Monster narratives

Speaking of monsters, as well as Frankenstein, I was thinking about how we define monsters in everyday life and popular narratives and how we give them meaning. I happened upon this story about a man with a peculiar deformity that makes his skin turn into tree bark and roots. The question is, is he perceived as monstrous? And what makes him appear monstrous?  There were some comments that make him out to be horrible, repulsive, there were even people who decided not to read the article out of disgust. I didn’t think he was monstrous, though. I think his deformity has an interesting symbolism. It’s probably hard to live with it, but to me he carries the quintessential traits of a Green Man. Also, there are many mythological figures transformed into trees: Daphne, Acantha, Pitys, Myrrha, Cyparissus, Phyllis, Attis, Leucothoe, Philemon and Baucis. So actually people-trees have a long distinguished history in poetic, religious and popular imagination.
But I think that this living man-tree is not monstrous also for other symbolic reasons. Some time ago I was dealing with the issue of monstrosity in general and what makes a person/protagonist/entity monstrous. Why does a certain physical deformity result in a monstrous being while another one does not? Why is a mermaid not perceived to be a monster while other creatures are? It depends on the symbolic meaning implied in the deformity, which depends on the social/symbolic meaning of the body part that happens to be deformed. Since every body part has a meaning and reflects (in popular imagination) a specific aspect of human dignity, its deformation leads to a reevaluation of the “meaning” of the person. There are certain body parts that you can’t mess around with, such as the human face. It is the receptacle of identity and the essence of humanity. There are others that can be problematic, like feet, but are more flexible in the potential symbolic outcome if they happen to be deformed. The mermaid has a fishtail and that’s ok, but then Baba Yaga’s house has chicken legs and that’s monstrous. Others are safe and usually don’t alter the meaning of a person in a negative way, like hair (Pinocchio’s Blue Fairy) , a mark on someone’s skin (Harry Potter), etc. Probably the lower body is easier to manipulate with less negative consequences while the upper body is more important and any transformation would be more problematic; skin and other “wrapping” are safe. But it usually depends on the specific case and narrative circumstances. I am looking for other interesting examples!


6 responses to “Monster narratives

  1. rhapsodysinger

    Indian ghosts are of two types, one is the purely spiritual. The other type is both spiritual and at the same time solidly real.
    And in eastern India greatly tall men have been demonised into the second type of ghosts. they are supposed to live in bael trees.
    Liked ur post…unique and interesting…

  2. Thank you for the comment and additional info, rhapsodysinger. Indian motifs are a rich source of influence on Western popular culture that I need to study more… I’ll definitely look into those creatures you are mentioning.

  3. rhapsodysinger

    They are called “brahma” demons. Now as you already know from say, Emerson’s poetry, Brahma is the all pervading Deity, somewhat like the Greek Logos or its later development, the Word…Now the interesting part is that there tends to occur a constant juxtaposition between the good and the bad in Indian folktales…in fact Monist ( Advaita ) Vedanta sees everything as one, like a sort of Leibnitz’s monad… so there is no evil as in Islam or Judaism…thus Indian monsters are really not bad or have permanency…thanks. I find your blog very intriguing. Am researching and doing my PhD on American monsters and their presence in literature.

  4. Very interesting, rhapsotysinger. Thanks for sharing your knowledge of brahma demons. I am afraid I can’t help much with the American monsters, but am very curious about your project. I’ll have to make an extended visit on your blog to learn more.

  5. I published some more bridges, but scarcely few are my own photos, generaly they are took by more gifted friends. Anyway, they’re beautiful.

  6. Thanks for the note – I’m going to have a peek 🙂

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