The Lord of the Rings Reread

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

I’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.


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