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?