“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…….)

Grendel and the “un-theologizing” of Ungoliant

I commented a couple of months ago on the “theologization” of Ungoliant that seems to take place between her first appearance in The Book of Lost Tales as “Wirilóme” the “Gloomweaver” and the final formation of her character in the published Silmarillion. Having just re-read Tolkien’s essay on Beowulf for a class, however, I want to retract or at least revise my earlier conclusion.

To briefly review: In her early form, Ungoliant’s origins are much more mysterious, mythical, and pagan, it being allowed that “[m]ayhap she was bred of mists and darkness on the confines of the Shadowy Seas, in that utter dark that came between the overthrow of the Lamps and the kindling of the Trees… but more like she has always been” (Lost Tales 152). In The Silmarillion, by contrast, while the Elves are said to have not know from “whence she came,” nevertheless some of them “have said that in ages long before she descended from the darkness that lies about Arda, when Melkor first looked down in envy upon the Kingdom of Manwë, and that in the beginning she was one of those that he corrupted to his service.” From this difference in presentation between the early and late Ungoliant, I concluded in my earlier post that “from her origin as a putatively timeless and authentically evil force, to her re-conception as a horribly fallen yet primevally created and therefore presumably good being, we witness the character of Ungoliant in Tolkien’s legendarium undergoing a development from Hesiodic mythos to Augustinian theo-logos.”

In a footnote to his essay “Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics,” however, Tolkien makes a statement that may have some bearing on this issue. Commenting on the complex question of the Christianity of the poem, Tolkien writes:

It must be observed that there is a difference between the comments of the author and the things said in reported speech by his characters. The two chief of these, Hrothgar and Beowulf, are again differentiated. Thus, the only definitely Scriptural references, to Abel ([lines] 108) and to Cain (108, 1261), occur where the poet is speaking as commentator. The theory of Grendel’s origin is not known to the actors: Hrothgar denies all knowledge of the ancestry of Grendel (1355).

With this discussion of Grendel in mind, it seems that, if we are to be precise, the question of Ungoliant may be less an issue of Tolkien’s changing portrayal of Ungoliant and her origins (is or isn’t she a primordial force co-equal with the good, à la Hesiod and other pagan cosmogonies?), as it is an (admittedly much more recognizably Tolkienian) preoccupation with what the Elves may or may not have understood to be Ungoliant’s origins. Put differently, instead of saying that Tolkien brought Ungoliant as a character into increasing conformity with his own Augustinian creation-metaphysics as a Catholic author, we should perhaps rather understand that this ambiguity surrounding Ungoliant’s nature and origin has always been and continues to be there for the majority of the inhabitants of Tolkien’s fictional world, and that what has changed between versions of the story, therefore, is that Tolkien has merely become more explicit in allowing some of his characters (in this case, the wise among the Elves) a greater share or participation in his Augustinian insight into Ungoliant’s true provenance. So the mythical, pagan ambiguity surrounding Ungoliant’s origins in the early version may really need to remain as part of her identity or character, even if in the later version the “third-person omniscience” of the narrator is, first, made more explicit than it had been and, second, more of the characters themselves are allowed the benefit of sharing in this “omniscience.”

The theologization of Ungoliant

In the published Silmarillion the spider-demon Ungoliant, ancestor to The Lord of the Rings‘ Shelob, is represented as a Maiar (i.e., a subordinate angelic deity) who had once been in the service of Melkor:

The Eldar knew not whence she came; but some have said that in ages long before she descended from the darkness that lies about Arda, when Melkor first looked down in envy upon the Kingdom of Manwë, and that in the beginning she was one of those that he corrupted to his service. But she had disowned her Master, desiring to be mistress of her own lust, taking all things to herself to feed her emptiness…

While the Elves generally are said not to know from “whence she came,” some of them (presumably the “wise”) believe her to be an originally created even if an erstwhile grossly corrupted being. This “mature” understanding of Ungoliant, however, seems to represent something of a pious theologization of Tolkien’s original conception of this malevolent force. In her first appearance, found in The Book of Lost Tales, Ungoliant is “Wirilóme,” or “Gloomweaver,” a creature (as John Garth puts it) whose “provenance is a mystery even to the Valar,” and of whom Tolkien writes:

Mayhap she was bred of mists and darkness on the confines of the Shadowy Seas, in that utter dark that came between the overthrow of the Lamps and the kindling of the Trees… but more like she has always been. (Lost Tales 152, cited in Garth 258)

From her origin as a putatively timeless and authentically evil force, to her re-conception as a horribly fallen yet primevally created and therefore presumably good being, we witness the character of Ungoliant in Tolkien’s legendarium undergoing a development from Hesiodic mythos to Augustinian theo-logos.