From Peter Jackson’s 2002 adaptation to Tolkien’s 1954 original, there is a mystery at the heart of the second instalment of The Lord of the Rings. Many a reader has been plagued by The Two Towers after missing the one line in the books that reveals the answer, and many a moviegoer has wondered, “Wait… is there even a second tower in this movie?”
The mystery, of course, is: Which towers are the two towers?
The Lord of the Rings films will celebrate their 20th anniversary in 2021, and we couldn’t imagine completing the trilogy in just one storey. So, every Wednesday this year, we’ll go there and back, delving into how and why these films have become modern classics.
Perhaps in another setting, this would be a simple task, but Middle-geography earth’s is littered with spires of various kinds, from Saruman’s tower at Isengard to the steeples of Minas Tirith, Gondor’s capital city, to Barad-dûr, the perch of the Eye of Sauron — and all of them play significant roles in The Lord of the Rings.
But it’s a good question and one that J.R.R. Tolkien pondered for the majority of The Fellowship of the Ring’s writing. It afflicted Philippa Boyens, Peter Jackson, and Fran Walsh again when it came time to adapt The Lord of the Rings into three films.
The Lord of the Rings is a fantasy novel series written by Tolkien. But it wasn’t supposed to have a name in the first place.
One book to rule them all
Tolkien intended The Lord of the Rings to be a single book with six distinct sections, rather than a trilogy. However, his publishers were concerned about the high cost of paper in postwar England and feared that readers would be put off by a thousand-page tome, so they required that it be divided into three parts, each with two sections.
Tolkien had to come up with names for the three parts as a result. The second book in the trilogy, which contains sections III and IV of the six-part epic, proved difficult to write. Section III continued on from Section II, covering about a week of Aragorn’s, Legolas’, Gimli’s, Gandalf’s, Merry’s, and Pippin’s adventures in Rohan. Section IV went back a week in time to pick up with Frodo and Sam, and then went on for over two weeks. These two sections did not meet at any point.
Tolkien eventually decided on The Fellowship of the Ring, The Two Towers, and The Return of the King so that the titles of all three books could be included in The Fellowship’s first printing to entice the satisfied reader. According to Humphrey Carpenter, his biographer, he originally wrote to his publisher Allen & Unwin, requesting that the towers in the title be left ambiguous.
Then he wrote that he was trying to decide on specific towers but couldn’t make up his mind between three options. Perhaps Orthanc and Barad-dûr, the strongholds of Saruman and Sauron, respectively, as the major antagonistic forces of The Lord of the Rings, best represented the events of the book? Perhaps it was Minas Tirith and Barad-dûr, the fortress of the highest evil and the last refuge of the forces of good?
Perhaps it was Orthanc — the site of the final battle of Aragorn, Legolas, Gimli, Gandalf, Pippin, and Merry’s Two Towers adventures, in which Gandalf strips Saruman of his wizardly powers — and the tower of Cirith Ungol — the site of the cliffhanger climax of Sam and Frodo’s Two Towers arc, in which Frodo is captured alive by orcs and Sam
I wish I could tell you it was any of these, but unfortunately, a month after that, Tolkien settled on none of those combos.
Which towers are the Two Towers?
This is the tower of Minas Morgul. It’s OK if you don’t remember it.
As he was finishing The Fellowship of the Ring, Tolkien decided that the two towers of The Two Towers would be … Orthanc and Minas Morgul.
Minas Morgul? Are you kidding me, professor?
You’re probably thinking right now, “If it’s not Saruman’s tower, Sauron’s tower, or the tower where Frodo is captured, then what the fuck is Minas Morgul?” The fortress of the Witch-king of Angmar, leader of the Nazgul, Minas Morgul — formerly a Gondorian city, hence the “Minas,” as in Minas Tirith — is the fortress of the Witch-king of Angmar, leader of the Nazgul. The Witch-King leads his armies out of a spooky castle, bound for Minas Tirith and the Battle of Pelennor Fields, in only one scene in Tolkien’s The Two Towers, in which Sam and Frodo cower. That concludes our discussion.
And here’s the fun part: Minas Morgul doesn’t appear in The Two Towers at all, owing to the particular bind that the book’s non-novelistic structure put Boyens, Jackson, and Walsh in. By the time Frodo and Sam see Minas Morgul, Gandalf, Aragorn, and the rest of the crew have run across Rohan twice, healed Theoden, defended Helm’s Deep, sacked Isengard, broken Saruman’s staff, walked the Paths of the Dead, and Gandalf and Pippin have arrived at Minas Tirith, according to the timeline of The Lord of the Rings’ plotlines.
Frodo, Sam, and Gollum have yet to meet Faramir by the time the Battle of Helm’s Deep takes place, the moment Boyens, Jackson, and Walsh chose to close the book on their Two Towers. To avoid cramming too much content into The Two Towers, the filmmakers fudged Sam and Frodo’s timeline a little, created a narrative arc for them to overcome, and left a lot of Sam and Frodo’s book plot for The Return of the King in 2003.
Minas Morgul, a sickly green castle that fires a giant eldritch laser into the sky before spewing forth the armies of Mordor, only appeared in Return of the King due to creative demands of the adaptation. So, in addition to the monumental task of adapting Tolkien’s work for the screen, Jackson and his team had to create their own two towers for The Two Towers, which Galadriel explains in the trailer!
Despite the fact that the trailers for The Two Towers explicitly listed Barad-dûr and Orthanc as the namesake spires, the American psyche was already grappling with the legacy of another two towers. And, through no fault of their own, The Fellowship of the Ring’s mainstream success prompted some comparisons for the much-anticipated sequel.
Oh no, is this about 9/11?
It sure is!
Months in advance of The Two Towers’ December 2002 release, a man named Kevin Klerck used the now-defunct PetitionOnline.com to create the petition “Rename ‘The Two Towers’ to Something Less Offensive.” His manifesto read, in part:
Peter Jackson has decided to tastelessly name the sequel [to The Fellowship of the Rings] The Two Towers. The title is clearly meant to refer to the attacks on the World Trade Center. In this post-Sept. 11 world, it is unforgivable that this should be allowed to happen.
Klerck was not serious, unlike many of the post-9/11 reactions to the Lord of the Rings films, but the petition garnered thousands of signatures and enough media attention that I was able to confirm my hazy 20-year-old memories of it with a quick Google search. Other search results suggest that Klerk’s work was not the only one of its kind; however, I can’t say whether the other petitions or efforts were genuine or satirical.
Regardless, it highlights the central issue with The Two Towers as a title: it’s difficult to figure out what the hell it means. It’s an idea Tolkien developed under editorial direction and then worked backwards to find a solution that made more sense to him than anyone else, as he did with a surprising number of things in The Lord of the Rings.
Many diehard fans of the books are still enraged 20 years later that Faramir had to be made into a bad guy for the film adaptation of The Two Towers in order for Sam and Frodo to have something to do while their friends were away at the far more dramatic Battle of Helm’s Deep. However, as a fellow book nerd, I believe we should all rally behind a fresh take on the film.Peter Jackson’s The Two Towers actually improves on Tolkien’s, because it at least knows which two towers it’s about. Minas Morgul my ass.