One book I’ve returned to many times in my life is The Lord of the Rings. I’ve got the paperback copy of the trilogy published by Grafton in 1991 with the incredible artwork by John Howe, and I may need to splash out for a new edition soon as my copy is falling to pieces from being read so many times.
We all know the trilogy is a classic, and a cornerstone of the fantasy genre. We all know about the depth of worldbuilding that Tolkien achieved, the language, the lore, the landscapes. But one thing that people might give less regard to is the quality of Tolkien’s prose. Line by line, paragraph by paragraph, he’s a fantastic writer.
An aspect of Tolkien’s powers of prose is his ability to terrify. Although The Lord of the Rings is epic fantasy, there are some moments of sheer horror.
The climactic chapter of The Two Towers, the second novel of the trilogy, is Shelob’s Lair. This is possibly my favourite chapter in The Lord of the Rings. It’s a great example of Tolkien’s prose style, and of his ability to create a completely engrossing flight of fantasy. I want to share a few of my favourite lines from the chapter and talk about how the use of light and darkness contributes to the monster Shelob being one of the most utterly terrifying creations in fantasy fiction.
So a quick recap of the situation. Frodo and Sam, our protagonists, are trying to pass the mountains of Mordor in order to destroy the ring of power. Gollum has guided them to a secret cave. Gollum is hoping that the monstrous Shelob, a giant spider, will kill them, enabling him to claim the ring of power.
Drawing a deep breath they passed inside. In a few steps they were in utter and inpenetrable dark.
Here we have a sharp transition, from the outer world of light and fresh air. As soon as the hobbits enter they are immersed in darkness. The technique at work throughout the chapter, that we can borrow from the visual art world, is chiaroscuro: a strong contrast between light and dark.
The contrast between light and dark is a theme that runs throughout The Lord of the Rings. However, nowhere else in the series, even in the deepest parts of Moria or on Mount Doom, are light and darkness so effectively placed in conflict as they are in Shelob’s Lair.
Here the air was still, stagnant, heavy, and sound fell dead. They walked as it were in a black vapour 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 colours and of forms and of any light faded out of thought.
The darkness that Tolkien describes is profound. ‘A black vapour wrought of veritable darkness… that brought blindness to the mind.’ What an amazing concept! A darkness so thick it can be breathed, causing the mind itself to become blind.
The senses of the hobbits become dull, they can barely speak, their words are stifled. They even lose their sense of time. This creates the atmosphere of the chapter, of the obliterating, supernatural darkness that the hobbits find themselves in. There has to be something nasty in here.
Soon they sense a wide opening…
…out of it came a reek so foul, and a sense of lurking malice so intense, that Frodo reeled.
The way Tolkien reveals sensory information about Shelob piece by piece is a master class in horror writing. There is a ‘reek so foul’ pervading the chapter. The darkness and the stench become one. And with the ‘sense of lurking malice,’ the ancient, malevolent Shelob reminds me of a Great Old One from the writing of HP Lovecraft. This is in a similar vein to some of the other Tolkien monsters such as the Watcher in the Water, or the balrog of Moria.
The hobbits move on, and become lost in the darkness.
…from behind them came a sound, startling and horrible in the heavy padded silence: a gurgling, bubbling noise, and a long venomous hiss. They wheeled round, but nothing could be seen.
Here’s more sensory information: the horrid sounds of the spider cutting through the darkness. It’s interesting that for the hobbits, the sounds of Shelob approaching are not deadened by the darkness. Just when all hope seems lost, Sam remembers the star-glass that Galadriel gave to Frodo.
…it began to burn, and kindled to a silver flame, a minute heart of dazzling light, as though Eärendil had himself come down from the high sunset paths with the last Silmaril upon his brow.
Now we have some light balancing out the darkness, some chiaroscuro. I love this image of Eärendil appearing with the last Silmaril on his brow. The way Tolkien gives little glimpses here and there of the depth of his lore really enhances the sense of a deep history in his fiction.
Not far down the tunnel, between them and the opening where they had reeled and stumbled, (Frodo) was aware of eyes growing visible, two great clusters of many-windowed eyes – the coming menace was unmasked at last.
The light of Earendil, while being a source of hope for the hobbits, also gives us our first glimpse of Shelob. ‘Two great clusters of many windowed eyes… the coming menace was unmasked at last.’
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.
The effect of light here, reflecting in Shelob’s eyes, is fantastic prose. She is a creature of darkness, but has her own light, a pale deadly fire that glows from within.
Monstrous and abominable eyes they were, bestial and yet filled with purpose and with hideous delight, gloating over their prey trapped beyond all hope of escape.
This sense that Tolkien gives us of Shelob’s sentience, her ‘hideous delight’, adds to the horror of the scene. She isn’t a mindless monster. She has her own evil designs separate from the will of Sauron. And we get the sense that she wants to toy with the hobbits before she kills them.
…even as they ran Frodo looked back and saw with terror that at once the eyes came leaping up behind.
I love the motion of this description, of the eyes falling away and then leaping up suddenly behind them. The hobbits take a stand in the darkness and Frodo, in a moment of supreme bravery, advances on Shelob and shines the star glass in her eyes again. Again, their chief weapon against the monster is light alone.
Tolkien writes of the eyes:
‘One by one they all went dark; they turned away, and a great bulk, beyond the light’s reach, heaved its huge shadow in between. They were gone.’
So the hobbits manage to see Shelob off for now. With great difficulty they cut their way through Shelob’s cobwebs and escape the lair. But she returns just as they think they’ve gotten away.
A little way ahead and to his left (Sam) saw suddenly, issuing from a black hole of shadow under the cliff, the most loathly shape that he had ever beheld, horrible beyond the horror of an evil dream. Most like a spider she was, but huger than the great hunting beasts, and more terrible than they because of the evil purpose in her remorseless eyes.
All of the sensory info we’ve been given culminates in this fearsome vision of Shelob fully revealed. Shelob manages to trap and poison Frodo, and Sam bravely fights with Shelob using the star glass and the sword, Sting. Now Tolkien returns to the use of chiaroscuro, of the battle between light and dark. Sam attacks Shelob with the star glass. And here the light wins out, with the star glass blasting away the ‘dark air’.
It flamed like a star that leaping from the firmament sears the dark air with intolerable light.
The star glass continues to be a weapon that Sam will use to drive Shelob back into her darkness.
The beams of it entered into her wounded head and scored it with unbearable pain, and the dreadful infection of light spread from eye to eye. She fell back beating the air with her forelegs, her sight blasted by inner lightnings, her mind in agony.
A throwback to our first vision of Shelob, when the light of the star glass is reflected in her many-faceted eyes. These are some of my favourite lines in the Shelob sequence. ‘The dreadful infection of light’. Now we’re sensing the light from Shelob’s viewpoint. Tolkien continues this description with the remarkable line: ‘Her sight blasted by inner lightnings, her mind in agony.’ Where earlier the hobbits had their minds blinded by the darkness of Shelob’s lair, now the great spider’s mind has been ‘scored with unbearable pain’.
Shelob is beaten by Sam, she slinks back to the darkness of her lair, and the adventure continues. However, Tolkien leaves open the question of whether or not the battle has killed the great Shelob. In my mind she survives. There has to be some evil left in the world!
So there’s a close look at the wonderful prose style of JRR Tolkien, from one of my favourite chapters, Shelob’s Lair. The battle between light and dark has become a cliche in fantasy fiction over the years. But in the hands of a master, the use of light and darkness, of chiaroscuro, can produce wonderful effects and be the foundation of truly epic writing.