In Edmund Wilson’s review of the Lord of the Rings, which presents a number of other issues he took with the three volumes, Wilson complains that the monsters “would not hurt a fly”. More specifically, he felt that the monsters were not concrete or present enough to come off as really horrible to the reader. We never really got into this subject in class, so I’d like to discuss exactly how the monsters brought up in class are in fact scary.
The Ringwraiths are never properly given shape. They are only ever described as shadows given form, sometimes with a resemblance to a hooded man. This ambiguity gives them their disturbing appearance. In an early passage in Fellowship, Frodo witnesses a dark shape sway from side to side, sniff the air, bend to the ground and crawl towards him. (Book I, Chapter 3) Frodo rarely gets a straight explanation of what the Riders are exactly, except that they are servants of the Enemy. They change shape, float, make little noise except a barely-audible sniffing, and cause Frodo to be mentally overpowered by a desire to use the ring numerous times. Ringwraiths are almost an embodiment of the fear of the dark, a fitting servant for the lord of shadows. Certainly they are not concrete; they are deliberately the opposite. This is precisely why they are scary. As to their presence in the story, the Ringwraiths are constantly appearing in book I.
Throughout the rest of the series their role is markedly different: less of a mysterious and evil pursuer of the hobbits and more like a terrible force on the battlefield. Pippin and Beregond witness a Ringwraith mounted on a fell beast as a sensation, a barely-heard cry, and a brief darkening of the sun, but even this minor experience causes Pippin to “blanch against the wall”. (Book V, Chapter 1) They have grown in power significantly, allowing them to attack Faramir’s riders as they return to Minas Tirith, and challenge Gandalf. They are principally a force of despair, and the Witch-King himself has become a fitting monster for the heroes Eowen and Merry.
It’s arguable that their change in presence actually heightens their role as monster. At the beginning of the Rings they are mostly like a bogeyman, frightening to the inexperienced hobbits but not yet challenging enough for a hero to defeat. Aragorn drives them away with a simple torch, and they are temporarily placed out of action by the Fords of Bruinen. We never really see their strength, because their role at this stage does not warrant it. But as commanders under Sauron they provide great sway in the battles of Volume III, exerting psychological force rivaling Glaurung. Their presence is at a height with the Witch-king’s appearance in the Battle of the Pelennor Fields, at which point he is challenged by heroes and defeated.
Shelob takes on a similar archetype as the early Ringwraiths, a minor presence that becomes an overpowering monster. She is mentioned before her appearance solely by Gollum’s vague references, a “she” that could take care of the hobbits, waiting in the pass of Cirith Ungol. The hobbits and the reader have no notion of what is waiting for them in the tunnel. The reader gets some hints: the eyes in the darkness, her odd gurgling noises, her retreat at the sight of the Phial of Galadriel, and the webbing across the tunnel. Frodo and Sam can feel her looking at them. But the hobbits are spurred onward by the hope of an open space, and the reader is led to almost forget her presence lurking in wait.
At this moment, Tolkien has made an interesting narrative choice in the introduction of Shelob: he describes exactly her psychology, her history, and her habits in all their disgusting glory. (Book IV, Chapter 9) He also reveals exactly what Gollum intended by drawing the hobbits to the pass. Tolkien did not write this back-story explanation for the Ringwraiths, so it’s interesting to see what effect this has on her characterization.
First of all, this makes Shelob suddenly, in crystal clear detail, concrete and present. We know exactly what she’s thinking and why she behaves the way she does. This creates an extreme sense of alienation, because her psychology is just so non-human. Rather than the Ringwraiths’ association with the fear of the dark, Shelob plays off of the fear of the other.
Second, the reader’s and hobbits’ suspicions are instantly affirmed. Gollum’s plans and the inevitable trap are revealed. The reader has a sense of exactly how much they were not aware, which produces a sense of dramatic irony, helplessness, and despair. This is quite appropriate given it’s exactly how Sam feels a moment later. He sees Shelob spring atop Frodo, quickly incapacitating him and binding him.
Finally, he sees her horrible shape and knows that she is a monster. This is a perfect setup for Sam’s triumph over her in an act of heroism. It gives him courage and conviction to defend his master, a fury previously unknown to him, and the desperation of survival. Sam realizes his heroism, and drives the monster off with Frodo’s sword and Phial. (Book V, Chapter 10)
These two monsters are creatures of shadow that feed off of primal fears (darkness, and the alien), and create deep senses of despair and helplessness in their victims. They are certainly horrible, and fall nicely under the category of monster in opposition to heroes that later defeat them.
Gollum, on the other hand is not precisely scary. He is creepy, lurks in the shadows, and doesn’t make himself known until far into the Rings after he’s followed Frodo for a book and a half (II and IV). But, he is not horrible, frightening to behold, vague like the Ringwraiths or alien like Shelob. Instead he is mostly just disturbing and pitiable; an old, corrupted hobbit with a disturbed psychology. In The Hobbit he is even less: a strange old mountain creature with an odd obsession and unpleasant habits. He is definitely not a monster, especially since he is not defeated by a hero.
Gollum falls under the archetype of what Frodo could become. In other words, he is disturbing because he is a demonstration of the amount the ring can change an individual. In the end he destroys himself. But he is neither scary, nor a monster.