Thursday, 31 January 2002

J.R.R. Tolkien: The Two Towers (1954)

Edition: Unwin, 1978
Review number: 1057

The second volume of the Lord of the Rings trilogy contains two of the most imaginative ideas that Tolkien ever had, one in each of its two very different parts. The reason for the two parts is to narrate the stories of the various members of the fellowship of the Ring, once that split up at the end of the first novel.

The first section features the main body of the fellowship, and it concerns the siege of Saruman's tower Orthanc at Isengard. Here, Tolkien introduces the ents, the creatures which make this section a favourite for many of his fans. They are the herders of the forests of trees which once covered much of Middle Earth, and Tolkien conveys a sense of gentle and yet elemental power in his descriptions of the ents, together with the pathos the sorrow of their laments for the lost entwives.

Fans often annoyed Tolkien by reading hidden meanings into his writing that he hadn't intended. (Judging from some of the people interviewed in documentaries produced to coincide with the launch of the film of Fellowship of the Ring, many fans have only a tenuous connection to reality, and some of them seen to have hardly understood a word of the books.) One aspect which is clearly there and which was acknowledged by the author, was the celebration of the rural life of England, and disapproval of the suburbanisation and industrialisation of Britain. The way that Saruman has transformed Isengard, with its pits of fire, is clearly a reference to the development of some sort of industrial process, and its destruction at the hands of the ents is at least in part an indication of how Tolkien wanted to see the countryside overcome the towns that had spread so rapidly since the Industrial Revolution. Saruman's fall can be seen as Tolkien's view of the technologist: not starting actively evil, but seduced by technology, and eventually becoming subject to the enemy.

To return to the novel, the second part tells the story of the journey of Frodo and Sam (and the ring) to the gates of Mordor, land of the evil Sauron, where the ring needs to be destroyed to cripple his power. In this section, Tolkien's interesting idea is the use he makes of Gollum/Sméagol, the creature from whom Bilbo took the ring, who had been corrupted by its power over many centuries. Gollum helps the hobbits unwillingly, guiding them to Mordor by a way which will keep them from the eyes of the forces of Sauron. He evokes, from them and from the reader, a mixture of revulsion and pity, and introduces a note of moral ambiguity which brings into question the real motives of the others. This is something which is often rather lacking in the fantasy genre, though it has become more of a feature with more recent writers. (A criticism often levelled at Tolkien is that his characters are stereotypes from the boys' stories of the early part of the twentieth century. Gollum here is a rare exception - in The Hobbit he is more like a minor villain from this genre.)

The Two Towers contains some interesting ideas, but it has severe failings as well. Tolkien starts to fall into an "epic" style which is more difficult to read and alienating - dialogue in particular is poorer. (Convoluted sentences and archaisms are the main symptoms.) It would still be possible for fantasy authors to learn from Tolkien; he is still better than his most slavish imitators.

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