We Can Probably Blame the Tarantula That Bit J.R.R. Tolkien For Most Giant Spiders in Fantasy

You ever notice how many gigantic spiders there are to be found in fantasy fiction? You ever wonder why they all need to be there? Or where they might have come from?

When in doubt, it’s usually fair to blame J.R.R. Tolkien. Or perhaps… to blame the arachnid that bit him.

Reddit recently came across this Tumblr gem on the subject:

Tolkien story about spiders

Of course, if you’re not a Tolkien buff, you might be wondering whether or not this story is true and what bearing it has on fantasy fiction. Tolkien was certainly not the first author to feature giant spiders in his work–to wit, The Wonderful Wizard of Oz featured a giant spider terrorizing a forest of animals who was then murdered by the Cowardly Lion while it slept. Edgar Rice Burroughs was a fan of ginormous arachnids too, and Conan the Barbarian encountered one in the 1933 tale “The Tower of the Elephant.” But given the widespread popularity of Lord of the Rings, and the fact that giant spiders are something of a staple in fantasy fiction, it’s still plausible that Tolkien had a heavy influence on the trope.

Indeed, big spiders can be found all over fantasy fiction, even to this day. Stephen King has them shapeshift into existence in both IT and the Dark Tower series. Neil Gaiman understandably gives us a whole army of them in Anansi Boys. Adrian Tchaikovsky’s Spiderlight and Children of Time heavily feature giant spider races. Hagrid has his old BFF Aragog in the Harry Potter series. Then there’s Weaver of Perdido Street Station. Point is, giant spiders–they’re everywhere.

And what about the validity of the tale? Was Tolkien actually bitten by a tarantula, and did he harbor a secret vendetta against all arachnids from that point on? Well, here is the truth about his harrowing encounter via J.R.R. Tolkien: A Biography

…when Ronald was beginning to walk, he stumbled on a tarantula. It bit him, and he ran in terror across the garden until the nurse snatched him up and sucked out the poison. When he grew up he could remember a hot day and running in fear through long, dead grass, but the memory of the tarantula itself faded, and he said that the incident left him with no especial dislike of spiders.

In fact, Tolkien claimed to be totally chill with spiders as an adult, as he wrote in a letter many years later:

I knew that the way [for Frodo, Sam, and Gollum] was guarded by a Spider. And if that has anything to do with my being stung by a tarantula when a small child, people are welcome to the notion (supposing the improbable, that any one is interested). I can only say that I remember nothing about it, should not know it if I had not been told; and I do not dislike spiders particularly, and have no urge to kill them. I usually rescue those whom I find in the bath!

There you have it–J.R.R. Tolkien, patron saint of bath spiders. In fact, he insisted more than once that the decision to feature giant spiders in his books was more for the benefit of his son Michael, who was terrified of them. As the stories were originally written for his children, it makes sense that he would want to add details that would frighten them specifically. Sort of the pinnacle of “bad dad humor.”

Then again, while Tolkien may have had no conscious aversion to spiders, it is entirely possible that his subconscious still found them a frightful prospect. (I say this as a person who also no longer kills spiders, but had several horrific encounters with very big arachnids as a child.) Just because Tolkien logically knew that they were largely harmless doesn’t mean that the memory didn’t stick on an instinctual level. So it’s still possible that the bite from a tarantula resulted in a slew of some of the most odious giant spiders in fantasy fiction–from Shelob to the mighty Ungoliant.

*shivers*

citation

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