Tuesday, May 13, 2014

Are we Human, or are we Monsters? (or are Monsters us?)

            We spent a lot of time in class talking about, and naming monsters, but we never really came to a solid definition. We never even stated definitively that monsters are evil, in fact, the main point that Professor Brown wanted us to take away is that they are in some way indispensable for heroes. So the questions I have, that I want to work through here are: are monsters evil? And if so, what does that mean for us humans since they seem to be necessary? There are three ways, or three discussions, that I want to present here that I think can help us answer these questions: first, what are monsters’ relationship to greater evils, like Morgoth or Satan; second, how do they fit into the plans of Creators like Eru, and third, can monsters be humanized and humans monsterized.

            In last week’s classes, we talked about evil, and using Augustine’s City of God and Sayer’s chapter “The Image of God,” we said that evil must be anti-good, not just non-good. Do monsters fall into this category? Are they on the same level as Morgoth or Satan as enemies of man and gods? Well, in the tale of the children of Hurin, it is the dragon Glaurung that accomplishes their doom by basically hypnotizing them. He steals the wits of Nienor and makes her run away to Brethil, and he tricks Turin into going back to Dor-lomin instead of finding Finduilas. But wait, is Glaurung doing all this through his own free monster-will, or is it really Morgoth’s curse, which he lays on the house of Hurin (Narn I Hin Hurin, 67)?
The case of Shelob less ambiguous, for Tolkien makes it very clear that she is not under the power of Sauron: “but still she was there, who was there before Sauron, and before the first stone of Barad-Dur; and she served none but herself” (LoTR 2.9.393). However, Sauron is aware of her, and there is the hint that he just leaves her alone because it is convenient for him.
Then, there are the trolls of The Hobbit, who have no connection at all with any larger evil. And lastly, there is Ungoliant, who becomes so powerful that she threatens Morgoth himself, the ultimate evil of Arda.
In no case do we have the “images of the evil spirit or spirits,” as Tolkien describes the demons of Christianity (Monsters and Critics, 22). Dragons are not Morgoth incarnate. Monsters are not just servants of an ultimate evil; only Glaurung seems to directly carry out the plan of Morgoth, and even in this case he seems to have free will in how to go about doing this; indeed, after destroying Nargothrond, he seems content to just sit there until Morwen and Nienor come to visit. Similarly, in Beowulf, it takes a human to disturb the firedrake, who, after all, had just occupied an empty tomb. The trolls of The Hobbit don’t do anything at all, except grumble about having eaten nothing but mutton for a while, until Bilbo comes and tries to steal something.
All this is just to show that there is a great range in the types of relationship between monsters and an ultimate evil. They appear to have free will in many cases, and to serve their own appetites instead of an evil master. It just so happens that their appetites include eating people, but that doesn’t seem to me to be reason enough to call all monsters enemies of Eru.

Let’s look at the reverse side to the question, and talk about monsters’ relationship to gods, the good guys. Again, I think we have to come back to what Eru tells Melkor in the Ainulindale:

And thou, Melkor, shalt see that no theme may be played that hath not its uttermost source in me, nor can any alter the music in my despite. For he that attempteth this shall prove but mine instrument in the devising of things more wonderful, which he himself hath not imagined” (page 6 in my book).

While it is easy to see how snowflakes fit into this vision, it is slightly harder to swallow that incest is one of the “things more wonderful.” But before this devolves into a “Mommy, why does god let there be war?” kind of question, I think it must be noted that contrary to what Eru and Tolkien want us to believe, Morgoth does seem to have created dragons. I can find no such explanation for dragons as we have for orcs or balrogs. And unlike, say, Ungoliant, who certainly existed on Arda apart from Morgoth, Glaurung and all his progeny issue from Angband.
            I do not have a resolution for this, since it seems to me that we have an internal inconsistency here. But I would be happy if someone proved me wrong.
The other thing I have to say about monsters and gods is that Tolkien’s world is not like the Norse one, as he describes it. For he says that “in Norse [mythology] at any rate, the gods are within Time, doomed with their allies to death. Their battle is with the monsters and the outer darkness” (Monsters and Critics, 25). The Valar are not doomed to be killed by dragons and trolls, moreover, they do not even fight these and win, as the Greek gods are said to have fought with the monster Typhon. It is men that fight monsters, and win: Sam kills Shelob, Bard kills Smaug etc. Of course monsters can win: Boromir is slain by orcs, but the fate of the world is only ever threatened by those who come from without it: Morgoth and Sauron. Monsters are only of concern to men.

Speaking of whom, at the end of class, someone (sorry, I didn’t mark down who) brought up the idea that monsters could be humanized in some way, and we also talked about how humans could become monstrous. To start off with, in Beowulf all monsters are “Cain’s clan, whom the Creator had outlawed/ and condemned as outcasts” (Lns. 106-107). So a human gave birth to monsters? Interesting. In Tolkien’s world, orcs are twisted from elves, and Balrogs were fiery Maiar. So it seems that things that started out as human, and thus not innately evil, can become monsters.
On the other hand, as Hope brought up in class, humans can in some ways become monstrous. This might be a bit of a reach, but I would compare Kullervo in the Kalevala excerpt we were given to Glaurung. For it is he that brings about his family’s destruction by raping his sister, and then going off to war and leaving his family to die. He does the same things Glaurung does. We also brought up the greed of Beowulf, for when he is about to die, is only wish is to see the gold: “my going will be easier/ for having seen the treasure” (lns. 2749-2750). And was this not the only fault of the firedrake, desiring treasure?  
Surely humans can and do kill humans, and many other things besides that monsters do, so how can we set them up in opposition to ourselves?

I think that to answer all the questions I have raised, we need to remember the LeGuin piece we read on the shadow. I would like to propose that monsters are our shadows. The complicated relationship they have to supreme deities of good and evil arise from the fact that that monsters come from us. They are dangerous and can kill us, but they are also familiar since they stem from our worst attributes. And as long as people are around with weaknesses, there will be monsters.
Tolkien takes these embodiments of our weaknesses, and (as we have seen time and again) makes them physical. Smaug is not an allegory for greed, he is greed and greed is a big red dragon that flies around killing people.

-Sam B.

1 comment:

  1. Or, as the philosophers once asked, Q: Are we not men? A: We are Devo!

    (Pardon the antique humor of a very old wizard.)

    You’ve got a lot of interesting stuff in here, Sam, but in some ways, it comes down to your original questions: Are monsters Us or are they Not-Us? Are they the unknown, the darkness, the chthonic powers that can wipe us out in an instant, the Red Death that can insinuate itself and kill us all. Or do they have recognizable human components blown to proportions that make them monstrous—in a religious vocabulary, are they perhaps sins or the result of being consumed by sin (which is human).

    Your answer seems to be that Monsters Я Us, to steal typographically from a toy-store chain. Smaug is Greed personified. Orcs are broken elves. And I think this is a tenable theory, but has some difficulties, one of which is taken up in this very good unsigned post on Shelob. Shelob doesn’t seem to neatly fit as as shadow of anything.

    In your scheme, perhaps she's Gluttony personified. But the insistence on her alienness seems (perhaps incorrectly) to move her out of the realm of Us.

    Moreover, as you mention, Morgoth seems to sub-create dragons—an actual class of living, apparently sentient beings, which in theory he shouldn’t be able to do. So do we have to downgrade dragons’ capacities as apparently sentient beings and consider them, in some ways, embodied extensions of Morgoth’s depravity, wrath, bitterness, covetousness, etc.? And if so, does this move them outside the Us category?

    I don’t have any good answers, myself, but I tend to agree with you that it seems that Tolkien’s monsters are close to Us in many senses; much closer than, say, his contemporary H.P. Lovecraft’s cosmic-horror monsters, which are defined as so alien they’re literally incomprehensible in human terms.