Ungoliant the Gloomweaver
“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” (The Silmarillion, Of the Darkening of Valinor)
When Ungoliant originally left the service of Melkor, she fled to the south, escaping away from the Valar and the hunters of Oröme. She came to live in a ravine in Avathar, where she took the shape of a spider of monstrous form, weaving black webs through the cleft of the mountain. While she was there, she became famished and lived in constant torment as all living things had fled far away from her, and her own webs shut out from her all light that could come to her abode. But because of her weakness from hunger, she did not have the strength to move to a new feeding ground.
Then Morgoth came searching for her in his terrible form of the Dark Lord:
“And when Ungoliantë saw him coming she was afraid, knowing his hatred for all who tried to escape from him. She shrank into her deepest lair, and tried to shroud herself in new shadow; but such darkness as in her famine she could weave was no defence against the eyes of Melkor, Lord of Utumno and Angband.” (Morgoth’s Ring, The Later Quenta Silmarillion II)
Initially, Ungoliant would not come forth, but then Melkor tempted her with gems:
“Slowly Ungoliantë came forth; but as she drew near Melkor withheld the lure. “Nay, nay,” he said. “I do not bring thee these Elvish sweets in love or in pity; they are to strengthen thee, when thou hast agreed to do my bidding.” “What is your bidding, Master?” she said, her eyes gloating upon the gems.” (Morgoth’s Ring, The Later Quenta Silmarillion II)
But Ungoliant understood Melkor’s purpose, she became torn between lust and fear, for she did not want to brave the perils of Aman and the powers of the Valar. At first, she refused to help Melkor, but then Melkor promised her anything her lust desired if she still hungered at the end of their task, and eventually she agreed to help him.
The Darkening of Valinor
Ungoliant then wove a cloak of darkness around her and Melkor:
“an Unlight, in which things seemed to be no more, and which eyes could not pierce, for it was void.” (The Silmarillion, Of the Darkening of Valinor)
She started weaving her webs through the mountains, climbing further and further up until she reached the summit of Hyarmentir, the highest mountain in that region of the world. Then she made a ladder of woven ropes and cast it down to Melkor, who climbed up it to reach the summit. From there, the two of them looked down upon the realms of Valinor. Melkor quickly started down the long western slopes, and Ungoliant was at his side and her darkness covered them.
They came into Valinor on a day of festival, when Valmar was left still and quiet. At the hour of the mingling of the lights of the Trees, Melkor and Ungoliant came before Ezellohar, and the Unlight of Ungoliant rose up even to the roots of the Trees, and Melkor smote each Tree to its core with his black spear, and their sap poured forth as if it were their blood, and it was spilled on the ground. Ungoliant sucked up the spilled sap, and then she went from Tree to Tree setting her black beak to their wounds until they were drained. The poison of Death that was in her went into their tissues and withered them, and they died.
But Ungoliant still thirsted, and so she went to the Wells of Varda and drank them dry. She belched forth black vapours as she drank, and she swelled to such a vast and monstrous shape that even Melkor started to fear her.
Ungoliant in Middle-earth
After the Darkening of Valinor, Melkor fled into Middle-earth. He was pursued by Ungoliant, who hungered still. They crossed the Helcaraxë and travelled down towards Angband, where Ungoliant realised that Melkor wished to escape from her into his fortress. She stopped him before he could reach Angband, demanding that he fulfil his promise to her. She still hungered, and she told him to give her all the treasure he had taken from Formenos. He did so, and she devoured them, become huger and darker as she did so. But when she asked him for the Silmarils, he refused.
Ungoliant then rose against him, and her darkness covered him. As she enmeshed him in a web of strangling threads, Melkor sent forth a terrible cry, and his Balrogs who were lurking under Angband came forth to Lammoth. They smote asunder the webs of Ungoliant with their whips, and she turned to flee, belching black vapours to cover her.
She went down into Beleriand, and eventually she came into the realm of Thingol. There she was stayed by the power of Melian, and she did not enter into Neldoreth, instead staying a long time in a valley known thereafter as Nan Dungortheb, the Valley of Dreadful Death, below the Ered Gorgoroth. None dared pass through the valley, for there life and light was strangled.
“There spiders of the fell race of Ungoliant abode, spinning their unseen webs in which all living things were snared; and monsters wandered there that were born in the long dark before the Sun, hunting silently with many eyes. No food for Elves or Men was there in that haunted land, but death only.” (The Silmarillion, Of Beren and Lúthien)
There she mated with other foul creatures of spider form that had dwelt there since the days of the creation of Angband, and after she had mated with them, she devoured them. LotR suggests that the last of the children of Ungoliant was Shelob (TTT, Shelob’s Lair).
Eventually Ungoliant left Nan Dungortheb, though when that occurred is not known, and she went into the forgotten south of the world.
“Of the fate of Ungoliant no tale tells. Yet some have said that she ended long ago, when in her uttermost famine she devoured herself at last.” (The Silmarillion, Of the Flight of the Noldor)
However, the earliest versions of the Silmarillion have a very different ending for Ungoliant – instead of possibly wasting away, she was slain by Eärendil in the South of the world (Shaping of Middle-earth).
What was Ungoliant?
Firstly, let’s look at what Tolkien tells us about her:
“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” (“The Silmarillion”, Of the Darkening of Valinor)
“It is not told from whence she came; from the Outer Darkness, maybe, that lies beyond the Walls of the World.” (The Lost Road, Quenta Silmarillion)
“The time of Ungoliantë’s coming to Arda is placed (as a surmise) with the entry of Melkor and his host before the overthrow of the Lamps” (Morgoth’s Ring, notes to The Annals of Aman)
Furthermore, there is some interesting information in the Book of Lost Tales I, where an early version of Ungoliant is known as Móru, described as the ‘Primeval Night’ personified in the great Spider.
“here dwelt the primeval spirit Móru whom even the Valar know not whence or when she came, and the folk of Earth have given her many names. 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; and she it is who loveth still to dwell in that black place taking the guise of an unlovely spider, spinning a clinging gossamer of gloom that catches in its mesh stars and moons and all bright things that sail the airs.” (BoLT I, The Theft of Melko)
“The original idea of ‘the primeval spirit Móru … is made explicit in an entry in the early word-list of the Gnomish language, where the name Muru is defined as ‘a name of the Primeval Night personified as Gwerlum or Gungliont.” (BoLT I, notes to The Theft of Melko)
So what are the possibilities?
There are two real possibilities:
1) That Ungoliant was one of the Maiar
2) That Ungoliant was something other than one of the Maiar
Personally, I think that Ungoliant is one of Ilúvatar’s other creations, outside the pantheon of the Valar, and perhaps along the lines of nature spirits.
Why? Firstly, she is so different to the other Ainur. Not just in the fact that she is in the form of a spider, but because she seems totally soulless and empty of everything apart from hunger. However evil some of the Maiar became, they never became like that – existing only to feed with little thought of anything else.
Another reason is her “unlight”. We don’t know what this was, but it is possible that she somehow pulled the absolute blackness from the Void, or maybe that she used some form of magic to suck the light out of her immediate environment. But what is so special about this is that Melkor seems not to have been able to do it. Because if he could, I’m sure we would have seen it at some point through his time in Middle-earth – it would be far too useful a power for him to ignore. And Morgoth even had a good knowledge of the Void, having searched through it for many years searching for the Flame Imperishable. So my question would be, why (and how) could a mere Maia do something that the arguably most powerful of the Valar couldn’t?
She also managed to scare Melkor with her appetites – which would suggest that even though he had corrupted her to his service long ago, she still had a good deal of autonomy, and also that she was pretty much uncontrollable – even by Melkor. If she was one of his Maiar, even a rebellious one, I would have thought he would have her under greater control.
But what is the counter-argument for this? What are the reasons for thinking that Ungoliant could be a Maia? Perhaps the main reason is the power she can summon. Some of the Maiar are extremely powerful – for example Ossë or Sauron – and these could be compared to Ungoliant. There is also the fact that the Valar thought that she was one of those corrupted to the service of Melkor, and as all the others that Melkor corrupted to his service so early in the history of Arda were Maiar, then it would possibly follow that Ungoliant was too.
Unfortunately, Tolkien didn’t give us much information about her, so we will never know for sure what type of creature Ungoliant was. But the way I prefer to look at her is the way she is described in BoLT I – a force of nature, primeval night, ever hungry, ever needing light, the representation of night compared to the bright light of Valinor.
Earlier names used for Ungoliant through HoME
Tolkien went through a good deal of names before settling on Ungoliant. These are given below:
Gloomweaver, Wirilómë, Ungoliantë, Ungwë Lianti, Ungoliont, Ungweliantë, Delduthling (Noldorin), Gwerlum the Black (Noldorin).
– The Silmarillion
– The Lord of the Rings
– Morgoth’s Ring
– Book of Lost Tales I
Opinions on whether or not Ungoliant was a Maia were gathered from the Ungoliant discussion thread in the Books Forum. A link is here.