Two months ago, a new story trailer for Middle-earth: Shadow of War was released and I think it's fair to say it raised a few eyebrows. In the midst of a lot of sword swinging and story exposition was the reveal that the game's narrator, first glimpsed in the game's announcement trailer, was none other than Shelob. This came as a surprise, given Shelob is, in fact, an enormous spider.
How, we wondered, did a gargantuan, malevolent arachnid wind up in Shadow of War in a cocktail dress and a human body? Or, rather, why?
I spoke to Monolith's creative vice president Michael de Plater earlier this month and took the opportunity to quiz him on the studio's decision to turn Shelob into an attractive lady. He had some pretty in-depth lore justifications, so you might want to put the kettle on before reading any further.
Firstly, it's important to understand that de Plater's approach to Shelob comes from an interpretation that she and Gollum are, in fact, the unsung heroes of The Lord of the Rings. Put simply, it's his take that Frodo fails to cast the ring into the fires of Mount Doom at the crucial moment - instead Gollum succeeds where he cannot (albeit tumbling into the fire himself along the way). According to de Plater, that weakness in Frodo was something Shelob sensed, making a pact with Gollum and hastening him on his way to Mount Doom and the final confrontation that saw the ring destroyed. It also goes some way to explaining why Shelob tried to eat Frodo in The Two Towers.
It was that duality (being one of the saviours of Middle-earth while also being a giant, horrifying spider), de Plater explained, that drew the team to Shelob as a central character in Shadow of War. "There were two things that were a starting point for our inspiration. A big part of what we do is look at these characters that are in kind of the grey zone - they're not as pure good as Gandalf or Aragorn, they're more human. Characters we're inspired by, characters like Boromir and Saruman and Denethor, because I think sometimes Lord of the Rings gets characterised as being oversimplified, black and white, good guys vs bad guys, but actually there are these incredible nuanced characters.
"So you've got Shelob representing darkness and then you've got Galadriel representing light, so you've got a duality between these two powerful women basically opposing each other in the same way that there's a lot of duality in our game. So we thought those two in opposition are really interesting, and the way Galadriel basically manipulated and sent people off on these different quests [testing the Fellowship with the mirror in Lothlórien] but ultimately left to themselves that quest [to destroy the ring] would have failed. Then you think of Shelob as almost the dark mirror to her, who actually had this minion [Gollum] that... if you think about it in a way, ultimately succeeded.
"We were also thinking really in a lot of ways that, not intentionally, but it felt like Gandalf and Galadriel kind of lied to them [the Fellowship] a little bit about their chances and what differentiates Shelob is that she's completely honest.. So she's evil, or perceived as evil, but she has this honesty to her, and so as we started thinking through that and thinking of her as this dark mirror to Galadriel and filling that role in our story of that narrator and what that would look like."
Still with me? Good. That covers why Shelob takes more of a central role in Shadow of War, at least, but how exactly is she capable of taking on human form? For that, we need to look to her ancestry. Shelob's mother was Ungoliant, who is described by Tolkien as an evil spirit taking the form of a spider. Shelob takes the same form, of course, but the point remains - Ungoliant is a spirit choosing to take the form of a spider, and so is Shelob. de Plater pounced on this detail to explain not only how Shelob can take human form, but why she is so intertwined with Talion and Celebrimbor's quest in the first place.
"Why would you take the form of a spider?" he asked. "Because they're terrifying. It really is to provoke fear, there's a psychological dimension to that, and the other thing with Ungoliant and the spirit of darkness is this line that she hates light but she craves it, and so Celebrimbor and the new ring also represent this new thing that she has a love / hate relationship with."
So, there you have it - Shelob takes on human form both because it's in her power to do so, and also because she has a need to involve herself in Talion's quest. Presumably communicating with him is simpler in human form. Either way, it's certainly less distracting than having a giant spider as your game's narrator. Still not sure about the cocktail dress, mind you...
This article (and video) is based on a visit to Monolith in Seattle. Warner Bros paid for flights and accommodation.