Name: Cirith Ungol (Sindarin: “cleft of the spider”), previously Cirith Dúath (“cleft of shadow”)
Description: It’s called “cleft of the spider.” Also it’s a pass through Ephel Dúath reached by a lot of stairs. Early in the Third Age, a tower is constructed here by the Men of Gondor as an outpost near Ithilien. Mordor’s Orcs eventually take the tower. At the end of the War of the Ring, all the orcs inside slaughter each other. Also there’s a giant spider here. Like, a really fucking big spider.
Location in Jackson films: Stone Street Studios, Wellington, and Swiss Hotel’s squash court in Queenstown.
The chasm below echoes the calls of armies clad in sable garments. Stairs crumble underfoot. Scattered bones clatter and crack. You step in something you hope is blood and not piss. Cobwebs thicker than a child’s wrist wave about in your face, and something tenuously clinging to the category of ‘alive’ scampers behind your back. Something less tenuously alive crawls up behind you, and the last bit of your spirit flares up, clinging to forces holier than you understand, as your legs give way to the damp rock below your feet.
Cirith Ungol is, if not where light goes to die in Middle-earth, a place where it is severely tested by filth, degradation, and monstrosity. Love and perseverance surface, but often to futile extents. Cirith Ungol is a putrid place where the ugliest remnants of the Dark Days and the castoffs of Mordor languish in tedium as they wait to die. Cirith Ungol consists of truly punishing stairs, with steps that are “narrow, spaced unevenly,” (The Two Towers, “The Stairs of Cirith Ungol”) some of which “cracked as foot was set upon them,” where “a cliff was on [the hobbits’] left and a chasm on their right,” a dilapidated guard tower is dwarfed by Minas Morgul in its close proximity, and a giant spider lives that can eat and kill you. It’s a typical Mordor death trap, and yet it feels representative of normalcy in Mordor — Tolkien leaves deliberate gaps in his subcreation, granting Middle-earth a roughness and thus a credibility. A glimpse often captures the whole, and in its way, Cirith Ungol is an effective snapshot of Mordor.
The cleft has no grandeur. Barad-dûr, Orodruin, and the Black Gate are landmarks; one is Sauron’s fortress, the second is a volcano that serves as Sauron’s personal forge, and the third is the sole legitimate passage into Mordor. Those places are ceremonious, as central to the land as 10 Downing Street is to London or a Walgreens is to any mid-sized American city. Cirith Ungol, however, is a dilapidated relic, a cadaverous passage watched by the occupants of a tower “that had not been built to keep enemies out of Mordor, but to keep them in” (The Return of the King, ”The Tower of Cirith Ungol”). The place is partway between a museum and a death trap, guarding the past while never permitting it to escape.
Mordor has a taste of the hierarchical contrapasso of Dante Alighieri’s Inferno, and its successive degrees of punishment. The greatest punishments are only partially present in Cirith Ungol — in some ways, this is the most degrading punishment of all. Judas and Lucifer are renowned as they languish in the ice. They’re at the center of Dante’s theodicy. The damned in the upper levels of Hell are disempowered, fools who dabbled in finite caprice and were met by infinite punishment. Sin has lesser offspring, who occupy small damned pits. Shelob the Great is “the last child of Ungoliant to trouble the unhappy world” (The Two Towers, “Shelob’s Lair”), an ancestor of the mega-arachnid Ungoliant who exsanguinated the Two Trees of Valinor, the twin sources of light in the ancient world, as “the poison of Death that was in her went into their tissues and withered them, root, branch, and leaf; and they died” (The Silmarillion, “Of the Darkening of Valinor”). Often averse to describing his characters’ physical appearances, Tolkien’s prose nonetheless seems to suggest Ungoliant, the Trees, and the Valar are titans, and the earliest days of the First Age was when gods roamed Middle-earth. One can look to such lines as
But Melkor looked north, and saw afar the shining plain, and the silver domes of Valmar gleaming in the mingling of the lights of Telperion and Laurelin. Then Melkor laughed aloud, and leapt swiftly down the long western slopes; and Ungoliant was at his side, and her darkness covered them.The Silmarillion, “On the Darkening of Valinor”
So Ungoliant is a titan. Her every action punishes the world around her. Tolkien certainly had experience with spiders inflicting pain. Humphrey Carpenter writes in J. R. R. Tolkien: A Biography that “when Ronald was beginning to walk, he stumbled upon a tarantula. It bit him, and he ran in terror across the garden until the nurse snatched him up and sucked out the poison.” As is often the case with trauma, Tolkien’s pervading memory of the moment was “a hot day and running in fear through long, dead grass, but the memory of the tarantula itself faded.” Carpenter and Tolkien himself both claimed he was never an arachnophobe in adulthood (“I do not like spiders particularly, and have no urge to kill them”, he wrote to his friend author W. H. Auden), a truly interesting claim to make of the man who thought up Ungoliant, the Mirkwood spiders, and Shelob. Autobiographical readings are among the least interesting lenses a literary critic can deploy, but to address Shelob without acknowledging some arachnic influence on Tolkien would be incompletist. Most importantly, Shelob has little to do with her titanic origins: she’s a simple primal horror. Giant spiders are fucking scary. She existentially threatens the quest, coming closer than any other character to ending the hobbits’ quest and nearly killing Frodo. The old world may be dead, but its offspring still poison the earth.
Shelob’s position as spiritual and metaphorical poison makes her resemble a Lokean trickster deity. To some in the story, Shelob is a goddess. Gollum “bowed and worshipped her, and the darkness of her evil will walked through all the way of his weariness beside him, cutting him off from light and from regret” (“Shelob’s Lair”). To the orcs of Cirith Ungol, Shelob is a monster who picks them off, like how Gollum eats goblins in The Hobbit. At one point the orc captain Shagrat reminisces with his rival captain Gorbag about past instances of Shelob ensnaring orcs: “D’you remember old Ufthak? We lost him for days. Then we found him in a corner; hanging up he was, but he was wide awake and glaring.” Shagrat then peremptorily shows how Shelob eliminates what little loyalty Orcs have to one another by adding “we didn’t touch him—no good interfering with Her.”
The capital H there is telling. As a Roman Catholic, Tolkien would have written God’s pronouns as He/Him/His. To utilize the same capitalization scheme for Shelob is subtle characterization for her and the Cirith Ungol orcs. In the lowest places of Arda, a monstrous castaway becomes a goddess. Her reign is a solo act — among the many powerful figures in Middle-earth, she is the one female character to rule alone. This is rare for female characters in Tolkien, whose statuses as wives or sisters often limit them (for all their salience in the Peter Jackson films, Galadriel, Éowyn, and Arwen are truly fleeting presences in the books). A non-anthropomorphic figure, Shelob’s status as Mordor’s succubus is a pronounced aspect of her character. She is corrupted femininity as the traditionalist Tolkien would have understood it: lascivious, promiscuous, ravenously hungry, and lacking in grace, she is “bloated and grown fat with endless brooding on her feats, weaving webs of shadow” (“Shelob’s Lair”). Shelob’s nature as a demon is perhaps rooted in the fact she is a female rather than a ‘Lady’.
If Shelob is a mother she’s a mother who eats the children when they stay up too late or wander into the attic. A truly non-anthropomorphic figure, she gnaws at Mordor’s anthropocentrism by being a powerful animal spirit. In this way she’s a part of Cirith Ungol’s ecosystem. Sauron himself is said to sanction this:
And as for Sauron: he knew where she lurked. It pleased him that she should dwell there hungry but unabated in malice, a more sure watch upon that ancient path into his land than any other that his skill could have devised. And Orcs, they were useful slaves, but he had them in plenty. If now and again Shelob caught them to stay her appetite, she was welcome: he could spare them. And sometimes as a man may cast a dainty to his cat (his cat he calls her, but she owns him not) Sauron would send her prisoners that he had no better use for: he would have them driven to her hole, and report brought back to him of the play she made.The Two Towers, “Shelob’s Lair”
The Shelob sequence is an instance of Tolkien writing horror; both body horror and cosmogonic horror. She’s a child of the gods who has their blessing to consume their mortal foot soldiers willy-nilly. The orcs of Cirith Ungol have perhaps the grimmest existence in the book: they guard a desolated passage in the darkest place on Arda while waiting to be sent to war, slowly emaciated and eaten by a spider, or killed off by their fellow orcs. Naturally, Tolkien never seems to register this as a factor in the despair and anger of the Orcs, and merely has this faction be cantankerous, hateful, murderers who kill one another at the drop of a hat. The racial politics of the Orcs have beendiscussedelsewhere, but violent pugnacity has long been a trope levied at Black and Brown people through fiction and propaganda, and similar stereotypes are often bandied about the broader working class. When Frodo and Sam arrive at Cirith Ungol, tensions are already high between rival Orc captains, Minas Morgul’s Gorbag and Cirith Ungol’s Shagrat (not Tolkien’s least Hebrew character name), coarse dogsbodies who snarl made-up profanities such as “garn” and refer to their fellow soldiers as “the dung.” Presumably this is what Tolkien thought working class people talked like.
Gorbag speaks openly of resenting his superiors, kvetching “Grr! Those Nazgûl give me the creeps. And they skin the body off you as soon as look at you, and leave you all cold in the dark on the other side.” He further complains about Sauron’s favoritism towards the Nazgûl, citing that “He likes ‘em; they’re His favourites nowadays”. It’s one of the last conversations these Orc squadrons have; in a heat of factionary rage, they slaughter each other in a bloodbath that leaves only Shagrat alive, a fate that only extends his lifespan by a few days — Appendix B says that Shagrat brings Frodo’s cloak and mithril-shirt to Barad-dûr, making it a certainty that word of this slaughter reaches Sauron. According to a time-scheme Tolkien scribbled down, Sauron characteristically responds by depriving Shagrat of his life. It is clear that the Orcs of Mordor are a working class faction, waiting out the clock in abject poverty and filth until their bosses send them off to grind away and die. If the so-called ‘Free Peoples’ of Middle-earth engage in little exercises of their consciences on the ethics of killing Orcs, Sauron and the Nazgûl take pleasure in it.
So Cirith Ungol is a hell of the repressed and subaltern: the monstrous feminine, the working classes, and queer-folk congregate in it, waiting for the apocalypse to arrive. The orcs are under Shelob’s power, while she’s responsive to Sauron. Everyone is subservient to someone, but some of them are less subservient than others. Frodo and Sam, queer figures (if not necessarily queer characters — although they functionally are), have their own hierarchy — Frodo has his inheritance and land and Sam is his batman. Their emotional intimacy juxtaposed with the orcs’ rivalries shows two different modes of masculine closeness: love and competition. Queerness is often aligned with the monstrous, but here monstrosity is characters who care nothing for each other. Though still, Sam appears as a warrior to the orcs, so to everyone some dispossessed figure is monstrous. The working class goes to war at home in Cirith Ungol; sometimes with their own kind, and sometimes with an outside proletarian.
Of course Shelob is more monstrous than all of them; she’s a literal monster who exsanguinates and consumes everyone (particularly in the fan art — if you haven’t seen it, good for you). As a monstrous feminine figure, she’s predicated on consumption and femininity while also being a radical departure from Tolkien’s elf-maids. She’s both ravenous and celibate; pure libido and hate. Shelob is a truly queer figure in some ways, feminine darkness uncomplemented by masculinity. Her desires are also hijacked by Sauron; she’s a tool to him, so her appetites are never truly hers. All at once, Cirith Ungol is home to the monstrous feminine, the racially diverse working class, and queer boyfriends, all of whom are subject to one force of darkness.
The challenges of Cirith Ungol differ in Tolkien and Jackson’s visions of The Lord of the Rings. Cirith Ungol is the climax of Frodo and Sam’s journey in Tolkien’s The Two Towers, and a challenge of the hobbits’ souls. In the prologue to this series, we brought up the conversation Frodo and Sam have on the Stairs of Cirith Ungol about their role in the ongoing legend of Middle-earth (“I wonder if we shall ever be put into songs or tales”). There we contextualized this conversation in the characters’ understanding of themselves as part of history and myth (and more importantly, as part of the reconstructed text-within-a-text aspect of The Lord of the Rings). Now though, I wish to treat that conversation as part of Frodo and Sam reckoning with their souls and mortality. Sam, perhaps predicting the laments of some future Tolkien critics, remarks “Don’t the great tales ever end?” A beleaguered Frodo answers “No, they never end as tales,” rather that “the people in them come, and go when their part’s ended. Our part will end later — or sooner.”
This prediction appears to come true when Frodo is seemingly killed by Shelob. The expected hero of The Lord of the Rings is taken off the table, and the Ring moves into Sam’s hands. It is of course a fakeout, as the orcs reveal that Frodo is alive within the same chapter Sam finds his body, but it significantly shakes up the book. The Fellowship of the Ring ends with the atomization of the Fellowship, while The Two Towers removes Frodo as a protagonist altogether. He’s never the same after this, up to his failure at Mount Doom and departure for the Undying Lands. The rustic Sam Gamgee comes to the fore at this point, becoming the book’s “hero,” keeping the Ring out of the Enemy’s hands and rescuing Frodo from Cirith Ungol. I won’t advance the argument for Frodo and Sam’s (obvious) gay relationship here, as Molly Ostertag has recently done so in a phenomenal article for Polygon, but suffice it to say that “don’t go where I can’t follow” does little to debunk any queer readings of the hobbits.
Peter Jackson particularly emphasizes the queerness in his adaptation of the Cirith Ungol sequence. Before Frodo enters Torech Ungol, Shelob’s Lair, alone (unlike the novel, where Sam accompanies him), he harshly commands Sam to “go home”. When Frodo enters the lair, he becomes a small part of the frame, the camera lingering on his surroundings as he stumbles around. The scene is pervaded by Dutch angles, with the camera often panning to bones and webs before Frodo encounters them. The audience is given more information than Frodo, a la Hitchock’s definition of suspense, so that they see more than Frodo does at any given moment. The first shot of Shelob depicts her sneaking up behind Frodo, and when she stings him she’s shown to crawl above him for a tortuous amount of time. When Sam shows up to rescue him, he’s shot like a chivalrous knight, Elf-phial and tiny sword in hand, come to rescue his love. A little while later, he storms up the Tower of Cirith Ungol in a similar fashion to rescue Frodo, who is naked and bound like a bondage-wreaked Disney damsel. Gender is fluid in Cirith Ungol, and perhaps that’s the greatest horror in The Lord of the Rings; not only is the natural order unfixed, feminine, queer gender is just as capable of swooping down and stinging you in the heart.