In the eighth chapter of The Two Towers, THIS IS THE BEST CHAPTER OF ANY BOOK THAT HAS EVER EXISTED. Intrigued? Then it’s time for Mark to read The Lord of the Rings.
CHAPTER EIGHT: THE ROAD TO ISENGARD
So look. I am trying to prepare myself for some inevitable tragedy. And for a while, I thought that would come to the group on their way to Isengard. I’m pretty sure Tolkien intended for me to feel this way. Yet for the time being, I am going to allow myself to experience a bout of joy. I deserve it, darn it! But chapter eight is perhaps my favorite chapter of the whole book so far. It’s well-written. It contains two ENORMOUS plot twists that made me smile so hard my cheeks hurt. It’s creepy. And the description of the landscape leading up to Isengard is just TERRIFYING.
Let’s start off with some celebration first:
There came Gamling the Old, and Éomer son of Éomund, and beside them walked Gimli the dwarf. He had no helm, and about his head was a linen band stained with blood; but his voice was loud and strong.
Oh, thank Gandalf. I ALMOST LOST IT THERE FOR A SECOND, Y’ALL. This reveal is made even better when Gimli finds out his final kill count – forty-two – ends up being one more than Legolas. I mean, this is literally the first thing Gimli brings up after being reunited with his friends. That’s so beautiful to me. But truthfully, I’m just glad these characters are alive after such a harrowing battle. Still, there’s something I’m confused about, and Tolkien is quick to address it.
Gandalf laughed long and merrily. ‘The trees?’ he said. ‘Nay, I see the wood as plainly as do you. But that is no deed of mine. It is a thing beyond the counsel of the wise.’
Wait. What? Wait, so someone else transformed the Dale into a forest? Why and, more importantly, how?
‘It is not wizardly, but a power far older,’ said Gandalf: ‘a power that walked the earth, ere elf sang or hammer rang.’
Oh my god.
OH MY GOD. OH MY GOD GANDALF BROUGHT THE ENTS WITH HIM.
HELP ME. THIS IS THE GREATEST PLOT TWIST I COULD POSSIBLY IMAGINE AT THIS POINT. HE DID NOT TRANSFORM THE DALE INTO A FOREST. HE BROUGHT A FOREST WITH HIM.
I can’t. I just can’t.
Gandalf announces that he’s heading to Isengard as soon as possible, and the various characters either decide to stay with him or stay behind. The core group obviously goes with Gandalf, Théoden included, while only twenty other Rohan men accompany them. Before setting off, though, there’s a rather somber scene where everyone helps to bury the dead from the Battle of Helm’s Deep after many of them sleep for a bit. There’s a few significant things that happen here, the first being the mercy that Erkenbrand shows the hillmen. I admit that even I was surprised that Erkenbrand gave these people the chance to stay and swear an oath and return to where they came from. It shocks the men of Dunland, who realize that Saruman lied to them about Rohan. To me, that’s a much more powerful tool of war because now they know they were manipulated and used. It also continues the theme of reconciliation and choice. Like with Wormtongue, another character offers a choice instead of taking revenge.
The bodies are separated by where they came from (Rohan, Dunland, or Orcs) and then this sentence destroys me:
In a grave alone under the shadow of Hornburg lay Háma, captain of the King’s guard. He fell before the Gate.
Oh, goddamn it!!! Now I feel guilty for forgetting about him, especially since I considered it a victory that none of the main characters perished in the battle. DAMN IT.
Gandalf is typically cryptic about what to do with the bodies of the Orcs, which number so highly that it’s impossible to bury them or burn them. He advises that they just leave them be. “The morning may bring new counsel,” he says. YEAH, OKAY, WHAT DOES THAT MEAN? Oh god OH GOD.
The best way that I can describe the experience of reading the rest of chapter eight to you is that it was akin to watching the final half hour of a really good thriller. One of my favorite things about good fiction is that moment when you are so engrossed in the words that you forget where you are. You forget you are in a coffee shop and there are thirty people sitting around you and every time you gasp or make a ridiculous face at another plot twist, they can probably see you. You forget that when you shout “WHAT?!?!” at a book, other people might find it strange that you are yelling at an inanimate object.
It’s like that. Chapter eight, from the moment that the group left Helm’s Deep, is some of the most attention-grabbing literature I’ve had the pleasure of experiencing. As soon as the characters enter the forest of Ents, I just forget where I was. This is powerful writing for multiple reasons. We all know by now that Tolkien concerns himself the most with world-building, so for page after page, the details of the road to Isengard are always there for us to add to our mental image of what this experience is like. But I also found the extended conversation that Legolas and Gimli have about Helm’s Deep, Fangorn, and their plans to basically go on an extended road trip after this is all over to be just as fascinating to me. World-building really is important to me, but I need characters to interact in believable, significant ways. I need to know that in a largely silent forest of walking trees, Gimli and Legolas will take time to explain the minutia of their own cultures to one another. It’s reliant on us having picked up different parts of their own personalities, too. Gimli started off as the stubborn, elf-prejudiced dwarf, reluctant to stray far from what he knew of his people and of Middle-earth. Now, he’s so eager to not only get Legolas to understand where he came from, but to experience what his friend has to offer as well. I know the bromance aspect of their relationship is entertaining, but watching their friendship spawn and grow is just so emotionally satisfying because I adore character growth so much.
This chapter is also heavy on the plot, of course, so it’s not all characterization and setting. Once the group leaves the cover of the forest, Legolas realizes that the trees have eyes. The secret of the Ents is then immediately revealed to everyone as three smaller trees call out to some of their fellow Ents, and the entire group of walking trees head back into the forest. I love this moment so much because it’s not like anyone aside from Gandalf has ever seen an Ent in their life. Not only is the old legend shown to be true, but these characters realize about fifty things at once: that trees walked to the Dale the day before; that they themselves just walked through a forest of Ents; that Ents have HERDSMEN; that Ents are off to go do something where the group just came from; that they have allies they never knew they had; and that ENTS ARE FUCKING REAL.
God, this is just so perfect. I can’t handle it.
And so they all continue their journey towards Isengard. The road to the land where Saruman rules is just fucked up. In this case, Tolkien uses another aspect of the setting to fill us with dread. Geography is deeply important to the construction of Middle-earth, and so much of what we’ve passed through is lush and green, even a place as ordinary-looking as Rohan. But as they approach Isengard, the wildlife disappears. The trees are less and less. The greenness of Middle-earth recedes from view. The river has dried up. Then they come upon the mound where Gandalf buried some of the Men of the Mark during the previous day’s battle, and it’s yet another sign of what they’re walking into. I didn’t necessarily believe they were walking into disaster. I felt confident that having Gandalf with them all meant that they were protected in some sense. Plus, Gandalf had made it clear that they were going to Isengard to parley, not to fight. This was not like the battle of Helm’s Deep. Well, at least I hoped that. I couldn’t say for certain that this would not happen.
Truthfully, I felt less confident as they got closer to Isengard. The signs in the distance were not at all hopeful. The steam coming from the Wizard’s Vale was a telling sign. That couldn’t be a good thing, could it? Éomer guesses that it’s some “devilry” of Saruman that he was preparing for the group, and I couldn’t disagree. Were they walking into a trap? Had Saruman already discovered what had happened with his army at Helm’s Deep?
THEN THE MIST ARRIVES. Okay, so I admit that my brain went immediately to Stephen King’s “The Mist,” which is absolutely my favorite short-story of his. (Though I suppose it’s technically long enough to be a novella, no?) But what were these black shadows drifting past that night’s camp? Why are their voices in the shadows? Is this another bit of wizardry of Saruman’s?
I’m not entirely sure, but the immediate section seems to suggest this might have to do with the Ents burying the Orcs and then LEAVING THE DALE. I kind of like that Tolkien doesn’t give us the answer, either. Oh god, WHAT HAS HAPPENED???? I mean, the river even starts to flow again. IS THIS A GOOD SIGN OR IS IT A TRAP? Admiral Akbar, where the fuck are you? I could really use your help right now!
It’s at this point that the road to Isengard is full of signs that these people are walking into the worst decision of their lives. I honestly believe this will remain as one of my favorite sections of Tolkien’s prose. It’s beautifully composed, a haunting portrait of a landscape rendered nearly inert by the effects of Saruman’s evil:
Beneath the walls of Isengard there were acres tilled by the slaves of Saruman; but most of the valley had become a wilderness of weeds and thorns. Brambles trailed upon the ground, or clambering over bush and bank, made shaggy caves where small beasts housed. No trees grew there; but among the rank grasses could still be seen the burned and axe-hewn stumps of ancient groves. It was a sad country, silent now but for the stony noise of quick waters. Smokes and steams drifted in sullen clouds and lurked in the hollows. The riders did not speak. Many doubted in their hearts, wondering to what dismal end their journey led.
It’s such a powerful thing to portray, and it’s what makes the end of this chapter so meaningful to me. I expect doom and gloom because that’s what Tolkien gives me. When he moves on to describing what Saruman built in Isengard, I stopped believing that there could be a good end to this. The city that he built is immense and overwhelming. It’s a design that’s specifically constructed to demonstrate power. It’s as much a function of what he can do and what he’d like to do. Tolkien pretty much acknowledges this when he discusses the Orthanc:
…so that what he 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.
Saruman wants to be like Sauron, but he’s just a pitiful copy. Ugh, this is just so goddamn perfect it hurts to think about.
When they do arrive at the gates to Isengard, it’s just some of the creepiest imagery in the entire book. There’s the blood hand that greets them; the doors to the city are destroyed; the chasm no longer has a roof; the walls of the cliffs are cracked and broken. It looks like the entire place has been destroyed by some unseen force. IT’S A TRAP, ISN’T IT? Why is this so much worse than if Isengard was normal? Why does this terrify me so much? I should be happy that Saruman’s home is in shambles, but it just feels wrong.
That feeling is validated when the group realizes they passed two creatures at the opening to Isengard; one is sleeping, and the other is smoking some sort of substance that gives off blue smoke. Oh fuck, it’s a trap. OH MY GOD WHO ARE THEY?
‘Welcome, my lords, to Isengard!’ he said. ‘We are the doorwardens. Meriadoc, son of Saradoc is my name; and my companion, who, alas! is overcome with weariness’ – here he gave the other a dig with his foot – ‘is Peregrin, son of Paladin, of the House of Took. Far in the North is our home. The Lord Saruman is within; but at the moment he is closeted with one Wormtongue, or doubtless he would be here to welcome such honorable guests.’
JUST LET ME DIE RIGHT HERE ON THIS PAGE. THIS IS THE GREATEST THING EVER AND I TAKE BACK EVERYTHING I SAID ABOUT THE ENTS EVEN THOUGH I DID LIKE THAT DEVELOPMENT BECAUSE HOLY FUCKING SHIT IT’S PIPPIN AND MERRY!12!2!!!!1!1!
I cannot even begin to describe the joy I felt at this exact moment. It was so exciting to read that I nearly fell out of my chair. I mean, yes, Tolkien tricked me. He made it so that I would expect nothing but tragedy, and instead HOLY SHIT IT’S MERRY AND PIPPIN AND TREEBEARD BROUGHT THEM THERE AND SARUMAN HAS BEEN OVERTHROWN HOLY GANDALF’S BEARD.
PS: The hobbits are potheads OMG LOL. Okay, I’m just kidding.
I am speechless. I don’t even know what to say aside from just smashing my hands onto my keyboard. This is such an unexpected pleasure that I don’t want to ruin it with my words. THE COMPANY IS BACK TOGETHER. Which then made me realize that it’s been a REALLY long time since we’ve heard from Sam or Frodo. Where the fuck did they go?
Also, can we discuss this line?
‘These hobbits will sit on the edge of ruin and discuss the pleasures of the table, or the small doings of their rathers, grandfathers, and great-grandfathers, and remoter cousins to the ninth degree, if you encourage them with undue patience.’
LOOK IT’S VERY TRUE OKAY. Nothing about this is not 100% factual truth as demonstrated by SCIENCE. Also, holy shit, when Théoden meets Treebeard, his head is going to explode.
Oh god, Théoden and Gandalf are going to go hang out with Treebeard. THIS IS JUST THE BEST THING EVER.