Originally published at Part Time Monster as “Shelob’s Lair.”
This is the 12th in a series on Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings. You can find links to previous installments here.
The action of Book Four, the section of The Two Towers that covers the Hobbits’ journey toward Mordor, culminates in an encounter with the ancient spider-creature Shelob high in the Mountains of Shadow on the approach to the pass of Cirith Ungol. Shelob is not a creature of Sauron. She is more ancient than the realm of Mordor. She has supernatural abilities and is driven entirely by insatiable hunger. Shelob is oblivious to the Ring and the war. It is Gollum who precipitates this encounter, and the plot builds toward it practically from the moment Frodo and Sam capture him. (1)
After Gollum swears his oath to Frodo, he leads the hobbits through the Dead Marshes. This episode makes it clear that Gollum is still quite intelligent despite his corrupted state, and that he’s been this way before. He warns the hobbits not to look at the corpse-lights below the surface of the water, lest they be drawn in and become corpses themselves. (2)
On the fourth day of their travels together, just after the crossing of the marshes, Samwise awakes to find Gollum arguing with himself. This episode is an important turning point in the story. It shows us clearly for the first time that Smeagol and Gollum have diverged into two entirely separate personalities. Smeagol wishes to keep his promise and help Frodo. Gollum twists the words of Smeagol’s promise and urges him to find a way to take the Ring for himself, but both respect the fact that they are outnumbered by armed hobbits. This passage also contains the first reference to Shelob:
‘We wants it But’ — and here there was a long pause, as if a new thought had wakened. ‘Not yet, eh? She might help. She might, yes.’
‘No, no! Not that way,’ wailed Smeagol.
‘Yes! We wants it! We wants it!’
Each time that the second thought spoke, Gollum’s long hand cret out slowly, pawing towards Frodo, and then was drawn back with a jerk as Smeagol spoke again. (3)
Though we don’t realize yet who “she” refers to, it’s clear that Gollum is hatching a plot. Smeagol is going to be hard-pressed to keep his promise. And if you look closely at this passage you will see that when Gollum is speaking, Gollum has control of the body. Smeagol is barely containing Gollum.
The second hint we get comes in “The Forbidden Pool.” After the hobbits find the Black Gate too well-guarded to attempt, they turn south into Ithilien, a wild, unpopulated region of Gondor which has not yet fallen under the shadow of Mordor. There they encounter Faramir, brother of Boromir, leading a party of soliders from Gondor to ambush a regiment of Harad who are marching up from the south to join Sauron. Gollum eludes these men, but they make Frodo and Sam their “guests” for the night so Faramir can interrogate them and decide what to do with them. (4)
During the night, Gollum trespasses too closely to the men’s secret hideout. Frodo helps Faramir capture him to prevent the men from killing him outright. Gollum naturally reads this as betrayal on Frodo’s part, which only strains their already tenuous relationship. (5)
Faramir turns out to be a very discerning man. He eventually allows the three to continue their journey, but warns Frodo to be wary of Gollum and counsels him against attempting the pass of Cirith Ungol:
But I do not think you are beholden to go to Cirith Ungol, of which he tells you less than he knows. That much I perceived clearly in his mind. Do not go to Cirith Ungol! . . . But there is some dark terror that dwells in the passes above Minas Morgul. If Cirith Ungol is named, old men and masters of lore will blanch and fall silent. (6)
This gives us more details and heightens the suspense. It raises the possibility that the “she” Gollum refers to in his argument with Smeagol is this unnamed horror even the wise will not speak of.
Despite Faramir’s warning, Frodo presses on because he sees no other way to enter the dark land without being captured. The pass of Cirith Ungol is the least-guarded way into Mordor, but it’s still quite treacherous. Reaching it requires four dangerous trials.