The Two Towers
Throughout the whole of its rather lengthy running time, The Two Towers is utterly compelling. It has been said many times, I’m sure, but these films are truly masterpieces. They convey such a vast range of emotional depth and follow the many threads of the story deftly and with great compassion for the characters. And of course, the films are visual splendours, feats of cinematography and special effects that were, at the time, groundbreaking and extremely influential for the future course of film.
I left off my review of The Fellowship of the Ring by discussing Merry and Pippin and the value that is ascribed to their lives, despite their weaknesses and failings. In the second movie, after a close escape from those repulsively horrendous orcs, the two hobbits spend most of their time riding through the forest with Treebeard and providing some comic relief. And yet, unexpectedly, from this seemingly “insignificant” subplot comes an event with extremely significant ramifications for the battle for Middle Earth: the fall of Isengard. Merry and Pippin bring about this victory for their side, not by strength or strenuousness of intellectual argument in convincing the trees to join the fight, but through their cleverness and the innovative idea to lead Treebeard towards Saruman. The direct encounter with the death of his kinsmen which follows speaks louder than any rallying cry towards battle ever could.
And so small lives are proven capable of bringing about great change, affirming again the beauty and value of life (all life). This affirmation is not based on utilitarian principles (Merry and Pippin don’t have value because they help precipitate the tower’s fall), but on the truth that each life has potential and is capable of bearing good fruits, even when others cannot see this potential or predict how it will come about.
In my last review, I identified hope as one of the most prominent themes I noticed in watching the movie. In The Two Towers, the thread of hope runs through every story, and is even more striking than in the first film. Again and again, hope emerges from a seemingly hopeless situation, and characters who had lost hope find a renewed source in unlikely and even miraculous outcomes. Gandalf, Merry and Pippin, and Aragorn are all thought to be dead at certain points by certain characters; in fact, all logical signs indicate that to keep hope alive would be foolish and irrational. The fellowship watched Gandalf fall off a cliff, Merry and Pippin were confirmed dead by Éomer, and Aragorn disappeared (off yet another cliff), leaving behind the pendant he had always worn: apparent proof of his demise. However, each one of these characters reappears, miraculously alive, a beautiful testament to the pervasiveness of life and the persistence of hope even in the face of fact.
Yet there are many characters who do not hold onto this hope. As seen in the first movie, Saruman does not have enough hope in the power of the good in order to continue fighting for it against a “likelier” outcome. Elrond also is influenced by a hopelessness or despair, which manifests itself as a desire to leave or detach from Middle Earth (or at least to send his daughter and other elves away from it). This testifies to a belief that there is no good left for them there, and no hope for future good. Such a belief is contrasted with Arwen’s indomitable spirit of optimism. Although she is not involved in the battle and cannot see how Aragorn fares or any way to resolution, she trusts that Aragorn will return and has hope that good will triumph. Importantly, this hope is made possible through love. One of the most powerful moments of the movie occurs when the elfin army arrives at Helm’s Deep, professing their loyalty to the people of Rohan. Elrond does not appear in this scene or in the battle, but the action of sending these troops reveals a reversal in his thoughts and a renewing of hope. Instead of giving up and retreating to the safety of another world, the sending shows a willingness to sacrifice for another people, expressing a hope for the good, if not that it will triumph, then that it is worth fighting and worth dying for.
Indeed, the battle of hope against despair is on grand display in the battle of Helm’s Deep. People are constantly predicting that the army will not last the night, and that it is impossible for them to survive. This spirit of surrender is seen even in the valiant warrior, Legolas. The despair has also pervaded the childlike faith and innocence of the young boy whom Aragon seeks to console and who must join the fight despite his small stature.
Although the situation seems bleak and there is no hope to glean from the actual circumstances or from a logical projection of the near future, Aragorn remains hopeful. This hope does not exclude fear or sadness; instead, it allows him to lead the people in battle with passion, courage and tenacity. Since Aragorn, Legolas and Gimli are not natives of Rohan (Legolas and Gimli are not even men), their actions express even more an undiminished hope in the power and endurance of the good.
To win the battle, they must survive. They must hold on and keep fighting, preserving their hope, trusting that good will overcome. While they cannot see a way to defeat the orcs, this lack of knowledge does not strip them of their hope, and they secure the victory through Gandalf’s unanticipated aid. Aragorn trusted Gandalf’s promise that he would bring help with the sun on the fifth day, even though he did not know what shape this help would take. Hope does not belong to the realm of reason and cannot be controlled by knowledge; rather, it operates through faith, which is the “substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen” (-Hebrews 11:1).
Apart from this grand (and truly epic) battle, the movie follows Frodo’s continued journey, and to me, perhaps the most compelling and moving thing to watch in the entire film is the relationship between Frodo and Gollum. It is incredible the way the film is able to portray the conflicted (literally, internally divided) character of Gollum/ Sméagol. To do so with such success, they must walk an extremely fine line between evoking our disgust and our compassion. At moments we are revulsed by his antics and almost enter into the abuse he receives at the hands of others. At different moments, he is given great dignity, and we see flashes of good (even of beauty), capable of moving us to compassion, mercy, (even love?) for this fallen creature.
I was also really fascinated to see how they explored the power of a name; this is something that I think about often and consider to be of great importance (see my posts, Names and The Gaze). Again and again, we see the impact made not just when Frodo treats Gollum with respect and dignity, but also when he refers to him as Sméagol. In these exchanges, we can almost see him rediscovering his true (not yet lost) self. When he is addressed as an individual, he has a renewed sense of dignity and is even able to gain consciousness of his value and his capacity for love, towards Frodo, his master. It does not matter how deeply buried this true self and former way of life may be; they are still there, within Sméagol, and we see them in his eyes and in the softness of his voice during these moments. Even in his depraved state, Sméagol has a role to play, an integral role to play in this journey and in this battle between good and evil, and it is Frodo’s compassion for the creature, his affirmation of Sméagol’s dignity and the reclaiming of his name, that allow him to fulfill his part in the story.