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The Monsters and the Lights: Evil, Darkness, and Light in Tolkien’s Legendarium


The following was a college essay written by Mary Biese. It has been edited and approved by Christopher Centrella. If you have a Theology essay that you would like published that received a grade of an A- or higher, please be sure to contact us.

By Mary Biese, University of Notre Dame

“Evidently I have managed to make the horror really horrible, and that is a great comfort; for every romance that takes things seriously must have a warp of fear and horror, if however remotely or representatively it is to resemble reality.”[1] Here Tolkien comments on the importance of his “horrible” inventions, his monsters, his creatures of darkness, that exist within his created Legendarium. This paper explores this “fear and horror” by expounding upon the natures and narratives of the creatures Ungoliant, Shelob, and Carcharoth, while focusing primarily on their respective interactions with physicalized light. The relationship between light and darkness is naturally intertwined with these monsters. These interactions are strongly associated with the theme of mystery and the theory of diminishing power within Tolkien’s cosmology.

This work is simultaneously an investigation into Ungoliant’s fundamentally paradoxical relationship with light, which supplies further insights into Tolkien’s realistic and Boethian depiction of evil. Looking at how Tolkien paints evil and darkness is important because the issue affects how readers receive his work as a “romance that takes things seriously” and as something that “is to resemble reality” in some way. The more realistic an aspect of literature appears to be, the more relatable and effective the literature is, especially for totally fictional worlds like Tolkien’s.

So how do dark, evil creatures come to be in Tolkien? What are the origin stories of the evil monsters Ungoliant, Shelob, and Carcharoth? Ungoliant, the oldest of the three, is the mother of all giant spiders within Tolkien’s cosmology. “She has an obscure origin (the author of the Silmarillion speculates that she is a Maia), and is preternaturally powerful.”[2] The primary narrative text for this creature and for Carcharoth, The Silmarillion, states that Ungoliant may have come from the empty Void at Melkor’s first envious thought, and additionally may have been corrupted by him; however, it is unclear whether she is an embodiment of Melkor’s envy or simply a temporary servant of it.[3] While she assists Morgoth in his devastation of the Two Trees of Light, Ungoliant soon turns on Morgoth in her greed, demanding that he give her the jewels of Formenos and the sacred Silmarils.[4] While Morgoth allows her to devour the light of the precious jewels, he refuses her the glorious light-encasing Silmarils, and only survives her wrathful webs of repurposed light because of his fiery Balrog bodyguards. “No tale tells”[5] how Shelob, the spawn of Ungoliant, ends up in her abode on the borders of Mordor. Like Ungoliant, she coexists with (but does not directly serve) the Dark Lord of her time.[6]

Carcharoth, unlike the two monsters discussed above, has more concrete origins and an unwavering allegiance to Morgoth. Raised, fed, and empowered by the Dark Lord, this giant wolf is bred to defend Morgoth and his empire against the heroic hound Huan. Carcharoth is a distortion of a good creature, and “filled with a devouring spirit.”[7] This pairs well with the Ungoliant-as-Maia theory[8] and the sheer maliciousness of her spawn Shelob. All of this taken together supports the Boethian and Augustinian view of evil, wherein evil is “a privation of the good,”[9] and “nothing is evil in the beginning.”[10] This belief holds that evil consists of a lack and/or a distortion of what is good. Morgoth twists a normal wolf into Carcharoth’s ancestor, and then directly distorts Carcharoth himself; Ungoliant either issues from the Void (which we can suppose to be neutral without Melkor’s envy) or from a corrupted Maia. Taking into account that Shelob is Ungoliant’s descendant, all three characters can be accounted for by this Boethian conception of evil. All three creatures lack light and goodness, and all three are giant, malicious distortions of their original model.

Now we have some idea of how these creatures come to be, but how do they come to naught? Echoing their mysterious origins, the demises of Ungoliant and Shelob are pure speculation, whereas Carcharoth’s is known for certain. We are told that Ungoliant probably “devoured herself at last”[11] and that “this tale does not tell” “whether [the wounded Shelob] lay long in her lair… and in slow years of darkness healed herself from within;”[12] conversely, we are told plainly that Carcharoth is killed by the hound Huan after his Silmaril-induced madness, despite Morgoth’s best efforts to make Carcharoth exceedingly strong, evil, and powerful. In the end, the light always prevails over the darkness, “and the darkness d[oes] not overcome it.”[13] Ungoliant (probably) devours herself; Shelob is (probably) mortally wounded; Carcharoth is killed.[14]

Why all this mystery surrounding the spiders? For one thing, they serve no one but themselves and their own greed, whereas Carcharoth serves Morgoth and perishes as a result of that allegiance. The great Wolf’s destruction also plays a large part in the tale of Beren and Luthien, so the Elven “author” of The Silmarillion pays more attention to him as opposed to the spiders, who show up briefly in the Elven narratives and are never heard from again. Another possible answer is literary: “as Reno Lauro writes, ‘monsters are an important literary element to Tolkien because they mean something.’ And yet, rather paradoxically, ‘They represent horrors and evils too elusive, complex, or banal, to often make sense’ (75)”[15] In other words, Tolkien’s monsters simultaneously possess and elude meaning.

Shippey expounds upon this in The Road to Middle Earth: “Tolkien saw the problem of evil in books as in realities, and he told his story at least in part to dramatize that problem; he did not, however, claim to know the answer to it.”[16] This doesn’t explain the difference in specifics, but it does help explain the overall theme of mystery surrounding Tolkien’s evil creatures. While this overarching concept of mystery may seem to be an unsatisfactory description of the nature of evil, Tolkien’s paradoxes are actually more informative than questionable, and, in the end, we can conclude that Tolkien does, in fact, ascribe to one single view of evil in his works, specifically the Boethian.

One might question exactly how valid this claim is, given how Ungoliant “seems [to be] a Manichean force of darkness”[17] and “can be seen… as ‘the physical manifestation […] of the Darkness of pre- and anti-creation’ (22)”[18] She creates “an Unlight… which eyes could not pierce, for it was void.”[19] Ultimately, when she interacts with light, Ungoliant produces “a Darkness that seemed not to lack but a thing with a being of its own: for it was indeed made by malice out of Light.”[20]

Bergen argues that the words “seem” and “visible” are the operative words in these passages[21]; Ungoliant does not support the theory of Tolkien’s Manichaeism because, like Tom Shippey says, “[s]hadows are the absence of light and so don’t exist in themselves, but they are still visible and palpable just as they did.”[22] In other words, Ungoliant’s darkness seems to be a thing of its own, and is presented as such in order to keep the story enthralling and relatively realistic;[23] it is still at its heart simply an absence of light. It feels Manichaean to the reader, but is in its essence Boethian. Shadows are not substantive in and of themselves, but point to a lack of substantive, ofttimes physical, light. We see this utter lack in Ungoliant’s basic physical and existential deprivation: she is never satisfied, to the point that she eventually devours herself. The pure darkness that she seems to be cannot sustain itself; her darkness seems to be its own entity, yet it is utterly empty. We can apply this principle to all forms of darkness within Tolkien’s created world.

Darkness, then, is empty and non-physical. Yet light is clearly physical in The Silmarillion and The Lord of the Rings. Light in Tolkien’s cosmology is explicitly incarnated in the Two Trees of Valinor, the Silmarils of Fëanor, the Phial of Galadriel, and a series of other physical objects, such as the Sun, Moon, and stars. How does the literal physicality of light work with the non-physicality of darkness? Are these two views incompatible? I argue that they are not, and that the Boethian view of darkness does not necessitate the non-physicality of light, but actually supports it. Light can be largely physical, and darkness is an absence of the physical reality that is Light. The physicality of light in Tolkien’s work makes the privation of it that much emptier.

While a physical, evil being may have the appearance of darkness, those appearances in and of themselves do not amount to a physical entity; darkness only “exists” (even using that word is a stretch) insofar as it is an attribute of an actual entity. Creatures like Ungoliant, Carcharoth, and Shelob are all evil, all dark, but all three of them are distinct characters that are not pure evil or pure darkness, per se. On the other hand, the Trees, the Silmarils, and the Phial are pure light, entities of light by their very nature; they are defined by the fact that they are light, and the only differences between these incarnations arise from their various intensities and attributes. While the monsters differ in nature, the lights differ in attributes. Similarly, the monsters’ darkness is an attribute, while the physical objects’ nature is light.

One can also see the apparent physicality of darkness in the description of Shelob’s lair, which emphasizes darkness as an attribute that is effective but not substantive:

They were in utter and impenetrable dark… Here the air was still, stagnant, heavy, and sound fell dead. They walked as it were in a black vapour wrought of veritable darkness itself that, as it was breathed, brought blindness not only to the eyes but to the mind, so that even the memory of colours and of forms and of any light faded out of thought. Night always had been, and always would be, and night was all.[24]

Again, Tolkien focuses on the sensory reality of the darkness, what “dark” feels like. It is still not a distinct physical entity, but rather is simply felt, in a more abstract, scattered, sensory way. It is still an emptiness, even if it is an emptiness that is felt, breathed, and seen. A lack of something can still be felt, and even a felt “lack” can be nonphysical. The same is true for darkness, the lack of light.

The darkness felt in Shelob’s lair is attributive and empty, and this has negative effects on those (such as the two hobbits in The Lord of the Rings) who intimately interact with and associate with light and creatures of light. Here, we have non-monsters interacting with the darkness instead of the light. There is no concrete, distinct physicality that these characters are fighting, until the monster Shelob shows herself. Even the spider herself is not made up of darkness; she is not inherent darkness, but rather a spider with the attribute of darkness. And that is what the hobbits face.

Now how does the great spider Ungoliant, in her complete Boethian emptiness, interact with physical light in The Silmarillion? The short of it is that in her narrative, “one sees a characteristic Tolkienian strength: his ideas were often paradoxical… but they appealed at the same time to… everyday experience. Tolkien could be learned and practical at once.”[25] Paradoxically, Ungoliant “hunger[s] for light and hate[s] it.”[26] She consumes light, and belches darkness. She drinks the light of the Two Trees, of the Wells of Varda, and devours that of the great jewels of Formenos (sans the Silmarils), “swell[ing] to a shape so vast and hideous that Melkor was afraid.”[27] By consuming the light, her vast, dark shape grows even larger than before. She devastates the Valar and the Noldor by destroying their sacred sources of light. This interaction works within the Boethian context: “her dark nets are derivative from the light, and a corruption of them.”[28] Now why is Ungoliant such a paradox? Some light can be shed on this by looking deeper into Carcharoth’s and Shelob’s separate interactions with physical sources of light.

The light of the Trees is preserved in Fëanor’s Silmarils, one of which is devoured by Carcharoth: “Then swiftly all his inwards were filled with a flame of anguish, and the Silmaril seared his accursed flesh… of all the terrors that came ever into Beleriand ere Angband’s fall the madness of Carcharoth was the most dreadful; for the power of the Silmaril was hidden within him.”[29] Carcharoth lays waste to Doriath in his light-induced anguish. His destruction stems from a devouring, but he has a completely different reaction to the light from the Trees. He is physically pained and driven mad by what made Ungoliant grow in size and strength. Is this unique to Ungoliant? Or is it due simply to Varda’s protection of the Silmarils? If it is unique to Ungoliant, why is she unique in this way?

One might argue that, in the case of Carcharoth, both the darkness and the light are greatly diminished in comparison to the intensity and power of Ungoliant and the Two Trees. While Ungoliant is the first of her kind and most likely spawned from the Void itself, Carcharoth is a descendant of an already derivative wolf, and is therefore less inherently powerful. Though Morgoth does infuse a greater power into Carcharoth, the great wolf is still not as preternaturally powerful as the mighty Ungoliant. In addition, the Silmarils contain the Light of the Trees, yet can be hidden and contained; they are less powerful than the sources from which they were created. Though Varda sets a protective “shield” around the Silmarils, the jewels are still a faint reflection of the glory of the ancient Trees of Valinor, and it is primarily this diminishment that explains Carcharoth’s weakness in this instance.

I like to call the above concept “the law of diminishing power,” which dictates that each new iteration or distillation of light or darkness is less intense and powerful than the one preceding it. In other words, as time progresses in Tolkien’s universe, the world and its creatures become less mythical and powerful–and more normal, so to speak. This entropy of power is behind many of the differences between Ungoliant, Carcharoth, and Shelob, including the paradox of Ungoliant herself.

Shelob, the great spider of The Lord of the Rings, being two ages removed from her ancestor, pales in comparison with Carcharoth and Ungoliant. Thus, she is weakened and eventually wounded via the Phial of Galadriel, which contains (though in an extremely distilled form) the light of one of the Silmarils: “No such terror out of heaven had ever burned in Shelob’s face before. The beams of it entered into her wounded head and scored it with unbearable pain, and the dreadful infection of light spread from eye to eye. She fell back… her mind in agony.”[30] Shelob’s destruction of her environment is comparatively minimal, and, like Carcharoth, she perishes as she destroys, since she has “an impossible time self-sustaining indefinitely.”[31] She even has a bit of luminosity about herself, though it is (in proper Boethian fashion) a distorted, fainter light than the Phial’s. Shelob’s “corrupted, almost fungal phosphorescence”[32] contrasts with the sheer darkness associated with Ungoliant and Carcharoth, and shows just how much weaker and derivative Shelob is as a monster within Tolkien’s invented cosmology.

So why is Ungoliant such a unique paradox? There are three reasons: 1) she may be the spawn of the Void itself; 2) she comes into existence at the beginning of the world and the height of evil’s power (the law of diminishing power); and 3) more mystery surrounds her origin and death than the other two evil characters explored here. She, along with her fellow monsters Carcharoth and Shelob, supports the position that Tolkien’s view of evil is Boethian, shrouded in mystery, and fundamentally realistic in its tendency towards paradoxy. For Tolkien, evil and darkness are not things in and of themselves, but shadows, attributions, absences. Light, on the other hand, can be and is often physicalized in Tolkien’s Legendarium; light is real and tangible, making darkness that much more fundamentally empty. Evil is an issue for every culture, age, and fictional universe, and Tolkien’s painting of it is satisfactory yet unsatisfactory, both paradoxical and mysterious. How realistic.

Bibliography

Bergen, Richard A. “‘A Warp of Horror’: J.R.R. Tolkien’s Sub-creations of Evil.” Mythlore, vol. 36, no. 1 (2017): 103+. Expanded Academic ASAP, https://link.galegroup.com/apps/doc/A514884484/EAIM?u=nd_ref&sid=EAIM&xid=998.

Burns, Marjorie. “Eating, Devouring, Sacrifice, and Ultimate Just Desserts.” Mythlore, vol. 21, no. 1 (1996): 108+. https://dc.swosu.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=2135&context=mythlore.

Lionarons, Joyce T. “Of Spiders and Elves.” Mythlore, vol. 31, no. 3 (2013): 5+. https://dc.swosu.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=2135&context=mythlore.

Shippey, Tom. The Road to Middle-earth: How J.R.R. Tolkien Created a New Mythology. Houghton Mifflin, 2003.

Tolkien, J.R.R. Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, edited by Humphrey Carpenter, Allen & Unwin, 1981.

Tolkien, J.R.R. The Silmarillion. 2nd edition, edited by Christopher Tolkien, Houghton Mifflin, 2001.

Tolkien, J.R.R. The Lord of the Rings. 50th Anniversary Ed. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2004.


[1] Tolkien, J.R.R. Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, ed. Humphrey Carpenter (Allen & Unwin, 1981), 120.

[2] Bergen, Richard A. “‘A Warp of Horror’: J.R.R. Tolkien’s Sub-creations of Evil.” Mythlore, vol. 36, no. 1 (2017): 103+. Expanded Academic ASAP, http://link.galegroup.com/apps/doc/A514884484/EAIM?u=nd_ref&sid=EAIM&xid=9988a32c, 110-111.

[3] Many of the tales before the coming of the Elves into Middle-earth, especially those with closer proximity to the creation of the universe, are fittingly mysterious. The ambiguity surrounding Ungoliant may be partially explained by the fact that few (if any) Elves witnessed her deeds. Her role is assumed to be extremely far in the past, even for the supposed “author,” so to speak, of the passage in the published Silmarillion. In other words, there is historical doubt about Ungoliant’s origins due to the massive amount of fictional time that passes between her story and its documentation.

[4] J.R.R. Tolkien, The Silmarillion. 2nd edition, ed. Christopher Tolkien (Houghton Mifflin, 2001), 85-87.

[5] J.R.R. Tolkien, The Silmarillion, 723.

[6] J.R.R. Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings. 50th Anniversary Ed. (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2004), 723-725.

[7] Tolkien, The Silmarillion, 212, emphasis added.

[8] Maia being spirits of a lower caste. The maliciousness of the spirits of these monsters speaks to the Boethian concept of distortion.

[9] Bergen, “‘A Warp of Horror’: J.R.R. Tolkien’s Sub-creations of Evil,” 119.

[10] Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings, II.2.267.

[11] Tolkien, The Silmarillion, 87.

[12] Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings, 730.

[13] New Revised Standard Version Bible: Catholic Edition. (The Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America, 1993), John 1:5.

[14] Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings, 730. One may suppose, by viewing the passage wherein she is stabbed deeply by Samwise Gamgee in a way she had never previously experienced, that Shelob died from her Phial-related wound. Though the text itself is ambiguous, I believe there is strong evidence to believe the wound was mortal (even if not immediately so). If this was not the case, it seems reasonable to assume that Shelob eventually dies of starvation or self-cannibalism (like Ungoliant).

[15] Bergen, 106.

[16] Shippey, Tom. The Road to Middle-earth: How J.R.R. Tolkien Created a New Mythology. (Houghton Mifflin, 2003), 145.

[17] Bergen, 110.

[18] Lionarons, Joyce T. “Of Spiders and Elves.” Mythlore, vol. 31, no. 3 (2013): 5+. https://dc.swosu.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1093&context=mythlore, 6.

[19] Tolkien, The Silmarillion, 74.

[20] Tolkien, The Silmarillion, 76.

[21] “Seeming is not reality.” Bergen, 110-111.

[22] Shippey, The Road to Middle-earth, 146-147.

[23] See Bergen, 103, 110-111.

[24] Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings, 717-718, emphasis added.

[25] Shippey, 147, emphasis added.

[26] Tolkien, The Silmarillion, 77.

[27] Tolkien, The Silmarillion, 81.

[28] Bergen, 110-111.

[29] Tolkien, The Silmarillion, 214-215.

[30] See note 14.

[31] Bergen, 111-112.

[32] Lionarons, “Of Spiders and Elves,” 6. The corrupted nature of Shelob’s phosphorescence aligns with the Boethian concept of evil as a distortion and lack of the good. Even fungi are not technically “living” species, but rely on the life of other organisms in order to stay alive. Likewise, evil for Tolkien and for Boethius is not an entity in and of itself, but rather a fungus of sorts that feeds off of different creatures in an attributive way.

1 comment on “The Monsters and the Lights: Evil, Darkness, and Light in Tolkien’s Legendarium

  1. As an Augustinian minded Catholic, I think the themes you touch on here is why Tolkien has always appealed to me. You write, “All of this taken together supports the Boethian and Augustinian view of evil, wherein evil is “a privation of the good,”[9] and “nothing is evil in the beginning.”[10] This belief holds that evil consists of a lack and/or a distortion of what is good.”

    Of course, Augustine was influence by Neoplatonism, namely Plotinus. So, the light and the dark and the relationships with platonic forms is rather interesting. And this theme that many 20th century English intellectuals played around like CS Lewis. However, it’s been documented that much of the inspiration for Tolkien and these English intellectuals was stirred by the provocative Pre-Ralpaelite movement in the arts in the 19th century. There is something provocative and dangerous about Pre-Ralphaelite art to the English sensibilities being too Papist. Some speculate that this was the the artistic flavor that Tolkien was trying to convey through the Elves of middle-earth.

    Like

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