Saturday, February 2, 2013

Along came a spider: The Tower of Cirith Ungol and Shelob's Lair

"There agelong she had dwelt, an evil thing in spider form[...]she was there, who was there before Sauron, and before the first stone of Barad-dur; and she served none but herself, drinking the blood of Elves and Men, bloated and grown fat with endless brooding on her feasts, weaving webs of shadow; for all living things were her food, and her vomit darkness." - The Lord of the Rings, The Two Towers, Book Four, Chapter VIII: Shelob's Lair

When the world was young and the fallen Vala, Morgoth, began his schemes to rule over or destroy Middle-earth, he found an ally in Ungoliant, a great, shadowy spider from a time before the world was created. Down through the long years, Ungoliant's brood infested the desolate places of Middle-earth. From the dense heart of Mirkwood to the borders of Mordor itself, spiders of a size and intelligence seen only in the nightmares of our world wove their webs. In the time of Bilbo and Frodo, there still lived descendants of Ungoliant herself. In the Ephel Duath, the Fence of Shadow that looms on the Western edge of the shadowland of Mordor, lived "Shelob the Great, last child of Ungoliant to trouble the unhappy world."

Sauron is an opportunist and a manipulator. The mighty Smaug and the horrific Balrog were not his servants, yet they anchored strategic areas for him. Whether they were drawn by some subtle influence of Sauron or not is unclear. As the greatest of Morgoth's servants, Sauron may well have drawn upon some glimmer of loyalty these beings felt for the master of them all, exiled into the Outer Dark. But his influence was not great enough to draw them forth into his armies; instead, they claimed realms of their own, content to rule what they had. Sauron's grand strategy was of no concern to them, but neither would they hinder it. It is a happy coincidence for him that these great creatures were in places that might have become strongholds against him. Or was it coincidence? The presence of Shelob in a critical pass into Mordor suggests even more strongly that Sauron could exert his will even on those unheeding of it.

Sam and Frodo's trek through the lair of Shelob imprinted itself on my mind from the first time I read it. Absolute darkness in a cave labyrinth is unnerving enough; finding that a true nightmare lives within it seized my imagination. Spiders are not among my favorite creatures in the first place; the thought of a giant one lurking in the dark, awaiting those rendered helpless by imposed blindness, was chilling, and still is. The taunting spiders of Mirkwood were a fairytale menace, and even little Bilbo could hew his way through them, at least when armed with the redoubtable Sting. Their mother, though, was no fairytale creature; she was pure night terror, mindless and driven by dark instinct. But, it was inspiring to find that Sting, the bane of her brood to the North, could also deal her grievous harm.

Tolkien did much of the work in creating iconic monster lairs in the fantasy genre with which we are now familiar. The great halls of Smaug's stolen domain in Erebor is a quintessential Dragon's lair. Moria is a classic Goblin haven, with the King Under the Mountain now a Demon of fire. And, of course, Torech Ungol, Shelob's foul nest, can be found echoed even in modern science fiction, manifesting as the hives of the cinematic Aliens.
A portion of Torech Ungol, Shelob's nest; consider walking through it in pitch darkness, with a foul stench and bits of webbing to confuse and confound you.

The Tower of Cirith Ungol and Shelob's Lair is a Middle-earth Roleplaying adventure of the first order. Set over thirteen centuries before the time of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, the book provides detailed overviews of the climate, flora, and fauna of a relatively small part of the Ephel Duath. Interestingly, the time period is one in which Gondor still keeps a watch in force on Mordor, with a garrison in Cirith Ungol, and the city of Minas Ithil still centuries from falling to Sauron's forces and becoming the evil city of Minas Morgul. Orc tribes lurk in the area, Hill Trolls can be found, and, of course, there are Spiders of all sizes, up to and including Shelob herself. There are notes on using the area and tower of Cirith Ungol after it has fallen to Sauron, so it wouldn't take much work to make this book usable in any era. In fact, it could be used to show the area after Sauron has fallen, and Aragorn, now King Elessar, has sent forces to retake and man Cirith Ungol as Minas Morgul is retaken and destroyed.

Shelob herself is detailed using the Middle-earth Roleplaying (MERP) game system, and she's pretty horrible, as you might expect. Her lair of Torech Ungol is shown to be twisting and confusing, perfect for getting player characters lost. The great Spider herself is described as being literally a Demon, which makes sense given her ancestry. She is also described as having numerous magical abilities, which, at first, I wasn't too keen on - she never demonstrates anything like them in Tolkien's book - or so I thought. Looking more closely at the sequence in Tolkien's book, though, most, if not all, of these abilities can be rationalized as innate abilities used by way of pure malevolent instinct. They mostly deal with Shelob being able to resist damage and frighten her prey. The latter seems like overkill, since a Spider of her size is automatically guaranteed to scare the waybread out of those unfortunate enough to encounter her. However, considering the thick darkness that defies even the Phial of Galadriel, and the choking horror that seems to lurk about the place, attributing much of it to Shelob's supernatural essence as a Demon seems more than reasonable to me.

This is a particularly solid entry in the MERP line. It resembles classic Dungeons & Dragons adventures in its focus and its underground exploration. Actually, it's more correct to say that Dungeons & Dragons adventures resemble it, because the entire sequence of Shelob's lair in The Lord of the Rings almost certainly had a good deal of influence on D&D in its early incarnations.

1 comment:

  1. Those maps are excellent! I'd love to play this one.

    Thirteen centuries before the events of LOTR, too - that gives it an added dimension of coolness.