This week we are pleased to continue our series of reviews written by Mike Foster, emeritus professor of Illinois Central College. This review was originally pubished in Gilbert! The Magazine of the American Chesterton Society in 2004, and is reprinted here with the author’s permission.
The Two Towers by J.R.R. Tolkien
Considering it was not written to be published as a trilogy, The Lord of the Rings’ second installment ends as a cliffhanger should, with an excruciating plot turn, despair and hope clashing in the final sentences: “He [Sam] was out in the dark. Frodo was alive but taken by the Enemy.”
Published in November, 1954, three months after the first volume and eleven months before the last, The Two Towers is three stories told in two books.
Book III is a macrocosm, a vast expansion introducing many new characters with, of course, much new history in an unmatched pair of discrete plotlines. The trials of Aragorn, Legolas, Gimli, and the resurrected Gandalf alternate chapters with the adventures of Merry and Pippin from Orcish captivity to feral Fangorn forest. The bifurcated story conjoins at Isengard in the eucatastrophic defeat of Saruman; there these six of the Fellowship happily reunite, only to be sundered again on the last page.
Tolkien’s enrichments are both plural and particular. Much more Elf and Dwarf lore is learned through the banter betokening the growing, grudging friendship of Legolas and Gimli, as familiarity trumps racial and familial enmity. Merry and Pippin emerge as two distinct characters, no longer Hobbitdee and Hobbitdum. With Treebeard and the Ents, yet another character, race, language, and sad history is added to the lore of Middle-earth.
But Men dominate as the most important characters here. This volume begins with Boromir’s heroic confession, repentance, and absolution by death. Though Rohan’s Theoden, Eowyn, Grima, and Eomer are aloof from the Ring story—do they even know the Great Rings exist?—these ostensibly minor characters are among the most memorable depicted in The Lord of the Rings. They incarnate Tolkien’s admiration for the Old English language and the folk who spoke it.
Theoden, the old king, begins his rebirth from despair by a simple act: agreeing to heed Gandalf’s courageous counsel, standing up and going out of doors. These first steps out of darkness will end in a golden blaze of glory.
Tolkien’s most well-drawn female character is the fair, brave shield-maiden Eowyn, Theoden’s niece. Her teenage-crush awe of Aragorn coupled with her will to fight foes alongside the men are strong threads well-spun here to be knotted in The Return of the King.
Champions of G. K. Chesterton’s The Ballad of the White Horse will likely find the Rohan chapters their favorites, vividly evoking “Age beyond age on British land,/ Aeons on aeons gone,/ Was peace and war in western hills,/ And the White Horse looked on.”
An intense close-up of three characters, Book IV’s microcosm contrasts sharply with the populous panoramic scenes preceding. Through Sam’s loyal eyes, we witness the disintegration of his beloved master Frodo under the weight of the Ring.
Sam’s strength waxes as his master’s wanes. He is the first hobbit in this story to face a monster and win.
His simple love for Frodo, however, incorporates a simple hate of Gollum, who reappears as a character more complex than the subterranean homesick riddler of The Hobbit: Smeagol, as Gollum was before the Ring possessed him. Trust him or not, they must accept his guidance. Evil and pitiable, sinister and sad, Gollum is Tolkien’s most unique character—or characters.
The Two Towers’ great hope comes, finally, from a Man. Faramir withstands the temptation that doomed his brother; he will not take the Ring from Frodo. Less dramatic than Boromir’s valiant death, Faramir’s act of denial signifies much more. Whatever the Ring is, a mortal can reject it.
In 1954, readers had to wait eleven months to discover if Frodo would. You needn’t.