The Two Towers

by: J. R. R. Tolkien

Book III, Chapters 5–6

Théoden confronts Wormtongue, accusing him of treachery. Wormtongue tries to defend himself, but Théoden remains firm, and gives his advisor the ultimatum of either fighting alongside him against Isengard or leaving the country immediately. Wormtongue flees. Gandalf asks for Shadowfax as a gift (the horse was merely borrowed from Théoden before). Théoden offers weapons and coats of mail to everyone in Gandalf’s group, though the wizard himself rides unprotected. From the hall, Éowyn watches the group ride off.

Analysis — Chapters 5–6

In the description of King Théoden and the court of Edoras, Tolkien draws upon the mythical tales of King Arthur and his court of Ca-melot. Edoras is more than a royal residence. It is described as a “Golden Hall,” giving it a fantastical feel. Théoden’s Riders evoke Arthur’s Knights of the Round Table. In nodding to ancient British myth in this manner, Tolkien signals his intention for The Lord of the Rings to be not a mere fantasy novel, but a tale with the feel of ancient myth. Like the old stories about King Arthur, Tolkien’s novel aims not just to tell a thrilling story, but to reveal something deeply symbolic about human nature and fate.

The preternatural power and wisdom of Gandalf are in the foreground in these chapters, and we begin to see the reasons why his character is the most revered in Tolkien’s novel. The wizard is highly insightful about the psychology of both good and evil characters, as we see in his subtle understanding of the wicked Sauron’s psychology. Gandalf knows that Sauron would never imagine that the present possessor of the Ring might want to destroy it rather than use it for his own benefit. The wizard contends that Sauron, in failing to consider this possibility, has made the error of searching for the Ring abroad rather than guarding the border of Mordor so that the Ring may not reach Mount Doom. Here, Gandalf shows his ability to think like the Enemy and to use this knowledge strategically. The wizard’s acute understanding of human personality and motivation is also evidenced in his delicate dealings with Théoden. Gandalf has the difficult task of convincing the king, whom he barely knows, that the king’s long-trusted advisor, Wormtongue, is in fact a traitor. Gandalf pulls off this sensitive task with poise and diplomacy. He foresees that Wormtongue, if provoked, will lose his cool and reveal his dark side, enabling the wizard to achieve the desired end without criticizing Théoden’s judgment.

Gandalf’s wisdom appears somehow related to his experience of death, as he has come back to life after his death in Moria. Like many figures in myth who gain superhuman understanding by passing through the underworld, Gandalf’s demise at the end of the preceding volume of the novel is not a mark of failure, but is paradoxically a mark of power, as the wizard reappears stronger than ever. Like the ancient Roman hero Aeneas in Virgil’s Aeneid, who gains wisdom from a trip through the realm of the dead, Gandalf too possesses an enhanced power now that he is reborn. Furthermore, as in the Christian tradition of rebirth, Gandalf returns as a purified being, no longer Gandalf the Grey but Gandalf the White. He has been cleansed, as if earlier weaknesses have been completely eradicated.

The idea of trust is central to the episode at Edoras. The major crisis of the chapter is Théoden’s inability to realize that his long-trusted counselor is a spy and traitor who has undermined the welfare of the kingdom he purports to serve. Wormtongue’s smooth-talking attempt to discredit Gandalf and to reaffirm his own trustworthiness to the suspicious Théoden demonstrates the power of language to deceive and misguide. Trust is also an issue for Gandalf’s party, as the members are all strangers in Edoras who must prove that they can be trusted. The guards’ reluctance to allow Gandalf passage emphasizes that Sauron’s evil has cast a pall of suspicion and mistrust on all of Middle-earth. Every stranger is automatically suspect. The value of trust is underscored by Gandalf’s borrowing of the horse Shadowfax from Théoden. Tolkien could have easily structured the novel so that the horse was Gandalf’s own property, but he instead chose to make the horse a loan from Théoden. In making this narrative choice, the author emphasizes that even the powerful wizard must rely on others, which both humanizes Gandalf and underscores the importance of trust in the Fellowship’s quest.