Tolkien Tuesday: The Itsy Tricksy Spider
I'm going to spoil something for you, and I don't even care.
The Titanic sinks at the end of the movie. Hate me all you want, but I'm here to prove a point!
Spoilers are these legendary things that are sacred on the internet. And I get it. I don't want something I've been anticipating for years to be spoiled by a twitter rant about how Rey is Mary-Sue. Not only are you wrong, but who knew she was the daughter of that Imperial officer that says "Good, our first catch of the day," thanks a lot!
But, what if the author of the very book you are reading spoils his own ending?
Have you ever noticed that Tolkien has a little habit of doing this? Especially in The Hobbit where he's talking about the return journey before the little guy ever steps out his front door.
I understand The Hobbit is geared towards a younger audience. Still, Tolkien loves hinting at what's to come. In The Silmarillion, he talks about how major characters are going to die later and the consequences of those things before the terrible (possible) Maiar Spider even comes crawling out of the darkest places in the World.
Why would he do this?
Tolkien knew one thing to keep in mind as you write: it's not about the destination, but the journey.
Knowing the Ring gets destroyed isn't really why we read the books or even watch the movies. We kind of figure most of the things are going to work out. This is high fantasy, and even though there are some dark struggling trials for the characters, it doesn't read like the good guys are going to be crushed.
Rather, we read Lord of the Rings because we connect to the characters that move through the narrative. It's about the obstacles that are in their way. What terrible thing is going to come out of that cave/mine/dark forest that we are pretty sure isn't all that safe?
How will the characters change? Will they have to sacrifice their values, friends, or even themselves to reach their goals? It's about knowing that things look really dark as two Hobbits are out of water in their canteens, literally crawling across the barren wastes of Mordor and that somehow they have to make it.
I don't see Tolkien writing the story where Frodo fails, Sauron gets the Ring back, and the epilogue consists of Rosie Cotton becoming a slave to orcs in the Shire while Sam is forced to watch through the Palantir at Barad-dur. A bit dark for Tolkien. (At least non-Silmarillion Tolkien.)
The journey is what's fun. If your reader can't invest in the journey, they won't care how it ends anyway.
Gollum is the perfect example from Tolkien on how to utilize the journey rather than the destination. And there's still have some surprises for the reader about the how, not if.
We kind of figure the Ring has got to go. And since Tom Bombadil is too busy skipping along gathering water lilies, that means it has to go back from, as some would put, whence it came.
What keeps us turning the pages are wraiths hunting the heroes, Gandalf falling into the abyss fighting a great shadow (that probably actually doesn't have wings), and knife work upon the walls of Helm's Deep.
Tolkien, instead of pretending like we don't know what will happen, leans into the spoilers.
So for Frodo and Sam's story, it's about when and how Gollum will betray them, not if.
Gollum then becomes a figure of symbolism and foreshadowing that alludes to the twists in the road on the way there.
We know he's cooking something up, and his desire for the Ring will ultimately overcome him and put Frodo and Sam into a not so great position. The mystery is what terrible fate is that going to be?
Twice in my most recent re-read, I caught where Tolkien refers to Gollum as spider-like in the way he moves. He's first introduced this way in The Two Towers, then again just before they start to head into Shelob's lair. A tiny hint of what's to come.
There's a hint even in the language, as is often the case with Tolkien. Cirith Ungol is Sindarin for Spider's Cleft. For you super Tolkien geeks out there.
Side note: Tolkien's description of Shelob is the absolute most vile string of words. I get a very clear image of this repugnant spider and Tolkien must have hated them even more than I do.
Most importantly, Gollum is continuously talked about as a wild card in the plans of everyone. Gandalf keeps talking about how he is sure that Gollum will play some role in all their trails in some way. Good or evil, this little sneak is going to do something. Much of Frodo's actions towards him are based on this advice.
We, as readers, take that all in and devise our own theories and thoughts about what's going to happen. It's not about if the Ring will be destroyed, it's about who will get the jump on who when Gollum turns.
When Gollum bites Frodo's finger off because Frodo claims the Ring for his own (another event that we worry will happen), fate takes over, and Gollum falls into the fires of Mt. Doom.
The character then is fully realized as the symbol he has always been: the result of mercy.
When Bilbo first encounters him in The Hobbit, he feels pity for the wretched little creature in spite of the fact that Gollum wants to eat him. Even though he's this horrible little thing, the elves of Mirkwood show him so much mercy that he finally escapes their captivity. Even though he is trying to strangle the Hobbits in their sleep, Frodo makes him their guide...free of shackles. And finally, at the very last betrayal, where so much is going wrong, Sam has every opportunity to kill Gollum but lets him go.
All of this leads to Gollum saving Middle Earth by accident. The Ring would have never been destroyed without him taking it from Frodo.
The entire series of symbols, hints, breadcrumbs, and vague images becomes a central theme in the event we all saw coming. Mercy is one of the most potent forces for goodness in the world, even when death is deserved.
The destruction of the Ring becomes something deep and meaningful, not just an ending to know if it happens or not. Deep themes trump spoilers every time.
Symbolism and foreshadowing should play into the journey of a story, making it something to revisit over and over. You don't want your story to be something half-read and thrown to the side forever. You want your reader to come back. Those little moments alluding to things to come can be the reward for your second-time reader.
What is your central conflict? Everything still revolves around this like we examined in the last Tolkien Tuesday. From there you can see what breadcrumbs you can start leaving.
Don't worry too much about if your reader will be able to figure out what will happen. Have them so invested in how it will happen they will want to crack open the book for years to come.
Your clever symbolism might just be the moment a reader realizes this is one of their favorite stories of all time.
For in depth geeky writing advice that will help you write more immersive stories, sign up for the newsletter below!