The Two Towers
J. R. R. Tolkien
Contributed by Marinda Dreiling
Themes are described as ideas that dominate a particular piece of literature. In almost all cases, pieces of literature will be centered a theme or a number of them.

Frodo and Sam’s wonderful discussion of story highlights a theme important throughout The Lord of the Rings, a theme which manifests itself at several points in The Two Towers specifically. Briefly, the theme can be stated as a question: What is our place in the story? Or, perhaps more accurately: What is our place in The Story?

Tolkien wrote a highly influential essay for criticism of fantastic literature entitled "On Fairy-Story." In that essay, he argues that fantastic stories, specifically mythology, are valuable to humanity because, within it, we often glimpse "something really ’higher.’" In other words, story-again, consider all of Tolkien’s comments with specific reference to fairy-story or fantasy-grants us access to something ultimately and vitally truthful. "History," Tolkien states, "often resembles ’Myth’ because they are both ultimately of the same stuff." Successful stories, in Tolkien’s estimation, create a "Secondary World" in which readers willingly suspend disbelief in order to encounter this higher reality, this ultimate truth. Fairy-stories thus, at their best, answer the question, "Is it true?" Tolkien argues: "Fantasy remains a human right: we make in our measure and in our derivative mode, because we are made: and not only made, but made in the image and likeness of a Maker." This is a revelatory insight into the nature of fantastic literature, and students of Tolkien need not share his Judeo-Christian convictions regarding humanity’s creation in the imago Dei (see Genesis 1:27) to sense the important of the author’s argument. It might be paraphrased as follows: we need fantasy-or, more broadly, story-because: (1) story-telling is a natural human function; we, alone among the animals, are the story-telling creatures; and (2) in the act of creating and crafting stories, we-knowingly or not, consciously or not-bring ourselves into the presence of Truth and Reality. Tolkien, as a devout Catholic, identified this Reality with the evangelium, the gospel preached by Christianity; nevertheless, non-Christian readers can similarly appreciate the high and noble function Tolkien is assigning to fantastic literature. (See "On Fairy-Story" by J.R.R. Tolkien in The Tolkien Reader (New York: Ballantine Books, 1966; pp. 31-99-an indispensable text for understanding Tolkien’s work.)

Not surprisingly, then, Tolkien’s preoccupation with the role of Story, the value of Fantasy, asserts itself even within the imaginary world of Middle-earth. Frodo and Sam’s discussion in Book IV, Chapter 8 establishes that all of us, as we live out our own, individual stories, do so within the context of a larger, overarching Story. The "great tales," as Sam calls them, never end-but the parts people play within them (and within, we might say, The Great Story) do. In the great stories, and in The Great Story, the "brave" (Sam’s word) and heroic do what they must, even if-especially if-they have been landed in their "adventure" through no fault of their own. Tolkien is lauding this virtue of determined heroism, come what may, and, as readers of the complete work will discover, it is that virtue which, in combination with the unseen, guiding hand of "luck," "fate," or providence that yields a successful resolution of the quest. When we see our stories as part of The Great Story, we realize we, too, can be the "wonderful folk" of whom Sam speaks. Appropriately enough, then, Sam and Frodo imagine how later generations will tell their story.

Of course, the theme of story also connects to another dominant theme in The Two Towers-and it is sounded here rather more loudly, perhaps, than in the other four books of the novel The Lord of the Rings as a whole-of communication and miscommunication. Since medieval times (and no doubt earlier), authors have wrestled with the question: Shall human beings master language, or shall language master them? (See, for example, the work of the Gawain poet, or Chaucer’s "Wife of Bath’s Tale.") Books III and IV of Tolkien’s epic provide ample opportunities to reflect upon the promise and peril of language: the Ents’ slow and deliberate conversations at Entmoot. Wormtongue’s "poisoned" speech to Thoden, and the dangerous voice of Saruman at Orthanc. the ambiguous oaths taken by Gollum, to "serve the Master of the Precious". Sam’s inadvertent revelation of "Isildur’s Bane" to Faramir. Living as he did in the midst of World War II, having fought as a younger man in World War I, existing in a world where communication became increasingly possible at faster speeds but perhaps with an inversely proportional lack of content-in other words, a world not that different from our own-the question of how language could be used and abused proved especially pressing to Tolkien, particularly as he was a philologist, one who studied the origins of words. How can words help? How can words destroy? Readers must bear this theme and these questions in mind as they work to discern the meanings of Books III and IV.

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