I’m back with more Middle-Earth fangirling! Let’s do this. (Again, as with my first LOTR review, this is also a review of the audio by Rob Inglis.)
Also, there are… I guess, spoilers… in this review, both for this and also for the first book, The Fellowship of the Ring. If you somehow haven’t read either yet, what are you still doing here? Go read them, and then come back!
So The Two Towers picks up seconds after Fellowship ended. The hobbits are gone, the band is scattered, and orcs are attacking. Within two pages, Boromir is killed. (What did they expect? He’s played by Sean Bean in the films!) It’s an in medias res start, drawing the reader in instantly. After that, the story follows several plotlines: Merry, Pippin, and Treebeard and their fight against Saruman; Gandalf, Aragorn, Gimli, and Legolas and their alliance with the people of Rohan; and Frodo, Sam, and Smeagol and their journey toward Mordor.
With the company split like this, we are able to see a bit more what each character is like. No longer is a group of nine dominating the scene; instead, we get closer looks into the minds of a few at a time. (This isn’t a criticism of Fellowship, just an observation that the narrative experience is different here.)
The first half of this novel fluctuates between Aragorn & co. and Merry & Pippin. In the former, we get one of the most exciting reveals—that (spoilers? I guess?) Gandalf is alive! I remember when I was a newbie to this series being overjoyed when he appeared in a flash of white light, all impressive and wizardly. But he’s changed—Gandalf the White is not the carefree pipeweed-smoking-firework-making man Gandalf the Grey was. No, Gandalf 2.0, fresh from his battle with the Balrog, is more serious. This is a time of battle and politics and pain, not partying in the Shire. His change is sobering (pun not intended, at least at first. I definitely left it in during edits on purpose) but also compelling. We know the stakes are higher. The other three also get plenty of time in the spotlight. Aragorn remains reluctant to claim the mantles of king but also maintains the bad***ness of his Strider side. Gimli is a delight, gruff and grumbling but also caring. And immortal Legolas provides an interesting perspective on things, reminding us of the magic within Middle-Earth’s elves. Furthermore, his friendship with Gimli really comes to light here, and is basically awesome. Barrier-breaking, but also organic and genuine in its development. In other words, the best.
Yeah, those four are squad goals.
Also, we get more focus than ever on Merry and Pippin, who I love. Their sibling-like bond is sweet, if not beset by occasional bickering. These boys get to prove that they too have strength, but of a hardy, compassionate, hobbit-y variety. And as they learn just how big the world is, they also see what impact they can have. Their time with Treebeard provides both them and us with more information about Middle-Earth and the actions of the other Big Bad: Saruman. We witness the devastation his actions have wrecked on Treebeard’s forest home, and the hobbits find themselves embroiled in conflicts and physical battles they never would have imagined just months ago.
This section showcases one of the most prominent themes in this book/series: nature vs. industrialism. Innovation and manufacturing can be good, but when all the power is in the hands of the mighty and selfish, destruction becomes the main result. It’s important and empowering to see the trees stand up for themselves, and our everyman (everyhobbit?) heroes alongside them. However, I was surprised when rereading that we do not get to see the battle at Isengard: it happens off-screen, and we hear about it later. I guess I’ve watched the films too often, if that’s is possible. But overall, the bond between Treebeard and Merry and Pippin makes this plotline great.
These three are also squad goals.
The second half of the novel belongs to Frodo and Samwise. Along the way, they meet the iconic Gollum/Smeagol. He’s fascinating for many reasons: he’s creepy and strange, like nothing ever seen before. He is a major reason this series was so groundbreaking, I think: who had ever seen anything like this ugly, bald, skulking goblin monster before? And the fear he instills in Frodo—that he could become just like Gollum—is great. The interactions between all three of these characters are fantastic, full of tension and distrust and a complex, precarious alliance.
Hmm. These three… yeah, not so much squad goals. (I’d hang out with the hobbits, though.)
New characters and settings are featured too, and I could babble for days about them!
I’ll start with Rohan: Edoras is amazing, though rife with some almost-Shakespearean subterfuge. The king has been manipulated by the greasy and despicable Wormtongue, then possessed by Saruman. However, Theoden’s niece and nephew are the ones that make Rohan one of my favorite places. Eomer is a strong warrior and kind of just exudes coolness. Eowyn, his sister, is by far my favorite of this family. She’s intelligent, brave, proud, and not one to bother with the conventional, restrictive gender roles of her world. You go, girl! (I’d love to talk more about her here, but I think I’ll save it for another post, just so I can analyze certain themes/characters in a separate space. Otherwise these reviews will be about three times their current length, and no one wants that.)
In Fangorn Forest, Treebeard the ent, as I’ve mentioned, is a great addition to the story. He’s the most different sort of creature, but is personable and interesting. His worldview is so vastly unlike ours that he is rather funny at times, but also makes us stop and consider that, in this quickly modernizing world (even back when Tolkien wrote this), sometimes we need to slow down and relax. The forest is an ancient, evocative land that shows Tolkien’s deep respect and love for natural places.
Finally, in the desolate lands near Mordor: other than Gollum, we also meet Faramir, the younger brother of Boromir and a bit of an obstacle to Frodo and Sam’s trek. He’s fabulous, though—idealistic and kind, but stern when needed. A leader beloved by his followers and a son who wants to fulfill his father’s wishes, he detains our boys but ultimately lets them go, seeing the necessity and nobility in their quest. Again, I want to scream about him a bit longer, but I’ll restrain myself here.
The writing is, of course, spectacular. Tolkien knows his craft well, and this book proves it constantly. The pacing is perfect, and the character development and plotting is great. The only thing I found a little bit of a problem—again, probably because I know the films so well—the timeline. With the first half alternating between Merry & Pippin, and Aragorn & co., and the second half being the first time we see Frodo and Sam, the sequence of events becomes muddled. Had we shifted between all three groups, it might have been simpler to distinguish when events happen in relation to one another. I don’t know, maybe I’m so used to the way fantasy novels work now? Either way, it was a little troublesome for me.
Meanwhile, Rob Inglis’ audio recording was excellent. My criticism of Fellowship that the voices were hard to tell apart is not as much a problem here, as the groups of men are smaller. And his voice for Eowyn isn’t bad at all; I feared it would be a little charicature-ish, since she’s the only woman, but he portrayed her well. Overall, he’s a first-rate narrator.
In the end, The Two Towers is a great sequel in a great series. Amazing characters—both old and new—a complex but well-thought-out plot, and just a really enjoyable ride.
Overall rating: 8/10
I’ll get the third book’s review posted soon. For now, what’s your favorite character in Middle-Earth and why?