Shelob is one of the great villains of The Lord of the Rings trilogy. Her time in the story is very brief, though. We don't know where she came from or what happens to her after her defeat at the Hobbit hands of Samwise Gamgee. In this episode, we'll begin to dig into the backstory of Shelob by going through the story of her terrifying mother, Ungoliant.
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Hi. Welcome to the Halfling. I’m your host, Jaron Pak, and this is Episode 8: Shelob, More Than a Spider.
Middle-earth is filled with all sorts of nasty creatures. Balrogs and Dragons percolate through the series, creating over-powered, fiery fun wherever they pop up. The Ringwraiths are a terrifying group of ghastly troublemakers. Trolls offer some ugly-as-all-get-out thick-headed muscle — and a lot of laughs at times — too. Orcs and goblins are obnoxiously unpleasant. And don’t forget all those other creatures. Wargs, wolves, giants, were-worms, fell-beasts. The list goes on. While Tolkien is often pegged for his high-minded heroics, the guy definitely didn’t lack imagination for the other side of the coin, too.
Of all of Tolkien’s most horrifying creations, though, one of the best — or, I guest worst — of the lot has to be Shelob. The arachnid monster is as mystifying as she is hideous. Her lack of interest in the One Ring adds an even scarier, unsettling element to her infernal activities.
While we’re all used to the scene where Frodo and Sam encounter Shelob in the Lord of the Rings, though, there’s a lot that’s left unsaid. In the movies, there’s barely any time for an explanation as the story is moving along quickly at that point. Even in the trilogy, though, we’re given only a basic sketch. It isn’t until we dig further back into the text that we discover how truly nightmarish Shelob’s backstory is.
And, of course, that’s what we’re going to do today. After all, you aren’t here for the easy answers. So, let’s dive into Shelob’s backstory and get an idea of just who this hair-raising creature is — and I’ll tell you right now, she’s a lot more than just an animalistic trapper looking for a snack. She’s a sentient being with her own thoughts and opinions, no loyalties or long-term plans, and one simple goal: to feed on bodies on minds alike.
But I’m getting ahead of myself.
If we’re going to dissect Shelob properly, we need to start by backing up. And I don’t mean an age or two. I mean way back to before the First Age of Middle-earth history ever began. Do you remember during the Glorfindel series when we talked about the Two Trees? They were the source of light for an area of the world called the Blessed Realm away off in the west of Middle-earth. Eventually, the Two Trees are destroyed, and it leads to the creation of the Sun and Moon, which literally come from the fruit of the pair of trees before they fully die.
Anyway, when we first talked about the Two Trees, I mention that Sauron’s old master and the original Dark Lord, a powerful dude called Morgoth, teams up with one of Shelob’s ancestors to destroy the trees. Well, we’re going to dive into that story in a lot more detail today.
See, Morgoth is a spiritual being that exists before the creation of Middle-earth. He’s actually the same kind of creature as the Valar, those angelic guardians of the world that we’ve met before. While Morgoth is one of the most powerful of these beings, though, he’s also the one who breaks really, really bad. I mean, like, he mucks up the world-shaping works of the Valar multiple times early on in Middle-earth history. He also captures Elves and very likely turns them into the first Orcs. He creates dragons, musters armies of balrogs, and generally wages war on all of the good guys.
However, when the Elves initially arrive in Middle-earth, the Valar go after Morgoth and finally pin him down. They put him in what amounts to a spiritual prison for three ages of the earth before they release him and allow him to wander around the Blessed Realm kind of “on bail.” Basically, it’s a trial run to see if the apparently reformed Dark Lord has actually changed his ways.
All of that last bit happens during one of the most splendiferous periods in all of Middle-earth’s long story — the Years of the Trees. And, I mean, it makes sense, right? The Dark Lord is absent for thousands and thousands of years. His servants are off hiding. At this point, the Valar have brought the bulk of the Elves to live with them in the Blessed Realm, and they’re having a grand old time living their immortal lives.
Then Morgoth is released on bail. And yeah… he’s not reformed. In fact, Morgoth is plotting to get back at his captors the whole time. Predictable.
So, yeah, he decides to claim his vengeance via the Two Trees. But before that can happen, it comes out that he hasn’t changed a lick, and he has to make a quick escape from the Blessed Realm. Once out in the wider, star-lit world, Morgoth shakes off the pursuit by heading in an unexpected direction. While his old strongholds are away to the north and east, Morgoth heads south, into a dark region of the world called Avathar. The Silmarillion describes this area as having long and mournful shores that don’t have any light and are unexplored. They’re right next to a dark, massive mountain range, too. The whole picture is very stark and bleak.
In this abandoned, unlit land, the Dark Lord seeks out a creature that dwells in the mountains. A creature named Ungoliant. Her origin is unknown, but The Silmarillion states that “some have said that in ages long before she descended from the darkness that lies about Arda…” So, basically, she most likely slipped into the picture at some point very early on when the world was still being shaped. The book adds that Morgoth likely corrupted her to his service, but by this point in time, she had renounced him in favor of serving her own selfish ways. More specifically, it says that “she had disowned her Master, desiring to be mistress of her own lust, taking all things to herself to feed her emptiness…”
So, we can already start to see the family tendency toward eating, devouring, and self-centered, glutenous destruction. It’s also interesting to note that, even though we’re talking about more of a spiritual, demonic entity here, we already get the affiliation with spiders — and not just in some mystical sense. Ungoliant literally clothes herself with the physical body of a monstrous spider. But, while most arachnids eat bugs, Ungoliant makes a habit of feasting on a daintier delicacy: light itself. The Silmarillion explains that Ungoliant literally sucks up light and then weaves it into dark webs of strangling gloom. It ends her introduction by stating that she did this “until no light more could come to her abode; and she was famished.”
Talk about a disturbing introduction.
Now, Morgoth eventually convinces his wayward servant to join him again, and the two villains sneak back into the Blessed Realm. They’re partly able to do this because Ungoliant literally weaves a cloak of darkness for them that Tolkien describes as being made of an Unlight. This otherworldly covering looks like it’s consuming things and eyes can’t see through it.
When they arrive back in the Blessed Realm, it’s during a time of festival and the reconnected coworkers able to walk right up to the Two Trees without trouble. Morgoth strikes each tree with a spear, and then — get this — Ungoliant puts her spidery beak up to the tree and sucks them dry. She literally consumes the life-giving light as it pours out. Gross. She also drinks up a pair of lake-size holy wells nearby that come from the dew and rain that fall from the trees.
Naturally, gorging on this much stuff swells Ungoliant’s body into a massive mess that even makes Morgoth uncomfortable. The overload of light-related culinary treats also causes Ungoliant to start belching black vapors out. Once the trees are destroyed, Morgoth and Ungoliant are able to escape because they are surrounded by the spider’s nasty cloud of blackness that Tolkien officially refers to as “the Cloud of Ungoliant.”
After escaping for a second time, Morgoth steals some valuable jewelry, including the three Silmarils which The Silarmillion is named after, and then he and Ungoliant get out of dodge. As much as I’d love to break down that entire story for you, we’re talking about Ungoliant here, so I’m going to focus on her end of the deal. You’d think this dynamic duo would stick together after single-handedly accomplishing such a dastardly feat, but, like any good boyband that tastes the tiniest bit of success, they end up having a falling out like two seconds later. Morgoth fails to come through on some promises, and Ungoliant is so big at this point that she literally ruffs him up and has him trapped six ways to Sunday. It’s only the timely arrival of Morgoth’s faithful Balrogs that forces her to hightail it out of there.
Now, remember, Ungoliant isn’t a strategist. Nor is she powerhungry. Light-hungry? Sure. But her starvation is focused on consuming everything of value around her and then vomiting up darkness and chaos in its place. In that sense, she’s a very one-dimensional character — and the rest of her story bears this out.
After her falling out with Morgoth, Ungoliant flees, making her way to a portion of Middle-earth proper called Beleriand. She settles down in a valley that becomes known as Nan Dungortheb or the Valley of Dreadful Death — which, no kidding. In fact, the name of her new home is worth investigating for a second here. In The Silmarillion it explains that the name comes from Ungoliant and “the horror that she bred there. For other foul creatures of spider form had dwelt there since the days of the delving of Angband, and she mated with them, and devoured them; and even after Ungoliant herself departed, and went whither she would into the forgotten south of the world, her offspring abode there and wove their hideous webs.”
Can you guess who one of those offspring is? That’s right. It’s Shelob.
Before we move on to everyone’s favorite arachnophobic death trap, though, we need to quickly wrap up Ungoliant’s story. After she moves on from the Valley of Dreadful Death, we only get one more little tag regarding what happens to the self-absorbed villain. The Silmarillion tells us that no tale officially tells of her final doom. However, it adds that “some have said that she ended long ago, when in her uttermost famine she devoured herself at last.” A loathsome end to a repulsive character.
Okay. So. Shelob. We’ve officially reached the point where the character enters the story. Unfortunately, though, Tolkien says very little about Shelob’s actual birth or early history. However, in the Two Towers, we get a description of how she came to live in the Mountains of Mordor. In it, it explains that, like her momma, no tale tells of her origin story. But we do get the cryptic line, “How Shelob came there, flying from ruin, no tale tells, for out of the Dark Years few tales have come.”
While Tolkien is mum on the subject, though, I think we can connect the dots a bit here and trace a rough sketch of what most likely happened. Shelob is born during the First Age of Middle-earth history. That era ends with the defeat of Morgoth and the breaking of the land of Beleriand. The entire chunk of the continent sinks underneath the waves (much like Númenor later on). This reshapes the land, giving us the Middle-earth map that everyone is familiar with. Part of the area that goes down under the waves is the Valley of Dreadful Death. So, based on the line “flying from ruin,” I think it’s safe to guess that Shelob fled from her original home when it started to, you know, sink. From there, I’m willing to bet that she made her way east until she came across this fancy mountain range and was like, “Oh, this seems like a nice and eerie place to live. I can creep out a lot of people here.” My words, not Tolkiens. Anyway, whatever her initial thoughts, she does settle down in the mountains at some point and proceeds to live out the next six-thousand-plus years comfortably ensconced in the bluffs located along the border of the Dark Land.
One thing that I want to make clear here is that she doesn’t do this because Sauron is nearby. She isn’t, like, attracted to the Dark Lord’s presence or interested in his help or protection. In fact, she arrives on the scene first. She’s there before the One Ring is forged, before Sauron’s fortress is built, and before anyone thinks of using the area as a base of operations.
And it’s here, tucked away in her new home, that we’re going to leave Shelob for now. We’ll finish up her tale soon by breaking down a bit more about the character herself and how she’s so much more than a giant, animalistic monster. Before we finish things up with Shelob, though, we’re going to take a little detour. The end of the year is always spent celebrating holidays like Christmas and New Year’s. With festivities in the air, I want to pause from our ongoing narrative to focus a little attention on how Tolkien handled holidays in his world. So, next week, we’re going to get a special holiday installment of the show. After that, we’ll finish up Shelob’s story and then, sorry guys, I’ll be taking one short week off, as I won’t have enough time to prepare another episode before New Year’s. Once 2022 kicks off, though, we’ll dive right back into the fun with our first series for the new year as we continue to tick off the characters that have potential to show up in Amazon’s show.
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Alright, that’s it for now. Until next time, friends.