Tuesday, May 9, 2017

The Feminine Unlight

"Smaug? Oh, he was a pretty cool dragon—he set fire to a lot of stuff.” “Gollum? Creepy guy—he really got what he deserved in the end, I guess.” “Gothmog? He…also set things on fire?” These monsters are all, of course, very different, but they do have one thing in common, and one thing in common with almost all Tolkien characters—they are male. Indeed, the only monsters Tolkien has that are female[1] are Ungoliant and her daughter, Shelob. This is perhaps not something too odd at first glance—dragons and trolls and various other things are, after all, generally thought of as male. It does seem to bear further scrutiny, however, that the only female monsters are giant spiders who wish only to devour whatever they come across, literal swallowers of light. I’m not trying to make a grand point about misogyny in fantasy or something similarly far-reaching—I am just trying to perhaps see what making these monsters female might mean.

If we accept a very slightly allegorical reading of the various monsters, with dragons being manifestations of greed, then it seems pretty obvious that the various spiders are analogous to gluttony (and perhaps lust, considering that Shelob mates with and eats her own offspring deep in her den.) The entire purpose of Ungoliant, after all, is that she is never full, and presumably never can be full. She exists only to consume whatever she can, from the light of the trees[2] to herself[3] when there is ultimately nothing else to consume. Shelob is Ungoliant’s daughter and has much the same problem, but as with most things in the Third Age, the extremity of her hunger is lessened. She no longer has the power of her mother to “spin [the light she has eaten] forth again in dark nets of strangling gloom”[4], but instead makes her den in a dark place and stays there. Instead of being able to suck dry the light of the trees, Shelob is hurt by the remnants of it contained in the Phial of Galadriel. Ungoliant perhaps could have been classed as a predator, to use what we talked about in class—she was, after all, able to overcome Morgoth until he called the Balrogs to him[5]—but her descendants have lost that capability and exist more as a ‘quest obstacle’. Shelob is still perpetually hungry, but her hunger and her visage are less than what have come before. She is almost a black hole of gluttony, eating only whatever comes close to her.

To further allegorize the monsters, if dragons are considered to be analogous to the Serpent in the garden, tempting someone to taste of the fruit and be cast down, what does this make the spiders? Ungoliant was, technically, the one to consume the ‘forbidden fruit’ that lay in the gardens of the Valar—but there is certainly a difference between this and the eating of a single fruit. I don’t think anyone could seriously claim that Ungoliant is Eve. Outside of this, however, I cannot see any place for the female monsters in a biblical analogy. Is Ungoliant the pain and suffering of the world outside of the garden, someone who only comes into play once the serpent has done his job[6]? If one was absolutely, positively desperate, I suppose a parallel could roughly be drawn between the femininity of Ungoliant, the destroyer of the Light and Eve’s temptation, with something cleverly inserted about Ungoliant’s final devouring of herself coupled with God’s decree that childbirth be painful[7] as a kind of self-induced punishment. Much as Tolkien has said in some of his letters, however, too much allegory can defeat the purpose of a work, and lead to a silly place besides. Let’s not go there.

To step away from looking only at his own works, Tolkien’s lack of female monsters is simply following a time-honored tradition—this is, at least, the impression one might get from reading “The Monsters and The Critics”. There are, to put it very plainly, three sections or episodes in the story of Beowulf. Grendel attacks Heorot, Beowulf arrives, Beowulf fights and defeats Grendel. Grendel’s mother takes outrage at the fact that her son has been killed, and Beowulf kills her in turn. Finally, Beowulf returns to the land of the Geats and after ruling well for a long time, is finally killed by the dragon. I will freely admit that one of these sections is much shorter than the others, and that there is an extremely marked tonal shift between Grendel’s mother and the dragon, such that dividing the poem into halves is a perfectly reasonable thing to do when analyzing the poem, provided the division is based upon this tonal shift. Tolkien, however, doesn’t really claim that his split is based upon this tonal difference—rather, he seems to mostly ignore the existence of Grendel’s mother. Her fight with Beowulf is not mentioned. She is, essentially, relegated to the sidelines.

This is somewhat similar to the roles of Ungoliant and Shelob- though the impact of their actions is certainly great, neither of them are really extant in their respective stories for more than a chapter. What else does Grendel's mother have in common with these great spiders? Before her son is killed, Grendel’s mother seems to have been lurking in “a mere… at night there, something uncanny happens: the water burns.”[8]—similar to Shelob’s lurking in her den. Before the fight, it would seem that she might be a foe on par with Grendel, and she is certainly described as having all the strength of Grendel. It would seem that their upcoming fight would be treated with all the weight of Beowulf’s fight with Grendel. And yet—it really isn’t. Beowulf dives to the bottom of the lake where she makes her home, and she seizes him—but she cannot get through his armour[9]. Beowulf’s sword breaks upon her hide, leaving him weaponless—but he quickly finds a sword that can kill her among her treasure-hoard[10]. She dies, ultimately, fairly quickly.

 She is an supposed to be an ancient and crafty foe, one who has terrorized her surroundings for untold years—and she dies within fifty lines. The fight with Grendel may not be much longer, but it is at least prefaced, so that the reader understands the weight of years of suffering that lay upon that fight[11]. This might be a personal reading, but something much the same seems, for me at least, to happen with Shelob. She has preyed on the orcs that were given to her by Sauron for a very, very long time, and she is ultimately defeated (temporarily, at least) by a desperate Hobbit. To be sure, she does accomplish quite a lot, nearly killing Frodo and being a genuinely frightening monster—but her appearance also seems rather anticlimactic. This is, I suppose, the job of a hero, to take a monster that has been frightening locals for generations and to kill it—but the fact that it is much more marked with Grendel’s mother than with Grendel, and that Shelob’s existence is not even really hinted at aside from the section of the book where she appears, seems to indicate a kind of commonality.

Ultimately, I suppose the point of this post is not so much a single argument as a series of observations. As a final observation, the pairs of Ungoliant and Shelob with Grendel’s mother and Grendel seem to share many similarities. The first of each of these pairs, of course, share an origin that is almost completely unknown. Ungoliant has crawled out from the void, and to look too deeply into her origins seems a task that can lead only to sleepless nights. Grendel’s mother may be a descendant of Cain, but the generations that have passed between him and her are also probably best left unmentioned. The child of each of these monsters, then, is more known to us, and perhaps slightly less alarming in being known. Certainly, at least, Grendel has a spark of humanity that his mother seems to lack—she is a distinctly more unknown creature. Ultimately, however, that knowledge about them also seems to serve as a way to make them a more compelling foe. Ungoliant is a terrifying figure, to be sure, but her deeds are confined to such a distant age that they have a distinct quality of unreality, as opposed to Shelob’s almost tangible menace. Grendel’s fight with Beowulf is more compelling than his mother’s perhaps because he is almost indistinguishable from Beowulf in the heat of the fight, so close is he to human. What does any of this have to do with my original musing, on the distinct lack of female monsters within Tolkien’s legendarium? Well,  I think perhaps the only conclusion I can draw is that there is a sense of female monsters having crawled out of what is essentially the void or woodwork around a story, without a real backstory—something that serves to make them more monstrous, perhaps, but also less compelling as villains. Whether this is a result of a conscious attempt to other these spiders from other monsters, who are traditionally thought of as male, or something more unconscious, I don't think can be determined in one blog post.


[1] At least, to my knowledge and that we’ve talked about.
[2] The Silmarillion, pp. 76
[3] The Silmarillion, pp. 81
[4] The Silmarillion, pp. 73
[5] The Silmarillion, pp. 81
[6] The Serpent, in this case, being…Morgoth? Who made the much more serpent-like dragons?
[7] Genesis 3:16
[8] Beowulf, trans. Seamus Heaney, pp. 95
[9] Beowulf, trans. Seamus Heaney, pp. 105
[10] Beowulf, trans. Seamus Heaney, pp. 107
[11] The visceral description of Grendel’s arm being torn off also contributes.

1 comment:

  1. I agree, it is puzzling why female monsters do not play a larger role in Tolkien. What if they had? It is interesting that the spiders and Grendel's mother seem to share a certain indefinite quality--dark and hard to see, not to mention fight. Heroes seem to have an easier time fighting more masculine monsters that come out to fight. It is hard not to see something fairly archetypal going on here! RLFB