Human beings seem, by nature, to find something loathsome about spiders. Jonathan Edwards compared sinners in the hands of an angry God to spiders. Others have found spiders even more creepy than repulsive, and to many they’re the stuff of nightmares and phobias.
Speculative fiction has responded to this old human fear with giant spiders. Tom Pawlik, when he made them the ravening menace of Beckon, was walking in a tradition with deep roots. Spiders were employed by both Lord Dunsany, a forefather of fantasy, and H. G. Wells, a father of science fiction. J. R. R. Tolkien, the father of modern fantasy, made signature use of them. Each of his major works bears the mark.
In The Hobbit, the victims are Bilbo and, even more, the dwarves: “Suddenly he saw, too, that there were spiders huge and horrible sitting in the branches above him, and ring or no ring he trembled with fear lest they should discover him. Standing behind a tree he watched a group of them for some time, and then in the silence and stillness of the wood he realised that these loathsome creatures were speaking one to another. Their voices were a sort of thin creaking and hissing, but he could make out many of the words that they said. They were talking about the dwarves!”
The meat of the conversation was about how to prepare the dwarves for supper – much like the Trolls’ discussion, only far more intelligent. Thus Tolkien made his spiders sentient, capable of talking, of differing opinions – and of taking offense.
As Bilbo sang after hurling a few stones: “Old Tomnoddy, all big body, Old Tomnoddy can’t spy me! Attercop! Attercop! Down you drop! You’ll never catch me up your tree!”
And the spiders “were frightfully angry. Quite apart from the stones no spider has ever liked being called Attercop, and Tomnoddy of course is insulting to anybody.”
In Lord of the Rings, the giant spiders return, and this element of fun is gone. “Even as Frodo spoke he felt a great malice bent upon him, and a deadly regard considering him. Not far down the tunnel, between them and the opening where they had reeled and stumbled, he was aware of eyes growing visible, two great clusters of many-windowed eyes – the coming menace was unmasked at last. The radiance of the star-glass was broken and thrown back from their thousand facets, but behind the glitter a pale deadly fire began steadily to glow within, a flame kindled in some deep pit of evil thought. Monstrous and abominable eyes they were, bestial and yet filled with purpose and with hideous delight, gloating over their prey trapped beyond all hope of escape.”
And later: “There agelong she had dwelt, an evil thing in spider-form … 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.”
Here Tolkien goes beyond giving his spiders minds. Shelob is “an evil thing in spider-form” – not really an animal at all. Yet the bestial instinct rules her. She doesn’t know or care for “anything devised by mind or hand”; her only purpose is to devour.
Finally, in The Silmarillion we meet, literally, the mother of them all – Ungoliant. “In a ravine she lived, and took shape as a spider of monstrous form, weaving her black webs in a cleft of the mountains. There she sucked up all light she could find, and spun it forth again in dark nets of strangling gloom, until no light more could come to her abode; and she was famished.”
Ungoliant sucked the sap from the Trees of Valinor, which had been the sun and moon of that paradise; she drank the Wells of Varda dry and ate the jewels Morgoth had stolen from Formenos. And she would have gotten Morgoth himself, if the Balrogs hadn’t come when he cried out. So, in The Silmarillion, Tolkien goes farthest of all. Even Morgoth was overpowered by a spider.
J. R. R. Tolkien is far from the only one to use giant spiders as enemies, but you’d be hard-pressed to find anyone who made them such enemies as he did.