Wednesday, May 10, 2017

Of Monsters and Villains

What is the difference between a monster and a villain? They are similar in that they are both forces of evil and are ultimately defeated by the hero over the course of the story. But monsters and villains are evil are not evil in the same way. The wrongness of villains may be relative. The audience can feel sympathy for the villain without the effect of the story being destroyed, and the qualities that identify a villain as evil change over time.

Yet there is a timeless appeal to monsters, one that Tolkien defends vigorously in his analysis of Beowulf. He writes, “It is the monstrosity and fairy-tale quality of Grendel that really makes the tale important, surviving still when the politics have become dim” (Letters 242). There is certainly an objective quality to monsters that makes them well-understood by any audience.

But does that mean that monsters--or at the very least, the Unknown they represent--are simply a necessary fact of life? If monsters are indeed “natural,” then it suddenly becomes much more difficult to label them as evil. A cat isn’t evil for eating a mouse. If the monsters are simply creatures lurking at the edges of our understanding, waiting for an opportunity to eat us, then they are no more evil than the cat.

Not all monsters have to be rational. It is not necessary that they understand right or wrong. But in all their forms, monsters must be connected to the notion of evil in order to be truly monstrous. In Beowulf, Grendel and his mother are both descendants of Cain, linking them directly to the first murder as well as original sin. Likewise, Smaug, while even more beast-like, is shown to be needlessly cruel, making it simple to view him as evil.

The more interesting cases of monsters are the dragon featured in Beowulf as well as Shelob in The Lord of the Rings. Unlike Smaug, Beowulf’s dragon is not shown to be rational, as it does not speak. Its anger at having a piece of its treasure stolen comes off as an animal-like response rather than a deliberate choice. Despite its lack of rationality or morality, Tolkien refers to Beowulf’s dragon as “a personification of malice, greed, destruction (the evil aspect of heroic life)” (“Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics” 17). Shelob, not sentient and rather automatic in her course of action. Her endless hunt for tasty creatures translate to behavior that can is predicted and manipulated by Gollum, Sauron, and the orcs of Cirith Ungol. Even so, Tolkien’s description leaves no doubt that Shelob is anything but evil:

How Shelob came there, flying from ruin, no tale tells, for out of the Dark Years few tales have come. But still she was there, who was there before Sauron, and before the first stone of Barad-dur; and she served none but herself, drinking the blood of Elves and Men, bloated and grown fat with endless brooding on her feasts, weaving webs of shadow; for all living things were her food, and her vomit darkness. (LotR 723)

Shelob, who is both evil and amoral, shows that monsters have an innately evil characteristic not necessarily connected to the moral concept of evil.

The idea of evil as a category, as opposed to a position on a moral spectrum, is somewhat strange. In fact, the idea may even be somewhat anti-Christian, as it suggests that evil exists as an independent category from good, an idea to which St. Augustine likely would have objected strongly. It is fair to say, however, that the “evil” we discuss when referring to monsters is not precisely the same “evil” as that of human-like beings. Tolkien writes, “I do not think that any ‘rational’ being is wholly evil. Satan fell. In my myth Morgoth fell before Creation of the physical world.In my story Sauron represents as near an approach to the wholly evil will as is possible” (Letters 243). The concept of an “evil will” is crucial to understanding the difference between monsters and villains. Because monsters such as Shelob and Beowulf’s dragon do not appear to have wills any more than normal animals do, it is not necessary for a Christian author to answer the question of how they fell from an original state of goodness, as is necessary for a villain such as Sauron or Morgoth.

The existence of this particular quality of evil elevates the struggle a hero against a monster beyond a human battling an animal. Natural disasters and animals of prey may scare us, but we do not consider them evil. There is something fundamentally wrong with Shelob in both her beings and her actions; this wrongness can be understood by people across time, space and culture. Conversely, the destruction or defeat of such monsters is something that can be understood as fundamentally good.

A well-crafted monster, then, should never be able to be interpreted as merely a natural predator following its instincts. It loses its element of evil and instead becomes an understood part of nature. If a monster is truly evil, then the audience should always be incapable of feeling pity for it. After the destruction of Sauron, his human thralls in Mordor are liberated, because readers would find it tragic that unwilling slaves be destroyed along with their evil master. The destruction of Sauron’s orcs, however, comes at no moral cost to readers and evokes no pity.

Villains, unlike monsters, are pitiable and are not usually destroyed through the same straightforward struggle as monsters. The defeat of Saruman at Isengard is tragic rather than triumphant because he rejects Gandalf’s offer to return to the light.When he appears again as overlord of the Shire, a shadow of his former power, the hobbits do not kill him. Had a monster such as Shelob or Smaug attacked the Shire, Frodo and Sam would not have thought twice about killing it.

Despite the shared association with evil between monsters and villains, the amoral category of evil that exists within monsters makes their defeat universally understood to be good and is the root source of their enduring appeal.



  1. I agree, monsters need to be something other than just predators to be evil--predators are not malevolent, just hungry. But I am not sure I understand how you are conceptualizing villains. Villains are also malevolent, but (as you suggest) arguably redeemable thanks to the fact that they have free will. Perhaps this is worth toying with: do monsters have free will? RLFB

  2. I am intrigued by the contrast you draw between monsters and villains and the definitions you eventually arrive at for these concepts, at least in how they pertain to the concept of Evil. I am curious, in particular, where Gollum/Sméagol would fit into this categorization. Sméagol begins life as a fairly normal hobbit and, through a combination of his own decisions and the influence of the Ring, does a variety of horrible things before his death. His decisions are his own and yet made under an external evil influence that, by the end of The Lord of the Rings, seems to have largely broken Sméagol/Gollum’s ability to make decisions and have a will independent of considerations of the Ring. It seems clear that Sméagol/Gollum cannot properly be considered a monster by the definition given above, as his initial choices were partially his own, and he did not begin existence somehow inherently evil. Can Gollum, who does evil things without apparent regret but not necessarily entirely of his own free will, truly be a villain however? In other words, must people necessarily choose to become a villain or can they become a villain through falling to negative outside influences? If Sméagol/Gollum is truly a villain, then must that then inform how we think about characters like Boromir and Frodo who also do evil things under the influence of the Ring? -EI