Those of you fans of fantasy or science fiction out there may be familiar with the use of monstrously giant spiders in fantasy fiction. It has seemed to grow and grow over the years to where now one of the most popular fantasy series in the world, Harry Potter, features a giant group of humongous spiders (with their leader Aragog) that have now been immortalized in the world of science after a newly discovered spider was named after said lead spider. We now live in a world where real spiders are being named after famous fictitious ones. How did we get here? When did huge spiders become so popular in fantasy novels and why? What caused all of this madness over giant spiders? Well, I have a likely answer that will knock your socks off.
We must now go back in time to before big spiders in fantasy fiction boomed, to a time when a little boy named J.R.R. Tolkien was bitten by a rather large spider. According to his biography, J.R.R. Tolkien: A Biography, when Tolkien was a child just learning to walk he stumbled on a tarantula, which then bit him. This made the poor little chap run screaming in fear to his nurse, who snatched him up and apparently sucked out the poison. Tolkien later said he remembered the hot day and the fear while he was running, but had forgotten the spider. He claimed that the incident didn’t make him fear spiders, and he was actually pretty cool about them. He wrote in a letter, “I knew that the way [for Frodo, Sam, and Gollum] was guarded by a Spider. And if that has anything to do with my being stung by a tarantula when a small child, people are welcome to the notion (supposing the improbable, that any one is interested). I can only say that I remember nothing about it, should not know it if I had not been told; and I do not dislike spiders particularly, and have no urge to kill them. I usually rescue those whom I find in the bath!” He actually insisted that he decide to feature the giant spiders to help his son, Michael, who was terrified of them. The book was intended for children, so like any good dad, he wanted to make sure to include the things his own child especially feared, so that when he read it he probably soiled his underwear in fright. Typical father thinking he’s being hilarious.
Other fantasy authors did feature large spiders in their works before Tolkien. A giant spider terrorizes a forest of animals in The Wonderful Wizard of Oz. Edgar Rice Burroughs also seems to have been a fan, as Conan the Barbarian encounters one in “The Tower of the Elephant.” However, it seems likely that Tolkien had a pretty big influence on the trope considering the widespread and immense popularity of Lord of the Rings, and how giant spiders have become regulars in fantasy fiction since the series’ success. Whether you believe the childhood incident or something else caused Tolkien to include those huge spiders, either way it’s a good thing he did. Otherwise we probably wouldn’t have so many of the wonderful, terrifyingly huge spiders in fantasy fiction today.
Why do you think Tolkien included the giant spiders in his novels? Which story do you believe?