Saturday, June 2, 2012
The Two Towers
Author: J.R.R. Tolkien
Being the middle child is hard. You're expected to live up to that standard set by your older sibling, and you don't get the benefit of being the baby of the family. You have to work harder to show your excellence, and if you're deficient in any way to the former, you're a disappointment. Fortunately, J.R.R. Tolkien's The Two Towers brings the deeper, darker, braver soul of Middle-Earth out in spectacular colors.
The shortest of the three novels, The Two Towers covers an unbelievable amount of material in a short space of time, both page-wise and chronologically (the whole novel covers the space of about eighteen days). Tolkien was forced to choose a title quickly due to deadlines, which he expressed dissatisfaction with later, but fits the events in the novel well. The preface is full of the author's subtle opinions, including a statement on the title, so it's up to the reader to decide how he felt about it in the end. In fact, every reader can find a different chord of Tolkien's voice in the detached but evocative prose.
Picking up where The Fellowship of the Ring left off, The Two Towers chronicles Aragorn, Legolas, and Gimli's hunt to find Merry and Pippin, who have been taken captive by the Orcs of Isengard after the battle on the banks of the Anduin River. After they learn that Merry and Pippin are in fact safe, they come to the land of Rohan, which is in dire peril from Saruman, the corrupted lord of Isengard. Meanwhile, Frodo and Sam have crossed the river alone to continue their journey to destroy the Ring in Mordor. They strike a tentative deal with the wretched Gollum (a fascinating, twisted character who never fails to provide comic relief), and he becomes their guide into Mordor. All the while, the days grow darker and the battle for Middle-Earth grows nearer.
Tolkien's affinity for huge, epic battles builds in The Two Towers, from the last march of the Ents-- who are some of the most unique creatures and funny characters-- on Isengard to the spectacle at Helm's Deep. Peter Jackson's adaptation of that battle is up to par, matching the violence and triumph of the Eorlingas over the forces of Saruman.
Rohan is both the most stable and the most quavering nation in the series so far. They stand outside the actual battle with Mordor, concerned more with the effects of their nefarious neighbor, and yet their fate is irreversibly tied to that of the rest of Middle-Earth. When we first encounter the horse-lords, their king is caught in a spell of weakness, enchanted by the words of the appropriately-named Wormtongue. And yet, King Theoden is the strongest, most righteous ruler in the series. He is old and weary, recently deprived of his son, but he protects his people and is willing to ride to the aid of his old allies as soon as they need him. Rohan has the most stable society, not constantly on the brink of destruction, but a gloomy pall pervades the atmosphere. Perhaps it's the feeling of stagnancy, without that thrill that comes in the sight of death and danger.
The book is divided in half, with the former telling the story of Aragorn, Legolas, and Gimli completely before switching to the tale of Frodo and Sam as they journey through the dark into the dangerous mountains around Mordor. Although the overall mood of their journey is darker, it is lit with gems of people along the way, such as the pure-souled captain Faramir of Gondor and Smeagol/Gollum.
Gollum is Tolkien's finest creation. Twisted every way and a slave to something he is convinced that he loves, he is an ancient creature trapped within a body that still lives, wheedling and groveling to keep on living and serving the Ring's dark purpose. He calls it his "Precious," and every thought in his mind is bent upon having in his possession to drag back into a miserable existence beneath the Misty Mountains, and yet he hates it for making him go on and on in a quest that he hates. He refuses to travel beneath either the sun or the moon, he can only eat raw fish, and he speaks about himself in third person unless he's telling the truth. In short, he is a stroke of literary genius, and it will be many a year before we meet another character quite his equal.
Another purpose that Gollum serves, besides his obvious final role in the end of the Ring, is that he begins to show Sam how evil the world can be. Gollum was, 500 years before the story, very much like a hobbit, and at one point, Tolkien states that if the hobbits could have seen him at a particular time, they would have seen a very old, bent, weary hobbit. Sam begins to realize that Gollum is not inherently evil, and neither is anyone whom the Ring touches. Evil intentions, greed, and the forces of darkness corrupt them, despite the Ring's outward beauty. Each step that Frodo takes toward Mordor, he slips a little further into weariness and desperation, and yet does not succumb; Sam supports himw with every breath. The partnership between Frodo and Sam is one of the most beautiful friendships ever written, their dialogue flowing easily and cheerfully, bouncing lines off one another as they sit in the rocky crags of the Emyn Muil as if they were seated on on a bench in the Shire.
The Two Towers lives up to the legacy set by the first novel and paves the way for the epic conclusion of The Return of the King. As I've mentioned before, I first read these books when I was seven years old, and re-reading them now I obviously picked up on subtleties that I missed before beneath the rolling adventures and beautiful language. Bravery, strength, temptation, fear, and friendship are all woven between the characters and their struggles, but each of their personal demons appears slowly as we explore their thoughts deep inside each event surrounding them. Although it's short, this novel is the precious heart before the climax, endearing us inseparably to the characters before their fates go to the final precipice before the plunge.
Available for as low as $7.59 on the Kindle or $8.75 for a physical copy, The Two Towers is not to be missed. The library should have a copy, but it's absolutely worth the price to have this moving novel for your personal collection.