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. 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

  2. This is an interesting characterization of time, and in many senses I agree that fear and apprehension of the future can be understood through an “Othering” of time. I think that Tolkien might even agree that time is best described as a monster. A riddle in “Riddles in the Dark” comes immediately to mind:

    “This thing all things devours:
    Birds, beasts, trees, flowers;
    Gnaws iron, bites steel;
    Grinds hard stones to meal;
    Slays king, ruins town,
    And beats high mountain down."

    The answer to this riddle, as Bilbo luckily ‘guesses’, is Time. It is interesting that “Ungoliant”, one of the purest ‘monsters’ in the legendarium, might just as well be a valid answer to this riddle. In this sense, I think the connection you draw between Ungoliant and Time is quite apt. As you point out, Ungoliant is the main agent responsible for the introduction of time as we understand it into Arda. As such, I don’t think it is unreasonable to consider the future (in its destructive qualities) as in some way an extension of the monstrosity of Ungoliant herself: while Ungoliant desires to consume everything in creation, and the future succeeds in doing so. I’m not sure to what extent this association is valid (Ungoliant consumes herself, while time shows no indication of doing so), but there does definitely seem to be some “monsterization” of time in Tolkien’s works.

  3. What implications does your observation have for the nature of dragons in Tolkien? Unlike Tolkien, some of them have agendas - very complex agendas. Would we consider Glaurung to be a monster? He manipulates people in order to effect a certain future. Even as he dies by Turin's hand, his final plans bear fruit: Nienor realizes her true relationship with Turin, and slays herself. The sort of tragic Romeo-and-Juliet ending that Glaurung engineers is, I think, "change of a specific nature" - but it is also the certainty of death. By dying, he completes his plan. Well, not all dragons are Glaurung. What about Smaug? What he seems to want is the lack of change: he simply wishes to accumulate treasure undisturbed, and doesn’t feel any particular interest in engaging with the outside world to change it. He is lazy, but couldn’t be described as “hollow but for the burning drive to change.” Maybe dragons aren’t the sort of “monsters” that you’re discussing, though - in class we’ve talked about dragons as keys to something within our selves: this is true, certainly, of Frodo and his interactions with Smaug. Glaurung has secret knowledge of Turin and Nienor, and turns this knowledge against them, to their defeat and doom. “Time,” for dragons, seems to pass in long spells of patience and emptiness, punctuated by brief periods of rapid change.

    This is a sort of silly analogy, but reading your post made me think about alignments in Dungeons & Dragons. Ungoliant, the only “truly monstrous” being by your definition, is definitely a chaotic evil. What are dragons? Not chaotic evil, I think, but perhaps a chaotic neutral, interacting and manipulating the world to satisfy their own, incomprehensible desires. Melkor is, perhaps, a lawful evil - attempting to uproot and subvert institutions from the inside out, engendering discord in music rather than simply attempting to terminate the music. Is time the result when we allow for randomness, or chaos, to “rule” the world? By attempting to hold onto cultures and institutions in their current state, are characters simply turning a blind eye to the chaos (not the evil, but simply entropy) that is inevitable in their futures?

    -Elaine Yao