A LINGUISTIC EXPLORATION OF SHELOB THE GREAT
Given the fact that Tolkien was a linguist, it would be reasonable to assume that a body of linguistic research of Tolkien’s writing style would have been established by now. Unfortunately, there has not been much linguistic work done on the author’s writing style: sure, there are Flieger, Drout, Agøy and the Shippey1 – who was trained in the same rigorous academic tradition as Tolkien himself – but there has yet to emerge a sound linguistic body of work on Tolkien’s literary style.
Ironically, this has not stopped academic circles from rejecting, for instance, The Lord of the Rings due to allegedly inferior prose.2 At first, the idea of researching style linguistically might seem somewhat vague, it may not seem clear how an author’s lexical and grammatical choices, for instance, create a certain effect. Linguists Geoffrey Leech and Mick Short composed a a type of checklist . This is a list of features which can be taken into consideration when analysing a literary text. Looking at the grammar, lexis, figures of speech as well as context and cohesion can provide a surprising insight into the how of a text. In addition to this, Ronald Carter and Walter Nash went somewhat further than Leech and Short. Carter and Nash created a model that that describes how a world is built ( the so-called Realism Game) and, on the other hand, how an author creates and evokes emotional response within the reader, which is called the Keynoting Game. The Realism Game uses names, descriptions, measurements, in short: everything that will leave the reader with the impression that the world he’s immersing himself in is built upon solid foundations. The Keynoting Game, on the other hand, is used to examine how figures of speech, verbs, words and clauses are employed with the aim to sollicit an emotional response from the reader. Carter and Nash’s model was also used to demonstrate how ideology is coded in language, but the latter is beyond the scope of this amiable little study. This article will apply keynoting as well as the realism game, combined with Leech and Short’s checklist, to a minor character in The Lord of the Rings named Shelob. The creature is described as “an evil thing in spider-form” who “served no one 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” (707).
The introduction of Shelob is in terms of sound: “a gurgling, bubbling noise, and a long venomous hiss”. What follows , and stands out, is the mention of a “bubbling hiss”. These words are non-collate in everyday speech, and then there is the fact that such a sound is highly unlikely to exist in phonetical terms. When someone bubbles, the sound they produce is a voiced bilabial stop, when one hisses, the sound is an alveolar fricative, and it is voiceless.3 Such a term catches the reader’s attention and evokes a sense of confusion and wonder what is there in the pass, in the way Sam and Frodo feel confused and do not know what they are dealing with. The description by the narrator then continues in that “there was a creaking as of some great jointed thing that moved with slow purpose in the dark. A reek came on before it” The verb “to creak” is a dynamic verb, denoting a progression over time. The verb is combined with the somewhat unusual “jointed thing”, which does not really clarify much: the noun “joint” is not usually used as an adjective either. The combination is grammatically correct, but remains vague. The choice for the noun ‘reek’, rather than ‘smell’ denotes the unpleasantness of the smell, ‘reek’ carries a connotation of something pungent. The reader gets the idea of something negative and threatening from this description, but there is not a clear image: “bubbling hiss” and “jointed thing” that creak leave the reader puzzled. This description is then followed by words that bring across more tangible images: “potencies”, “powers of the night” which are “old and strong”. Even though there still has not been divulged much about who or what is roaming in the darkness, the reader learns that this is a formidable opponent, who is tied to the earlier history of Middle Earth. “Dark” is here connected to “deep,”, which is a common collocation of these words.
Finally, a solid piece of information is revealed by the narrator: the reader learns that the threat is female, “She that walked in the darkness.” This epithet is simple, yet the use of a capital ‘S’ and, again, the mention of darkness makes it more ominous. There is a gradual build-up with regard to the information. The descriptions go from vague and odd to becoming more clear, and this build-up mirrors the gradual approach of the creature itself: the reader by now knows that something is coming, something female, from both the depths of Torech Ungol and the depths of the history of Middle Earth itself.
The approach by the monster is described in terms of its eyes, which are “monstrous and abominable” and “bestial and yet filled with purpose and with hideous delight, gloating over their prey trapped beyond all hope of escape”. This is in concord with the rest of The Lord of the Rings, where the negative characters, from the barrow wights to Gollem, are described in terms of their eyes.4 What happens next is interesting, as the physical appearance of the beast is described in an almost lighthearted manner: “Cobwebs! Is that all?” is what Sam remarks. This comes across almost as an anti-climax: after all, the world of Middle Earth may not be like everyday reality,but spiders are apparently a thing in Middle Earth as well. This almost conversational tone by Sam is found in the tone of the narrator as well, who then casually drops the name of the beast: Shelob, “who was there before Sauron, and before the first stone of Barad-dûr”. What follows is a passage that seems a little disorganised: information is provided to the reader, but it is not clear what information is crucial for the advancement of the plot:
There agelong she had dwelt, an evil thing in spider-form, even such as once of old had lived in the Land of the Elves in the West that is now under the Sea, such as Beren fought in the Mountains of Terror in Doriath, and so came to Lúthien upon the green sward amid the hemlocks in the moonlight long ago. How Shelob came there, flying from ruin, no tale tells, for out of the Dark Years few tales have come. 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. But none could rival her, Shelob the Great, last child of Ungoliant to trouble the unhappy world.
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.
But that desire was yet far away, and long now had she been hungry, lurking in her den, while the power of Sauron grew, and light and living things forsook his borders; and the city in the valley was dead, and no Elf or Man came near, only the unhappy Orcs. Poor food and wary. But she must eat, and however busily they delved new winding passages from the pass and from their tower, ever she found some way to snare them. But she lusted for sweeter meat. And Gollum had brought it to her. “We’ll see, we’ll see,” he said often to himself, when the evil mood was on him, as he walked the dangerous road from Emyn Muil to Morgul Vale, “we’ll see. It may well be, O yes, it may well be that when She throws away the bones and the empty garments, we shall find it, we shall get it, the Precious, a reward for poor Sméagol who brings nice food. And we’ll save the Precious, as we promised. O yes. And when we’ve got it safe, then She’ll know it, O yes, then we’ll pay Her back, my precious. Then we’ll pay everyone back!”
So he thought in an inner chamber of his cunning, which he still hoped to hide from her, even when he had come to her again and had bowed low before her while his companions slept. 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. So they both lived, delighting in their own devices, and feared no assault, nor wrath, nor any end of their wickedness. Never yet had any fly escaped from Shelob’s webs, and the greater now was her rage and hunger
The epithets of Shelob are rather simple but diverse, in addition to the fact that, once her name is revealed, it is mentioned fairly often in the chapters that she appears in. In addition to affirming that the spider goes a long way back in history, this variety also implies that the the spider is not a one-dimensional creature.This type of periphrasing turns out to be a combination of the Keynoting Game and the Realism Game, as the effect is a combination of providing information and evoking a response from the reader. The fact that the representation of Gollum’s thoughts show the pronoun ‘she’ written with a capital ‘s’ again (“…then She’ll know it, then we’ll pay Her back”) and the mention that Gollum “bowed down and worshipped her”, brings across that there is something deity-like about the creature as well. Old, powerful and the exertion of her singleminded will, as the quoted passage shows, seem to justify this connotation: the narrator calls her Shelob the Great for a reason. In itself, the passage is fairly cohesive, but the context is not clear. The author’s choice to present all this information in the middle of the scene, the fragment maintains tension. Compared to the earlier description of Shelob – or rather, lack of description – this fairly unexpected collection of backstory and information keeps the reader on edge, and makes him want to know what will happen next.
This basic demonstration has not painted a picture of Shelob as much as painted a picture of the paint, and the brushes, that an author uses to construct a character. Tolkien’s lexical and grammatical choices, his figures of speech as well as context and cohesion of his text, as well as the ways in which he makes Middle Earth real to his readers, all of this has been shown by taking a closer look at the spider-monster. With a work of the complexities of Rings, more can be said and the analysis can go a lot deeper than what has been described so far. The example of the bad guys, and their descriptions in terms of their eyes, has been mentioned. One can look and see whether there are connections between other groups of characters. Another option would be to analyse the style of certain passages in Rings, to see how they relate and what they teach us about the style of the novel as a whole. In order to show what sort of insights can be gained, this article will be rounded off by looking at the word that it has been about all along, the word ‘spider’.
The word ‘spider’is mentioned ten times throughout The Two Towers: once it is in reference to Saruman, who was captured by the palantir, which had turned him into “a spider in a steel web.” The other nine references pertain either to Gollum, or to Shelob. This may seem somewhat odd, Shelob is hardly powerless in the way Gollum is. Gollum is not compared to a spider in the rest of the book and Saruman seemingly has no connection to either Shelob or Gollum. Placing these three characters within the context of the novel’s theme makes things clearer, of course. Shelob is the embodiment of desire, an instinct that drives her forth and it is made clear that this is what her existence is about, “desiring death for all others”. It must also not be forgotten that Shelob spiked herself on the Elf blade: “with the driving force of her own cruel will, with strength greater than any warrior’s hand, thrust herself upon a bitter spike”. Both Gollum and Saruman are characters who are perverted by their desire: Gollum yearns for the Ring and is devoured by his lust for it. Saruman is somewhat in control of his desires and knows how to direct them but he remains a victim of corruption. Against this background, the webs that Shelob weaves entrap someone until that person is nothing but a prisoner,who experiences metaphorical darkness in the sense of despair. In retrospect, the passage that describes Shelob’s cobwebs and the despair that Frodo feels cutting through cobwebs that do not let any light through, is suddenly seen in a different light altogether. Even though Shelob is a supporting character that appears mostly in one chapter, is defeated at the beginning of another and nobody knows what happened to her in the end, going a little bit deeper into the how managed to show some of the why.
by Valeria Milić
1. I am not explaning who Tom Shippey is. Seriously. I’m not.
2. Many books have been sold, though. And keep being sold.
3. Try it.
4. Sauron would be the ultimate eye.
Carter, Ronald and Walter Nash. Seeing Through Language: A Guide to Styles of English Writing. Oxford: Blackwell, 1990. Print.
Leech, Geoffrey and Mick Short. Style in Fiction: A Linguistic Introduction to English Fictional Prose. London: Longman Pearson, 2007. Print.
Tolkien, J.R. R. The Two Towers. Web.