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The Lord Of The Rings: Shelob's Backstory Explained

Middle-earth has a lot of very strange creatures. Giant oliphaunts, talking wolves, enormous eagles, and terrifying dragons all hog the spotlight at some point or another. Of all the strange, animalistic enemies in Middle-earth, though, there's one that takes the cake as the most malicious, horrifying, and creeperific being of them all: Shelob. The spider-like being is a terror that lives in the mountains that surround Mordor. The monstrous creature waylays Frodo Baggins (Elijah Wood) and Samwise Gamgee (Sean Astin) as they attempt to sneak into the Dark Land in The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King. She suspects that the juicy Hobbits would prove to be a nice snack and go down easy, to boot. Of course, to her own surprise and discomforting shock, it's Shelob who ends up getting the short end of the stick — or should we say the Sting. The ancient demon is defeated by an infuriated Samwise Gamgee in one of the most lopsided contests in the history of storytelling.

Wielding the short Hobbit blade Sting in one hand and the blazing Phial of Galadriel in the other, Sam manages to intimidate, blind, and eventually wound the beast until she flees from the fight in terror. After that, we never see Shelob again. The monstrosity exits the story as quickly as she entered it, with her primary role lasting no more than a chapter or two in the books. And yet, the creature leaves a lot more than an oozing trail of bestial blood behind when she drops out of the story. There are countless questions that naturally arise. What is this creature doing here? How did she get there in the first place? What the heck is she, anyway? It's those questions and more that we've come to answer. So, without further ado, here is the backstory of Shelob, explained.

Shelob's badass parentage

It's difficult to explain who Shelob is without first understanding where she comes from. Specifically, we need to break down who Shelob's mother is. Ungoliant is an arachnid villain from The Silmarillion that is hands-down one of the most terrifying characters in all of fantasy. She is described as a creature intimately connected with darkness whose origin is unknown. She may have "descended from the darkness that lies about Arda (the world)." Ungoliant is also referred to as a being that Morgoth, the original Dark Lord before Sauron, corrupted at the beginning of Middle-earth history. Either way, Ungoliant is an extremely powerful spiritual being that "took shape as a spider of monstrous form." She is depicted "weaving her black webs in a cleft of the mountains" in a corner of Middle-earth where "the shadows were deepest and thickest in the world." She's also iconically associated with hunger, famine, and desire.

While Ungoliant's origin may be obscure, her part in The Silmarillion most certainly isn't. The rebellious and willful character agrees to help Morgoth destroy the Two Trees of Valinor, both of which serve as the primary points of illumination for the world before the Sun and Moon are created. She travels to the Trees with Morgoth by her side, surrounding the pair with darkness and gloom. Upon their arrival, she literally sucks the life out of the light-giving trees, leaving the world in star-studded darkness. 

Eventually, Ungoliant clashes with Morgoth and is driven off by a fiery horde of Balrogs. She disappears from history, although The Silmarillion leaves us with the tidbit that, while her fate is unknown, "some have said that she ended long ago, when in her uttermost famine she devoured herself at last." Ungoliant makes Shelob more than a nasty old spider. It gives her a demon heritage and makes her a deeply malicious spiritual being with a terrifying pedigree.

Shelob is really old

The text about Ungoliant is interesting. The Silmarillion also adds that, for a while, she lives in the ancient mountain range called Ered Gorgoroth, also known as the Mountains of Terror. There she has endless broods of monstrous offspring. Here, Shelob was likely born and spent countless years with her various horrifying brothers and sisters. Together, they turn the area into a horrifying region known as Nan Dungortheb, which appropriately translates to "Valley of Dreadful Death." While this is all fascinating, it doesn't give us much bearing on how Shelob comes to live near Mordor. 

That connection is buttoned up in The Two Towers when Tolkien pauses the narrative to explain how this random, horrifying spidery creature guarding the pass of Cirith Ungol came into being. He explains that "there agelong she had dwelt, an evil thing in spider-form." He proceeds to add that she is one of many creatures like her that lived during the First Age of Middle-earth. At an unknown point in time, Shelob fled from "ruin," although the specific disaster isn't described. It's guessed that this could be the famous War of Wrath that ended the First Age and sunk the entire region of her birth into the ocean. Regardless of the cause, Shelob resettles in her new mountain home before Sauron ever shows up on the scene. Snuggled into her new lair, she serves "none but herself." From this new base of operations, the demonic terror begins to have children. These spread out across the mountains of Mordor and — you guessed it — eventually reach Mirkwood. However, none of them ever grow large enough to rival Shelob, who is referred to at the time of The Lord of the Rings as "Shelob the Great, last child of Ungoliant to trouble the unhappy world." Talk about a title.

Shelob's disgusting lifestyle

Shelob is old. She's also weirdly obsessed with herself, her food, and her isolation. The character is loaded with weird and disgusting behaviors. Most of these revolve around either long, stagnant dwelling in putrid darkness or food, food, and more food. Like her mother, Shelob appears to constantly be gnawed by hunger. She is always looking for her next meal, and she finds it in a variety of different and truly horrifying ways. For starters, Shelob both mates with and kills her own children, and while consumption isn't stated outright, it definitely seems like a possibility. In The Two Towers, her offspring are described as "her lesser broods, bastards of the miserable mates, her own offspring, that she slew." Of course, even if she did eat some of her kids, many of them got away, spreading the family business to other parts of the region and the world.

Shelob also ate anything and everything that she could. Literally. The Two Towers text informs us that "all living things were her food." While her appetite and palate may have known no bounds, though, the villain still has her preferences. She's specifically described as devouring Elves and Men, although by the time of The Lord of the Rings story, she has had very few of these in quite a while, because, as the power of Mordor increases around her lair, there are fewer and fewer Men are to be had. Elves are even scarcer, as they haven't dwelt in the area for even longer. With limited food options available, she turns to "the unhappy Orcs" which are described as "poor food and ware." Or, as Gollum-Smeagol lays out in the third film, "all she gets is filthy Orcses, and they doesn't taste very nice, does they, Precious?" Still, her willingness to feast on the local soldiery of the Dark Lord raises an interesting question: whose side is Shelob really on?

Shelob and Sauron, friends or foes?

This concept of Shelob eating Orcs begs the question: is Shelob Sauron's friend or his enemy? The answer is a bit tricky, but throughout the various references to Shelob found throughout Tolkien's writings, it's fairly easy to surmise that she's definitely not his enemy. That said, she's doesn't appear to particularly be his friend, either. Shelob marches to the beat of her own morbid drum. She's uninterested in political struggles and the idea of getting her claws on the One Ring of power is completely pointless to her. True to her heritage, Shelob is genuinely obsessed with food and her own gloomy lifestyle. Period. End of story. This isn't a natural fit with Sauron's larger ambition and conquests, however Tolkien does note that Shelob and the Dark Lord do manage to get along. In fact, they're downright hospitable neighbors; while she does eat Sauron's servants every once in a while, she repays him in kind by guarding the pass of Cirith Ungol from any intruders.

Sauron doesn't just see this as a fair bargain, either. He knows that he's getting a good deal. In The Two Towers, it explains that it "pleased him" that she lurked in the mountains on the edge of his realm. In fact, he literally goes out of his way to thank her for her freelancing services. How? By sending her treats. Like a master rewarding his pet, the text tells us that Sauron "would send her prisoners that he had no better uses for." It adds that "he would have them driven to her hole, and report brought back to him of the play she made." Interestingly, it's Shelob's reputation for endless huger that helps to set up the entire Cirith Ungol-poisoned Frodo conundrum, which all kicks off when she meets Gollum for the first time.

Shelob's servant brings her food

At a certain point, Gollum stumbles across Shelob when he's hunting for the One Ring. When this happens, he's overwhelmed by her ghastly personality and he literally bows down and worships her. She spares the miserable wretch, and he promises in return to bring her food. Stepping into the role of personal shopper, Gollum heads out into the wild world to bring Shelob sweeter meat than her dull Orcish diet. Apparently he's so intimidated by her controlling spirit that he returns to her more than once. This happens often enough that the nearby Orcs come to recognize him and even refer to him as her "Sneak." Eventually, he leads Frodo and Sam into her lair, to bring her a particularly tasty morsel, as told in The Two Towers.

Throughout this time, Gollum himself is planning his own double treachery. He hopes to get the Ring back after Shelob eats the Hobbits. Once he has his Precious back, Gollum tells himself that "She'll know it, O yes, then we'll pay Her back, my precious." But even the best-laid plans of mice and men and warped, Hobbit-like villains go awry. Gollum's schemes go off the rails when Shelob is defeated by Sam. The monstrous guardian of the pass is wounded and retreats into her lair in agony. At this point, Shelob disappears from the story. Some have surmised (via Tolkien Gateway) that she eventually dies due to an inability to hunt when blind. However, this seems unlikely, as Sam only pokes one of her eyes out, and the Phial of Galadriel doesn't seem to permanently blind her. All we hear from Tolkien is that "whether she lay long in her lair, nursing her malice and her misery...until with hunger like death she spun once more her dreadful snares in the glens of the Mountains of Shadow, this tale does not tell."