Monday, May 12, 2014

Man as Monster and the Dragon-Curse

After considering the conclusions of our discussion today, something seemed a bit undeveloped in our conception of Monster. We seemed to come to an understanding that monsters are fundamentally not us. I think that this is a very apt descriptor taking into account all the pieces we read for today. Monsters are ‘not us’ because they stand in contradiction to everything that humanity stands for. They hold the antithesis of our values. They are the forces that oppose our very being. But how, then, do we reconcile this innate quality of ‘not us’ with the fact that the monsters we’ve examined sometimes epitomize the very worst of human qualities? On page 229 of The Hobbit, Tolkien describes Smaug after Bilbo has stolen his cup as having, “the sort of rage that is only seen when rich folk that have more than they can enjoy suddenly lose something they have long had but never before used or wanted.” In short, he is an exemplar of greed. In the Two Towers, Shelob embodies a self-serving, ravenous, and gluttonous spirit. Indeed, these monsters seem to signify, magnify, and congeal human qualities into crystalized, pure form—into a form we can see, touch, and, most importantly, battle. So is that it? Are monsters simply a way of battling our immaterial downfalls that lurk in the creases of ourselves? Are they a narrative vehicle that allows us to isolate and skirmish our own shadows? If so, then how are they ‘not us’ when they are clearly stitched together from our own fibers? This doesn’t seem like it captures the full picture.
            Monsters are ‘not us.’ They do appear to be the universal foil of the things that humanity stands for, hemming us in at every turn. But maybe it would be more accurate to say that monsters are a foil to everything that humanity strives for, rather than stands for. In this way, perhaps dragons can be greed—not one person’s specific greed, but a solidified, universal greed. So the struggle against a dragon is not the struggle of one man versus his own greed, but one man versus Greed incarnate. I think there may be some validity to this definition of Monster, and I think Tolkien shows support for this in The Monsters and the Critics. Throughout the essay, Tolkien’s aim is to display that the monsters are not ‘irrelevancies’ put in the center, as Professor Chambers suggests. On page 33, he writes, “It is just because the main foes in Beowulf are inhuman that the story is larger and more significant… It glimpses the cosmic and moves with the thought of all men concerning the fate of human life and efforts.” And in his defense of Beowulf’s use of two monsters, Tolkien explains that it is only fitting that Beowulf should conquer one monster in glory and fall to another by the end—these creatures of “similar order and kindred significance.” This trajectory exhibits “rising and setting, achievement and death.” The defeat of Grendel signifies Beowulf’s prowess and achievement in life, while the dragon is the eventual defeat by Time. It is our shared, humbling doom. “The placing of the dragon is inevitable: a man can but die upon his death day” (all unmarked quotes taken from page 32). I don’t think this is a misreading of Tolkien’s opinion. At the end of the essay, he signs off with, “until the dragon comes,” indicating that Beowulf will live on until our eventual defeat by Time, when the monsters overcome the coalition of man and god. In the end, monsters are forces beyond us, yet forces that we struggle with in this world.
            I think we shy away from using the word allegory in collusion with Tolkien’s thought, so my last paragraph might seem wrong, as it relies on the idea of monster as allegory. But I don’t think this grand significance of monsters abstracts them onto the plane of allegory, severing them from any substantial reality. On page 17, Tolkien writes about the dragon in Beowulf, “There are in the poem some vivid touches of the right kind… in which this dragon is real worm, with a bestial life and thought of his own, but the conception, none the less, approaches draconitas rather than draco.” In fact, I think this one of Tolkien’s main points about monsters in this essay. It is not enough that they are embodiments of the things that actively oppose man’s strife, they must also be viciously real beasts that can be fought by a hero. They must be beings that you can physically encounter and grapple with. The battle is neither entirely on the plane of values and virtues, nor on that of beast and man. In Letter 183, Tolkien explains this by writing that monsters elevate the conflict above the realm of the political—the petty squabbling between men. On page 242 of Letters, he writes, “he was a monster, hostile to all men and to all humane fellowship and joy. Compared with him even the long politically hostile Danes and Geats were Friends.”
            To depart from today’s discussion, one aspect I thought we were missing was a dialogue on curse. In The Road to Middle-Earth, Tom Shippey goes into the idea of the ‘dragon-curse.’ He brings up the question of Beowulf’s motives. On page 87, he highlights the fact that Beowulf went to slay the dragon with the best intentions, but was also swayed by the dragon’s treasure as well. Because the poet implies that there is a curse upon the gold, perhaps Beowulf’s downfall is due to this curse—that he looked with longing upon the gold. Shippey writes, “Was Beowulf guilty or not? Did the curse punish him or not?... But then maybe the dragon-curse itself is avarice.” This is an interesting notion that suggests while monsters exist, our downfall is ultimately our own. In the Story of Sigurd, there is also cursed gold. In the beginning of the story, a dwarf kills a man’s son. As penance he fills the son’s skin with gold and gives it to the man. He proceeds to curse this gold. Sigurd fulfills this curse in the end, suffering bad luck with it in his possession. In the story of the children of Húrin, Húrin’s entire line is cursed by Morgoth and we follow the lives of his children as they suffer their doom. Túrin, his son, is plagued by woe, suffering due to miscommunication and hasty action. But ultimately, all of his woe can be seen as the product of his own downfalls. By his pride he brings doom to Nargothrond, by his impetuosity Finduilas dies, and by his arrogance he kills Brandir unjustly. It should be said that the deceit of Glaurung plays a role in each of these instances, but the fault is always, in some sense, Túrin’s. Although Glaurang is Túrin’s Monster, his doom exists within himself. How does Túrin’s doom and his relationship with Glaurung fit in with our conception of curse and Monster? I would love to hear opinions on this.
            I want to touch on one last thing quickly that I found interesting. In the account of Túrin’s doom, he acquires the sword Anglachel which he renames Gurthang. This sword was crafted with malice by a dark elf and it appears to have a will of its own, much like The One Ring. On page 202 of The Silmarillion, Tolkien writes, “and Anglachel rejoiced to be unsheathed.” Although silent for most of the rest of the tale, Gurthang plays a very important role near the end. In the end, on page 225, Gurthang speaks, “’I will drink thy blood gladly, that so I may forget the blood of Beleg my master, and the blood of Brandir slain unjustly. I will slay thee swiftly.’” This is a curious role for the sword to play. Does this have anything to do with the idea of curse and the doom of Túrin? Also, I think this could add an interesting element to our discussion of weapon and will from last week. Are there any ideas about what the role of Anglachel could say about the role of Weapon in Tolkien’s work?

Steven Vincent


  1. “But maybe it would be more accurate to say that monsters are a foil to everything that humanity strives for, rather than stands for.”

    I really like this idea, and agree with your proposal that monsters are representative of human striving. I don’t think that monsters are not something distant and unknowable, but intimately linked to our humanity. Heroes and monsters are so tightly bound in fairy stories, myths, and epics because they are two sides of the same coin: that monsters are the ‘dark’ side of humanity; they represent the selfish, greedy, murderous impulses that are suppressed (thankfully, in the latter case…) in/by Society.

    I like that you call this striving- because I think we mean the same thing here- and I think this phrasing could broaden the monstrous a bit by extending it beyond some innate human tendency to a collective societal one. Does this mean that all ambitious striving is ultimately fatal, or unattractive, undesirable? It seems obvious that traditionally ‘evil’ or distasteful qualities- selfish greed, being the most obvious- can become monstrous. Telling stories about monsters, keeping the monsters in the center and not in the margins, as the critics would prefer, is thus an urgent business. Monsters are not an allegory for Greed, etc; but the shape that our monsters take nonetheless reveals a great deal about our collective societal anxieties.

    1. MCS,

      I think you bring up an interesting question! Does the presence of monsters mean that our striving is ultimately meaningless? Do the victories of monsters mean that we are destined to fail? I don't know exactly how to answer this. But looking at western tradition and its relationship to the Bible, there may be some overlap. For example, many have noted that during the sermon on the mount, Jesus gives humanity almost impossible rules. Taking into account christian ideas of intention over action, this section of the bible could be interpreted as flexible, a goals--like if you aim high and miss, at least you'll miss high. As long we keep the right intentions, we can't be faulted. The striving is important. Maybe this could be a similar concept. Our battle with monsters is a doomed one. But it is important that we strive.


  2. “But maybe it would be more accurate to say that monsters are a foil to everything that humanity strives for, rather than stands for.” Very nicely put! And while I acknowledge your caution in the tricky field of allegory, I think there is some grey area here that you explore very well—I think you are right to say that monsters can represent something, evoke some sort of anxiety, be a symbol of something, etc, without consigning them to a strictly allegorical reading. This is particularly well-explored with the discussion of the “dragon-curse” and curses in general as somehow transmitting the "monster-ness" to Beowulf—do curses then bridge the divide between “us” and “not us,” in your terms?

    I'd like to hear more of your thinking about Gurthang—where does this fit into your analysis of “Monster”? When does “weapon” become “monster”?


    1. I haven't made much progress with the idea of curse. I do identify it as a bridge of sorts, but from the examples we have it seems like a link between monster and hero. They are intimately connected and share in each other's fates. Glaurung plays the central role in the doom of Túrin, and his deception causes Túrin to bring about many of his own downfalls. But ultimately Túrin slays Glaurung, even if he is bested by the dragon's final deceit.

      As for the role of allegory in all of this, I've had more thoughts recently. Thinking back to the chapter from Erich Auerbach's Mimesis titled Adam and Eve, this could be another application of the mixing the sublime and the earthly. Monsters are both metaphysical constructs, sublime in their gravity, but they are also a human story, they are part of an earthly story. They are part of the humility of life, the worldly struggle. This is because they need to have a bestial life of their own, a physical presence for the hero to wrestle with, but they also need to elevate the conflict out of the realm of the physical.

      As for the role of Weapon, I really don't have many ideas. I can tell weapons have some great importance, but it is a slippery one. I can't really pin anything down about it. They have a will of their own (Gurthang speaks, tailbiter won't stay sheathed, the ring wants to be found), and they are also play some role in the final fate of their wielders. Túrin impales himself on Gurthang, and Gurthang is happy about it. Frodo finally succumbs to the ring at the crack of doom. My only thought is that weapons are somehow the will to dominate others. The ring very obviously holds that power. Gurthang is a sword, and a sword is used to impose yourself on another. So maybe we must fall by our own weapons because they are our tools to impose our wills on others--they are, in some sense, our pride.

      But I'm really just cobbling things together at this point. I was really hoping other people would have ideas.