The Lord of the Rings Reread

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

So, 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.


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