Warning: this post may contain spoilers for JRR Tolkien’s The Two Towers, and other installments in The Lord of the Rings
There is a fair consensus amongst those who come to consensuses about such matters that Tolkien wrote The Lord of the Rings primarily as a way of exploring Middle Earth – that is, this is what is known as a milieu story, in which the setting, the world, drive much of the plot. In The Two Towers this is on fine display again. One of the more interesting things to do with a copy of The Lord of the Rings is to sit down and look at just how much ground is covered by the various journeys; you then realize just how large a world Middle Earth is, and how small a section is explored in these tales. The distance covered by Frodo and Sam through such great peril and difficulty in the entirety of their chapters in The Two Towers is essentially a tiny corner on the map.
This focus can sometimes make for peculiar story-beats. Take, for instance, the Battle for Helm’s Deep, between Rohan and the forces of Saruman. Tolkien gives us a very detailed depiction of the fortress, its arrangement, its capacity and capabilities, and the forces that will strive over it, but even this great battle is expressed in just a few paragraphs. This is not a criticism – it works amazingly well for Tolkien – but it is interesting to reflect that other authors would likely do the opposite. Neither approach is necessarily wrong, but I think one of the things that makes me periodic rereads of The Lord of the Rings so refreshing is that they really don’t feature intense, blow-by-blow battle scenes, realistic or otherwise.
Officially, there are six books in The Lord of the Rings, with each “part” (The Fellowship of the Ring, The Two Towers, and The Return of the King) composed of two “books.” I find it quite interesting that rather than weaving viewpoints together, Tolkien largely separates the different journeys and plotlines into the two books. This was much less obvious in The Fellowship of the Ring, since the company did not scatter until the very end, but it was on very obvious display in The Two Towers: the first “book” was all about Merry, Pippin, Gimli, Legolas, and Aragorn, while the second “book” was reserved for Frodo and Sam. It’s an intriguing structure, since it means that events are not necessarily depicted in strict chronological order. Even within these “books” Tolkien is not as rigid with chronology as you might expect: when Merry and Pippin are with the Uruk-Hai, and Legolas, Aragorn, and Gimli are pursuing, the chapters about Merry and Pippin will often get ahead, time wise, of the chapters with the other three, or vice versa.
We get a great deal more of the history of Middle Earth in this installment, with allusions to the Silmarils, Morgoth, and the Elder Days. Indeed, the wars over the Silmarils in some ways are reflections of the present war over the Ring, but these are always just references, and to get full answers requires reading The Silmarillion. This is an example of how powerful the technique of dropping hints and glimpses of a larger world can be; Middle Earth feels even more real, large, and exquisite thanks to these pieces of history and legend than it would if all we saw were the present events. You don’t, of course, have to do quite as much world-building as Tolkien to accomplish something similar, but he is surely the master world-builder.
Perhaps what makes this book strong is how finely it balances victories for both sides. In a lot of stories, especially ones featuring a powerful, dark, purely evil enemy, the protagonists suffer defeat after setback after defeat, only to emerge miraculously victorious in the end. Instead, The Two Towers, and The Lord of the Rings as a whole, give victories in careful measure to both sides of the conflict, so that while things look dark for the heroes, neither do they look hopeless, and it is clear that the Dark Lord can and does make mistakes and miscalculations.
It’s always a little hard ending a review for a book that is in the middle of a series, but I will end by saying that I sincerely hope that if you haven’t already read these books, you have started by now, and will soon get around tor reading The Two Towers very soon. This is one second book that definitely does not suffer from “second book syndrome.”