Tolkien is known to have had at least two fears that found their way into The Lord of the Rings.
First, for many years, he had a recurring nightmare of a great wave crashing upon the shoreline and swallowing him and everything he loved up in the darkness of the water. The scholarly that he was, he recognized parallels to the traditional story (as told by Plato and others) of the drowning of Atlantis, going so far as to wonder whether one of his ancestors had been present at that event whose memory had been seared somewhere in his genetic history. It seems one of his sons had the exactly same dream independently as he grew up as well. The fall of the great kingdom of Men – of Númenor, the homeland of Elendil and Isildur – allows Tolkien to sub-create his uneasy dream into the reality of Middle earth.
The other fear had a more perilous background. When Tolkien was only a toddler still living in South Africa, he accidentally disturbed the resting place of a giant tarantula. Seriously bitten by the toxic spider, he was saved only when his nurse discovered him and sucked out the poison. Tolkien only retained a vague memory of that day: and he never took his revenge on the rest of the arachnid family, which he would when necessary relocate outside instead of the waste bin. Yet, in the dark recesses of his mind, there ever stood that part of his past, mixed together with one of his children’s own fear of spiders: Mirkwood, Ungoliant, Shelob herself.
As Tolkien himself makes clear in the descriptions of her lair, Shelob is not an arachnid: she is spider-like, almost a spider, a monster bearing spidery qualities. She is the mating of two haunting visions: the engulfing darkness and the sinister Araneaen foe. Sauron and Shelob represent to alternative visions of the coming night: the former to dominate, the latter to consume. Both haunt our steps, yet we pause at greater length on the rare occasion that Sauron is described as “devouring” or “eating” the world. The Foe seems united but is divided. The means are various to devastate the created world.
How do we confront that which haunts our steps? How do we address the recurring waves of our own minds, and the lingering shadows of our own arachnidian terror? Aiya Eärendil elenion ancalima! “Hail Eärendil, brightest of stars!” The glass of Galadriel: the reciprocal of the most ancient and beautiful of lights. That which warms the hearts, shines forth through the darkness, kindles new life within.
We ourselves have been given a light of ancient and proven worth to shine even in the depths of the filthy gloom of Shelob’s Lair. Through our hope and courage we alight our own phial, our own candle, our own flame. Whether we remember it or not, it ever is present near our hearts. In Baptism sparked: in faith renewed. Amidst the engulfing darkness and creeping monsters of our pilgrimage, by that light we shall ever endure.