Do monsters belong in your forthcoming novel? Should they?
English’s oldest epic, Beowulf, is the story of one hero and three monsters. 1. Greek’s oldest epic, the Iliad, contains no monsters, but its immediate sequel, the Odyssey, more than makes up for it with the Cyclops, Scylla, Charybdis, and the Sirens. Neither Greek theatre nor Shakespeare deal much with monsters, but not because of any disdain for them: unlike ghosts, gods and transformations, monsters are peculiarly difficult to stage. Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, of course, is a tale of a monster par excellence, and Gulliver’s travels is (in part) a reverse tale: when the man becomes the monster.
So much for the front of literature. What about the back end, the end which we inhabit. Notwithstanding the hinted at monsterism in the graveyard scene of Great Expectations, and the imaginary two beasts in Lord of the Flies, since the 19th century monsters have not been considered a fit subject for serious literature. Perhaps it is (in Wilfred Owen’s words) ‘the monstrous anger of the guns’, along with the devastation wreaked by poison gas, aerial bombardment, the atomic bomb, and that most monstrous of all things, genocide, which has led ‘serious’ writers to seek to manifest evil in other forms. Mythical monsters seem mild and inoffensive in comparison with man’s own inhumanity to man.
The point of literature (i.e., books) is not to be ‘serious’, but to be read. We read what we enjoy, at least, by and large, even if we do read a proportion of books because they are ‘good for us’, whether we like them or not. At school I was obliged to read Nineteen Eighty Four, and Lord of the Flies, and Catcher in the Rye, and Joby, and Animal Farm. So good were they for me that I have never read them again since. By contrast, I read the Hobbit every couple of years, the Hound of the Baskervilles every four or five years, and I devoured each of the Harry Potter books immediately I purchased them.
Monsters loom large in books I like, even if they are the mark of unseriousness. It may be reassuring to note that they do for others too. Among the top ten most purchased novels of all time, three are tales of literal monsters. Most of the next twenty are as well.
Even if you are not writing a novel (surely there are some people who aren’t), or are not writing a novel that contains monsters, some knowledge of monsterology should surely serve you well.
Before continuing, I should first define ‘monster’. Etymology will not serve us well here, and the Oxford English Dictionary is too blunt an instrument. I shall use the word to refer to any creature which is a powerful and frightening non-human threat, which does not occur in our natural universe. I will therefore exclude witches and wizards, other species such as elves and dwarves, and inimical but relatively unpowerful creatures such as imps, gnomes, pixies and the like.
The Four Kinds of Monsters
As with almost everything, if you take the trouble to organise things in that fashion, there are four kinds of monsters, and they make a neat table (possibly the only neat thing that monsters do).
There are humanoid monsters and non-humanoid monsters, and there are monsters which are stupider than people, and monsters which are cleverer than people.
Fairy tale monsters of the humanoid sort — trolls who live under bridges, giants who live above beanstalks, and ogres of every kind — are typically stupid creatures, easily outwitted, though most famously outwitted not in fairy-tale but in epic, when Odysseus tells the cyclops that his name is ‘nobody’. The literary goblins or CS Lewis and JRR Tolkien are closer to humans. Indeed, they may have cunning, but they lack all wisdom.
The Greeks, of course, have giants who are old gods, the Titans. They are less cultured than the Olympians, perhaps, but far above the reach of any mortal. The Green Knight, of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, is cleverer, or at least more subtle, than Gawain. The Ring Wraiths, we imagine, are intolerably intelligent. Norse Giants, the Jötuns of Jötunheim, are easily able to outwit Thor, Oðin and even the trickster Loki. The White Witch is so clever that she even (she thinks) outwits Aslan. The White Walkers appear to possess a cunning above that of mortals.
Non-humanoid monsters, in numbers at least, are heavily on the stupid side. Often, they are almost elemental in their nature: the sea serpent, the kraken and the roc being epitomes of their environments. There are numerous classical and medieval bestiaries setting out a variety of fantastical creatures. The ones we call monsters tend to be physically enormous. Giantism, whether it be in spiders such as those of Tolkien or Rowling, or the Norse World Serpent, is, it seems, a necessary quality of the non-humanoid, unthinking monster.
Monsters which are not human in shape, but cleverer than humans, are comparatively rare. They are the top carnivores in any food-chain, and they are generally named. The Sphinx, of course, is known primarily for its riddles. The Norse dragon Fafnir is a shape-shifting human who appears to have settled permanently into dragon form. Ursula K Le Guin’s Earthsea dragons are wiser than humans, and they play an increasing role in the later stories. The greatest monster of them all, perhaps, is Smaug: a dragon of a very different kind from the one Tolkien discusses in The Monsters and the Critics.
Modern television monsters tend to be the exception to the uncommonness of clever, non-humanoid monsters. The Daleks, of course, are known for their cruelty and intelligence, but so are many of the monsters of the Buffy-verse and the rest of the Who-verse.
How monsters are made
Let me return to my definition. A monster is any creature which is a powerful and frightening non-human threat, which does not occur in our natural universe. We can easily create giant beasts by giantising any ordinary thing. However, the result is not necessary monstrous. In one of the most famous stories in medieval England, now almost entirely forgotten, Sir Guy of Warwick rescues his people from a giant cow. I suspect it is his adversary who has served Sir Guy so poorly in longevity: a giant cow is simply not frightening enough.
Likewise, we can multiply characteristics without necessarily creating compelling monsters. The Hydra, of course, with its many heads is a truly monstrous monster, and even the real-life hydra, when seen under a microscope, is quite frightening. However, two headed dogs, much as the Greeks loved them, do not possess the menace today that they once did.
Equally, assigning new characteristics to things will not necessarily do the trick. The Sirens are such great monsters that they feature in not one but two Greek epic tales: the Odyssey, and the voyage of the Argo. Nonetheless, giving some other kind of being an alluring voice doesn’t necessarily make it a monster.
The key is in beginning with the word ‘threat’. What is Smaug? Functionally, he is the illicit guardian of the treasure the dwarves have gone to retrieve. What is Grendel? He is a predator of the warriors in Heorot. What is the Green Knight? He is the one who is going to chop of Sir Gawain’s head.
The Green Knight is perhaps the most interesting of these, because when he enters the hall in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, no one knows what his intention is. His warlike garb gives the impression that he might want to fight, but, seriously, any monster capable of fighting all of Arthur’s knights in one go would not really need to introduce himself. It is the cunning of the tit-for-tat return blow which turns him into a threat, and it is only at the point where he picks up his head and adjures Gawain to fulfil his side of the bargain that he truly becomes a monster.
Whatever a monster does, he must frighten. Dragons that nuzzle us, or allow us to train them, may be monstrous, but they are no longer monsters.
The very best monsters are extensions of their threats, rather than threatening because they are monsters. Smaug guards the treasure, because it is necessary that the adventure of retrieving the treasure be bigger than the adventures involved in getting to it. Grendel is a fenland giant, because only a giant is able to pluck warriors at will and tear them apart. The one-eyedness of the cyclops is crucial, because it is on the searching for Odysseus once he is blinded that the story will turn. In a remarkable precursor to Alien, Fafnir’s blood itself is deadly, and so Sigurð must dig a trench to avoid being burned by it.
It is that special characteristic of threat that makes monsters frightening. We do not need to see the monster do its thing to fear it. Grendel’s actions are told second-hand, at least initially. We have the accounts of what Smaug has done, but we do not ‘see’ them first-hand, not until it is too late. Fafnir’s blood actually never plays a role in the Volsungasaga. The trolls that threaten Bilbo never actually eat anyone (not in the story), but they are built up in such a way that they are far more terrifying, for exactly the same reason, than anything Pip experiences in the graveyard in Great Expectations.
Leaving aside Doctor Who monsters, the one great threat that almost all monsters seem to pose is that they will eat us. Indeed, it is this very threat that Dickens exploits in Great Expectations to give the convict Magwitch a monstrous demeanour, without actually introducing monsters. This is more than a simple inversion. Humans do a variety of things to animals which we would not want done to us. We set traps for mice, cull badgers, breed mules, ride horses and swat flies. There would be something strange and nasty about a creature that traps humans, culls them, breeds them, rides them or swats them, but none of these have the same impact on us as the threat of eating. Indeed, in a non-monsterous way, it is the threat of eating which gives the power of horror to Hansel and Grettel, and also to the parallel scene in TH White’s The Sword in the Stone.
We might say that the fear of being eaten goes back to some ancestral memory of the horror of cannibalism, but this is itself a circular explanation: how do we know that the practice of cannibalism did not grow up out of the fear of monsters?
There are two exceptions to the eating rule of monsters which are worth considering. They are possession and petrification.
In the Lord of the Rings, the Ring Wraiths threaten to bend Frodo to their will, while in A Wizard of Earthsea, both the Shadow and the Stone attempt to possess Ged. In monsterological terms, I would argue that these kinds of possession are in some sense a kind of eating: they are the consumption of the spiritual part of a being rather than a physical part.
Petrification is more difficult. Both the basilisk and Medusa the Gorgon turn people to stone. That instant transformation has become a word for the worst kind of fear: “I was petrified”. Indeed, the White Witch never threatens to eat anyone (very civilised behaviour for a witch of a certain type) but she does use her wand to petrify. Not very far from where I live, the Rollright Stones are supposedly the results of a dark ages petrification spell to halt an invading army.
Not in Harry Potter, and also not in Medusa’s case, but in Narnia and in much folk- and fairy-tale, petrification is a reversible process. However, it is not a transformation, like being turned into a frog: while petrified, the victim is effectively ‘dead’, at least as far as the story is concerned.
There can be no explanation of petrification in the same way as the purported cannibalism explanation of monsters that eat people. Nonetheless, to my mind, the functional result in a story is almost the same. For writers squeamish about their incidental characters being eaten, petrification may well be the right route.
Even if you are not particularly squeamish, monsters that eat people may seem a little too close to the real world to be comfortably fantasy. The peculiar horror of The Silence of the Lambs came from Hannibal Lecter, rather than Buffalo Bill, but what made it credible was that there are a distressingly large number of modern cases of Western cannibalism.
Better Monsters Make Better Heroes
I have argued elsewhere and will do again that the modernist and post-modernist penchant for ‘literary’ fiction which has neither plot nor hero leads to literature which may be ‘good for you’, but is not especially enjoyable. I would far rather read John Stuart Mill if I want to read something which is good for me and which I don’t entirely agree with, or Stephen Hawking if I want to expand my intellectual world. The fictional books I want to read are books which have plots, and which have heroes. Do they need to have monsters?
In the best monster stories — Perseus, the Hobbit, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, A Wizard of Earthsea, the Volsungasaga, Beowulf, the labours of Heracles — we have an almost indelible sense that our attachment to the hero grows from their response to the monster. Beowulf is quite unashamed in this: he goes to Heorot, because he needs ‘lof’ in order to be a hero. Gawain is otherwise a slightly ambiguous figure. Malory depicts him as little better than Kay, while in Chrétien de Troyes, he is secondary to the character of Yvain. The adventure of the Green Knight is his finest moment. Sigurð meets his death not at the hands of the dragon, but at those of his friends. Nonetheless, it is the dragon fight which establishes him as the pre-eminent human hero of the Norse mythological world. Without the fight with Fafnir, he would just be another hapless warrior who got mixed up with the wrong family and paid the price for it. Without a similarly qualified opponent, we never have the same degree of sympathy for Völund.
Bilbo, though, is by far the most fascinating, because it seems that the entire race of hobbits is constructed to be the least likely opponents of a dragon. I have argued elsewhere that ‘hobbit’ is just ‘rabbit’ with the first two letters changed. Bilbo is frequently compared to a rabbit right the way through, and the opening line ‘In a whole, in the ground, there lived a…’ sounds like it is going to be ‘rabbit’, but is then ‘hobbit’. Hobbits are rabbit like in many of their habits, event down to their hairy feet.
As a piece of writing for children, the switch from the expected ‘rabbit’ to ‘hobbit’ is masterful, and reveals the fullest extent of Tolkien’s linguistic genius. However, what is at least as interesting is why he creates hobbits in that mode.
Reflecting on what we know of Tolkien—the man who put Beowulf on the literary map, who loved the Volsungasaga, and created the two most memorable dragons in literature (the other is Chrysophylax Dives, since you ask)—and on the essentially plot-perfect structure of The Hobbit, it seems clear that he intended the goal of the story to be dragon-treasure before he started writing it. Most would-be writers (myself included) will have started out to write stories with an interesting premise and a plausible character, in the hope that it will go somewhere (Americans call this approach ‘pantsing’, a term which I hate for all kinds of reasons), but the experience is usually a disappointing one: unless you know where the story could end, the meandering journey usually goes nowhere, although it’s often possible to substantially improve on the ending while you follow the journey. It would be lovely to think that Tolkien began with the idea of hobbits, and then worked his way up to the adventure which follows, but it seems to me more likely (and I know that many serious literary critics will say that this is an entirely inadmissible line of reasoning) but it seems more likely that he began with the idea of a dragon, and then worked out what would make the absolutely most perfect hero: not a Sigurð or a Beowulf, nor even a Gawain, but the most timid kind of creature capable of making the journey.
But no monsters…?
The modern world is inimical to monsters. With every square metre mapped out and available to view on Google satellite images, there are no places for monsters to hide—at least, not the grand monsters our forebears feared. You can construct elaborate reasons why monsters are not found, but still exist—even X-files notions of monsters in sewers—but if you are writing any kind of realistic fiction, you may have already decided that, much as this excursus into the mundum monstrorum has entertained, it has little relevance to your story.
May I urge you to think again. We have already mentioned Pip in the graveyard in Great Expectations with the (at that point unnamed) convict threatening to eat him. We could also think of Soylent Green, where we ourselves become the monsters, a notion picked up in Cloud Atlas among others. Hannibal Lecter is one of the most memorable monsters of our age. We do not need to look far in history to find Idi Amin eating the flesh of his victims. A few years ago, I was involved in a rather hideous court case where a schizophrenic episode had been triggered by a man threatening to eat a woman. The details are best left undescribed.
As children, our entire world was populated by giants, which is to say, every adult and every older child. Most of those giants were friendly, or at least harmless, but the occasional encounter with giants who threatened us, or hurt us without cause, has left indelible traces on our memories. These are powerful forces which writers can explore, or even exploit.
The Hound of the Baskervilles turned out to be a fake (and became the blueprint for every classic Scooby-Doo episode), but the monstrosity was no less real.
Monsters roll our worst fears into a single entity. Beveridge understood the power of monsters, when he identified the ‘five giants’ to slay: squalor, ignorance, want, idleness, and disease. Even in the most serious, literary fiction, it is possible to epitomise threat without necessity of physical monsters. Threat, of the monstrous kind, is far more germane to literature than epitomising evil. Threat belongs with plot, whereas evil belongs to the world of metaphysics, anathema to ‘serious’ literature.
Struggling with your forthcoming story? See if it isn’t, after all, possible, to slip a monster in.