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.
- First, the hobbits must skirt the Morgul Vale opposite the tower of Minas Morgul, the city of the Ring-Wraiths, which commands a view of the entire valley. (7)
- Next, they climb high into the Mountains of Shadow using two sets of stairs. The first set is sheer, slippery, and crumbling. The second set is spiral, and the hobbits are so exhaused when they get to the top, they are forced to rest. At which point Gollum scurries off and stays gone for hours. (8)
- Third, they must pass through a tunnel. By the time they reach the mouth of the tunnel, it’s pretty clear that something nasty lives within, but going forward is the only option. Going back would mean a harrowing descent, evading capture by the forces of Minas Morgul, having to figure out another way into Mordor, and — most importantly — lost time. So they go forward. (9)
- The pass itself is a narrow cleft in the mountains with a single approach which leads from the mouth of the tunnel to a gate. The gate is guarded by a tower garrisoned with Orcs. The hobbits must find a way to get through the gate if they hope to reach Mount Doom. (10)
In his [Sam’s] lap lay Frodo’s head, drowned deep in sleep; upon his white forehead lay one of Sam’s brown hands, and the other last softly upon his master’s breast. Peace was in both their faces.
Gollum looked at them. A strange expression passed over his lean hungry face. The gleam faded from his eyes, and they went dim and grey, old and tired. A spasm of pain seemed to twist him, and he turned away, peering back towards the pass, shaking his head, as if engaged in some interior debate. Then he came back, and slowly putting out a trembling hand . . . he touched Frodo’s knee . . . For a fleeting moment, could one of the sleepers seen him, they would have thought they beheld an old weary hobbit . . .
[Frodo stirs, Sam wakes up, and there is a verbal confrontation, then . . .]
. . . Gollum withdrew himself, and a green glint flickered under his heavy lids. Almost spider-like he looked now, crouched back on his bent limbs, with his protruding eyes. The fleeting moment had passed, beyond all recall. (11)
I think this is the death of Smeagol. From here on out, it’s all Gollum. The “green glint” in the eyes is a clue. If you look carefully at the text, you can tell when Gollum/Smeagol are speaking from the descriptions of the eyes. And that last line, “beyond all recall,” has the ring of finality. Gollum’s lust for the Ring has overcome Smeagol’s oath, for now.
Gollum convinces the hobbits to enter the tunnel, follows for a short way, and promptly abandons them to their fate. The hobbits escape the tunnel only because Frodo is equipped with two potent items of elven make — the Phial of Galadriel and Sting. After they escape, we get a passage which makes it clear beyond a shadow of a doubt that Shelob is ancient and that Gollum’s met her before, and even worshipped her (12).
Shelob attacks them after they emerge from the tunnel, on the approach to the gate. Just as she springs on Frodo, Gollum attacks Sam from behind, thinking to strangle him and wait around to take the Ring after Shelob discards the hobbits’ possessions. Gollum is overconfident in this encounter and gloats too soon; Samwise gets the better of him:
Grabbing from behind was an old game of his, and seldom had he failed in it. But this time, misled by spite, he had made the mistake of speaking and gloating before he had both hands on his victim’s neck . . . This fight was not for him. Sam swept up his sword from the ground and raised it . . . But before he could over take him, Gollum was gone. (13)
And that is the last we see of Gollum.
For a while.
1. All the source material here is from The Two Towers, starting with “The Passage of the Marshes” and ending with “Shelob’s Lair.” I’m covering a lot of ground today.
2. “The Passage of the Marshes,” p. 234.
3. “The Passage of the Marshes,” p. 241.
4. For this first encounter with Faramir, see “Of Herbs and Stewed Rabbit,” pp. 264-70
5. “The Forbidden Pool,” pp. 294-299.
6. “The Forbidden Pool,” p 301.
7. “The Stairs of Cirith Ungol,” pp. 312-316. This passage includes the best description we have of Minus Morgul and its valley, and a close call with the Lord of the Nazgul in which the hobbits are saved only by their elven cloaks and by the fact that the will of Sauron is wholly consumed with his invasion of Gondor.
8. The climb and the disappearance of Gollum take a while to develop. “The Stairs of Cirith Ungol,” pp. 316-323.
9. “Shelob’s Lair,” p. 326.
10. This fact is self-evident from the fact that Sam puts away Gladriel’s phial the minute he emerges from the tunnel in “Shelob’s Lair,” p. 34; and from the way things play out in “The Choices of Master Samwise,” pp. 342-351.
11. “The Stairs of Cirith Ungol,” p. 234.
12. “Shelob’s Lair,” p. 326-327.
13. “Shelob’s Lair,” p. 336.
This is the penultimate Gollum post. The next installment, is the Gollum finale.