Feeling Sorry for Shelob

Is evil relative? One of the things that I have learned from my students this quarter is the great strength of the desire to believe that it is. At least, when our discussions about The Lord of the Rings turned to monsters, it was very hard for us to find a way to talk about them that did not presuppose another perspective (i.e. the monsters’) from which their actions would seem not evil as such, but simply self-interested.

Consider, for example, Shelob: there she is in her tunnel, hungry, waiting for meat. And then along come two potential dinners, lured there by a creature who had promised her something juicy to eat, and first one of them blinds her with a terrible light and then the other stabs her in the gut with a sword. Isn’t all of this just a little bit unfair? Would we blame a cat for wanting to catch mice?

Or Sauron. All he wanted, at least at the outset, was to “reform” Middle-earth, correct the errors allowed in its planning by Ilúvatar and the Ainur; much like his master Melkor, who thought only to introduce his own music into Ilúvatar’s theme and spice it up a bit, rather than letting the Void go to waste (as per the Ainulindalë). After all, as Tolkien himself said in a letter to Peter Hastings, even Sauron “was not ‘evil’ in origin.” Nor, at the beginning of the Second Age after Melkor's expulsion, was he yet "wholly evil, not unless all 'reformers' who want to hurry up with 'reconstruction' and 'reorganization' are wholly evil, even before pride and the lust to exert their will eat them up" (Letters, ed. Carpenter, p. 190). And then along come those pesky hobbits, ruining his beautiful plan to unify all Middle-earth under his rule, just when it seemed that his armies would prevail over those sniveling Men who can't tell a good thing when they see it and insist on resisting him.

As long as we are on the side of the heroes (Sam, Túrin, Bard), it seems appropriate for heroes to kill monsters (Shelob, Glaurung, Smaug). That is, after all, what heroes do. But, surely, if we were to tell the story from the perspective of the monsters, it would be the heroes who would be the “bad” guys and the monsters the ones courageously fighting the long defeat, right?

Not so, or so Tolkien would insist. To invoke another monster-slaying story, in which Tolkien was likewise deeply interested: “The overthrow of Grendel makes a good wonder-tale, because he is too strong and dangerous for any ordinary man to defeat, but it is a victory in which all men can rejoice because he was a monster, hostile to all men and to all humane fellowship and joy” (Letters, ed. Carpenter, p. 242). For Tolkien, in fairy-stories like Beowulf—and unlike in “real life”—the whole point is that the monsters have no good side; there is nothing in them to pity because they themselves are unrelieved in their hostility to humankind.

And yet, even for Tolkien, there are monsters and then there are monsters. It is, after all, Frodo’s and, later, Sam’s pity for Gollum that stays their hands when they might otherwise kill him, even if for his murders and treachery he might deserve to be killed; thus it is pity that, in the end, saves Frodo and thus Middle-earth when Frodo claims the ring and yet Gollum is still alive to take it from him. Perhaps, after all, even Shelob and Sauron deserve pity, indeed compassion, if only we could see things from their side.

What interests me here is our apparent reluctance to accept even fictional monsters as monsters, fiend mancynnes, enemies of humanity, evil in and of themselves, not simply in their actions, but in their very being.

I would like to think our resistance has something to do with our reading of Augustine, particularly book 12 of the City of God, where he explains how evil cannot exist of itself, but only as a perversion of good. From this perspective, as Tolkien agreed, there can be no such thing as “Absolute Evil…since that is Zero” (Letters, ed. Carpenter, p. 243). “Satan fell”—and so, likewise, in Tolkien’s mythology, did Melkor and Sauron; they were not created that way. As Augustine would put it, even to exist is to participate in the good; this is how it is possible to recognize evil in the first place, for if there were nothing good to be perverted, then there could be no perversion, ergo no evil.

But does this mean, therefore, that there is something good in Shelob’s lust for the blood of Men and Elves so as to feed her “beloved” flesh or in Sauron’s desire to exercise dominion over the wills of all rational creatures of Middle-earth? Or, for that matter, in Grendel’s rage at the fellowship enjoyed by the inhabitants of Heorot? Perhaps, yes, in the negative, in that it gives the heroes something to fight against, but the argument from relativity would suggest otherwise, to wit, that there must be something good about Shelob’s lust for blood or Sauron’s lust for power or Grendel’s rage such that it only looks evil from the perspective of those against whom it is directed.

What is at stake here, as I hope is now clear, is our willingness to accept that there is such a thing as good, be it existence or humanity or reason or life, against which it is monstrous to fight. Tolkien would doubtless say that in thus arguing we are veering all-too-close to allegory, reducing draco to draconitas, the actual beast to “a personification of malice, greed, destruction, and of the undiscriminating cruelty of fortune that distinguishes not good or bad” (“The Monsters and the Critics”). But this, of course, is the problem: are the monsters inside or outside? Are they our enemies—or are they us?

My guess is that it is so hard for modern readers of heroic epics like Beowulf or The Lord of the Rings to believe in the monsters as monsters because we read with the sneaking suspicion if not of allegory, then of the self-examination that it is the work of the novel (i.e. our usual diet of fiction) to induce. We cannot help but wonder if the monsters are not, in fact, reflections of the worst that we see in ourselves—and so we pity them because we hope for pity ourselves. The problem is that what the monsters do—lust, rage, hate—actually is evil; monsters, as monsters, have no compassion. This was Túrin’s mistake: “being yet bemused by the eyes of the dragon, as were he treating with a foe that could know pity, believed the words of Glaurung” (Silmarillion, p. 214)—and so he became a murderer and, eventually, took his sister as his wife.

Should we feel sorry for Grendel, Sauron, Glaurung and Shelob? It rather depends on why we pity them. Do we pity them because we believe that evil is relative, in the eye, as it were, of the beholder? Or do we pity them because they have turned from the light and no longer participate as they might, in the good? If the former, then our pity itself must surely be evil, a miscarriage of mercy. But if the latter, then our pity must likewise acknowledge that there is such a thing as good and that evil is relative only in respect to the good. The question then becomes not whether we should fight the monsters--we must--but whether in doing so we can recognize that for which we fight: the good to which the monsters are absolutely opposed.

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