Tuesday, May 13, 2014

How to kill a Monster (and walk away)

We touched on this in class, but I was particularly curious about Tolkien's take on monsters and what decides if the hero emerges victorious against them or falls tragically, perhaps taking them with him. “Disaster is foreboded. Defeat is the theme. Triumph over the foes of man's precarious fortress is over, and we approach slowly and reluctantly the inevitable victory of death.” (The Monsters and the Critics) This is made in reference to the coming of the Dragon at the end of Beowulf.

As was said in class, it seems only fitting that a great warrior like Beowulf is killed by monster that is greater than him, and Tolkien appears to agree. Túrin dies a death after a long life of martial prowess (albeit filled with tragedy and doom) after defeating Glaurung, the most powerful monster of his career. The same can be said of Beowulf, who does not flee the Dragon, but arms himself despite the likelihood of death. The differences are significant, as Túrin commits suicide after he unjustly slays another and realizes his incestuous relationship with his sister whereas Beowulf simply dies of his wounds. These differences are fairly superficial, as in both cases, albeit one through magical deceit and one through strength of arms, the dragons are the cause of death. In both cases, the encounter with the Dragon is truly fatal, and one might simply write it off as “Dragons equal death”. After all, Smaug puts it so well himself: “My armour is like tenfold shields, my teeth are swords, my claws spears, the shock of my tail a thunderbolt, my wings a hurricane, and my breath death!” (The Hobbit) But this is not correct.

After all, the casual observer might point out that Bard, the man who brought down the Smaug as he flew over Esgaroth, not only survived the encounter, but it made him a king and he lived happily ever after, with no record that he died of anything other than old age. Likewise, Sam survives his encounter with Shelob (The Lord of the Rings, bk IV) and gets a happy ending with a wife and child. Even Beowulf manages to kill two monsters before a third finally kills him. So what is the difference between all these heroes who either fail and die gloriously or manage to kill the monster and live on? I would argue the answer is as simple as a matter of equipment.

Firstly, with the exception of Bard (I'll address it in a bit), all of these heroes were equipped with weapons of at least some magical ability. Beowulf goes through several swords that are apparently imbued with magical power or are forged by non-humans, which makes them able to overcome the monsters arrayed against him. Beowulf fought Grendal's Mother in her home, a place where his sword is rendered ineffective, but manages to find “an ancient heirloom from the days of giants, an ideal weapon” (Beowulf) and instantly kills her and Grendel with it, however the blade melted and was finished. This is important, for when Beowulf challenges the dragon, he has a “keen-edged sword, an heirloom inherited by ancient right”. A very good sword, but not one made by giants. The story goes on the that “the glittering sword, infallible before that day, failed when he unsheathed it, as it never should have.” (Beowulf) Likewise, Túrin has Gurthang, which was extremely powerful, yet apparently cursed. In the end, Túrin falls upon it after killing Glaurung with it and it welcomes him, saying “..I will drink thy blood gladly... I will slay thee swiftly.” (The Silmarillion)

Now we get to those who survived: Sam and Bard. The two who fought Monsters but got away with minimal loss and lived long and full lives. Sam had Sting, and Bard had a Black Arrow. If one had a mind, they might include the encounter between Merry and the Witch-King of Angmar to fulfill this as well, as he had a Blade of Arnor from the North. Sting was named by Bilbo when he killed the Spiders in Mirkwood. The Black Arrow was forged in the Lonely Mountain. Merry's blade was forged in Arnor, a kingdom brought down by the Witch-King and his armies. All of these weapons were used against the mortal enemies of those who created (or named) them. In other words, these heroes were fortunate enough to have weapons specifically designed to work against the certain death facing them. Sam used Sting to fight off Shelob, as the sword had literally made a name for itself fighting monstrous spiders. Bard used the Black Arrow, made in the Lonely Mountain, against Smaug, who probably killed the one who made it. Finally, the Blade of Arnor, which weakened the Witch-King and made him vulnerable to Eowyn, was forged to fight against him.

This sense of having proper equipment goes back to the discussion we had with regard to Tailbiter and Farmer Giles (Farmer Giles of Ham). The only reason Giles is a 'hero' is because he has Tailbiter. The fact that this happens by accident and that Giles did not actually earn his sword by dint of heroic deeds but by taking a potshot at a nearly blind giant is unimportant. Clearly, the weapons change from simple swords and arrows to legendary weapons with reputations and abilities exceeding others in their class. It makes one wonder that if Beowulf been wielding Gram (The Story of Sigurd), he might have had a better chance, as the sword had proven itself against Dragons already. Are heroes simply made by their weapons, or are there other rules in play? Did Bilbo naming Sting save Sam from the battle with Shelob? Would Sam have lost without that advantage? Is the defeat of monsters impossible without such advantages?



  1. Dear JSH,
    You make a very interesting point about heroes – in effect, not only does the monster help define the hero but their equipment as well. There is something insightful here, which he haven’t yet discussed in class.

    But I wonder two points: First, did Turin’s black blade Gurthang really cause his failure? It is certainly malicious or at least mischevious. But it seems that the Gurthang is more tied to fulfilling Turin’s apparent fate than failing in battle with the dragon. This then raises the question whether specialized weapons (like Merry’s dagger or the Black Arrow) are always necessary?

    Secondly, you highlight here that the weapons themselves have a kind of agency or animation: Sting detects orcs and glows, Tailbiter likewise and unsheathes, Bard speaks to the Arrow, Gurthang bears something of the malice of Eol, &c. What is the relationship between the hero and the weapon? Shall we recognize the hero as one who not only screws themselves up in courage but also must master and wield their (perhaps treacherous) weapon?

  2. The complicated relationship between weapon, wielder, and monster put me in mind of the struggle between Frodo and the Barrow-Wight in Ch. VIII of Vol. I. In the sequence, it seems to me like Frodo seizes upon four potential weapons with which to repel the Wight. He is first seen recalling fond memories of Bilbo and his adventures, which seems to bring him out of the Wight’s spell and open his eyes to the great danger that he and his companions are in. Second, Frodo wonders whether or not the Ring might help in the situation—but as he reaches for it in his pocket, the Wight only draws nearer. Next, he grabs a short sword and attacks the Wight directly, which causes the light to vanish, the sword to shatter, and the Wight to shriek and snarl with what appears to be feral anger. Finally, he recalls the silly rhyming song taught to him by Tom Bombadil, and (almost immediately, it seems) after completing the song, Bombadil is tearing the Barrow apart and rescuing them.
    I find it interesting that the two most ineffective weapons are those that have elsewhere proven to be quite powerful against a foe such as a Barrow-Wight—clearly the One Ring can be used by its master to enslave spirits, and a presumably-similar blade found in the same barrow was used by Merry to defeat the Witch-King. So it seems strange that against a simple Wight these powerful weapons fail, but that these simple, “hobbity” memories and rhymes are so effective.
    I think it lends credence to the idea that a weapon may only be wielded by someone who can understand or master it—certainly Frodo has no mastery of the sword, or (at this early stage especially) the Ring. But hobbit memories and songs? Certainly.


  3. This is an interesting point, but I think it has to do more with the tone of the story than anything else. The Hobbit is a 'children's story' (in all the ways that Tolkien later regretted), and so for all of the darker themes in the last act, that fatalism isn't really present. The Lord of the Rings, too, has a much happier tone; while the Evil seems overwhelming, the characters and reader hold out hope that it can, and will, be defeated. Gandalf falls to the Balrog, but returns even stronger. Beowulf, on the other hand, comes from the tradition that Tolkien mentions in his essay of utter fatalism, and so when the story is written from that perspective, Beowulf's death is indeed inevitable. It is interesting to note that this fatalism is present in one place in LotR- the Rohirrim. The movie really focused on this, but it is very present in the books as well. Look at Eomer's song upon the death of Theoden- "To hope's end I ride, and to heart's breaking/ Now for wrath, now for ruin, and a red nightfall." Theoden, the leader of this fatalistic society, perishes in battle with the Nazgul. Turin's story functions in much the same vein, and so he, too, dies. I don't think the details of the story matter as much as the overall tone; if the story is fatalistic, projecting the idea that death and defeat and despair is inevitable, then death and despair will come.


  4. I really enjoyed your thorough break down of weapon vs monster in those examples; honestly I had never placed much stock on the value of weapons when fighting monsters (my modern fantasy diet has trained me to think of these things in an 'inner power of the hero' sort of way, a la Star Wars, Harry Potter, etc), but obviously the slaying of a legendary monster requires a legendary weapon. Still, many well-armed heroes do die, and one must ask why that is. I tend to agree with Other Will: tone is incredibly important in determining the outcome of these bouts. Beowulf won his first two battles, but that was when he was young, untested and unproven and in the prime of his youth; his coming to age and fame necessitated the doing of great deeds. His death by the flame of the dragon served a different purposes; it cemented his legend, and provided a glorious end to a long and glorious life. And Beowulf's narrative does serve as a general model for the narratives of other heroes: generally, a young, well armed hero of humble beginnings will vanquish the dragon and usher in a new era, whereas an older, well-accomplished hero will die, and his world will die with him (the hero dies here because this is a sort of no-win scenario; even if the hero lives, he is still an old man for whom death will come soon, and in many cases the "dragon" is merely a sign of the declining times of the homeland the hero protects - see the death of Arthur). It's cyclical, and represents the cycle of life: One is a story of Spring, the other of Winter, and both come in their time.