Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Monsters: a Fascination with Darkness

Monsters have been with us since some of the earliest stories were first recorded. From then until now, they have remained an object of fascination for many who enjoy their existence within the collective imagination. They have also been reviled by others, who see them as silly or ridiculous, the playthings of children or the immature. Why are some people enamored with stories that include monsters like dragons and trolls, but others find the inclusion of these creatures abhorrent and detrimental to the story and its message?

(I will preface my attempt to answer this question with the admission that I am one of the former kinds of people and my response may be skewed by that in some manner. I should also mention that I am only interested in analyzing the role of some of the creatures that we put up on the board during class. As such, I am not talking about dragons like Puff and Toothless because I do not hold them to be monsters)

In order to understand why we enjoy monsters we must first understand what the monsters are and what their place is in the story. There must be some aspect of this role that allows some to love these creatures which threaten to eat then and are terrifying by nature. How we see the use of monsters in stories should provide the answer. In the examples that we read for class, and for the vast majority of the other monsters mentioned, they act as the adversaries of a single hero. Glaurung, Grendel, and Shelob fight against Túrin, Beowulf, and Sam respectively, but that is not all they do. These monsters are not simply middling creatures. They are some of the biggest and baddest enemies that can be faced and, as such, hold much more significance than lesser enemies, like orcs, who can be dispatched easily. What is this greater meaning that is tied to them and their ilk?

I will use Jane Chance’s account of Tolkien’s three significances as a starting point. These are three kinds of roles that monsters play in stories, according to Tolkien. The first is Germanic and holds the monsters to be the enemy of all human kind. The second is Christian and sets the monster as an embodiment of sin acting against god and humanity on a spiritual level. The third is a more modern conception and casts the monster as the critic. All three versions hold the monster to be a force of destruction of the physical, the spiritual, and the intellectual, respectively, but they do not solely exist to destroy. In class we mentioned that the stories from which Tolkien drew his ideas all ended with the final victory of the monster over the hero. One prime example is Beowulf, who is killed while battling a dragon. Even though he had defeated two other great monsters, Grendel and his Mother, Beowulf was overcome by a still greater force of evil. This theme follows with Nordic mythology which states that darkness and evil will win out over humankind and that even the gods will fall in the end of time, no matter how hard they fight. The important part of this mythos is that both the gods and humans continue to fight in spite of this knowledge and do not simply roll over and succumb to the inevitable.

Here we see our first potential answer: monsters are physical manifestations of the doom that is inexorably overtaking all of humanity and the hero represents our fight against that indomitable force. When the hero wins out over his monster, it is but a brief respite brought on by his courage and bravery. When the hero loses, we recognize it as his unavoidable fate and rejoice in the fact that the he faced the monster with heroic courage despite knowing that he was most likely going to die. Readers enjoy these tales because we know that we, in the primary world, will one day die, but heroes give us the hope that we can protect the world for that much longer by continuing to strive against the doom that stands just beyond the horizon. Túrin died as a result of his interaction with Glaurung, but he saved countless lives by killing the monster before his death. Beowulf’s death at the dragon’s claws did not nullify his defeat of Grendel nor kill the Danes he saved by doing so. Though there is no hope of true victory, we can fight on so that humanity can live on for another day, another week, or another year without the constant threat of death.

Tolkien brings up another interpretation, albeit somewhat disparagingly, in Monsters and Critics. He says of the dragon that brings about Beowulf’s demise, “[it] is a real worm, with a bestial life and thought of his own, but the conception, none the less, approaches draconitas rather than draco: a personification of malice, greed, destruction (the evil side of heroic life)” (Beowulf: the Monsters and the Critics p. 17). The monster, in opposing the hero, provides us with both a contrast to brighten his good qualities, but also a view of his passions, vices, and darker side. We see his faults through his interactions with the creature. Each hero therefore requires a different kind of monster which will offer him a different kind of challenge. Beowulf’s dragon and Shelob are not the same kind of monster, just as Beowulf and Samwise are not the same kind of hero. The dragon reveals Beowulf’s pride and his greed and kills him for it. Sam’s fight with Shelob physically manifests his courage through the Phial of Galadriel, but also shows that he is only capable of such heroism for Frodo’s sake. When inside her lair he abandoned his side of the passage out of fear so that he could hold onto Frodo for support. Neither is without fault, yet they continue to challenge the darkness.

Here is our second answer: heroes may not be wholly good or without fault, but they are capable of deeds of great courage and heroism in spite of them. We, as readers, take heart that our faults and our fears do not necessarily make us incapable of bravery. Beowulf still faced the Grendel, Grendel’s Mother, and the dragon though he suffered the same faults as normal men. Likewise, Túrin, with the many sins he had committed, was still able to fight Glaurung with courage. What is more, the hero is slightly redeemed of his sin through his battle with the monster. As in the Nordic sense, the destruction of the monster saves others and the deaths of Beowulf and Túrin can even be said to have saved others from death as a result of their potential future actions. In this way, we see that our vices do not curse us forever and that there is hope for redemption from these aspects through courage and bravery.

In class we said that the terrifying nature of many monsters rests in the fact that they are exceedingly beast-like but still possess great intelligence and cunning. They bridge the line between animal and man and are neither one of Us nor a part of the Other. Monsters follow animal instinct but retain the power of reason and complex thought, a state that is incompatible with human society. As above, they are representations of a darker side, but here they are the shadow of humanity, not of a single individual. Under this conception, the monster is fascinating simply because it revels in that which society indoctrinates its members to oppose. The simple reason for our fascination is that evil can be fun. When we asked ourselves the question ‘Who wants to be a good angel?’ in class, almost no one raised their hand. Evil provides a release from bonds that, while necessary for our civilization, occasionally chafe the wearer. Readers enjoy the monster because it allows them to briefly play out their fantasy of throwing off the chains of society to act as animalistic force of nature before returning to the primary reality and accepting the necessary bondage once again.

I have given three reasons that may lie behind our fascination with monsters. Different people will feel more or less strongly attached to one or the other of them, but I, personally, find the first most compelling. We are aware of our mortality, though sometimes we may act as though we are invincible. Death is waiting just beyond the horizon and when it comes for us, we will all be devoured, whether we fight it or not. Yet there is something noble in combating this doom that we have been given. When I say combat, I don’t mean the search for an endless life as the Númenórians attempted, but rather the kind of mindset with which Sam faces Shelob. We war against the darkness so that those behind us may spend more time in the light before they too join us in final defeat. We will face the monsters that are at our door and, though we may not cancel the apocalypse, will delay it as long as we can.

--Jeff Nocton


  1. Forgot to tack my name on the end. Jeff Nocton.

  2. I wanted to take the time connect two points that Jeff makes but does not directly connect. In Beowulf it is important not only that monsters are distinct from the Danes and that they inevitably win out against Beowulf but also that Beowulf concurs a hierarchy of monsters that become increasingly distant from mankind. We mentioned in class that the type of monsters we referred to as fiends, which includes Grendel and his mother, are similar to Tolkien's orcs in that they are presumably corrupted men. Michael Crichton even plays off of this notion in his popular retelling of Beowulf, Eaters of the Dead, which attempts to create a historical recounting of the saga where Grendel is actually a tribe of relict Neanderthals. My point is that Beowulf first conquers monsters that are most closely related to man and once victorious faces another threat which is increasingly monstrous. The fire drake is then the ultimate monster in Beowulf not just because it is the creature that kills the hero but literally as the furthest removed from mankind and the animals we know today.

  3. An enjoyable look at why monsters fascinate us, however, at the outset you promised not just to tell us why some people are fascinated with monsters, but why others disdain them. I wonder if these reasons might map somehow on to the distinctions you outline? Does the person who rejects the monstrous grasp these deeper themes? do they understand some distortion of them?

    It's interesting also to think of this question of doom which lurks over monster stories, the hero may win, but he will not survive. Yet, that doesn't happen in Tolkien's actual story (indeed, it happens in very few more modern depictions of the monstrous). How does he resolve this?

    Also, jth, I think that's an excellent point about the hierarchy of monsters, we might also think of this hierarchy's inverse in the hero, does it also draw him away from humanity?

  4. Of your three reasons, I think the last is most compelling. The first one seems rather specific for a wide-ranging phenomenon and the second focuses on the narrative use of the monsters in relation to the heroes, rather than on the monsters themselves. That being said, I would posit that there are many possible reasons for monsters to be considered compelling, and in fact uncertainty is itself one of those reasons. Monsters are mysterious, they are unknown, they have powers that beyond those of the heroes. Because they are unknown, we can project our own worst fears onto them, and we don’t necessarily know how to handle them. An obvious example is the Dementors from Harry Potter, which exemplify this phenomenon pretty literally, but in many fantasy stories the monsters are considered rumors at the start of the story and many different descriptions of their appearance are given (the Trollocs and Myrddraal of Wheel of Time spring to mind here). Their first appearances are incredibly frightening, but as the characters become more proficient and knowledgeable in fighting them, the monsters become less scary, and new monsters are introduced which we are confused by and afraid of.

  5. I would like to take a closer look at one point you made in your post, regarding the Norse: "The important part of this mythos is that both the gods and humans continue to fight in spite of this knowledge and do not simply roll over and succumb to the inevitable."

    This is, for those who are unfamiliar, a reference to the knowledge of Rangarök possessed by Odin; he is keenly aware of the fate of the world, and knows that the Gods are fated to fall. Yet there is a story in which Odin feels the chill of Niflheim and sees the flames of Surtur, and knows that he cannot sit idly by. Gods and Men unite to struggle against evil at the end of days, although they know their fates are sealed. Likewise, it can be assumed that the 'monsters' in this story are equally aware of what is to come; not a great victory for evil, but the end of all things, and ultimately, a rebirth of the world.

    The key point, as you've astutely pointed out, is that they choose to fight on in the face of certain death - not because they think they can change it, but because it is the honorable thing to do. Long before this battle, Tyr sacrifices a hand to bind Fenrir, who will ultimately break free; Odin plucks out an eye at the well of knowledge; actions that only prolong the inevitable. To the Norse, there would be no other choice. Death before dishonor was their creed and code.

    This makes me wonder, was there anyone in Middle Earth who knew the ultimate fate of the Ring? Were there any who never questioned the defeat of Sauron? More importantly, how fervently did the Fellowship believe they had a chance of succeeding? Did they go forth under the impression that they would fail, but had to try anyway, for the sake of Middle Earth? There is obviously some merit touted throughout mythology for valour in the face of doom, perhaps more so than for those who are expected to succeed.