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Monsters And Their Meaning

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, 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?

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sally apokedak
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The monsters that scare me most are the ones who were once human (or hobbit, as the case may be). Like Eustace. Like Gollum. And worse? Edmund and Frodo, well on the way to becoming monsters, beyond saving. It is so clear when you see the white witch and Gollum, that Edmund and Frodo could easily fall that far. Could they then be redeemed? Even the kindness of Frodo proved too weak to save Gollum. The Bible says, “Today when you hear his voice, do not harden your heart.” I think there comes a day when it’s too late. When the heart is too hard. 

That kind of monster–once human and now beyond reach, is the most terrifying monster, I think.  

Paul Lee
Member

I think you’re absolutely right, Sally.  The exposition, “They were men once…” is now cliche, but it is still as powerful and alarming as when Aragorn explained the Nazgûl.  The terror of the Nazgûl is both that they were men once, but now they are twisted “wraiths” (the word evokes bentness, wrongness, ghostliness, and wrath all at the same time).  They can also turn you into something like themselves, which evokes terror of the possibility for such a terrible transformation.  I felt that terror keenly when as a teenager I read passages from the Bible about apostacy and the unpardonable sin.

The Forsaken from Robert Jordan The Wheel of Time is another example of horrifying once-human monsters.  The really terrible thing about the Forsaken is that they are still human, externally, but their absolute depraved amorality combined with their vast magical powers and the immorality that they obtained by selling themselves to the Devil causes them to be feared by the people of Jordan’s world as if they had always been demons.  And there is a theme in the series that all humanity has the capacity to become as dark as the Forsaken.  Several of the main character fight the temptation to become the Forsaken, in various ways,  in some cases literally.  As a reader, I thought the horror was very effective.

sally apokedak
Guest

And…great article, by the way.

Kessie Carroll
Member

Very good article! I happen to love monsters, good and bad (Pokemon, anyone? Yes, I’ve caught them all.)
 
Speaking of really frightening monsters, the Weeping Angels from recent Doctor Who mythos are way up there. They’re only statues as long as you look at them. So don’t blink, because they move like lightning. (I now see angel statues EVERYWHERE.)
 
Or how about the Silence? You forget about them as soon as you look away from them. So they can be coming to kill you, and as soon as you turn to run away, you forget you were running away.
 
Those monsters work because they tap into the primal fears of the human heart. Don’t look away! What’s in your brain that you’ve forgotten? Did something just move out of the corner of your eye? (Prisoner Zero.)
 
I’m more a fan of friendly monsters. The reluctant dragon, the werewolf who fights for his loved ones, the sea monster who offers the heroes a ride. Our world is full of amazing animals that are nothing more than monsters. The first Europeans to see ostriches, giraffes and elephants had nothing to compare them to. That’s why everybody laughed at Marco Polo. He came back with tales of monsters. But real-world monsters can be tamed. You can learn their ways and speak their language (like those people who studied wolves or gorillas).
 
In fantasy, there’s good monsters and bad monsters. The bad ones are the killers, the devourers. Or the insidious insect that worms into your brain and makes you evil, like in the Wind on Fire trilogy (the last book has it, I think). Books like the Dark Materials or The Princess and Curdie play with showing a person’s inner self by giving them an animal that represents their soul. Who would you rather hang around with, a man with a golden retriever, or a man with a cockroach?
 
So yes. I could go on and on about this. I heart me some good monsters. 🙂

Literaturelady
Guest
Literaturelady

Wow, great topic and great questions! 
 
Honestly, I think the redeeming of monsters depends on your definition of “monster”–whether the word refers to an terrifying appearance (external monster) or an evil heart (internal monster).  And then with those two types of monsters, I think the word “redeemed” could also use some redefining.  I typed out a long comment (and I do mean a long one) in the box here; then realized I needed to think through the matter a little more.  Maybe I’ll return and post my full thoughts later.
 
But as for the monsters that scare me the most, they tend to be the internal monsters, the evil hearts; and not just that, but the villains who mirror events, attitudes, and aspects in this life.  Captain Beatty and the Fahrenheit 451 world is frightening because of its reality:

“[Book burning] didn’t come from the Government down.  There was no dictum, no declaration, no censorship to start with, no!  Technology, mass exploitation, and minority pressure carried the trick, thank God. … Not everyone born free and equal, as the Constitution says, but everyone made equal,  Each man the image of every other; then all are happy, for there are no mountains to make them cower, to judge themselves against.”

 
Or the Capitol from The Hunger Games because that attitude of violent entertainment, the destroying of the sacredness of human life, the “fun lifestyle” pursuit, is where America already is.
 
Or Mr. Curtain from They Mysterious Benedict Society, who found ways to manipulate fear into doing his work for him–if you read the book, you’ll find it’s not as cheesy as it might sound.  🙂
 
So anyway, thanks for posting your thoughts and asking for ours!
 
Blessings,
Literaturelady

Galadriel
Guest

Honestly, I think the redeeming of monsters depends on your definition of “monster”–whether the word refers to an terrifying appearance (external monster) or an evil heart (internal monster). 

Exactly right! I totally agree with that. And as for monsters that are assumed to be evil–first we have to establish if we mean sentient evil or merely animal hostility.  Because if they are sentient evil, then we have the possibility of redemption, whereas animal hostility can only be tamed. Secondly, we have to look at all traditions–Asian dragons are benevolent deities, not the hostile beings of Western tradition. We also have to look at the defining characteristics—because vampires must drink blood, I have more issues with good vampires than with good dragons or centaurs.

Fred Warren
Member

I think Wicked did something like that (if I have the right title) when it told the story of Oz’s wicked witch of the west by explaining how abused and misunderstood she was. The monster, then, becomes understandable and sympathetic, someone that should be accepted.

I don’t want to say too much about this and leave myself nothing for next week, but I think the stage play has more of this tone than the book, which didn’t seem to me as much of an apologetic for the witch as an explanation. Yes, she’s neglected, shunned, abused, manipulated, betrayed, etc, but she begins life as an intelligent, strong-willed, idealistic woman capable of overcoming her ample share of adversity. Instead, she surrenders to despair and is consumed by her own bitterness and obsession. She’s turned to wickedness in the end, but she bears the responsibility of her own choices. It’s not acceptable, though it might be understandable in that we’ve seen the twists and turns of her path into evil. Her story didn’t have to end that way, and it’s tragic. Wicked may be saying that witches are made, not born, but it also indicates they have a hand in their own making.

I think the monster is often a reflection of ourselves–our fears, our passions, our sin, our worst impulses unbridled and writ large. To master the monster is to wrestle with the forces that work to transform us into the personification of evil, and this is a noble struggle. Characters like the Hulk and Professor Lupin spend their whole lives fighting that fight. Galadriel and Frodo grapple with it and win out. Some characters, like Elphaba, and Loki, and Tom Riddle lose the fight, or worse, embrace the darkness without reservation.

Then again, there are some monsters that just want to eat your brains.

Teddi Deppner
Guest

Great discussion! Just about everything I would have said has been covered in the comments, except one tiny little corner.
 
When discussing the question of whether a redeemed monster should be transformed (into something less monstrous, or perhaps returns to his original humanity as in the case of vampires or such), it was mentioned that we ourselves (as redeemed humans) are changed and are still changing. There is a life-long process of sanctification that might be well represented by a redeemed monster keeping his monstrous form.
 
I would add to that one further small step: The Bible speaks of our “glorified bodies”, that somehow a final transformation of our physical forms is reserved for some future time. For my own story world, where werewolves are perhaps genetically tainted by the DNA of fallen angels, this gives me the final theological “out” I needed. Some readers have asked me, “How can you reconcile these werewolves being ‘saved’ when they are abominations that God wanted wiped from the earth? Their DNA is corrupted and they are not human, they are exempt from salvation.” Although this wasn’t a big concern for me, I don’t like loose ends, so I pondered it for quite some time.
 
Once I realized that even “bad DNA” could be finally overcome when they are given their “glorified bodies”, then I was content.
 
My characters experience a very realistic variety of redemptive results after salvation. Some are instantly delivered of demonic curses or physical manifestations and addictions. Others go through a process, where as they follow Christ they learn to resist and overcome the things that plague them. Some revert from monster form to fully human. 
 
Anyway, totally enjoyed all the comments and much thanks to Becky for the great post!

Fred Warren
Member

But my point is precisely what Teddi said–if we confuse noble acts with redemptive acts, then we’re giving a false idea. Trying hard, doing good, even sacrificing one’s self does not satisfy God’s requirement.

Agreed. That’s what I was talking about with regard to heroism not being sufficient. Teddi’s right in that we’re in violent agreement about most of this and are talking past each other to some degree. 🙂
I wonder, though, if we’re leaning toward a narrow definition of “redemptive acts” that limits Christian fiction to historical narratives or direct allegory of Christ’s death and resurrection, a restriction we’ve argued against in the past here at SF. If that’s the case, I don’t think there’s much danger of confusing heroism with redemption. You can’t really have Redemption without the Redeemer, either literally or figuratively.

But I think it’s an important point that even Frodo was subject to the power of the ring. None are righteous, no, not one.

Fair enough. Of course, this doesn’t explain Galadriel’s triumph in her brief struggle with the seduction of the Ring. In what way was she superior to Frodo? How are we to define righteousness or its lack, in the Christian understanding of the word, in a fantasy setting like Tolkien’s?

None are righteous, no, not one.

At least not in the measure of sinlessness, as compared to God, or by our own power or merit. The Bible does, however, spend a lot of time identifying righteous people and their characteristics and acts, so I think, even in the Christian context, the definition is broader than purity alone. We are born into sin, but we are called to righteousness.