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In the movie Hobbit, The Desolation of Smaug, the band enter Mirkwood and are attacked by giant spiders.

In the movie - the spiders appear to 'chitter' to one another. After Bilbo puts on the Ring, the chittering stops and he can hear them talking to themselves and each other.

My question is - is there any explanation in the Hobbit, LoTR, Silmarillion or other letters for the 'babelfish effect' when Bilbo puts on the Ring and understands the spiders?

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yeah weird, who needs a ring to understand spiders anyway? –  zipquincy Jan 1 at 0:33
I actually felt this was an improvement over the book where the spiders conveniently spoke "English" (I know, I know) and a nice way of suggesting the power of The Ring. –  TheMathemagician Jan 2 at 10:15
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3 Answers

up vote 35 down vote accepted

I don't recall that happening the The Hobbit, but when Sam puts on the Ring in the Lord of the Rings, he is able to understand the speech of Orcs.

He heard them both clearly, and he understood what they said. Perhaps the Ring gave understanding of tongues, or simply understanding, especially of the servants of Sauron its maker, so that if he gave heed, he understood and translated the thought to himself.

This is from the "Choices of Master Samwise" chapter in The Two Towers. As far as I know, this is the best answer we get, and it seems like the narrator (or rather, the writer of the Red Book) is speculating, but it seems that the Ring does indeed have a "babelfish" effect on its bearer, as you put it. Thought it is presented speculatively, it does make a lot of sense.

When Sauron forged the Ring he put much of his "strength and will" and "inherent power" into the Ring (Of the Rings of Power and the Third Age). That's why destroying the Ring destroyed Sauron. And the understanding of the thought behind speech is one of the powers of the Ainur. In fact, it was something all rational beings in Middle-Earth were capable of. For example, when Elf Finrod first met Men:

Now the Eldar were beyond all other peoples skilled on tongues; and Felegund discovered also that he could read in the minds of Men such thoughts as they wished to reveal in speech, so that their words were easily interpreted.

Or when the Fellowship encountered Galadriel, she read their thoughts even without them intending to speak:

And with that word she held them with her eyes, and in silence looked at each of them in turn. None save Aragorn and Leogolas could long endure her glance. [...] 'Maybe it was only a test, and she thought to read our thoughts for her own good purpose.'

Even Denethor, a Man, was capable of doing so. Gandalf, speaking to Pippin, commenting on Denethor's shrewd questioning:

'He is not as other men of this time, Pippin, and whatever be his descent from father to son, by some chance the blood of Westernesse runs nearly true in him; as it does in his other son, Faramir, and yet did not in Boromir whom he loved best. He has long sight. He can perceive, if he bends his will thither, much of what is passing in the minds of men, even those that dwell far off. It is difficult to deceive him, and dangerous to try.

Tolkien discussed the ability behind this at some length in a manuscript published in the Vinyar Tengwar #39. But at any rate, since Sauron possesses this ability as well, and he poured his power into the Ring, it only makes sense that others wielding the Ring would also have their abilities in that area enhanced.

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+1; this is a great answer (my "no explanation" claim now seems quite silly) and the first point completely satisfies the question (I can even mentally picture Jackson reading that and deciding to use it for the spiders). –  Jimmy Shelter Jan 1 at 0:08
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In the book, Bilbo only gets close enough to a group of spiders to hear their conversation after slipping on the ring. The invisibility conferred by the ring allows him to approach without being detected. But later he takes his ring off and can still understand the spiders:

He had taken off his ring when he rescued Fili and forgotten to put it on again, so now they all began to splutter and hiss:

“Now we see you, you nasty little creature! We will eat you and leave your bones and skin hanging on a tree. Ugh! he's got a sting has he? Well, we'll get him all the same, and then we'll hang him head downwards for a day or two.”

If the ring allows Bilbo to understand the spiders, this is not in any Tolkien canon, it's new in the Hobbit movies.

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In the context of the movie it does make some sense. The trouble here is that the Hobbit is chock-full of talking (and otherwise intelligent) animals, whereas LotR is not (the spiders obviously talk normally in the book, and can also understand what Bilbo is saying). Trying to link the two and maintain consistency is a problem that must be solved: how do we go from a world where talking animals are commonplace to one where they are not? Tolkien chose to solve it by ignoring it (Bilbo is an unreliable narrator anyway which makes things easier). Jackson's solution is to have the Ring act as a translator; presumably via some form of mental communication.

Incidentally, there is one talking spider in the Silmarillion: Ungoliant, who assists Melkor/Morgoth in destroying the Trees of Valinor. We must assume that Ungoliant is some form of malignant spirit in spider form (Tolkien hints that she may have been a Maia: "some have said that in ages long before she descended from the darkness that lies about Arda, when Melkor first looked down in envy upon the Kingdom of Manwe, and that in the beginning she was one of those that he corrupted to his service" - presumably an incredibly powerful one) but there's no definitive final explanation. Either way this establishes some form of precedent for talking giant spiders that could have been used in the Hobbit movies, but Jackson is, of course, not legally allowed to use any Silmarillion material.

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You realize you can just delete your answer ;-) –  David Mulder Jan 2 at 11:21
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