The OF Blog: Interesting article involving perceived weaknesses of Tolkien's monsters

Monday, September 13, 2010

Interesting article involving perceived weaknesses of Tolkien's monsters

Currently reading Bloom's Modern Critical Views:  J.R.R. Tolkien, which contains a 1968 essay by Thomas J. Gasque called "Tolkien:  The Monsters and the Critters."  I found his points regarding Tom Bombadil, the Balrog, and Shelob to be similar to my reactions to these character intrusions when I last re-read the series in 2009:

All three [Tom, the Balrog, Shelob] possess an independence that places them outside the central moral concern of the story - the destruction of the Ring.  Their amorality, like their nonhumanity, reveals them as allegorical principles:  Tom of life or nature, Shelob of death or blind appetite, and the Balrog of a central disorder that no creature can withstand.

We could object to Tolkien's inclusion of Bombadil and the two monsters because they are principles rather than personalities.  But allegory in a work of this sort need not be an artistic failure.  Tolkien does fail with these two, however, not because he chose to dehumanize them, but because he failed to make them interesting.  Treebeard, for example, is much more interesting than Tom Bombadil, and the orcs more fearsome than the Balrog.

Although we could not call the adventures with the Balrog and with Shelob dull, they both seem to fail, not in execution but in conception.  Tolkien has invented these monsters rather than created them from the raw material of folklore as he did his other creatures.  We are unable to believe in the Balrog because we have no foundation either outside the work or in it.  Dwarfs, orcs, and elves are familiar enough to most readers to stimulate a response.  Other creatures, including hobbits, the Ringwraiths, and the Dark Lord himself are fully developed within the trilogy.  Not so with the Balrog.  There he is, all of a sudden, whiffling and burbling, a Diabolus ex machina, when the orcs were foe enough.  He is not dull, but the excitement is on the surface, and we only half believe Gandalf when he cries, "'Fly!  This is a foe beyond any of you.'"

Shelob is better executed than her counterpart, but both episodes are artistically weak.  For sheer terror, they are on a level with the invention of dozens of science-fiction writers, but terror is not enough.  Nor is the argument that only such supernatural creatures could cause Gandalf's death or Frodo's paralysis, for there is still the feeling that these demons are not real.  They are unreal because they are extraneous to the traditional framework of the story. (p. 7)

Thoughts on this, keeping in mind that it was written when only The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings were published?


Jonah said...

My first thought is that it takes balls to write an essay about Tolkien subtitled "The Monsters & The Critics", and that while I'd have to re-read the Beowulf essay, I don't think that disqualifying the monsters because they are "outside the central moral concern of the story" is valid.

I also don't think I agree with the author that the orcs were threat enough. Given that, the introduction of suitable villains to lend a sense that there are other great evils in the world is reason enough for Shelob and the Balrog.

Tim said...

The Lord of the Rings is an imperfect novel to be sure, but this is one of the strangest criticisms of Tolkien I've ever encountered.

We could object to Tolkien's inclusion of Bombadil and the two monsters because they are principles rather than personalities.
Could we? The Balrog is scary, Shelob loathsome, Bombadil ineffably strange, precisely because we cannot relate to them as personalities. They are creatures of legend, thousands of years old - beyond the scope of our personal or moral experience. This hardly makes them alien to Tolkien's world, even before the Silmarillion was published - quite the reverse. Santa turning up in Narnia is incongruous. What's the problem with a Balrog in Moria?

Furthermore, viewing these beings as allegories (or metaphors for particular qualities) is to miss the primary point. Shelob can certainly be seen as an embodiment of greed and hunger, but what she is first and foremost is a great big scary monster.

Dwarfs, orcs, and elves are familiar enough to most readers to stimulate a response.
There are two problems with this.
I would argue that they are familiar to us because Tolkien made them so, at least in the form that we find them here. But that's open to debate, and not the real flaw in this argument.

We are unable to believe in the Balrog because we have no foundation either outside the work or in it.
Really? You can't believe in the Balrog (or the giant spider) because you've never met one before? This is Gasque's failure as a reader, not Tolkien's as a writer. This line of argument only makes sense if you have refused from the outset to engage with Middle-earth as a sub-creation. Gasque seems to be saying that he had no problem going along with this fantasy so long as it was just some familiar symbols walking around the countryside, but hey - if you're going to start making stuff up, I'm outta here.

(And having refreshed the page, I'm in agreement with Jonah. The orcs aren't enough.)

Saladin Ahmed said...

Couldn't disagree more with this critic, at least re: the Balrog. I think the complete dehumanization of the Balrog is what makes him so badass and readable. The orcs, by contrast, 'fail' more spectacularly to my mind *because* they are semi-human but totally evil. A chaos monster from the bowels of the earth I'm willing to read as totally uncomplicated. But having an entire people, with their own language and customs, depicted as unrelentingly monstrous gets old after a while. I can't even read tose passages about how stupid and cruel the orcs AS A RACE are any more.

...still, the phrase diabouls ex machina is a pretty cool coinage.

Scooter said...

I always saw the balrog simply as the means in which to extricate the characters from the thousands of orcs surrounding them on every side, virtually guaranteeing instant death for all. And to separate the wise leader from the young novice so the younger character can grow.

Booker said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Booker said...

This type of problem arises because Tolkien was not a novelist first and foremost.
The history of the balrogs did exist, but only for Tolkien, not the general public.
He knew their fallen origin, their powers, their imprisonment, etc, etc, all spelled out in his histories [which were written before, but not published til after, the success of the Hobbit and LotR].
So to Tolkien, I'm sure these creatures were much more fully fleshed than what is just in the novels.
Which brings us back to the first point, Tolkien was not a novelist :-)
[we got lucky with the Hobbit and LotR, imagine if all we'd had was the Silmarillion and the Histories, ughh]

Lsrry said...

I know I'm over a day late in responding, but I do hope to have a full response up later today or tomorrow. I will note that it is odd having a demon appear so briefly within a setting that (outside of the never-finished Silmarillion) doesn't seem to incorporate Caananite fire demons.

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