Goodreads: The Two Towers
Series: The Lord of the Rings #2
The Fellowship is broken. Frodo and Sam have set off alone to destroy the One Ring in the fires of Mount Doom. Merry and Pippin have been captured by orcs. The other members face a hard choice: to follow Frodo to the end or to rescue their comrades. Meanwhile, Orthanc and Barad Dûr gather their strength before unleashing their fury upon the world of men.
I have always considered The Lord of the Rings as one book that just happens to be published in three volumes, and so reviewing The Two Towers poses some challenges. Far from acting as a distinct work of art, it forms instead a seamless part of the story as a whole; Tolkien himself, I understand, conceived as the work as one book but was forced to publish it in parts due to paper shortages. Thus, it may come as some surprise to open the second volume in the “trilogy” only to find that it contains no handy recap of past events woven into the summary but instead immediately jumps into events that were still in progress at the close of The Fellowship of the Ring. Peter Jackson evidently felt this was a bit confusing, as well-those who have both read the book and seen the movies will know that one character’s arc is tied up definitively by Jackson by the end of his The Fellowship of the Ring; Tolkien allows this arc to play out longer. So reviewing The Two Towers is, to me, impossible. It would be like reviewing the middle chapters of Moby-Dick or Little Women. Without the full story to give those chapters context, a review would run the risk of being meaningless. It makes more sense to me to offer some reflections on the book and where we as readers are now in the story, having just left Sam and Frodo on the verge of losing everything.
Reading The Lord of the Rings has always been in some sense difficult to me due to the necessity of its switching perspectives. In The Two Towers, Tolkien not only divides the story into two Books (Book III, which follows Aragorn & Co. and IV, which follows Frodo and Sam) but also jumps from character to character within those books. So it is that just as one begins to get comfortable and follow Aragorn on the hunt, Tolkien whisks away to focus on Merry and Pippin. I might be annoyed, except that Tolkien handles it all so masterfully. Not only does he make me care equally about all his characters so that I am always invested (and never thinking, “Oh no. Not him again. Can’t we fast forward a bit?”) but he also positions these transitions strategically. Sometimes he wishes to create suspicion, so we know nothing of the movements of various characters. But sometimes he wishes to create irony, so we know before the Three Hunters what has become of their friends. Somehow the choice always seems right. I would not want to know about the wizard before he appears, but I think that not knowing about Merry and Pippin might border on the over-dramatic (like that time Aragorn fell off a cliff in Jackson’s The Two Towers and was “dead”). Tolkien might be alleging to have discovered this story already told, but there is no denying he translates it for us masterfully, making it his own.
And what a world he introduces to in the process. One might suspect that the middle of such a large book would flag in the middle, but Tolkien keeps it fresh and strong with the addition of new lands, new characters, and new challenges. The journey to Rohan is one of my favorite in the story–though the Rohirrim are considered “lesser” men than the Gondorians, there is no doubt they are strong and bold and fearless. Their is a joy in their ferocity. Everything about them seems young, as if they still have the world to discover and will venture out gladly, willing to make mistakes but pick themselves up again. The men of Gondor may have wisdom but the men of Rohan have the right of the young to be carefree and proud. I love their land and their people and their poetry. Tolkien makes it all come alive.
Of course, other lands are introduced, as well, and there is a special type of magic to them all. From Fangorn Forest to Ithilien, Tolkien makes me feel as if I am really in Middle-earth, walking ancient lands and feeling the wonder and beauty of it all. Aragorn tells the riders of Rohan that the earth is a thing “of mighty legend” and one believes, through Tolkien, that it is true. Thus we pass all too soon to the darkness and ash of Frodo and Sam’s own hard journey.
Frodo and Sam’s story possesses a sort of poignant, pathetic beauty. Frodo is clearly suffering at this point, but feels compelled to go on, to try to do the right thing. One senses that he feels a “doom” upon him, but whether he means this in the gloomy way we now associate with the word or whether he simply means it is his fate and one he cannot escape, he himself may not yet know. It is all the more endearing to see trusty Sam at his side, laboring on through all hardships and always thinking of his master first. Sam knows the fate of the world hangs on his quest, and yet he seems not to know as well. For Sam, all that really matters is Frodo and somehow the fate of the world may end up turning on the friendship of two lowly Hobbits. It is a breathtakingly bold thought, one might not expect to see in an epic fantasy where spells and swords so often solve all problems.
So where do we go from here? Only The Return of the King can tell us. But as we journey forward, we have so many things on which to think, from Frodo’s strange mercy toward Gollum to Sam’s friendship to Pippin’s troublesome curiosity. So many of these things seem small, yet we have seen that in Tolkien’s world there is no small deed, no small word. Fate works in mysterious ways and I doubt that at the time of publication, many saw the ending of this far from standard fantasy quest.