Ungoliant: A Fragment of Melkor’s Discord?

Spider

*Warning! It gets as confusing as reading The Silmarillion in Khuzdul for the very first time … you have been warned!*

A question often arises within the first few chapters of reading The Silmarillion.

After the initial pages, readers get acquainted with Ilúvatar and the Ainur: the divisions between Valar and Maiar, and their entry into the physical world.

Then this being comes along by the name of Ungoliant – assuming the shape of a giant spider who aides the Vala Melkor, and drains the light from the Two Trees of Valinor.

She (for so we have to call her) is where Shelob and – in turn – the spiders of Mirkwood, descend from.

It also remains a mystery whether Ungoliant was one the Ainur; and yet, we know that she possessed incredible strength (having been able to capture Melkor in her webs).

Some have said that in ages long before she descended from the darkness that lies about Arda [...] in the beginning she was one of those that he corrupted to his service. But she had disowned her Master

- The Silmarillion, ‘Of the Darkening of Valinor'; Chapter 8)

Reading this quote, it seems pretty clear that Ungoliant belonged to the race of the Maiar and eventually succumbed to the domination of Melkor. Yet, there are a few factors thatMelkor-and-Ungoliant do not entirely support this idea. First of all, Tolkien – unlike Sauron and the Balrogs – never tells us directly that Ungoliant was actually a Maia.

Furthermore, the above quote cleverly begins with the phrase “some have said”, which may imply that whatever follows, may not be necessarily true.

Ultimately, it’s interesting that, within the next chapter, Melkor (the greatest of the Vala) finds himself prisoner of a being lesser than himself. (Though yes, when she trapped Melkor in her webs, he had drained much of his power; while she acquired more due to the Light of the Trees).

So Ungoliant may well have been something else entirely …

But since the first chapter tells us that Ilúvatar created the Ainur to inhabit the world, where did Ungoliant come from? Was she not also a creation of Ilúvatar?

Which brings me to the title of this post …

Before the Music of the Ainur and the creation of Arda took place, Ilúvatar and the Ainur resided in the Void; but soon, “the echo of the music went out into the Void, and it was not void” (The Silmarillion, ‘Ainulindalë’).

We are also told that Melkor begins to “interweave matters of his own imagining” and by the third attempt in fashioning the Music, Ilúvatar says to the Ainur:

This is your minstrelsy; and each of you shall find contained herein, amid the design that I set before you, all those things which it may seem that he himself devised or added. 

-The Silmarillion, ‘Ainulindalë’

Black WidowPerhaps Melkor’s own contribution to the Music, was caught up in the final “grand vision” of the world and these fragments became enmeshed with the whole creation. Among such fragments could have resided the essence for Ungoliant’s formation and eventual descent into Arda.

However, it must be clearly stated that by no means does this imply that Melkor created a Being of his own; for we are told many times that he could only corrupt, and that the gift of life resided only in the Flame Imperishable, and hence in Ilúvatar.

But to a certain extent, Melkor DID in fact corrupt the Music of the Ainur …

Ultimately, everything within the world (and outside of it) comes from Ilúvatar; and so did Ungoliant: either directly or (more conceivably) through the elements in Morgoth’s discord.

For whatever is contained within Arda (be it good or bad), was either designed so or corrupted. Ungoliant seems to have been neither and since “she descended from the darkness that lies about Arda” (The Silmarillion, ‘Of the Darkening of Valinor'; Chapter 8), one of the only explanations would have to be as a result of the Music of the Ainur.

***

Tolkien makes clear the division of the Ainur: the Valar and the Maiar.

We must assume therefore, that although not one of the accounted Valar, Ungoliant was either one of the Maiar or another mysterious entity which descended into Arda (examples of these do exist: such as the equally-ambiguous, Tom Bombadil).

Shelob

We have seen how the purpose of the Music of the Ainur was to fill the void, and Ungoliant – being a spirit of void itself – seems to have been the complete opposite result of such a vision.

Please bear with me … A reversal on the concept of the Music, in that, she herself was a product of the void which was made non-existent. An inversion of the “filling up of the void” – hence void itself.

Hang in there!

You can see this close reference in one of the passages:

A cloak of darkness she wove about them when Melkor and Ungoliant set forth; an Unlight, in which things seemed to be no more, and which eyes could not pierce, for it was void.

The Silmarillion, ‘Of the Darkening of Valinor'; Chapter 8

She literally seems to be the equivalent of our own dark matter (physical substance that emits no light, and cannot be directly observed); or the concept of negative space within Art.

Sorry, I lost you.

Let me try one more time:

Black HoleUngoliant could have been a representation of “negative Darkness” – not the physical darkness that is the result of lack of light, but almost a black hole; an entity that was a representation of the corruption and discord that weaved itself within the Music of the Ainur and that when Ilúvatar turned that vision into a physical existence, that discord was created as an inversion of creation itself.

(Oh God I’ve confused everyone – include myself! :O But I’m sure Steven over at The Leather Library would be proud of my attempt in a philosophical rationale! :D )

The idea that Ungoliant was – in a sense – a “corruption” or a refuse from the Music of the Ainur, might begin to explain why She appeared to outwit and physically restrain one so powerful as Melkor.

Yet, it must also be noted that she feared the other Valar, and at first was not convinced by Morgoth’s plan to come close to Valinor. If you consider the “dark matter” theory, it might explain her trepidation at being in close proximity to the main source of light in Arda; and why Melkor (being himself fallen into darkness), was easy “prey”.

Naturally, as with many of these Tolkien mysteries I have tried to write about, everything is speculation; and it is up to the individual reader to interpret them the way they feel fits within Tolkien’s writing.

(Now please, tell me someone at least got what I was trying to say back there? :P )

(Copyright to the illustrations and images belong to the respective artists/studios)

28 thoughts on “Ungoliant: A Fragment of Melkor’s Discord?

  1. James,

    I have this argument with my friends all the time. they think that she or ‘it’ was a maiar that was corrupted by Melkor, but I agree with you latter argument that Ungoliant existed prior to melkor seduction of the maia. You called her dark matter, or ‘negative darkness’ like a black hole. I like the analog of the black hole better than dark matter. Like a black hole, Ungoliant has an insatiable hunger that can never be quenched, it continues to consume everything around it to no avail.

    However I propose a second idea which is very similar to yours and I proposed it to my friends and they received it well. I think you remember how I compared Tolkien’s Music of the Ainur to string theory; the music was manifesting itself into physical matter, just like the resonating of cosmic strings manifest themselves into matter. Melkor’s discord could be said to be quantum fluctuations and anomalies which disturb the otherwise beautiful resonating of cosmic strings. The Music of the Ainur could be said to be perfectly symmetrical and thus Melkor’s discord is an asymmetry (quantum anomaly). This anomaly, or turbulence in the space-time fabric, could have manifested itself as Ungoliant. One such anomaly is a black hole, the total collapse of space time into a singularity. I think, as you said, Ungoliant is Tolkien’s cosmic anomaly, one that answer to no one, not even Melkor!

    Great post!

  2. I wasn’t lost at all by this! (Though I am interested in the kind of science that deals with dark matter; maybe that accounted for some of my non-confusion)

    My two cents: I wouldn’t say that Ungoliant was a Valar, but perhaps she was a Maiar. I agree that she seems to be a piece of the void, especially given the piece “A cloak of darkness she wove about them when Melkor and Ungoliant set forth; an Unlight, in which things seemed to be no more, and which eyes could not pierce, for it was void.” Also, the way she consumed the light of the Trees reminded me of an insatiable black hole. This would, to me, explain why she could overpower Melkor even though she wasn’t a higher being than him.

    Curse that spider-void forever! I think the destruction of the Two Trees was the worst tragedy to occur in the realm of Middle-earth.

  3. Very fascinating post (as always :-) ). The words Tolkien uses to describe Ungoliant and the attributes he gives her lend the most support to your theory, but I think there are better explanations for “her trepidation at being in close proximity to the main source of light in Arda; and why Melkor (being himself fallen into darkness), was easy “prey”.” First, Melkor was not stupid or witless, he was incredibly intelligent, crafty, and evil. He would not falsely promise to give her “whatsoever thy lust may demand” without knowing that he could defeat or at least escape her. Only after consuming the “blood” [sap] of the Two Trees she “swelled to a shape so vast and hideous that Melkor was afraid.” Later, because of the threat she now posed, Melkor was forced to give her jewels from Formenos. So if she was some sort of black hole then I think she must have been ‘below’ him in some way until she drank from the Trees (and if she was a corrupted Maia then that also makes a lot of sense). Second, even Melkor fled from the Valar numerous times, so for a creature that was ‘lower’ than her to be afraid seems quite understandable.

    Just a quick thought. This post was quite thought-provoking (in a wonderfully good way)! Thanks for the mental exercise and a quick excursion to Middle-earth! :-)

  4. Very interesting idea. I never really gave a lot of thought to Ungoliant–I just assumed that she was a corrupted Maia.

    The only possible argument against Ungoliant being a direct result of Melkor’s discord is the power the Ainur seem to have over the world. It always seemed to me that the Valar had essentially complete control over all of Arda, which was the direct result of the Music. If Ungoliant were the same, wouldn’t Melkor have been able to control her fairly easily? He didn’t seem to have much trouble controlling other elements.

    I do think you’re on to something, though. It makes a lot of sense to compare Ungoliant to the void.

  5. Great post. I have been pondering whether Ungoliant was Tom Bombadils opposite so I like where your post is going. Both are intriguing figures, even Tom and his relationship with the Valar and why he did not seem to get involved with the ring. They may both be deeply wound up with the music and the nature of Middle Earth itself.

    • Replying/adding to my own post – hehe. Not that she was originally Tom’s opposite – this is part of the sadness of her corruption by Melkor.

  6. “taking all things to herself to feed her emptiness” and of hiding in a cleft in the mountain where she “sucked up all light that 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” (Silmarillion 73)
    This certainly sounds like a black hole, which sucks in light itself, to me. There is a great blog post on this topic here: http://jonathansmcintosh.wordpress.com/2012/06/26/the-darkness-was-more-than-loss-of-light-the-case-of-ungoliant/

  7. You worry too much about losing people. The fact is that nobody reads your blog who can’t keep up anyway; you are far too geeky! ;) (Remember, my blog is Confessions of a Geek Queen, so obviously this is a compliment.) Dark matter, black holes, the negatives in creation; makes sense to me! In the Kaballah (also spelled Qabala; http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hermetic_Qabalah) there are ten worlds, or Sephira (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sephirot,) that form the structure of creation. But there are also Qliphoth, which are “shells” or “anti-worlds” (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Qliphoth). Sometimes these are perceived as “evil,” and embracing them can be. But really, they are dark matter; they are the opposite of the life-principle, and thus they destroy and devour. There is much in Tolkien’s writing to suggest that especially considering his field of study that he was not unfamiliar with mysticism and occultism, and he has a way of taking universal themes and encoding those symbols in his writing as ways of making us confront our ethics and our philosophy. Much like if Joseph Campbell were a novelist. It’s probably the primary reason that his writing continues to have universal, timeless appeal.

    • While I think it’s quite possible that Tolkien would have come across mysticism and occultism, I think it’s highly unlikely that he would have known enough about them to weave any of those themes into his stories. Tolkien was extremely conservative (if that’s even the right word) and would have considered anything even approaching occultism as dangerous. I think he would have steered clear of it.

      • I agree Emily. And yes, I believe Humphrey Carpenter even uses the word “conservative” to describe Tolkien (ethically, morally, and possibly even politically), but I could be wrong about that.

        While Tolkien was an expert on Anglo-Saxon and Germanic myths and languages I don’t think he knew enough (or even much at all) about this occult Sable Aradia mentions (see my direct reply to her comment).

      • Tolkien was indeed a good Catholic, but I would describe him as “moderate” for his time, not “conservative” (though I see why people say so.) Tolkien was also a well-educated man in the early twentieth century; which means he likely encountered both Freemasonry and Theosophy, which were popular among educated people at that time, and he was a mythologist, which means that he can’t have helped but at least learn something about what they believed, whether or not he believed it (and most of the Theosophists were Christians of one stripe or another). Further, Tolkien was vehemently opposed to Nazism, on the grounds that he “had many Jewish friends,” and Kaballah is a Jewish mystical occult system. Occultism (or call it mysticism if “occult” is a no-no watchword for you) and Catholicism are by no means mutually exclusive, and an interest in one does preclude an interest in the other. Indeed, some of my most frequent Tarot clients are little old Catholic ladies. Now I’m not an expert on Tolkien by any means, and I am aware that you write a blog on him and his work (which is excellent, I might add!), but I would probably be as close to a mythology expert as anyone without a degree can be, and I see similarities. I am sure that Tolkien did not make a study of the Kaballah; certainly I can see nothing in his history or background that would support that, and it is not what I am asserting. I am saying that we pick up things with the sponge of our subconscious, and one thing that I believe that Tolkien was brilliant at – and the reason why his work continues to be relevant to us and have almost universal appeal once it is grasped – is that he recognized certain universal themes in a variety of cultural mythologies. He was demonstrably not ignorant of the occult on an intellectual level, as proven by his wizards; they had the power of naming, they used magical languages and runes, and most telling, they called upon the names of the Divine Beings to invoke the most powerful of magic, as did the elves. This is commonplace in modern fantasy literature, but only because Tolkien did it first, and that’s pure Kaballah – calling on the Names of God for specific magical effects. His wizards acted a lot like many of the Druid orders of the early twentieth century, who filled in what they didn’t know of the ways of the Celts with the Western magical traditions, including Kaballah. I never thought about it before, but perhaps that is why the work of a very devout Christian continues to appeal to a Pagan like me. ;) Or maybe it is just coincidence.

      • In response to Sable Aradia’s second comment: “Tolkien was indeed a good Catholic..”

        Like you said, Tolkien probably did have some exposure to occults (I’d say most people do), but that does not mean he took their ideas and incorporated them into his mythology (as you also address). I believe his work was influenced a lot by older peoples and mythologies, primarily Anglo-Saxon, Norse, and Germanic. But even though that may be true, it does not mean he incorporated every facet of their belief or worldview. What he used and how he used it is the real question. But we shouldn’t be too eager to piecemeal his works and categorize it either (these characters are clearly from this place and these are from here etc.), Tolkien made a world uniquely his own and we should try to look at in the way he did.

        While Tolkien had Jewish friends there are many many other reasons why he hated the Nazi party and the ideas promoted by them. Nowhere in all of his writings does he mention that his friends practiced or participated in cults.

        You use the term Christian too loosely. While people involved with Theosophy may have professed to be Christians that does not mean they were true believers. Christians are people who “believe on the Lord Jesus Christ” and are saved (Acts 16:31). You say Judaism and Catholicism are not mutually exclusive with occults. I beg to differ! While people who practice Kaballah may say that, the Bible does not at all! Throughout the Bible the Jewish people were commanded to purge the witches, fortune tellers, charmers, and mediums. Deuteronomy 18:10-12a says “There shall not be found among you who… practices divination or tells fortunes or interprets omens, or a sorcerer or a charmer or a medium or a necromancer or one who inquires of the dead; for whoever does these things is an abomination to the LORD.” Galatians 5:19 lists sorcery in a long list of works of the flesh (evil). Revelation 21:8 says that the “the… sorcerers, idolaters, and all liars, their portion will be in the lake that burns with fire in sulfur…” when speaking of end times. The Kings of Israel were constantly commanded to wipe out the sorcerers, witches, necromancers, etc. from the land. The good kings did so. Just because people who come to cults from traditionally Judaism, Catholic, or Christian backgrounds doesn’t mean that they are right or that is what their ‘religion’ teaches. Man is capable of many sinful things.

        While the Istari do utter phrases (in elvish more often than not), many people I know, and partly myself, don’t always see it the same way. Gandalf is able to do these ‘magical’ things (e.g. make fire) because he is a Maiar, he is, as Tolkien himself compared, more like an Angel. Jesus and the Apostles said words or phrases before miracles were performed, but those marvelous deeds were not accomplished because of words, but because of the who the person performing the miracle was (or in the case of the Apostles, who gave them that power). Nowhere are we told that hobbits or men were able to make fire when they said “naur an edraith ammen!” Furthermore, just before saying those words Tolkien says said Gandalf gave “a word of command”, not the word of command. So in many cases (certainly not all, e.g. Doors of Moria), the power to perform ‘magic’ is directly correlated to who is trying to act. A simple hobbit could not do this, but an Istari (Maiar) could. This same idea is found in many other parts of Tolkien’s works, most notably the Rings of Power and the Palantiri. Gollum did not turn into a Dark Lord because he possessed the Ring, but a character like Gandalf would.

        Furthermore, Tolkien even makes more of a divide between his ‘wizards’ and ones most people think of. His Essay on the Istari found in Unfinished Tales paints a very different picture of the “Wizards” as they’re called by men. Tolkien repeatedly insists they are Istari, angelic beings sent to Middle-earth to aid the free-peoples against Sauron. They’re not men who practiced secret arts or “magic” in the traditional sense. One of Tolkien’s own footnotes to letter #131 further supports this idea: “Nowhere is the place or nature of ‘the Wizards’ made fully explicit. Their name, as related to Wise, is an Englishing of their Elvish name, and is used throughout as utterly distinct from Sorcerer of Magician. It appears finally that they were as one might say the near equivalent in the mode of these tales of Angels, guardian Angels.” Neither the wizards nor the elves called upon the names of gods to perform magic acts. Nor did they call upon names of some divine beings, in fact the Istari are divine beings in a sense so that is precisely why they have so many “magical” abilities! If you want to find a character that does practice those sorts of things there is one glaring example, The Necromancer, Sauron, The Dark Lord. The villains are the ones that practice those sorts of evil things, not Gandalf! I quoted in my other comment an excerpt from letter No. 211 where Tolkien says “I fear that they [the Blue Wizards] failed, as Saruman did, though doubtless in different ways; and I suspect they were founders or beginners of secret cults and ‘magic’ traditions that outlasted the fall of Sauron.” Throughout Tolkien’s work he makes this distinction quite clear between his Istari, Maiar, Valar, and the “magical” powers they possess, and the evil works of Morgoth, Sauron, and other characters who practice magic in the traditional occult sense. To blur the two is distorting the Professor’s works and intentions.

  8. Reblogged this on Confessions of a Geek Queen and commented:
    My comment: “You worry too much about losing people. The fact is that nobody reads your blog who can’t keep up anyway; you are far too geeky! ;) (Remember, my blog is Confessions of a Geek Queen, so obviously this is a compliment.) Dark matter, black holes, the negatives in creation; makes sense to me! In the Kaballah (also spelled Qabala; http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hermetic_Qabalah) there are ten worlds, or Sephira (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sephirot,) that form the structure of creation. But there are also Qliphoth, which are “shells” or “anti-worlds” (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Qliphoth). Sometimes these are perceived as “evil,” and embracing them can be. But really, they are dark matter; they are the opposite of the life-principle, and thus they destroy and devour. There is much in Tolkien’s writing to suggest that especially considering his field of study that he was not unfamiliar with mysticism and occultism, and he has a way of taking universal themes and encoding those symbols in his writing as ways of making us confront our ethics and our philosophy. Much like if Joseph Campbell were a novelist. It’s probably the primary reason that his writing continues to have universal, timeless appeal.”

    • Comparing Tolkien to occults (or ideas promoted by such) is heading down a very dangerous road. I think he would be completely against such. Tolkien was a Catholic, a devout one at that, and did was not inspired by, interested in, or endorsed the kind of magic Kaballah encourages (the opening scene of The Silver Chair by Tolkien’s good friend, C.S. Lewis comes to mind). An example of Tolkien’s opposition to ‘magic’ traditions can even be found in his writings regarding Middle-earth:

      “I fear that they [the Blue Wizards] failed, as Saruman did, though doubtless in different ways; and I suspect they were founders or beginners of secret cults and ‘magic’ traditions that outlasted the fall of Sauron.” -Letters No. 211

      I think Tolkien’s works endure partly because they are “built on or out of certain ‘religious’ ideas” (also from letter No. 211). He also believed, like Campbell, that myths were connected to one great story, but unlike Campbell Tolkien believed (I think rightly) that all myths ultimately came from the “true myth”, the story of Creation, Man’s Fall and Redemption by Christ as documented in the Bible, not some mystic force. Humans have written, read, and cherished myths because they “reflect a splintered fragment of the true light, the eternal truth that is with God.” (J.R.R. Tolkien: A Biography by Humphrey Carpenter). Tolkien’s views of evil, Providence, right and wrong, power, death, etc. all come down and out of an essentially Christian worldview, not ten worlds or “anti-words”. (See also Epilogue to Tolkien’s “On Fairy Stories” essay).

    • I tried to reply to your reply to me, but for some reason I couldn’t!

      It’s very interesting to try to figure out what mythologies Tolkien was and wasn’t familiar with. I am definitely not an expert in any kind of mythology (I’ll admit I’ve never even heard of Kaballah before you mentioned it!) so you’re probably much more qualified to pull out the threads than I am.

      There’s actually a lot of complexity to the perceived connection between Catholicism and occultism. It’s not ultimately worth debating because you get into the mess of what Catholics “should” do and believe (based on the teachings of the Church) and what they actually do.

      I agree with you that Tolkien certainly did do an excellent job of weaving various thoughts, myths, and ideas into his works (whether consciously or sub-consciously). I find that it’s difficult to find direct traces, probably because Tolkien was “uninfluenceable,” as some of his friends accused him. It would be really interesting to know more about what Tolkien did and didn’t read!

  9. Here’s something else I realized today that I think is pertinent. Jan Oort didn’t propose the so-called “dark matter” until 1932, but Tolkien had already conceived and written about the Void and even Ungoliant before then (in the teens and twenties). So I don’t think he could have based part of her character on that idea. But your hypothesis about her coming from a corrupted part of the Music is fascinating to think about.

  10. Reblogged this on To Be Read and commented:
    Because part of my final paper for my Tolkien class this past semester dealt with Ungoliant and fragmentation of darkness, this is a really exciting post to see. Nerds unite!

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