We who read Ageless Children’s Literature seldom see a spider without thinking of the dark gang of arachnids from Mirkwood or the gentle, gray Charlotte. We look on the spider and think, friend or foe? We wrestle with whether we love, hate, or simply fear the creature, and perhaps, (because we are very well read), we find we have enough courage to keep from smashing her, allowing her to be, and opening the door to the real life fairy tale of spiders. At least, when said spider is in the garden and not in the house…
“The entrance to the path was like a sort of arch leading into a gloomy tunnel made by two great trees that leant together too old and strangled with ivy and hung with lichen to bear more than a few blackened leaves.” So opens the chapter “Flies and Spiders” in The Hobbit. But the path into my garden is not so arched. Rather it is arched with roses, and it does not lead on into darkness but into light and abundance. Yet, it is still an enchanted garden. And it still holds a spider…probably hundreds, but maybe only one enchanting spider.
The miraculous will not enter where it is not invited. Children who want to invite fairies make miniature gardens, and gardeners who want to bring forth an abundance of vegetables make Bunyanesque gardens. They never intend to invite the spiders, but the arachnids are a part of the enchanted landscape they are calling forth. And as all humans and fairy tales are made of dust, so the very true fairy tale of a garden spider also starts in the dust, or more specifically in the dirt. Leaves and mulch are piled high. They crumble and make a home for insects and worms, and soon the dust has life. Seeds are planted. They are the size of a crumb but grow to an astonishing size, flowering, and yielding fruit with the gentle assistance of a brigade of pollinators. Moths, bees, butterflies, and hummingbirds arrive willingly enough to help, but come with greater enthusiasm when the gardener takes care to flank the vegetables with flowers. Fairyland insists on having beauty. It is after the hard work of spring, when the gardener is
always looking down into the brown but greening dust, that he stands up straight to find that a beautiful place has been made. Truly, the house is covered in ivy and bespeckled with robins, sparrows, and doves. Under the windows, hollyhocks, sunflowers, and mint stretch and sway. And it is not a tall tale to say that the squash and tomatoes are vining on masted wooden trellises while a cascading surf of deep-green zucchini leaves lap their lowest rungs. Rabbits live here and they never, truly, honestly, disturb the garden because they have been provided with an abundance of clover in the lawn. A chipmunk races back and forth hourly as if the eagle has him in his sights at every moment. Squirrels scamper about and check daily to see if the autumn peanut feeder is being filled yet. And with the faintest hum of a song, sewing it all together are the now multitudinous bees who dance in endless patterns and take in the whole course of the garden world. It is into this beloved land, as a crowning jewel, as a sign that all has been properly done, as an answer to an offered invitation, that a yellow, and black, and red, and altogether extraordinary orb spider will come to grace the garden.
For a moment you cannot breathe. She is the very largest spider you have ever seen. Her swollen abdomen is marked in a bold yellow and the darkest black. Her eight radiating legs, red and black, will ever be strange and foreign to us. We can stare at that configuration of limbs forever and ever and still not find kinship and knowing. She is utterly alien. It is in that strangeness that the terror arises. What has come into the garden?
“You mean you eat flies?” gasped Wilbur.
“Certainly. Flies, bugs, grasshoppers, choice beetles, moths, butterflies, tasty cockroaches, gnats, midges, daddy longlegs, centipedes, mosquitoes, crickets—anything that is careless enough to get caught in my web. I have to live, don’t I?”
“Why, yes, of course,” said Wilbur. “Do they taste good?”
“Delicious. Of course, I don’t really eat them. I drink them—drink their blood. I love blood,” said Charlotte, and her pleasant, thin voice grew even thinner and more pleasant.
“Don’t say that!” groaned Wilbur. “Please don’t say things like that!”
Any beauty our pig from Charlotte’s Web first saw in this spider has been suddenly eclipsed by terror. And for the hobbit and dwarves, this terror arises even before the spider is beheld:
The nastiest things they saw were the cobwebs: dark dense cobwebs with threads extraordinarily thick, often stretched from tree to tree, or tangled in the lower branches on either side them. There were none stretched across the path, but whether because some magic kept it clear, or for what other reason they could not guess.
(Here is a tip: When you are going down the garden path, the first one to venture out in the early morning, take a stick with you and hold it in front of you. It is a magic wand which breaks all the cobwebs that some other magic has failed to keep from stretching across your path.) There is no denying it. There is a sort of terror in spiders which we as well as E.B. White and Tolkien understand. This is not exactly the terror though that is attached to the terrible beauty of the garden spider.
Nestled among the roses, the yellow and black garden spider hangs in the center of her web. She is still and she is large. She is quiet and she is patient. She is not aggressive and she is not venomous—to those too big for her web. Yet she hangs among red roses and green leaves, surrounded by white-robed beetles, now also still and quite immobile, and she immobilizes us. Each day she sits on her web and wraps each visitor. Each morning the visitors have been cleared away and the web spun anew. During the night she has consumed most of her web. Some say she recycles the chemicals held in the web strands. Some say there are bits of vegetation dusts, and pollens clinging to the strands which supply her with nutrients. But every morning all is new. And she is larger. Looking at her brings a gleam of wonder and enchantment. And shock. She is inviting and repelling all at once. She is useful and helpful, a sign of good luck, health and vibrancy. She is a strange creature in a real fairy-tale land. We see now that she is a terrible beauty.
Here in our garden the fairy tale is truer than in any book. There is no need to name this very real garden spider, to give her super-spider attributes, to give her a temperament and a persona that will engage other critters crawling, flying or hopping about the garden. She is already complete just as she is. This yellow, black, and red garden spider outstrips Charlotte in her beauty and she brings a benevolent understanding to the word terror. She holds forth not the terror of a Mirkwood spider which will take from us all that we have. Rather, she offers the terror of knowing that we cannot quite grasp the expanse of her beauty and still see the world in an ordinary way. She is perfectly filling her place in the hierarchy of creation, tending the garden and shining gleams of light into a very enchanted world beyond our own. The good doctor in Charlotte’s Web rightly asks, “Don’t you regard that as a miracle?”
Post script: We always regret leaving our garden in September. The harvest is bursting and the work is increasing. But the girls must be off to college, the trip is long, and there is nothing to be done but to leave the garden spider in charge of fending off the beetles. Half a week later, we return to the quiet house, empty of children, and I feel a bit like Wilbur on his return from the fair. “Wilbur often thought of Charlotte. A few strands of her old web still hung in the doorway. Every day Wilbur would stand and look at the torn, empty web, and a lump would come to his throat. No one had ever had such a friend—so affectionate, so loyal, and so skillful.” And now, wandering into the garden, I see that the spider web is vacant. It is still intact. She has not been taken by a bird. I pluck a beetle from the roses and toss it into the web. The beetle sticks, the web trembles, but no spider appears. I can only hope that our dear spider, who is not originally from Mirkwood but, who is her own girl holding her own in the universe, is truly like Charlotte. I hope she is now settled in a high, hidden corner of the rose trellis quietly tending an egg sac as the autumn of her life creeps over her. I think of Charlotte’s words as she tended her nascent spiderlings: “When the first light comes into the sky and the sparrows stir and the cows rattle their chains, when the rooster crows and the stars fade, when early cars whisper along the highway, you look up here and I’ll show you something. I will show you my masterpiece.” Such is the comfort of literature.