Shelob is an "evil thing in spider form," according to Tolkien. Now, we know that she is the "last child of Ungoliant to trouble the unhappy world," we know that she is fairly deficient in charm, and that she is quite capable of catching and eating a person.

What I would like to know is whether there is anything else to her that would make her actually evil. As far as I understand, she keeps mainly to herself, doesn't work for Sauron, hunts prey that is appropriate for her size, and does not engage in wanton destruction of sacred trees the way her mother did. She seems about as dangerous as a huge spider should be, but more big and carnivorous than evil. Is there something more to her that Tolkien may have mentioned?

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    Did you miss the bit where she attempts to murder people and eat them?
    – Valorum
    Commented Feb 17, 2019 at 8:40
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    @Valorum - the point is, that seems like appropriate behavior for a spider that size. What makes her more evil than, say, a lion?
    – Mithical
    Commented Feb 17, 2019 at 8:43
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    It really depends on how you define evil: simply as an absence of 'good' or a conscious act against--or as an affront to--a moral good (think of this as a spectrum). In Tolkien's cosmology, the further back you go the less relevant 'good vs evil' becomes: Take Tom Bombadil, for example. It's easy to see him as 'good', yet, in many ways, he is simply indifferent and is neither good or evil; he just is. Shelob is simply being and doing who she is. She is outside of the realm of--of a different age then--'good vs evil' as we (or Frodo et al) experience.
    – wcullen
    Commented Feb 17, 2019 at 8:55
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    Most animals, lions included, have significantly less reasoning capabilities than a human, or than the descendent of an immortal spirit. By one strand of thought, we don't call them evil because they're mostly not capable of understanding why they do what they do, let alone changing their moral philosophy.
    – Adamant
    Commented Feb 17, 2019 at 18:57
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    Another line of reasoning holds that evil involves inflicting unnecessary suffering, death, and so forth. Meat-eating animals are only doing what they need to in order to survive, so their actions wouldn't be considered evil. Shelob, of course, goes beyond that, killing for pleasure. As a part-spirit, it's unclear whether she even needs to eat. This line of reasoning would hold it to be unethical for most humans to eat meat, although it doesn't say how wrong it is (As wrong as killing a human for amusement? As wrong as cheating on your homework?)
    – Adamant
    Commented Feb 17, 2019 at 19:00

14 Answers 14


"Is there something more to [Shelob] that Tolkien may have mentioned?"

There's a lot more and it tends to meander into some rather esoteric territory, so bear with me...

The ahem inklings of an answer begins, quite literally, in what inspired Tolkien to write LotR: the enigma of éarendel from Cynewulf's Crist.

éalá éarendel, engla beorhtast,
ofer middangeard monnum sended

(hail earendel brightest of angels
above middle-earth sent unto men)

Reno E. Lauro states that "[a]rguably, Tolkien's life work can be summed up in one question, "who, or what, was éarendel?"

To understand the concept of 'evil' in Tolkien requires seeing beyond definitions of evil and to understand evil's place and function in his larger cosmological legendarium.

In this way two concepts are critical: Tolkien as a philologist as influenced by Owen Barfield's 'archaic semantic unity' (in his Poetic Diction) and Tolkien's interpretation of the medieval concept of the 'theory of light'.

Basically (and this is an oversimplification), the former stresses the importance and complexity inherent in the roots of "modern" words. The latter, in the place light has in the medieval world's concept and practice--in art and craft--of the 'good' (note: this involves both sacred and secular understandings).

Tolkien presents readers a world fractured as light is re-fractured. Here denizens present across a spectrum--each fractured as it were--from light to dark, but all as a whole awaiting unity.

The role or purpose of the characters is try to return the world to a semblance of unity which, of course, some see as light and some of darkness, yet some force striving for whole and, therefore, all characters playing a part.

Tolkien's story is, then, aimed toward a recovering of "an originary, undivided and mythic sensibility of light" (Reno, p. 54; see also Verlyn Flieger).

Tolkien believed that we (the characters) "can imaginatively craft the world into forms of beauty and harmony or bend, twist and consume it in the service of immediacy and power" (Reno, p. 64).

It is necessary to understand this to be able to adequately answer your question: "Is there something more to [Shelob] that Tolkien may have mentioned?"

In the end, although Tolkien stated that Shelob is 'evil', it is more important--and interesting--to understand her function as one of the fractured creatures on one side of the entire spectrum of light within Tolkien's world.

For Tolkien, creatures like Shelob demonstrate the part that evil necessarily inhabits within the whole of the spectrum: without having hope of redemption the world cannot return to being whole.

With this in mind, think of Shelob in light of Gollum's more major--but not dissimilar--part in LotR:

Gandalf: "...Do not be too eager to deal out death in judgment. Even the very wise cannot see all ends. My heart tells me that Gollum has some part to play in it, for good or evil, before this is over. The pity of Bilbo may rule the fate of many."

References for further reading:

  1. The Mirror Crack'd: Fear and Horror in JRR Tolkien's Major Works, Lynn Forest-Hill (Eds.)--especially 'Reno Lauro's 'Of Spiders and (the Medieval Aesthetics of) Light: Hope and Action in the Horrors of Shelob's Lair' and Rainier Nagel's 'Shelob and her Kin: The Evolution of Tolkien's Spiders'
  2. Tom Shippey's 'Orcs, Wraiths, Wights: Tolkien's Images of Evil' IN Roots and Branches: Selected Papers on Tolkien, Tom Shippey.
  3. Patrick Grant's 'Tolkien: Archetype and Word' emphasized text IN Understanding the Lord of the Rings: The Best of Tolkien Criticism Rose Zimbardo and Neil Isaacs (Eds.)
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    what a fine answer. I am not sure why Éarendel is capitalized in some spots and not capitalized in others. Is this your own choice or based on your sources? Commented Feb 19, 2019 at 14:27
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    @KorvinStarmast Thanks, and damn, good eye! Capital letters were not used in Old English as far as I know (So, Cynewulf's 'éarendel' vs Tolkien's 'Eärendil'). I cut and pasted the Old English from Cynewulf which used capitals where it shouldn't have--corrected that. Thanks!
    – wcullen
    Commented Feb 19, 2019 at 15:27
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    ...Also, tell me if I understand this correctly: Tolkien's goal was not necessarily to divide the world into the ethical ideas of good and evil, but rather the concepts of light and dark, and allow the world to be populated by creatures that arise from the distinction. The term "evil" functions mainly as a synonym for dark. As this is a direct result of the fractured nature of Tolkien's world, the creatures that belong to different parts of that spectrum may be dark (therefore "evil") for no technical fault of their own - it is only their function within the world structure as a whole.
    – Misha R
    Commented Feb 20, 2019 at 18:05
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    @Misha R I think redemption is essential to understanding Tolkien's legendarium & is central to his mythopoeia. It is an implied capacity within every character, although not, perhaps, when we meet them. As for light/dark & good/evil I think Tolkien's mythopoeia aims to counter oversimplifications of the struggle between the two; struggles Tolkien shared & witnessed. Verlyn Flieger ('Splintered Light') notes that Tolkien's work represents "a deeper understanding of the ambiguities of good and evil and of the ethical and moral dilemmas of a world constantly embroiled in war with itself."
    – wcullen
    Commented Feb 20, 2019 at 19:53
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    @MishaR Indeed. I believe some people do try and see his work as allegorical, but I wouldn't count myself among them. Aside from enjoying his work generally speaking, I also find it to have meaning, impact, & influence beyond those works themselves. And, in turn, this reflects his times. For me, especially in regards to how he struggled--& through his writing demonstrated that struggle--with concepts of good & evil. In its own way, I see Tolkien's work as a literary engagement of the 'problem of evil'. So, in this way I find it both robust &fascinating. Cheers!
    – wcullen
    Commented Feb 20, 2019 at 22:38

Per Two Towers, Shelob isn't just an unthinking spider, feasting on prey, she's an intelligent creature that is actively seeking out other sentient intelligent beings to murder and eat.

But still she was there, who was there before Sauron, and before the first stone of Barad-dûr; and she served none but herself, drinking the blood of Elves and Men, bloated and grown fat with endless brooding on her feasts, weaving webs of shadow; for all living things were her food, and her vomit darkness. Far and wide her lesser broods, bastards of the miserable mates, her own offspring, that she slew, spread from glen to glen, from the Ephel Dúath to the eastern hills, to Dol Guldur and the fastnesses of Mirkwood.

Additionally, she's not above entering into a criminal conspiracy with Gollum to bring her more tasty food, having grown tired of eating orcs.

Already, years before, Gollum had beheld her, Sméagol who pried into all dark holes, and in past days he had bowed and worshipped her, and the darkness of her evil will walked through all the ways of his weariness beside him, cutting him off from light and from regret. And he had promised to bring her food. But her lust was not his lust. Little she knew of or cared for towers, or rings, or anything devised by mind or hand, who only desired death for all others, mind and body, and for herself a glut of life. Alone, swollen till the mountains could no longer hold her up and the darkness could not contain her.

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    Tolkien uses charged language here, but seems to simply describe a spider. Served none but herself: spider. Drinking the blood of Elves and Men, all living things are her food: spider. Weaving webs of shadow: spider disliked by Tolkien. She tried to eat Frodo and Sam, but that's on Gollum. She eats orcs, but killing orcs doesn't seem to be described as especially evil for other characters (not to mention that she seems to do it for the same reason any carnivore does, as "all living things were her food"). I feel like the evil here is mainly a vibe from Tolkien's dramatic wording.
    – Misha R
    Commented Feb 17, 2019 at 16:25
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    @MishaR - Tolkien also explicitly calls out Shelob as "evil". It's not a question of catching a 'vibe', he just straight up says it. "There age-long she had dwelt, an evil thing in spider-form..."
    – Valorum
    Commented Feb 17, 2019 at 16:30
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    It says she "only desires death for all others." That's not how a hungry animal thinks. An animal only desires food (with some exceptional examples of cruelty aside). A full lion won't hunt: that would be a waste. Nor will it try to kill things that don't feed it.
    – Adamant
    Commented Feb 17, 2019 at 19:02
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    Don't neglect the phrase "mind and body." She specifically wants their mind to die. Because she's, you know, evil.
    – Adamant
    Commented Feb 17, 2019 at 19:09
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    @Adamant Yes, Tolkien does a lot of smack-talking about how evil and nasty she is. But, as far as we see, she is a spider who lives in a cave. If she desires the death of all living things, she certainly does not seem to act on it. That's the point of my question: do we have any evidence of her being evil, rather than just spider-like.
    – Misha R
    Commented Feb 17, 2019 at 19:42

Tolkien's works reflect his personal Catholic theology.

  • In Catholicism Satan is seen as the source of all evil, and he introduced evil into God's perfect world by tempting Eve to eat the fateful apple. Catholics see all the evil in the world as being descended (i.e. traceable to) that one original sin.

  • In Middle Earth Melkor is the counterpart of Satan. He introduced discord into the Music of Ilúvatar. He did not know it at the time, but the Music was the creation of Middle Earth, and the discord created evil. When the Ainur went to live into Middle Earth Melkor took his hubris with him, and thereby made real in Middle Earth the discord/evil he had wrought in the Music.

Just as Catholics see evil as being traceable to original sin they see Satan as being incapable of creating anything but evil. So it is with Melkor: because he tries to make himself greater than Ilúvatar he cannot make anything good (in either sense of the word) because it is all corrupted by his built-in evil.

The origins of Ungoliant are unclear, but she seems to have come from the Darkness, which in turn was created by Melkor when he introduced discord in the Music. Hence she was irredeemably evil, a product of discord and darkness who hated harmony and light. This nature was inherited by her offspring, including Shelob. Hence she can never be anything other than evil. Here Tolkien departs from Catholic theology, which holds that Satan and his demons were originally created good by God but then fell, while Ungoliant seems to have been some kind of primal creation by a mindless "Darkness". This also turns up in Gandalf's passing reference to the terrible creatures he encountered in the depths of the earth while fighting the Balrog.

This account of evil as a kind of infectious natural force seems rather strange to modern liberal ears. The modern view is, roughly, that there is no such thing as "evil": bad things happen due to individual or collective human failings, but these are merely mistakes which can be corrected. To put it crudely, when a war happens or a bridge falls down the modern liberal view is that we should seek the political or engineering mistake that led to the disaster and learn from it. On the other hand the Catholic view is that the mistake was made in the Garden of Eden, and hence we should seek to be more perfect in our practice of faith in order to reduce the influence of the evil which leads to such disasters.

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    I suppose Tolkien's influence from Norse folklore ties into this as well, since the idea of noble or evil blood being passed from generation to generation is an important theme in both LOTR and a lot of mythology.
    – Misha R
    Commented Feb 17, 2019 at 16:54
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    I don't think Tolkien needed Catholicism, or Norse folklore, or any other moral traditions, to be aware of the idea that evil can pass between generations of sentient beings.
    – Lee Mosher
    Commented Feb 17, 2019 at 17:45
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    @LeeMosher Really? I certainly would need those for that. The idea that sin is passed down from generation to generation is not what you would call obvious. It's quite possible for an evil parent to have a non-evil child.
    – Misha R
    Commented Feb 17, 2019 at 18:12
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    There is plenty of evidence in our non-Norse, non-Catholic society that evil (not sin) can pass between generations of human beings, and I suspect that Tolkien --- who had direct experience of World War I --- was aware of that evidence.
    – Lee Mosher
    Commented Feb 17, 2019 at 18:55
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    Well, Tolkien's narration gives us some of Shelob's sentient thoughts, and he tells us by the quote in your question something about her influence from her parent Ungoliant. But it's your question and you can set the parameters, define the terms, and apply the logic of your desire in choosing your answer.
    – Lee Mosher
    Commented Feb 17, 2019 at 21:37

The first question is What kind of being is Shelob? Since she is "in spider-form", she is clearly not an actual spider. She may be some other animal which is similar to a spider, but Tolkien has ways (as we see in his treatment of the flying mounts of the Nazgûl) of suggesting that animals are similar, but not quite the same. Further, his phrasing "in spider-form", rather than "most like a spider" or some such, suggests that she is not an animal at all. Tolkien's work allows for purely physical beings (such as animals and plants), beings that are a union of spiritual and physical (elves, men—including hobbits, dwarves, probably Ents), purely spiritual (the Ainur), and others of unclear status. Do we need to know which of these Shelob was?

No. It is enough to know that she, like every other living being, has a soul. Tolkien was a Catholic, and his works are shot through with Catholicism. In Catholic theology, all living beings have souls. There are three types of souls: vegetative (plants, of course), animal, and rational (humans, angels, and devils). Only rational souls are capable of thought, reason, or free choice (that is, will); and therefore only they are capable of sin, and of being evil.

But Shelob clearly has will, and the ability to know and to reason based on knowledge:

The darkness of her evil will walked through all the ways of [Gollum's] weariness. ... But her lust was not his lust. Little she knew of or cared for towers, or rings, or anything devised by mind or hand, who only desired death for all others, mind and body, and for herself a glut of life.

The Lord of the Rings, Book IV, Chapter 9,"Shelob's Lair"; emphasis added

I've marked out the phrasing that indicates Shelob has will (the ability to choose rationally and independently) and rationality.

Shelob is, therefore, a rational being, who is capable of choice as well as desire, and who desires (and tries to achieve as far as she can) the death of all other living beings, taking their life to be her own. But the desire of a rational being for the death of an innocent other is sinful ("you shall not murder"); and the desire to have a good thing belonging to another because you don't want them to have it is another sin ("you shall not covet your neighbor's goods"). Because Shelob is capable of choice, and because the desires she chooses to guide her actions by are sinful, not only her actions but she herself is rightly called evil.

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    @misha Stating that "her evil will" walks with Gollum certainly indicates that she has will; Tolkien almost certainly takes the standard Catholic position (and perhaps I should clarify this) that will, the ability to choose freely, cannot exist without the capacity to reason. Commented Feb 17, 2019 at 18:47
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    @misha Again, the Catholic understanding (and Tolkien was very Catholic) is that animals do not have "some degree of will and ... some ability to reason". Not as we understand "will" and "reason", at least. I can certainly quote theologians on my answer, if that would help, and it's easy to indicate how closely Tolkien adhered to Catholic theological orthodoxy. Commented Feb 17, 2019 at 22:40
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    That's fair. I personally don't need proof of Catholicism making the distinction between animals and rational thinkers, I'm somewhat familiar with it. The reason I raised that objection is because, outside of accepting a purely Catholic explanation of Shelob's villainy, that is a fair objection to make. But if the only explanation is a Catholic one, then the objection isn't relevant.
    – Misha R
    Commented Feb 17, 2019 at 23:10
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    It is well-established that Shelob is the offspring of Ungoliant, who we know more of. And although Ungoliant was sentient and intelligent, she only had one desire and that was to devour everyone and everything. Quite animalistic and beyond good and evil. Ungoliant munched up the two trees, then she tried to munch up Melkor too. She's not driven by choices but by an insatiable, animalistic hunger, which is apparently the core of her character. It doesn't seem like she had a choice in the matter. And Shelob seems to be the very same kind of creature, just on a smaller scale.
    – Amarth
    Commented Feb 18, 2019 at 18:47
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    @Amarth by that measure, Melkor was "animalistic" - to annihilate all things was precisely his desire - yet he certainly wasn't an animal, or even "animalistic" in any sense. Melkor made a request of Ungoliant (for help to destroy the Two Trees); he made a promise to her (to give all the jewels he got from Formenos). One doesn't make requests or promises to non-rational beings. And the fact that she was driven by one and only one desire doesn't take away one's choice of actions. Again, Melkor was driven by a desire for destruction, yet he certainly had choices to make. Commented Feb 18, 2019 at 19:14

Evil isn't an alignment to J.R.R. Tolkien, it is a characteristic

The use of evil in this question, and in some of the comments, includes an anachronism. You appear to be trying to use actions to determine alignment as one would in Dungeons and Dragons, rather than to view this through the lens of the author and his context. (That the D&D alignment system is a mess for describing moral systems is beyond the scope of this question and answer).

Tolkien's work covered a lot of ground, but it had not yet been influenced by the moral relativism that we see in so much modern literature, nor was his approach to his characters as nuanced as that of so many mid-to-late 20th century writers. The anti-hero and the 'bad guy as good guy' had not reached the popularity they later did as a story form. (The song Sympathy for the Devil had not yet been made popular by the time this story was written, though doubtless Professor T would have found that song in poor taste).

Monsters and wild beasts in European mythic and legendary traditions had a long history of being portrayed as evil: the wolf at the door (archetype/trope) was seen from the perspective of the farmer trying to keep his family and his sheep alive, not from the perspective of the wolf as a victim of humanity's inexorable spread.

Shelob is evil because Tolkien described her as evil, since Tolkien needed an evil presence in that location to fit his narrative, and largely due to him appending human attributes to an arachnid. By providing a spider with a personality (an actual spider has not got that higher brain function) the reader is presented with the following habits of this person in the narrative:

  • She poisons wanderers in her area, and then hangs them up in her webs and later eats them. Were a human character to do this, you'd describe them as evil. Shelob, as written, is hard to characterize otherwise.

    Little she knew of or cared for towers, or rings, or anything devised by mind or hand, who only desired death for all others, mind and body, and for herself a glut of life. (LoTR, Two Towers, "Shelob's Lair")

    Any human, elf, dwarf, goblin, or hobbit so described would come across as evil. So too this character.

    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... Sauron would send her prisoners that he had no better uses for: he would have them driven to her hole, and report brought back to him of the play she made. (LoTR, Two Towers, "Shelob's Lair")

    Her torture of prisoners sent to her would be further confirmation of her evil character.

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    If you ever do write something demolishing the D&D alignment system, please @ mention me here; I’d love to read it.
    – Wildcard
    Commented Feb 18, 2019 at 18:58
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    @Wildcard Sure will, though this may not be the finest venue for that pet peeve of mine. :) Commented Feb 18, 2019 at 19:18
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    @Wildcard One of the founders of RPG.SE is also a PhD in philosophy, and he looked into alignment as a moral system informally. His forays into opening that topic at philosophy SE met will little interest. Brian no longer posts there very often any more, sadly. (Let's face it, neither Gary Gygax nor Dave Arneson was a philosopher. Therein lies a root cause ...) Commented Feb 18, 2019 at 19:19
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    @Wildcard here is the Philosophy.SE Q-A I referred to... as you can see, some trouble getting it off of the ground. Commented Feb 20, 2019 at 1:53

Shelob is not evil because she's a spider - she's a spider because she's evil

“There agelong she had dwelt, an evil thing in spider-form..."

-The Two Towers

Tolkien envisioned a primordial spirit who existed to kill, devour, and destroy all things light and happy. He then imagined what sort of physical form that sort of spirit would take.

As you noted, killing and eating anything smaller that it (and sometimes things that are larger than it) is natural behavior for a spider. Therefore, a spider form is a natural choice for a being that exists to do these things.

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    Killing and eating smaller (and, in some cases, larger) animals is natural behavior for most carnivores larger than a bug. It's also our behavior. We don't eat people as Shelob does, but that's mainly because we're people. But the spider-because-she's-evil argument isn't bad. Tolkien was not a fan of spiders.
    – Misha R
    Commented Feb 18, 2019 at 23:43
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    This. According to lotr.fandom.com/wiki/Great_Spiders, Ungoliant was an umaiar (demon) who took the form of a spider. Shelob and the other spiders would therefore be immortal half-demons, when Ungoliant mated with natural mortal spiders.
    – Alcamtar
    Commented Feb 22, 2019 at 3:32

Evil is fighting against the will of Creator

First thing we need to understand is that Tolkien, as devout Catholic, made God of his universe, Eru Ilúvatar, very similar to the Christian God. Eru has his own Satan, in the image of Melkor/Morgoth. Similar to Satan, Melkor rebelled against Ilúvatar. Particular instance where it happened was Great Music of Ainur, event which shaped Tolkien's world (). As the story goes, Melkor tried to insert and force his own themes into the music created by Eru and was followed by other Ainur. He was not entirely successful, and in fact his attempts somehow become part in Ilúvatar's grand plan. But, he managed to create certain discord, and from that discord Darkness arose as manifestation of evil. Therefore, for Tolkien, evil = disobeying Creator (Eru).

Now, from what we know, first and greatest among Great Spiders, Ungoliant, mother of Shelob, came directly from that Darkness. Although some claim she is Maiar or even Valar, that seems unlikely. At the height of her power she defeated Melkor, something that Maiar could not do. As for Valar, all of them except Melkor remained loyal to Eru. Anyway, Ungoliant, although sentient herself was driven by her insatiable hunger and destructiveness. Same could be said about her descendant Shelob. Both spiders hated the light, hid in dark places and created darkness themselves, and both spiders hunted and killed sentient beings.

While hating light (created by Valar, therefore in extension created in the name of Eru) and liking darkness (which came from opposing Eru's will) could be considered as sinful and evil, these two are overshadowed by third and greatest sin - killing of Children of Ilúvatar. We must remember that Eru himself created both Elves and Men. No Valar could repeat such thing, not even Melkor, because they lacked Secret Fire. Children of Ilúvatar had Fëa made of that Secret Fire, therefore by God himself. Shelob is describing as wanting death for all others, mind and body, therefore she went directly against Eru's creation and design. Therefore, by criteria of Tolkien, she was born of evil (darkness) and did evil.

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    This doesn't answer why she's evil, exactly. It's why Tolkien thought of her as evil. Would this make her evil to the average modern reader?
    – Adamant
    Commented Feb 18, 2019 at 23:56
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    @Adamant You seem to be mixing apples and oranges, since Tolkien is not required to mind read three generations into the future to guess what readers will bring with them to his narrative. Not sure if your lens here is "Death of the Author" or not. Commented Feb 19, 2019 at 14:20
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    @Adamant To add to the answer, since we are discussing Tolkien's work, we must take into account his views on morality and problem of evil, not of some "average reader" if he exists. That doesn't mean that we must accept Tolkien's views. Definition of evil is still open for debate, but place for that is Philosophy SE.
    – rs.29
    Commented Feb 19, 2019 at 18:41
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    @Adamanat Tolkien didn't write for the 21st century audience: we are country he has never visited. To understand Tolkien's use of language, one needs to be better informed about context rather than superimpose one's own definitions on the narrative. A very good answer that addresses this approach is MA Golding's. Evil has more than one sense when one takes a look in a dictionary. rs looks do have done a good job with context here. Commented Feb 19, 2019 at 19:01
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    @Adamant "We" do not exist. This is loose internet community, with people from various places and various views on morality. It is entirely possible that some of us would consider Shelob as good, and Elves and Men as evil - and vice versa. Only thing we could somewhat agree (and write answer about it) is what original author (Tolkien) considered as good and what as evil.
    – rs.29
    Commented Feb 19, 2019 at 19:43

Shelob: a killer of light, mind and soul

I can't take credit for this answer: a lot of it is taken from an informed by this very serious and thoughtful essay by Professor Krishnan Venkatesha at Saint John's College in Santa Fe: https://kappatsupatchi.wordpress.com/category/shelob/. I have tried to add some thoughts of my own, but this is really his work.

As Professor Venkatesha notes, in the middle of this suspenseful scene of an escape from a monster, Tolkien ends a paragraph, breaks a line and then shifts to a third party omniscient viewpoint. This is rare for Tolkien, and it's a signal: things are very serious now and the reader must understand something important. That thing to understand is in the first line following: in this cave lives "an evil thing in spider form." Not a spider, of course, as many have said. An evil "thing" that does not kill just for food. This is a being that "only desired death for all others, mind and body." Certainly Tolkien could have shifted and shown the point of view of a hunting animal, or simply described the spider and its attack. But Tolkien didn't do that -- he takes time to explain her desires: "death to all, mind and body, and for herself a glut of life, alone ...".

If death of the mind as her desire is not enough to convince you that this being is evil, Tolkien gives us examples: eating Elves and Men until the city in the valley went dead, making "play" of captives that Sauron had driven to her hole for his amusement, mating with and then killing her own young ... ("...her lesser broods, bastards of the miserable mates, her own offspring, that she slew ...").

And now imagery: the hole in which she lives is a dark, stinking pit where time seems to stop and there is "sense of lurking malice." Nothing is visible. No light. "Sound fell dead." "Even the memory of colours and of forms and of any light faded out of thought." "After a time their senses became duller, both touch and hearing seemed to grow numb...". It's a place of despair.

This is a being of the greatest kind of evil: a killer not just of life but of mind. Of soul. Smeagol/Gollum is an example here. "[T]he darkness of her evil will walked through all the ways of his weariness beside him, cutting him off from light and from regret." And so Smeagol's own mind is subverted, killed by "her evil will" -- even to the point where he is beyond regret of luring Frodo (the only person to have ever shown him kindness) to a grisly death.

I don't want to ruin it for you, so read Professor Venkatesha's essay. I will let you know that it explores some of the things this chapter implies about this creature and poor Smeagol's soul. It's horrible.

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    This borderlines a link only answer. Your basically saying "she is evil, here is an essay on it". Without reading the essay, that doesn't really answer the question..
    – Gnemlock
    Commented Feb 20, 2019 at 0:00
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    Note: I have not read the essay. If it is required to answer the question, reference the most critical points, with direct quotes.
    – Gnemlock
    Commented Feb 20, 2019 at 0:01
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    Great link (thank you!) but it would be great to see some of the core points summarized to better address the question. I'd add some bits about the way she plays with her prey (torture) and how that amuses Sauron. I think that fits into the bit about "evil" in terms of the question asking about "a spider" rather than "an evil being" in that place. Commented Feb 20, 2019 at 0:56
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    Thanks Korvin! I will try to make some good revisions.
    – Page 332
    Commented Feb 20, 2019 at 17:00
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    Well, I am trying to make changes, Korvin, but so far rejected. I am not so good with the tech here. In any case, I think people will learn more from that essay than they will from me. I have enjoyed reading through all the posts.
    – Page 332
    Commented Feb 21, 2019 at 4:03

The thought has occurred to me that possibly in Shelob's case evil might mean bad for people.

For example, a disaster might be described as an evil event, or a day when a disaster happens might be described as an evil day, even though events and days are not persons and thus cannot be ethically good or evil.

In The Return of the King, Appendix A, Annals of the Kings and Rulers, I The Numenorean Kings, ii The Realms in Exile, (iv) Gondor and the Heirs of Anarion, mentions evils that happened to Gondor. I put the words in italics.

Nonetheless, it was not until the days of Valacar that the first great evil came upon Gondor: the civil war of the Kin-strife, in which great loss and ruin was made and never fully repaired.

The second and greatest evil came upon Gondor in the reign of Telemnar, the twenty-sixth king, whose father Minardil, son of Eldacar, was slain at Pelargir by the Corsairs of Umbar...Soon after a deadly plague came with dark winds out of the East. The king and all his children died, and great numbers of the people of Gondor, especially those that lived in Osgiliath.

The third evil was the invasion of the Wainriders, which sapped the waning strength of Gondor in wars that lasted for almost a hundred years.

Getting killed and eaten by Shelob was definitely an "evil" that happened to various persons, so Shelob could be considered to be herself an "evil" that happened to people, just as Smaug, who could talk rationally with people, described himself as "the chiefest and greatest of all calamities".

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    Exactly. Shelob is not evil with respect to spiders' values. Nobody ever looks in the mirror and says, "I think I'll be evil today." From the point of view of e.g. Frodo, whom she would have eaten, Shelob is most certainly evil. The story is not told from the giant-spider POV, but from that of elves, dwarves, men, and halflings.
    – Mark Wood
    Commented Feb 19, 2019 at 21:40
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    @MarkWood I don't know about that. When someone is talking about a hiking trip, they rarely use moral terms to describe bears. By your logic, it would be totally normal for a hiker to call bears "evil," since bears are very dangerous from a hiker's perspective. But hikers don't call bears "evil" because that would be nuts.
    – Misha R
    Commented Feb 20, 2019 at 3:32
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    @Misha R Hikers might not call bears "evil" because bears are not persons. But a hiker who speaks in an archaic way might describe a hungry bear that eats someone as an "evil" that happens to the victim. Commented Jul 20, 2019 at 20:35
  • @M.A.Golding That would he plausible if we didn't have quite a bit of description of Shelob as an evil creature with an evil will, evil skin, etc (as is clear enough from the numerous quotes in the answers). She is most certainly described as an evil being, not simply an "evil that happens."
    – Misha R
    Commented Jul 21, 2019 at 2:53

Can You Blame Frodo for Holding a Grudge?

Remember who wrote The Red Book of Westmarch.

If we take the Literary Agent Hypothesis (that Lord of the Rings was supposed to be a translation of a recently-discovered work of history) seriously as something Tolkien tried to give verisimilitude, that story comes from Sam and Frodo. They see Shelob as evil because she's a giant spider who ambushed and wanted to eat them while they were trying to save the world. Sometime later, the narrator interpolates a religious backstory that presumably came from the Elves of Rivendell, and Sam and Frodo did not know at the time, about how she’s really a demon connected to their legendary primordial enemy, along with some details about Gollum that it’s hard to fit into this theory because he couldn’t possibly have confessed them before he died. So we’d have to read those as Sam and Frodo filling in the gaps. As a classicist like Tolkien well knew, this was common practice for ancient historians who did not have access to sources on the other side.

In addition to the other factors people have mentioned, the narrator does consistently describe powerful, terrifying monsters who live in darkness and attack Hobbits on sight as Evil. Enemies from a species that Frodo and Sam know are not all like that go into a different category of Fallen-but-potentially-redeemable, and deserving of mercy. (This is one instance, though, where Tolkien justifies calling someone evil: Shelob is no mindless animal, nor even killing only to survive.)

There are quite a few stories written around the premise that Tolkien was just biased and his villains are misunderstood.

  • Davislor: What (admittedly little) I understand about LAH is that there is a secret as to who is writing the story (the author as 'literary agent') and the the story is as being 'inspired by real events'. What this description sounds like to me is more akin to mimesis (or, perhaps in regards to Gollum's story, simply an unreliable narrator?). Admittedly I don't know much about this approach so anything you can do to clarify (including reference/link) would be helpful as I'm genuinely curious :-)
    – wcullen
    Commented Feb 20, 2019 at 0:47
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    @wcullen Good question! In this context, what I mean by a LAH is Tolkien’s conceit that he was merely translating the Red Book of Westmarch, a surviving work of history from the Third Age of Middle-Earth. The term originated with Arthur Conan Doyle’s conceit that he was just acting as Dr. Watson’s literary agent. In this case, it is closely related to the idea that the narrator of LotR has some very blatant biases in favor of the Noldor, hating their enemies globally and without nuance.
    – Davislor
    Commented Feb 20, 2019 at 9:02
  • That's a fascinating way of looking at it and one I can honestly say I hadn't encountered before, so thanks for the clarification and new avenue!
    – wcullen
    Commented Feb 20, 2019 at 16:03
  • may I suggest you put a header or title to this question? It seems to be something like "evil as seen through the eyes of her beholders, sam and frodo" or something like that to capture your point on the perspective that informs the description of Shelob as evil. Your call. Commented Feb 20, 2019 at 16:54

While discussing her intentions or actions can be ambiguous in some cases, here is one that is not. She was literally covered in evil, so much evil that is was literally impenetrable to the strongest craftsmanship of the elves and the strongest Men to have ever lived. If a being made of evil doesn't make you an evil creature, then I don't think that anything can be considered evil.

But Shelob was not as dragons are, no softer spot had she save only her eyes. Knobbed and pitted with corruption was her age-old hide, but ever thickened from within with layer on layer of evil growth. The blade scored it with a dreadful gash, but those hideous folds could not be pierced by any strength of men, not though Elf or Dwarf should forge the steel or the hand of Beren or of Túrin wield it. She yielded to the stroke, and then heaved up the great bag of her belly high above Sam's head. Poison frothed and bubbled from the wound. Now splaying her legs she drove her huge bulk down on him again. Too soon. For Sam still stood upon his feet, and dropping his own sword, with both hands he held the elven-blade point upwards, fending off that ghastly roof; and so Shelob, with the driving force of her own cruel will, with strength greater than any warrior's hand, thrust herself upon a bitter spike. Deep, deep it pricked, as Sam was crushed slowly to the ground.


Was it Shelob or Ungoliant (or both) that mated with and then consumed her own offspring? That seems a trifle bit evil, albeit not incredibly outlandish in the insect/arachnid world. But I think what defined Shelob as evil was her unsated thirst that she inherited from her mother. We already know Ungoliant's idea was basically to consume everything, the entire world, or at least every last bit of light within it. That's pretty evil. Shelob was somewhat more reserved, but it's also said that in her insatiable hunger, she eventually consumed herself.

I think it's not so much the actions of Shelob (although eating elves, men, and your own children isn't very nice) but rather her nature that makes her evil. She has no desire to do anything virtuous. Her only desire is to consume. And mind you, you compared Shelob to the average lion, which typically only has the desire to eat and procreate also; but remember in Tolkien's world, beasts and birds are much more virtuous than they are in our world. There were good beasts and birds, that served Gandalf, Radaghast, Beren and the likes; and there were evil ones that served the lords of darkness. Shelob may have only served herself but in Tolkien's world, every evil character is evil because he or she has no other interest than in serving oneself. Sauron was only less evil than Melkor in that for a time, he served another.

  • You have some decent reasoning here but it could be improved by editing in some evidence such as quotes.
    – TheLethalCarrot
    Commented Feb 20, 2019 at 16:46

Shelob is literally unholy. Her reaction to a bit of silmaril light establishes that. A tiger would not react in at all the same way because a tiger is a natural entity that is simply too dumb to know or care whether its prey is a person. Shelob isn't that dumb. She's smart enough to recognize that Gollum is a person and to spare him for no other reason than because he could and would bring her more people to eat. That makes her also a person in her own right, but a person who is inimical to all other persons. And that's what "evil" is. Knowingly inimical to people.

  • She's smart enough to recognize that Gollum is a person and to spare him for no other reason than because he could and would bring her more people to eat - Even if Shelob has enough intelligence to be considered evil, this is not a good argument for it. A rat has enough intelligence to make that distinction.
    – Misha R
    Commented Feb 20, 2019 at 1:13
  • No. A rat has no such ability. Commented Feb 20, 2019 at 1:41
  • Here's some fairly easy-to-read info about rats. vetstreet.com/our-pet-experts/…
    – Misha R
    Commented Feb 20, 2019 at 1:59
  • OK. I read it. But rats still can't make a distinction betweeen good and evil. Commented Feb 20, 2019 at 19:05
  • 1
    No, she recognizes Gollum as a person. She understands that he's different from normal animals and deals can be made with him. Furthermore she treats him different from other individuals before he has brought her any food at all. They talked to each other. He convinced her that there wasn't much to him and he could bring her larger and more palatable prey. Commented Feb 21, 2019 at 0:08

Shelob is considered evil because...:

  • she seems disgusting to the protagonists;
  • she wants to eat the protagonists (and if you're my enemy, and I'm obviously good, then you must be evil);
  • her progenitor is deemed to be evil;
  • she's dark-colored, or black. And dark things and people are evil while light things are good;
  • she's in the way of activities furthering what's considered good.

So, objectively and to be honest, I agree with you, OP, that Shelob is not evil* - despite Tolkien's "decision" for her to be evil.

... But if you go down that road you'll start asking yourself why all the Southrons and Haradrim are supposedly evil; and whether you can trust the Valar-followers' version of history; and why the Valar are letting so many people suffer and die when they could very well send out their host and fix things; and so on. And then you would be a bad Catholic :-)

* - She is bad news and quite terrible, though.

  • 6
    Except the Southrons and Haradrim are explicitly NOT evil, and called out as such in the books. Commented Feb 18, 2019 at 16:47
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    While your points about Tolkien's beliefs and prejudices are correct, the facts Tolkien provided about her (not its) personality and actions are consistent with many people's definition of evil. He probably made her evil for all the reasons you mentioned, but the fact is he wrote her as evil nonetheless. So I'm downvoting for that reason.
    – Adamant
    Commented Feb 18, 2019 at 17:07
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    @einpoklum afaik everyone except frodo (at first) seems to be susceptable though, so that's not saying much Commented Feb 19, 2019 at 7:49
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    "And dark things... are evil while light things are good" -- This is an essentially universal human belief, probably due to humans being a diurnal species and not as well-adapted to activities in the dark as many other animals. It has become fashionable to suggest this belief is racist, but in fact it is just as common among the cultures of people with dark (often in myth, burnt) skin hue as it is those of light.
    – Wlerin
    Commented Feb 19, 2019 at 13:08
  • 4
    @einpoklum If you look closely you'll see that I omitted the "people" part. They do apply the light==good and dark==bad to everything else. Although you'd be surprised at how often white colonisers were mistaken for divinities by people of darker skin who didn't recognise them as people like themselves.
    – Wlerin
    Commented Feb 19, 2019 at 14:04

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