Monday, May 9, 2011

The Two Towers

Note: This is the third part of a high-level review of my 9th reading of Tolkien's classic prelude and trilogy. All quotes and page numbers are from my original 1975 paperback edition.

The Fellowship of the Ring (FOTR) ends with a chapter entitled “The Breaking of the Fellowship.” That break is so severe that it separates more than the primary characters. In The Two Towers (TT) the narrative itself is split down the middle. This creates an interesting story-telling challenge for J.R.R. Tolkien. How do you maintain interest in the main story line when whole groups of characters are missing for hundreds of pages?

It is an unconventional approach but Tolkien makes it all work in his favor. Instead of becoming confused, the reader is caught up in a “what happens next?” mentality. Pippin and Merry are taken prisoner by fierce Uruk-hai and end up in Fangorn Forest. Aragorn, Legolas, and Gimli are tracking them through Rohan and end up in the novel’s second largest battle at Helms Deep. It is a tiny affair compared to, say, the Battle of Dagorlad which ended the Second Age. It is through the lands of that ancient battle that Frodo and Sam are following Gollum’s lead.

Tolkien's first big battle tale is certainly complex and exciting, but most of TT is about the discovery of still more of Middle-earth. We see Edoras, the ruling center of a nation of tribal horsemen. We know the depths of the oldest forest remaining on Middle-earth. We see the near-destruction of a great tower, imprisoning a powerful wizard. We venture through the lifeless wastes of Emyn Muil, the terrifying mountain pass at Cirith Ungol, the fair forest strip of land known as Ithilien where Faramir is entrusted as a forward command of Gondor. The story is incredibly detailed on each of these places and characters. It is a thrilling and peerless piece of original epic literature.

Tolkien shows how he is the master of depth with his telling of the Palantiri, the Seven Seeing Stones. Here The Lord of the Rings (LOTR) begins to explore the wider Numenorean influences upon the story. The Stones are many centuries old and are powerful means of long-distance communication.

Hobbits are still the wonder of the world. The Rohirrim have never seen one before and thought they were a child’s story character. Ents have no clue what they are. At first they consider them as possible Orcs. They kept things somewhat light in FOTR. But, in TT a great weight sets down upon the story. A major war is at hand. The safety of the world is at stake. Hobbits can only offer us a bit of respite in a story like this. Tolkien is poetically stern through major portions of TT.

The chapters entitled “Flotsam and Jetsam” and “Of Herbs and Stewed Rabbits” make a great comparison for this point. They are, by far, the most light-hearted of the volume. It terms of a story construct, they compare with places of respite Tolkien gives his readers at Rivendell and Lorien in volume one. Both serve to freshen the story and shift their respective narratives from one thing to another. In first half of the book, the respite comes just before the final confrontation with Saruman, admittedly a good ways into the story. Respite occurs again about one-third of the way through the second half as the Hobbits pass from the Great Black Gate of Mordor to their encounter with Faramir’s troop skirmishing with Haradrim.

TT might contain Tolkien’s most powerful environmental passages. The revenge of the trees upon the Orcs of Isengard is fantasy at its best. Tolkien most definitely casts the firing of the vast furnaces at Isengard by cutting and burning a large chunk of Fangorn Forest as the stuff of work and industrialization. Nature is marred and made as desolate. But, rather than interject some predictable notion of protecting nature, Tolkien allows nature to take care of itself through the Huorns massacre of Orcs at the terrifying end to the Battle of Helm’s Deep.

It is of special interest to note that Tolkien uses the word “company” uncapitalized and “Company” capitalized very intentionally. In FOTR the “Company” meant the Nine chosen by Elrond to carry the Ring. It is used with exactly the distinction in TT. In TT there are numerous “companies” mentioned, company of men and even company of kings. None of these companies are the Company in Tolkien’s tale. It is obvious that Tolkien held the Fellowship above any other company in the story. Again, this is something I did not notice my first reading or two of the trilogy.

Tolkien displays a marvelous piece of story-telling when he devotes three chapters to the endless rocky, marshy gloom approaching Mordor. This is an actionless stretch of the narrative carried by the initial interactions of Frodo and Sam with Gollum and, simultaneously, the Tolkien’s literary creation of the space of this evil and desolate place.

“It was dreary and wearisome. Cold clammy winter still held sway in this forsaken country. The only green was the scum of livid weed on the dark greasy surfaces of the sullen waters. Dead grasses and rotting reeds loomed up in the mists like ragged shadows of long-forgotten summers.

“As the day wore on the light increased a little, and the mists lifted, growing thinner and more transparent. Far above the rot and vapors of the world the Sun was riding high and golden now in a serene country with floors of dazzling foam, but only a passing ghost of her could they see below, bleared, pale, giving no color and no warmth. But even at this faint reminder of her presence Gollum scowled and flinched. He halted their journey, and they rested, squatting like hunted animals, in the borders of a great round reed-thicket. There was a deep silence, only scrapped on its surfaces by the faint quiver of empty seed-plumes, and broken grass-blades trembling in small air-movements that they could not feel.” (page 295)

“Frodo looked around in horror. Dreadful as the Dead Marshes had been, the arid moors of the Noman-lands, more loathsome far was the country that the crawling day now slowly unveiled to his shrinking eyes. Even to the Mere of Dead Faces some haggard phantom of green spring would come; but here neither spring nor summer would ever come again. Here nothing lived, not even the leprous growths that feed the rottenness. The gasping pools were choked with ash and crawling muds, sickly white and grey, as if the mountains had vomited the filth of their entrails upon the lands about. High mounds of crushed and powdered rock, great cone of earth fire-blasted and poison-stained, stood like an obscene graveyard in endless rows, slowly revealed in the reluctant light.

“They had come to the desolation that lay before Mordor: the lasting monument to the dark labor of its slaves that should endure when all their purposes were made void; a land defiled, diseased beyond all healing – unless the Great Sea should enter in and wash it with oblivion. ‘I feel sick,’ said Sam. Frodo did not speak.” (page 302)

For me, one of the mysteries of the trilogy is why Faramir is not tempted to take the One Ring. Tolkien made this character as strong as Aragorn in this fashion, as strong as Gandalf and Galadriel, and not weak like Boromir, his older brother. Perhaps Faramir was an idealist, but if so to what ideal? Nothing greater than the glory of Gondor is ever mentioned and his father is the Steward of Gondor, a semi-royal heritage. Faramir is, therefore, a prince of sorts and yet he isn’t tempted to take the Ruling Ring and use it for Gondor’s defense – Boromir’s primary motivation.

But, Faramir is well-acquainted with "Isildur's Bane." He uses the phrase frequently when questioning Frodo. He seems wise enough to know both the power and the danger of it. Perhaps Faramir knows that, under the weight of Boromir’s death, Denethor would merely order the Ring for himself. Perhaps, Faramir saw that madness and turned away. It is a fascinating thing to consider. For, while Tolkien certainly paints Faramir as intelligent, astute, and even caring but proud, yet Tolkien casts him as somehow rather risking defeat in the face of overwhelming odds than attempting to grasp victory through a power beyond his control. In the end, I think that - where the Ring is concerned - the fear of unintended consequences cautions and guides Faramir (as it did Gandalf and Galadriel in FOTR) away from the "promise" of the power to vanquish any foe. In this way, Faramir "shows his quality" and can be counted among the wisest characters in the trilogy.

There is a bit of controversy among members of Tolkien academia. Tolkien never specified, so the claim goes, exactly which “two towers” are the ones to which the title refers. There are many towers in this part of the narrative. Part One, with significant references Isengard and Barad-dur, leads some Tolkienites to contend these are the towers. But, in Part Two, both Minus Morgal and the Tower at Cirith Ungol are named. Throughout both sections Minas Tirith is mentioned many times. Technically, it is a city but it has its own tower too.

I took the time, and use of my PC, to count the number of occurances of various towers mentioned in the text. The name Isengard appears 129 times throughout the whole of TT. But, interestingly, Barad-dur is used only a dozen times. You can throw in another 10 references to "the Dark Tower" (another name for Barad-dur) and run that count to a total of 22. Minas Tirith is mentioned a respectable 31 times while Minas Morgal is used only 10 times, all toward the end of Part Two. If you count the times Minas Ithil, the Morgal tower’s previous name in history, you can add another 8 appearances.

These numbers tell you a few things. Obviously, Isengard, which is also mentioned another 55 times as “Orthanc” (for a total of 184!), is one of the towers. It is almost impossible not to pick it. The Battle of Isengard, though smaller than Helm’s Deep, takes place there involving an army of Ents. That’s kind of a rare event. It is there that Pippin and Merry end up. Yet, Minas Tirith is very much a part of TT though no one ever goes there. A large number of characters mention the place throughout the story, which speaks highly for its importance in Tolkien’s world. But, it is difficult for me to choose this as the second tower because, as I mentioned, it never physically appears in the volume.

Frodo and Sam pass by and witness Minas Morgul, however. Tolkien describes it for us (pp. 396 – 397). It seems to me that a reader must choose the two towers that the characters actually visit and behold in volume two. That is Minas Morgul and Isengard. An outside consideration could theoretically be the Tower at Cirith Ungol, but it doesn’t properly show up in the narrative until volume three. Sam sees the top of it before he swoons at the end of TT. That brief appearance merely merits its mention as a tower in the novel and not its importance in volume two.

I don’t know whether or not this is the consensus in Tolkien scholarship. It is certainly an ambiguity that everyone seems to appreciate. The two towers might be Isengard and Barad-dur. Tolkien connects them closely in his text when Gandalf says: “There was some link between Isengard and Mordor, which I have not yet fathomed. How they exchanged news I am not sure; but they did so. The Eye of Barad-dur will be looking impatiently towards the Wizard’s Vale, I think, and towards Rohan. The less it seems the better.” (pp. 247-248) For me, however, the matter is not so ambiguous. All you have to do is go back to the very end of FOTR and read the easily glossed over and forgotten brief highlights of coming attractions. There Tolkien writes, plain as day: “The second part is called THE TWO TOWERS, since the events recounted in it are dominated by ORTHANC, the citadel of Saruman, and the fortress of MINAS MORGUL that guards the secret entrance into Mordor.” (The capitalization is Tolkien’s.)

Every time I read LOTR I am reminded how Tolkien cleverly uses the Hobbits as guideposts for the narrative. It might seem upon a first reading that Gandalf and Pippin going to Minas Tirith after Pippin’s episode with the Orthanc Stone is mostly about Gandalf and the aid the wizard can offer. But, it is really Pippin’s story. Tolkien only explores the surface of the emotions and thoughts of other major characters. With the Hobbits, however, Tolkien always goes deeper into their motivations and feelings. He does this in a way with which the reader can empathize. All the emotional depth for the trilogy is built upon the intimacy of the hobbits wherever they might appear in the narrative.

It was, after all, only because of the success of The Hobbit that LOTR came to be written at all. Otherwise it would never occurred to Tolkien, whose focus was always on The Silmarillion, to develop hobbits as beings in his world. But, because Tolkien presents Hobbits in a very human way it allows the reader to identify with with them, find humor in them, and understand their individual faults and bravery.

TT ends with all the hobbits separated. Sam is at Cirith Ungol, Frodo is taken prisoner just after Sam has engaged the giant spider Shelob in battle. Throughout Sam’s role in TT we begin to see the emergence of a heroism that is different from the other hobbits. Frodo carries the weight of the One Ring but it is Sam that is constantly fighting for his trust and friendship and, ultimately, for his life. Frodo drifts more and more into the Ring and, therefore, into himself, thus he often meanders through the narrative, passively allowing things to just happen to him. He reacts. Sam is the one who becomes proactive between the two.

Pippin and Merry also take action, though they are separated as well. Their arrival in Fangorn Forest awakens the Ents and starts the downfall of Saruman. Pippin is seen by Sauron through the Palantir. After that he becomes more like Frodo, helpless, passive, events take place around him. Merry, though secondary to Pippin in the later chapters of this section of narrative, has sworn himself to the service of King Théoden and is involved with the muster of Riders.

The chess pieces are now all in place for the climatic conclusion. On to The Return of the King!

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