The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers (Re-Read)

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

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The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers (Re-Read)

The Hero With A Thousand Faces

Author: Joseph Campbell

Audiobook or Real Book: Audiobook read by Arthur Morey, John Lee, and Susan Denaker

Why I Read It: The Hero With A Thousand Faces is one of those classics that  I had always heard I should read, but had never read.  And the hero’s journey was one of those things that I always heard about, but had never known any details of how it worked

General Thoughts: I feel like I always start these Book Notes justifying some personal issue I had with fully appreciating the book, but what can I say—I’m a complainer.  Normally I love audiobooks.  I wasn’t particularly worried about listening to a proper nonfiction audiobook because, even though it’s easier for your attention to wander with an audiobook, I have at times used the basic text-to-speech tools to listen to my library school readings when they are too boring to actually read and have never had a problem.  But I struggled to stay focused on Campbell.  I think, however, the problem had less to do with the contents of the book and more to do with the way it was read.  While Morey, Lee, and Denaker all seem like lovely readers in their own right, and I’m sure the intent of the editors was to imitate some style in the printed book, the shifts between who was speaking seemed incredibly random. At first, I thought one of the men was there to read the myths and male dreams and Denaker was there to read the female dreams, but then someone would read something that didn’t seem to be part of their assigned reading and throw the whole thing off-balance.  I can’t say that was wholly to blame for the straying of my attention but I do think it was the most significant culprit, especially since I most often found myself losing focus at a speaker change.  That said, while I do feel like I missed a lot more of this book than I have of any audiobook I’ve ever listened to, I still feel like I read it—maybe just skimmed a few parts.

One thing that completely shocked me about Campbell’s work was how reliant it was on Freud and psychoanalysis.  As I said, I knew very little of Campbell going into this book and really hadn’t expected any psychology at all, certainly not a psychology based on Freud.  It makes sense, of course, but it startled me that the prologue was all about explaining to me the significance and genius of Freud’s work and how it can help us understand myths across culture.  Especially since I’m not used to seeing pretty much all of Freud’s theory taken as indisputable fact.  Alongside my surprise at the abundance of Freudian psychology, I was also surprised—and amused—that Campbell used the dreams of seemingly random people as evidence of his points.  I’m not going to say he was wrong to do so, I know far too little of psychology and dream theory to do so, but I’m also not going to deny that seemed a bit ridiculous from an outsider’s perspective.  A bit like Campbell was using the pop-psychology of his day as indisputable proof of his theories.

That said, Campbell’s theories were pretty fascinating in their own right.  I’ve never been one of those people who loves old mythologies.  Despite what I said about having just reread American Gods and God: A Biography and my fascination with their implications, I was never one of those people that ate up the Greek, Egyptian, or Roman mythologies that we learned about in school.  I may have adored Percy Jackson but I never really cared about the stories his story was based on.  And, while maybe when I finally get around to reading Homer I’ll feel otherwise, for the most part, I’m more interested in the modern social influence of religion and the mechanics of belief within the lives of an individual than discovering the stories of ancient myth.  Maybe it’s this lack of knowledge that made Campbell’s repeated examples of near identical myths and symbols across cultures feel so revolutionary to me, but there were times when my jaw dropped at just how easily and how closely he could draw the parallel from one myth to another—especially when those mythologies came from cultures that were as geographically far apart as it seemed possible to be.  I can see why his fame has endured if for no other reason than bringing these similarities into the popular consciousness.  But his analysis of these myths, if sometimes too rooted in Freud and supported by dreams, seemed to raise a lot of interesting points for consideration as well.  I think perhaps his most interesting idea was how myths do and do not deal with ideas of duality and forced binaries.  I also liked when he called out a number of religions, including Christianity, for the violence of their followers.

One other note, between this book and God: A Biography I have been struck over and over again by how much the world has historically hated women—in ways I really didn’t fully comprehend prior to these past few weeks.  I consider myself decently well versed in the feminist ideology of today and therefore decently aware of the struggles that women face—at least in the United States—but seeing the way mythology and religion have historically talked about women has been painful.  It’s not that I’ve been surprised by anything I’ve read, but I definitely was surprised by what it felt like to confront it even through the distant proxy of an old white dude writing about myth and religion.  One particularly powerful moment for me was when Campbell argued, quite casually, that one of the purposes of monotheistic religions may have been to scrub the idea femininity from the divine.  Or if that wasn’t one of the purposes, it was at least one of the results for a long time.  Which also recalls the point Miles made that the action the Israelites took during the life of Moses that seemed to offend him most was placing an icon of a female deity within his house near his alter.  I’m really not sure what to do with this except feel even more uncomfortable with the social influence religion has on the modern world than I did a few weeks ago.

Quotes: (I tried using audible bookmarks and I don’t think I have the hang of it yet)

“The happy ending of the fairy tale, the myth, and the divine comedy of the soul, is to be read, not as a contradiction, but as a transcendence of the universal tragedy of man. The objective world remains what it was, but, because of a shift of emphasis within the subject, is beheld as though transformed” (Chapter 3 Timestamp 7:43)

“Where the moralist would be filled with indignation and the tragic poet with pity and terror, mythology breaks the whole of life into a vast, horrendous Divine Comedy. Its Olympian laugh is not escapist in the least, but hard, with the hardness of life itself—which, we may take it, is the hardness of God, the Creator. Mythology, in this respect, makes the tragic attitude seem somewhat hysterical, and the merely moral judgment shortsighted” (Chapter 5 Timestamp 13:35)

“Mythology has been interpreted by the modern intellect as a primitive, fumbling effort to explain the world of nature (Frazer); as a production of poetical fantasy from prehistoric times, misunderstood by succeeding ages (Muller); as a repository of allegorical instruction, to shape the individual to his group (Durkheim); as a group dream, symptomatic of archetypal urges within the depths of the human psyche (Jung); as the traditional vehicle of man’s profoundest metaphysical insights (Coomaraswamy); and as God’s Revelation to His children (the Church). Mythology is all of these. The various judgments are determined by the viewpoints of the judges. For when scrutinized in terms not of what it is but of how it functions” (Chapter 44 Timestamp 2:55)

Essay Ideas/Further Questions: Before coming to this section of the write-up I went a week and a half missing all my scheduled writing time for book notes and now it’s been so long I can’t remember what this book made me think about.  No essay ideas I know (I’m considering eliminating the “essay ideas/further questions” phrasing and just doing essay ideas for fiction and further questions for nonfiction), but I think I had some further questions thoughts????

For sure this book made me want to learn more about Freud’s work as well as look into the work of Carl Jung, just because they were clearly so influential on it.  That’s all I’ve got.

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

The Hero With A Thousand Faces