Tolkien Gestures Book 6: The Two Towers

Tolkien Gestures is one Sci-Fi nerds adventure into the strange mystical worlds of Fantasy Literature. Over the course of a year I’m reading 20 Fantasy Novels spaced over the life of the genre, after a couple of decades denying that there was any chance i could enjoy it. This week, we continue with Tolkiens definitive and probaby-read-by-everyone Lord of the Rings series.

So, The Two Towers starts with what still seems to me to be the last chapter of The Fellowship of the Ring, as we find out the fates of the now-broken Fellowship and move forward into what is now three separate adventures. In the first half of the book, we alternate between Merry and Pippin, the least gay of the two gay hobbit pairings of legend, and Aragorn, Gimli and Legolas who are initially searching for them, but then go off to get involved in war in Rohan. The second half of the book deals with the other gay hobbit pairing, Frodo and Sam, and their trek toward Mordor with sneaky companion Gollum.

(Everyone knows this, right? I mean, who hasn’t read or seem this?)

I have fond memories of TTT, largely because many of the issues i have with FotR don’t really exist here, and certainly not in the first half. Here it cracks along, a whole new world opening up as the pages turn. Thematically, there is some overlap – enchanted forests with ancient magics, for one, but the pace and urgency that flashed on and off in places earlier just builds and builds and there is a lot less talking and a lot more doing.

And of course Horse Vikings, er,  Saxons are cool and the first fully realised fantasy culture you come across. In Fellowship the elf-dominated linguistic showing off comes across in too much poetry, but with Rohan you start to see the strength of it; the idea that from a characters name you can place them on a map, in a culture. Yes, it may be lifted from history but what the hells wrong with that? the result is you get a real, living and breathing sense of place, which contrasts wonderfully with the largely dead history and ruins we’ve seen so far.

Its not all perfect, and TTT’s biggest flaw is structural, and its the one of timing. For all the little asides keeping you together, the two time lines in the first half involve a lot of back and forth, as we get three or four chapters with one set, then three or four with another, which sometimes cuts the pacing dead, and i can’t really seem the harm in intertwining them, especially. This even more true for the second half, which whilst running past the other story on the time line very quickly does bog down quite a bit after the running around and having big battles of the first half. it feels slightly anti-climactic, which is neither the first (nor last) time I’ve get this from the series.

That said, the second half is something I’ve come to appreciate more this read through. Tolkien doesn’t, in my opinion, handle character terribly well. He gets better; and in some ways Sam and Frodos march through Ithelien is him, as a writer, learning that, and there is more interesting things in here that at first I realised when i was younger and wanting to skip to the big battles. The symptom of this is Faramir, a character I’ve never really liked much, mostly because he’s too much the boy-scout, and partly because he’s yet another character who looks at this all-powerful, corrupting ring and just sort of shrugs it off. which always annoys me.

I got more out of Faramir this time, and I think internally had one of those little lightbulb moments that gave me a handle on the character. He gets to sit down and talk, about Gondor, about the history of his lands, and I guess I suddenly realised that its not that he’s stupidly nice, it’s that he’s a romantic, at heart. Boromir’s undoing is that he loves the Gondor that is, that Gondor that is tired, and doomed, yet proud and unwavering, and it’s his desperation to save that which dooms him. Faramir loves the Gondor that was, the ideals and images of it’s history and heritage; in some ways it’s a subtle difference (more on Gondor when i write up The Return of the King) but a key one. And suddenly I liked him, which caught me a little off guard.

Above all else its proof that there is subtler characterisation going on that I realised. But it doesn’t solve the problem that really that second half is too meandering, and too much back to the travelogue style that I disliked in FotR. The timing, overlapping heavily with events you won’t reach for pages and pages in the next book when really they should be intercut, makes it all the more disjointed, and fuels the feeling of two totally separate stories, rather than one intertwined. If you look at Merry and Pippin intertwinned with the Rohan stories, this also sails up and down the time-line of the story but it serves drama and character, whereas with Sam and Frodo I’m left wishing all the chapters where more properly chopped together to keep the pace up and context stronger.

And at the risk of sounding too unfair, its ending, betrayal and courage and bloody big spiders still doesn’t come across too well, crammed in at the end but its certainly a suitable cliffhanger to break the book with, before we plunge onwards to the final showdown to come.

Next Up: Even More Tolkien, as we head to the Grand Finale and Grand Appendixes, in.The Return of the King (spoiler!!)

Feedback, corrections and other comments welcome either here or by email to grampus(at)dissectingworlds(dot)com or on twitter @thegrampus.

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3 comments

  1. Dion /

    Interesting take on the book. I guess you’re either swept away by Lord of the Rings or you’re not, and if not then its flaws inevitably become more apparent. I have to say personally I was never worried about the splitting of the narrative (though aware it was different to most books I had read). Whilst it creates a certain amount of frustration it does serve a purpose, which until last weekend I couldn’t have articulated because I hadn’t considered it. One conference speaker at the Festival In The Shire described the structure as an unconventional but highly effective tool for creating a sense of urgency in the reader, upping the pace, turning the screws. As a reader you are put firmly in the minds of characters who have no idea what is happening to the others in the sundered fellowship, who worry about them and undergo their own tribulations without knowing if they are in vain because they don’t know if the ring is safe. We are given totally seperate stories within the context of the overarching plot, but in giving them to us in this way their individual perils are given more weight and their fears driven home deeper.

    Or something 🙂

    • dwgrampus /

      broadly speaking i’m deeply fond of Lord of the Rings, i just tend to find a book – well, books – of great highs and deep lows. TTT seems to stack these into the first half and second half respectively.

      i see the point about leaving the reader in ignorance, and i think that he does this pretty well in splitting merry/pippin and legolas/gimli/aragorn. i just think it works less well in the frodo/sam bit which is (laudably) intended to be character focused but i really just don’t think Tolkien is too good at that.

  2. Doki-Chan /

    Tolkien himself said he had to force himself to tackle the issue of getting Frodo and Sam from point A to point B in Book 4; it was also sent out serialised to his son, I think….

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