Chapter IX: Shelob’s Lair
It might be daytime at the top of the Stairs of Cirith Ungol, but it’s still dark. Dark and smelly, and the stink gets worse as Frodo and Sam head toward the tunnel Gollum has been leading them toward. A few steps in and the darkness deepens, beyond anything they’ve known before: “They walked as it were in a black vapor wrought of veritable darkness itself that, as it was breathed, brought blindness not only to the eyes but to the mind, so that even the memory of colors and of forms and of any light faded out of thought. Night always had been, and always bought be, and night was all.” Melodramatic? Perhaps, but as Sam and Frodo trudge deeper into the black for what feels like hours, Gollum vanishes and doesn’t answer them, and Sam feels something evil watching them.
They’re both terrified in this blackness and stench, unable to figure out where to go without their treacherous guide. And then a sound comes from behind, a gurgling noise followed by a long hiss and the hobbits realize they’ve been led into a trap.
Sam puts a hand on his sword, remembering the barrow he got it from, long ago on the edges of the Shire, and it reminds him of Tom Bombadil, which triggers a memory of light: the Phial of Galadriel! She gave it to Frodo and told him it would be light for him when all other lights had gone out, and in this place of endless night, the reflected light of the ancient Silmaril (now the Evening Star) pushes the darkness back.
But while the Phial of Galadriel contains an ancient power of light, the hobbits are facing an ancient power of darkness: Shelob. Tolkien describes her thus:
“The radiance of the star-glass was broken and thrown back from their thousand facets, but behind the glitter a pale deadly fire began steadily to glow within, a flame kindled in some deep pit of evil thought. Monstrous and abominable eyes they were, bestial and yet filled with purpose and with hideous delight, gloating over their prey trapped beyond all hope.”
So what is Shelob? She is an ancient, gigantic spider that eats flesh and spews out darkness. She is descended from Ungoliant, an ancient monster of almost unparalleled evil who destroyed the two trees of paradise realm of Valinor that gave light to the world before the sun and the moon were created. She was not defeated then but disappeared into the reaches of the wild where legend says her hunger caused her to devour her own offspring and ultimately herself. Shelob herself has lived in Cirith Ungol for untold years, since long before Sauron came to Barad-Dur. He never bothered to force her out, as he regards her as something of a pet to toss treats (aka prisoners) to now and then, and she functions as a guard of the pass. Shelob herself doesn’t give a fig what Sauron thinks or wants. She just wants to feed, and if Sauron will send her fresh meat now and then, she’s content. Gollum came across her on his way out of Mordor and worshipped her, so she let him live, while he, in turn, promised to bring her food.
And so Gollum has done what he promised: he’s brought Shelob food in the form of two hobbits, and when she is done with them, he will go through what’s leftover and take the Ring back for himself. Shelob doesn’t care for Rings or power. She just wants to feed.
Now Frodo and Sam are facing this evil creature, alone, in her own territory, and with just the Phial of Galadriel and their two small swords to defend themselves.
It’s enough, though, for a little while. Frodo draws Sting and holds the Phial higher, and advances on Shelob with the unexpected courage that hobbits have in a tight spot. Shelob doubts herself for a moment, and turns away, giving the hobbits time to run away. But they are thwarted by giant a spiderweb. Frodo gives Sam the Phial and starts hacking at the web with his sword, Sting. The Elvish blade cuts through the horrid strands and they break through. Ahead of them, there’s a faint light coming from the pass beyond and feeling a surge of hope, Frodo takes off running. Sam follows as well as he can.
In the darkness, Sam sees the blue light of Sting, which means that orcs are nearby. Hardly a surprise, here at the border of Mordor, but it makes him pause to put the Phial away. No sense in attracting the enemy, after all. He’s about to run after Frodo when a pair of clammy hands wrap around his mouth and neck. It’s Gollum, who was lurking behind them all along and found his chance to take his revenge on Sam for all the petty insults and suspicions. But while he’s attacking from behind and so should have the advantage, Gollum underestimates Sam’s fury at the thought of being separated from Frodo. They struggle together, but Sam finally fights him off using the staff Faramir gave him. Gollum runs away again and thanks to a moment of blind rage, Sam follows him. Then he remembers that Shelob is still out there, and Frodo is alone*.
Chapter X: The Choices of Master Samwise
When Sam finds Frodo, he is lying face down and partially wrapped in spider webs with his sword beside him. Shelob is above him, ignoring Sam while preparing to drag Frodo away. Enraged by the sight, Sam picks up Sting and charges Shelob: “No onslaught more fierce was ever seen in the savage world of beasts, where some desperate small creature armed with little teeth, alone, will spring upon a tower of horn and hide that stands above its fallen mate.”
Sam has infinite bravery when it comes to defending Frodo, but Shelob doesn’t have a weak spot, except for her eyes. Sam could cut at her body or legs all day and it wouldn’t make a difference. His small strength isn’t enough to pierce her hide, even with an Elvish blade.
Shelob has strength and mass, and with those attributes working in her favor, she intends to crush Sam. Little does she know, though, that Sam is quick enough to grasp Sting two-handed and lift the blade over his head so when Shelob tries to crush him, her own strength and bulk work against her. She pierces herself on the blade. It’s a horrendous pain like Shelob has never known before. She leaps away and gathers herself to leap on Sam again, while Sam, thinking he’s about to die, grabs the Phial and holds it up, chanting Elvish words he doesn’t know but remembers hearing way back in Rivendell. Shelob, injured for the first time and facing an intolerantly brilliant light summoned by the invocation of Elbereth Gilthoniel (a sort of goddess of the stars), turns tail and scuttles away, defeated.
Now Sam is alone. He crawls back to Frodo, thinking he will awaken his master so they can leave this horrid place, but no matter what he does or how loudly he calls, Frodo does not respond. Sam listens for a heartbeat but there is none, and Frodo’s hands have gone cold. “‘Frodo, Mr. Frodo!’ he called. ‘Don’t leave me here alone! It’s your Sam calling. Don’t go where I can’t follow! Wake up, Mr. Frodo! O wake up, Frodo, me dear, me dear. Wake up!'”
But it’s no use. Frodo doesn’t wake up. Sam realizes that Frodo is dead, and rage and despair overwhelm him.
When he comes back to himself, and after he sees that the world has not come to an end, Sam realizes that this is the moment he was predicting months ago in the Shire, when he spoke of meeting the Elves of Gildor Inglorion’s company. There was something he needed to do before the end, and this must be it: to take the Ring, alone, and take it on the final leg of the journey to Mount Doom. He seems conflicted, though. He knows what is required of him, but he doesn’t want to leave Frodo behind, unburied in this place. For a moment, he thinks of taking off to track Gollum down and avenge Frodo. For another moment, he contemplates jumping off one of the cliffs to join his Master in death. He’s terrified to do what must be done, but in the end, his own sense of duty takes over. Frodo is dead, but the Council gave him companions so the Quest wouldn’t end in failure. Sam is the only one left, and while he wishes it were otherwise, this is where his road has brought him. He is now the Ringbearer. The hopes of Middle-earth are on his shoulders now. Gently, he takes the Ring from Frodo and puts the chain around his own neck:
“And then he bent his own neck and put the chain upon it, and at once his head was bowed to the ground with the weight of the Ring, as if a great stone had been strung on him. But slowly, as if the weight became less, or new strength grew in him, he raised his head, and then with a great effort got to his feet and found that he could walk and bear his burden. And for a moment he lifted up the Phial and looked down at his master, and the light burned gently now with the soft radiance of the evening-star in summer, and in that light Frodo’s face was fair of hue again, pale u beautiful with an elvish beauty, as of one who has long passed the shadows. And with the bitter comfort of that last sight Sam turned and hid the light and stumbled on into the growing dark.”
It’s not just the shadows and gloom that darkens Sam’s road, it’s the thought of going into it without Frodo. But he doesn’t have long to contemplate his despair, for a band of Orcs is hurrying toward him. They were alerted by the tumult up by Shelob’s lair, and they’ve come to investigate. With nowhere else to hide, Sam puts the Ring on. The Orcs pass by him, but he can still see and hear them– and understand them, thanks to the Ring’s growing power. They find Frodo lying along the path, pick him up, and carry him off. Sam follows as fast as he can.
He hears a couple of the Orcs gossiping about the goings-on in Mordor. There had been an alert, and spies were rumored to be on the stairs (mostly true), and while the watch here had been doubled, Sauron was busy elsewhere (preparing to make war upon Gondor, and also distracted by Pippin peering into the Palantir outside of Isengard). Shelob was on the move again, and her little sneaking servant (Gollum) had returned. The Orcs decided to let Shelob have her bit of fun with whatever pour soul Gollum brought Shelob, but they eventually had to see what was going on. They have orders to capture any spies and bring them to Lugburz, that is, Barad-Dur. And while Orcs may be vile, they are not entirely stupid. They can see that someone cut the spider webs away from Frodo, and so there must be someone else lurking about. They assume it’s a grand Elf warrior, because who else would have a sword sharp enough to cut the webs?
The gossiping Orcs, Shagrat and Gorbag, decide to have a look at their prisoner before they strip him and send him off to Barad-Dur. And while Gorbag wonders what Sauron would want with a corpse, Shagrat calls him a fool, “‘…there’s a lot you don’t know, though most other folk do… Carrion! Is that all you know of Her Ladyship? When she binds with cords, she’s after meat. She doesn’t eat dead meat, nor suck cold blood. This fellow isn’t dead!'”
It turns out that Shelob jabs her victims with just enough poison to paralyze them without killing them so she can spin them into her webs and devour them at her leisure. Within a few hours, they wake up feeling sick, but very much alive. The orcs pick Frodo up again and carry him into the tower.
Sam, who has been berating himself for listening to his head and not his heart, when he knew he shouldn’t leave Frodo, runs after the Orcs. He is determined to rescue Frodo no matter the cost, but he is too far behind. The doors slam shut. Sam throws himself against them and falls to the ground, senseless. Frodo is alive, but in enemy hands**.
Next Week: We begin The Return of the King by returning to our other story, already in process, where Pippin is about to do something ill-advised but with the best of intentions in ‘Minas Tirith’, and Aragorn goes ghost hunting in ‘The Passing of the Grey Company’.
* I saw the film version of The Return of the King on opening day in a small town theater. During the scene where Frodo is alone, looking out for Shelob or Gollum, and the camera tilts up to reveal Shelob above Frodo and ready to pounce, a girl of about 10 or 11 years old, up in the front row shouted, “Look out, Frodo!”
** The Lord of the Rings was mostly completed by 1949, but thanks to post-war paper shortages, publishing house delays, and Tolkien’s endless edits, the three volumes came out separately. The Fellowship of the Ring and The Two Towers were published within months of each other, but because Tolkien kept fussing with the appendices and index, he delayed the publication of The Return of the King for nearly a year, keeping a desperate public in horrible suspense.