Aug 14 2009 2:39pm

LotR re-read: Two Towers III.8, “The Road to Isengard”

cover of The Two TowersI’m home from WorldCon and associated travels, and all I can say is that I’m really glad we have a short, transitional chapter this week.

Oh, no, wait, I have two other things to say before we get started with the spoilers and comments: there are some really very shiny verses in last week’s open thread, so if you missed those, go take a look (I got shamefully behind on it myself), and I wrote something non-LotR elsewhere on this site, a review of David Anthony Durham’s Acacia, which as a post-Tolkien epic fantasy may be of interest to some of you.

What Happens

Everyone who was at the Battle of Helm’s Deep is reunited; Gandalf is cryptic and invites Théoden to come to Isengard with him. The dead humans are buried and the hillmen are set free after swearing not to attack again, but the dead Orcs are piled in heaps while they try to decide what to do with them.

Gandalf and company leave in the afternoon, passing through the newly-appeared wood with trepidation but no ill effects. Gimli tells Legolas of the beautiful caves of Helm’s Deep, and they agree to return there and to Fangorn after the quest. As they leave the forest, they see Ents.

At the Fords of Isen, they find that the dead Riders have been buried by some of the Riders Gandalf found in his night away from Helm’s Deep; others he sent to Edoras as guards, and the rest to the battle. They rest for the night and are passed by mysterious dark masses, while the next morning at Helm’s Deep, the trees are gone, the dead Orcs are gone, and a deep pit covered with stones is found.

The Riders come to Isengard and find it shattered and flooded. Merry and Pippin greet them and report that Treebeard has taken over management of Isengard. After Gandalf prevents Merry from relating the entire history of pipe-weed to Théoden, the two of them go to find Treebeard.


As I said, a short and transitional chapter, about which I have only scattered comments. So, let’s just start in chronological order:

I’m glad about the treatment of the Dunlanders, but I’m still a little dubious about their characterization:

No Orcs remained alive; their bodies were uncounted. But a great many of the hillmen had given themselves up; and they were afraid, and cried for mercy.

The Men of the Mark took their weapons from them, and set them to work.

‘Help now to repair the evil in which you have joined,’ said Erkenbrand; ‘and afterwards you shall take an oath never again to pass the Fords of Isen in arms, nor to march with the enemies of Men; and then you shall go free back to your land. For you have been deluded by Saruman. Many of you have got death as the reward of your trust in him; but had you conquered, little better would your wages have been.’

The men of Dunland were amazed; for Saruman had told them that the men of Rohan were cruel and burned their captives alive.

. . . and now I’ve changed my mind, because while I was looking up how long it’s been since they had any significant contact with the Rohirrim (about 250 years, it seems) and so forth, I realized a key thing: it’s Saruman who did the convincing. If it had been J. Random Not Preternaturally Persuasive Person, then I would remain concerned that the Dunlanders were being infantilized, but like I said: Saruman.

* * *

An interesting thing that didn’t get shown in the last chapter: it’s not until now that we’re told

In a grave alone under the shadow of the Hornburg lay Háma, captain of the King’s guard. He fell before the Gate.

In another story that would have been the subject of, if not a chapter, then at least a major scene all to itself.

* * *

You know, I used to be a little puzzled at the inclusion of Gandalf in comments about the mysterious magical advisor who “guides” the hero through his journey by not telling him major things (Exhibit A: Dumbledore). And then I got to this chapter, and yeah, wow, he really is being annoyingly cryptic, isn’t he? Yes, yes, I can see the reasons for it: wanting Théoden to think about his riddle and expand his mind instead of just saying, “Well, they’re Ents,” not knowing what might have happened at Isengard since he was there last—though this seems like quite the excess of caution considering how thoroughly it had already been demolished when he arrived the night before, etc.: but it was still annoying.

* * *

Gimli and the Glittering Caves of Aglarond! (Which would be a good rock band name if it weren’t difficult to spell.) I love this section, the vividness of his descriptions and his passion and the beauty it evokes and, now, his many sides as a person. If I started quoting I’d end up pasting the whole section in, and I still have a lot of quoting to do, so I’ll just leave it as: I love this section.

* * *

Théoden has a conversation with Gandalf after seeing the Ents that strike me as very representative of LotR as a whole. Gandalf says,

‘ . . . to them you are but the passing tale; all the years from Eorl the Young to Théoden the Old are of little count to them; and all the deeds of your house but a small matter.’

The king was silent. ‘Ents!’ he said at length. ‘Out of the shadows of legend I begin a little to understand the marvel of the trees, I think. I have lived to see strange days. Long we have tended our beasts and our fields, built our houses, wrought our tools, or ridden away to help in the wars of Minas Tirith. And that we called the life of Men, the way of the world. We cared little for what lay beyond the borders of our land. Songs we have that tell of these things, but we are forgetting them, teaching them only to children, as a careless custom. And now the songs have come down among us out of strange places, and walk visible under the Sun.’

‘You should be glad, Théoden King,’ said Gandalf. ‘For not only the little life of Men is now endangered, but the life also of those things which you have deemed the matter of legend. You are not without allies, even if you know them not.’

‘Yet also I should be sad,’ said Théoden. ‘For however the fortune of war shall go, may it not so end that much that was fair and wonderful shall pass for ever out of Middle-earth?’

‘It may,’ said Gandalf. ‘The evil of Sauron cannot be wholly cured, nor made as if it had not been. But to such days we are doomed. Let us now go on with the journey we have begun!’

Let’s count the ways: (1) history’s scope is vast; (2) the past affects the present; (3) insularity is bad; (4) evil endangers us all; (5) we live in a fallen world; (6) but we still have to do the best we can. Did I miss anything?

* * *

What do you think the Huorns did to the Orcs? I always assumed they ate them—well, okay, maybe not digested, but at least smushed under their roots.

* * *

Much description of Isengard, which does note that the valley contained “acres tilled by the slaves of Saruman,” for those interested in where the food comes from. What I like best about it is the comment

what he [Saruman] made was naught, only a little copy, a child’s model or a slave’s flattery, of that vast fortress, armoury, prison, furnace of great power, Barad-dûr, the Dark Tower, which suffered no rival, and laughed at flattery, biding its time, secure in its pride and its immeasurable strength.

Something about the imagery and rhythm gives me a little shiver.

* * *

Finally, language. People often say that they have a hard time with the more formal dialogue in LotR. I didn’t use to notice it, but at the start of this chapter, for instance, I found myself really noticing the contrast between Gimli’s relative informality, for instance, and Théoden and Éomer’s exchange (“Welcome, Éomer, sister-son! Now that I see you safe, I am glad indeed.” “Hail, Lord of the Mark! The dark night has passed, and day has come again.”). On the other hand, I think that Merry and Pippin’s meeting with Théoden is pushing that contrast too hard in the other direction. I find it hard to believe that Merry, who is the practical sensible one, would be so completely oblivious to wider social dynamics as to really think it a good idea to give a long disquisition on the history of pipe-weed to Théoden King. (But I don’t have trouble believing Pippin would call Théoden “a fine old fellow” in an undertone.)

More hobbits next time, yay.

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Kate Nepveu is, among other things, an appellate lawyer, a spouse and parent, and a woman of Asian ancestry. She also writes at her LiveJournal and booklog.

j p
1. sps49
I thought the pit covered with stones marked the Orcs, but the passage is probably intentionally vague.

Merry starting off on the Of Pipe-weed Appendix section is funny, and I found it believable. Hobbits are very non-egalitarian and don't really have hereditary "nobles" (the Took is closest); I was surprised when Pippin got all formal with Denethor later.
Kate Nepveu
2. katenepveu
Oh, sorry, I was unclear: yes, I'm sure the dead-on-field Orcs are in the pit, but the ones who fled into the woods and were never seen again? How were they killed and what happened to their bodies (I don't rule out that after the Huorns smushed them with their roots that they then shuffled them into the pit with the more conventionally killed).
3. DemetriosX
The huorns probably dealt with the orcs in a number of ways. Remember Old Man Willow trying to swallow Frodo whole. I've actually been waiting for this scene to bring up a very creepy short story by Algernon Blackwood called The Willows which involves some trees very like the huorns. It was written in 1907 and I wonder if Tolkien had it in mind. It can be read here: or there's an audio version here:

I'll save comments on the hobbits interactions with the kings for when they actually occur.
John Brown
4. JohnBrown
It's interesting you quote this:

‘Yet also I should be sad,’ said Théoden. ‘For however the fortune of war shall go, may it not so end that much that was fair and wonderful shall pass for ever out of Middle-earth?’

‘It may,’ said Gandalf. ‘The evil of Sauron cannot be wholly cured, nor made as if it had not been

I think one of the draws of Tolkien's stuff is this sense of so many things that sound cool or wonderful but that he purposely doesn't fully explore. Like the entwives.

He does this over and over. I know it awakened a huge longing in me and does every time I read the book. I love the effect and feel Théoden is speaking for me.
Hugh Arai
5. HArai
JohnBrown@4: It's interesting to see Théoden the leader of one of the shortest lived groups of Men echoing the long lament of the immortal Elves.
6. SusanJames
Perhaps Merry is feeling especially impulsive after his stint with the Ents-almost a euphoric reboundlike reaction. Afterall, the hobbits' "hastiness" moved mountains and saved the day for those in Helm's Deep.

@John Brown and Harai- very good points.
I guess no matter how long one actually lives, if one is at the end of that life (as Theoden is)one feels a regret for things gone forever. In other words, no matter how "young" Elves and Ents may see him, Theoden himself does not feel young. One almost always wishes for more time to share with loved ones, or see what you never got the chance to see.

And yes, John, it is wonderful how Tolkien's characters "speak for us." It's what makes his work so lasting.
7. pilgrimsoul
Merry is a gentleman and a scholar who is excited about historical knowledge. He gets carried away. It happens. . .
8. Jon Meltzer
This is not the first time that Merry has geeked out on the journey. We see this in the Fangorn chapters where Merry explains the local geography to Pippin (and the reader).
Dave Ciskowski
9. dcisko
Merry and Pippen were hitting the wine pretty hard, right? I think Merry is just a bit buzzed perhaps.

I take your point about Hama, but it always struck me as an example of the fog of war, and that when people are offstage, they're still in peril.

I like DemetriosX's theory for the Huorns and orcs. But if they ate up the orcs, well, ulch. Orc flesh has to be nasty stuff.
Soon Lee
10. SoonLee
What do you think the Huorns did to the Orcs?

I'm going with the composting hypothesis. The Huorns killed the Orcs, placed the remains in a pit where eventually, their nutrients are returned to the earth.

pilgrimsoul @7:
Thanks for making me smile with the image of Merry geeking out about pipeweed.
11. Jon Meltzer
We find out more about what happened to Hama in the next chapter. Not good.
Soon Lee
12. SoonLee
Reminder to self:
Alongside the nature/good and technology/evil imagery, Tolkien has also used on more than one occasion the idea of evil as (and I'm struggling to find an elegant phrase) "residual pollution".

The burial sites of the 'good' are associated with renewal of nature whereas sites of 'evil' remain stained and barren.

Two examples:

"Green and long grew the grass on Snowmane's Howe, but ever black and bare was the ground where the beast was burned."

But also the white evermind growing on the barrows of the Rohan kings vs. the Orc pit, "The Death Down it was afterwards called, and no grass would grow there."
13. EmmaPease
IIRC the people of the Mark when leaving the cave sing (though we aren't given the song). One of the characteristics of these people is how often they do sing. They sing in battle which I can't see Aragorn or Faramir doing.
14. DBratman
As I may have mentioned before, Merry is prevented from reciting the entire history of pipeweed by the forcible intervention of the author, who bodily removed most of it to the Prologue after realizing that he'd let the character run away with himself.

As for why Merry goes on as long as he does, even in the edited version, it's not because he thinks it's a good idea: it's because he's a nerd on the subject, and forgets himself. Imagine any SF fan you've ever known who seizes on your passing remark on some subject, as Theoden makes one here, to pin you down with an enthused disquisition.

Re the death of Hama being underplayed: so is the death of Theodred. One of the very few improvements that I think Peter Jackson made on the story was underlining the grief in the courts of Edoras on that point at the time our heroes arrive.

Pippin has comments at a few points later on in the story on how exasperatingly cryptic Gandalf can be. Come to think of it, even Aragorn had cause to complain about that once.

On the vastness of history's scope: to the Rohirrim, an oral culture, their own history of 500 years in their land has become something of a matter of dim legendry. They know about Eorl and revere him, but he's more a figure of myth than of history to them. But in the Appendices on Gondor, which are based on their records, we see a perspective in which all that is plain recorded history, which for the Numenoreans goes back about 6000 years before it becomes more mythic than historical. And for the Ents, myth and history are all one, and their personal memories go back farther still.
Kate Nepveu
15. katenepveu
DemetriosX @ #3, I had forgotten about Old Man Willow. Thanks. And I will put _The Willows_ on my PDA for reading.

SoonLee @ #12, contagion theory of magic?

DBratman @ #14, yes, Theodred is underplayed to the point that I sometimes forget he was there.
Andrew Foss
16. alfoss1540
Kate: On the formality of language - remember that common speech (we guess English) is being rendered from Elven, dwarvish, Rohirrim and Numenorean. We get tastes of each of these throughout the books, and we know that JRRT had a thing for languages. I think we see a lot of the differenece in formality as thinking . . . lost in translation.

Anyone who has struggled through anything written by Umberto Eco - or any other bad translation - can feel it in every word you read

Hourns - scare the S--- out of me. Evil to the core. Maybe why I love Fanghorn.

And Gandalf being cryptic was a cute plot ploy, but irritating - I hate suprises.
Soon Lee
17. SoonLee
Kate @15:
"Contagion" isn't right for what I'm trying to define, though it's a good descriptor for the One Ring; it infects those it comes in contact with.

The idea I'm grasping at is along the lines that 'the good or evil within is released into the earth when dead & buried'. Like a toxic spill in the case of the Orcs in the pit. The Orcs might be dead and buried, but the evil in them leaches out and taints the earth. I think Tolkien used the comparison consciously, dismayed as he was with the loss of his idealised England (the Shire) to mechanisation and resulting pollution.
18. MKUhlig
Tolkien portrays the Ents as being tree like in their eating habits - where they drink water for nourishment, not that they would eat animals. I believe the Hourns are depicted as Ents "who have gone bad" or something like that. Therefor, despite the depiction of Old Man Willow earlier I don't think of the Hourns as eating the Orcs - maybe rending them and squashing them.

Also, alfonso1540@16, I do find them scary - but not because I think them pure evil. More that they have a hatred of all things not entish - they would have no pity or mercy for an enemy. But I do not equate that with being evil, since they have had reason to start hating their attackers.
Michael Ikeda
19. mikeda

I don't recall Huorns being described as Ents "gone bad". In the chapter "Flotsam and Jetsam", Merry says he thinks they are "Ents that have become almost like trees, at least to look at" and later that "they have become queer and wild. Dangerous."
20. TA Widman
Theoden's conversation with Gandalf after seeing the Ents has another deeper meaning, which was close to Tolkien's heart. And that is that we need to open our eyes and truly see the world around us. This is a major theme in LotR.

How many times do the inhabitants of Middle Earth say that they are meeting something of myth? The Rohirrim and the halfings are one example. The encounter with the Ents, however, is to most powerful. Tolkien had a great love for nature. The ents and the way that they change our perspective on "the way things are" and the nature of the world is central to his vision. " the songs have come down among us out of strange places, and walk visible under the Sun."

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