The Two Towers, the second book in the Lord of the Rings trilogy, and sequel to The Fellowship of the Ring, is in effect two shorter novels – The Treason of Isengard, which follows Aragorn and the remainder of the fellowship in the battle against the forces of Saruman, and The Journey of the Ringbearers/The Ring goes East following Sam and Frodo as they travel further into the badlands beyond Gondor. In the Peter Jackson film these two storylines are intertwined, with regular cutting between the two – Tolkien took the bold choice of keeping the two entirely separate. I doubt if an author writing today would make this choice: it requires patience on the part of the reader who has to wait several hundred pages before finding out what is happening to the Ringbearer.
In the past I have been a little confused about which were the two towers in question, but that seemed a bit slow of me. On a re-read it is completely clear: the towers are Orthanc, Saruman’s base, and Barad-dûr, Sauron’s tower in Mordor. Or so I thought. But the internet tells me I am wrong. Apparently Tolkien invented the novel’s title whilst under deadline pressure and wasn’t happy with it, recognising its ambiguity – there are a lot of towers in Middle Earth! Eventually he settled on them being Orthanc (Saruman’s tower) and Minas Morgul (in Mordor, but not Sauron’s principal base). This is genuinely puzzling – there are two main bad guys in LoTR, Saruman and Sauron. They even have contrasting colour emblems – the white hand of Isengard and the black everything of Barad-dur. One is defeated in The Two Towers, the second in The Return of the King. Rather than just being Saruman’s servant, as I had originally supposed, Saruman plans to take the One Ring for himself, and challenge him for control of Middle Earth. So the two towers are the twin centres of evil in Middle Earth, and both have to be defeated. There’s a structural symmetry in having the two towers represented by Saruman and Sauron’s bases which is lost with any other allocation. Of course the defeat of Saruman ends up as a surprisingly straightforward affair, a warm-up act for the much trickier task of bringing down Sauron in The Return of the King. This tower-related ambiguity doesn’t matter a great deal one way or another, but the anomaly is surprising – Tolkien devised his world with such extraordinary detail that for this fairly significant issue to be left unresolved grates a little.
The Treason of Isengard
The first book in The Two Towers follows Merry and Pippin, who you will recall had been captured by orcs and are being taken to Saruman’s fortress in Isengard. Gimli, Legolas and Aragorn are running after them. The orcs’ journey is intercepted by some of the Riders of Rohan, and in the battle that ensues Merry and Pippin escape into nearby Fangorn forest. Here they meet Treebeard, leader of the Ents. Ents are a cross between trees and trolls, and when roused to anger they can be particularly dangerous, as Saruman is about to find out. He has been chopping down lots of trees down to fuel his furnaces, and the Ents, prompted by Merry and Pippin, decide to do something about it.
Aragorn, Gimli and Legolas are told by the Riders that the orcs they were following have been wiped out in battle. Unable to quite believe this includes the hobbits, Aragorn tracks them into Fangorn. The stage is set for the big reveal: in the forest they meet a white wizard who they initially believe to be Saruman, but who is in fact (spoiler alert) Gandalf. He tells them of his struggle with the Balrog, which seems to have given him even more magical powers – he is now Gandalf the White (it is suggested that this gives him a position of supremacy over the other wizards in Middle Earth, not least Saruman). Tolkien leaves the resurrection of Gandalf a daringly long time, making the impact of his return all the more powerful.
Leaving the search for the hobbits – they are reassured they are in safe Entish hands – they ride to Edoras, capital of Rohan. Theoden, king of Rohan, has been magically enslaved by Grima Wormtongue, who we later found out has been working undercover for Saruman. Theoden is restored by Gandalf and calls his army to war. Rohan’s armies and people fall back to Helm’s Deep while Gandalf goes to seek reinforcements. (Peter Jackson takes some liberties with this part of the storyline, but retains the essential spirit of the narrative.) The scene is set for a siege of Saruman’s army of orcs; the city nearly falls until Gandalf returns with said reinforcements. The victorious army of Rohan and our surviving Fellowship members now travel to Isengard, where they are reunited with Merry and Pippin. Saruman’s fortress has been destroyed by the Ents, but Saruman himself is refusing to leave his Orthanc. Gandalf counsels that he be left to rot there. But the victory is tainted by an unfortunate incident with a palantíri, another Middle Earth maguffin. Palantirs are magical crystal balls that allow people to communicate over long distances (mobile phones in other words). Pippin takes a peep into the palantir and is locked onto by Sauron, who can read his mind. Gandalf takes Pippin urgently to Minas Tirith capital city of Gondor, to prepare for war, leaving the Riders of Rohan to follow on as soon as possible.
The Ring Goes East
Book 4 is the sequence is also subtitled The Ringbearers go East. Note the interesting use of the plural – at this stage only Frodo and Gollum are ringbearers, although in The Return of the King Sam also wears the ring briefly. The narrative picks up immediately from the end of the Fellowship. Sam and Frodo are trying to find their way out of the hills they are stuck in, but are hopelessly and dangerously lost until they discover Gollum has been stalking them. They capture him and persuade him to lead them to Mordor. In Ithilien, the land that borders Mordor to the East of the Great River, they are captured by Faramir, brother of Boromir. Faramir is leading a raiding party trying to find out more about Sauron’s invasion plans. Although Faramir finds out about their quest, he forgoes the temptation to take the ring back to Gondor – he is stronger than his brother in that respect. Gollum leads them safely into the mountains that surround and protect Mordor, but his cunning plan is finally revealed – he has been leading them all this time into the lair of
Aragog sorry Shelob, a huge, ancient spider. She stings or bites Frodo apparently killing him. Sam fights her off. Faced with the awful choice of staying with Frodo’s unresponsive body or pushing on with the quest, he decides to take the Ring himself and try to reach Mount Doom. It is not long before he finds out that Frodo was only paralysed by Shelob – she likes her meat kept fresh – and the novel closes with Frodo taken prisoner by the orcs guarding the pass into Mordor, and Sam’s position seemingly hopeless. He does have the ring safe in his possession though.
I know I keep coming back to the Peter Jackson films, but what struck me on this reread was that the moments the films really have an emotional impact is when the language is drawn from Tolkien’s original lines in the novel. For example, Aragorn’s song about the Riders of the Mark:
Where now are the horse and the rider? Where is the horn that was blowing?
Where is the helm and the hauberk, and the bright hair flowing?
Where is the harp on the harpstring, and the red fire glowing?
Where is the spring and the harvest and the tall corn growing?
They have passed like rain on the mountain, like a wind in the meadow;
The days have gone down in the West behind the hills into shadow.
Who shall gather the smoke of the deadwood burning,
Or behold the flowing years from the Sea returning
are given to Theoden in the film before the battle at Helms Deep. Or when Sam and Frodo reminisce about the Shire, and wonder if one day their tale will be remembered:
“Still, I wonder if we shall ever be put into songs or tales. We’re in one, of course, but I mean: put into words, you know, told by the fireside, or read out of a great big book with red and black letters, years and years afterwards. And people will say: “Let’s hear about Frodo and the Ring!” And they will say: “Yes, that’s one of my favourite stories. Frodo was very brave, wasn’t he, dad?” “Yes, my boy, the famousest of the hobbits, and that’s saying a lot.”
‘It’s saying a lot too much,’ said Frodo, and he laughed, a long clear laugh from his heart. Such a sound had not been heard in those places since Sauron came to Middle-earth. To Sam suddenly it seemed as if all the stones were listening and the tall rocks leaning over them. But Frodo did not heed them; he laughed again. ‘Why, Sam,’ he said, ‘to hear you somehow makes me as merry as if the story was already written. But you’ve left out one of the chief characters: Samwise the stouthearted. “I want to hear more about Sam, dad. Why didn’t they put in more of his talk, dad? That’s what I like, it makes me laugh. And Frodo wouldn’t have got far without Sam, would he, dad?”‘
‘Now, Mr. Frodo,’ said Sam, ‘you shouldn’t make fun. I was serious.’
‘So was I,’ said Frodo, ‘and so I am.
Which is played out almost verbatim in the scene early in the film between Sean Astin and Elijah Wood. The touching relationship between Sam and Frodo is at the heart of the second book of The Two Towers (and even more so in The Return of the King). Tolkien handles this comradeship sensitively and honestly, not afraid to show the love and affection between the two hobbits.
As the novel that bridges the opening and closing of the story of the One Ring, The Two Towers inevitably runs the risk of lagging. If as a reader you are engaged in Tolkien’s world-building and mythologising, the novel can’t be long enough. If you are not it will probably drag. Certainly there are new elements – this is not just travelling, being rescued, more travelling – although I can’t deny there’s plenty of both, as you would expect in any quest epic. We know following Boromir’s death at the end of The Fellowship that Tolkien’s character’s plot armour is not impenetrable, so Gandalf’s return will be a genuine surprise for many less cynical readers, and we will fear for Frodo after his encounter with Shelob – perhaps Sam is the hero of the story after all? There is less incessant poetry in this novel than the first (perhaps Tolkien’s editor had a quiet word with him?) which is certainly an improvement. It is important to remember that Lord of the Rings is just one very long novel that for the sake of convenience was originally published in three parts, so judging the Two Towers on its merits alone is pretty unfair. I think Tolkien does a good job of keeping the plot moving even after having torn up the original fellowship goes to Mordor script. This allows him to explore Middle Earth in more depth, and to develop storylines for all the hobbits, Merry and Pippin in particular, rather than just having them for light relief.