Monday, May 12, 2014

Monsters: the critics and the free will.

The first critics of Lord of The Rings found the monsters that inhabited it rather droll.  They saw the monsters as inherently valueless because of their lack of reality and non-human status made them appear, to the eyes of such critics, not applicable to Reality.  These critics questioned whether it was possible to have a conflict with a monster that superseded a conflict with another person.  They argued that humans are inherently complex, containing both good and evil and that monsters, containing only evil, were not as fascinating.  They declare that a story of a battle between angels and monsters, one side entirely good while the other containing only evil would be terribly unexciting to read.  If such a story were to exist, we would surely feel no remorse or pity as the angels beat back the assorted monsters and then went home to heaven to enjoy a good bout of singing the praises of God while they waited for judgment day.  They said that Lord of the Rings was, what Kvothe in The Name of the Wind calls watered down fables used as children’s stories, “Clean, quick, and easy as lying. We know how it ends practically before it starts.”  They questioned why, if Tolkien was going to have monsters, why not just have monstrous people instead.  Could not Hitler substitute for Sauron and the S.S. stand in for an orc?  They said that such stories would be infinitely better in that they would allow for more grey area and, so these critics believed, a better story.

This is, of course, utterly incorrect.

Allow me to first address the concept of the monsters not being “real.”  The critics are correct, monsters are not real, they have never been real and, I may hope, they never will be real, if, by real, you mean existing in the primary reality.  Frodo does not exist in our primary reality, nor does Sam, Turin, or Ana Karenina.  These books are fiction and it is the purview of fiction to including things that do not exist within the primary reality.  There is a great line in the legal information at the beginning of books, which says, “All characters and events in this book are fictitious./ All resemblance to persons living or dead is coincidental.”  It could be argued that the monsters in the books are not potent because they do not contain a semblance of realism, as Ana Karenina does.  I mean, Tolstoy writes events that could feasibly have existed and he prides himself on the “realism” of his novels, but that does not mean that his world is any more “real” than that of Tolkien.  The world of Tolkien is internally consistent and, as long as that is true, it is real.

Let me now speak to the question of why Tolkien replaces evil humans with monsters.  This view is at its nature incorrect.  Tolkien does not “replace” for two reasons.  First, he does not entirely remove from his stories the evil that comes from human interactions.  Boromir still tries to take the ring from Frodo in a moment of madness; Denathor attempts to kill his son; Mim, the dwarf, betrays the company of Turin to orcs; the men of Harad and Khun still labour under a fanatical and religious devotion to the power of Morder; the Hillmen still fight for Saurumon in a misguided quest to conquer the Riddemark; the battle of five armies is almost caused by the evil actions of both the men of Dale and the Dwarven company; Grima Wormtounge is undeniably evil; the list could go on and on [down from the door where it began.]  The orcs, the trolls, the dragons, and the other monsters are not the only evil in middle earth.  Second, the monsters simply could not be replaced with human beings and retain the same significance.  A monster is a physical manifestation of the doom of humanity, but monstrous humans still contain humanity.  We can feel bad for Grima Wormtongue in the same way that Frodo does, even for Sarumon/ Sharkey, The Ents allow him to leave the Orthanc in which he has been imprisoned without harming him.  They are a pitiable characters.  Both Frodo and the Ents find within themselves the ability to pity these contemptible figures and we, as readers, understand and applaud their actions.  However, nobody sheds a tear for Shagrat or for Glaundring, or for Sauron and his minions when they die.  Humans cannot be separated from their specific humanity, no matter how monstrous they are.  Monstrosity requires a dehumanization from the part of their viewers; a monster is not truly a monster unless one cannot feel pity for it, and humans have an amazing ability to feel pity for other humans or other human-like creatures.  Even the orcs are not completely monstrous; we can still feel pity for them as intelligent, but evil creatures that have their own (warped) customs.  If all of the monsters in LOTR were replaced with evil humans, the books would lose their question of pity.

Monsters are not a single, uniform category.  There are two different types of monsters, which we have grouped under the great total name, monster, to which we have ascribed these traits.  These two groups are separated by the question of free will.  The first group of monsters lacks it, while the second group of monsters has and employs it.

The first group of monsters does not have free will.  In this way, they are the personification of death, doom, terror, etc.  They act as natural forces to which humans are plagued and they represent such things as the finality of death and the inconsequentiality of human interactions with the outside environment.  These monsters are potent because they give us personifications of non-human evil.  In this way, they are natural systems of evil, directed at human beings and let loose in a way that can be not quite allegorical, but certainly descriptive of the effects of evil.  Smaug’s greed and lustful domination of Erebor leads to a monster who must be overcome; the monster in the closet allows us to question and deal with the problems of fear;   Ged’s shadow in The Wizard of Earthsea is a remnant of the evil side of each of us and a reminder of the doom of our mortality.  The question could be asked, then, what the difference between monsters and natural patterns, such as earthquakes and rainstorms is.  The difference is that monsters seek out humans and try to defeat them.  As Kvothe says in Name of the Wind (look at how hard I am fanboying) “‘Denna is a wild thing,’ I explained. ‘Like a hind or a summer storm. If a storm blows down your house, or breaks a tree, you don't say the storm was mean. It was cruel. It acted according to its nature and something unfortunately was hurt."  Monsters are evil, not cruel, and therefore, they cannot be replaced by, as Lemony Snicket calls them, "a series of unfortunate events."

The second group of monsters does have and makes use of free will.  Unlike the Orcs, who blindly follow their master and are recognizably not human, or the dragons or Balrogs, driven by their insatiable thirst for destruction, these monsters are actual characters.  They are also not monsters in the “true” sense of the word as the other monsters are.  Because they have free will, they have the ability to be monstrous or not.  They, or others have chosen to believe that these individuals are inherently evil and have dehumanized them in their view so as to see them as monsters.  It is a special quality of these beings that they are, in fact, monsters, but only because they are perceived to be so.  Gollum is a beautiful example, as he strays the line between human and monster.  He contains within himself the Gollum piece, which is undeniably a monster, wishing to kill and eat any being that comes within his path, and taking up shadows and trickery so as to kill and feast of living, mentally capable creatures.  This is the Gollum that we see at the beginning of Bilbo’s encounter with him.  He is devilish and wicked and truly a monster.  Yet, at the same time, he contains the Smeagol portion of himself which one would be hard pressed to say is a monster.  It is for this portion that Bilbo and Frodo feel pity.  This classification of monster, which exists within Tolkien’s universe of middle earth falls much closer to that of the monstrous humans that the critics so much wish to see and fail to see (for some reason, probably a refusal to give the books the attention they deserve.)  But, it pushes that limit further than that.  Gollum is not seen as an evil man, in the way that the Hardrim are; instead, he is classified as a monster, even by himself, and he is dehumanized in a self-perpetuating cycle which descends into monster-hood.  When we think of Hitler or Stalin, we think of evil, contemptible, but pitiable humans.  Hitler was a painter and Stalin was a poet who loved films.  We can talk about their paranoia and their megalomania, but those are traits of humans, not of monsters and this group of beings, we have become convinced,  and they have convinced themselves, that they are not human, but instead something purely evil, a monster.

Either way, the inclusion of monsters in the lord of the rings is not frivolous.  It is a deliberate and consequential action which adds to the story rather than detracting it, making us question what it means for a monster to be a monster and what the relevance of pity and humanization is.

--Elliot Mertz


  1. I love the points you made, and I definitely appreciate the Name of the Wind fanboying. I agree that it's hugely important that with monsters, you're getting a somewhat more pure, unbridled evil than with humans. It's just not something you can evoke with human enemies- they're important in an entirely different way. Humans can do horrifying, evil things but that urges you to wonder about psychoses and backstory and how such a person came to be. Sure, it's horror, but it holds a different kind of gravity than the instinctually cruel enemy-beast.

    This makes me wonder what exactly having that kind of enemy contributes though. I agree that it's important, but I encounter trouble in articulating why. What exactly does a story gain through having such polarized forces? Perhaps there's something entrancing about that sort of primal man versus beast story. Or perhaps it's something more, maybe monsters can represent negative qualities found in humans and the confrontation of man and an incarnate representation of man's evils is satisfying in some contexts. To be honest, I'm not entirely sure- I do think there's something powerful about creating on some occasions creating a story in which man faces a very clear-cut enemy, but I'd be interested in knowing (if people agree) what makes this kind of confrontation powerful.


  2. I would insist that the Orcs, at least, do have free will. This is part of their tragedy: if they are corrupted Elves, then there is the question of how much they can shape their life beyond the Music, but we agreed even Fëanor was capable of making choices about how to respond to the Valar when they asked him to break the Silmarils. If they are corrupted Men (like Grendel?) then all the worse: they are Sauron's slaves. RLFB

  3. I think that it is not only that a being has free will, but that they exercise it that keeps them from being this first form of monster. --EM.

  4. Can a creature without free will can truly be evil, however? As you point out, a storm cannot be evil, but a monster actively *hates* humanity. Grendel hates the lights of Heorot. His mother hates the Geats for killing her son, revenge is a very human emotion. Balrog's were angels, do demons lack free will? I wonder if instead it's as if it's the very human aspects, distorted to the point of horror, of monsters is what makes them truly monstrous. This lets us place something like Gollum, along with Grendel, his mother, dragons that were once men, more clearly alongside other monsters. The Nazgul are also an interesting case, are they men or monsters?