In Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers, in the chapter Shelob’s Lair, there is a rather lengthy description of Shelob, the last remaining child of Ungoliant in Middle-Earth. In this, there is also a description of her relation with Sauron:

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 uses for: he would have them driven to her hole, and report brought back to him of the play she made.

I’ve never understood the bolded bit there. Tolkien is saying that Sauron sometimes sent prisoners to Shelob to keep her less-than-ravenous and in check, in an almost playful way, the way you might throw a dainty to your cat. So clearly Shelob is the cat.

But then why does it say, “but she owns him not”? Surely if she were the pet and Sauron the master, as seems to be the explicitly denied premise, he should own her, not the other way around.

Was Tolkien one of those cat-lovers who say that you never own your cat—your cat owns you? I don’t know why, but I’ve always assumed that was a much later jocular meme. Is there some other logical explanation for this seeming reversal of ownership?

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    own can mean, "to concede", or it can mean relation, so it could be she does not concede to him, or that she is of no relation or partnership with him.
    – Himarm
    Commented Jul 2, 2015 at 18:16
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    As Nerrolken says, you're reading the word "owns" wrong. It used to mean something like "admits" or "acknowledges". So the line is "she doesn't acknowledge him".
    – Wad Cheber
    Commented Jul 2, 2015 at 18:22
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    When I read that I thought about the idea that cats own the insufferable humans they live with. If she were his cat, she would own him, but since she doesn't, she isn't his cat. Commented Jul 2, 2015 at 18:27
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    It might be better understood if you think of its antonym: disown.
    – jamesqf
    Commented Jul 3, 2015 at 17:16
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    @Pryftan No, I didn’t misread that. The preceding but implies that the expected situation is that she would own him, which was what I misparsed originally and couldn’t make sense of. That is the explicitly denied premise. The fact that it is denied doesn’t matter – it’s the unnegated form that’s the semantic premise and which should therefore make sense. Compare “she has ponytails, but she is not a boy”: the implication, created by but, is that only boys have ponytails, which is obviously not true. Commented Feb 19, 2019 at 8:08

3 Answers 3


According to a similar discussion on another site, Tolkien is using "own" in a more archaic sense of "acknowledge" or "yield to." The Oxford English Dictionary article on own contains one definition (4.c) of "own" as "To acknowledge as having supremacy, authority, or power over oneself; to recognize or profess obedience to (a greater power, a superior, etc.)."

If this is the case, the phrase could be re-worded to be...

His pet he calls her, though she doesn't recognize his authority.

...or, put more simply...

His pet he calls her, though she doesn't agree.

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    This. A million times this. The word "owns" is used, as are so many words in Tolkien's work, in an archaic sense.
    – Wad Cheber
    Commented Jul 2, 2015 at 18:20
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    I got you this screenshot of a dictionary entry for the word "own". Feel free to add it to your answer: farm4.staticflickr.com/3804/19171658790_2ca10243a6_o_d.jpg
    – Wad Cheber
    Commented Jul 2, 2015 at 18:39
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    @WadCheber I think it would be better as text (so it can be copy-pasted) and quoted from the source instead of as an image Commented Jul 2, 2015 at 18:40
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    @WadCheber from what dictionary? Generally I think that copying/pasting individual word entries can be argued to constitute "fair use", at least in the United States. Commented Jul 2, 2015 at 19:10
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    +1. Such a simple solution! It never even occurred to me that it was own itself that held the key to a proper understanding, since we talk so commonly of owning our pets. I don’t think I’ve ever seen own used in this acknowledging way with a simple pronoun as its object; the OED definition you refer to also says “In later use only with abstract objects, esp. in to own (a person's) sway. Now somewhat arch.”. The 1695 quote is by Blackmore: “The Prince of Darkness owns the Conquerour, And yields his Empire to a mightier Pow'r.” Commented Jul 2, 2015 at 21:04

To supplement Nerrolken's excellent answer, here is how the site dictionary.com defines the relevant usage of the word "own":

verb (used with object)
to acknowledge or admit:
to own a fault.

to acknowledge as one's own; recognize as having full claim, authority, power, dominion, etc.:
He owned his child before the entire assembly. They owned the king as their lord.

verb (used without object)
to confess (often followed by to, up, or up to):
The one who did it had better own up. I own to being uncertain about that.

Another dictionary:
enter image description here

In this case, "own" means "admit" or "acknowledge", not "claim possession of".

So the sentence isn't saying that Sauron doesn't belong to Shelob, it is saying that she doesn't acknowledge that she belongs to him.

Or to use the example from my quote under the second definition: "She did not own [i.e., acknowledge] him as her lord".


Another possibility is that Tolkien was using not an archaic version of "own", but an ironic notion - common to cat lovers and haters (with Tolkien strongly established as the latter) - that "really", it's the cat owning her human, not vice versa.

Even more ironically, that humorous slant seems to be more true than not. Science FTW!

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    That was my impression upon my first reading of the line, but I think it was something more reasonable to a philologist like Tolkien.
    – Wad Cheber
    Commented Jul 2, 2015 at 20:00
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    @WadCheber - you're forgetting that Tolkien was a professional cat hater even more than a philologist :) Commented Jul 2, 2015 at 20:03
  • I KNEW that there was another reason why I love the guy so much. Truly a man after my own heart.
    – Wad Cheber
    Commented Jul 2, 2015 at 20:04
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    That was the notion that I referred to in the question as well, but it seemed ‘wrong’ somehow to imbue Tolkien’s text with this meaning—the jocularity of the notion seems out of place in what is otherwise a lofty and dour section. Definite +1 for the link about Tolkien and cats, though! Commented Jul 2, 2015 at 20:56
  • @JanusBahsJacquet see my comment on the accepted answer -- do you suppose there may have been some intentional punning here, perhaps thrown into relief against the (undoubtedly) "lofty and dour" context? Commented Jul 3, 2015 at 21:14

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