Tuesday, May 9, 2017

The Hands of Time

I am fascinated with the notion of monstrosity. Not with monsters—I do not believe in monsters as such, only in monstrous things. The distinction, taken cursorily, is not unlike the one Tolkien, in his essay "Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics," draws between draco and draconitas, but in truth the poles are entirely reversed. For Tolkien, it is draco that is the "real worm, with a bestial life and thought of his own," while draconitas is the worm as symbol. Of the two, it is unclear which he prefers. Draconitas,it seems, is both greater and less at the same time, and though it works for Beowulf, I think that Tolkien sees it as treading dangerously close to allegory. I agree, but in my estimation, it is the monster that approaches the allegorical and the monstrous which holds a degree of truth. There are many reasons for this—empathy, subjectivity, a certain hesitation of judgement—but the most important in this context, the one I would like to focus on here, is the relationship between monstrosity and time.

We have talked, at times, about monsters as being characteristic of the Other, the Outside. We have typically considered this Beyond in terms of physical or moral geography, but in truth it can and does extend in a temporal dimension as well. Our conception of the future is the Othering of Time, for the future, perpetually just ahead of us, is the one part of time in which we have no guaranteed part. We are products of the past and actors in the present, but the future, though not necessarily unset, is uncertain. Monstrosity thus always points to the unknown future; it terrifies us because it destabilizes our assumptions and raises the specter of that ultimate uncertainty, death. Augustine is right to assert that a monster must be a portent, drawing on the etymological connection to monere, to warn, and Tolkien is correct in identifying the dragon with Beowulf's impending death bearing down on him. However, what Tolkien does not dwell on is that Beowulf, as the dragon's equal and slayer, has a measure of monstrosity to him as well. After all, in his confrontation with Grendel and his mother, Beowulf is a foreigner, who carries Death with him from outside. This is most clearly illustrated in John Gardner's novel Grendel, in which Beowulf is framed as mad and not entirely human, as well as a direct parallel to the dragon. However, in the source poem, at least, while Beowulf certainly has a measure of monstrosity, it would be ridiculous to call him a monster. And why is that? It is because while Beowulf is an Outsider and a Death-bringer, he is also acting to contravene death. He is an agent of change, but the change he brings is of a specific nature. It is not his totality. Similarly, Grendel, his mother, and even the dragon all seek to preserve their own lives. Their natures are destructive, but they have natures. They are more than mere agents of change, and each signifies something beyond mere chaos. Thus, we see that, while exceedingly monstrous, they are not entirely monsters. To be that, they would need to be utterly unstable, hollow but for the burning drive to change.

Returning to Tolkien, it is notable that there is only one real monster in the whole of his legendarium: Ungoliant, who comes from outside to eat, and eat, and eat, anything, everything, even herself. She is wholly unstable. She has no agenda, nor any purpose in the story at all, beyond catalyzing change. And yet, it is Morgoth, not Ungoliant, who serves as the primary antagonist of Tolkien's world, not because Ungoliant lacks the power, but because her very monstrosity prevents her. She can have no cohesion, no desire, to drive a story beyond a single, arbitrary act of destruction in a single episode, which she undertook not out of some great and terrible malice, but simply because she was hungry, Melkor asked her too, and, ultimately, because it is her function to take things into herself and out of the world: to instigate change and Death. It must be Melkor, who is montrous but not a monster, who serves as the Enemy of Arda and the driver of the world's action. And yet, the one action Ungoliant does take in the story is significant: it is through her that the world enters into Time as we know it, time under the sun.

—Nathaniel Eakman

1 comment:

  1. Monsters are the future--I like this! Especially since we tend to think of monsters/monstrosity as archaic, superseded by the present. Can we test this with the idea of Progress, the hope that the future will be less chaotic than the past? Or is Progress itself a monster, the Unknown disguised in the promise of the Known? Nice observation on Ungoliant as the Mother of Time. RLFB