Summary — Chapter 9: Shelob’s Lair

Gollum leads Sam and Frodo to a dark stone wall and to a cave within it, which they enter. The smell is overwhelmingly bad. Gollum reports that the cave is the entrance to a tunnel, but he does not say its name, Shelob’s Lair. Despite the possibility that the cave is filled with Orcs, Sam and Frodo know that they must enter.

The tunnel is totally dark, and the hobbits proceed by feeling the walls. Strangely, Gollum disappears, leaving the hobbits to find their way themselves. Suddenly, Frodo is aware of an intense feeling of hostility and danger emanating from the darkness. They hear a bubbling hiss, but can see nothing. Sam shouts to Frodo to raise the phial of Galadriel, a small container blessed by Galadriel that Frodo wears around his neck. The phial shines a strong light that illuminates hundreds of tiny eyes, all of them staring at the hobbits. The eyes belong to Shelob, a giant spider-monster ever hungry for creatures to devour, used by the evil Sauron to guard his passages.

Frodo is terrified, but he walks boldly toward the eyes, which retreat as he advances. The hobbits head for the end of the tunnel, but are held up by cobwebs stretched across the passageway. The cobwebs are too strong to be cut by a knife, and the hobbits fear they are trapped until Frodo remembers Sting, his Elf-made knife. They cut their way through, and the hobbits are within view of the exit from the tunnel. Frodo shouts that they should run and pulls ahead. Sam lifts the phial to see, notices that there are orcs ahead, though, and hides the phial. Suddenly Shelob attacks, moving swiftly between Sam and Frodo. Sam shouts a warning to his master, but he is silenced by the clammy hand of Gollum, who has betrayed the hobbits by leading them to Shelob. Sam removes himself from Gollum’s grasp and threatens to stab him, but Gollum moves quickly away.

Summary — Chapter 10: The Choices of Master Samwise

In the midst of the struggle with the spider-monster Shelob, Sam discovers Frodo lying face up, paralyzed by the spider’s poison. The sight of his master in such an awful state fills Sam with courage and rage, and he charges Shelob. He manages to stab her in one eye, which goes dark. Heaving her belly up over Sam, Shelob prepares to crush the hobbit, but instead impales herself on his sword. Shelob shudders in pain and withdraws. Sam rushes to Frodo, and then charges Shelob again. The defeated spider flees. Sam calls out to Frodo, whom he at first believes to be asleep.

When Sam suddenly realizes that Frodo may be dead, he is stricken by the thought that he himself must now carry out the mission of destroying the Ring. He is upset by the idea of taking the Ring from Frodo’s body and carrying it himself, remembering that it was originally entrusted only to Frodo. But Sam decides that, as Frodo’s companion, he may legitimately inherit the mission. Sam takes the Ring. He attempts to flee, but hears Orc voices surrounding him. Without reflecting on his actions, Sam puts on the Ring, and feels as though the world has changed. As a result of wearing the Ring, Sam can understand the Orc language perfectly. The Orcs take up Frodo’s paralyzed body and carry it away.

Sam follows behind, listening to the guards’ conversation. One Orc, named Shagrat, is telling the other, Gorbag, that Shelob has been wounded. Gorbag is impressed that any creature was able to hurt Shelob and cut through the cords of her cobwebs. He imagines that the creature must be very powerful indeed. Shagrat announces that the orders given from above are to retrieve Frodo safe and sound, with a careful examination of all his possessions. Gorbag wonders whether Frodo is even alive at all, but Shagrat affirms that Shelob only eats living flesh, so that Frodo must still be living, although stunned. Sam is amazed to hear that Frodo is alive. The Orc guards carrying Frodo slam the doors behind them. Sam still has the Ring, but is separated from his friend.

Analysis — Chapters 9–10

Frodo and Sam’s encounter with the revolting monster Shelob is the culminating danger of their journey. The spider represents a danger different from their previous trials in several ways. For one thing, the hobbits’ encounter with Shelob marks the first time that any character in the novel has tricked them into danger. Before this point, the dangers they face have always been obvious and undisguised: the Nazgûl flying overhead to spy on them, the Uruk-hai kidnapping them, and the guards of Gondor mistaking them for fugitive murderers. Those tests of endurance have been difficult, but overt. With Gollum’s treachery comes a new case of a trial, one that stems from deception and wrongful trust. Gollum does not attack the hobbits or threaten them, as their previous enemies have done, but tricks them by winning their confidence over an extended period. As an enemy, the pathetic Gollum now appears more dangerous than all the others, as he has played upon the natural goodness of the hobbits and exploited it to his own advantage. In a sense, Frodo recalls the tradition of the tragic heroes of ancient Greek drama, as he suffers because of his tragic flaw of excessive trust.

As Frodo’s nemesis, Shelob is different from previous villains in the novel in a variety of other ways. Unlike Saruman or Wormtongue, the giant spider-monster is incapable of speech, and even perhaps of rational thought. She is a creature of instinct, following only her hungry stomach. She does not care for world domination like Sauron; in fact, we learn that she is much older than Sauron, and dwelt in her cave long before the Dark Lord ever came to rule over Mordor. Shelob is a surprising figure of evil as she is an animal, and it is somewhat hard for us to imagine animals being so thoroughly and inherently evil. Moreover, the great danger Shelob represents is the first and only appearance of an evil female force in The Lord of the Rings. The narrator hammers home the point that Shelob is female, repeatedly calling the spider “She.” Furthermore, the narrator explicitly tells us how Shelob devours her babies, making her a perverse mother figure. Readers of Tolkien often remark on how few women appear in his works, so it is noteworthy that Frodo’s closest and most fearsome brush with death comes at the hand of a female.

As the title of Chapter 10 indicates, the novel ends with a surprising focus not on Frodo, who has been the protagonist and Ring-bearer for all of the novel thus far, but rather on Sam. It is Sam who cuts through Shelob’s web with his knife Sting, and it is Sam who assumes possession of the Ring—and takes on all the responsibility that goes along with it. The servant steps into the limelight and accepts the burden, no longer a follower but a hero. Indeed, the decisions Sam makes in this chapter arguably demonstrate more quick thinking and courage than anything we have seen from Frodo. For all his sense of inferiority and servility, Sam may be made of stronger stuff than the hobbit he considers his master. The larger moral lesson of this revelation is clear: anyone may have the inner potential for heroism, no matter how insignificant his or her social rank may seem. In a moment of hardship and challenge, even the lowliest person may emerge as the figurative Ring-bearer and the savior of the world.

The last pages of The Two Towers leave us in great suspense, making us rush to start reading the third volume in Tolkien’s novel. In part, the suspense is simply plot-related, as we want to find out whether Sam is capable of handling the Ring-bearer role and whether he has what it takes to fulfill the hobbits’ mission. The personal and emotional aspect of the novel’s conclusion, however, is equally suspenseful. Sam and Frodo have been such a close team throughout Book IV that it is hard to imagine what might happen now that they are separated. When the Orc guards slam the gates in Sam’s face, denying him access to Frodo, we wonder whether Sam’s extraordinary devotion to Frodo will be an impediment in the grand role he has assumed for himself. Now that Sam has the Ring, he could go his own way. Yet his attachment to Frodo may keep him from doing so. The choice between commitment to one’s friends and the need to follow one’s own destiny will no doubt be a difficult one for Sam.