Temporarily embarrassed proletarians

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Christine Kelley

Christine Kelley writes about speculative fiction and radical politics from a queer revolutionary perspective. Currently her main project is Nowhere and Back Again, a psychogeography of J. R. R. Tolkien's Middle-earth. Her first project was the now semi-retired blog Dreams of Orgonon, a song-by-song study of Kate Bush. Support Christine on Patreon.


  1. liminal fruitbat
    August 6, 2021 @ 1:25 pm

    coarse dogsbodies who snarl made-up profanities such as “garn”

    This may not be made up – or at least, not by Tolkien: it’s used by unsavoury working-class characters in Blyton, and by Eliza in Shaw’s Pygmalion, and is allegedly a Cockney contraction of “Go on!”.

    Shelob (and Ungoliant)’s status as the monstrous feminine is particularly interesting/revealing given his other villainous female characters, what few there are of them. Lobelia Sackville-Baggins isn’t, as far as I remember, villainised in any specifically feminine manner; her bad traits are specifically Hobbit little-England tendencies that Tolkien identifies in the Letters as specifically Hobbitish flaws. Queen Beruthiel’s evil is being solitary and loveless, spying on her subjects, abusing her minions, and having bad aesthetic taste, all of which are traits shared with Morgoth and Sauron; the most evil-femme traits I can think of regarding her are her minions being cats. Thuringwethil’s a non-entity. Monstrous femininity for Tolkien seems to be a specifically non-human(oid) trait, as if the only way femininity can be monstrous is if it’s found in a giant spider-demon from the primal void. It’s almost as if the way in which Tolkien pedestalised women extended to the idea that womanhood/femininity in itself could never be bad.

    (That said, one could bring up the way in which Erendis’ bitterness manifested as a counter-argument, I guess…)


  2. Austin Loomis
    August 7, 2021 @ 5:27 pm

    Presumably this is what Tolkien thought working class people talked like.

    Per Appendix F, I think it’s meant as a toned-down version of the kind of conversation he heard in the trenches (where, as he famously observed, “we were all orcs”):

    “…their language was actually more degraded and filthy than I have shown it. I do not suppose that any will wish for a closer rendering, though models are easy to find. Much the same sort of talk can still be heard among the orc-minded; dreary and repetitive with hatred and contempt, too long removed from good to retain even verbal vigour, save in the ears of those to whom only the squalid sounds strong.”


  3. Aylwin
    August 8, 2021 @ 8:15 am

    I don’t agree about Shelob having little to do with her titanic origins. One reason why I found Cirith Ungol in the film rather disappointing, though this was probably inevitable given the limitations of cinema, was that she does come across as just a really big spider, a dangerous wild animal. You don’t get a sense of the original’s calculating awareness and supernatural force. (Also too small!) Shelob aspires to the same totalising, cosmic consumption as her mother, “swollen till the mountains could not hold her up and the darkness could not contain her”. And it’s very apt that Cirith Ungol is where Frodo and Sam have that conversation about their place in the ongoing myth, because here more than anywhere else this story forms a living connection with the underlying mythology of the Silmarillion. It’s present in the exceptionally dense concentration of references to it in both dialogue and narration, but more momentously in actual events. As Sam reminds us, the confrontation with Shelob is a kind of direct rematch in miniature of that earlier great collision between cosmic forces of light and darkness, the child of Ungoliant against the reflected light of the Silmaril, which is the light of the Trees.

    That clash, “as though Eärendil had himself come down from the high sunset paths with the last Silmaril on his brow”, is also a kind of echo of an abandoned idea in the earlier development of the mythology, in which Eärendil himself was to have slain Ungoliant. That was always rather awkwardly designed, because while Eärendil in the fulfilment of his destiny, as the bearer of the last visible light of the Trees, the celestial Dayspring, “brightest of angels”, subject of the line of Old English poetry that supplied the first image of Tolkien’s mythology, the “Let there be light” of his sub-creation, would be an extremely apposite person to vanquish the arachnopomorphic personification of darkness and entropy, at the point in the story where this was actually supposed to have happened, he’s just a bloke in a boat. Which would make it seem rather a mismatch, and that may partly explain why Tolkien ended up having Ungoliant go out like Pizza the Hutt instead. But the image gets to recur in the confrontation of reflections here.

    Another parallel occurred to me: Cirith Ungol is where Sam (symbolically taking up Sting, the Star-glass and the Ring) assumes his role as the principal hero of the tale, prefigured in that same conversation when he represents Frodo as the hero and Frodo says that he’s leaving out himself, while it is likewise in the encounter with the spiders that Bilbo steps into his role as the hero of his own tale, taking Gandalf’s place as rescuer of the hapless dwarves.


  4. Aylwin
    August 8, 2021 @ 8:19 am

    It’s a good point about Shelob’s distinctive lack of a male consort and how this plays into the monstrousness of her femininity, though I think she does have a shadow of one, whose insignificance and inadequacy in relation to her is part of the terror she represents. The worshipful Gollum, “Her Sneak, like a spider himself”, tiny beside her like those male spiders in species with extreme sexual dimorphism, is a kind of abject suitor, compliantly cuckolded by her appetite. The spiders embody the dread not so much of women without men as of women who desire men but don’t need them, who are awesomely beyond their capacity to satisfy and treat them as disposable, draining them of all they have to give and discarding them or devouring them entirely, whether on a sexual, emotional or economic level (like everything involving Morgoth and Ungoliant, the jewel-eating is Symbolic of the Sexual Act, with its inequity of stamina and orgasmic potential, but she’s also a total findom).

    (I think the sheer depth of the psychosexual sweat pooling around Ungoliant and Shelob is the one thing that lends any possible credence to Tolkien’s claims to have acquired no arachnophobia from his childhood experience, since their tendency to carnal cannibalism, echoed in the Ungoliant story, and the hook that sinks into male sexual dread, offers an alternative possible route to their apparent rent-free tenancy of his head. Still probably was that bite though.)

    I wouldn’t agree that “her appetites are never truly hers”. Sauron finds her presence convenient, but she does her own thing regardless of him. Her scale doesn’t measure up to his, the way Ungoliant’s does to Morgoth, but the line “in Arda she served only herself” applies here too. (And of course in the earliest version of the mythology Ungoliant stood for Chaos and old Night, a primal entity whose origins appeared not to be beholden to Morgoth at all.)


    • Aylwin
      August 8, 2021 @ 8:27 am

      (For “their tendency”, read “spiders’ tendency”.)


    • Aylwin
      August 8, 2021 @ 9:01 am

      (All this symbolism is also why there is a danger of adolescent smirking when confronted with the phrase “the Spider’s Cleft”.)


    • Aylwin
      August 8, 2021 @ 11:06 am

      That should be “coital cannibalism”, not carnal. Of course all cannibalism is carnal.

      Will stop spamming replies to my own comment at some point.


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