Monsters, according to one definition, are fictional creatures that are “often hideous and may produce fear or physical harm.” Speculative genres—fantasy, science fiction, horror, supernatural—all employ monsters of one type or another. Some, perhaps most, have roots in European literature, but there are a handful of other sources.
Those from Europe include Classic Greco-Roman mythology, Norse and Icelandic sagas, and Celtic mythology and folklore. The monsters associated with these stories include Cyclops, gorgon such as Medusa, the furies, dragons, trolls, werewolves, goblins, banshee, witches, the hydra, and vampires.
Then there are the creatures that aren’t inherently evil but who are different, powerful, or magical and thus, frightening: the centaur, nymphs, harpies, dwarves, fairies, elves. Some of these have both good and evil renderings while some are primarily “neutral,” though playful and mischievous, so they may create chaos for humans.
European literature does not have a corner on monsters. Perhaps the most famous and influential are those from ancient Sumer, told in the “Epic of Gilgamesh.” Ancient India, East Asian legends, and tales from the Islamic Middle East are also sources for well-known monsters: jinn and genie, ogres, ninja, ghouls, half-human half-animal hybrids, spirits, and demons.
Of course the Bible is also a source of monsters which find their way into speculative literature. From the Nephilim to leviathan, behemoth, angels, the dragon, demons, and the beast of Revelation, creatures appear, figuratively or literally, in the pages of Scripture, becoming the basis of fictitious monsters.
Interestingly, some of the most well-known and frightening monsters have come as new inventions from the minds of the authors who imagined them. In all likelihood, the authors borrowed aspects of other creatures in monster lore to create their own, but the creatures they concocted were not reproductions of what went before. Some of these include J.R.R. Tolkien’s Balrog, Shelob, and Nasgûl, Lloyd Alexander’s Cauldron Born, J.K. Rowling’s dementors, Mary Shelley’s monster created by Dr. Frankenstein, and H.P. Lovecraft’s Cthulhu.
Science fiction perhaps more than other speculative fiction relies on the invention of monsters, whether H. G. Wells’s Martians, the Borg in Star Trek The Next Generation and Voyager, or Jabba the Hutt in Star Wars. These inventions often consist of what contemporary society finds ugly or offensive or disgusting or evil.
Some writers take monsters and re-envision them. Thus, vampires become love interests instead of deadly beings from which to flee (the Twilight series by Stephenie Meyers). Dragons are good instead of evil, protected from dragon hunters by an act of God (Dragons In Our Midst series by Bryan Davis). Elves are noble and wise rather than mischievous or selfish (Tolkien’s The Lord Of The Rings).
Monsters, then, can be redefined. What looks dangerous or deformed may, in fact, be a tortured being in need of a friend (Merian C. Cooper’s King Kong and Shelley’s monster).
What do monsters “achieve” in fiction? They may represent what mankind does not understand and therefore what frightens us. I remember as a child meeting a boy with a facial deformity. He frightened me because I didn’t know what had happened to him. I couldn’t help wondering if I might “catch” what he had. In the 1800s greedy charlatans at times took advantage of people with physical deformities, purposely playing them to be monsters and displaying them for others to gawk at and recoil. In fiction, perhaps looking at what we don’t understand moves us closer to acceptance, to charitable treatment, to a spirit of caring.
Monsters may also stand in for a part of ourselves that the Christian knows to be the sin nature [see Christopher Miller’s recent post “Writers Slay Dragons (and you should too)”]. In his apologetic of horror, guest blogger Brian Godawa said, ” Monsters become metaphors for wickedness suppressed in unrighteousness and its outcome.”
Thirdly, they may show the very real forces of evil against which Scripture says we war. “For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the powers, against the world forces of this darkness, against the spiritual forces of wickedness in the heavenly places” (Eph. 6:12). Monsters, then, represent the reality of invisible spiritual forces and the actuality of a struggle between good and evil.
Monsters can also show a particular trait—greed, over-indulgence, hunger for power—that clarifies an aspect of human nature. For example, Jabba the Hutt, with his repulsive slug-like appearance, taking what he wanted, acted as a mirror for those who use people and hoard goods. As Godawa put it, “We are revealed to be no different than zombies, bloodsuckers, and other monsters in our social injustice and cultural degeneracy.”
One final question. Can monsters be redeemed? C.S. Lewis had perhaps the best monster-redemption scene in literature when Eustace Scrubb as a dragon met Aslan in Voyage of the Dawn Treader. Though Eustace hadn’t been a “bad dragon,” and perhaps a better dragon than he had been a boy, he was nonetheless a monster. Once he encountered Aslan, however, he ceased to be one.
In short, perhaps monsters that are only perceived as monsters can be accepted, but monsters that are truly monstrous can be redeemed if they are changed. Will they inevitably be changed if redeemed? Andrew Peterson seems to challenge that notion in Monster in the Hollows.
What are your thoughts about monsters in literature? Do you prefer those that are familiar or new ones an author has invented? What are the ones you find most frightening? Do you agree or disagree that monsters can’t stay monsters and be redeemed?