This chapter is great on atmosphere, but perhaps short in recap and analysis. That’s not necessarily a bad thing when one considers just how much personal fear Professor Tolkien brought to the table with this. And it gives us the opportunity to explore a little more backstory as we did in the previous chapter.
Sam and Frodo, led by Gollum, enter a deep cave, which Gollum says is a tunnel. How long they’re down in the gloom is anyone’s guess. The smell is bad beyond comprehension. It’s feared the cave is filled with Orcs, or perhaps with corpses of Orcs. In reality, it is known as Torech Ungol… Shelob’s Lair.
Shelob was born in the Elder Days, the time before the end of the First Age, to the spidery demon Ungoliant, who mated with and subsequently ate the spider-creatures of Ered Gorgoroth. After living for many years with her countless siblings, Shelob fled during the War of Wrath (the Great Battle at the end of the First Age against Morgoth, the original Dark Lord and Sauron’s superior), establishing a lair in the mountains of Mordor in the Second Age before Sauron staked his claim. Her offspring were encountered in later years at Ephel Dúath (the Mountains of Shadow that guarded Mordor’s western and southern borders) and Mirkwood.
Once Sauron returned to Mordor, Shelob’s comfortable living subsided as living meat avoided his borders. Growing in rage and hunger, Shelob fed on Sauron’s Orcs simply to survive more or less as a kind of watchdog to the Dark Lord, always craving better. It was Gollum who encountered her in escaping from Sauron’s grasp, and in return for his freedom, he promised to bring her sweeter meat.
This chapter sees Gollum keep his promise, with his own agenda of retrieving the Ring from the body of Frodo and using it to punish Shelob and all of his enemies in like fashion. He leads the Hobbits to her, disappearing to leave them stumbling in the dark towards their fates. Frodo is aware of the intensity of danger and hostility all around him. They see nothing, but they hear gurgling and a hiss. At Sam’s suggestion, Frodo raises the Phial of Galadriel, which illuminates hundreds of eyes staring at them.
Despite his fear, Frodo steps forward, discovering that Shelob retreats from the Phial’s light in kind. The Hobbits attempt to make their way out of the tunnel, but they are stopped by webs too strong to be cut with a knife. Frodo remembers his Elven blade Sting, which cuts through. Within view of the exit, Frodo shouts that they should run, but Sam lifts the Phial to see Orcs and hides the Phial quickly. He tries to warn Frodo, but Gollum ambushes him. It takes some time for Sam to fight off Gollum’s vice-like grip, but once freed, he threatens to stab the creature. Gollum quickly retreats, and Sam resumes the search for Frodo.
It is commonly believed that Tolkien’s encounter with a large baboon spider at the age of four provided the inspiration for Shelob and the other Great Spiders of Middle-Earth. Tolkien himself claimed no memory of the event and no particular hatred of spiders. According to Professor Michael D. C. Drout, the spiders of Mirkwood made their appearance in The Hobbit due to Tolkien’s second son, Michael’s arachnophobia. The mythos surrounding them grew from there, thus giving rising to Shelob and the Ungoliant.