“The Darkness was More than Loss of Light”: the Case of Ungoliant

Tolkien’s metaphysics of evil, part 50

Even more poignant an example of evil’s nihilistic bent than Melkor, and perhaps the closest Tolkien could be said to come to a Manichaean affirmation of evil as an ontologically independent force, is the horrifying specter of the spider-demon Ungoliant, the former servant of Melkor and ancestor to Shelob of The Lord of the Rings. (For an excellent analysis of Shelob, incidentally, see Alison Milbank, Chesterton and Tolkien as Theologians, 71-80.)

Because the predominant imagery throughout the episode of Ungoliant is that of light and darkness, we should perhaps begin our analysis with the Ainulindalë’s account of how, after the Ainur’s Vision had been taken away, “in that moment they perceived a new thing, Darkness, which they had not known before, except in thought” (Silmarillion 19-20). Here at least,  we observe, Tolkien unequivocally identifies darkness’s status as a mere privation of light and hence its dependence upon the prior existence of light for its very potency. In this manner Tolkien aptly illustrates St. Thomas’s point in the Summa regarding the dependence of evil upon the good, not only for its “existence,” but also for its possibility of being known and experienced: as “darkness is known through light,” so evil “must be known from the notion of good” (unum oppositorum cognoscitur per alterum, sicut per lucem tenebra. Unde et quid sit malum, oportet ex ratione boni accipere, ST 1.48.1).

Later on in The Silmarillion, however, when the character of Ungoliant is first introduced, Tolkien almost seems to contradict this relationship of dependence. Her existence is described as one of “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). When solicited by Melkor to aid him in his assault on Valinor, home of the Valar, she veils the two of them in “a cloak of darkness” which was nothing less than “an Unlight, in which things seemed to be no more, and which eyes could not pierce, for it was void” (74). More perplexing still is Tolkien’s account of the aftermath of Melkor and Ungoliant’s attack on the Two Trees of Valinor, at that time the two primary sources of light in the world: “The Light failed; but the Darkness that followed was more than loss of light. In that hour was made a Darkness that seemed not lack but a thing with being of its own: for it was indeed made by malice out of Light, and it had power to pierce the eye, and to enter heart and mind, and strangle the very will” (76).

In portraying the darkness and evil of Ungoliant as “more” than a mere “loss” or negation of light, but as a “thing with being of its own,” Tolkien would appear to challenge deliberately the Augustinian doctrine of evil as mere non-being in favor of the more dualistic and Manichaean account of evil. Indeed, the whole scene, especially with its emphasis on the imagery of light and darkness, poignantly captures the basic metaphysical drama defined by the Manichees, who believed that evil “came from an invasion of the good—the ‘Kingdom of Light’—by a hostile force of evil, equal in power, eternal, totally separate—the ‘Kingdom of Darkness’” (Peter Brown, Augustine of Hippo, 47). As Tolkien, moreover, bracingly puts it in his “Mythopoeia” poem written to C.S. Lewis, “of Evil this / alone is deadly certain: Evil is” (Tree and Leaf 99).

(To be continued…….)


4 thoughts on ““The Darkness was More than Loss of Light”: the Case of Ungoliant

  1. I’ve always thought 1) that there is some rhetoric in the account of the darkness after the destruction of the trees, but that 2) Darkness is not evil, but is good. but is, like snow, something that evil uncovers. So that in “creating” darkness, Melkor and Ungoliant only show forth the glory of Illuvatar, who dwells in thick darkness (I Kings 8:12).

    • Matt,
      Thanks for the comment. If I understand your first point, I think I’m in agreement, and I’ll have more to say on this in a follow-up post. My reply to your second point got me on a roll, so I’ll have a post on it shortly as well.

  2. There is of course also the description elsewhere of Ungoliant’s Unlight being void. I think there are some similar descriptions of the darkness in Shelob’s lair (or perhaps more generally of Shelob’s lair) that might help in understanding how the darkness can seem to have a being of its own. For instance, ‘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.‘ Here we are not, I think, supposed to believe that this comes from the darkness itself — we are rather supposed to be mystified and only later recognize it as the effects of some poisoning of the air by Shelob.

    There is also something to the description of the Balrogs — both in the specific description of the Balrog in Moria and its seeming control of the shadow, and in the general description of Balrogs as creatures of fire and shadow. This also seems to suggest a level of tangible being to shadow that would seem at odds with shadow being merely the privation of light: how can a being (even a spirit) be of something that has no being?

  3. Pingback: ‘Ungoliant’ Post: Follow-up | A Tolkienist's Perspective

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