Author: JRR Tolkien
Audiobook or Real Book: Real Book
Why I Read It: I read Fellowship for my first fiction real book of the summer so naturally Two Towers had to be the second
Plot Synopsis: After the company escorting Frodo on his quest to destroy the One Ring falls apart he and Sam must carry on to Mordor without the aid of their friends. Meanwhile, Frodo and Sam’s former companions must contend with the growing specter of Isengard.
General Thoughts: In my book notes on The Fellowship of the Ring I spent a great deal of time criticizing Tolkien’s approach to character. I acknowledged that, since it had been years since I’d read the trilogy and Fellowship was Frodo’s story, that I may be proven wrong in The Two Towers. I wasn’t. I will acknowledge that perhaps this was confirmation bias. Maybe I missed something because I was sure of my correctness, but for these book notes, I stand by my position. I would also like to say, in the fairly likely event that anyone who might stumble on this probably didn’t also stumble across my book notes on Fellowship, that I am a huge Tolkien fan and love him dearly despite our disagreements on characterization. I will also say I have and do understand that there are benefits to creating flat or archetypal characters I am just personally not in love with the method. I will also acknowledge, that I have a tendency to view these books as inextricable from the movies and, particularly with characters, are often unable to disentangle their relationship properly. In this book, far more than Fellowship, I found myself drawing heavy comparisons to the characterization in the films. As we moved on from Frodo’s story in Fellowship I had hoped to see further development from a few key characters: Merry, Pippen, Sam, and Aragorn, while I had hoped Théoden and Gollum might be the new characters that offered some complexity.
I was probably most disappointed in Merry and Pippen, particularly in relationship to the film. In the book, Merry and Pippen’s characters differ very little from each other and most of the agency that the film bestows one them at this stage of the story, convincing Treebeard to defeat Saruman, is largely absent. They do have moments of resilience and courage, particularly when dealing with orc captors at the beginning of the book, but nothing that would set them apart from the rest of the fellowship. Sam receives a bit more depth. We see his stubborn and courageous loyalty to his master cause him to speak “out of turn” (I know Sam and Frodo’s master-servant relationship is fairly positive for what it is and that it is decently historically accurate, but goddamn did it offend my 21st century American sensibilities more than ever before this time around). Furthermore, when Tolkien decides to leave a more third person omniscient POV for time spent with a single character POV it tends to be Sam or Gimli that get his focus and any writer worth their salt can make a POV character feel complex and elicit empathy (and Tolkien is definitely a writer worth his salt). As for Aragorn, I really didn’t feel any differently about his character than I did in the first book. Gimli too, despite getting POV, only feels complicated when we get inside his head for the barest glimpse (and I’ll be honest, since I fell behind in doing my book notes over the last two weeks it’s been a few weeks since I actually read the book, I can’t really remember if he gets a POV in Towers or if his only POV is the paths of the dead in King).
Gollum is one of Tolkien better characters. His relationship with the ring, our understanding of his history, and the personality he displays combine to create a compelling character. He is at times pathetic, amusing, clever, frustrating, and truly evil. Yet at no point does the audience lose sight of his tragedy or his motivations. He is undoubtedly a villain, with the book making far less explicit his brief time as a genuine friend to Sam and Frodo than the film, but unlike Sauron or Saruman, the audience is asked to empathize with him. The power of the ring has been made clear through Boromir and its influence on Gollum is understandable. Even his strange relationship with Shelob helps paint a picture of a man who is both absolutely desperate and impressively resourceful. Although Tolkien certainly doesn’t forgive Gollum his transgressions he does encourage the audience to truly understand why he behaves the way he does. As for Theoden, I would say his character here is roughly on par with the depth of character in the film which in the book makes him more complex than many, but far from the most interesting character of the story. Where the filmgoer sees Théoden’s doubts and fatalism at Helm’s Deep—Tolkien displays it more deeply in Edoras. Théoden has fallen prey to Wormtounge but Tolkien’s language attributes this as much to Théoden’s own despair as the trickery of Wormtounge. As for Faramir, accuse me of not respecting Tolkien’s work, but I much prefer Jackson’s interpretation of him. The purpose he serves in this book appears to be to reinforce the value of Numenorian royal blood and redeem the hope of there being good men in the world. Neither of which I needed as Aragorn and Rohan both served this purpose nicely. And while I get that the workings of the ring in the book are more subtle and complex than in the film his dismissal of it at this stage feels like something of a mockery of Frodo’s pain and fear. I suppose this also serves as an introduction for his role in the next book, but I’ll reserve my thoughts on that until those book notes. In short, he serves as much narrative purpose as Tom Bombadil and results in far less interesting questions about the world of Middle Earth or the nature of power.
Beyond character most of what I have to say about Tolkien’s writing I said in my notes on Fellowship and anything I might want to say about the themes of the trilogy I’d rather wait until I write about Return of the King to address them. However, I do have one more thing I’d like to talk about before wrapping up these book notes. One radical difference between Towers and Fellowship is Tolkien’s increased use of suspense to create drama and keep readers engaged. He mostly does this by cutting away to an alternate storyline and leaving the reader to wonder about what happens next. In fact, the suspense level of the story decreases when he goes back to Frodo and Sam and follows one storyline for all of book IV. (He still does manage to inject suspense into Book IV though by revealing bits and pieces of Gollum’s plan to regain the ring without giving away any real details). This technique could feel a bit cheap, like a TV show ending an episode on a cliff-hanger every week, but the fact that Tolkien never cuts away at a point of real action, only looming danger, helps it feel far more authentic. My favorite example is when Gimili, Legolas, and Aragorn think they see Saruman on the edge of Fangorn. The final lines of the chapter are unsettling and although they are not in immediate danger we know it could be lurking right around the corner. Nothing comes of this they continue their journey the next morning and we discover later that it was Gandalf all along, but we get 2 chapters with Merry and Pippen in between, leaving us with a lurking sense of fear as to what might happen to them. Still, the fear is not so intense that we feel manipulated when it turns out the threat was false. Probably the most manipulative suspense is the end of the book when we don’t know what will happen to Frodo. This in and of itself isn’t manipulative and only become so when the rest of the fellowship discover his “death” in the next book before we return to his story. But even this feels authentic because the structure of King is exactly the same as the structure of Towers, so we don’t feel manipulated (and I wouldn’t even really say that we are).
Quotes: “But then the Great Darkness came, and they passed over the Sea, or fled into the valleys, or hid themselves, and made songs about the days that would never come again. Never again” (84)
“The wise speak only of what they know” (140)
“It was Sam’s first view of a battle of Men against Men, and he did not like it much. He was glad he could not see the dead face. He wondered what the man’s name was and where he came from; and if he was really evil of heart, or what lies or threats had led him on the long march from his home; and if he would not really rather have stayed there in peace” (317)
Essay Ideas: Save for Return of the King
Last Thing: It feels incredibly uncomfortable and presumptuous to make a comment to a reader here. The idea that anyone would read 1000+ words of reader response, let alone find anything I have to say remotely worth thinking about, seems incredibly awkward and arrogant. But, I also know I would regret not saying it: if you have anything you would like to discuss or debate about anything I have said I would love to talk to you about it. Just comment. Hopefully, if anyone reads this they won’t judge me too hard for saying that