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.