Wednesday, May 14, 2014

How Monsters Make A Story

           What is it that truly makes a good story? Is it the one that has the greatest word choice? The one with the most vibrant setting? Or maybe the one that makes the most profound point about gender equality in the modern world?
           In reality, it’s much more simple than that. The good story only requires one aspect: it must entertain. We tell stories for all sorts of reasons, but the most pure, sacred purpose of a story is to convey our ideas and imaginings to others, causing them to feel emotion. We may read Tolkien because we want to learn more about his web of mythology and language, but we always read it because we are entertained and moved by the stories he tells.
           If the best story is one that entertains, what is the most entertaining part of the story? Tolkien may have loved dearly the languages in his books, and his claims about the importance of the connection between language and mythology when creating fantasy are certainly valid. However, it is not the languages in Tolkien’s works that make them as wonderful and entertaining as they are. Certainly, language adds depth to his world, and becomes perfectly intertwined with the mythology of Middle-earth, but I fear that we as a class have become too monstrous of critics in our obsession over this aspect of Tolkien’s work. If Tolkien had simply published a book of Elvish languages, it is doubtless that it would be impressive. But would it have enraptured us and found its way into our hearts and minds?
            The most entertaining and captivating part of any story is its plot, the journey that we take along with the characters. It is not possible to love a dictionary in the same way that we love a tale, no matter how deep the language goes. But what makes a good plot?
            When a hero encounters a monster, our mind is instantly engaged. Though our attention may have lapsed a bit while reading the first part of “Of Túrin Turambar,” what with the seemingly endless list of who’s-related-to-who, this all changes when we with Túrin meet the fearsome dragon Glaurung. When Gollum leads Frodo and Sam into Shelob’s cave and we see the sticky webs lining the walls, our excitement peaks, and we’re filled with apprehension and fear. I still remember clear as day the moment when I entered Smaug’s keep with Bilbo when I first read through the Hobbit. I remember being held in rapture at Tolkien’s description of the giant scarlet worm resting on piles and piles of jewels. I remember the feeling of complete surprise and terror when Smaug awakens, and tells the hobbit that he can smell him. I remember being excited, afraid, and hooked all at the same time, my reading speed practically doubling as I desperately wanted to know what happened to poor Bilbo.
            Of course, not every good work of literature has a dragon or giant spider for a hero to vanquish. Most genres outside of sci-fi and fantasy do not have a place for monsters within their worlds, and obviously, Pride and Prejudice is not a bad piece of literature because Mr. Darcy didn’t go off and fight Orcs. Yet though not every good work has physical monsters, there is not a single good work without figurative ones. In the Finnish epic poem Kalevala, it is easy to see how Tolkien may have been inspired to write “Of Túrin Turambar.” Túrin and Kullervo, the main protagonist of the Kalevala, both lie with their sisters unintentionally. They both are quick to anger and set out for battle, and they both ask their swords to take their lives for them. Yet there is no Glaurung in the Kalevala, nor are there fiends of any kind. We discussed in class how Beowulf’s monsters are possibly made less scary if we think of them as only metaphors, and not real monsters. This makes sense, as I know that I personally would be less frightened of the concept of greed than of an actual greedy dragon. In Kullervo’s story however, the opposite takes place: the fact that there are no monsters, but events and circumstances that become monstrous, is what makes the story captivating. Kullervo is wrestling with the orcs of stupidity and is tormented by the sirens of lust the entire story, however the author of the Kalevala does not hide these concepts, but shows how monstrous they can be on their own. This is how to create a good plot and story: if you can’t have real monsters to scare your readers, create emotions and concepts that are just as monstrous and real. Hiding these emotions behind the veil of a metaphorical monster, as the critics wrongly suggest the author of Beowulf was doing, effectively neuters both the monster and the emotions and concepts that it is supposed to represent.
            Returning to our question of what makes a story good, some may argue that it is not just the plot and monsters, but all the elements combined that make a story good. This is true, at least partially. Even if they retained the exact same plot, “The Cat in the Hat” would not be as memorable and fantastic as it is if not for the language Dr. Seuss uses in it, and the plot of The Lion The Witch and The Wardrobe taking place anywhere but Narnia would just feel wrong. However, if you take away the plot and monsters, the story becomes far more warped and malformed than if any other part of it had been replaced. The elements of a story, language, setting, characters, and all the others, are like the lesser rings, with plot being the One Ring to bind them all together. Though this is a sinister metaphor for such a wonderful concept, it fits well.
            For a story to be good, it must entertain. For a story to entertain, it must have a good plot. And for a story to have a good plot, it must have monsters. These monsters must actual monsters for the hero to fight, or other concepts and emotions that act in the stead of monsters, but never the boring amalgamation metaphorical monster that represent emotions. Perhaps why Tolkien’s work grabs us with such a powerful emotional grip, entertaining and enchanting us, is because it features both forms of monster. Fëanor grapples with the conflict inside of him when deciding what to do with the Silmarils, and Gandalf grapples with the Balrog at Khazad-dûm. Tolkien’s monsters are real, and our minds and hearts are forever in their icy grip.

-Tate Hamilton


  1. "We tell stories for all sorts of reasons, but the most pure, sacred purpose of a story is to convey our ideas and imaginings to others, causing them to feel emotion." I would tend to agree, with the caveat that both the ideas and the emotions matter in the response that stories evoke.

    "It is not possible to love a dictionary in the same way that we love a tale, no matter how deep the language goes." Maybe not for you, but I think Tolkien might disagree! The question is whether one is able to discern the plot. : ) RLFB

  2. Dear Tate,
    I applaud you for a bold and fearless articulation of a theory of story, if I can put it like that, and forcefully taking Tolkien’s side against the ‘critics.’ I think you make some good points here, but I worry that your good points are overstated and will raise eyebrows and doubts in your reader.

    In your final paragraph you handily sum up your point: in short: For a story to be good… it must have monsters. Monsters, you are right, play an important role, but do they need to be universal? Tolkien did not use them universally. Where are non-metaphorical monsters in ‘Leaf by Niggle’ and ‘The Smith of Wootton Major’?

    I think I would highlight your view of the “engagement” for the reader when the hero encounters a monster. Turin is less ‘entertaining’ (it is sad!) but truly “engaging” and here I think there is something to explore. Why is it engaging? What startles up and makes us sit up when giant spiders or a fire drake comes on scene rather than a hostile human army? Why does this involve us and touch us more deeply than, say, a silly comic tale about meeting a troll under a bridge?

  3. I definitely agree with your point that stories must feature some kind of challenge for the protagonist, whether it’s fighting a real monster or a metaphorical monster, in order to be good and entertaining. But I also agree with Robert that there seems to be something a bit different about fighting a balrog than Feanor facing the conflict about what to do with the Silmarils. What exactly is it? I don’t know but here is a proposal.

    First, I think that one scary thing about monsters (some monsters, not all) is that we don’t understand them and can’t empathize with them. This is a truly scary prospect. Glaurung and Smaug do engage in trickery, and we can start to understand what that’s about. But at the same time, they are not humans. They are dragons. Who knows what a dragon is going to do next? When I first read The Hobbit, I remember that even through all the talking between Bilbo and Smaug, feeling a dread that Smaug was just going to decide to roast him at some point. It’s harder to feel that way about human enemies (and when humans do act in cruel ways like that, we call it inhumane), but it’s easy to dread that coming from a non-human thing. Same with Shelob; she isn’t human and it’s hard to predict what’s going to happen when one encounters her.

    It goes the other way, too, and that’s part of the dread I felt with Smaug. If they encounter a human, it is doubtful that they empathize with you, which may spur on the cruelty that you might expect when facing a monster. Now this isn’t true with all non-human things, but it may be true of all hostile non-human things. Stuff we don’t understand is simply scary, and that’s a little different from battling emotions, which we understand even if we don’t always seem to, and from fighting human enemies who are, after all, human.

    -Daniel Lewis

  4. I disagree with your claims that plot is the defining factor in making a good story. One of the greatest things I have learned in this class is that one it comes to stories, psychologist Kurt Koffka’s statement “The Whole is Other than the Sum of the Parts” proves true and you cannot just focus on factors, it is about the symbiotic relationship between them and what forms from that. As we see from the Council of Elrond discussion, the language is indispensable. In this chapter, as Shippey points out in Author of the Century,

    nothing happens it consists entirely of people talking… Like so many committee meetings, this chapter could very easily have disintegrated, lost its way, or become too boring to follow. The fact that it does not is brought about by two things, Tolkien’s extremely firm grasp of the history (as earlier of the geography) of Middle-earth and his unusual ability to suggest cultural variation by differences in mode of speech (Shippey 68-69)

    In this case and in many others, the plot is basic, and other factors such as language and style must come into play in order to make it a good story.
    The plot is only one component of a story; it does not make the story and cannot be isolated as the defining part of a story. Tolkien flat out says this in “The Monsters and the Critics” where he says Yet all stories, great and small, are one or more of these three things in such nakedness. The comparison of skeleton ‘plots’ is simply not a critical literary process at all. It has been favoured by research in comparative folk-lore, the objects of which are primarily historical or scientific” (14-15). Plot in itself is not a story. Without other important factors such as style and language, it is just a dead skeleton, unable to capture audiences or be considered enjoyable.

    -Emily Berez

  5. I think what's cool about monsters is that, in some cases, they can be both literal - as in, "OMG, it's a dragon!" - AND metaphorical at the same time. This, I think, is the case with many of the monsters in LOTR. To observe this effect at its greatest, it might help to look at how some of the most ordinary and least likely to encounter such monsters (hobbits) receive such monsters, both when they hear of them and when they encounter them face-to-face. Bilbo is a good example of this: of course dragons exist, or they used to exist, anyway, but if they do live then they live very far away and aren't much of a threat - they terrify children in scary stories, and make for good fireworks, but don't do much else. In this capacity monsters represent the Unknown for hobbits, and all its fears - and its easy to see why the prospect of SOMETHING living beyond the hills might terrify a hobbit who has never taken more than a few steps outside his village. But of course that hobbit eventually does come face to face with a very real and very scary dragon, and here that dragon transforms: from a mysterious beast representing the unknown to a very real monster that could cause Bilbo's immediate death! (And that's scary on its face). At this point Bilbo has conquered his metaphorical fears and stepped into a place of very real dangers; the monster has grown from the metaphorical into the literal, and in doing so provides Bilbo a chance to conquer all his fears, albeit one step at a time: he conquers his fear of the unknown with that first fateful step out his door, and then transcends his fear of the dragon (and of death itself) by confronting it face to face - as Tolkien says, continuing into Smaug's cave was the bravest thing Bilbo had ever done. But he needed to slay the metaphorical dragon first!