The Call of the Spiders: A Feminist Reading of J. R. R. Tolkien’s Ungoliant and Shelob

At Oxonmoot 2020, I gave a talk entitled “The Call of the Spiders: A Feminist Reading of J. R. R. Tolkien’s Ungoliant and Shelob”. It aimed at analyzing two of the most less considered female characters in Tolkien’s works and their possible reading from a feminist perspective. This was the abstract of my talk:

“When analyzing J. R. R. Tolkien’s works from gender studies, it is fundamental to focus on how women are represented, especially those characters regarded as marginal. This work aims to present a feminist reading of Ungoliant and Shelob. These spiders do not only provide a bond between The Silmarillion and The Lord of the Rings, but additionally, they embody qualities that are relevant for understanding the conception of female identity. It is necessary to study them not as dependent counterparts of the other female characters, nor as devices that function as allies of Melkor and Sauron, but rather as independent creatures. To develop this aim, feminist theory is applied for analyzing Ungoliant and Shelob: their characterization and evolution through their respective novels. It is possible to evidence that these spiders make a call for cooperation between genders.”

Ungoliant and Shelob are known as antagonists and of monstrous spider form. Ungoliant is a character from The Silmarillion whereas, Shelob is from The Lord of the Rings. Shelob is related to Ungoliant as she is her descendant.

In my reading of those two characters, I wanted to make clear that by no means I am assuming that J.R. R. Tolkien was a feminist. I am aware of the existence of Letter N°53, but I believe his characters embody some strong feminist ideas. Contrary to popular beliefs, his works present numerous female characters, as I have identified around 34 female characters in The Silmarillion and more than 35 characters in The Lord of the Rings.

In my paper, I wanted to encourage readers to break and question the general assumption that women should be the protagonist in a narrative to embody some feminist ideas. I have applied and explored Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak’s view on marginal characters. When studying and understanding literary works, readers should consider the main marginal characters and not only the protagonists. For this reason, I wanted to demonstrate the relevance of Ungoliant and Shelob in gender studies in the literature. Additionally, I found it compulsory to consider Judith Butler’s understanding of women’s identity. In other words, it is not possible to assume that all female identities are homogeneous, we should talk about women as an individual and not as a collective. Because of this, I defend that Ungoliant and Shelob should be revised as isolated beings about the other female characters, avoiding comparison among them in every single form.

Additionally, it was relevant to identify what characteristics make Ungoliant and Shelob female characters in contrast to their male counterparts, such as Melkor and Sauron. It seemed clear to me that the characters had not the same interests and aim in the narrative, nor the same functions.

This is only a general glimpse of my paper. To make any enquiries regarding “The Call of the Spiders: A Feminist Reading of J. R. R. Tolkien’s Ungoliant and Shelob” do not hesitate to contact me.

UPDATE: I would like to thank everyone who has been interested in my paper and has contacted me. I have uploaded it here in full. All I ask is please cite it if you mention it in your work.

One Comment Add yours

  1. cottondawnco says:

    Archaeology, fantasy and feminist theory with Judith Butler? I’m crying I’m so happy to have found your blog

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