Academic journal article Mythlore

Of Spiders and Elves

Academic journal article Mythlore

Of Spiders and Elves

Article excerpt

In J.R.R Tolkien's the two towers the ent Treebeard tells Merry and Pippin that orcs were made by Sauron in mockery of elves, as trolls were made in mockery of ents (The Lord of the Rings [LotR] III.4.486). A closer look at Tolkien's works, however, would indicate that the evil race corresponding to the elves is not in fact the orcs, but rather the giant spiders who inhabit the parts of Mirkwood that border the land of the wood-elves, and whose progenitor lurks in Cirith Ungol on the borders of Mordor. (1) Although a number of scholars have noted and explored the binary relationship between Galadriel, lady of the elves in Lothlorien, and Shelob, mother of the spiders, to my knowledge none have developed their arguments to deal with the elven and arachnid races as a whole. Peter Goselin and Patrick Grant, for example, see Galadriel and Shelob as light and dark anima figures in their respective Jungian analyses of The Lord of the Rings; Mac Fenwick compares Galadriel to the Homeric Circe and Calypso, and Shelob to the Sirens, Scylla, and Charybdis; while Leslie Donovan sees the two figures as representing the benevolent and malevolent aspects of what Helen Damico calls the "Valkyrie Reflex" in Old Norse and Old English literature. Marjorie Burns places the connection between Galadriel and Shelob into the context of a number of medieval and early modern works that Tolkien could have drawn on, and asserts that the opposition between them serves primarily to "[strengthen] and [define] the best of Galadriel" (Burns 88); in contrast, Jessica Burke, while acknowledging the basic opposition between the two, argues nevertheless that Galadriel herself "is not above pride, anger, or the will to destroy" (Burke 23), citing the fact that she joins Feanor in his rebellion against the Valar. Here I would like to examine Tolkien's complex web of correspondences between elves and spiders in The Hobbit, The Lord of the Rings, and The Silmarillion to show that these associative characteristics extend beyond the simple opposition of two characters, that they underlie his construction of the feminine and sexuality, and that this in turn prepares for and makes possible the images of fecundity and growth that we find in the final chapters of The Lord of the Rings.

Tolkien constructs the two races as both opposites and as mirror images. The most obvious opposition between the two is that between light and darkness. As Reno Lauro has demonstrated, Tolkien drew on the "medieval aesthetics of light [...] to express his own aesthetic vision" (55), so that light is consistently related to goodness, divinity, and creation, while the absence of light is associated with evil and sterility. Thus the Mirkwood spiders in The Hobbit come out only after dark, when the forest is "pitch-dark--not what you call pitch-dark, but really pitch: so black that you really could see nothing" (VIII.193). The air in Shelob's lair is "a black vapour wrought of veritable darkness itself" (The Lord of the Rings [LotR] IV.9.718), for Shelob "weav[es] webs of shadow" and "vomit[s] darkness" (IV.9.723). Lauro argues that Shelob's darkness is more than a mere lack of ordinary light, but is in fact "ontological," signifying "a privation of being," since in Tolkien's world all true being is predicated upon light (Lauro 68). Thus Shelob is physically harmed by the light from the phial of Galadriel: "Shelob's agony is the undoing of darkness with the creative power of light" (Lauro 70). Shelob is not as powerful as her foremother, the original spider Ungoliant, who "some say [...] descended from the darkness that lies about Arda" (Tolkien, Silmarillion [S] 73) and who craved and devoured light; in doing so she was able to undo the fabric of Tolkien's universe with her darkness. Fenwick similarly argues Ungoliant and Shelob can be seen respectively as "the physical manifestation [...] of the Darkness of pre- and anti-creation" (22).

By contrast, the caverns of the wood-elves on the outskirts of Mirkwood are filled with torchlight, and we are told that on the land of Lorien "no shadow lay" (LotR II. …

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