In the second half of our series on Shelob, we delve into the character herself – and it turns out that the apple doesn't fall far from the tree. The daughter of Ungoliant has many of the same horrifying habits and features as her mother. She also makes a really nifty guardian for her neighbor, Sauron.
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Hi. Welcome to the Halfling. I’m your host, Jaron Pak, and this is Episode 9: Shelob the Great.
Last time, we dug into Shelob’s backstory. More specifically, we learned a bit about her unsavory mother, Ungoliant. Ungoliant was a demonic super-power from the earliest days of Middle-earth. She didn’t follow orders, was consumed with herself, and literally ended by consuming herself.
Before she dies, though, Ungoliant mates with a bunch of spidery creatures and starts her own family. Like any good insect-inspired villain, she eats some of her kids along the way, but the survivors continue to terrify the area even after their mother moves on. Eventually, that area of the world sinks into the ocean after an earth-breaking catastrophe, and one of Ungoliant’s children, Shelob, flees east and sets up shop in the then-unoccupied mountains of Mordor.
And it’s there that we’ll pick up Shelob’s story today. Now, the challenging thing about telling Shelob’s story is figuring out where to start. There isn’t much of a “narrative” here, since she just kind of hangs around the mountain eating whatever she can find, like, for thousands of years. In The Two Towers, her dull existence is summarized nicely when it says “she served none but herself, drinking the blood of Elves and Men, bloated and grown fat with endless brooding on her feasts, weaving webs of shadow; for all living things were her food, and her vomit darkness.”
Serving herself. Weaving webs of shadow. Vomit darkness. See the parallels? Like mother like daughter.
So, Shelob basically becomes like, the more down-to-earth version of her spiritually monstrous parent. She doesn’t quite have the same level of gloom-weaving darkness as Ungolaint. Nevertheless, she’s still surrounded by a terrifyingly thick, darkness. And I don’t just mean an absence of light. It’s hard to convey this in a movie setting, but Shelob’s lair isn’t just a dark cave. Its darkness is physically and mentally repressive. When Sam and Frodo pass through her lair, the environment is described as a den of night. It also explains the thick blackness in disturbingly vivid verbaige. It starts by comparing the inky blackness to the subterranean dark of Moria. But it clarifies that in Moria at least there’s moving air and a sense of space. In contrast, Shelob’s lair is painted as having a deeper and denser sense of dark. This is described in The Two Towers when it says, “Here the air was still, stagnant, heavy, and sound fell dead. They walked as it were in a black vapour wrought of veritable darkness itself that, as it was breathed, brought blindness not only to the eyes but to the mind, so that even the memory of colours and of forms and of any light faded out of thought. Night always had been, and always would be, and night was all.” Creepy.
Okay, so the connection between spiritual darkness and weaves of gloom and so on are definitely there, and while it’s on a smaller scale, Shelob absolutely carries on the family legacy of gloomy horror that was established by her mom. But what about Shelob herself? What is she like? I’m glad you asked.
Shelob is a fascinating character, if only because Tolkien does a good job making her more than just a big bad boogeyman blocking the way into Mordor. As is always the case with Tolkien’s characters, Shelob is much bigger than her short-lived role in The Lord of the Rings.
We already saw that she arrives in her lair two ages before Frodo and Sam pass by. During the time in between her arrival and The Lord of the Rings, she establishes a fearsome reputation. While few people know that it’s actually her living there, everyone knows that something lives up in the mountains. Some big, bad, nasty thing. We find a good example of this when Faramir discovers where the Hobbits are headed and he counsels them not to go. He points out that a dark terror lives in the pass and when the area is named, old men and masters of lore stop talking and their faces grow pale.
While Shelob has a reputation, though, it isn’t as a master or a conqueror. Instead, she opts to stir up trouble in the same manner as her mother. She isn’t interested in fortresses or sentient inventions. She doesn’t even care about the One Ring. Her desires are summed up by explaining that she unilaterally wants everything to die — mind and body. Beyond that, she simply wants a space where she can eke out the days of her life in miserable feasting and gorging.
While she’s clearly a grumpy neighbor, though, once Sauron settles in next door, the two villains seem to get along. There are no Ungoliant and Morgoth level smackdowns. Instead, Shelob plays the part of the reclusive neighbor who doesn’t cause any trouble as long as they’re left alone. She broods up in the dark mountain pass, and Sauron lets her be. He’s even happy that she’s there. He sees the monstrous, ever-hungry, endlessly evil creature as a better guard than an entire army of fearful Orcs.
In fact, he doesn’t even mind if Shelob catches some of his Orcs from time to time. He realizes that she needs to eat, and when she can’t get sweeter meat, an Orc will have to do. There are even points when Sauron goes further, sending his neighbor scrumptious captives to consume. The Two Towers explains this weird independent-yet-dependent dynamic, comparing it to a man tossing a treat to his cat and saying, “Sauron would send her prisoners that he had no better uses for: he would have them driven to her hole, and report brought back to him of the play she made.”
So, Shelob and Sauron kind of just get along by mostly ignoring each other as the millennia creep by. Over the years, Shelob also has kids — and yes, she takes a lot of parenting tips from her mom. She eats many of them, but others escape and spread across the land. Some of them even wander away up to the north, where they find the forest of — you guessed it — Mirkwood.
These spiders cause all sorts of monstrous trouble for the local Elves and eventually a group of Dwarves and a Hobbit that are passing through. However, their evil potency and strength seems to water down with each generation — and these guys are at least two generations removed from the horrifying might of Ungoliant. In comparison, by the time of The Lord of the Rings (and possibly much earlier than that) Shelob is the last of her generation. The Two Towers definitively states this by calling her, “Shelob the Great, last child of Ungoliant to trouble the unhappy world.” And she plays the part. No one can match Shelob. Not her kids, not the Orcs, not even the Elves and Men who wander into her lair over the years. It isn’t until a little Hobbit named Sam passes through that she meets a personality tough enough to face her down. In fact, one line in The Two Towers makes me think that up until that point, there isn’t a single person who has even managed to strike her with a weapon. When Sam stabs Shelob in the stomach in The Two Towers, the text says “No such anguish had Shelob ever known, or dreamed of knowing, in all her long world of wickedness. Not the doughtiest soldier of old Gondor, nor the most savage Orc entrapped, had ever such endured her, or set blade to her beloved flesh.” So, yeah, based on that last phrase, I’m going to go out on a limb and state that over the course of six thousand years and change, Shelob is never struck by her victims …until Samwise Gamgee rolls into town.
Of course, we all know how Shelob’s confrontation with the Halfling ends. Finding herself overmatched by her undersized opponent, Shelob heads for the hills, dripping a trail of green-yellow slime behind her as she scrabbles along.
And, believe it or not, that’s it for Shelob as far as the story is concerned. In fact, that’s it as far as any Middle-earth story is concerned, period. The only thing we get is a quick tag — again, in the same manner as her mother. We’re told that, after her duel with Sam, no more official history about the guardian of the pass is known. However, Shelob’s character epilogue deviates from Ungoliant’s at this point. Rather than explaining her likely demise, the text gives us a ridiculously long run-on sentence that teases her future, “and whether she lay long in her lair, nursing her malice and her misery, and in slow years of darkness healed herself from within, rebuilding her clustered eyes, until with hunger like death she spun once more her dreadful snares in the glens of the Mountains of Shadow, this tale does not tell.”
So, unlike Ungoliant, Shelob doesn’t just end in self-consumed misery. While it isn’t confirmed, Tolkien directly implies that she probably healed herself and went on terrorizing the area. It’s an interesting concept, especially considering the fact that, at one point, he had actually started a sequel to The Lord of the Rings. Could Shelob have played a part in that story if it had been finished? It’s a good “what if” scenario, but alas, we’ll never get to know.
The last thing I want to cover here is a little speculation regarding Amazon’s upcoming show. One of the hardest things that Amazon Studios has going against it is the lack of familiar faces in its Middle-earth saga. The Hobbit films were able to bank on recasting several characters from the original Lord of the Rings trilogy. This at least offered a sense of continuity in the larger Peter Jackson-helmed cinematic Middle-earth world.
In the case of Amazon’s show, though, we’re talking about a story that is so much earlier in history that there are very few connections worth noting. Gandalf is alive, but he’s a spirit and hasn’t taken on his wizarding old-man body yet. Elrond and Galadriel are alive, too, but Hugo Weaving and Cate Blanchett have moved on from those roles, which means we’re going to get new iterations of the characters.
Sauron is going to be there, but he’s such an underdeveloped character from the original films — I mean, come on, he’s just a glowing mix between a spotlight and an eyeball most of the time — that I feel fans are even going to struggle to connect with his much more complicated character in the Amazon show.
There are only a few other points where the lines can easily be drawn between The Lord of the Rings movies and the Amazon prequel, one of which is Shelob. In fact, if they start early in the Second Age, we could even see the character “fleeing from ruin” so to speak and wandering into her new home in the Mountains of Mordor.
Whatever they do, I really hope Amazon jumps on this opportunity. Everyone has a love/hate relationship with Shelob. She’s a fantastic villain and, as we all hopefully know by now, she has a lot of depth and backstory that’s worth fleshing out. If the powers that be at Amazon can carve out a part for her to play in the story, it could be a great way to connect the existing cinematic universe to the new material that they’re developing even as I record this.
All right. That about does it for Shelob. Unfortunately, I won’t have a new episode ready in time for next week, as my holiday schedule is too busy. However, we’ll all be back in two weeks to start our next series — and this time I want to shift from the dark side of the force back to the light by focusing on a hero that is a very familiar face to fans of The Lord of the Rings …and The Hobbit …and The Matrix …and Captain America: The First Avenger. That’s right. We’re going to take a stroll through the life and times of Elrond himself.
That’s it for now. Until next time, friends.