Adam Roberts: The Critic Revisits the Monsters

3 Apr

In the first of our series of guest posts, Adam Roberts writes:

Let’s talk Fantasy. Let’s talk monsters.

In Beowulf a hero fights a monster called Grendl who has slaughtered many noble warriors.  He rips off the creature’s arm and it slinks away to die; but then Grendl’s even more monstrous mother returns to avenge her son.  Beowulf pursues her to her lake-bottom home and kills her too.  Finally, as an old man and a king, Beowulf fights a monstrous dragon who has been terrorising the land: he destroys it, dying in the process.
Because it directly inspired J R R Tolkien (its influence is threaded intimately through The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings) Beowulf is a work that haunts contemporary Fantasy.  For of course, bookshops are still full of imitation-Tolkien Fantasies; and the elves, dwarves and Dark Lords he perfected, and the Anglo-Saxon/medievalised European fantasy realm he favoured, are now the genre’s clichés.

In 1936 Tolkien himself delivered a lecture about the poem called ‘The Monster and the Critics’; a profoundly influential intervention into 20th-century Beowulf studies.   It says that the Beowulf scholars had been primarily concerned with the poem’s linguistic, philological and historical interest: in what it told us about the development of the language and about the society and culture of northern Europe in the later Dark Ages.  For such critics, the monsters were embarrassments; gauche story-filler, unworthy of the  noble, uplifting verse in which they were realised.  Tolkien, eloquently and persuasively, disagreed.  For him the monsters were not elements to be explained away; they were the point of the poem.

Things have changed since 1936.  Nowadays, we love monsters; and Fantasy as a mode loves monsters to the exclusion of almost everything else.  Writers have made whole careers finding ways of delivering weirder and gnarlier monsters to their readership; and producers evidently believe that the way to make Wrath of the Titans (in cinemas soon!) even better than its big-budget predecessor Clash of the Titans is to make the monsters bigger, toothier and more photo-realistic.  The problem is: it’s not true.  Our response to such SFX is one of disinterested curiosity, not primal terror.  But the alternative aesthetic approach—that monsters are only scary if they are embedded in an eloquently realised society, culture and language, is anathema to a lot of fantasy, which prefers to sketch its world and populate it characters who are essentially modern folk in medieval fancy dress.  We have learnt Tolkien’s ‘Monsters and the Critics’ lesson too well.

This isn’t only a problem for the schlock-end of genre.  China Miéville is a major contemporary novelist and unashamed about his love for monsters; but the reason his more recent novels—the extraordinary The City and the City especially—are better than his earlier ones is that he has become less fixated on drawing bigger and bigger beasties (as in Kraken, for instance) and more engaged by the complex systems of culture and society.  I might wish that more Fantasy writers would follow a similar trajectory.  Not that monsters should be banished from Fantasy, but that monsters alone aren’t enough. 

All monster and no linguistic-cultural roundedness, like a cake that’s all icing and no sponge, cloys.  The irony is that The Lord of the Rings is centrally interested in culture, history and—above all—language; Tolkien worked for decades at the novel, and much of that work involved him lovingly crafting the context for his story.  And, to go back to his ‘Monsters and Critics’ lecture, his larger point is that world and monster rely upon each other for their artistic success—that to use a term he would have hated, their relationship is dialectical.  Monsters ought not to be befanged CGI diversions; they ought to embody the myth in history. Without them history is too dry; but without their embedding history they are too cardboard.  Or to quote JRRT again:

The significance of a myth is not easily to be pinned on paper by analytical reasoning. It is at its best when it is presented by a poet who feels rather than makes explicit what his theme portends; who presents it incarnate in the world of history and geography, as our poet has done

It has always struck me that one of the most marvellous touches in Beowulf comes near the beginning.  Beowulf arrives at King Hrothgar’s hall, Heorot, to fight the monster, and the poem spends ages telling us just how amazing Heorot is: how magnificently decorated, how tall, how spacious.  In fact this is just a wooden hall, of a size and functionality, though not (being wooden) the durability, of a thousand parish halls up and down the country.  The thing is: 21st-century humanity’s architecture achievements are so staggering that not even mile-high skyscrapers and miles-long bridges can titillate our jaded pallets. Fantasy reacts by scaling larger still: the two mile high towers and battlements of Jackson’s Lord of the Rings movies; the prodigious ice-wall in Game of Thrones (complete with lift to get sentries to the top), Gormenghastly castles the size of cities.  But, like the inflated monsters of Wrath of the Titans this hypertrophy misses the point.  The returns diminish, the effect wanes.  Bigger is not better.  Heorot is just a wooden hall.  What’s cool about it is not the fact that it’s a wooden hall, but that all the characters in the poem think it’s so amazing (Look at its carved pillars! And it has a metal band going round the outside holding the timbers in place!)  This reaction builds a world in which even so humble a structure is a thing of wonder, because Beowulf’s world very few structures are as big.  And because that world is both intensely believable and a world very different to ours, being transported there is a marvellous thing.

Fantasy needs fewer city-sized castles and more plain wooden halls.  Monsters in the former are meh; but if the latter is properly rendered, then and only then will the visiting monster scare us once more.

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