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Comparative Monstrology

Thursday, June 18th, 2009 | Posted by James Enge

You know that you’re an argumentative person when you feel the impulse to argue with something you agree with. This happens to me on an daily, or even hourly, basis. Today’s case in point is a slice from China MiĆ©ville’s recent and (justly) much-linked post, “Five Reasons Why Tolkien Rocks”:

“For those of us who regret the hegemony of the Classicists’ Classics, the chewy Anglo-Saxonisms of Mirkwood and its surrounds are a vindication. We always knew these other gods and monsters were cooler.”

This, of course, is the sound of my ox being gored… by my own damn ox: I’m a big fan of both mythologies (and others besides).

[Monstrous quibbling beyond the jump.]


_____

In some significant ways, Norse mythology is cooler than Classical mythology. The Norse gods can be heroic because they can suffer and die (and are doomed to do so). The Greek gods can’t. They may look like us, but they aren’t really like us; there’s a gap that sympathy and affection can’t cross. Advantage: Norse.

As far as heroes go, I think it’s a wash. Norse mythology has a lot of great heroes–Starkad and Wayland and Grettir and so on. But the classical world has at least as many and probably more variety. The hot-headed young Achilles could have stepped straight onto a Viking ship with a minimum of trouble (and an Old Norse-Mycenaean Greek dictionary), likewise Odysseus (who wouldn’t have needed a dictionary; he’d trick the Vikings into learning Greek). The cold-blooded social-climber Jason is a different story, and the sharp-witted clown Hercules is yet another–he’s many stories, a library of stories, most of which don’t belong in the same biography. But if you include Icelandic family saga and Roman history (often crossing into legend) the heroes (of both genders) get too numerous to really keep track of. So I’ll call this a draw.

And the setting for Norse mythology is just preferable to some people: Norse myth is dark, foggy and drinks beer or mead. Classical mythology is bright, hot, and drinks wine. It depends on what you like. All this is the sound of me being reasonable.

But I refuse to be reasonable on the subject of monsters. There’s no way Norse mythology can compete with Classical myth in the way of monsters. I nod respectfully to the Grendelkin as I say this; I bow in the general direction of Fafnir and Beowulf’s dragon, and the Fenris-Wolf and so on. But in fact the monster is very often just a place-holder in Norse myth–a plot-coupon the hero collects on his way through the story.

Take the Yule-beast that Bodvar Bjarki defeats when he comes to the court of Hrolf Kraki. It’s got wings; it shows up; Bodvar’s sidekick screams; Bodvar kills the beast. That’s it. There’s refraining from over-description so that your audience has scope to exercise its imagination, and then there’s just not describing stuff; the Yule-beast falls into the latter category. I like to picture the beast along the lines of Tenniel’s Jabberwock, burbling through the Tulgey Wood, so the scene works for me. But I don’t think it works on its own.

On the other hand, consider Polyphemus the Cyclops. He’s got one eye (and not because he lost one); he herds gigantic sheep; he lives alone in a cave with his sheep and his memories; he doesn’t like strangers who eat his cheese, so he traps them and kills them and eats them. This paints a vivid picture in the mind without giving too much detail (e.g. his unhappy one-sided romance with Galatea, a sort of ST:TNG plot that later writers added to his backstory). And Odysseus defeats him by being what he’s not: Odysseus is cunning where Polyphemus is savage, generous where Polyphemus is selfish, relentless where Polyphemus is weak. The hero and the monster define each other.

And herds of monsters like this darken the hills and valleys and waters of mythological Greece: hundred-handers, fire-breathing donkey-eared giants, giant gray man-eating sows, sphinxes (because smart story-tellers steal from the best), a Freudian smorgasbord of snaky-haired female monsters, blood-drinking ghosts that prey on children: you name it. Greek mythology is the Ralph’s Pretty Good Grocery of monsters: “If you can’t find it at Ralph’s, you can probably get along without it.”

The best monsters are malefic distortions of the real, preying on some deep fear or anxiety in the audience’s mind. And Classical myth has a plenitude of monsters that begin as human. Consider Erysichthon, cursed with perpetual hunger so that he sells everything he can, including his own daughter, to buy food. In the end he devours himself.

For a nightmare like this you have to leave the grim Gothic shades of Mirkwood and go to the sunlit ostensibly rational fields of Classical myth.

6 Comments »

  1. James,
    Great post. I like Norse for the dark atmosphere and the gods’ mortality. I’ve also always enjoyed Classical for some of the great heroes and tales. There are a lot of intelligent Greek heroes, and that helps too.

    Damn, all this talking of mythic monsters makes me want to play Age of Mythology. lol
    Cheers,
    Dave

    Comment by NewGuyDave - June 18, 2009 8:48 am

  2. It’s funny, because Mieville ALSO wrote an essay where he described Tolkien as the “festering boil of modern fantasy,” or something to that effect.

    This is an interesting dichotomy, though, and I wonder where it comes from. Even the Norse monsters that are described are really just big versions of regular things (like Fenris) or sometimes REALLY big versions of regular things (Jormungund).

    I’m curious; I read something somewhere (this should lend it some authenticity!) about how the Cyclopes might have been inspired by old elephant skulls. Was Classical civilization’s comparatively cosmopolitan and, actually I guess comparatively bourgeois, society better suited to weird monsters? Is there something to the idea that the less individual members of a society have to fight actual things, the more imagination they devote to fantastic things?

    Classical India had some pretty crazy monsters, too…

    Comment by braak - June 18, 2009 1:53 pm

  3. Egypt still ruled, one way and another. Herodotus had been to Egypt. Everyone who was a serious trader with ships went to Egypt etc. Egypt had elephants, and everything else that could be found in sub-sahellian Africa.

    Love, C.

    Comment by C - Foxessa - June 19, 2009 1:21 pm

  4. Hey Dave–

    I like a smart hero, too; there are some Norse ones (like Njal).

    Hey braak–

    Adrienne Mayer wrote a great book called “The First Fossil Hunters” where she pursued (really persuasively, I though,t given the problematic evidence base) the idea that many of the monster/hero tales were generated by fossil discoveries.

    Indian mythology is something I’m just dipping my toes into lately; pretty soon I’ll have to dive deep, I think.

    Hey Constance–

    Egypt’s influence is huge in every era of the ancient world–e.g. the Sphinx, fluted columns in Greek temples, mathematics etc. etc.

    Comment by James Enge - June 20, 2009 2:55 pm

  5. @James:

    I think what always struck me about Indian mythology is the sense of just additional civilizations everywhere. It’s not like raksashas were just some horrible monsters that lived in the woods–they had a whole island and a city and, presumably, raksasha bankers and shoemakers and raksasha beauty pageants.

    The same with the Naga; it’s not like the Naga was just one snake-legged guy. There was a whole kingdom of them.

    Comment by braak - June 23, 2009 2:47 pm

  6. […] is the point, in a way that it should almost never be. That might sound weird, coming from a myth junkie like me, but the power of a mythic image in a piece of fiction should be almost unimpaired even if the […]

    Pingback by Black Gate » Blog Archive » On the Other Hand–Amen: The Collected Stories of Roger Zelazny. Volume One: Threshold; Volume Two: Power and Light - July 16, 2009 3:22 am


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