Study Guide

The Two Towers Race

By J.R.R. Tolkien


"Gondor! Gondor!" cried Aragorn. "Would that I looked on you again in happier hour! Not yet does my road lie southward to your bright streams.

Gondor! Gondor; between the Mountains and the Sea!
West Wind blew there: the light upon the Silver Tree
Fell like bright rain in gardens of the Kings of old.
O proud walls! White flowers! O wingéd crown and throne of gold!
O Gondor, Gondor! Shall Men behold the Silver Tree,
Or West Wind blow again between the Mountains and the Sea?

We don't want to generalize, but it does seem to us as though much of The Fellowship of the Ring is dedicated to the elves. In that novel, we see both Rivendell and Lothlórien, and we learn that these fair things will fade once the Ring quest is over, never to appear in Middle-earth again. As Aragorn's momentum picks up in The Two Towers, the attention of The Lord of the Rings moves away from the elves and towards the Men of Númenor, specifically, Aragorn and the return of glory to Gondor. While time may be close to done for the elves in Middle-earth, Aragorn represents the continuation and rebirth of men, which is a much more cheerful subject.

"But what are we going to do at sunrise?" said some of the Northerners.

"Go on running," said Uglúk. "What do you think? Sit on the grass and wait for the Whiteskins to join the picnic?"

"But we can't run in the sunlight."

"You'll run with me behind you," said Uglúk. "Run! Or you'll never see your beloved holes again. By the White Hand! What's the use of sending out mountain-maggots on a trip, only half trained. Run, curse you! Run while night lasts!" (3.3.48-52)

This moment of tension between Uglúk and the other orcs as they try and carry Merry and Pippin to Isengard reveals a bit more about the differences among orcs themselves. Sure, orcs may be universally evil, but they are also not all the same. Not only do the orcs sometimes serve different masters, since Uglúk follows Saruman and many of the other orcs follow Sauron, but some of them appear to serve no one at all except evil itself. We also can't pass over this reference to "Whiteskins," by which Uglúk means human beings. There isn't a lot of racial differentiation among the people of Middle-earth. They are all pretty European in appearance, so far as we can tell. Why do the peoples of Middle-earth have so little racial or even cultural differentiation? Do the different peoples of Middle-earth—the elves, dwarves, hobbits, etc.—substitute somehow for different human races in our world?

They found that they were looking at a most extraordinary face. It belonged to a large man-like, almost Troll-like, figure, at least fourteen foot high, very sturdy, with a tall head and hardly any neck. Whether it was clad in stuff like green and grey bark, or whether that was its hide, was difficult to say [...] But at the moment the hobbits noted little but the eyes. […]

"One felt as if there was an enormous well behind them, filled up with ages of memory and long, slow, steady thinking; but their surface was sparkling with the present; like sun shimmering on the outer leaves of a vast tree, or on the ripples of a very deep lake. I don't know, but it felt as if something that grew in the ground—asleep, you might say, or just feeling itself as something between root-tip and leaf-tip, between deep earth and sky had suddenly waked up, and was considering you with the same slow care that it had given to its own inside affairs for endless years." (3.4.20-1)

Ah, Pippin the poet. What's so great about his description of the Ents is how much it emphasizes the otherness of non-human creatures in Middle-earth. Even the Treebeard's consciousness appears different. Unlike that of humans, it's timeless and immediate, and very, very deep. The differences between the peoples of Middle-earth seem to go far beyond the physical.

"Seven mounds upon the left, and nine upon the right," said Aragorn. "Many long lives of men it is since the golden hall was built."

"Five hundred times have the red leaves fallen in Mirkwood in my home since then," said Legolas, "and but a little while does that seem to us."

"But to the Riders of the Mark it seems so long ago," said Aragorn, "that the raising of this house is but a memory of song, and the years before are lost in the mist of time." (3.6.10-13)

Obviously, the biggest difference between the elves and all the other races of Middle-earth (except maybe the Ents) is their extremely long lives. Living for ages and ages sounds like quite a treat, and the elves handle it well. But could there be disadvantages to living for thousands of years? Does the fact that they have a different time scale affect the way the elves see the world?

"This is more to my liking," said the dwarf, stamping on the stones. "Ever my heart rises as we draw near the mountains. There is good rock here. This country has tough bones. I felt them in my feet as we came up from the dike. Give me a year and a hundred of my kin and I would make this a place that armies would break upon like water."

"I do not doubt it," said Legolas. "But you are a dwarf, and dwarves are strange folk. I do not like this place, and I shall like it no more by the light of day. But you comfort me, Gimli, and I am glad to have you standing nigh with your stout legs and your hard axe. I wish there were more of your kin among us." (3.7.55-6)

After all of these days of traveling in the Forest of Fangorn and having to sit perched on other people's horses, it's nice to see Gimli back in his element at last. He may not love forests, but he can deal with mountains just fine. This scene between Legolas and Gimli also underlines the Odd Couple friendship they've built, in which opposites attract. Because they are both decent guys, the fact that Legolas and Gimli have so little in common seems to be a comfort for them rather than the reverse. Whenever they are in a situation that makes one of them uncomfortable (trees and horses for Gimli, rocks and stone for Legolas), the other one can reassure him.

"Strange are the ways of Men, Legolas! Here they have one of the marvels of the Northern World, and what do they say of it? Caves, they say! Caves! Holes to fly to in times of war, to store fodder in! My good Legolas, do you know that the caverns of Helm's Deep are vast and beautiful. There would be an endless pilgrimage of Dwarves, merely to gaze at them, if such things were known to be. Aye indeed, they would pay pure gold for a brief glance." (3.8.48)

We've focused mostly on the contrasts between Legolas and Gimli and their unlikely friendship. But as they ride through the new forest outside of Helm's Deep, we are reminded that, different as they both are from each other, they are also very different from us humans. For example, they both have this almost instinctive relationship to the rhythms of the natural world. Legolas senses the trees on a deep level, and Gimli has this profound, almost romantic appreciation for caverns and rock.

The trumpets had not rung in challenge but in greeting. This was no assault upon the Dark Lord by the men of Gondor, risen like avenging ghosts from the graves of valor long passed away. These were Men of other race, out of the wide Eastlands, gathering to the summons of their Overlord; armies that had encamped before his Gate by night and now marched in to swell his mountain power. As if suddenly made fully aware of the peril of their position, alone, in the growing light of day, so near to this vast menace, Frodo quickly drew his frail grey hood close to his head, and stepped down into the dell. (4.3.24)

So far, we have seen men, elves, hobbits, dwarves, and Ents joining to fight evil and triumph over Sauron. On the bad side, we've seen orcs, wolves, Nazgûl, and of course, men. The only one of the races of Middle-earth with major representation on both sides of the war against Sauron is the race of man. In fact, ever since the story of Isildur and his decision to keep the Ring of Sauron instead of destroying it after Sauron's initial defeat by the Last Alliance (see The Fellowship of the Ring Book 1, Chapter 2), it has been pretty clear that men are the most corruptible of the good species of Middle-earth. This of course begs the question: why are men so much the moral focus of this novel?

We never went that way, but they say it goes a hundred leagues, until you can see the Great Water that is never still. There are lots of fishes there, and big birds eat fishes: nice birds: but we never went there, alas no! we never had a chance. And further still there are more lands, they say, but the Yellow Face is very hot there, and there are seldom any clouds, and the men are fierce and have dark faces. We do not want to see that land.

We don't want to suggest that Tolkien's map of Middle-earth directly corresponds to any one part of the earth. Still, this brief suggestion that there are lands far to the south of Mordor, hot places in which the men "have dark faces" implies that there is more to Middle-earth than we see in these adventures, and that, somewhere off-page, we might be able to find other human races, just as we can in our world. There is something a little bit off about the fact that these dark-faced men are also "fierce," while the most beautiful folk of Middle-earth (the Elves) are about as white as white can be. What do you think of the real-life racial politics of The Lord of the Rings? Is Tolkien relying on common cultural prejudices in his depiction of the men from the south?

"We have not found what we sought," said one. "But what have we found?"

"Not Orcs," said another, releasing the hilt of his sword, which he had seized when he saw the glitter of Sting in Frodo's hand.

"Elves?" said a third, doubtfully.

"Nay! Not Elves," said the fourth, the tallest, and as it appeared the chief among them. "Elves do not walk in Ithilien in these days. And Elves are wondrous fair to look upon, or so 'tis said."

"Meaning we're not, I take you," said Sam. "Thank you kindly. And when you've finished discussing us, perhaps you'll say who you are, and why you can't let two tired travellers rest." (4.4.68-71)

It's a sign of how far Frodo and Sam have come from the Shire that they have found men who do not even recognize what they are. Hobbits are so out-of-the-way in terms of Middle-earth geography that the men of Gondor don't even know what they are looking at when they find them (rather like Treebeard with Merry and Pippin). And of course since Frodo and Sam are so wildly different from anyone Faramir and his men have ever encountered, the humans regard the hobbits with a healthy dose of skepticism.

They were led then to seats beside Faramir: barrels covered with pelts and high enough above the benches of the Men for their convenience. Before they ate, Faramir and all his men turned and faced west in a moment of silence. Faramir signed to Frodo and Sam that they should do likewise.

"So we always do," he said, as they sat down: "we look towards Númenor that was, and beyond to Elvenhome that is, and to that which is beyond Elvenhome and will ever be. Have you no such custom at meal?"

"No," said Frodo, feeling strangely rustic and untutored. "But if we are guests, we bow to our host, and after we have eaten we rise and thank him." (4.5.103-5)

Culture clash alert. What we find most interesting about this scene is not the natural discomfort that often comes between people of two different cultures sharing a meal. The Gondorians look to the west before eating. It's like a Gondorian way of saying grace, except the power that they are thanking "Númenor that was," a.k.a. the West. Then they look even further west, to Elvenhome, and then whatever power is beyond that. Faramir is tracing a line of descent, from the creative power of Middle-earth to the elves in Elvenhome to the Men of Númenor to Gondor. So, in the cosmology of Middle-earth, elves are closest to what might be called God, or whatever it is that is "beyond Elvenhome and will ever be." Since the Men of Westernesse are closest to elves, it makes sense that, on balance, elves seem better than men, and the people of the line of Númenor (despite Isildur and Boromir's various troubles) seem better than the rest of mankind. The origins of elves and the Men of Westernesse are actually physically, geographically closer to the holiness of Middle-earth than those who come from elsewhere. Or at least Faramir thinks so.

For so we reckon Men in our lore, calling them the High, or Men of the West, which were Númenoreans; and the Middle Peoples, Men of the Twilight, such as are the Rohirrim and their kin that dwell still far in the North; and the Wild, the Men of Darkness.

Yet now, if the Rohirrim are grown in some ways more like to us, enhanced in arts and gentleness, we too have become more like to them, and can scarce claim any longer the title High. We are become Middle Men, of the Twilight, but with memory of other things. For as the Rohirrim do, we now love war and valour as things good in themselves, both a sport and an end; and though we still hold that a warrior should have more skills and knowledge than only the craft of weapons and slaying, we esteem a warrior, nonetheless, above men of other crafts. (4.5.124)

Based on Faramir's account, the men of Middle-earth have a rigid class system. At the top are the guys who value "arts and gentleness," the men of Númenor. In the middle are the horse lords; they're good-looking and brave ("tall men and fair women, valiant both alike, golden-haired, bright-eyed" [4.5.122]) but not quite as elite as the Men of Westernesse. And then at the bottom are the wild men, who hardly seem civilized at all. Descent lines matter a huge amount to this novel, since the whole point of Aragorn's rise to power is that, in him, the blood of Elendil has been reborn. Here, Faramir is worrying a lot about degeneration of bloodlines, because the once-great Gondorians have become lesser men. Still, blood and class aren't everything in The Lord of the Rings. Sam may have his limitations as a character, but his class does not interfere with his ability to be a great hobbit once he returns to the Shire. And Faramir says himself that the men of Númenor had faults: "for the most part they fell into evils and follies. Many became enamoured of the Darkness and the black arts; some were given over wholly to idleness and ease, and some fought among themselves, until they were conquered in their weakness by the wild men" (4.5.117). There has to be some additional ingredient to achieve greatness. What that is, it is hard to say, but clearly compassion and mercy have greater importance even than noble blood in achieving grand deeds like the destruction of the Ruling Ring.