Friday, May 6, 2011

Monsters In the Context of Religion

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.



  1. I like how you make distinctions between different categories of monsters (like Shelob vs Gollum), as it is something that I’ve been thinking about as well. However, I slightly disagree with one of your points. You said that from our readings we have developed the idea that evil is the opposite of good, but I would argue that evil is even more that this: it is a deep-rooted feeling of malice towards good.
    I think, as you said, that this is what separates ‘beasts’ from monsters. The trolls in The Hobbit aren’t trying to eat Bilbo to torture him, they simply happen to eat hobbits. However, I also think that this definition of evil is also what separates Gollum from the other monsters in Tolkien’s mythology. Melkor, though he is a ‘fallen’ being as you pointed out, eventually develops malice towards the ‘good’ things that the Ainur create. He is continually breaking down everything the Ainur build up. Shelob and Ungoliant exhibit a similar malice in their desire to devour all created things, including light. Gollum, on the other hand, doesn’t seem to display this same caliber of malice. Yes, he admittedly is selfish, scheming, and deceitful, but he doesn’t want to destroy the good in the world, he simply wants his precious back.
    While I can’t say for certain that Shelob and Ungoliant were created by Iluvatar, they share an important characteristic with Melkor, Gollum, and even dragons. They are all beings endowed with intelligence. They have the foresight to understand the consequences of their outcomes and to have purpose and intent behind their actions. Essentially, they can all make a choice, to seek the light or to destroy it, and Gollum seems to be the only so called monster who chooses against destruction.


  2. I'm sorry that my comment above somehow lost the paragraph breaks. I copied and pasted out of a word file.

  3. Excellent distinction between monsters inspired by Pagan mythology and monsters (or devils) inspired by Christianity (or, rather, Christian mythology) and the way in which they appear in Tolkien's stories. I think that you are exactly right to see this tension in the way in which Tolkien crafts his monsters/villains/devils: like the Beowulf poet, he is trying to have it both ways.


  4. You are right that the monsters such as they are in the Legendarium are more European pagan than Christian. However, as monstrous as Ungoliant was, she seemed to be more like a force of nature (a black hole) than anything intentionally evil to be natural enemies of anyone—being more akin to Charybdis than Grendel. Ungoliant was what she was on the edges of the world in conflict with no one until roused and used as a malicious tool by Melkor. Unfortunately for him, he lost control of the tool and Ungoliant disappeared back into obscurity from whence she came. The valar made no effort to hunt her down, nor was she the target of the Noldor’s wrath. She was monstrous in the sense that her hunger was antithetical to existence, but she did not beget her own hunger and so is also quite animalistic.

    While Gollum, I think, is more of a Christian “monster,” the orcs are a special case. Gollum is corrupted, but yet also has the potential for redemption, not unlike a person possessed by a demon. There is an evil will, external to himself, interfering with his actions. Presumeably Gollum/Smeagol, like Frodo, would have been exorcised of Sauron's will when he ring was destroyed. Orcs, although corrupted elves or men, seem to be beyond redemption. Furthermore they can be killed without remorse in great numbers. They are not taken prisoner nor are they shown mercy or compassion. Instead the only cure for their permanent and immutable corruption is death. They are wholly physical, but at once more than animals and sub-human. They are also inherently evil, but not supernatural like demons. They are also almost resemble a pestilence like a swarm of locusts because of their seemingly inexhaustable numbers and single minded intent to destroy everything in their path. It isn’t a Christian theme and I can’t think of a Norse pagan corollary either. The orcs don't strike me simply as a countless horde of Grendels.

    -Jason A Banks

  5. It's interesting to view monsters as pagan influences within Tolkien's work, but I'm not sure if I wholly agree. I wonder if the distinction between pagan and Christian monsters must necessarily revolve around the idea of the fall. The idea of the fall as conceived by the bible is certainly present in the book, but I don't know if it is correct to ascribe a "pagan-ness" to the monsters which are not overtly fallen.

    In Tolkien's creation myth, Melkor's desire to dominate creation and have glory (in the biblical sense) leads to his fall. Because Malkor created all that was evil through the marring of an originally "good" creation, all evil being share in that original fall. Ungoliant was a fallen maiar who decided to take the shape of a spider, and was eventually bound to it. Rather than being completely opposed to the gods and creation, evil is always created through some sort of fall, or transformation in Tolkien's work. I recognize that the idea of giant spiders or dragons, may have been drawn from pagan mythology, but that doesn't make Tolkien's version of them pagan. Evil is inextricably linked to the fall in Tolkien's mythology. It seems to be a wholly Christian bestiary to me.

    -Nick Carter