The Two Towers

It's sort of interesting to note that, in the two formative trilogies of my youth (The Lord of the Rings and Star Wars), the middle works are the best works on their own merits. The Empire Strikes Back is the best movie of the three original Star Wars flicks, with the characters and actors having become more assured, and the story deeper, than in the first movie, but without the crass commercialism (in the form of the plush-toy Ewoks) that mars the third. Similarly, I think The Two Towers is the best book in its own right, as the first book takes forever to get going, and the last book drags badly at the end. It's got battles and heroism and treachery paid back, and also dark sorcery, sinister scenery, and a suspenseful ending brought on by treachery.

There's still a serious pacing problem with this book, but it's a structural problem, and I don't think it can really be helped. The tale has split into two parallel threads, and while the events which befall Merry and Pippin have action and excitement galore, the greater Quest of Sam and Frodo is necessarily in a dull phase. They're slogging through the wilderness, lost and cold and hungry, and not quite sure where they're going, which doesn't make for a fun read.

This problem is exacerbated by the internal structure of the book. By dividing it into two sections of roughly equal length, and putting all the action in Rohan in one part, Tolkien makes the slogging through the wilderness seem even more dreary than it might've had he interleaved the two sections. That would've required sacrificing the internal six-book structure, though, and it really is the logical way to split the story up.

And though the journey is a slog through wilderness, they pass through some of the best scenery Tolkien has constructed (the Dead Marshes are a wonderfully creepy creation, Faramir's hideout is extremely cool, and the image of the toppled statue crowned with flowers is one of my favorites in all the books). Fundamentally, it's little more than a travelogue, but even at its dreariest, it's better than the slog through Mordor in The Return of the King (or at least my memory of same).

So, all in all, I don't think there's much to be done about it. In making this book into a movie, of course, there'll need to be cuts between Mordor and Rohan-- the complete segregation of story lines won't work on film. But as a book, I think it's all right the way it is.

Some of the other complaints I voiced in the review of The Fellowship of the Ring are less prominent here. The pacing of the Rohan section is much better than that in the first book, and the rapid pace of events allows for fewer distracting digressions. The few forays into myth, legend, and spontaneous breaking into epic verse are all generally useful.

The language and tone issues continue to be vexing:

Day came, and the fallow sun blinked over the lifeless ridges of Ered Lithui. Then suddenly the cry of brazen-throated trumpets was heard: from the watch-towers they blared, and far away from hidden holds and outposts in the hills came answering calls; and further still, remote but deep and ominous, there echoes in the hollow land beyond the mighty horns and drums of Barad-dur. Another dreadful day of fear and toil had come to Mordor; and the night-guards were summoned to their dungeons and deep halls, and the day-guards, evil-eyed and fell, were marching to their posts. Steel gleamed dimly on the battlement.

"Well, here we are!" said Sam. "Here's the Gate, and it looks to me as if that's about as far as we are ever going to get. My word, but the Gaffer would have a thing or two to say, if he saw me now!"

Ack. Ackthpth, even.

Still, it's much better here, largely because the chapters in Rohan involving Merry and Pippin generally don't have the other members of the Company in them, and vice versa. The Hobbit speech is still incongruous when paired with the epic narration, and the scenes involving Sam and Faramir are almost physically painful, but on the whole, I was less bothered by the language and tone in this volume.

The relationship between Frodo and Sam, however, continues to bug me to no end. The scene at the end where Sam thinks Frodo is dead had me wanting to grab him by the scruff of the neck and shake until he developed some spine.

But this is a different book, and the review should feature some different comments. Again, in no particular order:

One of the silliest theories I've heard advanced in Tolkien discussions has to be the idea that Tom Bombadil is actually meant to be an authorial insertion; that Tolkien is Bombadil, and vice versa. I know very little about the man himself, but the idea of Tolkien capering gaily about the landscape in garish motley singing nonsense rhymes... Well, it defies belief.

If you want to find an Oxford don in this story, I'd start with Treebeard, whose windy and discursive speaking style would fit right in in academia. He even sounds like an academic, with long discourses about names and history...

On a more serious note: characters. When the movie first started being mentioned, and names were bandied about in casting threads, I was sort of bemused to see the outcry over many of the choices. Particularly Faramir, who never really made that much of an impression on me. I still don't see much there to narrow the choice of actor, beyond bare physical details. Maybe there's something in The Return of the King...

In the same vein, though, one of the things that I found most disappointing on my last re-read, lo these many years ago, was the degree to which Legolas and Gimli remained ciphers. I remembered there being a great story there, from when I read the books six or seven times in junior high, but all I saw in the last re-read was a skeleton of a great story, which was very disappointing to me.

I'm a little happier with them this time around, but they're still not fully realized. They snipe at each other in the early going, but it has a sort of perfunctory feel to it, as if they're sniping solely because the author feels they ought to be sniping at one another. Then they suddenly and abruptly stop sniping at one another and become great friends when they realize they're both smitten by Galadriel. Just like that, and again, it feels like they stopped not for any real reason but because the author wanted them to become friends.

Which would be more bothersome had they been drawn in enough depth to suggest some reason for the sniping, but even after they become fast friends, they remain little more than walking collections of attributes-- Legolas has sharp eyes and is a great shot with a bow; Gimli is brave, swings a mean axe, and has a bit of a temper. They remain very much in the mode of minor characters in an ancient epic. Even their great friendship doesn't really make them spring off the page for me-- the closest they come to actual depth is in the scene where Gimli talks about the caves in Helm's Deep, but that's not a patch on the temptation and redemption of Boromir, who gets less page time, but seems more real.

The other area in which there has been much wailing and gnashing of teeth over the decisions of the filmmakers is in the decision to expand the role of Arwen, in order to have a more prominent female role in the films. "Why do they need to add female characters?" runs the party line, "There're Galadriel and Eowyn, both strong female characters..."

Eowyn doesn't appear at all until the second book, and her role here is confined to greeting the visitors to Theoden's hall, and developing an instant huge crush on Aragorn. Galadriel appears near the end of the first book, for a couple of chapters, where despite wearing one of the Rings of Power and being a mighty force in her own right, she's oddly deferential to Celeborn (who comes off as a prating ass who needs to be gently corrected by Galadriel every time he opens his mouth) in most of her on-screen appearances.

The movies need better female roles than this. Even a half-assed ingenue role would be an improvement over these two cameo appearances. "Arwen, Warrior Princess" has the potential to be a travesty, it's true, but there needs to be something...

The only other thing which really bugged me in this one was the scene at the end where Sam (wearing the Ring) eavesdrops on the Orcs commanding the troop that has just captured Frodo. In which the Orcs patiently explain the whole situation in Mordor, including the status of the War, the nature of Shelob, how Gollum found out about Cirith Ungol, and what's going to happen in their tower at the start of the next book. What an incredibly clumsy infodump that is-- I found myself saying, MST3K-style, "Thank you, Captain Exposition..." There are a few other blatant infodumps in the books, but none quite so awkward and obvious.

Anyway, that's about enough material for this review. All in all, I'd say this is a much better book in its own right than Fellowship, and this re-read does nothing to change my past impression that it's probably the best of the three. We'll see for sure when I get through with The Return of the King.

Last modified: 9 October, 2001