In all of Tolkien’s novels, in his work on the Silmarillion and its unpublished relations, there are only three wicked women – and two of them are giant spiders. (We will get back to the third, Thuringwethil.) A pass through the legendarium reveals a great many women of virtue and character: not just Arwen, Eowyn, Rosie Cotton and Galadriel, but also Luthien, Melian, Varda, and more. And if we are looking for masculine villains, we have not just the obvious Sauron, Saruman, and Wormtongue, but also people like Dior and Maeglin, or even the morally ambiguous Feanor. Such ambiguity is allowed for men and male elves in Middle-earth, but if you are female you are either Good or a Giant Spider. Spiders are the Wicked Women in Tolkien’s writing.
Most of us know Ungoliant from the Silmarillion, but it is important to note that the version of the tale presented in that book is neither the earliest nor latest revision of that story. Rather, it is simply the version that Christopher Tolkien and Guy Gavriel Kay, his co-editor (whose wonderful fantasy novels quickly emerged from Tolkien’s shadow into sublime art of their own) chose to go with. Many questions left unanswered in the published story can be resolved if we look to the unpublished manuscripts. In particular, Morgoth’s Ring, the History of Middle-earth volume X is the center of the web when it comes to Ungoliant, Tolkien’s oldest, blackest, and most wicked of stepmothers.
Ungoliant began as one of the Ainur, the immortal spirits which include the Valar and Maiar. The Maiar are traditionally broken up by the Vala whom they served, and the safe bet is that Ungoliant was a servant of Melkor (whom Tolkien initially calls “her master”), but a very interesting possibility I would like to take credit for – but cannot – is that she served Vaire the spouse of Mandos. Vaire is a Norn-like goddess who spins: “who weaves all things that have ever been in Time into her storied webs, and the halls of Mandos that ever widen as the ages pass are clothed with them.” Considering the way in which Maiar tend to mimic the philosophies and practices of their masters (so that Sauron, like Aule, was a smith), Vaire seems an excellent progenitor for the spider-demon.
Regardless of her original house, Ungoliant was a servant of Melkor when she descended into the world and took upon herself the form of “a spider of monstrous form, weaving her black webs in a cleft of the mountains.” But she did not long serve him, and swiftly struck out on her own. She went to the south of Aman, where she dwelt for a long while when the world was lit only with the Two Trees, and the Valar seemed to have left her alone not out of mercy, but out of ignorance, since their eyes were always on the north where the Eldar dwelt and where their cities and monuments had been built. A creature of darkness and never-ending hunger, she hated light but also fed upon it – “she sucked up all light that she could find” – and when she did she cast it back out again in the form of “dark nets of strangling gloom,” or as a vomit that was darkness. “She belched forth black vapours” that were not merely darkness but “Unlight… a Darkness that seemed not a lack but a thing with being of its own … and it had the power to pierce the eye, and to enter heart and mind, and strangle the very will.” This was some vile stuff – quite literally Darkness-with-a-capital-D.
Melkor’s plan to capture the Silmarills involved Ungoliant, and he recruits her through a combination of threats and bribery. He even puts some of his own power into her, to make her more of a threat – something that would (if you will pardon the spider-pun) come back to bite him later on. There are differing versions of Melkor’s scheme; in Silmarillion, Melkor brings Ungoliant to the Two Trees, which he wounds and she poisons. Then, under cover of this new darkness and with Ungoliant waxing in power thanks to her meal, they break into the vaults of the Noldor, kill King Finwe (the first elf to ever die), and steal all the jewels there including the Silmarills. The other, later, version of the story – published in Morgoth’s Ring – casts Melkor as a more manipulative and smarter villain. He does not bring Ungoliant to the Trees, but instead uses her as a distraction and lets her destroy the Two Trees alone. While she is doing that, he is stealing the Silmarills, something he never expected Ungoliant to come anywhere near. Having loosed the demon spider on the Two Trees, Melkor had a perfect cover for his own villainous deeds and prompt escape. But she catches up to him before he reaches the vaults, and so she learns of the jewels of the Noldor despite Melkor’s plans.
Whichever version you are reading, the pair flee over the Helcaraxe, and Ungoliant’s Unlight is so great that even Tulkas the great warrior of the Valar, “was as one caught in a black net at night, and he stood powerless and beat the air in vain.” This is the same Tulkas that kicked Melkor around the block a time or two before now, but Ungoliant was not yet done. By now she has become so huge, so vast in her power and darkness that she no longer calls Melkor “Master.” She knows he is going to try to ditch her and, like a bad date, she refuses to get ditched. “All her eyes were on him,” we are told and finally she demands to be fed. He grudgingly gives her all the jewels from the Noldor – these would be elven jewels which, after their crafting by smiths would be glowing with inner light. She eats them all, and becomes even greater.
But she is still hungry and demands the metal casket which Melkor is keeping in his right hand. These, of course, are the Silmarills and their holiness is burning Melkor’s hand, but he will not give them over. Ungoliant attacks him and is about to kill him when balrogs who have been hiding nearby for many years hear his screams of panic and come to his rescue. Whips of flame are enough to drive Ungoliant away and she goes south again – this time far to the south of Middle-earth, off the map we have from Lord of the Rings. There, she continued to breed, eat, and make her webs until she had eaten everything she could reach and, like the hero of a bad Stephen King story, she finally eats herself.
Ungoliant’s personality is defined by two forces: lust and fear, eternally at war. Her fear is not unusual – every evil creature in Middle-earth is terribly afraid, even if they often seem otherwise. Orcs cower and cringe from their masters, Sauron is constantly afraid the One Ring shall be turned against him, and even Morgoth becomes so enslaved by fear that he refuses to leave his castle for centuries, lest someone come give him a good thrashing. Ungoliant’s fear manifests in her cowardly hiding, something very appropriate to the spider form that she did, after all, choose for herself. When Melkor comes to recruit Ungoliant, the conversation is not printed in Silmarillion, but we can read it in Morgoth’s Ring and it is fear that makes her hesitate – fear not just of the Valar but also of Melkor, whom she tried to escape by fleeing south.
But there is one force greater than Ungoliant’s fear, and that is her lust. To us, this word is about sex, and that may be going on here in a covert way, but ostensibly what Tolkien means when he says “lust” is hunger – the desire to consume. Melkor tries to bully her into helping him, but this attempt to play on her fear is not successful; it is only when he bribes her with glowing elf-jewels that Ungoliant crawls from her cave and again calls him “Master.” Tolkien reiterates Ungoliant’s lust at every opportunity – it was to be “mistress of her own lust” that she left Melkor in the first place. He promises to pay her “whatever your lust demands,” and when she drinks from the Two Trees she “swelled to a shape more huge and hideous than even her own lustful dream had ever hoped to achieve.” On the surface, this is lust-as-hunger. But I think we should be careful before dismissing the argument that when Tolkien writes “lust,” he means, well, lust.
You don’t have to be Sigmund Freud to find the monstrous sexual themes of Ungoliant. She’s a perverted mother, breeding with her own children, eating her mates, and creating endless horrific spawn. Her home is the dark cave, and when she jumps Morgoth she enfolds him, wraps herself around him and makes him powerless. She is the vagina dentate, that both spawns and devours, vomiting out her Darkness like some nasty afterbirth. People should give Tolkien more credit as a horror writer.
Although there are vampires in Middle-earth (I know, I said we would get back to Thuringwethil; I lied) there’s definitely something vampiric about Ungoliant the spider. For one thing, she doesn’t eat, she sucks. And when she does, she drains the light/life of her victim into herself, becoming greater. This is the scene from Morgoth’s Ring when she attacks the Two Trees. Tell me this isn’t vampiric.
"Then with her black beak she pierced their rind, wounded them deep; and their juices gushed forth and she drank them up. But when no more flowed she set her mouth to the wounds, and sucked their tissues and wounded them, root, branch, and leaf, and they died."
We may as well write “Ungoliant sucks root” on the bathroom wall of the Prancing Pony.
Individually, all of these elements make Ungoliant a wickedly sweet villain, someone who can give us the epic heebie-jeebies. But taken together, they remind me of someone else: the Biblical demon mother Lilith. Now, Lilith has quite a modern history of her own and it is important to remember Tolkien is writing in the 1940s and 50s, long before Anne Rice and Mark Rein-dot-Hagen. Tolkien’s Lilith is the Judaic first wife of Adam, whose refusal to be on the bottom became a morality tale meant to instruct women on their proper place in society (that place being: on the bottom). Cast out by God, Lilith became the mother of a vast brood of monsters, a dweller in darkness who – by the Middle Ages – was bride to the fallen angel Sammael, a devourer of children, and queen over her life-draining vampiric minions, the succubi, lilim and lilitu. Ungoliant serves all these roles, just translated through the Middle-earth lens. Morgoth is both her Adam and her Sammael – the man she leaves, and the man she partners with, finally jumping him in a perverted intercourse complete with web-bondage and whips (albeit whips of flame). Lilith’s monstrous brood become Ungoliant’s unnumbered spawn, and Lilith’s night-dwelling habits (she was called “the screech owl”) manifest in Ungoliant’s ever-present darkness, her need to dwell in shadow while simultaneously hating and hungering for light. And in both Lilith and Ungoliant we have that overpowering lust, that unstoppable corrupting sexual fervour.
And that, my dear Bagginses and Boffins, is why Weavers are still played in the Ettenmoors even though their crowd control sucks. Well, it doesn’t really suck. Unless you’re a Tree. In which case … well. You know where to find their number. You'll call, won't you?