Tuesday, May 13, 2014

Evil, Monsters, and the Problem of Shelob

In class, we discussed the role of monsters and how they interact with Heroes. One of the main interactions is a sort of death foil, where the Hero is slain by a monster appropriate to their calling/attributes. This includes Beowulf and the Dragon (powerful monster to defeat a powerful warrior-king), Gandalf and the Balrog (ancient wizard fighting a powerful fire spirit). This schema is supported by the death of Turin, who is not directly slain by a monster. While Turin was a powerful warrior, his temper and impetuous nature were his downfall, so it is more fitting that he killed himself, rather than falling to the claws of a fiend.
                However, we did not really discuss if/why these monsters are evil. Sure, they fight and kill the Heroes, but does that make them Evil? For instance, we talked today about predators. Lions and tigers might kill cattle and people, but they aren’t Evil, they are just hungry. For this reason, I question the Evil of Shelob. The spider sits in her caves, eating passing orcs, men and elves. She doesn’t have any designs to dominate wills, nor does she wish to rule. She “cared [little] for towers, or rings, or anything devised by mind and body, who only desired death for all others, mind and bod, 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.” (Two Towers, Chapter 9). While this passage shows that Shelob is desirous of violence towards others, it seems to me that her violence is only such that she can eat everything in Middle-Earth.
                Why then is she identified as Evil? Tolkien identifies her as “an evil thing in spider-form” (Two Towers Chapter 9). Simply placing her as a plot device is a trifle unsatisfying, especially since Tolkien was so cognizant of his word choices. One possibility is Shelob’s malice. She is cruel in her predations, and toys with prey, rather than simply gobbling them up outright. This would set her apart from other bestial monsters in the LotR, such as the Watcher in the Water and the oliphaunts, who slay for food or out of instinct.
                Another possibility is that Shelob’s hunger is somehow unnatural. Much like her brood-mother, Ungoliant, Shelob’s hunger appears to be insatiable. If she could, it seems Shelob would eat everything simply because she wished to do so. This would possibly depart from the natural order of Middle-Earth, where things eat a certain amount, then stop.
                This dangles another intriguing possibility for Shelob’s Evil. The origins of Ungoliant are never detailed, but what few details emerge indicate that she came from the Outer Darkness beyond Middle-Earth/Arda.(Silmarillion, Chapter 8). Ungoliant is therefore not a creature of Middle-Earth, and might not have obeyed all of its natural laws. This unnaturalness might have therefore been passed on to her children, such as Shelob. This inheritance would make Shelob Evil, since she goes against the natural ordering of Middle Earth by Eru and the Valar. She is Evil because she is an aberration, rather than because of her intent to dominate others.
                Some would undermine this possibility by pointing out that all of creation is ordered by the will of Eru. There would be nothing existent without his approval. Therefore, Ungoliant and Shelob could not have violated any natural orders. This is a fair and powerful point, but I think it do not think it eliminates my suggestion. If I concede that Eru created Ungoliant in all of her facets, he still created her as a creature of the Outer Darkness. She is not meant to be within Middle-Earth. By leaving her designated plane of existence, she is disobeying Eru in the same way Melkor disobeyed in choosing Middle-Earth over Valinor as his preferred stomping grounds. This of course still hinges on the assumption that Ungoliant was indeed a creature from Beyond Arda. If she was a domestic critter, then this explanation of Shelob’s Evil falls completely apart.
                Suppose none of these suppositions are correct. Suppose Shelob is a natural creature of Middle-Earth, her malice is not sufficient to be called Evil, and her hunger is not unprecedented among predators. Why then is she labelled as Evil? What purpose does an Evil Monster serve that a regular Monster could not? Shelob’s attack served to show Sam as a true Hero, but it the Evil factor was not crucial to this transformation. If Frodo had passed into a coma from some bad mushrooms, Sam would have had the same opportunity to resist the Ring, storm an Orc tower and save his master.
                A far more enticing possibility is that the presence of Evil is an opportunity for the presence of Good. When Sam is fighting Shelob, he cries out:

"Gilthoniel A Elbereth…
A Albereth Gilthoniel
o menel palan-diriel,
le nallon sí di’nguruthos!
A tiro nin, Fanuilos!”

Sam is not overly educated, and despite passing contact with Elves and Elfsongs, it is unlikely that he had any working knowledge of Elvish or the Valar. This is supported by the outside compulsion which causes him to speak this invocation, a force that leaves him after he speaks this last line of Elvish. If Sam had been fighting a lion or some feral predator, his invocation would have been empty noise. In this instance, it is enough to restore Sam’s spirits and drive him onward into danger.
Thus our Good-Evil duality is somewhat reversed. If Good was an empty term before the existence of Evil, then Evil is also an opportunity for Good to appear. I am not entirely sure what else this indicates. This is the only time Sam invokes the Valar, as far as I can remember. He re-uses Elbereth as a password in the orc tower, but that was a mechanical usage of the name, rather than an invocation of power. It could be that there are two dyads at play in Shelob’s lair: a monster that exposes a Hero, and Evil that exposes Good.
Another, more tenuous, possibility is that Evil Monsters temporarily reverse the idea of absent gods. Tolkien was clearly familiar with Norse/Germanic folklore, in which Gods and Heroes battle monsters. He himself points out that monsters became more terrible as Christianity entered folklore, because Christian theology displaced or vilified the Old Gods and left the Heroes to battle on alone (Monsters and Critics 22). Before long, Monsters ceased to be real, and were instead “images of the evil spirit or spirits, or rather the evil spirits.” Given this opinion, Shelob’s designation as Evil could be a subtle gesture towards her realness: she was such a real and terrifying foe that the Old Gods/Valar had to be re-instated in order to balance the scales. In short, Shelob’s Evil served to reverse the trend Tolkien identified in Germanic folklore.

Griffin Brunk


  1. You quoted how Shelob “cared [little] for towers, or rings, or anything devised by mind and body, 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.” Thus, perhaps Shelob is just a representation of evil as a result of extreme intemperance and one who has become fully possessed by her passion. Therefore, for her, this passion has reached the height of one of the 7 deadly sins, i.e. gluttony to the ultimate degree.
    She desires not to leave the cave, but rather remain in the darkness similar to the way in which Gollum retreated to the Misty Mountains, struggling to bear the light of the sun. For Shelob, however, the light of the Phial of Galadriel was so detrimental to her because, unlike Gollum, she is the embodiment of a fully possessed creature whereas Gollum, as Gandalf explicitly notes in TFOTR ("The Shadow of the Past"), still has a very slim chance of hope throughout TLOTR. On another note, maybe Shelob inherited her tendencies toward intemperance from her ancestors similar to the way in which you mentioned.

    - AM

  2. Griffin,

    This is a terrific analysis of the somewhat problematic position of Shelob: she’s obviously a monster and Tolkien calls her evil. But is she Evil or just evil? As AM suggests (and Sam B.’s post supra might imply), it’s possible Tolkien is once again physicalizing a sin, with Shelob a metaphor for unbounded Gluttony. But she doesn’t really come off like that, does she? The really alien appearance of spiders, her horrific size, and Tolkien’s insistence on her monstrosity (eating her own young, etc.), really seem to intimate there’s something Evil about her. But as you show, it’s not easy to pin down what that is, or where she fits in the metaphysics of Arda.

    Your suggestion that she’s a literary revenant of the vanished Norse monsters is quite suggestive and original.

    Thanks very much for the post.

  3. Perhaps part of the reason Shelob can be considered evil may be found in the quote you cited. Tolkien says she desired “death for all others, mind and body.” It is not just that Shelob wishes to devour them in order to sustain herself. That would simply make her a predatory animal, an exceedingly horrifying one, but in moral terms no worse than the lions or tigers you mention. However, it appears to me that Shelob is desirous of consumption not merely to preserve her own life, but also to deny it to others. If this is true, she does fit the definition of evil as the wish to dominate people’s wills, or otherwise to remove from them the ability to guide their own.
    Shelob also appears to be entirely cognizant of her actions in a way that no purely animal predator is. If she is the spawn of Ungoliant, who is clearly intelligent, and related to the spiders of Mirkwood, who also speak and exhibit intelligence, I think it would be difficult to conclude that she is not also intelligent. As a sentient creature then, I think it would be hard to characterize her actions as anything but evil. Had a human, orc, or other being taken up residence somewhere in order to torture, kill, and devour any living thing that passed it, I would doubt very much that we would hesitate long to call it evil, no matter how hungry it was. Given that Shelob can think, there is no obvious reason that she should not be held to the same moral standards applied to the other intelligent beings and creatures in the mythos. Thus, I would conclude that she it, in fact, evil in the classic sense of the word, without need for investigation of her origins, although I did find the discussion interesting.
    Ian Chronis

  4. Shelob is certainly an issue in terms of her assignment as evil, and this is a great and insightful post on clarifying the problem. I find your initial response, your reluctance to categorize her as evil is an interesting artifact of our generation – we tend to look at monsters more sympathetically then Tolkien would have. I wouldn’t go so far to suggest, as one of the other commenters does, that she is evil in her intemperance. Actually, I would suggest that she is evil in that she is absent in any other quality besides the desire to eat. That’s it. That’s all she is nothing more. Is that not in itself terrifying? If this is true, it suggests that evil is not the possession of patently malicious qualities, but that those qualities are actually just the absence of good qualities. Even further, think of the dichotomy of light and dark. Shelob lives in the dark, in the absence of light. Absence appears again as a theme. Sam defeats Shelob in part with light – in other words, he has added something to the absence.