Two threads

Perrott’s Folly, Edgbaston, Birmingham, built 1758, 96 ft (29 metres) in height. Photo credit: Dominic Tooze.

The Two Towers
by J R R Tolkien.
The Lord of the Rings, Vol. 2.
HarperCollins 2012.(1954)

First there were nine. Then two were overcome by the Enemy’s minions. Two quietly slipped off and two others were captured, followed by the remaining three going on what appeared to be a wild goose chase. The fellowship so carefully put together to combat the Enemy is in complete disarray. Is the quest doomed?

The first part of The Lord of the Rings had us following an expedition eastwards from the Shire to Rivendell, where the Fellowship of the Ring was established. By devious routes the dwindling company then headed south to the point where the irrevocable split occurred, meaning a single strand narrative is no longer feasible if we are to keep track of the various players.

Thus begins The Two Towers, the central portion of Tolkien’s massive opus, when our focus shifts, now to the east, now the west, in a dangerous game of distraction, duplicity and bluff.

The Ring, the Palantír and the Eye: Tolkien’s own design for the original dust jackets

The second part of Tolkien’s epic fantasy is made up of two main threads that run more or less simultaneously (though presented consecutively). Book Three deals with the hobbits Merry and Pippin’s abduction by Saruman’s orcs, with their trail being followed by Aragorn, Legolas and Gimli, and consequently the siege of Helm’s Deep and the counter-siege of Saruman’s tower Orthanc. Book Four follows Frodo and Sam across barren wastelands towards Mordor, first the Black Gate and then Cirith Ungol, guided by the tricksy Sméagol.

All the while the Eye of Sauron is surveying Middle-earth as though it were a chessboard, moving his pieces in the hopes of achieving his endgame with the mastery of all; but soon we begin to fathom that major distractions from the progress of pawns who may ultimately defeat his purpose are steadily having their effect.

© C A Lovegrove

If, as a reviewer for the Sunday Times wrote, “The English-speaking world is divided into those who have read The Lord of the Rings and those who are going to,” then those who have read it could be further divided into those who read it multiple times and those for whom once is more than enough. I myself belong in the first camp, and so sometimes indulge in a little introspection trying to establish exactly why. It’s not just that I’m often finding new perspectives or appreciating old ones, making each read a pleasurable experience; it’s that the epic serves as a metaphor for life’s journey, a reminder that merely existing day to day is often a struggle, interspersed with bright episodes if one is lucky. The Two Towers encapsulates this figure of speech with its focus on the four hobbits, who in representing aspects of our human selves allow us to imagine how we individually would react when faced with the challenges, dilemmas or even delights that Middle-earth offers.

Frodo and Sam, in their struggle to enter Mordor, typify companionship – albeit one which socially may be unequal – as they remain true to the task they’ve accepted. Merry and Pippin on the other hand, being more happy-go-lucky (and, until this volume, almost indistinguishable one from the other) will have to dig deep to find a sense of purpose, a purpose which will only really be tested in the next volume. Consciously or not Tolkien may perhaps have modelled the quartet according to the theory of the Four Humours – melancholic, phlegmatic, sanguine, and choleric – as personified respectively in Frodo, Sam, Merry, and Pippin.

© C A Lovegrove

Across the landscape of his secondary world Tolkien has the hobbits, human, wizard, elf and dwarf of the now broken fellowship crawling, or being carried, or riding, to occasions of great import in the War of the Ring: battles with orcs, alliances with humans and Ents, encounters with oliphaunts and a monstrous spider, unfortunate betrayals and unexpected kindnesses. And yet all through the anxiety and action there exist moments of quiet, and lyricism, and great beauty.

What of the towers of this second volume? One may well be Saruman’s refuge Orthanc at Isengard, but whether the other is Cirith Ungol or Barad-dûr or some other isn’t clear and, indeed, may not really matter. But after the symbols of union in the first volume – the One Ring, the formation of the fellowship – the second volume accentuates sundering, fragmentation, multiplicity. With the third volume we look forward to the culmination of the Third Age and anticipate resolution of all ills, but it won’t be accomplished easily – or without loss.

Review posted as part of my #TalkingTolkien discussion series focusing mainly on The Lord of the Rings and for the #1954Club run by Karen and Simon looking at titles published in that year

8 thoughts on “Two threads

  1. This middle part is always my favorite of this favorite book. I thought it was because it was safely in the middle, the way July is safely in the middle of summer, the deepest part. But maybe it’s the “reminder that merely existing day to day is often a struggle, interspersed with bright episodes if one is lucky,” as you put it.

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    1. Hah, a metaphor for life as it is lived now, d’you reckon? Swept hither and yon by the tides of fate… I suppose the relief of Helm’s Deep is a high point though, when the defenders are reminded to “look to the east!”


  2. Well, without giving too much away, I’ve been reading this for 1954, and was struck like you re the two strands of the narrative. Of course, I think you mentioned that he was not entirely happy with three volumes, and if each book had been published individually (so 6 volumes) that change of focus might not have been so pointed. I loved reading it anyway (I am in the camp of having read it multiple times).

    Re the towers of the title, I had read this as the Towers of Teeth at either side of the Black Gate but I may be wrong…


    1. Ooh, I’m looking forward to your take on this! Strands? It’s possible to argue, as you may remember I discussed (, that the two strands of this middle volume are an aspect of Tolkien’s conscious or subconscious use of interlace technique for this narrative.

      As for the title, I believe JRRT was spur-of-the-moment bumped by his publisher into adding titles to the three volumes, in addition to the individual titles of the books. Despite the snappy label ‘The Two Towers’ apparently doesn’t refer to any particular structure. But it’s fun speculating! 😄

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  3. I’ve read it multiple times, though not apparently since I met my husband (handy to have him to check with! Do you remember me reading LotR? No? – we did watch all the films together on successive New Year’s Days!) and am not sure why except I do like to re-read. I’m due another go, more reason to hack through the physical TBR … Lovely to see a bit of my home town in the first pic, too. I always think the University Clock Tower is the Eye of Sauron …

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    1. Yes, Minas Morgul and Minas Tirith were supposed to have been inspired by Perrott’s Folly and Edgbaston Tower, weren’t they, and Chamberlain clocktower Sauron’s Eye (at least this is the summary at A former student of mine let me use his photo of the Folly, for which I’m grateful.

      Do hack through the TBR tower, though! Perhaps 2024 will be your year to revisit? It’ll be 70 years since the volumes started appearing – and also election year when, who knows, another despoiling regime will be defeated…

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  4. I remember the reading where I specifically tried to figure out which 2 towers were meant, and I concluded it was Saruman vs Sauron: the two orc bands, Saruman’s attack at Helm’s deep, the palantir and Nazgul connecting the Lidless Eye with the White Hand.

    BTW, I’m one of those who reread LOTR regularly, but I have to admit that Book 4 (featuring Frodo and Sam on their way to Mordor) is one I frequently skip. Yawn! I miss Pippin and Merry, and even the competitive sniping of Legolas and Gimli.

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    1. Much like you I am somewhat inclined, bearing in mind that several towers are evident, to assume the pair of towers are symbolic of Saruman’s and Sauron’s individual power, one contrasted with the other. In one of my future Talking Tolkien posts I want to discuss ‘doublets’, pairs of individuals to compare and contrast according to their functions, appearances and relationships with each other. I think you can guess what some of those pairings might be!

      Oddly I enjoyed the Frodo and Sam threads this time as much as the others after the breaking of the fellowship, though if it hadn’t been for watching the film trilogy (especially the extended DVD collection) their journey would’ve been hazier and less immediate than I remembered from earlier reads.

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