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Two Species of Monster

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This is an undergraduate literature essay from last year. I read it again recently and decided its content is relevant to this site: namely the distinction between allegory and mimesis is really the distinction between political, moral, rational ideas on the one hand, and creative, artistic, mythological and ’emotional’ ideas on the other. It may be surprising for some to realise that rational philosophy, for example, is really, in effect, a variant form of moralism mixed with occasional allegory.

The monster-figure in literature can be interpreted as a primal beast, a representation of the societal or unconscious ‘other’, a challenge to mainstream values, or a particular social, political, or moral evil. Whether the monster is interpreted as one or some or all of these depends upon authorial intention and reader interpretation, influenced by factors both within and outside the text. In this essay, I will compare two modes of presentation employed within a narrative, two modes which have a bearing upon the narrative significance and meaning of monsters – allegory and mimesis. Allegorical monsters take on the form of personified phenomena as part of a figural narrative, such as the dragon Errour in Spencer’s Faerie Queene or Rumour in Ovid’s Metamorphosis. Mimetic monsters, such as Polyphemus in The Odyssey or Grendel in Beowulf, can be said to personify either nothing explicit, an obscure multiplicity of phenomena, or, looked at another way, only themselves. I will examine the implications of these stylistic and hermeneutic modes on these monster-narratives and assess their relative strengths and weaknesses in achieving particular authorial intentions.

Allegory as a literary concept is difficult to classify definitively. This is largely due to many centuries of commentary and scholarship in which the term is often proscribed slightly differently; literary scholar Gary Johnson’s 2012 book The Vitality of Allegory provides the foundation for my understanding of the term. Johnson defines allegory as “a class of works that fulfills its rhetorical purpose… by means of the transformation of some phenomenon into a figural narrative” (8). By “rhetorical purpose,” Johnson means something approximating authorial intention, the meaning the author is trying to convey (10). By “figural,” he approximates ‘metaphoric’: “figuration.. [involves] things representing or standing for other things” (8). However, Johnson notes that allegory is figural in a particular way; “[a]llegory entails duration” (Johnson 14). Thus, allegorical figurations intrinsically involve narrative; the figurations not only pervade the whole narrative but the narrative effects a ‘comment’ on the concept referenced  (Johnson 12). Furthermore, scholars note that there is “a [large] degree of manifest incompatibility between the tenor and the vehicle” (Miller 357); the figural reference “point[s] to an earlier and fuller reality outside itself” (Krieger 4). In other words, allegory entails a reading of the narrative as metaphoric of a relatively specific concept which is extrinsic to the meanings inherent in the narrative taken for itself. Thus, Johnson takes issue with a definition such as this: “[allegory is] a way of giving a narrative form to something which cannot be directly narrativised” (Butler qtd. in Johnson 11). This is too broad; allegorical figurations tend to refer to more specific content (Johnson 11).

A work that achieves a high level of ‘figural narrative transformation’ Johnson designates a ‘strong allegory’ (37). A ‘weak allegory’, he notes, references extrinsic concepts, but it is difficult to specify exactly what these are (54). Animal Farm by George Orwell is the classic example of a strong allegory although it should be noted that strong allegories are generally rare. (Johnson suggests Kafka’s short stories are an example of the weak type (63).)[1] In Orwell’s novel, a narrative involving farm animals is explicitly figurative of the extrinsic concept (and ‘narrative’) of Soviet Communism. This concept is extrinsic as, for instance, Communism itself is never mentioned in the story itself. It may help to contrast such an allegory with a ‘symbolic’ narrative (or a narrative involving symbolism). A symbol differs from an allegory in that the metaphoric reference is more obscure (less precise), and this reference is to ideas more closely related to itself, i.e. “the substance and its representation do not differ in their being but only in their extension” (de Man qtd. in Johnson 14).

As an allegorical monster, Errour in The Faerie Queene has been said to represent “intellectual speculation… learned error” (Waters 283), the “false rationalism of the church of Rome” (Waters 284) or “the temptation to lust” (Klein 177). This multiplicity of references suggests that this is not a strong allegory, however, the fact that such extraneous references could be suggested by a mere “ugly monster plaine” (1.14.6)[2] identifies this as an allegory all the same. Readers of The Faerie Queene understand from the text alone that the author intends to instruct us “in man’s progress toward goodness” (Klein 174-175) and to comment and critique the events and characters of the English reformation (Padelford 1). We are aware that overall it “combines social commentary with moral and epistemological inquiry” (Borris 174), yet it contains few moments of explicit commentary; it is a poetic narrative. Allegory is employed to reference these extraneous and specific allusions, and this is achieved through the author’s stylistic methods.

To signal to the reader that an allegorical reading is required, a delicate balance between verisimilitude and the extrinsic reference is maintained (Kelley 38). The character of Rumour in Ovid’s Metamorphoses provides a simple illustration.

“Picture a space at the heart of the world…
Here there are eyes for whatever goes on, no matter how distant;
and here there are ears whose hollows no voice can fail to penetrate.
This is the kingdom of Rumour, who chose to live on a mountain,
with numberless entrances into her house and a thousand additional
holes, though none of her thresholds are barred with a gate or a door.
Open by night and by day, constructed entirely of sounding
brass, the whole place hums and echoes, repeating whatever
it hears… Rumour herself spies every occurrence
on earth, at sea, in the sky; and her scrutiny ranges the universe.”
(12.39, 41-48, 61-21)[3]

Ovid has essentially personified an abstract concept in this passage; rumour – an extrinsic idea (unrelated to kingdoms, or mountains, and possessing no body with spying eyes) – has become an entity. We are alerted to the allegory by the very perverse incongruity of this ‘mixed mode’, by the precise and explicit nature of the metaphor; “it is the predicates that ‘say’ the one and the (personified) nouns that ‘mean’ the other” (Levin 25). To remove the allegory here, we could substitute the personification noun with an ordinary one (Levin 28) – instead of ‘Rumour’ we could say ‘Sarah’ (or whoever). However, Rumour, to be an effective allegorical monster, cannot be too conceptual or too ‘realistic’. For example, Ovid would struggle to personify a specific rumour or the concept ‘talk’ as these are difficult to caricature simply. Equally, the allegory would collapse if the character of Rumour as described were to undertake too many person-like actions, such as if she were to pull Achilles’ hair or develop a too ‘well-rounded’ personality; rumours are not actual people and cannot literally pull hair (this shatters the figurative unity). Thus, “in allegorical narrative, [discourse] and personification are inversely prominent” (Johnson 66); more of one, less of the other. Allegorical monsters are therefore less well-rounded characterizations and more glyph-like. “The more personal attributes we give our personification, the more we turn it first into a… character type… and finally into.. [an] individual” (Whitman 6) – which would push the allegory out of the reader’s awareness.

errorWe know that The Faerie Queene is an allegory because this balance is sufficiently maintained throughout. The Red Crosse Knight and Una are described without overcomplication of either extrinsic concept or intrinsic characterization; the allegory is apparent – he is a “norm of Holiness” (Padelford 2), she is “Christian Truth” (Padelford 4). Errour appears as a hideous supernatural monster, half-woman, half-serpent. Her very name, Errour, and her hybrid human-animal form alert the reader to another ‘mixed mode’ reference – the mismatch of idea (‘error’) and personification, the extrinsic references of woman and snake in unnatural combination. It is important to note that it is not Errour’s supernatural quality that is distinctive of allegory but the incongruity of the elements; they do not cohere on their own terms. (Does she possess the upper or lower half of the woman? Presumably the upper, but then how do her thousands of offspring fit inside her mouth?) When Red Crosse attacks her, Errour not only spews forth poison and gore but “bookes and papers.” (1.20.6). There is simply no credible way, within the frame of the story itself, that these could have got inside her (let alone remain intact). This signals that allegorical figuration is present.

So the allegorical quality of monsters like Errour involves both thinness of characterization and internal incongruity (‘outsideness’ or ‘artificiality’) to reference the extrinsic ‘other narrative’ idea. When considered dynamically in interaction with other figures and constructs within the narrative, these monsters clarify, educate, or challenge readers’ understandings and opinions about specific extrinsic concepts, events, or ideas. For example, Red Crosse is driven into the Wood of Errour by a tempest. This tempest is often taken to represent the beginning of the Reformation (Whitney 44). It is telling that Red Crosse ends up confronting the foul dragon Errour when he is helplessly lost as a result of this tempest, even though he is accompanied by Una and the dwarf – hence the allegorical meaning: even ‘Truth’ and ‘Prudence’ are confused in the calamity of the Reformation (Whitney 44).

Mimetic monsters have a noticeably different quality within their narratives. I am using the word ‘mimetic’ not so much because these monsters actually resemble (‘mimic’) ‘real’ monster-antagonists. I use ‘mimetic’ mainly in the sense of ‘non-allegorical’; these monsters have a stronger kind of internal ‘reality’. They make some sort of (albeit fantastic) sense within the narrative. Mimetic monsters are more believable. However, this does not necessarily mean they are more realistic in the sense of ‘resembling historical or physical reality’. For example, within the context of a narrative, Hitler is not necessarily a more believable antagonist than Grendel from Beowulf. Hitler may have actually existed in history whereas Grendel presumably didn’t, but both characters can be presented as mimetic, believable monsters; it depends, once again, upon the style and context. In one sense, all the characteristics of an allegorical monster are simply reversed – a mimetic monster is a more complex characterization, more intrinsic to its narrative ‘world’, and either does not suggest figurations, or such figurations are intrinsic and complex or obscure.

The Cyclops Polyphemus in The Odyssey, for example, is a much more well-rounded and complex monster than Errour or Rumour. Once again, the style of the narrative contributes to this impression. Homer’s use of contrasts contributes to a more believable narrative ‘world’. The menace of Polyphemus’ cave is all the more affecting in contrast with the apparently idyllic pastoral scene portrayed beforehand (Murgatroyd 166): the land is “no mean spot, / it could bear you any crop you like in season” (9.143-144),[4] the water-willows are “soft and moist” (9.146), the harbour, “snug” (9.150). This introductory episode, positions Polyphemus out of view contributing to a sense of unease but it also increases identification with Odysseus and his men (Murgatroyd 167); we care about them as people, rather than representative ideas. Johnson remarks, “[i]nstead of thinking about what [the character] represents, we must contemplate… what he will do” (66, emphasis in original).

More contrasts follow: the abject horror we experience when Polyphemus starts devouring Odysseus’ men is contrasted with dark humour as Odysseus tricks the monster into getting drunk on wine (Murgatroyd 168). Furthermore, even though Polyphemus is a loathsome, stupid and primitive monster as initially described, he is presented, briefly, in a sympathetic way, when he cowers in pain at his blinding, and shows a pitiful affection for his ram (Murgatroyd 170). In contrast to the monster Errour, who is “lothsom, filthie, foule, and full of vile disdaine” (1.14.9), and who dwells in a shadowy cave in a dark wood, Polyphemus is much less a black-and-white caricature.

All of this ambiguity and detail makes it very difficult to interpret the story allegorically. The very complexity of Odysseus’ escape plan – involving drink, the blinding, hiding under sheep etc. – cements the events into the specific world of the narrative itself; allegorical figurations would have to reference a parallel extrinsic narrative equally as detailed. Mimetic narratives can of course be read allegorically if a reader should choose to do so; in fact, Homer was often interpreted allegorically in 16th century Europe (Borris 16-20). However, such readings can be rather unconvincing and reductive; a lot of the detail must be overlooked or glossed over. Whitman outlines a section of The Iliad where the 18th century translator, Alexander Pope, capitalizes ‘Grief’ and ‘Rage’, as if these are allegorical personifications when no such personifications are present in the original text. “In Homer it is the person who acts, not the personification,” Whitman remarks (18). It is certainly difficult to conceive of a specific extraneous figurative reference for Polyphemus; he has symbolic rather than allegorical connotations involving the obscure forces of primitive irrationality (epitomized by Polyphemus’ character and actions within the story itself).

When comparing these two species of monster – the mimetic and the allegorical – it is clear that, despite the propensity for mimesis and allegory to overlap sometimes, each monster-type is largely unique and diametrically the opposite of the other. Author and scholar J.R.R. Tolkien was scathing of critics who interpreted his novel The Lord of the Rings as allegory;[5] it must be admitted that allegory and mimesis have very different aims and functions. Even as long ago as the late 18th century, poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge remarked that “[a]llegory cannot be other than spoken consciously” (qtd. in Johnson 34), and he meant this as a criticism. Others complained that allegory “too consciously limits the text’s signifying potential” (Johnson 35), that it “distort[s]… apparently real or material details” (Kelley 31), and that it is “so obvious and so pedantic, so ‘sermonlike’” (Johnson 36). Of course, many of these criticisms were made by those specifically interested in mimesis with its more believable characters and situations, in which “readers leave their present reality, and dwell, for the duration of the story, within the world the writer creates” (Card 158).

A number of 20th century literary critics have disparaged mimetic literature (particularly modern fantasy novels) as populist and ‘escapist’, suggesting that the indulgent nature of the narratives distract, or propagate old-fashioned or harmful social-political ideas (Card 153). However, science fiction writer Orson Scott Card argues that mimetic narratives are not generally read for their social-political comment. In fact, ideology is likely to ruin a mimetic story; after all, “[Fantasy (mimesis)] is at its best when it is presented by a poet who feels rather than makes explicit what his theme portends” (Tolkien 15). ShelobCard uses the example of a mimetic monster, the giant spider Shelob from book 4 of The Lord of the Rings, to illustrate this. In their increasingly desperate and dangerous quest to infiltrate the land of Mordor unseen, hobbits Frodo and Samwise must pass through a dark tunnel inhabited by Shelob. Against enormous odds, Shelob is eventually skewered on the hobbits’ sword and painfully crawls away, apparently to die a painful death elsewhere. If we feel the painful and cruel death of Shelob to be too much for us, that she does not deserve to be dealt this death blow (by one of our heroes no less), Card argues that “the effect is not an argument, but rather a withdrawal from the world of the tale” (Card 164). Either that or the reader ignores the mistreatment of Shelob and tries to move on. Modern readers may feel a similar concern for Polyphemus when Odysseus skewers his eye; this may ‘break the mimetic spell’, as it were, leading to rejection of the ‘reality’ of the story.

So in conclusion, mimetic monsters such as Grendel, Polyphemus or Shelob tend to be characterized by a degree of believability achieved by an obscure complexity of connotations and contrasts in authorial style. These monsters ‘live and breath’ within the narrative structure. However, these qualities pose a problem if the author wishes to reference specific extrinsic ideological evils. In this instance, allegorical monsters such as Errour and Rumour achieve their authorial intentions far more effectively, having the clarity of a particularly pertinent illustrative example in a text book or ideological treatise. Relatively simple, fable-like  characterization allows for specific extrinsic figuration – such that the reader can easily designate their status as personified phenomena and in so doing detect a specific authorial ‘message’. Each species of monster therefore has a unique, exclusive function; rare instances of overlap between allegory and mimesis actually entail reading the same text in two drastically different and mutually exclusive ways.

WORD COUNT: 2520 (not including in-text citations)

Works Cited

Borris, Kenneth. Allegory and Epic in English Renaissance Literature. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2000.
Card, Orson Scott. “How Tolkien Means.” Meditations on Middle Earth. Ed. Karen Haber. London: Earthlight, 2002. 153-174.
Homer. The Odyssey. Trans. Robert Fagles. New York: Viking Penguin, 1996.
Johnson, Gary. The Vitality of Allegory. Columbus: The Ohio State University Press, 2012.
Kelley, Theresa M. Reinventing Allegory. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1997.
Klein, Joan Larsen. “From Errour to Acrasia.” Huntington Library Quarterly 41 (1978): 173-199.
Krieger, Murray. “‘A Waking Dream’: The Symbolic Alternative to Allegory.” Allegory, Myth, and Symbol. Ed. Morton W. Bloomfield. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1981. 1-22.
Levin, Samuel R. “Allegorical Language.” Allegory, Myth, and Symbol. Ed. Morton W. Bloomfield. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1981. 23-38.
MacLean, Hugh, ed. Edmund Spenser’s Poetry. New York: Norton Critical Editions, 1982. 6-19.
Miller, J. Hillis. “The Two Allegories.” Allegory, Myth, and Symbol. Ed. Morton W. Bloomfield. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1981. 355-370.
Murgatroyd, Paul. Mythical Monsters in Classical Literature. London: Gerald Duckworth, 2007.
Ovid. Metamorphoses. Trans. David Raeburn. London: Penguin, 2004.
Padelford, Frederick Morgan. “The Spiritual Allegory of the Faerie Queene, Book One.” The Journal of English and Germanic Philology 22 (1923): 1-17.
Tolkien, J.R.R. “Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics.” The Monsters and the Critics and Other Essays. London: Allen & Unwin, 1983. 5-48.
Waters, D. Douglas. “Errour’s Den and Archimago’s Hermitage: Symbolic Lust and Symbolic Witchcraft.” ELH 33 (1966): 279-298.
Whitman, Jon. Allegory. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1987.
Whitney, J. Earnest. “The ‘Continued Allegory’ in the First Book of the Faery Queene.” Transactions of the American Philological Association 19 (1888): 40-69.

[1] Johnson emphasizes that no value judgment is implied in the terms ‘strong’ and ‘weak’; these “simply designate degrees of allegoricalness” (8).

[2] Quotations from Spenser’s The Faerie Queene taken from MacLean 6-19. References are in ‘canto: stanza: line’ format.

[3] Quotations from Ovid’s Metamorphoses taken from David Raeburn’s translation. References are in ‘book: line’ format.

[4] Quotations from Homer’s The Odyssey taken from Robert Fagles’ translation. References are in ‘book: line’ format.

[5] The concept that the One Ring represents anything as specific and extrinsic as ‘the threat of nuclear war’, for example, may perhaps cause readers to “turn [their] heads away in some embarrassment” (Card 156). This is as dubious as interpreting Animal Farm on the level of an amusing rural fairy-tale such as ‘The Three Little Pigs’ or E.B. White’s Charlotte’s Web.


Written by tomtomrant

10 April 2013 at 11:22 am