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Cynewulf Unraed presents a trip through Middle Earth, part 3: The Two Towers

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Let's just dive right in, shall we?

What it's about The Two Towers picks up immediately where the previous book left off. The fellowship has broken: having already (about 2/3 of the way through Fellowship) lost Gandalf, everything is sundered .when Boromir attempts to take the Ring from Frodo, Boromir is instantly remorseful, but his actions inspire Frodo to take off on his own, his faithful friend and servant Sam following close behind. Meanwhile, the rest of the fellowship has to contend with a raiding party of orcs.
Even more so than Fellowship, this book is structured as two separate narratives. In the first, Aragorn, Legolas, and Gimli head off in hot pursuit of the orcs, who have seized Merry and Pippin and are taking them to Isengard, home of the treacherous wizard Saruman. (Boromir, attempting to redeem himself, dies defending them.) Along the way, they are reunited with the miraculously resurrected Gandalf, then become involved in a desperate struggle between the horsemen of Rohan and the forces of Sarruman. In Book 2, Frodo and Sam attempt to simply walk into Mordor, guided by Gollum (a.k.a. Smeagol), the rings previous possessor.

The reading experience The Two Towers is certainly the most readable volume of the series, and if I had a favorite, this would be it. It has all the elements you'd expect in a fantasy series: epic battles, mighty warriors, wizardly battles, giant spiders, walking talking trees (just go with it), seemingly insurmountable obstacles, and a cliffhanger that will leave you desperately seeking more pages.
The book is full of compelling characters, although none is quite as compelling as Gollum. In his first appearance, in The Hobbit, Gollum is portrayed as devious, endlessly self-obsessed, and yet somehow pitiable. Tolkien expands on this throughout the book. Gollum is something like a dark mirror of Frodo, what Frodo is destined for if he should fully submit to the Ring. Gollum is a creature utterly without hope, divided against himself: He can neither give up his longing for his Precious (the Ring) nor can he betray its current bearer. At the same time, Frodo and Sam can neither fully trust their guide nor can they bear to destroy a creature as pathetic as Gollum.
The divided narrative structure is occasionally a challenge, particularly in Book 1, in which its a little hard to keep the Aragorn/Legolas/Gimli and Merry/Pippin storylines straight (there's a fair amount of backtracking, and one particularly exciting scene is told by the Hobbits to their friends, rather than narrated directly). It makes sense, sort of, to put Frodo and Sam in their own section, although a casual reader might miss the fact that their part of the story goes on longer than the story contained in Book 1.

Who should read it The Two Towers is more accessible than the rest of LOTR, but it won't really make sense unless you've at least gotten the story of the first volume.

Digging Deeper Another reason I like this one so much is that I recognize so much of its source material, particularly when it comes to Rohan. The Riders of Rohan, or the Eorlingas, as they call themselves, are pretty much Anglo-Saxons transplanted into Middle Earth. Their names, poetry, culture, and what little bits of their language show up in the book, are all more or less direct reproductions of the Anglo-Saxons, the earliest people known as "The English," descendants of Germanic tribes who began arriving in Britain around the fall of the Roman Empire. Tolkien was, of course, a professor of Anglo-Saxon, the language now usually referred to as Old English.
Two Towers also showcases Tolkien's love of nature. The Ents (the walking, talking trees to which I referred previously) could be seen as representing a sort of "nature's revenge." According to one anecdote, the Ents were inspired by Tolkien's initial misunderstanding of part of the plot of Macbeth: allegedly, he was disappointed that Birnam Wood didn't really come to Dunsinane.
There is also a clear moral message in the book, particularly on the subject of war. Tolkien is clearly no pacifist, and Book 1 shows much of the glory of a noble struggle. In Book 2, however, we see much more of the aftermath of total war, most viscerally in the Dead Marshes, the remains of an ancient battlefield where the fallen are still visible floating just beneath the surface of the water. It is likely this and other scenes of devastation are inspired by Tolkien's own wartime experience. When Frodo and Sam later stumble into a battle between the forces of Gondor and evil men come to fight for Sauron, Sam is struck by the randomness and horror of war:
It was Sam's first view of a battle of Men against Men, and he did not like it much. He was glad that 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 -- all in a flash of thought which was quickly driven from his mind.

One can imagine a young Tolkien having similar thoughts on the battlefield, seeing a fallen German soldier.

Recommendation After struggling through Fellowship (which really isn't all that bad), The Two Towers is a welcome relief.

Agreed. Two Towers is quite excellent and flows perfectly. I just wish that the movie ended with the cliffhanger that the book did.

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