Our discussion in class dealt a great deal with attempting to define monsters, and then to define heroes through them. Our conclusion about the latter was that a hero is someone who fights monsters, often who slays them. Our thoughts on monsters were much less concrete. My own thought is that they seem often to be simplifications and magnifications of evil, nasty things, both physical and emotional. Shelob’s emotions, for example, are all found in human beings, and can in human beings have disastrous effects – rage, delight in one’s own power, the desire to kill. What makes Shelob a monster emotionally, rather than just an angry person, is that Shelob wants to kill everyone, all the time, and for no reason. Physically, meanwhile, she is a giant, bad-smelling spider who oozes green slime and produces poison which dribbles out of her when she is harmed (LotR, 724-30). And while Shelob is the amalgamation of murderousness, Smaug, to take some other examples, is that of cruel intellectual cunning, and Grendel’s mother that of powerful revenge.
Heroes allow us to show what to do when encountered with these negatively-seen forces because we make heroes face them in their most concentrated forms. Heroes are the shining light of relief to our fear. What to do when a spider is too big to squish and forget about? Be like Sam! With love, fierceness, and courage defend your beloved ones from a nasty force that would do them the utmost harm.
I use the word nasty rather than the word evil here in contrast to Tolkien’s description of Shelob as “an evil thing in spider-form” (LotR, 723), and of monsters as “hostile to all men and to all humane fellowship and joy,” as, implicitly, “pure manifestations of evil will” (Letters, 242), because Shelob isn’t really evil except because the narrator tells us she is. We assume we can trust the narrator in the Lord of the Rings, but doing so means we take for granted, for example, that there is “evil purpose in [Shelob’s] remorseless eyes” (LotR, 725), that the growth of her hide is “evil” (LotR, 728). It is possible to read Shelob as a more or less intelligent and highly unpleasant person, as a very gross bug, as someone who hates and wants to eat you, and nothing more, not because one can diminish the unnecessary cruelties she commits (such as eating her mates/offspring (LotR, 723), if we want to put a moral judgment on that behavior), but because she is at such an extreme of immorality, so uncomplex, that she borders on the absurdly simple. This is not the frighteningly incomprehensible evil of the bureaucrat or the tyrant or the inhumane economic entity, of the pitiless human, or of the human who does good and harm at the same time, or conflates one for the other. The monster-hero story is one which offers us a simple solution without moral ambiguity.
This reading of a hero as the good and glorious solution to a problem of clear evil makes it disturbing, from a moral viewpoint, that the only way to defeat a monster is to kill it (or in the case of Shelob harm it physically until it slinks away – Sam’s Phial blinds her and gives her a horrific headache (LotR, 730) – it does not make her feel remorse, or any other spiritual/emotional change). A hero is not being any different in terms of action from the monster s/he is facing – s/he is playing its game. It worries me that what we are being presented with, when a hero fights a monster, is a situation where violence is the answer, where you can do terrible harm as long as you’re on the side of Good and acting upon a thing that is Evil. It seems fitting that this view should be included in the Lord of the Rings, because, among other things, the Lord of the Rings is a story about violence. When is it the right thing to do? Who is it, and who ought it to be, committed against? What do you do when confronted with it? Although one might say that Middle-earth is a world of war, that if you’re a man or Eowyn (or a monster), you commit violence upon others like you eat bread (or people), that violence is simply a necessary part of the story’s milieu, the narrator is always making moral judgments, as can be seen in Sam’s fight against Shelob. These questions about violence are being asked, and I cannot help wondering whether the story is so desperate to convince us that Shelob is evil in order to save Sam from moral ambiguity, without sacrificing all the courage and agency he reveals in this scene.
The state of monsters as relatively uncomplex manifestations of different kinds of the evil, scary, and unappealing thus has the important effect of making them acceptable targets of (the sort of) violence (that will often prove how awesome, capable, and “heroic” the other character is). Had Beowulf ripped the arm off of a human being, his glory would have been much diminished, and he might not be considered a hero at all (taking not our specific definition from class but the more broad “awesome person who beats bad guys and is really good” one). To replace Grendel with a human being would bring focus onto the act committed, rather than to the force defeated, and would much more readily turn it ambiguous, and likely sicken the audience/reader. In fact, Beowulf does do this sort of thing – he crushes a man called Dayraven the Frank to death in some battle.1 This is troubling if I want to read Beowulf as a good person, and it would be equally troubling if monsters were potentially good for every hero who kills them even without also killing people. This means that the answer to our question in class – why monsters? – may be, so that the heroes have something to fight, in order to fulfill their role as powerful representatives of the good. Were monsters replaced with human opponents, heroes would be tyrants, in the case of the very powerful, or common soldiers, and the monster-hero story would not have the comforting moral uprightness that is has with the monsters’ depravity – instead, it would be a story about war and guilt and the moral uncertainty of every course of action.
1 Beowulf: A Verse Translation. Trans. Seamus Heaney. Ed. Daniel Donoghue. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2002. Lines 2507-2508.