Welcome back to Reading continues: an informal and personal reading (and in some cases a very slow rereading) of the works of JRR Tolkien.
THE TWO TOWERS is a touchy subject from the start. Although it is now well known that The Lord of the Rings was published as three books instead of a singular due to post-WWII publishing constraints, it is perhaps the most difficult of the three parts to tackle individually.
When the publication decision was made to divide The Lord of the Rings in three parts, Tolkien commented in a letter to Rayner Unwin (dated August 17, 1953) that “The two towers get as close as possible to finding a title to cover widely divergent books 3 and 4; and can be left ambiguous – it could refer to Isengard and Barad-DUR, or to Minas Tirith and B; or Isengard and Cirith Ungol. ”
Yet just a few months later, in delivering the “carefully corrected” copy of the first half of the second volume, Tolkien had changed his mind:
“I am not at all satisfied with the title“ the two towers ”. It should, if there is any actual reference to Vol II, refer to Orthanc and the tower of Cirith Ungol. But since there is so much going on about the base opposition of the Dark Tower and Minas Tirith, it seems very misleading. There is, of course, in fact no real connection between Books III and IV, when they are cut and presented separately as a volume. “
Which brings us to the heart of the matter when we discuss it as its own piece: it is a fragment of a whole. Yes The Lord of the Rings is the last movement of Tolkien’s mythopoeia, so THE TWO TOWERS is the middle two chapters of this ending. Peter Jackson encountered this dilemma when crafting the film adaptations, mixing Boromir’s death at the end of that first film and culminating his second with the Battle of Helm’s Deep. The second volume is a very different beast in print.
Originally published in November 1954, four months later The Fellowship of the RingBook three and book four of the volume largely cover the war on Rohan in the first half, and the journey of Frodo, Sam, and Gollum in the second. Jackson’s vision is so pervasive that these elements have been reversed in my mind, a mood made worse by the time that has passed since I last picked up these books. If anything, this mental transposition shows the enduring malleability of legendary tales while solidifying LOTRits status in modern mythology, just as Tolkien partly intended to do.
When the book opens, Merry and Pippin have been captured by the Orcs, followed by Arogorn, Legolas, and Gimli. The trio unexpectedly meet Gandalf, who was indeed killed in his fight with the Elder Balrog in the previous book, but who was sent back to Middle-earth for the fight to come. Together, they travel to the kingdom of Rohan to convince King Théoden to aid them in the battle against darkness. Meanwhile, Merry and Pippin encounter Treebeard of the old Ents. Plots converge as the Ents march on Isengard, effectively defeating Saruman, while Treebeard and Gandalf send aid to Helm’s Deep, helping the Rohirrim defeat the Orcs.
These sections are where all this pre-reading of The Silmarillion and its extensions are starting to come in handy. Treebeard speaks of “the time of the war between Sauron and the men of the sea” and inquires about Radagast, first mentioned in The Hobbit but barely referenced again apart from being a plot for Saruman’s betrayal. (There are essays on his fellow sorcerers and the Palantíri, the seeing stone that the Hobbits collect in this book, in Unfinished tales). There is a reference to “the old alliance with Gondor”, a crucial element of continuity between the last alliance of elves and men and the events to come of. The king’s return.
Again, what fascinated me this time around were all those little links that I had missed in previous reads. Describing the story of the Palantíri, Gandalf recounts a rhyme of knowledge and the “Seven stars and seven stones / And a white tree” – a direct reference to the fall of Númenor (recounted in The Silmarillion and Unfinished Tales of Númenor and Middle-earth, of course). When Faramir speaks of the men as a “bankrupt people”, he notes that the “men of Númenor were installed far away on the shores and regions off the Great Lands”. Indeed, an informal comparison between the great spider Shelob and the creature encountered by Beren and Lúthien shows how the Ring cycle is only part of a longer narrative. In a moment of self-awareness, Sam wonders “if we’ll ever get put into songs or tales”. They just might, Sam. They just might.
What surprised me the most about this replay is how much Helm’s Deep participates in the first half of THE TWO TOWERS (in Book 3 actually), returning to focus on the Primary Hobbits in the second half. This section is almost anchored in the memory of every self-respecting geek: Frodo and Sam capture Gollum, who leads them through the Dead Marshes. They are in turn captured by Faramir, Boromir’s brother, and his rangers, who manages to resist the Ring’s temptation (unlike his brother). There is quite a bit of Gollum who is torn between his growing bond with Frodo and his thirst for the Ring, but he ultimately betrays Sam and Frodo by leading them to Shelob’s lair in the tunnels of Cirith Ungol.
“But it’s a long story, of course, and it continues beyond happiness and into grief and beyond.”
So the book we now know as THE TWO TOWERS ends on something of a negative note, with Frodo barely alive after meeting Shelob, and Sam undertaking the quest on his own. This was preparing geekdom for a series of The Empire Strikes Back endings that would take place in the middle chapter of all worthy fantasy series until the end of time. Contemporary readers of Tolkien had to wait a little less than a year for the story to continue, when we can devour everything in one fell swoop, just as the author intended.
Which brings me to a great tip: don’t do what I did and leave your proofreading for a year. I started my big Tolkien task in April 2019, but I did not take over the LOTR re-read until about a year later as the lockdown began. It was hard to focus on whatever last year, I left some of it. Returning to Tolkien in 2021, after going through one of the great tales of our time, it was a breath of fresh air for a weary reader.
In the next installment of Reading continues, we follow the ring to the cracks of Mount Doom! No spoilers needed: these are books V and VI of The Lord of the Rings as we are witnesses The king’s return.