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The Two Towers by JRR Tolkien

Published by Del Rey Books

Reviewed by Leigh Kimmel

Many years ago I participated in a panel discussion on "books that ought to be forgotten." I immediately thought of it in terms of badly written books and cited John Norman's endless turgid Gor novels as something that I'd like to wash my brain clean of. Then someone named Tolkien's Lord of the Rings. Once I overcame my astonishment and heard the person out, I understood the logic -- it has become the model for the epic fantasy trilogy, to the point that authors follow it by rote without any understanding of the logic behind the features they are imitating.

Take the trilogy format. Ever since The Lord of the Rings, it's become the standard. You will write your epic fantasy in groups of three books.

Except Tolkien never intended The Lord of the Rings to be a trilogy. He conceived of it and wrote it as a single novel, a literary and conceptual whole, beginning, middle and end. Yes, it would've been a very thick book, and in paperback would've posed some significant challenges to bind, particularly in terms of maintaining a stable spine. But it was only the post-War paper shortages that led his publisher to divide it into three volumes. The idea was to reduce the risk to the publisher. If sales of the first volume proved disappointing, the other two could be canceled to cut their losses. Instead it proved wildly successful, to the point that a whole generation of writers grew up on it and took it as their model.

At the end of The Fellowship of the Ring, the titular Fellowship had been shattered by Boromir's betrayal. To be sure, he'd subsequently repented and given his life protecting Frodo, thus allowing Frodo and Sam to escape. But the surviving seven members of the Fellowship were now scattered, leaving the Ringbearer to fend for himself.

Quite a hell of a cliffhanger, and when I first read it, I had to wait until my next biweekly trip to the library to get the second volume. Imagine my surprise when I finally got my hands on The Two Towers, only to discover that no, it wasn't going to take up where the first book ended and tell what happened to Frodo and Sam.

Instead it begins with Aragorn, Legolas and Gimli, all desperately searching for the hobbits and fearing they have been captured. I kept reading through their encounter with the Riders of Rohan, sure that any time now we'd find out what was going on with Frodo and Sam. But even when we finally get to see the travails of hobbits, it's not Frodo and Sam.

Instead it's Merry and Pippin, their friends from the Shire who'd joined this expedition almost on a lark, thinking they were embarking upon a grand Adventure, and agreed to carry through to the end when they discovered themselves enmeshed in a war for the future of the Free Peoples. They've fallen prisoner of the orcs and are in duress vile.

Except not all orcs serve Sauron. It seems that Saruman the Wizard has taken to employing orcs of his own. Not a good sign for someone who claims to be on the side of good. As the two groups of orcs take to fighting among themselves, Merry and Pippin seize the opportunity to escape, and ultimately encounter Treebeard the Ent.

The Ents are one of Tolkien's greatest inventions. While hobbits are the embodiment of bourgouis sensibility and childlike wonder, Ents are the power of the slow and relentless growth of trees, the power that can break a concrete sidewalk and even a building, transformed into speaking beings, able to act volitionally. Treebeard looks like a tree that has come to life in vaguely human form, towering far above the terrified hobbits. He speaks in a deep, rumbling voice that echoes with slow, ponderous power.

But once both sides overcome their initial apprehension and determine that yes, the others are indeed Free People like themselves, they become friends and allies. For the news that Merry and Pippin bring of Saruman's betrayal cannot be ignored.

While Treebeard is gathering the Entmoot and arguing the cause of war against Isengard and Saruman's tree-destroying orcs, Aragorn is discovering evidence of Merry and Pippin's escape. His interpretation of the evidence is based upon some assumptions that don't include the sheer level of Saruman's betrayal, but given how little he has to go on, it's some phenomenal detective work.

Now that I read this volume with the knowledge of how the full story goes, I understand why the rousing of the Ents and of Rohan should be so important at this point. But when I was reading it for the very first time, all of it was a long and frustrating diversion keeping me from getting back to Frodo's quest to take the accursed Ring to Mount Doom and destroy it.

Because that's the heart and soul of The Lord of the Rings, when you come right down to it: the quest, or rather, the anti-quest. The mission not to find and retrieve the Object of Wonder, but to get rid of it, absolutely and permanently. The rejection of power over others' wills as fundamentally too terrible to wield, something that can only corrupt and destroy, even if used only with the noblest of intentions.

And I think that's one thing about The Lord of the Rings that should not be forgotten. So much of the horror of the past century has been brought about by people who thought they could bring about a perfect society, if only they could compel other people to live in accordance with their master plan. But the paradise they sought to create always eluded them, turning into a charnel house of mass graves and broken survivors.

And yes, the second half of The Two Towers does take us back to Frodo and Sam as they discover they are being followed. Not by orcs, not by Aragorn and the other surviving members of the Fellowship, but by one who has been warped and broken to a far greater degree by the terrible power of the One Ring.

That is of course Smeagol (Gollum), the proto-hobbit who first found the Ring and became ensnared by it, body and mind twisted over the long centuries he spent in the depths of the caverns beneath the Misty Mountains. The Ring still exerts a terrible hold on him, like a fishhook within his mind, drawing him in their wake.

And such is its power over him that he is even willing to submit to the Ringbearer, to swear a sort of fealty toward Frodo and become his servant. But never a trustworthy one, and Sam mistrusts his master's tender-heartedness in this matter, but for all the simple gardener would like to put Smeagol's throat to the knife before the wretch can come up with some foul treachery, neither will Sam go against the express word of his rightful superior.

So they forge onward, into lands where the forces of Gondor seek to hold the Dark at bay. There they meet Faramir, Denethor's younger son, who grieves to hear the story of his elder brother's fall and redemption. For Faramir knows that his brother was what he was not but always sought to be: a great warrior, one who takes pride in his feats of arms. Faramir would far prefer the life of a scholar, but he shoulders the obligation of protecting his country out of necessity, because Evil is afoot and will prevail if good men do nothing.

However, this sojourn into friendly territory cannot last, for the longer they postpone the fulfillment of their mission, the more they increase the risk that they might fail. So they must perforce bid farewell to Faramir and his company of guardians and forge onward and eastward, toward the gates of Mordor and the realm of the Dark Lord himself.

And yet again the volume ends on a stunning cliffhanger which leaves us perforce waiting to find out how the author and the characters will pull out of this disaster.

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Review posted October 15, 2016.