Thursday, May 4, 2017


I intend to consider in more detail the creature Ungoliant, who conspired with Melkor to destroy the two trees of Valinor. As a disclaimer, I understand that Ungoliant will probably be the subject of further discussion when the class discusses monsters in more detail next week, but I want to consider specifically how, if at all, Ungoliant fits into Tolkien’s conception of choice and Le Guin’s interpretation of ‘shadows’.

Ungoliant’s defining characteristic is her hunger to destroy. She joins with Melkor to destroy the two trees of Valinor on the condition that Melkor give her various precious materials to destroy. Indeed, the alliance between the two disintegrates when Melkor refuses to give the Simarils to consume. The Silmarillion tells us that Ungoliant most likely perished when she consumed herself in one final act of destruction. In each instance where we hear of Ungoliant, she is demonstrates an unwavering focus on destruction.

Interestingly, Ungoliant is never particularly concerned with domination, the hallmark of most of the adversaries encountered in Tolkien’s legendarium. Melkor concerns himself with dominating and controlling the elves, men, and indeed all of Iluvatar’s creation in Arda. Sauron cleverly worms his way into the trust of the Numenoreans and quickly gains dominant control of the island, and, of course, he creates the Ring of power, which is perhaps the most quintessential example of a dominating force in the entire legendarium. Ungoliant, however, does not concern herself with taking control of others, merely with destroying anything and everything possible.

It has been postulated in class that the defining feature of what Tolkien would consider an evil act is an attempt to dominate or otherwise remove others’ right to choose. If we accept that to be the case, then we must concede that Ungoliant is not, in fact evil, since she does not appear to meet that standard. If our standard for judging acts of evil is that the act be attempting to dominate the will of another, Ungoliant’s acts do not fit. The idea that Ungoliant is not evil seems counterintuitive when discussing the creature that destroyed the trees of Valinor and plunged Arda into darkness. Either we must concede that Ungoliant is not evil or we must reject domination as a standard for determining evil.

One of the most interesting features of Ungoliant, in my opinion, is the mystery her origins. Her background is left unclear, although we may never know whether intentionally or simply because Tolkien had not yet gotten to filling in the hole. What we do know, from the Silmarillion, is that Ungoliant was not part of Arda, rather, she came from outside it, presumably in the void. It is even possible, then, that she was not, in fact, created by Iluvatar, which would make her the only entity we know of not created either directly or indirectly by Iluvatar save Iluvatar himself.

Ursula Le Guin, in her chapter The Child and the Shadow, adopts some Jungian ideas in defense of fantasy by arguing that fantasy helps us to recognize and understand our ‘shadows’. A person’s ‘shadow’, under this system, is a sort of embodiment of their baser and more negative traits. Ungoliant seems to fit the bill, given her single minded lust for destruction. The question, then, is what Ungoliant functions as the shadow of. There are, in my mind, several possibilities, some more plausible than others.

First, I think it is possible to view Ungoliant as a shadow of Iluvatar himself. This is most plausible if we adopt the idea that Ungoliant existed independently of Iluvatar. If the only original entities in the universe were Iluvatar and Ungoliant, it might be logical to view Ungoliant as Iluvatar’s shadow. He is the ultimate power of creation, refinement, and order in the universe, whereas she is the embodiment of destruction and chaos. As Iluvatar creates Arda and the being of Arda, Ungoliant unswervingly seeks their destruction. The drawback to this theory is that Le Guin suggests that one’s shadow should be the more physically powerful of the two. Iluvatar’s shadow, then, should be a manifestation of all of his raw power. Ungoliant, who manifests as a particularly large spider, is not on the same playing field as the legendarium’s deity.

An alternative is that Ungoliant represents the shadow of Arda itself, or, if one prefers, the flame of creation at Arda’s center. The flame of Arda embodies the force of creation, so it makes sense that Ungoliant, who seeks to destroy that creation, would be its opposite. This might be more logical if Ungoliant’s creation occurred independently of, but simultaneously with Arda.

One more radical idea is that Ungoliant represents Melkor’s shadow. Melkor and Ungoliant are both hostile to Iluvatar and his creation, but Melkor tends towards perverting Iluvatar’s creation, where Ungoliant is strictly concerned with its destruction. While both characters are adversaries of the Valar, Ungoliant seems to posses the baser and less controlled elements of the pair. Another point in favor of this argument is that the pair accomplish their greatest triumph when they cooperate. The pair destroy the trees of Valinor only when their powers of perversion and destruction are combined. This aligns with Le Guin’s assessment that one can be most successful when one acknowledges one’s shadow and proceeds with it, although not overpowered by it.

I find Ungoliant to be an anomalous character in the legendarium. She does not fit the traditional patterns of creation and of dominating evil seen elsewhere in Tolkien’s works. I see several valid possibilities for her symbolic significance as a Jungian ‘shadow’, as well as the possibility that she doesn’t fit any of the scenarios. At any rate, I find her to be a fascinating character worthy of contemplation.



  1. I like option 2 best: Ungoliant as the shadow of the Flame of Arda. She is, after all, Unlight. She seems to fit best as the shadow of the Light or Darkness embodied. Melkor desires the Flame but cannot find it in the Void (if I am remembering correctly!). Could Iluvatar have a shadow? That is an interesting question! RLFB

  2. I like the distinction you made between the bad nature of Ungoliant and that of Morgoth, and I’m thinking along the lines of Sayer’s reading: the distinction between Not-Good and Anti-Good. He mentions that Being, simply by Being, creates Not-Being. In the case of Ungoliant, the force of Creation at the same time gives rise to the force of destruction, of Un-Creation. I agree with your point that Ungoliant is a shadow of the flame of creation in Arda, for the existence of light necessarily generates “un-light.” In that sense, creatures like Ungoliant necessarily exist in Arda, which can probably explain why those spider monsters are never utterly destroyed by the heroes.

    Morgoth, however, is more like the “Anti-Good” Sayers talks about. He mentions that when Not-Good is combined with “consciousness and will,” it will degenerate into Anti-Good. Morgoth, with sub-creative force like men, can use his will to actively transform negative Not-Good to positive Anti-Good. He not only destroy others’ creations but also tries to actively corrupts them. He corrupts elves into orcs. He instill fear and dismay upon mortality, which is supposed to be a gift of Iluvatar. By corrupting the creations, he claims them to be his own rather than Iluvatar’s. Therefore he is inherently different from Ungoliant. -K. Liao

  3. I would push against the idea that Ungoliant isn't removing others' right to choose or trying to dominate the wills of others. Her only real desire seems to be an extreme form of gluttony - she only desired "to be mistress of her own lust, taking all things to herself to feed her emptiness . . . for she hungered for light and hated it." (The Silmarillion, 33) I would argue that this desire to destroy and consume is in itself a desire to dominate, as it removes all ability to choose from those Ungoliant eats. I do find your argument that Ungoliant is either the shadow of the Flame of Arda or of Melkor to be very intriguing, especially given your point that Melkor's greatest accomplishment was with Ungoliant by his side. My only gripe is that this raises the question of what this means for Arda or Melkor if Ungoliant consumed herself. To be fair Tolkien leaves her fate open and only says "Of the fate of Ungoliant no tale tells. Yet some have said that she ended long ago, when in her uttermost famine she devoured herself at last." (The Silmarillion, 36), so if she were in fact one of their shadows this would probably mean that she still lives.

  4. I agree with some of the other comments here in that your characterization of Ungoliant as a type of “shadow” is extremely thought provoking. However, I would disagree with the initial claim that Ungoliant’s acts of evil do not fit into the framework set up in class. Ungoliant’s main sin, as Chris points out, is that of gluttony – a desire to have possession of all of creation. Such a desire is fundamentally a desire to exert her will over that of Eru, as Eru wills Arda to belong to his Children or at least to not be controlled by any one entity. If it is evil to try to exert will over an actor in creation, then it is certainly evil to try to exert control over the agent of creation.

    Returning to the idea of a shadow, though, I think does provide some great insights into Ungoliant’s purpose and character. I think I agree with the idea that Ungoliant is either the shadow of Eru or more directly the shadow of the Flame Imperishable. Shadow is dual to light, much as Ungoliant is dual to Eru himself – Eru is identified by his love and sacrifice, whereas Ungoliant is characterized by her hate and greed. Her proposed end, that of consuming herself out of greed, is made more poignant by from this viewpoint: such greed is not sustaining, whereas sacrifice/love is perpetual. I’ll have to think more about this, as it’s a great way to really look at Ungoliant.