(Updated on 01/12/15)
When he was just a small child, no more than three, J.R.R Tolkien was playing in a garden in South Africa, when a “baboon spider” – a species of tarantula – bit him. Baboon spiders have a painful venom but aren’t considered lethal: Tolkien claimed that he couldn’t even remember the incident, and had no especial distaste for spiders growing up. It is an odd coincidence though, suffering such a nasty attack, and then, in later life, creating arguably the most famous fictional arachnid to ever grace the pages of a book. Spiders have been a common source of horror in fiction since humanity was first creeped out by the little crawlers, and The Lord of the Rings goes into that theme in a big way here, in another of the story’s most famous segments.
Of course, those familiar with ye olde English will be able to spot what is coming, though the wording also appears in The Hobbit: “Lob” is an old term for spider, from “loppe”. So, “She-Spider”. And judging from the surroundings, you can guess that she’s gonna be a whopper.
The atmosphere is set from the off in the tunnel. It is Tolkien’s great skill, the great skill of any writer, to make the reader feel the sensations that are being described, and Tolkien is in top form here. We can sense the encroaching darkness, smell the reeking stench of death and decay, feel the ever-present peril that is all around the two hobbits. They have blundered into the darkest of the dark places, guided by a creature they are all but sure is about to turn on them. Big, big moments of tension, as we await the inevitable appearance of the titular monster, built up so subtly in the previous chapters:
Out of it came a stench, not the sickly odour of decay in the meads of Morgul, but a foul reek, as if filth unnameable were piled and hoarded in the dark within…Drawing a deep breath they passed inside. In a few steps they were in utter and impenetrable dark. Not since the lightless passages of Moria had Frodo or Sam known such darkness, and if possible here it was deeper and denser. There, there were airs moving, and echoes, and a sense of space. 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.
It is in the darkness, this all-encompassing bleakness that will last until the ending of the world if the above paragraph is any indication, that the duo reach out and hold hands. Aside from re-emphasising the nature of their friendship, it’s also a symbolic severing of the trio that has previously made up the bulk of Book Four. In the darkness, Frodo and Sam reach out to each other to guide their way safely through this den: Gollum is forgotten about. Which is just as well, as the betrayal, so long foreseen, comes. Gollum disappears, his treachery being a silent one, for the moment, suitable for the kind of villain that he really is. We’ll see him again all too soon, but Sam’s positing is not required: the reader knows that Gollum has made his move, and won’t be guiding Frodo and Sam around anymore.
The horror comes:
“…from behind them came a sound, startling and horrible in the heavy padded silence: a gurgling, bubbling noise, and a long venomous hiss. They wheeled round, but nothing could be seen. Still as stones they stood, staring, waiting for they did not know what.”
Tolkien, a decent hand at suspense if not quite a master, chooses to not fully reveal the monster that is approaching Frodo and Sam, though the reader is left in little doubt as to the danger that is posed. It actually hits Frodo, the sense of menace, in a physical way, though it may simply be a combination of the suffocating darkness and smell. In the best tradition, the reader is connected to Frodo and Sam by having to imagine what it coming up against them in the dark tunnel, just as they are.
At this point, Sam becomes an unlikely conduit for the hobbits’ rescue. In his head, he beholds a vision of a staggering bright light in a sea of darkness, and the words of Galadriel are in his ear. It seems too random for Sam to have merely jumped to this conclusion in the way the he does. Galadriel, that must strange and mysterious of characters, appears to be reaching out to the two hobbits, over the leagues, to simply give them a push in the right direction. Peter Jackson went much more full-on with this idea at a later point in the story, but its effective enough in the book, another unexpected ally in a story that is overflowing with them. But Tolkien is quick to balance the sudden remembrance of Galadriel’s gift, the most precious thing the hobbits could have right now, with a grim and effective description of the titular horror, which still refrains from an all-out summary.
Shelob is little more in our minds at this point than a bulky, monstrous form with many eyes, but she’s the first real tangible menace to the two hobbits since Gollum himself in “The Taming of Smeagol”. Frodo, true to form, shows his hidden strength and power again here. He’s prone to blind panic on occasion, outright stupidity in others, but Frodo has a knack of pulling it out of the fire when he has his back to a wall. We saw it in the Barrow in “Fog On The Barrow-Downs”, we saw at the Bruinen in “Flight To The Ford”, we saw it in the Chamber of Marzabul in “The Bridge Of Khazad-Dum”, we saw it in the confrontation with Boromir in “The Breaking Of The Fellowship” and we even saw it in this Book, in “The Taming Of Smeagol”. He has guts when he has to have them. It’s more than just slicing at a troll foot or putting his sword to Gollum’s neck. It is the simple, yet crucial, ability to just stand fast, a far cry from the same person who panicked so easily in “The Old Forest”.
The magical light he has in his hand certainly helps though. Shelob is a creature that has rarely seen defeat, but even this beast must quail before the light of the Elves, an intrusion very much unlooked for. In the end, Shelob is an extreme form of a bully: if you run, she’ll chase you down. If you stand and punch her in the nose (figuratively) she’ll back down.
The chapter is also a healthy reminder of the other useful trinket that Frodo is carrying around: Sting. We’re heading towards serious Orc territory after all. A sword that glows when they get close is going to be pretty handy. That and it has the ability to really slice those cobwebs open. Though it should be noted that the fact we are witnessing giant cobwebs, along with multiple eyed beasts, shows that Tolkien might take the foreshadowing a bit far here. I doubt anyone is going to be surprised when Shelob is revealed in all her monstrous glory.
Of course, a spider is a common thing to use in these horror scenarios. The reasons are obvious. Western society has a general distaste for bugs of any kind, but spiders are singled out for special discrimination. They’re real predators, some of the fiercest killers in the animal kingdom. Plenty of them can kill people, and have. And the image of the giant spider is prevalent across popular culture through the centuries, Shelob being one of the more modern examples. Tolkien might or might not have been tapping into his own childhood memories, but it was still an easy way to heighten the sense of horror within the reader. I also appreciate that he really does make Shelob out to be a mighty threat, after the similar, but smaller, spiders in The Hobbit that occasionally bordered on the comical side of things.
Tolkien takes time to namedrop a few characters from The Silmarillion as well, drawing a connection between the mythical figure of Beren (who fought similar spiders in his great quest) and Shelob. It’s throwaway, but ties back in to Sam’s speech in the previous chapter. All great tales are connected and Shelob is just another one of those connections. She’s an immense threat, “an evil thing in spider-form”, a line that almost seems to indicate it’s a choice for her. Beyond Sauron and Gondor, Rings and wizards, she’s been an ever-present force of nature, not unlike Old Man Willow or Cahadras, natural entities that revel in their own power and self-gratification, paying little to no heed of the forces outside their domain. Tolkien uses the interesting imagery of describing Sauron’s opinion of Shelob as that of a person to their cat: but cats can claw, and have less allegiance to their “masters” than other animals.
Then, how about the Gollum/Shelob connection? Shelob is a devourer, of men, Elves and Orcs, yet Gollum is not only able to avoid this fate, but is able to enlist Shelob’s help in his own plot. The spider is not just a spider: she’s some kind of magical creature, naturally, from her lifespan and size. She has some kind of sentience, an evil and malicious one. Enough sentience that she seems to consider Gollum useful. But not so much that she can see into Gollum’s plot. She’s single-minded, focused only on the next meal, a sweeter one then the constant entrée of Orc. So, Gollum, the “worshipper” in a very odd turn of phrase, is able to string her around. And Gollum is also ever the betrayer, planning on getting his own back on Shelob at the first opportunity, the spider uncaring of Rings or what they portend. Stinker is well and truly on top now, and he’s out for revenge, the bitter, gleeful type of revenge, best served with a side order of gloating.
Frodo sees the end of the tunnel, the way out. Here, we see again the other aspect of his personality, his utter heedlessness to danger. Much like his blind panic in the Old Forest, Frodo sprints for the exit, taking no mind that Sam is lagging behind, or of the horrible danger that is about to engulf him. And Tom Bombadil won’t be saving him this time. Sam, the more thoughtful one, sees, or senses, what’s coming, but is too far back to do anything about it.
As Frodo is left to the mercy of Shelob, we come to the first part of Book Four’s major confrontation: Sam vs Gollum. It has been brewing for a while, and this is only round one, but it’s great stuff to read as the hobbit and the treacherous snake throw down:
“Fury at the treachery, and desperation at the delay when his master was in deadly peril, gave to Sam a sudden violence and strength that was far beyond anything that Gollum had expected from this slow stupid hobbit, as he thought him. Not Gollum himself could have twisted more quickly or more fiercely. His hold on Sam’s mouth slipped, and Sam ducked and lunged forward again, trying to tear away from the grip on his neck. His sword was still in his hand, and on his left arm, hanging by its thong, was Faramir’s staff. Desperately he tried to turn and stab his enemy. But Gollum was too quick. His long right arm shot out, and he grabbed Sam’s wrist: his fingers were like a vice; slowly and relentlessly he bent the hand down and forward, till with a cry of pain Sam released the sword and it fell to the ground; and all the while Gollum’s other hand was tightening on Sam’s throat.”
The whole fight is tinged with that sense of desperation, of Gollum, despite being a deadly peril in his own right, simply distracting Sam from the real threat. The fight is quick and vicious, with Sam employing his own tricks aside from his sheer brute strength. Gollum clearly under-estimates the “stupid, fat hobbit”, so easily defeated in their first meeting. I wouldn’t say that Tolkien is the best at describing kinetic action, but this is a really well-written fight sequence.
Sam has a hidden fury, and it just bursts out. He doesn’t so much defeat Gollum as simply scare him off by not being instantly beaten. Gollum is clearly not expecting a fight, he simply freaks and runs. He may be the betrayer, but he is ever the coward too, looking even worse next to the brave Sam. And so we get the best cliff-hanger since “A Knife In The Dark”, as Sam turns into part two of Book Four’s final confrontation: Shelob. And I doubt any reader has put the book down at this point.
This chapter, the second in the closing trilogy of Book Four, does have some “middle” problems”, insofar as it’s opening and ending are very sudden, with a lengthy middle section of its own. But it’s still nearly all good: the sense of darkness and loathing in the tunnel, Gollum’s sudden yet inevitable betrayal, the first encounter with Shelob and Sam’s thrilling fight with Gollum. While “Shelob’s Lair” doesn’t actually have a great deal of action, it still seems like one of the most action packed sections of the narrative thus far: not counting the spectating of the Gondorian ambush in “Of Herbs And Stewed Rabbit”, we haven’t really seen any action worth talking about since “Flotsam And Jetsam”, when Merry and Pippin recounted the attack on Isengard. And the cliff-hanger ending means we’re only just getting started. Indeed, so captivating is that closing moment, that’s it’s hard to classify “Shelob’s Lair” just on its own, so connected is it, intrinsically, to “The Choices Of Master Samwise”. There’s also the reaffirmation of the Frodo/Sam relationship, in the face of Gollum’s solitary treachery, to take note of, and the connections drawn between the quest and the machinations of Galadriel very far away.
Next up, Sam versus the spider.
For more Chapter by Chapter reviews of The Lord of the Rings, check out the index here.