When it comes to symbolism, this is the One Symbol To Rule Them All. It's true, we don't see nearly as much of the most infamous finger accessory in the second movie, but when we do make it to Frodo and Sam's storyline, the presence of the Ring is always front and center.
The Ring is a symbol of greed. The Ring doesn't do nearly as much speaking as it did in the Fellowship, but when another man comes into contact with it, the Ring begins talking to him immediately. Men are known for their lust for power and fame, and Faramir, as true-hearted as he may be, is no different.
And to Faramir, the Ring is not only a way of destroying the enemy; it's also a way of regaining his father's trust: "a chance for Faramir, captain of Gondor, to show his quality." All Faramir needs to do is complete the task his brother could not—give Gondor the power of the enemy—and surely this'll make his Daddy dearest proud of him.
The Ring is also a symbol of obsession and dependence. We thought the Ring had warped Bilbo when we met him so long ago in Rivendell, but after seeing Gollum we realize just how tightly the Ring can wrap someone around it's metaphorical finger. Despite Frodo's best attempts to win back the original Sméagol through kindness and trust (and not getting him killed in a sacred pool), the Ring will always be Gollum's precious. It's consumed his body, distorting his hobbit like form and turning him into a crawling, bony, big eyed… thing. After half a millennium, Gollum doesn't even seem to care for himself—he only cares about his preciousssss.
Finally, the Ring seems to symbolize a third thing, although it's more elusive. Frodo always speaks of a heaviness that seems to be not only an emotional or mental weight, but a physical one as well. To him, the Ring is a burden—but what does this mean? Frodo doesn't seem to be driven by greed (and the Ring isn't his precious), but it does at times seem to possess him. Mostly this means it makes him irrationally angry, but when he has a sword at Sam's throat, we know things have gotten way out of control.
Whatever this heaviness is, we hope it never reveals itself until the Ring is sitting in the hot fires of Mount Doom.
Here's a mega-inspirational quote from the one, the only Samwise Gamgee:
SAM: Even darkness must pass. A new day will come. And when the sun shines, it will shine out the clearer.
Wow Sam, really going out on a limb there. He believes that the night will eventually end and the sun will come up, just as it has, by definition, every single day. Don't call him a prophet, but this guy has quite the circadian rhythm. Oh… is that not what he's talking about. Is this whole "light" and "dark" thing some sort of crazy metaphor about good and evil?
Well, of course it is. You already knew that, didn't you? This is one of the oldest one in the books, it's just so dang intuitive. Light is good because in the light we can see, and things are clear and we are safe. But in the dark? Suddenly everything is hostile, even the tree branches outside our window, slowly scraping up and down the glass like the fingers of the undead (we used to have a lot of nightmares). The point is that light as "good" and dark as "bad" is such a basic metaphor, it doesn't really need explaining.
So instead, let's look at some examples—some dark ones.
Elrond tells Arwen, when she's thinking of marrying some mortal dude named Aragorn:
"But you, my daughter, you will linger on in darkness and in doubt, as nightfall in winter that comes without a star."
Way harsh, Dad. Darkness is bad because it's a nebulous, unknowable thing. It obscures what is good and causes even the most faithful to doubt—and the bravest of Shmoops to have zombie nightmares.
Here's more darkness-is-bad propaganda: Galadriel speaks to Elrond, saying, "In the gathering dark, the will of the Ring grows strong." It's almost like the dark has a physical presence here. It is something that can be gathered, or gather itself, a manifestation of evil.
And just to end on a happy note, we'll throw a little light-is-good quote your way. Gandalf tells Aragorn, "Look to my coming at first light on the fifth day. At dawn, look to the east." Dawn is the beginning of the new day when darkness begins to recede. It is at dawn that Gandalf appears with Éomer's riders and turns the tides of the war.
This old stone fortress is the centerpiece of the movie's climax. Set deep within the mountains, it's protected on three of its sides, while the fourth is barricaded by a great wall. Helm's Deep is a bastion of strength and security. It is a place where the Rohirrim have defended themselves for many generations. It is a haven against the tides of war that might be a symbol of preservation, resilience, and fortitude:
THÉODEN: They will break upon this fortress like water on rock. Saruman's hordes will pillage and burn.
But we have to think of Helm's Deep contextually, and not just as a super-awesome fortress that's protected Rohirrim through the ages. Why does Théoden order his people to flee Edoras and make for the safety of Helm's Deep? Is it purely out of necessity? Does he have no other option?
Théoden might think so, but Gandalf, Aragorn & Co. think otherwise. Gandalf wants Théoden to stand and fight Saruman's armies. He wants him to defend his homeland and taking his fight to the enemy. He warns that "there is no way out of that ravine. Théoden is walking into a trap." But Théoden refuses, trusting in the legacy of Helm's Deep. He brings his people into a place with no escape, where Gandalf worries they will be slaughtered.
In this sense, Helm's Deep is a symbol of passivity: of not taking action when action is required. Fleeing to Helm's Deep shows Théoden's lack of faith in the strength of his people; it's much easier to hide behind stone than face the legions of orcs head on.
But let's think about this a different way. Was Helm's Deep successful in protecting the Rohirrim? Yeah, it actually was. What chances would the Rohirrim have had out in the open, where the odds were not in their favor? They needed to hide behind some history-tested stone walls while Gandalf went out and secured some extra troops.
So maybe Helm's Deep also represents the sensibility of self-preservation against reckless faith. When you're fighting an enemy as strong as Sauron's, you sometimes need to chill out in a mountain fortress and wait while the White Wizard goes and grabs some extra soldiers.
If you've read the books, then you know that "love" isn't really a word that appeared all that much, and that "a love story" is probably one of the last ways you'd describe Tolkien's masterpiece… unless you called The Lord of the Rings "a love story between an Oxford scholar, mythology, and imagined languages."
Nonetheless, Aragorn and Arwen's relationship is a real part of the original story (though it's relegated to the appendices), and is certainly an important feature of the films—everyone loves a Hollywood romance between an ethereal immortal elf woman and her hunky semi-godlike king man. And while Arwen is mostly absent from The Two Towers (aside from some dreamy flashbacks and her talk with her father), we're reminded of her by the gift she gave to Aragorn, the Evenstar necklace.
As far as we know, this necklace has no special, magical elven properties. But, while it doesn't contain immortality, it does represent the eternal promise of love that Arwen has made to Aragorn. Even when Aragorn tries to give it back, saying "this belongs to you," she insists that "it was a gift. Keep it."
A promise of eternal love is a pretty big deal in human time—we're talking fifty-plus years of listening to the same person chuckle over Key and Peele sketches. And in Dúnedain years eternal love might be two or three times as long… and in elven years it's infinity. We think that's pretty special.
Erwin also knows the necklace (and the promise it represents) is pretty special, and it makes her sad because she maybe sort of has a thing for Aragorn. The Evenstar necklace shows that he belongs to someone else—someone important enough to him that he wears a girly piece of jewelry, even though he's a rough and tough fighting man. Maybe Arwen can't be with Aragorn in person, but she's with him in spirit and in often-replicated necklace form.
Horses. There are a lot of them in Rohan. In fact, "Rohirrim" (the term for people living in Rohan) means "horse-lords." The open fields and vast plains of Rohan make it an ideal landscape for traveling or fighting on horseback. Even some of the Rohirrim names are horse-related. It's something which distinguishes the Rohirrim from their fellow men of Gondor—what are the lords of Gondor known for? A white tree? Pshh.
But when is a horse more than a horse? Answer: all the freaking time.
Just think about western culture in general. Even outside of Tolkien's mythology, horses aren't just small elephants or big dogs, they're creatures set apart from the rest. Ever heard of the phrase "wild stallion" used to describe a particularly, or dangerously, free spirited person? Horses need open spaces to roam and run and graze in. They're an embodiment of power and freedom… and by riding horses, the people of Rohan capture this spirit themselves.
Of course, there are special horses too. Aragorn's Brego, whom he releases from the stable and who later finds him on the riverbank, seems to have a special bond with him despite his wild nature. And then there's Gandalf's Shadowfax; "the lord of all horses," Gandalf calls him, "has been my friend through many dangers."
Shadowfax was a descendant of the Mearas, an intelligent and powerful breed. Like Brego, he also has a connection to the wizard that transcends tameness. He's loyal—come on, he even comes back for Gandalf after Gandalf battles the Balrog and becomes the new-and-improved White Wizard.
Symbolic towers get a bad rap. There's the Tower of Babel—no good. There's the Ivory Tower—a dismissive term for academia. And then there are all those towers that Disney princesses—from Cinderella to Rapunzel—are constantly getting locked inside.
Poor towers. What have they ever done?
Well, in The Two Towers, they've done a whole lot of bad:
"Who now has the strength to stand against the armies of Isengard and Mordor? To stand against the might of Sauron and Saruman and the union of the two towers?"
Barad-dûr and Orthanc are very much alike. They are tall towers, built to be defended in times of war (Barad-dûr by Sauron and Orthanc by the Dúnedain), and they harbor great evil. Yes, Orthanc doesn't have a giant red eye of fire, but it does have the ever-watchful Saruman and his Palantír.
But why towers? Can't it just be The Two Strongholds, or The Two Fortresses, or The Two… Places of… Evil People. (Maybe that last one doesn't really work.) The point is that it might be more than alliteration that drew Tolkien to the "tower" idea. There's something symbolic about a tower. Why do people build such enormous skyscrapers? It's not just for earth surface area efficiency; it's to make a statement.
A tower is a seat of command. Both Saruman and Sauron use it as a watchtower of sorts, surveying both the building of their dominions and the comings and goings of their surrounding enemies. A tower is a place of power and prestige: something not just for practical purposes but also for admiration. And okay, the alliteration sounds pretty nice too.
Gimli sets us straight on the whole "how are baby Middle-earth dwarves made?" question:
GIMLI: It's true; you don't see many dwarf women. And in fact, they are so alike in voice and appearance, that they're often mistaken for dwarf men. This, in turn, has given rise to the belief that there are no dwarf women, and that dwarves just spring out of holes in the ground—which is, of course, ridiculous.
While it's easy to dismiss this as a funny line meant to relieve some of the stress and sadness of this long epic, we can't but think about how plausible it seems.
Think about it. What do you know about Middle-earth dwarf reproduction? Have you ever seen Middle-earth dwarf women? What if Gimli explained to Éowyn and Aragorn that, indeed, dwarves are a unisexual species and that their offspring spawn from the mines they dig? You would believe him, wouldn't you… and why not?
Thinking about this joke opens many questions about the supernatural in LotR. It's a world of magic and fantasy and other things our mortal minds do not understand. Who are we to assume that dwarves do or do not come from the very stone of Middle-earth? It sounds ridiculous when we know it's not true, but pitted against a backdrop of walking, talking trees, giant demons of fire, and almighty rings of power, it hardly seems implausible. As we enter the world of LotR, we allow ourselves to believe the unbelievable… and dwarven reproduction probably isn't an exception.
Ever notice that every blockbuster movie has the same fundamental pieces? A hero, a journey, some conflicts to muck it all up, a reward, and the hero returning home and everybody applauding his or her swag? Yeah, scholar Joseph Campbell noticed first—in 1949. He wrote The Hero with a Thousand Faces, in which he outlined the 17 stages of a mythological hero's journey.
About half a century later, Christopher Vogler condensed those stages down to 12 in an attempt to show Hollywood how every story ever written should—and, uh, does—follow Campbell's pattern. We're working with those 12 stages, so take a look. (P.S. Want more? We have an entire Online Course devoted to the hero's journey.)
Been there, done that. The first movie already established what sort of world our adventurers are traveling in…and also established that it's toast.
(Though a bit later in the movie we will get more of a look at the ordinary lives of men in Rohan.)
Remember the whole "destroy the Ring" thing from the first movie? Yeah, that's still going on. Other calls to adventure include not getting eaten by orcs and giving Theoden a good wake-up call.
The only one refusing anything is Aragorn who, unlike Simba, could really wait quite a while to be king. Other than that, it's a bit late for Frodo and Sam to refuse anything, and our other hobbits are already up to their heads in orc trouble.
Guess who's back? That's right, say goodbye to Gandalf the Grey, 'cause he's getting' lit as Gandalf the White. Returning with more wisdom than ever, Gandalf is ready to lead Gimli, Legolas, and Aragorn to Rohan's rescue.
Like we said, been there done that. There aren't really more thresholds to be crossed. It's already go time.
Ahh, thisss isss where it getsss interesting.
We've got a new ally in the mix named…Gollum. Captured by Frodo and Sam, the hobbits have to put their trust in him to lead the way.
In our other storyline, gaining the alliance of Theoden is the main test for Aragorn and crew, while Merry and Pippin have to convince the Ents to fight. Each of our three parties has trust and persuasion as a central tenant of their tasks.
Hoo-boy. With three storylines, this gets to be a lot.
Frodo and Sam are captured by Faramir, but Gollum has escaped. Aragorn, Gimli, and Legolas are riding with the people of Rohan toward Helm's Deep. Merry and Pippin are riding home on Treebeard.
Frodo "betrays" Gollum, losing his trust and, failing to convince Faramir otherwise, is being transported toward Gondor. Aragorn, Gimli, and Legolas are attacked by warg riders. Aragorn falls off a cliff with his horse. Merry and Pippin convince Treebeard to take them toward Isengard, hoping he'll see the destruction of the trees.
There is no reward.
Frodo still carries the burden of the Ring and Smeagol has lost out to Gollum. But Aragorn is still alive, riding back, and his Evenstar is returned They begin preparing for battle. Mary and Pippin were right: Treebeard is not happy about what's been done to his tree-brothers and declares war on Saruman.
Frodo and Sam are about to walk into a battle at Osgiliath where things will get dangerous. Aragorn tries to spark some life into his brethren, who have lost hope of winning the battle. Mary and Pippin are…doing their thing.
Frodo almost gets caught by the Nazgûl, but Sam tackles him. Then Frodo almost kills Sam until he regains his wits just in time. The battle of Helms Deep is won with the combination of a last ride by Theoden and our heroes and Gandalf's return with Eomer and riders. Merry and Pippin throw rocks at orcs.
Faramir, realizing the danger of the Ring, allows Frodo and Sam to continue their quest toward Mordor, risking treason on his part. Aragorn, Gimli, and Legolas mourn the dead and look toward the future.
Merry and Pippin eat some delicious food and smoke old Toby…they're definitely the winners at this stage.
If you want some general coverage about what's up with this whole "Middle-earth" thing, you can head over to our setting analysis in The Fellowship of the Ring. In this guide, we're going to head straight in to the various location our travelers visit.
Let's get to it.
The vast fields of the Rohirrim are where most of the travels of Aragorn, Legolas, Gimli, and Gandalf take place. The flat, open lands make Rohan a perfect territory for the horse-lords who dwell there, although they also leave it quite vulnerable to attack.
When pressured by Saruman's armies, Rohan's king withdraws his people into the stronghold Helm's Deep, a fortress built within the stones of the mountains. Rohan's kingdom was and remains scattered, but the new strength of Théoden and the defeat of Saruman may help reunite the region in time for the coming war with Sauron.
At first dark and creepy but soon brimming with life, Fangorn feels in many ways like Lothlórien, the Elven forest from the first film. Characters are frightened by it and the myths of what lies inside. But just like the "Witch of the Woods," who turns out to be the kind, helpful (if a bit scary) Galadriel, the creatures of Fangorn are just some nice old tree people.
Fangorn is where most of Merry and Pippin's storyline takes place, and is central to the theme of Man and the Natural World.
The beginning of Frodo, Sam, and Gollum's journey, Emyn Muil is a vast land of rocky crags that have our heroes going in circles. It's the difficult, confusing landscape of the country that forces the hobbits to adopt Gollum as a guide.
Maybe one can simply walk into Mordor, but it certainly isn't simple.
The Ring bearer & Co. just can't catch a break. As soon as they're out of Emyn Muil they step into a swamp which constantly threatens the travellers with mires and pits of muck. It's a safe passage because Gollum knows a path of solid land through the swamp that the orcs do not.
At the same time, they're not called the Dead Marshes for nothing. This was the battleground of the War of the Last Alliance, and the swamp is filled with the strangely preserved bodies of orc and man and elf—not to mention their spirits, which seem to have stuck around as well.
This once-great city is in the realm of Gondor, and is under attack by the armies of Mordor when Frodo and Sam arrive as captives. By then the city is in ruins, and is merely an army outpost, a strategic position that's always under threat of attack.
This is our first glimpse at the toll the war has taken on Gondor, the civilization closest to Sauron's wrath. But not only is it important strategically, it's important because Faramir faces a second wrath—that of his father, Denethor II. He already failed to hold Osgiliath once and can't let it happen a second time.
So maybe you've seen The Fellowship extended edition and thought, "well that was cute, we got to see Galadriel's gifts and a few wood elves." But if that's what you expected from The Two Towers extended edition you were sorely (or happily?) mistaken.
This film is just chock full of all sorts of extra scenes and dialogue; too much, in fact, to actually go through it all and talk about it… so we're going to hit some of the big ones and then think about it holistically.
The first addition that stands out is Faramir's flashback. In the theater versions, Boromir appeared in the first movie and Denethor II appeared in the last. But in the extended Two Towers, we get to see them all together in the not so distant past, a perfect family reunion.
Well, maybe not perfect. It's painfully obvious that Denethor favors his eldest son, even though Boromir tries to help out his little bro. While we were already made aware of the nature of their relationship (especially in the third film), this scene affects how we think of Boromir. In The Fellowship we saw him as dangerously greedy and selfish, but here we see the man he was before the temptations of the Ring, full of vigor and kindness, a person who would rather stay and fight with his men then travel to some foreign meeting of elves.
But aside from Faramir's memory, there are plenty of other small scenes, mostly scenes of dialogue that don't affect the plot (which is probably why they were cut in the first place). By why were these scenes cut? What makes a scene worthy or unworthy of making the theatrical release? Sometimes it's obvious. Merry and Pippin drinking Fangorn water and being attacked by a huorn might seem a little out of place.
But what stands out the most is the addition of comedy in the extended edition. It seems like every other added scene plays a role in creating humor: Aragorn hating of Éowyn's soup; Gimli and the forest; Merry and Pippin in awe of all the goodies in Saruman's storeroom; Treebeard's story…
The point is that, while most people think of The Lord of the Rings film trilogy as being very somber in tone, its sole comedy resting in a few winks from Gandalf, it was only brought to this after editing (for better or for worse is just a matter of opinion).
Just because The Two Towers cut down on the travelling montages doesn't mean it's any less adventurous, or action packed, or fantastical, than its predecessor. To get the skinny on the modern fantasy genre that Tolkien basically invented and all the action Jackson tried to throw into it, head over to the Genre section in our The Fellowship of the Ring guide.
Barad-dûr: one tower. Orthanc: one tower. Barad-dûr + Orthanc: two towers. Okay, we're glad we cleared that up; math can get pretty confusing when you're dealing with small quantities of massive towers.
But honestly, there's really not a whole lot more to it than that. Tolkien's second book was focused mainly on the threat of Saruman, who operated his army from his fortress Orthanc in Isengard. In The Fellowship Elrond doesn't believe Rivendell can defend armies from both Isengard and Mordor; it's Saruman's betrayal that ultimately forces the Ring to be carried toward Mount Doom in a last effort to win the war before the free people are overwhelmed.
We don't see as much of the second tower, Barad-dûr, during the film. But with Isengard being flooded by the ents and Mordor's armies on the move, we get a feeling we'll be seeing more of everyone's favorite giant red eye in the final film.
The first ending we see is the ending of Isengard. The trees and waters surrounding the fortress have won the day. Merry and Pippin find some food and, more importantly, some pipe weed. All is good and happy; the best kind of ending.
Then we see Gandalf and Aragorn and company on horseback outside of Helm's Deep. Their armies have defeated the hordes of Saruman's orcs. But as the sun sets there isn't only a sense of victory, but also one of unease. Gandalf knows that Sauron has is huge, fiery eye set on Minas Tirith, the last bastion of free men. Their hope no longer resides in their own strength, but in the courage of two hobbits.
Cue an uplifting ending shot: Sam and Frodo, two lone hobbits pitted against the harsh world, trekking through the hazards of Middle-earth, arm in arm. With hope in their hearts and strength in their hairy feet, they—
Wait, that's not what happens? No; instead we have Gollum: a broken creature more fractured because of Frodo's betrayal at the sacred pool. It seems his alter ego is back in full force, any love for "master" is replaced by the desire to "wring their necks" and take back the precious which he so longs for. "Too risky," he thinks, "the fat one, he knows. But she could do it."
Umm, who is "she," exactly? This isn't the happy, upbeat ending we deserve after a grueling movie of war. As Gollum leads them through the woods, with a new anger in his heart and a new, devious plan in his head, we can only image who "she" is… and what horrors could possibly be in store for the hobbits.
Profanity? No. Sex? No. Drugs or alcohol? No. Is this movie even worth watching? Yes. Thanks to all the blood and gore…well, actually there isn't a whole lot of that either.
Don't us wrong, there's plenty of fighting and general gruesomeness. Have you seen the orcs? These aren't your kiddy CGI Hobbit orcs, these are dudes in some nasty makeup and they'll give you nightmares faster than they'll eat a hobbit (or another orc, for that matter).
So there is a whole ton of war and battlefields littered with the slain corpses of men and orc and elf and horse. Arrows will puncture necks, heads will be lopped off—this is most definitely a violent movie. However, we don't see a whole lot of blood except for a little black orc juice here and there, nor do we get any extended close-ups on the pain and agony of the wounded or dying.