For this installment, we’ll take a closer look at another lesser-known character from The Silmarillion that plays a pretty important indirect role in Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit – the uber-spider overlord, Ungoliant.
The Silmarillion, Nerdsplained: Ungoliant
In The Silmarillion, much of the early conflict revolves directly around Melkor and his attempts to wrest control of Middle Earth from the other Valar. He is constantly foiled by their efforts, and forced into more involved and desperate plans. One of the last and greatest mischiefs that he was able to work before being finally cast out of the Undying Lands was his assault on the two great trees in Valinor, Telperion and Laurelin. (More on them in our next installment…)
Melkor knew that the Trees were beautiful and important, because they provided light to the whole world. He also knew that they were precious to the other Valar. The best way that Melkor could hurt the Valar and their creation was to destroy the Trees.
To execute his plan, Melkor enlisted the help of Ungoliant. According to later records of the Eldar (the highest and greatest Elves), no one truly knows where Ungoliant came from. It is believed that she was one of the Maiar that Melkor initially corrupted to his will. Regardless of where she initially came from, the fact remains that she is a seriously bad player.
Ungoliant is such a bad player that she even turned against Melkor after the initial battle against the Valar. She retreated to the South where it was dark and she could pursue her own interests, which, according to The Silmarillion, meant “taking all things to herself to feed her emptiness.” And, apparently, that includes the light of the Trees.
According to their plan, Ungoliant took the form of a monstrous and horrifying spider, spun a web of darkness around herself and Melkor, and the two of them came upon the trees during a time of festival. Melkor attacked the Trees with a spear, wounding them and pouring their sap on the ground. Ungoliant came along behind him and drank it up. All of it. Then she drank the wells of Varda dry. Through all this, she swelled up to such a huge size that even Melkor was afraid. Their attack successful, Ungoliant and Melkor fled Valinor to safety.
So why does Ungoliant matter? Well, her role in the attack on the Trees in Valinor had some pretty major repercussions.
- For one, the Trees provided light to most of the world, so there was crazy darkness afterwards.
- Second, the Trees had been sung into existence by Yavanna, Queen of the Valar and most beloved by the Elves. Anything she created was a big deal.
- Thirdly, the light from the Trees now only existed in the Silmarils, and there was no end of strife and suffering over them once the Trees were dead.
- But most importantly, perhaps, is what Ungoliant did after destroying the Trees. After trying unsuccessfully to steal and consume the Silmarils from Melkor, Ungoliant retreated and bred with the Great Spiders. The practical result of this union was the race of giant spiders that shows up in later Tolkien novels. This is the race of spiders that ensnares Bilbo and the Dwarves in The Hobbit, and it is the race of spiders of which Shelob in Lord of the Rings is the last of.
Ultimately, Ungoliant is an ancillary player in the great drama that is the First Age of Middle Earth. But it’s entirely possible that without Ungoliant there wouldn’t have been a Shelob, meaning that there wouldn’t have been an alternate way into Mordor for Gollum to lead Sam and Frodo through. As tends to happen with lesser characters in great stories, her contribution rippled well beyond her own lifetime and actions.