Sunday, 13 April 2014

Tolkien and Victorian Spiders

Earlier this year, I re-read George MacDonald’s ‘The Giant’s Heart’ [first published in 1864], in preparation for my viva. Something about the description of the giant spiders struck me: their laconic objectivity, and the contrast with Tolkien’s Mirkwood spiders in The Hobbit. The Mirkwood spiders are well known: gratuitously violent (even accepting that giant spiders need to eat, they really don’t need all thirteen dwarves and one hobbit) and spinners of dark webs. Readers of The Lord of the Rings and The Silmarillion will know that they are the offspring of Shelob, herself the daughter of a primordial spider-monster – Ungoliant, a demonic being who chose spider form in order to weave webs of darkness against the angelic Valar. (Apparently Ungoliant and Shelob mated with ordinary spiders – which they later consumed -- to produce [smaller] monstrous offspring; this sent me down a tangent of wondering whether such matings would be physically possible – and, considering that the male spider puts his sperm on a special web for deposit in the female’s genital opening, it is less of a stretch than one might think.) We are now accustomed to spider/giant spider = evil monster (see J.K.Rowling’s Aragog & Co, Stephen King’s It, and Neil Gaiman’s Coraline).
'The Other Mother' revealed in monstrous spider form from Neil Gaiman's Coraline

But MacDonald’s spiders, though monstrous in size, are not monstrous in personality. Their webs create beauty, not darkness: ‘At last they came to the foot of Mount Skycrack [ . . .] The whole face of it, from top to bottom, was covered with a network of spiders' webs, with threads of various sizes, from that of silk to that of whipcord. The webs shook and quivered, and waved in the sun, glittering like silver.’ Compare these webs to the ones in The Hobbit: ‘[Bilbo] had picked his way stealthily 'for some distance, when he noticed a place of dense black shadow ahead of him black even for that forest, like a patch of midnight that had never been cleared away. As he drew nearer, he saw that it was made by spider-webs one behind and over and tangled with another.’ MacDonald’s giant spiders have a quality of beauty which Tolkien’s spiders do not. Though MacDonald’s spiders are ‘huge’ and ‘greedy’, they catch giant flies, not humans. When the child-heroes of ‘The Giant’s Heart’ encounter them in their quest to destroy a wicked giant, the spiders first ignore them, then assist them after one of the children helps a spider who has fallen over: "My dear child," answered the spider, in a tone of injured dignity, "I eat nothing but what is mischievous or useless. You have helped me, and now I will help you." This statement does suggest a certain amount of didacticism – do unto me as you would have me do unto you – but it’s intriguingly human as well, what with the spider’s tones of ‘injured dignity’. All this made me wonder: what did the Victorians think of spiders? Did they have the same evil resonance that spiders have today? Was Tolkien inspired by MacDonald’s spiders?  After all, as his essay ‘On Fairy Stories’ shows, he was familiar with MacDonald’s work.
Frontispiece to The Poor Artist, by R.H.Horne

 I posed some of these questions to the Reading the Fantastic reading group I’m co-organizing, in the form of another text: R.H.Horne’s The Poor Artist. (Our reflections on this and other text opened our eyes to the beauty inherent in spider-tradition, as well as the monstrosity.) In Horne’s science-fable, the spider is one of various creatures who lend their eyesight to an artist in search of inspiration, evoking Aesop’s and La Fontaine’s animal-fables. ‘Mrs. Spinster’s ‘[f]ive hundred and eleven different visions, without including all the powers of my diphthong eyes’, are able to present the artist with an arachnid experience of wonder: A monumental slab of dull gold was the central object of the picture. It was encircled with ancient letters and numerals [ . . .] worn by time into rough breaks and honey-combs and the surface in some places presenting a heap of straggling lines and ridges, like broken insect-legs, and which the narrator herself compared to spider-limbs after a battle between two females against thirteen males. The predatory nature of the spider is not ignored; an Ant, Captain Mandible, argues with Mrs. Spinster about how ‘[s]he has strangled many of my comrades [ . . .] I have found their empty suits of armour on the ground underneath her web.’ But Mrs. Spinster points out that ants have stolen her webs, as well, and the two descend into something resembling a children’s quarrel. Paradoxically, it is through anthropomorphism that we are able to view spiders beyond the monstrous, and as part of biological nature – albeit red in fang and spinneret. As to what the Victorians thought of spiders, and whether MacDonald’s monstrous spiders have any connection to Tolkien’s, I still don’t know, but my opinion of spiders is a least a little improved. However, my favourite spiders are in one of Don Marquis’s ‘Archy and Mehitabel’ poems – ‘Pity the Poor Spiders’. ‘Yours for less justice and more charity’ is a sentiment I can get behind.