Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Monsters, heroes, and the stories they live in

“...the true secret in being a hero lies in knowing the order of things. The swineherd cannot already be wed to the princess when he embarks on his adventures, nor can the boy knock on the witch's door when she is already away on vacation. The wicked uncle cannot be found out and foiled before he does something wicked. Things must happen when it is time for them to happen [...] The happy ending cannot come in the middle of the story."” --Prince Lir in The Last Unicorn, Peter S. Beagle

“We shouldn't be here at all, if we'd known more about it before we started. But I suppose it's often that way. The brave things in the old tales and songs, Mr. Frodo: adventures, as I used to call them. I used to think that they were things the wonderful folk of the stories went out and looked for, because they wanted them, because they were exciting and life was a bit dull, a kind of a sport, as you might say. But that's not the way of it with the tales that really mattered, or the ones that stay in the mind. Folk seem to have been just landed in them, usually — their paths were laid that way, as you put it. But I expect they had lots of chances, like us, of turning back, only they didn't”

***
Why must monsters be real within their stories, and not allegorical? (Because I believe they must be.) Another way of asking this is: when you have a monster in a story, what is it doing? I’m not interested in creating an inventory of monsters and asking which is better; I believe that if you identify something as a monster, that’s good enough, and that if there’s a debate over whether or not something’s a monster, then it’s a debate that must happen separately from thinking about what monsters do. Once you know that something is a monster, though--which in Tolkien is often fairly easy to do, although Melkor and Gollum are tricky--how do you deal with it? In Tolkien and a lot of other fantasy literature, monsters can’t be replaced by anything else. They’re real enemies, not representative of something else. But why?

I don’t want to propose this as an iron-clad rule about what a monster is, because I think that one of the best ways to be a monstrous critic, destroying stories for your own specific hunger, is to propose iron-clad rules. (When it comes to stories, rules are a way to navigate, not a source for things, so trying to squeeze something into a rule or a definition rather than trying to understand why your rule or definition doesn’t quite match the thing you want it to means that you end up not learning much at all.) But I do think that, when we’re talking about how monsters can sometimes become accessible, we should also think about how the heroic role is a somewhat inaccessible one. You can’t choose it; it just happens to you. Throughout Lord of the Rings, Sam is closer to the reader than Frodo, because Frodo is playing a grand part in a grand tale. He is no longer just Frodo Baggins, Hobbit, but Frodo Baggins the ring-bearer. There is a difference between this role (the primary hero) and the primary companion of the hero. You can see this in The Lord of the Rings, but also in The Children of Hurin, The Iliad and The Aeneid (The Odyssey is sort of complicated, but that’s another story), and even (from even the small bits we read in class) Beowulf. Sam--just like Hector and Patroclus in The Iliad--are aware of the fact that they are in stories that are grander than they are, stories that are on a grander-than-human/hobbit-scale, so they’re stuck in between. In certain ways, this limits these characters, but it also gives them a certain measure of free will. There’s a reason that the end of Book 4 is called “The Choices of Master Samwise”. People like Achilles, Aeneas, Frodo, and Turin fall into their fates, or into their stories. (Turin is tragic because he tries to escape his story and can’t.) Sam (and Hector, and others) get to choose, which means that if there’s a monstrous aspect to these characters, it becomes accessible.

If the dragons are there for the heroes to fight, the dragons have to match the heroes. It therefore follows that, if you have a hero who is fully-fleshed, larger-than-life yet also deep, complex, and alive, you should have a dragon to match. This isn’t always the case-- “There are [...] many heroes but very few good dragons”, Tolkien says (pg 17 of “Beowulf: Monsters and Critics”)--but it is what a good monster should be. A good hero is both human and superhuman, impossible but real, embodying certain traits but not just a symbol for them. A good monster is on the same level of story, so it must act in the same way. It’s an impossible unification of disparate stuff within one place that happens to be working against the hero.

Being a monster is much more about trying to straddle two different ideas than about representing some kind of specific evil or danger. According to Jeffrey Jerome Cohen's “Monster Culture”, “[monsters] are disturbing hybrids whose externally incoherent bodies resist attempts to include them in any systematic structuration” (Cohen, 6). Whether or not this is always exactly true, again, doesn’t really matter. The point is that monsters involve something recognizable.  You generally don’t choose to become a monster, at least not directly, but you recognize the monster because of the warped humanity inside of it--its relationship to humanity. This is true of most speculative fiction.

To a certain extent, monsters have to function within a story setting. Something is always monstrous in relation to something else; it is either a corruption of something, or an unholy combination of something, or an exaggeration or something (etc.), but there is always something there of the thing it is against. It’s possible to have a monster that is monstrous in virtually any setting--Shelob or Grendel are good examples, I think--but it’s still conceivable to imagine a situation in which that monstrousness isn’t monstrous, or at least ambiguous. (This is true of Melkor--if not of Morgoth). There are these grains of shared true things that exist in both the primary and secondary world, and those reference points are what allow us to navigate the strange, the terrifying, the foreign.

But just because monsters exist within stories doesn’t mean that these monsters aren’t real. Why? Why can’t they be replaced with anything else? If the monster is an allegory, it no longer serves the story it’s in, but some larger outside purpose. Heroes aren’t allegorical, but (if they’re like Achilles or Beowulf) they’re impossible. They are part of the story they’re in, even if that story is higher than certain characters within that story (Hector in the Iliad, maybe (just maybe) Boromir) can reach. Monsters are part of the order of a story; so is everyone in that story. In “Farmer Giles of Ham”, it’s as if Giles gets caught in the cobweb of an old, grand story--the one the sword belongs to--and thus becomes a hero because that’s what the story demands, not because of his intrinsic value as a hero. This isn’t to say most heroes are unworthy or just there by luck. But if the dragon is there for Beowulf, then Beowulf is there for the story. The story is there for what Beowulf and the dragon can do. All of these things coexist.


If the dragons are there for the heroes to fight, the dragons have to match the heroes. It therefore follows that, if you have a hero who is fully-fleshed, larger-than-life yet also deep, complex, and alive, you should have a dragon to match. This isn’t always the case-- “There are [...] many heroes but very few good dragons”, Tolkien says (pg 17 of “Beowulf: Monsters and Critics”)--but it is what a good monster should be. A good hero is both human and superhuman, impossible but real, embodying certain traits but not just a symbol for them. A good monster is on the same level of story, so it must act in the same way. It’s an impossible unification of disparate stuff within one place that happens to be working against the hero. That's why a monster is only itself--it is made from the same stuff as the hero.

--Phoebe Salzman-Cohen

5 comments:

  1. Oops, forgot to cite the second quote. It's Sam Gamgee in /The Two Towers/.

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  2. Great post, your analysis of what makes a proper monster is fantastic. One question that I think is raised is what, then, can a monster be in a more literal or physical sense? Obviously your post, like our class’ discussion, focused on dragons, Shelobs, and Grendel-like creatures opposite human heroes. However, within the framework you lay out for what makes a good villain, could a villain be a human as well? For that matter, could a hero not?

    Traditional legends of the type Tolkien discussed in “Monsters and Critics” generally hold to this formula; the human hero battles the grotesque, bestial monster in a clash of physical prowess. These are the monsters that Tolkien defends, the fantastic and the horrifying, and rightly so. Fantastic villains have often received the short end of the literary criticism stick in favor of more “real” characters. However, based on the assumption that a monster must be at the same time human and superhuman, it seems that a good monster can, like a hero, be a human being, provided they are monstrous in to a superhuman extent.

    Are there any human villains that qualify for categorization as monsters? Modern literature is full of great examples (Bellatrix Lestrange, Ramsay Bolton), but perhaps a more fitting monster is Madame Defarge in Tale of Two Cities. At the beginning of the story, Defarge is presented almost as one of the heroes, a daring revolutionary working to subvert the aristocratic oppression of her people. As the story continues, however, Defarge shows her true nature, spurring her neighbors to the atrocities of the Reign of Terror and eventually becoming a superhuman force of rage and blind vengeance. Can a mere human like Madame Defarge, a formerly incongruous barkeeper, rise to the level of Grendel and Glaurung? Or are we mere humans doomed to remain forever villains, incapable of achieving the monstrosity of dragons?

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    1. I think that becoming a monster requires either always having some sort of inhumanity to mix with the human aspects that are there (being a creature, for example, like the dragons or Shelob), or losing humanity in some tangible way (like--OH GOD NOT AGAIN-- a zombie, or a vampire/werewolf). I think that impossibility, that grandness of straddling two worlds, is what brings the monster to the same level as the hero. So, yeah, I'd say that humans can act monstrous, but are forced to remain villains. (This also brings up the question of whether or not monsters have to be evil, which isn't entirely relevant, but it's super interesting.)

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    2. I definitely agree that monsters need an aspect of inhumanity. But just like a hero can be physically human while possessing superhuman traits, can't a person be human but also soooooooo inhumane that they become monsters? Like Andrew Scott's Moriarty in "Sherlock"; he's technically a human being, but there's really absolutely nothing human about his personality. He's the embodiment of evil. What makes him any less a monster than Smaug?

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  3. This notion of inaccessibility is interesting, heroes inaccessible because of their greatness, monsters because of their depravity. Where does this leave us, though? Are the grand struggles between hero and monster ultimately somewhere off in the distance where we can't go? Perhaps Biblo's unconsciousness during the battle with Smaug is a concrete expression of this, but we're right there with Beowulf against Grendel (then again, Beowulf's tale is explicitly being told to us, mediating his deeds through the frame). Of course, Sam kills Shelob, so maybe this isn’t the right way to think about things. Maybe it’s through defeat that the monster becomes accessible, and the hero does the same in death (or pseudo-death, in the case of Frodo)?

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