Why must the entrance to Mordor be guarded by an ancient “evil thing in spider-form”? Why do Frodo and Sam have to pass through the dark, spiraling tunnel of Shelob’s lair before they can reach Mount Doom? Not only is the spiral path up a cone reminiscent of Dante’s spiral journey downwards in the Inferno and then upwards in the Purgatorio, but the figure of Shelob — like the Balrog in the Mines of Moria — also recalls the various guardian beasts that Dante places at crucial transitions. Although Tolkien insists that he is not writing allegory, his guardian monsters nonetheless carry allegorical resonances beyond their function as physical obstacles in the narrative. To get at Shelob’s peculiar resonances, we have to pay attention to the way Tolkien handles her in the narrative as well as the unusual, sometimes startling words he uses to describe her.
Whenever a skillful writer seems to break one of his own implicit “rules,” it is a signal to the reader to sit up and prick the ears. Near the climax of The Two Towers, when Frodo and Sam have found a way out of Shelob’s lair and are running towards the summit, Tolkien interrupts the action by doing something that he never does, at least in the Lord of the Rings: at this crucial moment, in the midst of a breakneck escape, the narrator pauses to give us “background.” Ordinarily, Tolkien supplies background through his characters, as when Elrond gives an account of the war, or when Gandalf tells us what he knows about the Balrog, or when Tom Bombadil is described by Goldberry, Gandalf, and himself. This way of rendering the world may carry less authority than a clear account from an omniscient narrator, but has the effect of being more honest to how we really form a picture of the world: do we not work with our little experience of what the person or thing says and does, the words about it uttered by other people, and our fluid interpretations of our experience and other people’s words? In our own lives we can never take an encyclopedic perspective. Besides, Tolkien knows well that a habit of presenting background to every personage and situation makes for a clumsy and boring narrator.
At first Shelob is presented piecemeal, through the sensory experience of the hobbits. First, there is pitch-blackness, in which the absence of markers causes all sense of time to disappear:
Gollum led the way close under the cliff. For the present they were no longer climbing, but the ground was now more broken and dangerous in the dark, and there were blocks and lumps of fallen stone in the way. Their going was slow and cautious. How many hours had passed since they had entered the Morgul Vale neither Sam nor Frodo could any longer guess. The night seemed endless. (Ch.8, p.319)
If eternity is a state beyond time, then this is a kind of negative eternity, in which no calibration of progress or regress, motion towards or away from, location or destination, is at all possible. This darkness, however, is not void of any quality, for it does give out an overpowering stench:
Darker it loomed, and steadily it rose as they approached, until it towered up high above them, shutting out the view of all that lay beyond. Deep shadow lay before its feet. Sam sniffed the air.
`Ugh! That smell!’ he said. `It’s getting stronger and stronger.’
Presently they were under the shadow, and there in the midst of it they saw the opening of a cave. `This is the way in,’ said Gollum softly. `This is the entrance to the tunnel.’ He did not speak its name: Torech Ungol, Shelob’s Lair. 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.
`Is this the only way, Sméagol? ‘ said Frodo.
‘Yes, yes,’ he answered. ‘Yes, we must go this way now.’
‘D’you mean to say you’ve been through this hole?’ said Sam. `Phew! But perhaps you don’t mind bad smells.’
Gollum’s eyes glinted. `He doesn’t know what we minds, does he precious? No, he doesn’t. But Sméagol can bear things. Yes. He’s been through. O yes, right through. It’s the only way.’
`And what makes the smell, I wonder,’ said Sam. `It’s like – well, I wouldn’t like to say. Some beastly hole of the Orcs, I’ll warrant, with a hundred years of their filth in it.’ (Ch.9, p.326)
In general, Tolkien is not a writer who notices smells; even his corpse-strewn battlefields do not reek of slaughter and decay. He describes the other-worldly fragrance of healing herbs in The Return of the Kng, but in The Two Towers there is only a stench so tangible that it is felt like a blow:
At length Frodo, groping along the left-hand wall, came suddenly to a void. Almost he fell sideways into the emptiness. Here was some opening in the rock far wider than any they had yet passed; and out of it came a reek so foul, and a sense of lurking malice so intense, that Frodo reeled. And at that moment Sam too lurched and fell forwards. (ch.9, p.328)
Gollum’s words are suggestive: He doesn’t know what we minds, does he precious? — as he addresses the Ring, his only companion during his many years in the depths. Sam implies that they are standing above something like a vast grave and privy, holding — hoarding — the vile refuse of hundreds of years of Orc and spider bowels; and when Gollum uses the words through, right through, he too evokes bowels, an alimentary passageway which has even been his home for a while. Gollum has lost all squeamishness, and seems not even to notice the smell. To beings not inured to it, however, the badness of the smell is not physical but moral; it is as if this particular stink is intended to offend and brutalize — for why else would something smell so unnaturally bad?
The third aspect of Shelob, as she manifests herself bit by bit in the darkness, is her sound, startling and horrible in the heavy padded silence: a gurgling, bubbling noise, and a long venomous hiss (328) — a mixture of poisonous snake and diabolical cauldron, a vat for processing meat. It is after the hobbits break out and manage to see her whole that Tolkien the narrator interrupts the action to give us the “background” to Shelob, just in case we were tempted to think of her as only a monster to be defeated on the way to the goal:
There agelong she had dwelt, an evil thing in spider-form, even such as once of old had lived in the Land of the Elves in the West that is now under the Sea, such as Beren fought in the Mountains of Terror in Doriath, and so came to Lúthien upon the green sward amid the hemlocks in the moonlight long ago. How Shelob came there, flying from ruin, no tale tells, for out of the Dark Years few tales have come. But still she was there, who was there before Sauron, and before the first stone of Barad-dûr; and 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. Far and wide her lesser broods, bastards of the miserable mates, her own offspring, that she slew, spread from glen to glen, from the Ephel Dúath to the eastern hills, to Dol Guldur and the fastnesses of Mirkwood. But none could rival her, Shelob the Great, last child of Ungoliant to trouble the unhappy world.
Her past is essentially impenetrable: is she older than Tom Bombadil? Who is Ungoliant, and does Ungoliant have an origin? Does Shelob have to be coeval with her food, Men and Elves? Does she eat flesh? — or is she an ancient vampire, living on blood and then casting the drained husks into the pit below? At this point the description starts to go beyond the physical: how does a creature grow fat with endless brooding on her feasts? Can brooding make one fat? What is it to weave webs of shadow? And what does it mean to say all living things were her food, and her vomit darkness? What is it for her to vomit, and how can darkness be vomited? Are the webs of shadow her vomit? What does this have to do with brooding, and what does the conjunction for mean here? Why not and? Physically, the description makes no sense, but spiritually it makes powerful sense in its evocation of a spreader of corruption and degradation.
Gollum treats her like a pagan god, either because he really thinks of her as one, or because he knows that she thinks of herself as a deity deserving worship and sacrifice:
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 light and from regret. And he had promised to bring her food. But her lust was not his lust. Little she knew of or cared for towers, or rings, or anything devised by mind or hand, who only desired death for all others, mind and body, and for herself a glut of life, alone, swollen till the mountains could no longer hold her up and the darkness could not contain her.
Tolkien’s diction in these passages is thick, gnarled, full of knots: and the darkness of her evil will walked through all the ways of his weariness beside him, cutting him off from light and from regret? “Darkness of her evil will” is intelligible, suggesting a brew of malice, hatred, blindness, and inscrutability — but in what sense does such a will “walk” beside someone, and does “all the ways of his weariness” mean “eveywhere he went in his exhaustion,” or “all the actions and movements that came from his despair”? Does this evil will “cut him off from light and from regret” because under Shelob’s influence he deprives himself not only of actual daylight but also of his capacity for moral insight and innocent joy (two connotations of “light”), and is also rendered morally numb. The sentence reminds us that Gollum once had “light and regret” — but are these permanently gone, or can they be revived when he is out of Shelob’s reach? We are then told that she only desired death for all others, mind and body: thus, it is not merely the physical food of flesh that nourishes her, but the death of all others — and how would death of mind feed her, except as the profound spiritual malice that delights in crushing love and hope? The foulness of Shelob is an expansive, metaphysical foulness that goes way beyond vampirism. She embodies the anti-life and anti-spiritual, and thus is uncontainable by anything merely geological: swollen till the mountains could no longer hold her up and the darkness could not contain her. What is meant by “the darkness”? — the one inside the mountain, or the one she vomits, which comes from inside herself and must be a moral or spiritual darkness? The implication is that she cannot be limited and, from inside herself, is unceasingly extending her borders. This, then, is no simple spider, but a spirit of negation.
As the description progresses, the resonances amplify:
But that desire was yet far away, and long now had she been hungry, lurking in her den, while the power of Sauron grew, and light and living things forsook his borders; and the city in the valley was dead, and no Elf or Man came near, only the unhappy Orcs. Poor food and wary. But she must eat, and however busily they delved new winding passages from the pass and from their tower, ever she found some way to snare them. But she lusted for sweeter meat. And Gollum had brought it to her. (332-3)
Infinitely ingenious in her snaring of food, Shelob is not satisfied only by meat: she lusted for sweeter meat — innocence , joy, love, which Gollum knows he can deliver in the form of Frodo and Sam. Does she communicate her lust by speaking to Gollum, or does he figure it out through some kind of latent sympathy? If she can speak her lust, it would seem that she has the deliberative, persuasive intelligence of a creature who is not fundamentally alone; but if Gollum can pierce her darkness to guess this desire, he must understand from within himself the satisfaction of devouring the morally sweet. He can understand that from her point of view he will be bringing “nice food”:
`We’ll see, we’ll see,’ he said often to himself, when the evil mood was on him, as he walked the dangerous road from Emyn Muil to Morgul Vale, ‘we’ll see. It may well be, O yes, it may well be that when She throws away the bones and the empty garments, we shall find it, we shall get it, the Precious, a reward for poor Sméagol who brings nice food. And we’ll save the Precious, as we promised. O yes. And when we’ve got it safe, then She’ll know it, O yes, then we’ll pay Her back, my precious. Then we’ll pay everyone back! ‘ (323)
We now see what Gollum has grown not to mind. He doesn’t mind digging around in the chewed bones of his former companions, and by implication, if he doesn’t find his Precious there, he also won’t mind searching for her in the pit of Shelob’s excrement. We realize that in his years hiding in the mountain Gollum has become a denizen of the sewer, and both physically and morally, nothing is too dirty for him. If this utter loss of inhibition comes about through badness or weakness of character, Gollum would be straightforwardly loathsome or contemptible — but the reality is more disturbing: his corruption issues from nothing less than love, which can value preciousness in something outside himself.
In contrast, both Sauron and Shelob find nothing precious but themselves, and every other being a means for their own satisfaction. Their relationship is symbiotic:
And as for Sauron: he knew where she lurked. It pleased him that she should dwell there hungry but unabated in malice, a more sure watch upon that ancient path into his land than any other that his skill could have devised. And Orcs, they were useful slaves, but he had them in plenty. If now and again Shelob caught them to stay her appetite, she was welcome: he could spare them. And sometimes as a man may cast a dainty to his cat (his cat he calls her, but she owns him not) 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. (323)
What could be worse than Shelob’s horrifying, deadening darkness? — Sauron’s delight in hearing the reports of her play with victims. We can only imagine the questions he would ask and the pleasure of his contemplation. In Shelob, we see a mindless lust to devour goodness, but in Sauron — more sinister because Tolkien only hints at it and lets us imagine — we encounter contemplative, aesthetic sadism, a refined evil.
Others have written about The Two Towers as a book of war, in which Tolkien draws from his experience as a soldier in some of the worst battles of World War I — for example, how the journey through the Dead Marshes resembles the experience of crawling through No Man’s Land during the battle of the Somme:
Hurrying forward again, Sam tripped, catching his foot in some old root or tussock. He fell and came heavily on his hands, which sank deep into sticky ooze, so that his face was brought close to the surface of the dark mere. There was a faint hiss, a noisome smell went up, the lights flickered and danced and swirled. For a moment the water below him looked like some window, glazed with grimy glass, through which he was peering. Wrenching his hands out of the bog, he sprang back with a cry. ‘There are dead things, dead faces in the water,’ he said with horror. ‘Dead faces! ‘.
Gollum laughed. ‘The Dead Marshes, yes, yes: that is their names,’ he cackled. `You should not look in when the candles are lit.’
`Who are they? What are they? ‘ asked Sam shuddering, turning to Frodo, who was now behind him.
‘I don’t know,’ said Frodo in a dreamlike voice. ‘But I have seen them too. In the pools when the candles were lit. They lie in all the pools, pale faces, deep deep under the dark water. I saw them: grim faces and evil, and noble faces and sad. Many faces proud and fair, and weeds in their silver hair. But all foul, all rotting, all dead. A fell light is in them.’ Frodo hid his eyes in his hands. ‘I know not who they are; but I thought I saw there Men and Elves, and Orcs beside them.’
`Yes, yes,’ said Gollum. `All dead, all rotten. Elves and Men and Orcs. The Dead Marshes. There was a great battle long ago, yes, so they told him when Sméagol was young, when I was young before the Precious came. It was a great battle. Tall Men with long swords, and terrible Elves, and Orcses shrieking. They fought on the plain for days and months at the Black Gates. But the Marshes have grown since then, swallowed up the graves; always creeping, creeping.’ (Ch.2, p.235)
The passage also invokes Dante’s journey over the frozen Lake Cocytus, where he sees innumerable bodies in the ice. Shelob, the ancient goddess presiding over an abyss of blood, bones, and excrement, at the climax of a book of war, can be read as an incarnation of the mindset that doesn’t mind war, and that can live quite happily suspended over this nasty abyss.
But I think Tolkien means her to be much more. The poets of the Upanishads saw our universe as an unending process of hunger and consumption: for a being to survive, something else has to die — and our lives, moment by moment, are made up of eating, digesting, and excreting other beings. We too are food; we do not get to escape the universal process. Shelob’s malice consists in trying to prove to us that we are nothing but this process: we are essentially food and shit, and essentially beings that reduce everything else to food and shit. This is the meaning of the overwhelming stench. Shelob is a vision of ultimate degradation, in which all higher aspiration quails to nothing. Sauron comprehends that all those trying to enter his kingdom via Shelob’s lair will perish as much from despair and demoralization as from fangs; to survive Shelob, we will need the invincibility of genuine love, which is why Sam and Frodo can make it, and also Gollum, who loves one thing. Of course, Sauron does not believe in this, so he expects Shelob to batten on all intruders.
The narrator, having given us this important background to Shelob, then returns to the action. While we the readers now have a fuller sense of what Sam and Frodo are facing, they do not know what we know:
But nothing of this evil which they had stirred up against them did poor Sam know, except that a fear was growing on him, a menace which he could not see; and such a weight did it become that it was a burden to him to run, and his feet seemed leaden. (323)
The horror of Shelob is moral and spiritual in its reverberation, but through our heroes — who are not simple, but sensitive and innocent — such horror is felt with visceral immediacy, for true evil cannot be hidden but is atmospherically evident to the pure of heart. That we are allowed to know what they have no suspicion of makes them more helpless, more vulnerable, but also perhaps more capable of action; to have brooded over the meaning of Shelob might only have paralyzed them, and Sam’s heroism will be founded on love, not knowledge.