Dec 29 2009 5:17pm

LotR re-read: Two Towers IV.9, “Shelob’s Lair”

cover of The Two TowersSo, obviously, we haven’t finished The Two Towers before Christmas like I hoped. Fortunately, its penultimate chapter, “Shelob’s Lair,” is both short and thrilling, well worth squeezing out time to write about among all the work and holiday and travel goings-on.

As always, spoilers for all of The Lord of the Rings and comments after the jump.

What Happens

Gollum leads Frodo and Sam into a reeking, pitch-black tunnel. Frodo and Sam feel a lurking malice and discover that Gollum is no longer with them. As they are approached by a monstrous creature, Frodo uses the Phial of Galadriel, which eventually drives it back.

They flee and Frodo uses Sting to cut through a web that blocks the exit of the tunnel. Frodo, overcome at escaping, runs shouting toward the pass, despite Sting’s glow and a light in the tower’s window. Sam, exercising more caution, puts away the Phial; almost immediately, Shelob, an enormous spider, arrives through another exit and heads for Frodo. Sam calls out but Gollum attacks him from behind. They fight and Gollum retreats, vanishing back into the tunnel. Sam is about to pursue when he remembers Frodo’s danger and turns back, but “He was too late.”


I have a confession to make. It had been so long since I last re-read LotR, when I started this project, and I had discussed its flaws rather than virtues so much more often since then, I think I must have subconsciously formed the impression that its virtues were principally worldbuilding and creating the fantasy genre, that otherwise it was not remarkable.

I say this because I keep being surprised when I get to some specific sentence or paragraph or scene that is really good, whether on a prose level (I am normally pretty deaf to prose, likely a side effect of my lamentable habit of reading too quickly) or, as here, in generating suspense.

Which is to say: this is a fabulously suspenseful chapter. I don’t think I have much to say about it otherwise, so let’s look at how it builds its tension.

The main structural feature of this chapter are the escapes that turn out not to be. Frodo and Sam have been getting more and more uneasy as they walk through the tunnel, oppressed in their spirits and their senses. Then they come to the side-tunnel where Shelob must be, smelling her reek and feeling her malice, and get their first bit of relief when they make it past—which is immediately dashed when first, they realize Gollum has vanished and they don’t know which path to take, and second, they hear Shelob approaching.

First they hear her, then in the light of Galadriel’s Phial they see her—but only her eyes, not all of her. Then a very short false respite, as they are “released from the holding spell to run a little while in vain panic for the amusement of the eyes.” Frodo realizes this and we get a great moment:

Then, holding the star aloft and the bright sword advanced, Frodo, hobbit of the Shire, walked steadily down to meet the eyes.

A much more active escape than simply hurrying past an opening, and it results in a stronger feeling of relief, as Sam exults and they feel strength returning. This, in turn, is stopped by the web across the exit, which is impervious to Sam’s sword. When Frodo cuts the web with Sting, “Wild joy at their escape from the very mouth of despair suddenly filled all his mind.”

Just when they think they’re free is the time Tolkien chooses to tell us exactly what they have encountered: “an evil thing in spider-form . . . . none could rival her, Shelob the Great, last child of Ungoliant to trouble the unhappy world.” Not only does she kill and drink blood, but she influences others to evil:

Already, years before, Gollum had beheld her, Sméagol who pried into all dark holes, and in past days he had bowed and worshipped her, and the darkness of her evil will walked through all the ways of his weariness beside him, cutting him off from lght and from regret.

(Which is quite interesting: I hadn’t remembered this placing of responsibility on Shelob before, or its links to Sméagol’s unhealthy curiosity.)

And this section ends with a comparison to Sauron himself, in case we needed any further reason for fear:

So they both lived, delighting in their own devices, and feared no assault, nor wrath, nor any end of their wickedness. Never yet had any fly escaped from Shelob’s webs, and the greater now was her rage and hunger.

On the heels of this ominous backstory, then, we are primed for Shelob’s full appearance, which promptly follows in all its gruesome glory—and then is displaced by Gollum’s surprise attack on Sam, our point-of-view character. After Sam drives Gollum off, that respite too proves temporary:

like a clap of thunder the thought of Frodo and the monster smote upon Sam’s mind. He spun round, and rushed wildly up the path, calling and calling his master’s name. He was too late. So far Gollum’s plot had succeeded.

It reminds me of, hmm, I don’t have the mechanical vocabulary for it, but something you raise a little bit at a time, pulling up into a new position where it rests for a minute until being raised to the next higher position. (It is also, of course, Le Guin’s rhythmic reversals, which we haven’t talked about in ages.) And it’s impressively effective.

* * *

I only have one other thing to say about this chapter (which is quite short): it has an example of Frodo saying something in Elvish but knowing “not what he had spoken; for it seemed that another voice spoke through his.” I am somewhat more reconciled to as an example of the relatively-weak good supernatural influence in LotR, but it is still not my favorite thing in the book.

And that’s it, really. What am I overlooking in the hecticness of my life at present?

« Two Towers IV.8 | Index | Two Towers IV.10 »

Kate Nepveu was born in South Korea and grew up in New England. She now lives in upstate New York where she is practicing law, raising a family, and (in her copious free time) writing at her LiveJournal and booklog.

Kevin Faulk
1. Kevin Faulk
Could "ratcheting" be the work you're looking for?
Kevin Faulk
2. pilgrimsoul
I think JRRT came to understand pacing and word usage very well. But this chapter is also another masterful example of his incorporation of his mythology that gives such dept and richness to the work.
David Levinson
3. DemetriosX
Something else important about Tolkien's writing in this chapter (though it may be more important in the next when it comes to the actual confrontation) is that he has to overcome readers' expectations based on The Hobbit. When the dwarves fall prey to the giant spiders of Mirkwood, Bilbo manages to defeat them fairly easily, albeit with the use of the ring. Shelob is several orders of magnitude worse than those spiders, but those familiar with them are still going to have certain expectations. Tolkien has to go a lot farther than just saying she is much worse to convey all of the dread and fear he wants to, and he succeeds admirably.
Kevin Faulk
4. DBratman
The spiders in The Hobbit are quite nasty enough, being quite capable of and nearly succeeding at killing all the Dwarves off. But Shelob is worse. And she is merely the "child of Ungoliant"? The naive (pre-Silmarillion) reader has no idea who Ungoliant might be, but the name adds to the awesomeness.

The bit about the voice speaking through Frodo is an example of how the supernatural works throughout LOTR. You cannot sit back and expect your fate to save you, but if you put forth your utmost effort, things may uncannily break your way. Some of us have experienced this, even without the supernatural, in real life, and I find it one of Tolkien's most effective principles.

Some additional points:

Suspense. Frodo originally thought he was going to enter Mordor in chapter 3; instead, it's taken 5 additional chapters to get that far. This itself has added a steady input of low-level suspense to the story for some time, only intensified now when (no surprise) getting in turns out to be really nasty.

Personal analogy. One sure way to identify a cheap psychoanalytic interpretation of LOTR is if it generalizes from Shelob to a declaration that Tolkien hated (or "must have" hated) spiders. He denied anything of the sort. He had - guess what - an imagination. Fancy that!

Decisions. Leaving aside the question of whether they have sufficient information to act on, it's always useful to consider the question of, Are Frodo and Sam making the best tactical decisions at any given moment? This becomes even more critical in the next chapter.
Andrew Foss
5. alfoss1540
You glazed over Super-Stud Sam, who just kicked Gollum's Ass. He begins to reach his ultimate Hero stage here, and just keeps going.

Also, can anyone site chapter and page in the Silmarillian where Ungoliant is discussed? and defeated?
Kevin McCormack
6. kmccmack
I have to mention that this chapter contains one of my favorite pieces of prose.

"his cat her calls her, but she owns him not"

As fine a piece of whimsy as you will find. A truism recognized by all those ruled by felines, seemingly inserted to break the tension, but it further invokes the perceived cruelty of the predator by the prey.
Kevin Faulk
7. DBratman
alfoss @5: Ungoliant accompanied Melkor on his Silmaril-stealing mission. See chapters 8 & 9 of the Quenta in The Silmarillion. She is never utterly defeated, but her fate is described in chapter 14 (p. 121 of the hardcover).
Tony Zbaraschuk
8. tonyz
Sam has fought, a little bit, before (felling an orc in the caverns of Moria), but this is the first time we see him fighting hard. It won't be the last, though we always need to remember that the hobbits don't really -- and can't -- force their way into Mordor. Armies will not decide the fate of Middle-earth, though they may have some impact on what survives.

Ungoliant shows up, primarily, in chapter 8 of the Silmarillion, "Of the Darkening of Valinor", and I think a little bit in the next chapter.

There is some hint in the History of Middle-earth series that Tolkien intended for one of Earendil's adventures on the Great Sea to be the slaying of Ungoliant, but (alas) those tales came never to the telling.
j p
9. sps49
Thank you, Kate, for keeping the re-read going through the holiday break. Tordotcom should be especially appreciative at the content added when more visitors (at least in my part of the world) are home with time to spend online.

I like how you make explicit how the hobbits cannot enter Mordor by force, and this is paralleled by their escape from Shelob- although valor and the First Age blade Sting are needed, the item that daunts her is Galadriel's light.
Kate Nepveu
10. katenepveu
Hi, all. Chateau Steelypips is in considerable disarray at the moment with me & SteelyKid both suffering from colds, but I'll do the best I can while there's a brief moment of peace here.

Kevin Faulk @ #1: ratcheting! Thank you.

pilgrimsoul @ #2, DBratman @ #7, tonyz @ #8: you're all right, I was remiss in not talking more about Ungoliant, who is extremely memorable for all that her appearance in _The Silmarillion_ is so brief. It's worth reading those chapters just for her.

DemetriosX @ #3, good point about the possible reader expectations based on the spiders in _The Hobbit_. They barely crossed my mind because I know just what a difference there is.

Which reminds me: the spiders in _The Hobbit_ talk out loud, as does Ungoliant. I would guess that Shelob does as well (though I could see handwaving the _Hobbit_ spiders away as too twee and claiming that the power of speech was lost to Ungoliant's descendants), but we don't have any indication of that from this chapter or, I think, the next, which makes her more monstrous.

DBratman @ #4, the text certainly disapproves of Frodo's breaking and running after cutting through the spiderweb, but I'm having a hard time stepping back far enough just at the moment to figure out what other things they might have done differently at this point.

alfoss1540 @ #5, I did slide over Sam defeating Gollum, you're right; I think I was saving it for next chapter.

Oddly, on looking at that again, Sam is slightly _smaller_ than Gollum, which is not what I expected (being familiar with humans shrinking as they age).

kmccmack @ #6, I am ashamed to say that I had mentally read "his cat he calls her, but she owns him not" with the pronouns reversed in the second half, which rather misses the point. Thanks for calling it to my attention.

sps49 @ #9, thanks, and glad to be here, as much as possible. Yes, _LotR_ is very much a "force necessary but not sufficient" universe, isn't it?
jon meltzer
11. jmeltzer
I suppose Faramir really should have told Frodo and Sam that "Cirith Ungol" meant "Spider Pass" ... :-)
Kevin Faulk
12. pilgrimsoul
@ jemltzer 11
Or maybe Faramir was thinking in terms of eensy weensy.
@ DBratman 4 Want a Really Cheap Freudian analogy? Spiders are well-known symbol for the destructive mother. See Bored of the Rings. They knew it, too.
David Levinson
13. DemetriosX
kate @10, Shelob is almost certainly capable of speech. Perhaps it is the fact that she has spent millennia alone that results in her not talking now. Of course, the silent threat is also much scarier.
Kevin Faulk
14. DBratman
Wasn't it Dopey in Snow White of whom it has said that he could talk, he's just never tried?

Same thing about Shelob, I guess. Whether capable of speech or not: not a word.
Kevin Faulk
15. EmmaPease
She did presumably talk with Gollum but why talk to prey?

Faramir probably assumed Frodo knew enough Sindarin to translate Cirith Ungol and Frodo may have.
Kevin Faulk
16. DBratman
Both Faramir throwing that name at Gollum in Frodo's presence, and the previous reference by the narrator in chapter 3 ("Its name was Cirith Ungol, a name of dreadful rumour. Aragorn could perhaps have told them that name and its significance; Gandalf would have warned them.") suggest to me that it's less what the name means than the stories attached to the place that bears it that are significant.
Soon Lee
17. SoonLee
I am again reminded of the hierarchical nature of Tolkien's Middle Earth cosmology. As above, so below:

- Melkor vs. Ungoliant representing the top level.

- Sauron vs. Shelob

- Orcs(?) vs. Mirkwood spiders.

The paragraph ending with the description of Shelob as the last child of Ungoliant is absolute genius. It's the alluding to historical events in the greater context of Middle Earth that made me hungry for "The Silmarillion" and also why I enjoyed it ("The Silmarillion") as much as I did despite it reading like a book of genealogy.
Kevin Faulk
18. Dr. Thanatos
SoonLee @17,

It's part and parcel of Tolkien's theme that the world is winding down. Things are not as magical, or as impressive, or as awesome as they used to be. Melkor/Ungoliant, Sauron/Shelob, Orcs/Mirwoodspiders; next it will be Dagwood and the spiders that Garfield chases.

Seriously, that theme of the world dimming with the passage of time is important. Sauron and Shelob, along with their associated balrog, nazgul, etc, are the last remnants of supernatural evil in the world; the Elves, wizards, and Ents are the last remnant of supernatural good. It's part of our heroes quest to eliminate the bad guys from the scene so the Elves and wizards can move on and Men can take over the job of managing creation.
Kevin Faulk
19. DBratman
SoonLee @17: "why I enjoyed it ("The Silmarillion") as much as I did despite it reading like a book of genealogy."

The Silmarillion is probably to be identified with the Books of Lore that Bilbo compiled in Rivendell. Some have suggested that the best way for a LOTR fan to read it is to think of it as a copy of Bilbo's lore-book that you've acquired. Or as sitting around the fire in Rivendell listening to the stories. (Indeed, the earliest version of the legendarium, The Book of Lost Tales, is framed as tales told in exactly that way to a curious visitor to Elvenhome.)
Soon Lee
20. SoonLee
DBratman @19:
The Silmarillion as Bilbo's references is a good idea. Actually, I liked the Silmarillion nearly as much as LotR, but then I'm a Tolkien fanboy and didn't need any prodding to read it. Though its style doesn't make it as accessible as e.g. LotR, by taking the form of historical documents, the mythic grandeur is greatly enhanced.
Andrew Foss
21. alfoss1540
RE: Silmarillion - I've read it twice - once all the way through and each of the chapters at least once since. It's a serious slog to read, but some of the greatest epic stories. And since they bear to such an extent on the LOTR, I eat them up.
Kevin Faulk
22. Martin in Dublin
I agree that JRRT is underrated as a writer of suspense (or gothic horror, whatever you prefer). There's a quote from Stephen King - an acknowledged fan of the book - to the effect that the scene was an inspiration to him as an early writer, and that it's still a favourite. My Google-fu is unfortunately not mighty enough to locate it, though.

Regarding references to ME's deep history, there are actually a few in this chapter and the last one, such as Sam's recalling the tale of Beren and the Silmaril, or Frodo's brief reference to Sting being forged to fight horrors in the "dark ravines of Beleriand", all of which whetted my appetite at any rate...
Ron Griggs
23. RonGriggs
Regarding "Sméagol’s unhealthy curiosity," we are given the clue all along in his name, which is based on the Anglo Saxon verb smeagan, meaning "to investigate or scrutinize." So "Sméagol" is basically "Inquisitive".

"Deagol" is an Anglo Saxon word meaning "secret", so those friends were quite a pair.
Kevin Faulk
24. pilgrimsoul
@Martin in Dublin
Very insightful. The suspense is intense often, and I'm glad to see you giving credit where credit is due.
@ RonGriggs
Another example of the depth and relevance of JRRT's linguistic mastery. Indeed "quite a pair!"
Chris Meadows
26. Robotech_Master
This is also where we come as close to a Sauron viewpoint in the narration as we ever get, for one short paragraph.
Kevin Faulk
27. Judith Proctor
"His hand sparkled with white fire, as his eyes gazed in wonder at this magnificent gift…it was beautiful, a worthy and wonderful gift from the Lady. He wondered why he had not thought of it before, almost forgotten completely. “Aiya Earendil Elenion Ancalima!” he cried, and knew not what he had spoken, for it seemed another voice has spoken through his. One untainted by the foul air of this pit. "

Rather than being supernatural, I read this as Galadriel speaking through Frodo. He's holding her gift as he speaks and it forms that link between them. (Or if you prefer, she left some essence of herself in the phial and he's triggering that when he draws it forth)
"Hail Eärendil brightest of the stars!" An apropriate phrase to make the phial shine as brightly as possible.
Kate Nepveu
28. katenepveu
Judith, that's a very plausible reading of the text, and yet I instinctively reject it, which interests me. It somehow doesn't seem to fit with Middle-earth magic; can you think of any precedent?

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