsters to their religious context). Divinity in The Lord of the Rings has elements of both Chrisitianity and polytheism. Iluvatar is similar to the God of the trinity and indeed Tolkien purposefully sought to avoid any conflict between his world and Christianity. However, the Ainur and Maia are similar to the Pagan gods in scope and power. In the same way it seems that we are presented with both Pagan monsters and Christian evil. Morgoth and Sauron are similar to the devil in that they are of a higher power than man, they were not created to be evil, but they chose to define themselves in opposition to creation and the Plan of Iluvatar and thus became evil. Gollum and the orcs are similar to evil men. The Orcs and Gollum were originally children of Illuvatar who were corrupted by Morgoth and Sauron respectively. In this way they are analagous to men who have fallen under the influence of the devil. However, unless we think of the Devil or evil men as monsters (and clearly there is a distinction because the critics of Beowulf would seem to thing evil men or the devil make for higher literature than monsters) I do not think that Sauron, Morgoth, the orcs, or Gollum can be categorized in this way.
However, Ungolint, Shelob, and the dragons seem to be on the order of Pagan monsters. It seems impossible to me that either Ungoliant or Shelob was ever initially good. Ungoliant seems to be the natural enemy of the Ainur in the way that Pagan monsters were the natural enemies of men and gods. She is not metaphorical but terrifyingly real and innately opposed to men and creation. This is seen in her desire to consume creation and the fact that she leaves utmost nothingness in her wake. The question of how she came into being under Iluvatar is sidestepped. Tolkien does not explain her origins except merely to state that she is from “before the world.” Ungoliant and Shelob then seem to be Monsters in the sense that Tolkien finds so powerful in Beowulf.
The complications surrounding the nature of monsters seems to stem from Tolkien desire not to contradict Christianity but still to partake of the aesthetic of Pagan mythology that he so dearly loves. His tale of the fall of Numenor and his insistence that mortality is the real subject of his work align his interests with the Pagan themes he lauded in Beowulf. Indeed, he praises Beowulf for a feeling of tragic inevitability of mortality, the glory of the struggle against it, and dark and archaic aethetic these themes conjure up. Tolkien pursues these same themes and he thus cerates Pagan-esque monster because they have such unspeakable power within these thematic framework. However, his work also has strongly Christian elements. AL of these influences combine to create a complex array of different types of evil.