Structural suspense in The Two Towers

One writing axiom is “keep your characters in trouble.” Another is “keep your reader guessing.” Budding fantasy writers — and, indeed, suspense writers — could learn a thing or two from The Two Towers, the middle part of  J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings.

The action picks up with the Company of the Ring in disarray, seeking the Ringbearer, Frodo, as they are ambushed by orcs. (If you haven’t read Lord of the Rings, stop now; if you’ve only seen the movies, this discussion will make no sense — the movie and the book versions of The Two Towers have totally different structures, among other differences.)

All the reader knows from The Fellowship of the Ring is that Frodo has decided to go to Mordor alone, and Sam has gone with him; Aragorn, Gimli and Legolas know even less, as they variously fight the orcs and finally discover Boromir succumbing to his injuries, having failed to stop the orcs from abducting Merry and Pippin (which he doesn’t get a chance to tell them).

Two main characters, Gandalf and Boromir, have now died; so as far as the readers know, anyone is fair game.

Furthermore, four of the weakest, least experienced members of the company have headed into certain danger or have been abducted by their foes, and the surviving characters have to decide what to do. After the meandering, leisurely start to The Fellowship of the Ring, The Two Towers starts with the tension already at the boiling point, and never lets up.  Tolkien’s decisions about structure only increase it.

For the first section of Book III (The Two Towers consists of Books III and IV of Lord of the Rings), the reader is forced to see only what Aragorn, Legolas and Gimli see, as they fall farther and farther behind the orcs taking Merry and Pippin to Isengard. (Aragorn deduces earlier that Sam and Frodo have headed to Mordor and decides to respect Frodo’s decision to go alone.) Their section ends with a confrontation with what they think is one of their worst enemies, Saruman, but turns out to be Gandalf, back from the dead. It’s a brief moment of relief before Tolkien delves into what happened to the hobbits.

We then find out what has happened to Merry and Pippin — who barely manage to escape the orcs during a brutal raid by the Riders of Rohan.  They meet  a potential ally in Treebeard, but even what he and the Ents will do about what the hobbits tell them is uncertain, and whether they will do it quickly enough to help Rohan survive Saruman’s onslaught from Isengard is left hanging.

Of course, Tolien then puts the remaining characters he’s willing to tell us about — Aragorn, Legolas, Gimli and Gandalf — right in the middle of the war between Isengard and Rohan. Only Gandalf is not trapped at the Battle of Helm’s Deep, a grim siege in which Rohan is badly outnumbered.

With every chapter, Tolkien puts his characters in new and usually worse peril — and never gives a hint what is happening to Frodo and Sam. He makes the reader wait for the entirety of Book III — that’s half of The Two Towers — before switching back to Sam and Frodo. And that is only after a brutal, if brief, battle, that leaves Rohan exhausted, Saruman’s forces destroyed, and the worrying threat of the real foe — Sauron of Mordor — looming, especially since so far he’s lost little he can’t replace.

After switching back to Sam and Frodo, Tolkien only gives us their story, which moves beyond the events in Book III, so the reader soon leaves behind any sense of certainty what is happening to the other hobbits, Gimli, Leglolas, Aragorn and the others. After the war unleashed in Book III, Tolkien takes a different approach to keeping readers on the edge of their seats in Book IV: Gollum.

We already know Gollum lusts for the Ring; believes it was stolen from him by Bilbo, Frodo’s uncle; and in the beginning, murdered his friend for it. Gollum is also the only one capable of showing Frodo and Sam the way into Mordor, and Frodo exacts an oath from Gollum for his help. For the rest of Book IV, the reader (and Sam) wonders whether they can trust him not to kill or betray them. In the end, of course, as his two warring sides (desire for Frodo’s trust and approval versus his burning desire for the Ring) struggle, he shows he’s capable of both.

By the end of Book IV, Frodo is poisoned by Shelob and captured by orcs in Mordor; Sam is alone, bearing the Ring; and Gollum, having betrayed them both, is still on the loose.

Quite apart from the outside forces threatening the characters (Saruman and the Uruk-hai of Isengard; Gollum; Shelob; the orcs of Mordor; and for Sam and Frodo, basic hunger, since Tolkien establishes early on the two hobbits have just enough food to carry them to Mount Doom, and not to make their escape), the reader is left in the dark most of the time about what is happening to anyone not present, since the narrative stays with one group for such long stretches.

The characters are even worse off. Aragorn, Gimli and Leglolas don’t even find out what has happened to Merry and Pippin until nearly the end of Book III; and as for Sam and Frodo, they get absolutely no good news about any of their friends — in fact, the only tidings they get are from Faramir, shocking them with news of Boromir’s death.

Tolkien, of course, builds on this approach, switching back to the other characters at the beginning of Book V in The Return of the King, and exploiting the reader’s ignorance of what happened to Sam and Frodo, when at the end of Book V, the Mouth of Sauron taunts the remaining characters in the Company of the Ring with what seems certain evidence of Frodo’s death.

Is structure the only way to build tension? No. But when employed in this way, by keeping the focus tight on certain characters for long stretches, it not only invests the reader more deeply in those characters’ struggles and dangers, it also makes the reader more worried about what might be happening to the others. I find even on rereading it, when I know what’s coming, I can’t put The Two Towers down.

Catch up with what  other bloggers Puttin’ the Blog in Balrog are posting about the story so far — SJ looks at Tolkien’s writing life at BookSnobbery; James at Thoughts in the Grass looks at Sam’s big mouth in the latter part of The Two Towers here; and Kate considers the Sam-Frodo-Gollum dynamic at Kate of Mind. More posts can be found here.

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8 comments on “Structural suspense in The Two Towers

  1. Nicely done. 🙂

    • David Jón Fuller

      August 3, 2012 at 12:26 pm Reply

      Thanks! I always find TTT a great read, whereas there are stretches of FOTR that are a bit of a slog (snoooooorreCouncilofElrondsnoooorrre).

  2. Nice post, David. I agree that what Tolkien did worked exceedingly well in The Two Towers. Most modern epic fantasy alternates view point every chapter, with constant cliffhangers. Probably because it’s very hard to do what Tolkien did here so well.

    • David Jón Fuller

      August 3, 2012 at 3:20 pm Reply

      Thanks Chadwick! I think that’s what I like about it so much — there is a real narrative momentum in TTT, and while I can appreciate the power of end-of-chapter cliffhangers and switching back and forth, I somehow think that doesn’t build up the head of steam sticking with one group of characters does. Guy Gavriel Kay does it in Tigana as well, if I remember right. You get deeper into the characters you’re reading about, and worry more about the characters you’re not.

  3. Thanks. This is a good essay on suspense and you unfold Tolkien well.

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