I have been listening to J.R.R. Tolkien’s novel The Two Towers (The Lord of the Rings, Book 2) as narrated by Rob Inglis while making soap and taking walks (trying to drop a few pounds). The first time I read this series, I whipped right through all three books, unable to put them down. The next time I tried a re-read, and the time after that, I wound up bogged down in The Two Towers. I told myself it must be that there was a lull in the pace, but now that I’ve listened to it (and finished it, this time), I think it was just me because there is a lot going on in that book.
For those of you who have only seen the movie, the book is different. In the movie, the action involving Merry, Pippin, Legolas, Gimli, and Aragorn flips back and forth with the action involving Frodo and Sam. Not so in the novel. The first half of the novel finds Boromir falling at the hands of orcs who kidnap Merry and Pippin to take them to Isengard. Legolas, Gimli, and Aragorn give Boromir a funeral and go in search of the hobbits. On the way, they meet Éomer, nephew of King Theoden of Rohan. They join the Rohirrim to defend Helm’s Deep against the onslaught of orcs, then head to Isengard, where they finally find Merry and Pippin, well and safe and rescued by Treebeard. The Ents have risen against Saruman. Meanwhile, Gandalf has seemingly come back from the grave and taken Saruman’s spot on the White Council. He drives Saruman out of the White Council and breaks his staff.
The second half of the novel concerns Frodo and Sam’s descent into Mordor, during which they meet up with Gollum, who becomes their unlikely guide, and Faramir, who allows Frodo go free and even spares Gollum at Frodo’s request. Gollum leads Frodo and Sam into the lair of the great spider, Shelob, and in that darkest hour, all hope seems lost.
At this point in the hero’s journey that is The Lord of the Rings, Frodo is in what Joseph Campbell called “the belly of the whale.” It is the bleakest hour, when his quest seems doomed to failure, and his life is in its greatest peril. He has come all the way to Mordor, only to be ensnared by an ancient, evil beast. Even good old Samwise thinks his master is gone until he overhears orcs saying Frodo is still alive.
I was struck again, as I always seem to be when I watch the movies and as I was the last time I read The Two Towers that Faramir is a much better man than Boromir. He is one of the few characters in the novel not to be tempted by the power of the Ring, even when it is within his power to take it and use it as he would. He is truly a brave and noble man and one of my favorite characters.
I was struck listening to Sam talk about how the story of the destruction of the Ring might be told one day.
The brave things in the old tales and songs, Mr. Frodo: adventures, as I used to call them. I used to think that they were things the wonderful folk of the stories went out and looked for, because they wanted them, because they were exciting and life was a bit dull, a kind of a sport, as you might say. But that’s not the way of it with the tales that really mattered, or the ones that stay in the mind. Folk seem to have been just landed in them, usually—their paths were laid that way, as you put it. But I expect they had lots of chances, like us, of turning back, only they didn’t. And if they had, we shouldn’t know, because they’d have been forgotten. We hear about those as just went on—and not all to a good end, mind you, at least not to what folk inside a story and not outside it call a good end. You know, coming home, and find things all right, thought not quite the same—like old Mr. Bilbo. But those aren’t always the best tales to hear, though they may be the best tales to get landed in!
What a spectacular comment on why we tell stories and why the hero’s journey, in particular, continues to speak to us. And of course, Tolkien always understood that about stories, and that he put that wisdom in the mouth of Samwise Gamgee makes me love both Tolkien and Samwise even more. Sam even has a little bit of insight into the villain’s role in the story. Gollum is arguably more pitiful than villainous, but he does betray the hobbits, and Sam was always right to be wary of him. Sam said:
Even Gollum might be good in a tale, better than he is to have by you, anyway. And he used to like tales himself once, by his own account. I wonder if he thinks he’s the hero or the villain?
Same shows a great deal of insight into the nature of what Tolkien would call fairy stories. The villains are as important as the heroes to a good yarn, even if they are not much fun to be around in real life.
Rob Inglis is an excellent narrator, and he does a particularly brilliant characterization of Gollum. He manages to distinguish most of the characters from one another. In addition to Gollum, his Samwise, Merry, and Pippin are all excellent as well. Gandalf and Aragorn sound like they should. No voice is out of place. His dramatic reading of the plot brings the story to life, and I thoroughly enjoy listening to it so much that I found myself making excuses to plug the audio book in and listen.
If you haven’t re-read The Hobbit or The Lord of the Rings in a while, I encourage you to give Rob Inglis’s narration a try. He’s an excellent reader of a rather ripping good tale.