Shelob is a fictional demon in the form of a giant spider from J. R. R. Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings. Her lair lies in Cirith Ungol ("the pass of the spider") leading into Mordor. The monstrous Gollum deliberately leads the Hobbit protagonist Frodo there in hopes of recovering the One Ring by letting Shelob attack Frodo. The plan is foiled when Samwise Gamgee temporarily blinds Shelob with the Phial of Galadriel, and then severely wounds her with Frodo's Elvish sword, Sting.
|Book(s)||The Two Towers (1954)|
Several scholars, though not all, have interpreted Shelob as symbolising a sexual threat, noting her dark underground lair approached by tunnels, her "soft squelching body", and Shelob's thrusting herself down onto Sam's erect sword, amongst other sexual allusions. Others have noted her opposition to the Elves, and in particular her adversary, Galadriel, whose light helps the hobbits to defeat her darkness.
Shelob is described in The Two Towers as an "evil thing in spider-form...[the] last child of Ungoliant to trouble the unhappy world", living high in the Ephel Dúath mountains on the borders of Mordor. Although she resided in Mordor and was unrepentantly evil, she was independent of Sauron and his influence. Her exact size is not stated, but she is significantly larger than her descendants, the Great Spiders of Mirkwood, and her hobbit opponents. Unlike ordinary spiders, she uses a sting to inject her venom and paralyse her victims. Her hide is tough enough to resist sword-strokes, and the strings of her webs are likewise resilient to ordinary blades, though the magical Sting manages to cut them. Her main weak point is her eyes, which can be easily harmed or blinded.
She is introduced as both evil and ancient: "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". Her descendants include the Giant Spiders of Mirkwood defeated by Bilbo Baggins in The Hobbit.
Shelob's lair was Torech Ungol, below Cirith Ungol ("Pass of the Spider"), along the path that the Hobbits Frodo Baggins and Sam Gamgee took into Mordor, where Shelob had encountered Gollum during his previous trip to Mordor, and he apparently worshipped her. The Orcs of the Tower of Cirith Ungol called her "Shelob the Great" and "Her Ladyship", and referred to Gollum as "Her Sneak". Sauron was aware of her existence, but left her alone as a useful guard on the pass, and occasionally fed prisoners to her. In the story, Gollum deliberately led the Hobbits into her lair, planning to recover the One Ring once she had consumed the hobbits. She cornered them; but Frodo used the Phial of Galadriel's light to drive her off, and used Sting to cut the webs blocking the tunnel. Gollum waylaid the pair and tried to strangle Sam, while Shelob paralysed Frodo; but Sam fought off Gollum and then wielded Sting against Shelob. Seeking to crush Sam, she instead impaled herself upon Sting; and, being evil, was nearly blinded by the Phial of Galadriel, containing pure light from the Silmarils; whereupon she fled. Her eventual fate, Tolkien mentions in passing, "this tale does not tell." Thinking Frodo dead, Sam took the Ring from his friend and left his body behind, but discovered by listening to a pair of Orcs that Frodo was alive but senseless, under a minor influence of venom.
As Tolkien admitted in a letter to his son, Shelob "is of course only 'she + lob'", lob being an archaic English word for spider, influenced by Old English loppe or "spider". The word is not related to "cob" nor "cobweb". Old English attercoppe (meaning "spider") is derived from atter meaning "poison" and coppe meaning "head". Tolkien used "attercop" as well as "cob" and "lob" in The Hobbit, where Bilbo Baggins sings songs taunting the giant spiders in Mirkwood: "Attercop, Attercop, Old Tomnoddy" and "Lazy Lob and Crazy Cob".
The Tolkien scholar Carol Leibiger writes that Shelob is presented as a disgusting female monster in the story. The Anglican priest and scholar of religion Alison Milbank adds that Shelob is undeniably sexual: "Tolkien offers a most convincing Freudian vagina dentata (toothed vagina) in the ancient and disgustingly gustatory spider Shelob." Milbank states that Shelob symbolises "an ancient maternal power that swallows up masculine identity and autonomy", threatening a "castrating hold [which] is precisely what the sexual fetishist fears, and seeks to control". The Tolkien scholar Jane Chance mentions "Sam's penetration of her belly with his sword", noting that this may be an appropriate and symbolic way of ending her production of "bastards".
The scholar of children's literature Zoë Jaques writes that Shelob is the "embodiment of monstrous maternity"; Sam's battle with Shelob could be interpreted as a "masculine rite of passage" where a smaller, weaker male penetrates and escapes the vast female body and her malicious intent. The Tolkien scholar Brenda Partridge described the hobbits' protracted struggle with Shelob as rife with sexual symbolism. She writes that Tolkien derived Shelob from multiple myths: Sigurd killing Fafnir the dragon; Theseus killing the Minotaur; Ariadne and the spider; and Milton's Sin in Paradise Lost. The result is to depict the woman as a threat, with implicit overtones of sexuality.
|Sauron's cat||woman as "graceful, sensual, and aloof"|
|Spawning broods of monsters||sexual overtones: fertility|
|Tunnels to lair||"female sexual orifice"|
|Cobwebs at entrance brushing against Frodo, Sam||pubic hair|
|Frodo cuts cobwebs ... "a great rent was made ... swayed like a loose veil"||tearing of the hymen|
|"Soft squelching body"||sexually aroused female genitals|
|Folds of skin||labia|
|Sam "held the elven blade point upwards, fending off that ghastly roof;|
and so Shelob ... thrust herself upon a bitter spike. Deep, deep it pricked"
Not all commentators have agreed with the sexual associations detected by scholars such as Partridge. The Tolkien scholar Daniel Timmons wrote in Mythlore in 2001: "The obsession of reading the Shelob episode as a sexually violent encounter, rather than as an archetypal struggle between human and monster, likely reveals more about the decadent social attitudes of the critics, rather than those of Tolkien". Timmons accepted the possibility of a "subtext of the fear of female sexual appeal", and agreed that the text might "function in the literary tradition of clashes between man and female monsters, with the attendant sexual innuendos", but called it "disingenuous or perverse" to assert that this was the "main or dominant impression".
Darkness opposed to the light
The critic Joyce Tally Lionarons writes that Tolkien constructs the Elves and the spiders such as Shelob as polar opposites, the Elves good and bright, the spiders evil and dark. Milbank writes more specifically that the ancient Shelob's adversary is another ancient female character, the elf-queen Galadriel. Galadriel both chooses not to be "She-who-must-be-obeyed" by rejecting Frodo's offer of the One Ring, and gives Frodo her light (the Phial of Galadriel) which enables the hobbits to defeat Shelob.
Patrick Grant, a scholar of Renaissance literature, saw Shelob and Galadriel's character pairing as fitting the opposition of Jungian archetypes. Frodo's anima is the Elf-queen Galadriel, who is opposed by the evil giant female spider Shelob. Frodo's Shadow is the male Hobbit Gollum. All of these, along with oppositions between other characters in the story, create an image of the self.
Perversion of body, unlike Saruman's perversion of mind
Chance further compares Shelob with the wizard Saruman, noting that both are "monsters" that live in towers; they have similarly-structured books in Lord of the Rings, one ending in a military attack on Saruman's tower, Orthanc; the other, in the hobbits' venturing into Shelob's lair in Cirith Ungol. Further, she writes, while Saruman has a "perversion of mind", Shelob has a "perversion of body".
Satan's daughter, Sin
Chance stresses Shelob's "gluttony", consisting of an "insatiable appetite"; her laziness, since the Orcs bring her food; and her "lechery" with many bastard offspring. Chance compares Shelob with the guardian of the gateway to Hell, noting that in John Milton's Paradise Lost, Satan mated with his daughter, Sin, their offspring being Death, constantly lustful for his mother: but Tolkien in one place describes Shelob as Sauron's cat rather than his daughter. The scholar of literature George H. Thomson similarly compares Shelob to Milton's Sin and Death, noting that they "serve neither God nor Satan but look solely to their own interests", as Shelob does; she is "the Death and Chaos that would overcome all".
In Peter Jackson's film trilogy, Shelob's appearance is delayed until the third movie, The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King. Her appearance is based on the New Zealand tunnel-web spider, which Jackson hates.
Shelob is a major character in the video game Middle-earth: Shadow of War, where she serves as both the narrator and an ally to player character Talion. In the game, Shelob uses shape-shifting ability to assume the form of an attractive elven woman. Following criticism of this decision, creative director Michael de Plater explained his interpretation that Gollum and Shelob were "the unsung heroes of The Lord of the Rings", with Shelob sensing Frodo's weakness and making a pact with Gollum to hasten him to Mount Doom and the confrontation that destroys the ring. De Plater envisioned Shelob as a dark counterpart to Galadriel, noting how both manipulate lesser beings, but that Shelob is more honest.
- This list identifies each item's location in Tolkien's writings.
- The Two Towers, book 4, chapter 9: "Shelob's Lair."
- The Two Towers, book 4, chapter 8: "The Stairs of Cirith Ungol"
- The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, 81 (#70)
- The Hobbit, chapter 8, "Flies and Spiders".
- Selden, Paul A. (2017). "Arachnids ☆". Reference Module in Life Sciences. doi:10.1016/B978-0-12-809633-8.02243-3. ISBN 9780128096338.
- Thomson, George H. (1967). ""The Lord of the Rings": The Novel as Traditional Romance". Wisconsin Studies in Contemporary Literature. 8 (1): 43–59. doi:10.2307/1207129. JSTOR 1207129.
- "ettercep". Merriam-Webster. Retrieved 16 July 2021.
- Nordanskog, Gunnar. Föreställd hedendom: tidigmedeltida skandinaviska kyrkportar i forskning och historia, 2006, p. 241. ISBN 978-91-89116-85-6
- Leibiger, Carol A. (2013) . "Women in Tolkien's Works". In Drout, Michael D. C. (ed.). J.R.R. Tolkien Encyclopedia. Routledge. pp. 710–712. ISBN 978-0-415-86511-1.
- Milbank, Alison (2013). "'My Precious': Tolkien's Fetishized Ring". In Gregory Bassham; Eric Bronson (eds.). The Lord of the Rings and Philosophy: One Book to Rule Them All. Open Court. p. 35. ISBN 978-0-8126-9806-0.
- Chance, Jane (1980) . Tolkien's Art. Papermac. pp. 111–113. ISBN 978-0-333-29034-7.
- Jaques, Zoë (2013). "There and Back Again: The Gendered Journey of Tolkien's Hobbits". In Hunt, Peter (ed.). J. R. R. Tolkien. Macmillan. pp. 88–105. ISBN 978-1137264015.
- Partridge, Brenda (2008) . "No Sex Please—We're Hobbits: The Construction of Female Sexuality in 'The Lord of the Rings'". In Giddings, Robert (ed.). J. R. R. Tolkien, this Far Land. Vision. pp. 179–197. ISBN 978-0389203742.
- Timmons, Daniel (2001). "Hobbit Sex and Sensuality in The Lord of the Rings". Mythlore. 23 (3 (Summer 2001)): 70–79. JSTOR 26814240.
- Grant, Patrick (1973). "Tolkien: Archetype and Word". Cross Currents (Winter 1973): 365–380.
- Lionarons, Joyce Tally (2013). "Of Spiders and Elves". Mythlore. 31 (3): 5–13.
- Bonin, Liane (19 December 2003). "The secrets of LOTR's eight-legged villain". EW.com.
- Pearse, Edward (15 January 2009). "The Lord of the Rings, Episode 2". Radio Riel. Archived from the original on 15 January 2020.
- Chiodini, Johnny (15 August 2017). "Why Shelob is a woman in Shadow of War". Eurogamer. Retrieved 15 August 2017.
- Brescovit, Antonio D.; Cizauskas, Igor; Mota, Leandro P. (2018). "Seven new species of the spider genus Ochyrocera from caves in Floresta Nacional de Carajás, PA, Brazil (Araneae, Ochyroceratidae)". ZooKeys (726): 87–130. doi:10.3897/zookeys.726.19778. PMC 5799772. PMID 29416386.