Novel * J.R.R. Tolkien * The Decline and Fall of the Third Age * 1954
As we saw in The Fellowship of the Ring, The Lord of the Rings is a depiction of a world in decline. We will see in the fullness of the story that this isn’t necessarily a terrible thing, but for now we’re in the dark middle chapter of the series. It’s helpful to understand that The Two Towers is not the second book of a trilogy; at least that was never Tolkien’s intent. This is one long story, divided into six books which were published in three volumes for convenience. The first volume ended with the sundering of The Fellowship, and the second book begins with chaos, confusion, and a tragic hero’s death. In other words, The Two Towers begins with things going bad, and when it ends things are much, much worse.
I made my case for reading these books when talking about Fellowship, so I won’t bang that drum here. If you made it to the end of that first volume, it’s likely you’re engaged enough to get through to the end. This is where most people would say LotR gets good, and there’s more action and less singing. Frodo and Sam are off to Mordor, but we don’t see them for several hundred pages yet. The two towers the title refers to are Minas Morgul, which is the evil home of the Nazgûl, and Orthanc in Isengard, where Saruman is hanging out being a dick to everyone. Tolkien deals with the story of Aragorn, Gimli, and Legolas first, as they hunt for the missing hobbits Merry and Pippin. This takes them to a mysterious forest, and then to Rohan, which is comprised of mountains and vast grasslands. They like horses. This entire first book of volume two deals with the treason of Saruman, and the fallout of that conflict. Then, much later, we skip back in time to follow Frodo and Sam into Mordor, and their misadventures in Minas Morgul.
As I’ve shared while talking about Fellowship, this series is of paramount importance to my childhood. It was the first time I put actual work into reading a thing because I wanted to. Eventually that paid off, and now it’s one of my favorite things. Yet once I accepted the slow pace and the grandiose language and all those fucking names, I had one more roadblock to power through. This was the death of Gandalf in the Mines of Moria. The cranky old wizard has ever been my favorite character, and I’m not exactly sure what that says about me. His power is vast, but you hardly ever see it. His wisdom is great, but you don’t always see much of that either, because he plays everything super close. Yet both of these things are seen in Gandalf the Grey’s final stand before the Balrog (“you shall not pass,” and all that). He’s a super bad-ass in that moment, but then he falls into darkness and is gone. That fucked me up! I took my book to my mother and complained again. “Mom, this book is bullshit! Gandalf can’t be dead. Why would you make me read this?” Again, not an exact quote, but a reasonable facsimile. Anyway, my mother obviously knew what was going to happen in The Two Towers, and played it coy. Her response was along the lines of “bad things happen, get over it and keep reading.”
Ugh, whatever, mom. Now I have to read about Strider and company running real fast and still failing to keep up with orcs. Then these Rohan dickheads show up and they don’t even know what they’re talking about, Aragorn could wreck your shit in a hot second. Meanwhile, poor Merry and Pippin are basically being tortured by orcs, and that’s upsetting. At least they get away, only to be haunted by Saruman the evil wizard and things are looking super bleak. But then. Oh, if only I could go back in time to being ten years old again and re-live the moment when the White Rider shows up and behold, Gandalf is back, only this time he’s Gandalf the motherfucking White, and shit’s about to get real. Real bad for Saruman, that is.
Tolkien had some very strong opinions about the state of his native England, many of which bubble up into Middle-Earth. One of these things is a nascent environmentalism, which is a recurring theme throughout The Lord of the Rings. After the war, the United Kingdom was a mess. A lot of this was a consequence of the war, and the Blitz, and the hard times that followed. Yet Tolkien was not a young man, and he had memories of a time not only before the great world wars, but before industrialism took over completely. Put another way, Tolkien was a witness to the death of many natural places for the sake of industry, modernity, and progress. Now, England is very old and has a long, tortured history. The native forests were destroyed long ago. Despite that, the land was still very pastoral and in places scenic. The closest Tolkien ever gets to allegory is that The Shire may as well be an idealized version of a pre-industrial England. Yet still, once technology ramped up humanity’s stake on the earth, the natural world was an immediate victim. Not only were the forests largely destroyed, but the mountains themselves were ground up for coal, and the soot covered cities and villages alike.
Saruman embodies the factories, and soot, and squalor of industry. His is the mindset of domination over nature at all costs. The only way forward is to grind nature into submission for the rise of humanity. Well, in Saruman’s case, the rise of Saruman. He’s corrupted, and prideful, and thinks he can challenge or even coexist with Sauron. This is obviously dumb as butts, as The Dark Lord will broker no rival. However, with the Ring of Power all things are possible. And while Galadriel would become a beautiful and great queen of darkness, Saruman would just be another Sauron. His treatment of Isengard is a clear preview of his intentions. The land surrounding the tower of Orthanc was once a lovely garden full of streams and trees and shrubs and small woodland creatures frolicking in the sunshine. Then Saruman went all crazy and now it’s hellish forge of fire and metal and gears and smoke. Then he went full evil and brought in orcs and apparently cross-bred them with humans (ew), then they put forth Saruman’s campaign against nature itself, cutting down trees for no reason and burning things and all the while readying for war against Rohan.
Sometimes, when I go hiking in the forests here in the Northwest, I will come across the occasional clear-cut. Sometimes these are re-planted, but many times logging outfits just leave vast scars of slag, letting the stumps and debris to dry the sun and allowing the undergrowth to run rampant. It’s usually pretty gross, especially if they’re fresh. Eventually, these scars will be folded back into the forest, but of course that can take upwards of fifty years or more. When I find these, I think about how nice it would be to have a pack of Ents running around in the woods, because they’d take care of these goofs in short order. One minute you’re chainsawing away and grinding all life away under the fat tires of your logging truck, and then you take a small break, maybe throw some trash off into the woods, but off in the distance you hear this weird noise: hoom-hoom. And before you have much time to do anything else here comes fuckin’ Treebeard all pissed off and stomping your log truck flat and otherwise being very hasty.
The Ents are Tolkien’s nature revenge fantasy. I love them. They are old, like the forests, and have long memories. Because they are of the very earth, they are stronger than any construct of humanity. This is demonstrated in no uncertain terms when they lay waste to Saruman’s years of effort in like a day. The Ents are not to be trifled with, and Saruman’s ruin fell upon him before he could even think about acting in his own defense. If only the actual world’s forests had a race of mighty sentient trees to protect them from reckless over-harvesting. Anyway, Treebeard and the Ents are Tolkien’s not-so-subtle way of displaying his feelings about the dangers of industrialization. Maybe cool it with the whole raping the earth thing.
Meanwhile, in Mordor, the land is long past reclamation. Sauron has been at his dark business for millennia, and the landscape is warped and tortured. Also, if the last sentence comes as a surprise, then you have greatly underestimated the age of Middle-Earth. Like, the Dark Tower of Barad-dûr is over 5,000 years old. And it’s Sauron’s second home. Part of the allure of Tolkien’s creations is the crazy depth and range of its history. Seriously, the massive appendices found at the end of The Return of the King only scratch the surface of the immense history. Also, the fact that many of the major players are immortal doesn’t help. The likes of Gandalf, and Galadriel, and Elrond are actual, present characters in the story. But they’re also major players in ancient tales of wonder, forgotten by the human societies. This is actually a neat thing that comes up over the course of the story, in which members of the Fellowship meet all these legendary people and regular citizens think they’re full of shit. I would be like going hiking and running into Moses on a trail. The stories he could tell. “Oh yeah, I was at King Arthur’s bachelor party, it was sick. Gawain got super drunk and threw up on Agamemnon. I almost scored with Cleopatra, but Thor cock-blocked me.” Moses is a player.
What was I talking about? Oh right, the desolation of Sauron’s lands. One of the most impressive feats of writing on display here is Tolkien’s seemingly unending supply of superlatives when describing how awful Mordor and its surrounding environment is. Here’s just a little bit, describing the wastelands outside of the dark land itself:
“They had come to the desolation that lay before Mordor: the lasting monument to the dark labour of its slaves that should endure when all their purposes were made void; a land defiled, diseased beyond all healing – unless the Great Sea should enter in and wash it with oblivion. ‘I feel sick,’ said Sam. Frodo did not speak.
For a while they stood there, like men on the edge of a sleep where nightmare lurks, holding it off, though they know that they can only come to morning through the shadows. The light broadened and hardened. The gasping pits and poisonous mounds grew hideously clear. The sun was up, walking among the clouds and long flags of smoke, but even the sunlight was defiled. The hobbits had no welcome for that light; unfriendly it seemed, revealing them in their helplessness – little squeaking ghosts that wandered among the ash-heaps of the Dark Lord.”
Tolkien bludgeons you with this kind of thing, over and over, until the very text becomes oppressive. It’s brilliant, if tiring. It’s a small window into the labor and torment of the Ring-bearer. I mean, even the sunrise in Sauron’s lands are terrible and ugly. Also, this isn’t even Mordor. This is just the land that borders Mordor, and they were laid to waste for no other reason other than just because. Also, you have to throw your trash somewhere. It’s the landscape of a nuclear apocalypse, except instead of amoral science running amok, it’s dark magic at work defiling and defying that which is natural and good.
The point is still pretty clear, however. One of the knocks against Tolkien is that his fiction is pretty black and white when it comes to good and evil. It’s a fair criticism, but again, it’s not Tolkien’s intention to really engage with the grit and grime of being human. He’s a historian, and is mostly concerned with names and legacies and tales of great renown. While it was a smart decision to invent hobbits and make them the primary lens through which we’re seeing all this – they’re a small, humble race and keeps everything grounded – we’re still reading about immortal legends and the greatest of the great doing mortal battle with a great evil. There’s not a ton of room for nuance here. The Elves are a great good, because they respect, love, and basically embody the natural world. Yeah, they’re aloof and prickly sometimes, but they are of the earth. Same with the Ents, and the Dwarves who in their way revere the natural environment (although they prefer rock and darkness to trees and light), and of course the Hobbits who maintain a pastoral, respectful relationship with their small land.
In between the all-out evil of Sauron, and the heavenly good of Gandalf and company, lie the Men. Now, the lineage of humanity in Middle-Earth is complicated and weird, and I’ve been writing for a while now and we’ve still got one more book to go. Suffice to say, there are different kinds of humanity. I’m not super clear on how all this works, because I still need to read The Simarillion and even then I expect to be confused. There’s a lot to know! Anyway, the gist is that Men are in the middle, and they embody aspects of both. They’re your grey area. That’s why a bunch of them side with Saruman and help with the siege of Helm’s Deep. Later they show up in support of Sauron. You also get dickbags like Wormtongue, who prey upon the weakness of otherwise strong people. Théoden, King of the Mark and otherwise cool guy, has a long moment of weakness which was exploited by the evil of Saruman. Yet he finds redemption, and it’s fine.
The inherent conflict between good and evil in the hearts of Men (by the way, I’m using the capitalized gendered pronoun here because that’s what Tolkien has named the race) is mirrored by the works of humanity. The Elves live in harmony with nature to the point of living in fancy tree-houses. The Dwarves make awesome halls underground, also in harmony with nature. Orcs make everything filthy and Sauron’s slaves defile and destroy everything. In between these extremes, Men create great works of wonder, and then watch them crumble and fall, or else be corrupted entirely by the Enemy. Minas Morgul, after all, was once the easternmost tower of Gondor in their heyday. So there, everything isn’t as monochromatic as you might think.