Welcome to the end of March and the end of our The Two Towers leg of the Lord of the Rings Readalong. To follow the discussion of The Two Towers from the beginning, check out my Intro and Book 3 posts. As in the past posts, I’ll offer a few questions to spark discussion.
If you’re reading along, you can share your thoughts in the comments here or on your own blog. Feel free to answer whichever questions on this post or past posts that interest you or to go off on your own tangents. And you’re welcome to combine posts as well!
Here are the final questions for The Two Towers:
- The last half of The Two Towers covers fewer characters than the first half. For some, this makes Book 4 slower than the rest of the book; others love the intense focus on Frodo, Gollum, and Sam. Where do you stand on this question?
- If you’re a first-time reader (or even a rereader), what surprised you most about this half of the book?
- Are there any specific moments that stand out as favorites or least favorites in this section?
- What are some themes or ideas in this book (or the trilogy as a whole so far) that stand out to you?
- And the obligatory movie question: Many LOTR readers take the biggest issue with Jackson’s treatment of this part of the trilogy than with any other? Did the changes bother you? Are there any ways in which you think the movie was more effective?
Book 4 of Lord of the Rings follows Frodo and Sam into Mordor, with Gollum as their only guide. It is perhaps the most consistently dark section of the trilogy, and I love it for the intense feeling of foreboding, which Tolkien depicts so vividly. Both Frodo and Sam are given opportunities to show their heroism as they make their way into Mordor without any help from Gandalf, Aragorn, or any more knowledgeable guide. I know there are some who find this part of the book to be too slow, but I love the intimacy of it. It’s somehow more psychological than the rest of the book—we see the ring start to have more of an effect on Frodo, and we see the power it still has over Gollum.
This section of the book is filled with terrific moments. We see Gollum struggle with his conscience. We see Frodo ably climbing down walls and Sam fighting Shelob. There are oliphants in battle and the defaced statue of a long-dead king whose head is lying nearby with a crown of flowers—what a wonderful sign of hope!
But there are two sections that stand out especially strongly. First is the meeting with Faramir, which provides a needed break for the two hobbits. At first, the meeting looks perilous, as Frodo and Faramir test each other’s trustworthiness. As readers, we don’t know who this man is, so we can’t be sure that Frodo hasn’t gotten himself captured by the enemy. But in the end, Faramir proves to be an especially good friend. He can’t provide much in the way of concrete help, aside from some food and a pair of walking staffs, but I think it helped Frodo and Sam to have someone else who understood the situation to confide in. I loved when Sam commented that he saw a bit of Gandalf in Faramir because that’s just what I thought when he stood over Sam, with his grey eyes glinting!
The other great moment is the final chapter, even the final sentence: “Frodo was alive but taken by the enemy.” What a cliffhanger that was! Yes, it’s perhaps not quite the cliffhanger that you find in, say, the last chapter of Stephen King’s The Waste Lands, when there were years between books, but even though this is a novel in three parts and the next book is readily available, there’s something jarring about seeing that sentence followed by “Here ends the second part…” My heart is just in my throat at that point. I actually know of a couple of people who stopped reading at that point, but I simply cannot understand not needing to go on with an ending like that!
One of the themes that comes up throughout the trilogy, and which E.L. Fay has written about at length, is the power of story. Throughout the trilogy characters tell stories to learn, to entertain themselves, to pass the time, to comfort each other. Stories of the past are everywhere, and it’s one of the things that makes Tolkien’s world so remarkable. The narratives inside the narrative give the world layers.
In this section, we also see how stories give people knowledge that enables them to choose the correct path. Faramir, more so than Boromir, has a reverence for history and for the tales of the past. He tried to learn what he could from Gandalf, and he picks up enough to figure out what Frodo is carrying almost without being told. (At least, he gets very close to the mark before Sam reveals the whole truth.) His knowledge of the larger tale also helps him to resist the temptation of the ring. Faramir, with his deep knowledge as well as his awareness of his family’s place in the story—as stewards, not as kings—is scarcely tempted by the ring at all. The one moment when it looks like he might be ready to take the ring is also the moment when he seems most Gandalf-like:
The One Ring that was thought to have perished from the world. And Boromir tried to take it by force? And you escaped? And ran all the way—to me! And here in the wild I have you: two halflings, and a host of men at my call, and the Ring of Rings. A pretty stroke of fortune! A chance for Faramir, Captain of Gondor, to show his quality! Ha!” He stood up very tall and stern, his grey eyes glinting.
As Sam and Frodo rise to defend themselves, Faramir seats himself with a chuckle.
“Alas for Boromir! It was too sore a trial!” he said. “How you have increased my sorrow, you two strange wanderers from a far country, bearing the peril of Men! But you are less judges of Men than I of halflings. We are truth-speakers, we men of Gondor. We boast seldom, and then perform, or die in the attempt. Not if I found it on the highway would I take it I said. Even if I were such a man as to desire this thing, and even though I knew not clearly what this thing was when I spoke, still I should take these words as a vow, and be held by them.
“But I am not such a man. Or I am wise enough to know that there are some perils from which a man must flee.”
Through stories, Faramir learned of the peril that came with any weapon of Sauron, especially the ring. Through stories, Faramir learned of the limits of human strength. It is those stories that saved him from temptation here and that ultimately saved them all.
But in this section, we also learn of this limits of story. Throughout the book, Sam has been utterly optimistic, recognizing the dangers of the journey, but not contemplating the end without including a return to the shire. When he’s rationing out the food, he has the return journey in mind and seems startled when Frodo explains that there probably won’t be a return journey, even if their quest succeeds. But by the end of this section, Sam has realized that the great stories might be valuable guides and sources of wisdom, but those old stories are silent on where one’s choices might lead:
“The brave things in the old tales and songs, Mr. Frodo: adventures, as I used to call them. I used to thing that they were things the wonderful folk of the stories went out and looked for, because they wanted them, because they were exciting and life was a bit dull, a kind of a sport, as you might say. But that’s not the way of it with the tales that really mattered, or the ones that stay in the mind. Folk seem to have been just landed in them, usually—their paths were laid that way, as you put it. But I expect they had lots of chances, like us, of turning back, only they didn’t. And if they had, we shouldn’t know, because they’d have been forgotten. We hear about those as just went on—and not all to a good end, mind you; at least not to what folk inside a story and not outside it call a good end. You know, coming home, and finding thing all right, though not quite the same—like old Mr. Bilbo. But those aren’t always the best tales to hear, though they may be the best tales to be landed in! I wonder what sort of a tale we’ve fallen into?”
Bilbo’s tale, with the title “There and Back Again” is clearly a tale in which things do return to something nearly normal, but that may not be the case for Frodo and Sam. And Sam realizes this just before things take a drastic turn, putting whole story in his hands.
In April, Maree at Just Add Books will be our host as we wrap up the readalong. Thanks to all who have joined in, and I hope you’re enjoying the journey through Middle Earth as much as I am!