Saturday, June 7, 2014

The Nature and Function of the Hero-Monster Narrative

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.



  1. I liked your discussion on monsters in LotR and the implications they carry with respect to good and evil. It is true that violence is the answer here—but perhaps Tolkien intends for us to see monsters not as corporeal beings, but as literal manifestations of evil? Think of the Ring—it is not a human (or even a humanoid like Saruman or Sauron) which must be destroyed, but a physical object. So, perhaps it is not violence to kill a monster, as violence applies only to living creatures, not abstract representations of evil. Perhaps violence is Tolkien’s, and every other heroic fiction writer’s, trope to represent courage over evil. (Of course, this brings up implications of allegory which as we all know Tolkien says he avoids.) Since this is not postmodern fiction, we must realize that all violence is not real violence—unless it is made so. That is, Beowulf crushing a man in battle or Sam and Frodo defeating Shelob are not acts as violence, but as you said, fit into the literary milieu of acts against evil. Violence is a bad thing by nature. But perhaps justifying violence by putting good and evil in opposition is just as bad a justification as war (where there is no violence, just defeat and success)? Maybe Tolkien’s monsters have feelings too? Let’s wait for the monster-sympathizers to write a version of LotR from the orcs’ perspective.

    Scotty Campbell

  2. While I find your hero/monster analysis fascinating, I would disagree with your characterization of monsters, particularly regarding their intentions; I would assert that they might be more rational than you are arguing. For one, regarding Shelob, doesn’t want to just “kill everyone, all the time, and for no reason,” Shelob kills for a reason: she’s hungry. We see this in her killing method, her venom isn’t fatal, it merely stuns so she can eat fresh meat. A brutal killing machine would necessarily have fatal venom, to maximize death. Shelob doesn’t even seek out murder or killing, she could easily kill scores leaving her lair on raids, but she merely preys on the unfortunate few who happen into her lair. I would also disagree that the only way to defeat a monster is to kill or harm it- Sauron has a sort of agreement with Shelob that keeps her under relative control, and Gollum makes an agreement with her to allow him safe passage. We do not know then if Sam’s phial caused her to feel any remorse, but then again- does she need to? All she does is hunt lesser creatures to feed her appetite, just as all other species do.

    SB Chhabra

  3. Monsters are simple. They seem to provide a simple, unambiguous evil that is impossible outside of the realm of Faerie. It is acceptable to commit violence against them because they are completely remorseless in their evil. Shelob’s hunger can never be sated. Grendel will not cease from seizing Hrothgar’s men. Heroes must use violence to right an unambiguous injustice, and we often accept this as readers or listeners because we are told to. I would question, though, whether we can only see the evil of these monsters--specifically Shelob and Grendel--through the narrator’s statements of their evilness. Shelob, as Ungoliant’s spawn, is motivated by endless, all-consuming hunger. Like her mother, she seems to be the twisted inverse of a Maia. And like her mother, she refuses to acknowledge the lordship of Iluvatar or the power of the Valar. Ungoliant is willing to consume anything and everything and belches out blackness over everything. Shelob, though, has the same consumptive desires but lacks her mother’s power. She is an evil thing that lurks in darkness, waiting to strike. Even the light of Sam’s phial burns her. Because it came from the elves (who are already classified as good beings), it is assumed to only harm evil creatures. Therefore Shelob must be evil. Likewise, Grendel only attacks Hrothgar’s hall because he is antagonized by the bard singing in praise of God. His refusal to accept God’s power over his will is what causes him to attack. We have defined the attempt to assert one’s own will over others’, especially God’s, as evil; that is why these monsters are evil.
    On an entirely different note, it seems important that for the hobbits, attacking is never portrayed as the answer. The only hobbit who attacks anyone else unprovoked is Sam, who attacks Gollum. But all of the other hobbits only use violence to protect their loved ones. Merry only attacks the Nazgul after it attacks Eowen. Sam only attacks Shelob (using his sword, not the phial) after she attacks Frodo. This seems important because the hobbits, as images of good, do not portray heroes going out looking for monsters to kill; they are defending, not attacking.

    Marguerite Meyer

  4. It is interesting that, in the context of having taken this class your post seems reasonable and interesting, but stepping back somewhat and looking at it from a more objective standpoint there is something about these considerations that seems somewhat indulgent. Violence should, of course, not always be the solution to everything in a book, and Lord of the Rings does a good job of presenting alternatives to it in almost every circumstance except when dealing with monsters. The blogger is correct in asserting that monsters like orcs and their ilk are universally dealt with through violence, with diplomacy and other options never really being considered, so there is a point to be made here about why violence is so ubiquitous. The point though, I think, is not that violence is glorified in the text, but rather that monsters are presented as an extension of a naturally threatening world. Violence against monsters on the part of characters in the books are almost always out of either self-defense or pre-emptive self-defense, given that it is in the very nature of orcs to prey upon other races if given sufficient time to marshal their forces. Orcs and monsters do not present any moral ambiguity because they are not really part of our moral universe because they do not exist as sentient, free-choosing beings per se. Orcs in particular were created by Morgoth to do his evil bidding and are by nature incapable of doing good – without the ability to do good, there is little question of their morality, and they become almost a force of nature, a destructive natural occurrence that must be combated and prevented from hurting civilization lest it overwhelm. In this, perhaps, they are not so much evil as simply designed to oppose the free peoples of Middle Earth.


  5. I found your discussion of monsters and why we slay them to be very interesting. Particularly I am interested in the idea of the definition of “hero” as being something that suggests that violence is in some way the only or the best solution to a problem. I find this interesting because this is not the kind of message that I take from the Lord of The Rings as a whole. What immediately came to mind, in fact, was the case of Frodo and Gollum. In this case, it was made really clear killing him was not at all the solution, or at the very least not the only or the best solution, even though at first Frodo perceived him to be just like any other monster. Is there an implication here that any monster might better be the same? That there is more to them than we like to believe? Somehow it doesn’t feel right to apply this to some of the monsters that we have seen, but it would account for the scarcity of actual monster-killing in the books that we have noticed. As we’ve noted that hero is for Tolkien a less exalted position than gardener or healer, it seems entirely possible that this is in some way related to the idea of “evil” as an oversimplification or misinterpretation of the creatures that we see in Middle Earth.


  6. Interesting and insightful post. I also enjoyed your older post, "The Importance of Having Monsters."

    I am curious: what do you make of the contemporary turn towards monsters as having redeemable qualities?

    In Tolkein, we see a version of this in Gollum as a monster who is forced into monsterhood by an even greater evil. Certainly this type of character leaves us unsure whether they are in fact a monster. However, I'm thinking of more overt and blatantly cute monsters, as depicted in cartoons such as "Ahhh! Real Monsters" and of course the films "Monsters, Inc."

    I pose this as a serious question: with the ambiguous monster, we see a philosophical turn towards the ambiguity of good and evil. It makes us question whether there is in fact such a thing pure evil -- perhaps the most empathetic among us can even find pity for orcs. What can we surmise about contemporary moral attitudes from the reclamation of "monster" as not only capable of ambiguity, but capable of being genuinely Good?

    1. Maybe its not about our moral attitudes -- but about our acceptance of (even excitement about) the unknown.