In a ravine she lived, and took shape as a spider of monstrous form, weaving her black webs in a cleft of the mountains. There she sucked up all light that she could find, and spun it forth again in dark nets of strangling gloom, until no light more could come to her abode; and she was famished.
J.R.R. Tolkien, The Silmarillion
(…) none could rival her, Shelob the Great, last child of Ungoliant to trouble the unhappy world.
J.R.R. Tolkien, The Two Towers
Spiders are eight-legged creatures very well known to people all over the globe. Some find them interesting, endearing even, while others find them repulsive, and most often frightening. Arachnophobia, otherwise known as an irrational fear of spiders and other arachnids, such as scorpions, is quite common, in various degrees. Looking at, or even just thinking about spiders, can often cause feelings of uneasiness and fear, which is believed to be an instinctive response since spiders can sometimes be extremely dangerous. Taking these facts into consideration, it is no surprise that spiders have often appeared in fantastic literature, mainly in the role of evil creatures, or as creatures serving the forces of evil, and Tolkien’s works were no exception.
Spiders in fantastic literature
There are several reasons why spiders are used in fantastic literature, as author Bob Mesibov listed in his article Tolkien and Spiders, number one being the fact that spiders are predatory creatures, who prey on living food, which is by itself enough to evoke unpleasant images in the human mind. Another reason may be their frightening web-spinning skills and their armament, even though Tolkien often refers to the cobwebs as things of beauty. Also, the spiders’ appearance may be another reason for their common mentions in fantastic literature. They are generally considered to be ugly creatures, with their hairy bodies and numerous eyes, along with their fangs, which they use to bite their prey, injecting in it their venom. A combination of all these reasons could be the explanation as to why spiders are portrayed in fantastic literature as evil, predatory creatures. To name a few examples, an important figure in African folklore is a spider named Anansi, who used to tell stories, and is often used as a representation of all stories; in Stephen King’s novel It, one of the forms the murdering monster transforms into is that of a huge spider; in the very popular role-playing game Dungeons and Dragons, there is a goddess named Lolth, who is also known as the Queen of Spiders; and one of the rare examples of a spider not being portrayed as entirely evil is the spider Aragog, from the Harry Potter series. Spiders are also a part of Tolkien’s story Roverandom, where they are portrayed in a somewhat positive light, even though the physical description does not differ from that of the spiders in The Hobbit.
Spiders in Middle-earth
As seen in the previous paragraph, throughout the years, spiders, or spider-like creatures, have infested many fictional worlds, and not even Middle-earth was immune to the relentless infestation by these foul beings. It is unclear what motivated Tolkien to add these creatures to his works since his feelings towards spiders were never clearly stated by him. Although some theories speculate that this could be related to an incident from his childhood, when he was bitten by a tarantula in South Africa, Tolkien himself never confirmed this, and he even stated that he has no memory of the incident. In several of his letters and interviews, he states that he does not have a fear of spiders, but prefers not to deal with them and that the purpose of adding these creatures into his novel The Hobbit was to scare his son Michael, who had a fear of spiders. It can only be assumed that the same reasoning applies to his other works, but there is no certainty.
Although spiders did not play a significant role in the major conflicts in Middle-earth, such as battles, their influence on the world itself cannot be ignored. Certain individuals were responsible for various events that altered the existing world of Middle-earth, in ways no one could imagine, and by doing so, they influenced the lives of everyone existing in the world mentioned. Little is known about how they came into the world, although there are several theories. However, the presence and influence of certain spiders are well-known and described in Tolkien’s works. During the First Age, there existed a monstrous spider named Ungoliant, who formed an alliance with the Dark Lord Melkor to spread darkness throughout the world. Spiders reappear during the Third Age and are met by Bilbo Baggins in Mirkwood, and by Frodo Baggins and Samwise Gamgee in Cirith Ungol. The notorious spider of the Third Age, Shelob, was a direct descendant of the mentioned Ungoliant and shared many characteristics with her predecessor. In the following paragraphs, the stories of the mentioned spiders will be described in more detail.
The First Age was riddled with evil creatures and unpleasant events, the main villain being the Dark Lord Melkor or Morgoth. However, during some of those events, Melkor had a dreadful ally, a spider named Ungoliant. The origin of the name Ungoliant is in her earlier name in Quenya, Ungweliantë, a combination of the words ‘ungwë’ and ‘liantë’, meaning ‘dark spider’. Ungoliant is a Sindarin version of her name, and the noun ‘ungol’, meaning ‘spider’, is found in the name Cirith Ungol, which directly translates to ‘Cleft of the Spider’. She was also known by many other names, such as Gloomweaver, Gwerlum, Móru, Delduthling (Noldorin name), and Wirilómë.
Not much is known about how she came into the world during the First Age. Some of the Eldar believed that she arose from the darkness around Arda, when Melkor first enviously gazed upon the Kingdom of Manwë, and was one of the first beings to be corrupted by Melkor in order to serve him. However, Ungoliant had a will of her own, and soon she disowned her Master, in order to feed on the light of the world to feed her emptiness, and eventually made her abode in Avathar. There she sucked up all the light surrounding her, and wove dark webs, which prevented light from reaching her, and, as a result, her hunger for the light grew. It was then that Melkor found her again, and asked her to help him in his plot to destroy the Two Trees of Valinor. Ungoliant was at first reluctant to do so since she feared the power of the Valar and also feared coming out of hiding, but Melkor knew what she desired, and offered her exactly that. Melkor promised her that if she helped, he will give her whatever her lust demanded, and explicitly stated that he will do so with both hands. Her insatiable hunger and lust overcame her, and she agreed to aid him, so the alliance was formed. However, it would soon be clear that Melkor should not have given that promise as lightly as he did. Melkor set his plans in motion and started moving towards Valinor, shrouded by a cloak of darkness that no eyes could pierce, called the Unlight, woven by Ungoliant in order to hide them as they made their way towards their destination. With the help of her webs, they reached the summit of Hyarmentir, overlooking Valinor. She then created a ladder made of woven ropes, thus enabling Melkor to climb into Valinor. It was during one of the high feasts, made by Manwë in praise of Eru, that Melkor and Ungoliant climbed Ezellohar, the green mound upon which the Two Trees of Valinor grew. Upon arriving at the mound, Melkor slayed the Two Trees with his black spear, and their sap poured like blood over Ezellohar. Ungoliant sucked up all the sap and proceeded to drain all life, and light, from the Two Trees, causing them to wither. Driven by hunger, she even drained the Wells of Varda, belching dark vapors as she drank, and as a result, swelled to a hideous and enormous shape that terrified even the Dark Lord himself. Afterwards they both escaped and continued to spread their darkness everywhere they went. Seeing Ungoliant’s monstrous shape, Melkor was afraid, but there was no way for him to escape from her, since she kept all her eyes always on him, fearing he might betray her. So they went on, and eventually arrived at Formenos, the stronghold of Fëanor, where Melkor slew Finwë King of the Noldor and stole all the Jewels of the Noldor, including Fëanor’s beloved creation, the Silmarils. Once again, they escaped under the cover of darkness they spread. When they arrived near Melkor’s stronghold, named Angband, Ungoliant perceived the hope in him and realized that he will try to escape from her and the obligation to fulfill his promise. Therefore, she stayed with him in an attempt to force him to fulfill the promise he had given her in exchange for her help. She demanded that he surrendered all the Jewels of the Noldor, as promised, and as he gave them one by one, she devoured them, forever extinguishing their light in the world. Consuming all that light, she grew bigger and bigger, but still, her hunger was present, and she noticed that Melkor was only giving her the jewels from his left hand. Remembering the promise he gave her, she reminded him that he promised to gift her with both his hands, and in accordance with the promise, he should give her whatever jewels he has in his right hand also. However, Melkor had no intention of giving her the jewels in his right hand for her to devour, since they were the jewels he named to himself, the Silmarils. Angered by his betrayal, she attacked him, overpowering him and enmeshing him in a web to strangle him, after which he cried so terribly that the sound of his cries was heard echoing for many years and the land the terrible cries were uttered in became known as Lammoth, the Great Echo. Melkor’s cries of desperation were heard by the Balrogs, who dwelt under the ruins of Angband, and hurried to aid their Master. They burned all the webs made by Ungoliant, and with their attack forced her to flee into Beleriand and, later on, she settled below the mountain known, because of her presence there, as Ered Gorgoroth, or Mountains of Terror. There she mated with, and devoured, various other foul creatures, creating her terrifying offspring, which is why, even after her departure, the valley below Ered Gorgoroth was infested with her offspring. The valley was later named appropriately Nan Dungortheb, meaning the Valley of Dreadful Death. The fate of Ungoliant remains a mystery, although some stories suggest that her insatiable hunger made her devour herself at last. In some earlier versions of The Silmarillion, Tolkien imagined a different fate for Ungoliant, one where Eärendel (or Eärendil in later versions) meets her on one of his journeys, and eventually slays her. Be that as it may, the published version of The Silmarillion suggests that she remained in Nan Dungortheb, where she perished under unknown circumstances.
Shelob the Great
One of the most notorious descendants of Ungoliant is undoubtedly Shelob the Great, who existed in the Third Age and dwelt in Cirith Ungol. Regarding her origin, she is one of the offspring of Ungoliant, who came from the Mountains of Terror, along with her offspring, who spread all across Ephel Dúath, Mirkwood, and other areas. Also, it is mentioned that Shelob was in Middle-earth even before Sauron, which suggests that she was born sometime during the First Age. Her name is of Western origin, meaning ‘female spider’, combined from the English word ‘she’ and the slang term ‘lob’ (spider). She was also called Her Ladyship by the Orcs roaming near Cirith Ungol. The very place Cirith Ungol owes its name to her presence, but how she came to dwell there is unknown. Shelob is described in great detail in The Two Towers:
‘’(…) the most loathly shape that he had ever beheld, horrible beyond the horror of an evil dream. Most like a spider, she was, but huger than the great hunting beasts, and more terrible than they because of the evil purpose in her remorseless eyes. Those same eyes that he had thought daunted and defeated, there they were lit with a fell light again, clustering in her out-thrust head. Great horns she had, and behind her short stalk-like neck was her huge swollen body, a vast bloated bag, swaying and sagging between her legs; its great bulk was black, blotched with livid marks, but the belly underneath was pale and luminous, and gave forth a stench. Her legs were bent, with great knobbed joints high above her back, and hairs that stuck out like steel spines, and at each leg’s end there was a claw.’’
Shelob fed off all living things, Elves and Men, and her hunger was insatiable, just like that of Ungoliant. However, unlike her predecessor, Shelob formed no alliance with the Dark Lord of the Third Age, Sauron. He knew she existed in Cirith Ungol, but had no plans of using her in his plots. She simply served as a guardian of the pass of Cirith Ungol, and he even sometimes sent her Orc prisoners that she could feed on as a reward, but probably also as a means to prevent her from leaving her lair. Gollum also knew of her existence and during their first encounter, he promised to bring her food if she did not eat him. Even the Orcs in the Tower of Cirith Ungol knew about the ‘’agreement’’ between Shelob and Gollum, so they let him pass whenever he wanted. But Gollum, the sneaky little creature he was, tried to use Shelob in his plot to steal the One Ring from Frodo Baggins. He purposely led him and Samwise Gamgee across the pass of Cirith Ungol and lured them into Shelob’s lair, hoping she will eat them, and he will be able to retrieve the One Ring from the remains. However, his plan failed due to the courage of the two companions, who had a little help from a phial given to Frodo by Galadriel. When Shelob tried to attack Frodo and Sam, they used the phial of Galadriel to make her flee from the brightness of the light, giving them enough time to escape. Sadly, she caught up with Frodo and stabbed him in the neck with her venomous sting, causing a death-like coma. She was finally defeated by Sam, who she tried to crush with her massive body, but instead she impaled herself upon Sting, at which point Sam used the Phial of Galadriel to blind her. Wounded and defeated, she fled into one of the numerous tunnels in her lair, and was not seen again. Her fate afterwards remains unknown, although it is possible that she hid in her lair, healing herself until she could hunt again. Another possibility is that she died of starvation, because of her inability to hunt while blind. Since there is no clear statement of her fate, we cannot say with certainty what happened to Shelob the Great after the events of the Third Age.
Spiders in Mirkwood
Spiders appeared in Mirkwood during the Third Age, arriving with Sauron and covering the forest in dark cobwebs. Even though they were descendants of Ungoliant and Shelob, they were significantly smaller and even weaker than their ancestors. Nevertheless, they were strong enough to attack Thorin and his company of dwarves on their way to Erebor, and cause them many problems. The spiders attacked the dwarves by spinning webs around them and later hanging them on the trees in Mirkwood, planning to eat them later on. However, they encountered an unexpected enemy, Bilbo Baggins. Bilbo, with the help of his magic ring and his sword, attacked the spiders both verbally and physically, and used the confusion created by his attack to free the dwarves and reunited, they fled from the spiders. It is clear that these spiders were only lesser offspring of some bigger, and more powerful spiders, but fortunately, they caused no great harm to Bilbo and the dwarves.
To conclude, spiders and spider-like creatures have been a part of fantastic literature for many years, and will certainly be for many years to come. Spiders in Middle-earth evoke many negative feelings, such as uneasiness, disgust and fear, which in itself proves why they are an important part of his works. Although they did not participate in any conflicts, their influence on the events that took place in Middle-earth, both in the First and Third Age, is undeniable. Readers often wish that some of the creatures from their favorite stories could come to life, but in the case of enormous evil spiders, I think we can all agree that some creatures are better off living in the pages of a fantasy novel than in the real world.