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.