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?