Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Monster vs. Monster

By the end of class on Monday we had concluded that the function of a monster, at the very least, is to be a match for a hero of a story and allow that hero to achieve epic renown which is equal to that of the monster. Given that the hero is necessarily good, that makes the monster a force of evil. However, a curious fact about all these monsters is that though they are evil they are also a force unto themselves and are independent. Therefore what happens when monsters oppose one another?

In his essay Beowulf, the Monsters and the Critics and his letter 183, Tolkien suggests that function of a monster, at least in the context of English or Scandinavian legends, is something that needs to be opposed, but he never claims that monsters need to share a common purpose. He claims that a monster like Grendel in Beowulf is a creature that is “hostile to all men and to all humane fellowship and joy,” and in his defeat, “all men can rejoice because he was a monster.” (Letter 183). Furthermore Tolkien quotes the essay Beowulf and the Heroic Age which claims that all monsters from a Christian perspective are evil in that they are “inmates of Hell, advisories of God,” (Monster and the Critics) but they do not necessarily serve Satan. They are simply creatures which make chaos.     

This characterization of monster holds true in Tolkien’s own legend. Unlike orcs who are duty bound to a higher evil power, creatures like dragons, spiders, and trolls who, though sometimes are bred and recruited by an evil power, do not have the same obligation to serve it. Shelob, for instance, is entirely independent of Sauron, having come to Mordor before him and even goes so far as to feast on his orcs (book IV, chapter 9). Furthermore, the trolls in The Hobbit are merely concerned with finding their next meal rather than some task for Sauron. They do not display any regard for a master that Ugluk and Grishnákh show to Saruman and Sauron in The Two Towers, who exhaust themselves to comply with their orders. Curiously though, in the tale of Túrin, Glaurung, the dragon, is at first seen as a servant of the evil power, Morgoth, for he is bred by him and sent to destroy Nargothrong. However, once he is victorious, he almost betrays Morgoth by shooing away all the orcs under his command and claiming the fortress for himself (The Silmarillion chapter 21). The self interest of the dragon in this case results in a near opposition to Morgoth, which can be viewed as an opposition of monsters, a conflict which is echoed in other parts of the legend.

One of the most obvious and interesting conflicts between monsters is the conflict between Ungoliant and Morgoth in The Silmarillion. Though the tale says that Morgoth corrupted Ungoliant, again she is merely allied to him and does not serve him. Once Morgoth achieved his goal in the destruction of the two trees and refused to feed her the silmarils she attacks him and nearly defeats him. This conflict is very bizarre, for both Morgoth and Ungoliant are creatures of evil in that (as we discussed in class on May 7) they seek to destroy and cause chaos, and there is simply no force of good involved. If it is true then that the function of a monster is to provide a worthy opponent for the hero, as we discussed on Monday, how do we reconcile the lack of a hero in this conflict?

Evidently in this battle Ungoliant a worthy opponent for Morgoth, which could perhaps make him the hero of the conflict. In fact, this is one of the few instances where Morgoth can almost be viewed as sympathetic or heroic in his opposition to her, for unlike his usual demeanor, he seeks to protect the silmarils rather than destroy them, an attitude that is as close as he comes to showing qualities of being “good.” This noble attitude is further bolstered by the fact that unlike Fëanor, who wished to protect that which he created, Morgoth did not create the silmarils yet he still wishes to preserve them, and in doing so allows for the unfolding of the whole rest of the legend. This is especially curious since Morgoth is supposedly the being Tolkien creates which is closest to being purely evil, yet now Ungoliant seems the more evil being. Even still, it would be farfetched to call Morgoth heroic given that the whole situation was his doing in the first place, and the two opponents both are undeniably evil. In that case, the conflict does perhaps highlight a theme that is not identified until the end of The Lord of the Rings, which is the self-destructive nature of evil. 

The idea that evil is not only destructive to all that which is good but also to itself is most clearly represented in the case of Sméagol/Gollum. Gollum is a monster created by the evil corruption of the ring and after centuries of this corruption the good-natured hobbit, Sméagol, is almost completely destroyed. As a result, Gollum, like all the other monsters, is a creature of evil and also like a monster, he serves only himself. Though he is evil, Gollum is also adamantly opposed to Sauron in that he would not be ruled by him or allow him to obtain the ring. The destructive nature of this conflict between Gollum and Sauron is evident in that it results in a defeat for evil at the end of the story. As Frodo is poised to cast the ring into the fires of Mt. Doom, it seems that evil will be victorious as Frodo decides to claim the ring for himself. However, Gollum then intervenes and the ring is destroyed, resulting instead in a victory for good. At the point when evil is about to ultimately triumph it is instead thwarted by the effects of its own corruption.

Therefore, the function of a monster might not only be to provide an evil opponent for a good hero, but to be an effective instrument of chaos to both. Though all of the monsters in Tolkien’s legend can be classified as evil, they are most certainly an evil unto themselves. The self-centered nature of the monsters results not only in their own destruction but also in the destruction of other evils that they encounter. Therefore, as Tolkien reiterated throughout The Lord of the Rings, it is impossible for evil to beget anything other than destruction, and it is not even safe from itself.      



  1. The idea that evil is self-destructive is super important in making sense of the way that monsters a) embody a negation of everything that we stand for, of the "human project" altogether, but at the same time b) share so many traits in common with us: they sometimes embody very human vices like greed, and they often share our language, bantering and bartering with us, indicating the possibility of a "meeting of minds." In that sense we see in monsters the self-negating capability of mankind: our tendency to say "no" to what we ourselves stand for.

    Melkor can't be Hitler: Hitler, a man, just cannot embody the negation of all of mankind and the human project. But I think it is /vital/ to Melkor's ability to embody that negation that he is at times recognizably "like us," sympathetic—maybe even heroic! Because that negation is a self-negation, which is what makes it evil and despicable in the end. You can admire the enemy who fights bravely and unyieldingly against an enemy, even when that enemy is yourself. But when he turns his blade against himself, you look away in disgust.

  2. Dear AKL,
    Since in class we largely dealt with monster vs hero, it is great to press on the character of the monster when no hero is in sight!
    First of all, I wonder if we can so easily identity the hero with goodness. Is Turin really a shining moral example? Heroes can be better or worse and remain heroes, I think. But if this is true, then, the conflict with two evil monsters (without a force of good) might cease to be a problem. Morgoth might be ‘noble’ in trying to preserve the silmarils. But couldn’t he also just be avaricious and reneging on his agreement to give Ungoliant anything?
    In this point, I think you are onto a key point: Monsters are self-destructive because they seek only their own interest, prefering to serve no others if they can avoid it. If this is the case, though, wouldn’t it seem that intra-monster conflict, as it were, would be common and expected? Each monster wants to claim treasure (&c) for itself and fights any rivals–as Chrysophylax had finally to oust the younger dragon to get his hoard back.

  3. I think that thinking of evil as a force of self-destruction is really important. I also think that it is important to distinguish evil as a selfish force that works for one’s desires rather than for the good of others. This selfish force is the reason why Ungoliath and Morgoth conflict when they finally do obtain the Silmarils. Ungoliath wishes to eat the Silmarils and satisfy her never-ending hunger, while Morgoth wishes to keep them, even if he has to go back on his promise that he made without actually considering the consequences. It is not that Morgoth is heroic or noble, but that he is selfish, and does not wish to fulfill his promise to Ungoliath. Similarly, since it is selfishness that characterizes many monsters and forces of evil, this common, human trait can also be recognized in regular people, and even in heroes. For example, in the Silmarillion, it is partly because of his selfishness and pride in his accomplishments that Feanor goes to war with Morgoth for the Silmarils after they are stolen from him. Selfishness lead to destruction because it so often clash with others’ desires, which is another reason why I think that monsters and villains never appear to work together towards common goals, but resist one another.

    -S. P.

  4. I like the idea of self-interest and destructiveness being the defining qualities of evil, and also the idea that self-interest often turns destruction into self-destruction, when evil beings try to cooperate, as in the case of Morgoth and Ungoliant. Sauron's and Saruman's tyrannies fit well into this scheme, being systems that sustain themselves through plunder and enslavement (and also fear, which could be thought of as the use of destruction to manipulate what appears to others to be in their own self-interest). Infighting is a huge problem, however, in the armies of these leaders. Merry and Pippin attain freedom partly because the orcs and uruk-hai holding them captive are trying to funnel the spoils of war to different tyrannical leaders, and end up fighting over it. A similar situation occurs with Frodo and Sam in Cirith Ungol, who escape capture or death mainly because the orcs who were supposed to be guarding Frodo end up killing each other, in self-interested greed, over his mithril coat. In contrast to the tyranny of Evil, the Good alliances in The Lord of the Rings seem to function based on mutual selflessness, with subjects giving their all for their equals and their leaders, and leaders—especially Aragorn, who acts as a guide before becoming king, and as a healer during his reign—conspicuously returning the favor.

    -James Brooks

  5. I think we see Monster versus Monster more that you think we do. I get this idea from John Gardener’s Grendel. This story is Grendel’s versions of the events of Beowulf and in it, he paints a very different version of Beowulf. “His voice, though powerful, was mild. Voice of a dead thing, calm as dry sticks and ice when the wind blows over them. … The eyes slanted downward, never blinking, unfeeling as a snake’s.“(Grendel 154-155). There is something otherworldly about Beowulf, he seems to be more monster then human. The fact that he’s the only one who could murder Grendel presents the idea that it takes a monster to kill a monster. Careful analysis of some of Tolkien’s heroes reveals this to be true, I think. Turin Turambir is the slayer of Glaurung and neither is perfect. Glaurung is greedy and breed to be evil. Turin has a temper that causes him to commit monstrous acts like murder his best friend.

    -Javon Brown