Tuesday, May 13, 2014

Monsters and Villains, Smaug and Saruman

In class we spent a long time talking around what a monster might be, yet came to no real conclusion. The closest we came to defining it was a vague sense that monsters are what heroes fight. And this was complicated further by failing to make much of a distinction between the various monsters from different stories or traditions, ripping them from their contexts and heaping them together. There was some sense that a monster is different from a mere villain, since a villain is more specific and a monster more generalized. I don’t think this distinction holds up and the (already vague) line between villain and monster is blurred in the context of a legendarium like Tolkien’s (or really any mythic setting). (Of course, if in the class discussion “villain” meant one of the individual, historical villains, this is a moot point, but it seems a silly argument to say that some historical figure should be dropped into a story as an antagonist.) So let’s say that villain was meant to be a figure which might seem “more real” to a critic like Chambers: a figure which might be recognizable as a human which we might almost transplant into everyday life.

But this distinction is artificial. Consider two characters from Tolkien’s legendarium, Smaug and Saruman. Smaug undoubtedly may be classified as a monster, though the reason he’s so classified seems to be that it feels right; he follows in a line of Germanic dragons considered monsters, he is the individual that the hero(es) fight. And I mean, he’s a dragon, so he must be a monster (so the logic seems to go). Saruman is a villain in Tolkien’s legendarium if ever there was one: the powerful and sinister enemy of the protagonists, cloaked in a figure which might seem “more real.” He’s even called a villain by hobbits in the Scouring of the Shire (book 6, chapter viii)! However, there are remarkable similarities between them that make it problematic to easily classify them as either a monster or a villain.

Recall from the April 16 class on Style what we said about Saruman: he, more than anyone else in Lord of the Rings, fails the Elfland to Poughkeepsie test. Turn your attention to book 3, chapter x, “The Voice of Saruman.” The title of the chapter itself hints at a point that we explored at length in class: Saruman’s voice is really where his power lies. As was discussed, Saruman’s speech has the cadence of a modern politician, a proper gentleman of government. This is part of what makes him so suspect, we concluded, that he so clearly deviates from the style of the other characters of Tolkien’s legendarium. With one exception.

Consider the portion of The Hobbit chapter xiii, pages 234-239, which we read for Monday’s class, the passage which recounts Bilbo’s first encounter with Smaug. “Well, thief! I smell you and I feel your air,” greets Smaug. “I hear your breath. Come along! Help yourself again, there is plenty and to spare!” After Bilbo showers Smaug with glorious epithets, Smaug comments that Bilbo has “nice manners for a thief and a liar… You seem familiar with my name, but I don’t seem to remember smelling you before. Who are you and where do you come from, may I ask” (Tolkien, The Hobbit, 234-235)? Do these lines strike you as a little odd, coming from a dragon? Consider the following slight revision, using Le Guin’s trick.

“Well, thief! I see you and I feel your presence. I hear you breathing. Come along! Help yourself again, there is plenty and to spare!”
“You have nice manners for a thief and a liar. You seem familiar with my name, but I don’t seem to remember seeing you before. Who are you and where do you come from, may I ask?”

All I’ve done is substitute seeing for smelling. And line strikes you as one which might be delivered by a debonair English gentleman who just intercepted a burglar in the dimly lit hallway from the dining room to the billiards room of his country manor. Shippey makes this same remark on Smaug, commenting that Smaug “speaks in fact with the characteristic aggressive politeness of the British upper class, in which irritation and authority are in direct proportion to apparent deference or uncertainty. … He might be a very testy colonel approached by a stranger in a railway carriage; why has Bilbo not been introduced” (Shippey, The Road to Middle Earth, 90)? From this passage, where we are first introduced to Smaug, his dominant characteristic seems to be his wiliness, his cleverness, his language. This characterization is borne out explicitly when Tolkien recounts the second thoughts that Bilbo has on the fidelity of the dwarves, saying that “is the effect that dragon-talk has on the inexperienced” (Tolkien, The Hobbit, 237). Does that sound familiar? It probably should, since this is the same sort of enchantment that Saruman holds over many in the company of Rohirrim he addresses in book 3, chapter x, as mentioned earlier. The reason in bringing up LeGuin’s Poughkeepsie trick was to emphasize this likeness, to draw your attention to the similarity between the expressed powers of Smaug and of Saruman, not suggest that Tolkien had transported Smaug out of fantasy.

This striking similarity between Smaug and Saruman gives some teeth to the suggestion that perhaps there isn’t so much difference between monsters and villains as we’ve been considering them in class. What is it in the selections above that clearly mark Saruman as a villain and Smaug as a monster? Surely there is nothing, and the similarities between them and an aspect of their power are only too striking. Both are characterized strongly by their power of speech and even exhibit a similar modern quality, not some terrifying ability to destroy; they appear by their words to be quite reasonable and cultured. Incidentally, similarities do not stop with this comparison. Both are able to wreck destruction, as evidenced later in The Hobbit with Smaug’s assault on Dale and later in the Lord of the Rings with Saruman’s decimation of the Shire.

So where is the line between villain and monster? What must one do to become a monster? Satisfy some inner sensibility in the reader, some sixth sense? Simply be a fearful adversary that doesn’t look like a humanoid? As it stands, I am not satisfied with the attempt to delineate what a monster is, in part because of the parallels between Smaug and Saruman.



  1. I absolutely agree that the line between villain and monster is a thin one, but nonetheless I think it is there. Moreover I think it is an important distinction for us to hold. However I think the distinction is less in the physical form of the monster or villain, but rather in the role that they play in the story. In a story the monster is a force which needs to be overcome because it poses an immediate physical threat, almost a force of nature that needs to be overcome. A villain poses a more existential threat I think. While the villain may threaten the lives of the protagonists, I think more importantly they threaten the established order or values which the heros must try to defend. The villain has some kind of plan or goal which the hero must defeat. Smaug is still a monster because he doesn’t really pose a grand existential threat to the heros, he only poses a physical threat. Saruman on the other hand doesn’t just want to kill the protagonists, he wants to conquer them; their lands, families, and possessions. He wants to over throw the established order and replace it with his own dictatorship. This is a much larger existential threat than the simple physical threat of smaug. That is why Smaug is a monster and Saruman is a villain.

    Blake Alex

  2. Dear DD,
    In class we mostly discussed the monster in terms of the hero, so I enjoyed your focus and on the character or nature of the monster and that of the villain.

    Your route to argue the similarity between Smaug and Saruman is interesting and I think insightful – I’m glad to see these kind of conceptual connections with past material. But I wonder how the comparison with Glaurung, whose words and eyes have an enchanting power as well, directly imposing his malicious will upon his prey, rather than the gentlemanly Smaug (You highlighted a great point by Shippey!) or the political Saruman. How would Glaurung fit this comparison? Or Shelob who apparently never uses language? Or Ungoliant, who only speaks to Morgoth? (It is difficult, because there are many kinds of monsters, too. Including the appeals of Chrysophylax.)

    Secondly, I wonder what you think about Blake Alex’s point about the existential vs physical dangers. I had a similar but much plainer thought:
    A villain is a human (or dwarf, elf) or of their world, upon whom a variety of approaches or appeals to comradery or kinship might also be remedial. Villains betray their own, go over to evil.
    Monsters on the other hand are automatically other, have a kind of evil or mischievous character (as we said today, Wednesday, they have no backstory.), and demand not an appeal or diplomacy but courage and potential self-sacrifice of their challengers.
    Can this distinction hold? Does it break down?

  3. Thank you for your post. I thought it went a long way in confronting the issues we had in class in defining monsters by giving a direct point of comparison with villains. Although I originally agreed with Robert in the definition of monster as an “other” and a villain as someone who was formerly part of the group, several exceptions came to mind when I originally went about elaborating that point in my original comment post. There are several beings within both the Tolkien universe and the traditional narrative that we define as monsters that were formerly part of the group. In other words, under this definition these traditional monsters, such as orcs, dragons, and arguably Grendel would be villains not monsters. Orcs and dragons, at least from my knowledge of Norse and Icelandic tradition, were formerly human, elf, or dwarvish before being corrupted. Thus, either we consider these to not be monsters or we have to find yet another definition to differentiate between villains and monsters.

    You suggest a lack of humanoid appearance being the defining difference between monsters and villains, yet both orcs and Grendel are very much still humanoid in form. Robert also suggests, in elaborating the understanding of monsters being “other” that monsters have no backstory. I would also initially agree with this, but once more Grendel and dragons do have backstories. It is after all these backstories that make them the exception for the general concept of belonging to the “other” overall. I don’t really have an answer to the difference between villains and monsters, mostly because I am not particularly ready to drop creatures such as dragons, and orcs, and Grendel from the list of monsters. However, that seems to be the only way to create a definitive difference between the two that I can think of. Does anyone else have any ideas on how we can reconcile the two?

  4. In comparing Smaug and Saruman, I think you bring up an intriguing dilemma of what differentiates a villain from a monster. You resolve the conflict by concluding that there is no satisfying delineation because both Smaug and Saruman have the power of speech and cultured words to deceive and lie and wreck destruction. Yet, this answer may only hold true if we consider only the characters of Smaug and Saruman. How about a character without the power of speech – the evil spider Shelob? (Perhaps what makes a villain/monster is one whose name starts with an S!)

    When considering the example of Shelob, I think that what differentiates a monster from the villain is that the former is a more debase and unadulterated form of evil, it is unabashedly full of malice and darkness. On the other hand, a villain is a more nuanced and complex character. Consider Tolkien’s description of Shelob, her eyes are “monstrous and abominable” and she is “bestial…filled with hideou delight, gloating over her prey trapped beyond all hope of escape” (LoTR, 720). She is said to drink the blood of elves and men, to have grown fat as a result of “endless brooding on her feast”. The description of Shelob is terrifying and purely evil – “all living things were her food, her vomit darkness” (LoTR, 723) Unlike Saruman, or Sauron or other “villains”, she did not care for rings, or control of others, she only desired death. There is no manipulation, no trickery or complexity, just simple and pure evil – such is a monster.

    On the other hand, villains are more complex and nuanced characters. They are not utter evil, and have lurkings of even good intentions. For example, Saruman may have been driven by pride, but he may also have had some form of good intention (real or feigned) in desiring the One Ring. He told Gandalf that he hoped to rule the men with “the good which only the Wise can see” (LoTR, 259) In partnering first with Sauron, he hoped to eventually overcome the Power, and direct its course for a high and noble purpose – “Knowledge, Rule and Order” (LoTR, 259). Hence, to me, this shows that while Monsters are pure unadulterated forms of evil, Villains have the capacity for good, but ultimately becomes villains because they repeatedly choose evil over good.

    G Zhang