Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Are You Afraid of the Dark?

                In Edmund Wilson’s review of the Lord of the Rings, which presents a number of other issues he took with the three volumes, Wilson complains that the monsters “would not hurt a fly”.  More specifically, he felt that the monsters were not concrete or present enough to come off as really horrible to the reader.  We never really got into this subject in class, so I’d like to discuss exactly how the monsters brought up in class are in fact scary.

                The Ringwraiths are never properly given shape.   They are only ever described as shadows given form, sometimes with a resemblance to a hooded man.  This ambiguity gives them their disturbing appearance.  In an early passage in Fellowship, Frodo witnesses a dark shape sway from side to side, sniff the air, bend to the ground and crawl towards him. (Book I, Chapter 3)  Frodo rarely gets a straight explanation of what the Riders are exactly, except that they are servants of the Enemy.  They change shape, float, make little noise except a barely-audible sniffing, and cause Frodo to be mentally overpowered by a desire to use the ring numerous times.  Ringwraiths are almost an embodiment of the fear of the dark, a fitting servant for the lord of shadows.  Certainly they are not concrete; they are deliberately the opposite.  This is precisely why they are scary.  As to their presence in the story, the Ringwraiths are constantly appearing in book I.
                Throughout the rest of the series their role is markedly different: less of a mysterious and evil pursuer of the hobbits and more like a terrible force on the battlefield.  Pippin and Beregond witness a Ringwraith mounted on a fell beast as a sensation, a barely-heard cry, and a brief darkening of the sun, but even this minor experience causes Pippin to “blanch against the wall”. (Book V, Chapter 1)  They have grown in power significantly, allowing them to attack Faramir’s riders as they return to Minas Tirith, and challenge Gandalf.  They are principally a force of despair, and the Witch-King himself has become a fitting monster for the heroes Eowen and Merry.
                It’s arguable that their change in presence actually heightens their role as monster.  At the beginning of the Rings they are mostly like a bogeyman, frightening to the inexperienced hobbits but not yet challenging enough for a hero to defeat.  Aragorn drives them away with a simple torch, and they are temporarily placed out of action by the Fords of Bruinen.  We never really see their strength, because their role at this stage does not warrant it.  But as commanders under Sauron they provide great sway in the battles of Volume III, exerting psychological force rivaling Glaurung.  Their presence is at a height with the Witch-king’s appearance in the Battle of the Pelennor Fields, at which point he is challenged by heroes and defeated.

                Shelob takes on a similar archetype as the early Ringwraiths, a minor presence that becomes an overpowering monster.  She is mentioned before her appearance solely by Gollum’s vague references, a “she” that could take care of the hobbits, waiting in the pass of Cirith Ungol.  The hobbits and the reader have no notion of what is waiting for them in the tunnel.  The reader gets some hints: the eyes in the darkness, her odd gurgling noises, her retreat at the sight of the Phial of Galadriel, and the webbing across the tunnel.  Frodo and Sam can feel her looking at them.  But the hobbits are spurred onward by the hope of an open space, and the reader is led to almost forget her presence lurking in wait. 
                At this moment, Tolkien has made an interesting narrative choice in the introduction of Shelob: he describes exactly her psychology, her history, and her habits in all their disgusting glory. (Book IV, Chapter 9)  He also reveals exactly what Gollum intended by drawing the hobbits to the pass. Tolkien did not write this back-story explanation for the Ringwraiths, so it’s interesting to see what effect this has on her characterization.
                First of all, this makes Shelob suddenly, in crystal clear detail, concrete and present.  We know exactly what she’s thinking and why she behaves the way she does.  This creates an extreme sense of alienation, because her psychology is just so non-human.  Rather than the Ringwraiths’ association with the fear of the dark, Shelob plays off of the fear of the other.
                Second, the reader’s and hobbits’ suspicions are instantly affirmed.  Gollum’s plans and the inevitable trap are revealed.  The reader has a sense of exactly how much they were not aware, which produces a sense of dramatic irony, helplessness, and despair.  This is quite appropriate given it’s exactly how Sam feels a moment later.  He sees Shelob spring atop Frodo, quickly incapacitating him and binding him.
                Finally, he sees her horrible shape and knows that she is a monster.  This is a perfect setup for Sam’s triumph over her in an act of heroism.  It gives him courage and conviction to defend his master, a fury previously unknown to him, and the desperation of survival.  Sam realizes his heroism, and drives the monster off with Frodo’s sword and Phial. (Book V, Chapter 10)

                These two monsters are creatures of shadow that feed off of primal fears (darkness, and the alien), and create deep senses of despair and helplessness in their victims.  They are certainly horrible, and fall nicely under the category of monster in opposition to heroes that later defeat them.

                Gollum, on the other hand is not precisely scary.  He is creepy, lurks in the shadows, and doesn’t make himself known until far into the Rings after he’s followed Frodo for a book and a half (II and IV).  But, he is not horrible, frightening to behold, vague like the Ringwraiths or alien like Shelob.  Instead he is mostly just disturbing and pitiable; an old, corrupted hobbit with a disturbed psychology.  In The Hobbit he is even less: a strange old mountain creature with an odd obsession and unpleasant habits.  He is definitely not a monster, especially since he is not defeated by a hero.

                Gollum falls under the archetype of what Frodo could become.  In other words, he is disturbing because he is a demonstration of the amount the ring can change an individual.  In the end he destroys himself.  But he is neither scary, nor a monster.

-Hazel Court


  1. I actually agree with Wilson. Upon rereading LOTR this year, I found myself surprisingly unafraid of the bad guys, surprisingly non-jumpy--and this from someone who refuses to walk into dark rooms alone after watching Spiderman or Captain America. I am the most scare-able person I know, and the Lord of the Rings just doesn't scare me. Why? I think Wilson is right in one regard: the bad guys aren't realistic. However, that in itself doesn't explain it. He says that the evil in the story is too dreamlike to be scary, but I think that is actually the problem; it ISN'T dreamlike enough.

    To compare: the Dark is Rising series is a fantastic children's fantasy series, and the evil is almost entirely incorporeal and dreamlike. In that series, Evil is generally simple (i.e. there is little nuance--good is good and evil is evil), and it is usually unbodied; yet this is precisely why it is so scary. The story feels like being inside a nightmare, with the reader (and the characters) never knowing who to trust. Even though Good and Evil are straightforward, the good guys never know who to trust, never know whether the friendly person they just met is actually Evil.

    And that, I think, is why the Evil in Dark is Rising is scary but the Evil in LOTR is not. In LOTR, everyone can smell evil a mile away. The bad guys are clearly bad--they're ugly, they sound nasty, they just feel wrong. (Even with Saruman and his magic voice, our heroes still know he's evil; they just forget sometimes.) There is never a feeling of nervousness, of uncertainty, of terror. In LOTR, you always know who to trust. And that just isn't scary.

  2. Hazel,

    Thanks for the post! It’s a really good rundown of the relative monstrosity of the three antagonists. I think Wilson and Anna bring up a good point in the subjectivity of scariness, though. Some people will simply not be scared by these monsters—perhaps because they are so exactly defined—but I think others will.

    The Ringwraiths, I think, are a good example of Tolkien’s use of the undead. Aside from his alluding to vampires (with Morgoth, I think) somewhere, we see the Barrow Wights and the Ringwraiths (whose name in Black Speech includes the suspiciously English-like element gûl, which bluntly suggests ghoul even if Tolkien likely had some complicated imaginary derivation). And the Ringwraiths are clearly not only ghostly, but bestial, with all the sniffing and snuffling and their eerie cries. They’re corrupted all the way down. They, unlike perhaps even orcs, seem to have no will independent of Sauron’s—otherwise the Witch-King of Angmar would presumably be as dangerous and treacherous a vassal as Saruman the Many-Colored.

    Shelob is very much an alien horror and in some ways comes closest to being the absolute evil that Tolkien disavowed employing. For a very good discussion of her, see Griffin’s post above.

    And pitiful Gollum is not quite a monster, not quite a villain, but has more than a little of both in him—the eerie glowing eyes, the prolonged life, the strangler’s hands, the taste for blood, the mad fixation on the Precious, the lunatic dual personality—and not least the implication that he’s been stealing and eating babies. (“The Woodmen said that there was some new terror abroad, a ghost that drank blood. It climbed into trees to find nests; it crept into holes to find the young; it slipped through windows to find cradles.”) I will disagree a bit with you here. For me, Gollum is an uncanny, frightening figure in his corruption and murderousness.

    Do I find the monsters scary per se? Kinda. I find the early spectral Nazgûl creepier than later as battlefield air-cover and generals. Shelob is repellent. And Gollum does provide an effective sense of threat, menace, and foreshadowing of Frodo’s doom. So I think they’re pretty effective, though not the stuff of nightmares for me. (Then again, I am a wizard.)

  3. Building on Anna’s and Bill’s comments, I think it is right to consider the impact that the marked obviousness and literality of evil in The Lord of the Rings might have on the scariness of its monsters and villains–as observed, it is abundantly plain that Sauron and his minions are the “bad guys.” Yet I’m not sure I would go so far as to conclude that in The Lord of the Rings specifically and in Tolkien’s Legendarium more broadly, that “you always know who to trust.” Before the Fall of Númenor, Sauron did not guise himself in blatantly sinister form or garb; his fair appearance, to my mind, makes the fact that he is able to trick the Númenóreans into the worship of Melkor and its attendant human sacrifice frankly “scary.”

    Within The Lord of the Rings proper, though, I do think the figure of Saruman is both evil and importantly scary. This is one area that I find lacking in the films–though Christopher Lee’s performance is compelling, his Saruman is overtly creepy from our first glimpse of him. It’s actually baffling why Gandalf continues to place such trust in him at the beginning of The Fellowship of the Ring. What I find so “scary” about Saruman in the book, though, is precisely that he isn’t creepy. Even when characters know Saruman is responsible for widespread death and deep treachery, they are challenged to perceive him as a villain when face-to-face. His voice is a “delight,” and his appearance that of an old man, “grave and benevolent, and a little weary” (578). As readers, we are only introduced to Saruman after his villainy has been exposed, so perhaps the effect of his appearance on us is somewhat lessened, particularly without the spell of his voice. But it’s important to remember the long years that Saruman was widely appreciated as a figure of good and wisdom, something just short of the being that Gandalf the White becomes. What is scary for me about the evil in The Lord of the Rings is not so much that a giant, flaming eye wishes to bend the world under its dominion, but that Wizards in White might suddenly be revealed to wish the same.


  4. Based on these comments alone I think it is probably fair to say that there isn't any monster in Tolkien or otherwise that everyone is going to agree is scary, but I am going to go ahead and put forth one more example that to me is probably the scariest in LotR: the Balrog. Like the early ringwraiths, the Balrog is shadowy, vague, and definitely not concrete; it embodies the fear of the dark as much or more as they do. But whereas the early ringwraiths, being vague, can pose only a vague threat (and, as Hazel points out, one easily deferred by Aragorn's torch), the Balrog's threat is all too obvious: it is enormous, fiery, and wields terrible weapons; and, not least, Gandalf himself dreads it. (While I'm here, I would posit that Anna's idea about being too obviously evil to be scary seems to me to apply more to villains than to true monsters; if you meet a real monster I don't think the question of whether you can trust them usually enters the picture at all, with the exception maybe of cunning dragons--like Smaug, maybe, or Chrysophylax. But suum cuique.) The later "battlefield" ringwraiths are more definitely powerful/dangerous than the earlier versions, but this comes at the expense of their monstrosity; they are more terrible, but with the terror of great strength in an almost ordinary foe. In other words, on the battlefield they have forfeited the "shadows/darkness" element that makes them scary in the first book.

    I mostly agree with Ariadne’s comments about Saruman, but I wouldn’t really classify him as a monster, since he is (more or less) human. For this reason, although Gandalf certainly displays acts of heroism, I don’t think his escape from or later dealings with Saruman are really among them. On the other hand, the Balrog seems to serve as an appropriate “monster” to Gandalf’s “hero”; and given that even Gandalf, one of the most powerful forces we know of in Middle Earth, has to spend all his force merely to make the Balrog fall—not even to overcome the Balrog’s own force, which apparently he is unable to do—makes it, to me, a pretty darn scary monster at that. That Gandalf appears to lose his own life in averting this monster also adds to this effect.

    --David Jaffe

  5. Very enjoyable read! I think one of Edmund Wilson's biggest problems with the monsters in The Lord of the Rings is that they aren't real enough to really scare people, and I think that's where he ran into difficulties. These monsters (and all monsters, I think) aren't supposed to scare -- they're supposed to wonder. Why do people love dragons in movies and television so much? Not because they're frightened by them, but because they're a visual representation of something they'll never seen, just as the monsters you mention here are imaginary representations of the impossible. A giant spider that's eons old? How cool is that!?! Shadows in the form of hooded men? Sign me up!!! Why do you think people got so upset when Smaug wasn't in Jackson's An Unexpected Journey? Because they wanted to see dragons!

    Though I think Wilson's criticism might be valid when taken in the context of Tolkien's world - he claims that monsters wouldn't hurt a fly, which is true to some extent. Of course Wilson is being sarcastic and a bit hyperbolic, but he's not wrong. I think he means that these monsters really don't serve as a threat to any of the main characters (save Gollum, who I'm not sure he's talking about) because they're always overcome. When Sam faces Gollum there's no doubt that he's going to beat her because the story wouldn't be able to go on if he didn't win. And the Ringwraiths aren't going to capture Frodo and the ring anywhere in The Fellowship of the Ring because there are still two books left in the series! People like danger almost as much as they like monsters. And sadly these monsters never enter the danger zone.


  6. I would understand why some critics would be disappointed with the lack of ferocious head biting monsters in The Lord of the Rings, especially in the present day with writers like George R. R. Martin who are able to create fear in his readers. The monsters in Tolkien’s writings are a bit on the wimpier side, but the fear they invoke in the characters is enough for the reader to understand how frightening they truly are. The ringwratihs become much more frightening as the story progresses. Like the hobbits, we have no knowledge of what these creatures look like when we are first introduced to them, but as the story progresses we have more of an understanding of how dark and powerful these creatures are. Shelob is Sam’s biggest fear and obstacle, his fight to prove his loyalty to Frodo. And as for Gollum, I agree that he is Frodo’s monster, a representation of what could have been but I don’t think he does qualify as a monster. As Gandalf said, Gollum was just a pitiful creature who was played by the ring and only knew and was controlled by his desire for the ring.

    -E. Quintero

  7. I enjoyed reading these comments because I feel like many things written about the monsters in LotR (and Wilson's critique) fails to be an assessment in the secondary reality. If you are truly on Middle Earth, the monsters are terrifying. When we see the ringwraiths for the first time, we don't even see them, we see shadow and feel the cold air around them spread across the scene. I find it most interesting that even the horses are scared of these monsters, and horses are not scared of anything, really (hence we have police officers ride horses in real life to control crowds).

    If you are assessing this from a primary reality, many of the monsters seem kind of silly because we don't have shadows follow us in current times. We don't have dragons breathe fire at us. I actually really like David's example in the comments above - the Balrog. But the balrog is not just scary because it is a giant monster with a fire whip, you have to be in Tolkien's world to understand it. The balrog has been around since before the time of men, before the Maiar were helping on earth. It is as old as the mountains, and has been living deep underground ever since. It is a huge monster that can easily kill anything, and it embodies an ancient power that is rivaled by very few things on Middle Earth. That is what is terrifying. It is from a different age, from darker times, and if you place yourself in the Legendarium, as a human or a hobbit (or even an immortal elf) with no ancient powers of your own facing that - there is seemingly no hope. Luke above says that we never enter the danger zone because there are two books left, but the balrog takes Gandalf from us. I mean, yes, it turns out that he survives, but you don't know that yet, and it certainly would have been possible to continue the quest without Gandalf, as they do for another book before he arrives as Gandalf the White.

    It is always easy to stand outside a story and say that a monster is not scary, because you are only reading about it. But I think if you put yourself in the world - as Tolkien wants us to - then it becomes much, much scarier. Reading about a Troll is hardly terrifying, it is just a large human-like tough skinned figure making a soup. Facing something that is ten times your size and wants to eat you is an entirely different story, as long as you are, in fact, in the story.


  8. Enjoyable post. Though I must agree with the commenters that the monsters are not necessarily "scary" in form, I find the monsters scary for the same reason that I find Gollum disturbing: psychology. Consider, there are formless beings of shadow that survive eternally due to the power of a spirited object that calls to them; their sole purpose is to cause panic, mayhem, destruction, and death. Consider, there is a monstrous spider capable of sinister plotting; she feasts on the flesh of the unaware and has a servant to draw the hapless to her before she paralyses and slowly kills them. Consider, a pitiable being warped and twisted beyond psychosis from a peaceful being of the river to a murdering multi-personality creature of the night, tormented by his own mind.

    That to me is horrifying. And yes, I do consider Gollum among the monsters; though his transformation may be due to the Ring, the extent of damage to his psyche and disturbing outlook upon the world is the stuff of nightmares.

  9. I have to intervene here and say that I do find Tolkien's monsters terrifying, and for as many different reasons as there are monsters. I agree with the above comments that note that Gollum's and Saruman's impact is primarily psychological, but as for the rest of the monsters, I want to draw out a theme that hasn't been fully addressed here: the unknown. As Hazel points out in her post, Tolkien's presentation of Shelob is perfectly executed, as she goes from a shadowy unkown to a horrifically foreign presence in the story. Yet even when we learn her shape, her motivation, and her fears, we still are incapable of understanding her. She is evil in that she threatens all that lives, seeks to destroy, and worships only herself, but she does not follow Sauron any more than her ancestor Ungoliant followed Morgoth. Just as the Ringwraiths are terrifying in their shapelessness, so too is Shelob--until she is revealed. The same is true of the Balrog, though its shape is never revealed, and we know it is forever a servant of Morgoth.

    In the reveal, Tolkien manages to give us an image of Shelob as even more foreign and unknowable than she was before. Her age, her progeniture, her fundamental lust for power and light and everything she hates are all outside of human understanding. It's always the things in the dark that are most terrifying, and I'd be lying if I said Shelob is only scary to me when I'm reading the book and 'inside' Middle-earth. The kind of fear aroused by a Shelob or an Ungoliant doesn't go away when you shut the book and return to the electric light of modernity.

    1. Also, hi there, this is Morgane Martinet! (Forgot to sign, sorry.)