Monsters are people too.
Posted December 9, 2010on:
Once upon a time I was a graduate student in philosophy. (Please contain your shock.) There is a great deal to be said for and with philosophy, and I think fantasy as a genre is a great way to say and think it. One key area in which these two subjects overlap is that of monsters.
To most people, I suppose, a monster is any creature that poses a threat to a major character (i.e., ourselves) and usually represents an evil power, to boot. I took a class in school on the subject of Aesthetics, and I did my term paper on the subject of horror and monsters, based on a book that had recently come out called The Philosophy of Horror, or Paradoxes of the Heart, by Noel Carroll. His claim was that monsters instill in us a feeling of horror because they transcend boundaries that we use to categorize the world around us. They break our neat little pigeonholes, confuse our categories, leave us ignorant and bereft even of words to think of them with, thus simultaneously terrorizing us and filling us with disgust, the two components of horror. (My apologies to Mr. Carroll if I’ve misstated his position, even in brief. It’s been a while since I read the book.)
While I don’t argue with his position regarding fear, I did find his arguments regarding disgust to be less than compelling. I don’t believe that our categories are so hard and fast as all that. I don’t believe we learn about the world so much as we experience parts of it and make up stories to explain what we just experienced. These stories get condensed into words. ‘Learning’ is when we are given a sound by someone else, assume it to be a word like the ones we already know, and then try to create a story that will give it the meaning it seeems to have based on how the other guy used it.
So we don’t get words like ‘spider’ as a given thing, we invent it. So it’s perfectly feasible for us to revise that word to include other concepts like ‘giant’. A giant spider, however terrifying it might be, is not an object of revulsion per se. Giant gila monsters even less so.
There is only one category which is in a sense ‘given’ to us, ourselves. My idea of a man is based on my experience of myself. You are considered a man by me to the extent that my experience of you is like my experience of me. (In fact, my idea of everything is based on how closely it resembles my idea of me, but that’s a little deep for this post so I’ll just leave it lie.)
It follows then that the only real monsters are humans. Undead? Yes. Mutants? Possibly. Zombies? Sure. Not that monsters have to be supernatural, there are lots of evildoers in the real world that qualify, but in fantasy we get to make the more abstract forms of wrongness real. The Incredible Shrinking Man was not evil, exactly, what filled us with horror was that he’d become prey, first to the cat, then to the spider, shich had become giant only because he’d become small. The true monsters of LOTR are Saruman, Sauron, the Nazgul, people who knew better and corrupted themselves, not the balrog, not even the orcs and trolls.
I make this point in A Warrior Made as follows:
“You mean its name?” replied Janosec. He looked over to his uncle in confusion. “Why would a monster like that need a name?”
Tarkas shook his head negatively. “She means its kind, nephew,” he clarified, and projected his next comment forward, “It was called a grunt.”
She snorted. “Appropriate.”
Tarkas continued, for Janosec’s benefit now, “Nor was it a monster. Monstrous, perhaps, but all of the true monsters I’ve had to deal with had names.”
She snorted, dismissing the point. “Monster or monstrosity, I wager the distinction never stayed your sword.”
“You have already lost,” the Hero said quietly…
Tarkas kills monsters simply because they exist, but not monstrosities. Not unless they become a threat.
What’s your take?