What is a monster? This question was at the heart of our discussion, and yet the answer seemed to elude us. First, I wish to review some of the basic conclusions we arrived at. In class, we made the distinction between three types of monsters: dragons, spiders, and fiends, with orcs and trolls falling into the last category. One of the few conclusions that we were able to come to was that monsters are fundamentally not us. Monsters often possess traits found in humans (or elves, dwarves, or hobbits), yet singularly and exaggeratedly so. Dragons are cleverer than us; spiders are driven by an overwhelming hunger that echoes Ungoliant, and fiends are either slow and stupid by nature or made so by virtue of their mindless obedience. Furthermore, there is undeniably some sort of fundamental interdependence between heroes and the monsters they kill. In some strange way, they define each other. Despite this, we noted that, in many of the sources Tolkien drew from, the monsters always win. However it might be more accurate to say, the dragons always win. Even in death, Glaurung still manages to drive Túrin and his sister to suicide. Ancalagon’s death contributed to the destruction of Beleriand, and likewise, in his death throes, Smaug destroys Esgaroth. Spiders and fiends are slightly kinder to the heroes in death.
As part of our readings on Monsters, we were assigned a section of “Riddles in the Dark,” yet we did not have enough time to discuss Gollum in class. As a result, I began thinking about how one would go about categorizing Gollum. Gollum is an interesting anomaly, for he is one of the few characters who could arguably fill the roles of both a monster and a hero, and, as a result, is in the unique position to shed light on the definitions of both. In the intervening years between The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, Gollum undergoes a curious transformation. In The Hobbit, he is presented as a monster. This is evident in his description as “a small slimy creature,” who is “something unpleasant” that makes goblins nervous, and his strong desire to eat Bilbo (which is of course another characteristic of monsters) (Hobbit, 82). Yet what type of monster is Gollum? It might be tempting to call him a fiend due to his humanoid shape, yet no fiend would engage in a contest of riddles. Instead, in Gollum we find all the characteristics of the three types of monsters packed into one small, physically unassuming package. Like the dragons, he is a clever, but like the spiders, he is ruled by his hunger. And just as orcs are a mockery of elves and trolls a mockery of Ents, Gollum is a mockery of a Hobbit.
But if he possesses so many monstrous characteristics, why can we not accept Gollum as a monster? I would argue that it is due to two simple lines: “Gollum brought up memories of ages and ages before when he lived with his grandmother in a hole in a bank on a river…they reminded him of days when he had been less lonely and sneaky and nasty” (Hobbit 85). This is what else sets Gollum apart from other monsters: the capacity for change. Consider Frodo and Gandalf’s exchange in Book I of The Lord of the Rings. Frodo says, “What a pity that Bilbo did not stab that vile creature, when he had a chance.” And Gandalf responds, “Pity? It was Pity that stayed his hand…I have not much hope that Gollum can be cured before he dies, but there is a chance of it” (LotR 59).
With monsters, there is a certain understanding that they are not “evil” because of the actions they took and the choices they made, but simply due to a fundamental part of their nature. Unlike villains, they have no origin stories, no “descent into evil.” They simply are. And without a fall, there can be no redemption. That is not to say that all villains have the capacity for redemption, merely that we would not necessarily fault the hero for trying. Those two lines in The Hobbit lay the groundwork for Gollum’s subsequent development in The Lord of the Rings. As soon as we learn of Sméagol, there is an integral shift in Gollum’s character. And while I’m sure that each of us has our own opinions on the inner goodness of Gollum, it is undeniable that, whether hero or villain, Gollum is not a monster.
From this exploration of Gollum, it is clear why monsters are crucial to hero-tales. Heroes, by their very definitions, need to be “the good guys.” Heroics do not leave any room for moral ambiguity. The glory of heroism fades if we are left with a niggling doubt as to whether the hero might not have taken a different route, whether the villain really had to die. Monsters provide the moral certainty that a hero requires. Monsters present a black-and-white contrast between good and evil. Because monsters are unambiguously evil in ways that villains are not, they confer this certainty onto the hero that they are in conflict with, making the hero who fights monsters an unambiguous force for good. To conclude, I would like to also argue that villains become monstrous after they are given a chance to reform and fail to take it. Melkor and Sauron are both offered and both refuse this opportunity. Hence, the wars waged against them are free from moral quandary and, as a result, we are free to view those who fought against them as heroes.