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I’ve been playing Dungeons and Dragons (D&D) quite regularly for five years or so now, and so I spend a lot of time thinking about monsters.

But what is a monster?

I’ve been looking through Medieval Monsters by Damien Kempf and Maria L. Gilbert, and at the beginning of the book there is a quote attributed to Alfred Jarry:

“It is common to call any unusual combination of dissonant elements a ‘monster’ … For me ‘monster’ signifies all original, infinite beauty.”

When we think about things we would call “monsters” we tend to imagine something we find horrible in some way. But Jarry seems to use “monstrosity” in a different way, to signify something interesting, exciting, and original. That’s what is truly shocking about a monster: it surprises us because it is unusual and different.

The best D&D players know that “monster” doesn’t necessarily mean “enemy”. They don’t just run in and slay every goblin they see. There are lots of different ways to interact with the strange creatures they meet on their journeys. Perhaps, instead of killing that troll, they might befriend it and persuade it to give them a vital clue that will help them on their quest.

In real life we encounter goblins and trolls all the time: “bugbears” we sometimes call them, those little things, and people, that irritate us. And wise people know that those minor irritations aren’t always the enemies they can seem to be, and you can learn a lot about yourself by paying attention to the things that bother you.

And the monsters of fiction: though the creatures in, say, H.P. Lovecraft’s stories might be far more terrible that those little daily annoyances of real life, if his dreams hadn’t been troubled by these terrifying cosmic visions then the world would never have had those stories to read.

So maybe this is what “monster” can often mean: something troubling and discomforting that an inquisitive and creative spirit will nevertheless always be happy to have encountered. Something that by its very strangeness stirs something new in us and changes the way we see the world forever.

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