The Two Towers: No Muddling Middle for Tolkien

The middle book in a trilogy is often the weakest. Tolkien middle book, instead, is the strongest in The Lord of the Rings.

Sep 19 · 7 min read
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In the summer of 2017, I started buddy reading Tolkien’s main work one chapter a day with a group of other readers. It had been a long time since last I read Tolkien and, in a sense, was like discovering him for the first time.

I’m republishing here my impressions of that time, which I originally posted on my personal blog.

I sure didn’t know what I was getting into. Today, I’m still buddy reading Tolkien with an awesome little group of fans and still loving every moment.

Mixed with it is my impression of the films, which I also rewatched then for the first time in ten years.

“All the big important plans are not for my sort. Still I wonder if we shall ever be put into songs or tales. We’re in one, of course, but I mean: put into words, you know, told by the fireside, or read out of a great big book with red and black letters, years and years afterward. And people will say: ‘Let’s hear about Frodo and the Ring!’ And they’ll say: ‘Yes, that’s one of my favourite stories. Frodo was very brave, wasn’t he, dad?” Yes, my boy, the famousest of the hobbits, and that’s saying a lot.’”

“It’s saying a lot too much,” said Frodo, and he laughed, a long clear laugh from his heart. Such a sound had not been heard in those places since Sauron came to Middle-earth. To Sam suddenly it seemed as if all the stones were listening and the tall rocks leaning over them. But Frodo did not heed them; he laughed again. “Why, Sam,” he said, “to hear you somehow makes me as merry as if the story was already written. But you’ve left out one of the chief characters: Samwise the strouthearted. ‘I want to hear more about Sam, dad. Why didn’t’ they put in more of his talk, dad? That’s what I like, it makes me laugh. And Frodo wouldn’t have got far without Sam, would he, dad?’”

The Two Towers — JRR Tolkien

Well, Sam, I can tell you that the story is still told and people do love it.

I loved this passage from The Two Towers. There is so much in it. But what I like the most is hope. Even in the most horrible of places, laugh may live, and stories may bring it. I like the power that Tolkien gives to stories.

It’s strange. Very often, in trilogies, the central book is the weakest. Away from the exciting beginning and from the fulfilling ending, the middle book often seems to be unresolved and truncated. To me, The Two Towers is the strongest of the trilogy. There’s so much in this book: so many feelings, so much purpose, so much action.

The part of the story concerning the Rohirrim has always had my heart. I love these people, the way they understand life. I love the way they are willing to accept anyone, even the most different people, as long as they share their same values. And I like in particular their understanding and acceptance of everything which is primordial, even when they don’t fully understand it. I like the way they tend to understand life in a positive way, measuring it by the loyalty you can give, the respect you can give and take, the friendships you can build, the bravery you can assert. There seems to be very little space for negativity in the lives of the Rohirrim. When hate touches them, they look for the loyalty that can dispel that hate. When darkness descends, they look ahead for the rising sun. And they rather return the good they’ve received than the wrongs they suffered.

I truly love them.

On the other hand, the second book, concerning Frodo and Sam, is so involving, far more than I remembered. The relationship between Sam and Gollum is so much more complex than in the film. Even when Sam doesn’t trust Gollum at all, he still feels he should be civil to him, and this engenders a peculiar relationship of guarded trust and accepted danger, which is a very peculiar feeling I’ve seldom encountered in stories.

I loved the entire episode of Faramir. He is such a complex and positive character who embodies the essence of the leader in a subtly different way than Aragorn. Not a chosen one by any stretch of the imagination, Faramir still possesses qualities which are innate in his personality and make him a leader. Yes, Faramir appears in the films — but he’s a completely different character there.

The episode of Cirith Ungol, including Shelob, is absolutely fantastic. So much visceral felling. It goes to the core of what life means and what meaning we can give to life. What depends on our choices, why we should still choose even when we are afraid to do so. Even when we make the wrong choice.

This is where The Lord of the Rings becomes the great story it is, in my opinion. This is its truest, strongest heart.

Envisioning Middle Earth

When word of the making of a film trilogy first came out, more than twenties years ago, the world of Tolkien’s fandom went crazy. Most fans predicted horrible outcomes, thinking that it was impossible to translate The Lord of the Rings for the screen faithfully.

So I’m quite surprised that fifteen years after the trilogy, imagining a different Lord of the Rings indeed very hard. I know that it will forever be impossible to envision these characters with a different look than that of the films, and especially it will be difficult to envision Middle-earth in any other way.

Peter Jackson made a choice that I didn’t quite share back then but that it proved to be the right one. Instead of creating his own vision of Middle-earth (which was what I had hoped for, the personal vision of a fan), he built on what was already familiar to fans. Even before the film trilogy, all fans were familiar with John Howe’s entrance of a Hobbit hole, or with Alan Lee’s stately image of Orthanc. The Black Riders after the Hobbit hiding among the roots of a tree, the flight at the Bruinen Ford, the nine levels of walls of Minas Tirith, Gandalf’s grey outfit, the Dwarves’ stocky looks. When all these came to the screen, we fans recognised it. We had already seen it, in a guise or another.

I see now that this cemented our knowledge of Middle-earth. The reality of that place became stronger. It became a place that could exist, somewhere other than our own readers’ minds.

There might be things we can blame on Peter Jackson (despite my love for the film trilogy, there are still things I could blame on him), but he did give us a ‘mighty gift’. I do believe he did. Fan to fan.

The Two Towers, always my favourite

When I started The Two Towers with the buddy reading of The Lord of the Rings, I knew it was going to be my favourite. It has always been. Besides, the film of The Two Towers is my favourite of the film trilogy too. But because the films have overlaid the books in so many ways in the years since last I read them, I didn’t quite remember the beauty of the book.

Some characters are far more complex and subtly different in the book (Éomer, Théoden, Faramir, for example), and episodes which are likewise very different (Shelob, the entire episode of Faramir in essence if not in action). I fell in love with Éomer and Théoden once more, who are quite different characters in the book. And the parts of Frodo, Sam and Gollum (including Shelob, which appears in the third film instead) were so profound and involving. They carried a deeper meaning which is mostly lost in the films.

A better experience than even I was expecting.

The Two Towers had been my favourite of the three books since the first time I read The Lord of the Rings (and yes, I know I should consider the book as a whole rather than its three artificial parts, but there you have it). It is in many ways quieter than the other two, but more brooding, more insightful.

Originally published on The Old Shelter Blog on 19th October 2017

Sarah Zama is a Tolkien nerd and proud of it. She read The Hobbit the first time as a teenager and was a Tolkien fan years before Peter Jackson’s trilogy ever hit the theatres. She’s always been involved with Tolkien groups, both online and in person. In 2004, she founded a Tolkien group in her city, Verona (Italy), which is still meeting and divulging the Professor’s work. In 2017, she started reading Tolkien’s work with a group of other nerdy readers, one chapter a day. They are still on the road together.

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Written by

Author of historical fantasy novels set in the 1920s | Dieselpunk | 1920s social history blogger | Hopeless Tolkien nerd

Middle-earth Literary Gazette

Exploring Tolkien’s Middle-earth. The places and characters. The stories. Searching for their deeper meaning.


Written by

Author of historical fantasy novels set in the 1920s | Dieselpunk | 1920s social history blogger | Hopeless Tolkien nerd

Middle-earth Literary Gazette

Exploring Tolkien’s Middle-earth. The places and characters. The stories. Searching for their deeper meaning.

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