For my first review of Wyrd & Wonder, I wanted to do something with a famous forest. The Two Towers delivers on that. However, the forest of Fangorn isn’t the main attraction when it comes to the middle book of Tolkien’s famous trilogy. So what is?
Well, first off, nevermind two towers, this is a book of two halves. Or perhaps better to say, a book of two books. The first half, book three of Lord of the Rings, concerns the members of the fellowship who end up in Rohan. The second half, book four, is about Frodo and Samwise making their way to Mordor. It’s kinda fun to look at how Tolkien does it, and compare it to how a writer today would do it – I’m guessing far more switching between chapters would happen. In any case, my memory of the book was always far more focused on book three rather than book four. So let’s start there, shall we?
The fellowship’s time in Rohan is perhaps the most archetypically epic fantasy Lord of the Rings gets. There’s daring escapes, enemies turned to friends, war and healing, dramatic confrontations, fantastical things and everyday things, whimsy and the feeling of ancient myth. In other words, Tolkien put every idea on the plate and where you think the ingredients might clash, they all go together wonderfully. That was one small part of his genius.
Another very obvious part of course was his ability to evoke a world. I don’t think we know all that much about the Rohirrim, and a lot of what we’re told about Fangorn I forget, but goodness does it feel real. Somewhere you want to be, or perhaps not at times if you’re Gimli. The difference too between outsiders’ views of Fangorn, and Pippin’s and Merry’s experience within, is smartly done too. So too is the characterisation. We don’t spend long with the likes of Hama or Grima Wormtongue, but they come through sharply. For all the talk of Tolkien’s long leisurely passages of description, he couldn’t half get a point across quickly when he wanted to.
The star ingredient of book three though is all those big confrontations, particularly when Gandalf is on the loose. He is simply far too much fun to read about as he chews through Gimli, through Grima, and definitely through Saruman. Helm’s Deep is deservedly iconic. Pippin’s and Merry’s escape is very fine too. If you take Lord of the Rings as one book, this should be the murky middle, but there’s nothing murky here thanks to the power of drama.
Book four by contrast is very personal, quite slow, and almost horror-like. For a lot of it there’s just three people in some bizarre, tense version of Waiting for Godot. I’ve read it, I know I have, I know the plot to inside out and upside down, but I don’t think I’ve ever read it and appreciated this much before.
The core of it is Frodo changing and Samwise not changing, all with the weight of the world weighing on their shoulders. Gollum function almost as an avatar of that weight, a living reminder of how terrible the ring can be and how close danger can be. I really admire how Sam’s half-comprehension of the bond between Frodo and Gollum works. I love his humour too, and the way his suspicion of Gollum waxes and wanes. In a lot of ways, it’s Sam’s PoV that carries this section, and he’s such a wonderful observer of the world it works wonderfully. As for Shelob – ick. Ick ick ick.
Revisiting The Two Towers has given me a strange sensation of having less patience with Tolkien’s prose, but also more liking for it. I’m not a huge audiobook person but I think I might make an exception for this, as it feels like it was meant to be read out loud so much. And I will certainly revisit it again in some form, some day. I like my old books, but a lot of them are best read once and then kept in the memory. The Two Towers however demands to be relived again, no matter how well I know it.