Symbols are objects, characters, figures, and colors used to represent abstract ideas or concepts.

The Two Towers

The title The Two Towers refers to Barad-dûr and Orthanc, Sauron’s stronghold in Mordor and Saruman’s citadel in Isengard, respectively. These two towers can be seen as a physical embodiment of the two visions of evil that Tolkien explores throughout The Lord of the Rings. In the novel, we see a number of examples of evil as an external, elemental force that exists independent of and outside the human mind; however, we also see instances of corruption and perversion, in which evil is an internal force that humans create.

Sauron exemplifies the former notion, the vision of evil as an essential force that simply exists as part of the universe. The Dark Lord’s evil physically spreads out over the land of Mordor and, later, over the rest of Middle-earth as well. Tolkien never implies that Sauron was once a good being who merely became perverted to the side of evil—the Dark Lord is evil by his very nature. The wizard Saruman, on the other hand, represents the latter vision of evil. He was once a figure of good, the leader of Gandalf’s order. Saruman was not born evil; rather, he has become corrupt out of arrogance and ambition.

The two towers in which these villains reside mirror the respective natures of their owners’ evils. Barad-dûr has always been evil; Sauron built it himself and has used it for no other purpose than as a refuge from which to use his Great Eye to watch and pervert Middle-earth. Orthanc, on the other hand, existed long before Saruman. We learn that Orthanc was constructed by the ancient lords of Gondor; as the narrator states, with a note of elegy, “long had it been beautiful.” It was only when Saruman “slowly shaped it to his shifting purposes” that Orthanc became a place of corruption, mirroring its new master. Ironically, though Saruman believes he has improved the tower by using it as the citadel of his ambition, the narrator tells us that Orthanc “was naught, only a little copy, a child’s model or a slave’s flattery . . . of Barad-dûr.” Tolkien implies that human evil, though at times powerful, arises merely from illusion and self-deception, and is much more easily defeated than inherent or elemental evil. Indeed, as we see, Saruman’s defeat is an easy one, requiring only a rebuke by Gandalf and a misstep by Wormtongue. The defeat of Sauron, on the other hand, can only be accomplished by destroying the Ring—a monumental task.

The Palantír

The palantíri are seven ancient seeing-stones, crystal globes that show visions and communicate information to Sauron. Gandalf, upon discovering that Saruman owns a palantír, understands for the first time how communication occurs between the various evil parties in Middle-earth. In this sense, the palantír symbolizes a network of wickedness that mirrors the Fellowship, which is in effect a network of good. The palantír is a tangible symbol of the conspiracy of malevolence that Gandalf and the Fellowship are fighting. On a deeper level, the palantír also symbolizes the distinction Tolkien draws between knowledge and wisdom—the palantír offers knowledge and a glimpse of the future to those who look into it, but this knowledge comes at the price of direct communication with Sauron, the embodiment of evil in Middle-earth.

When Gandalf utterly breaks Saruman’s power, Wormtongue, the corrupt wizard’s servant, flies into a fit of madness and rage, throwing the palantír out of the window of Orthanc. Wormtongue does not know how valuable the magic globe is to Saruman, who moans at the loss. In this regard, the palantír symbolizes the dangers of rashness and rage, the loss of one’s self-control to base emotions. Similarly, when Pippin takes the palantír from under Gandalf’s cloak in order to peer into it, the hobbit too succumbs to the pull of curiosity, thereby committing a misdeed and earning a stern reprimand from Gandalf. In this sense, the palantír is not only a physical symbol of evil in The Lord of the Rings, but also a symbol of the moral failings and the potential for corruption in all of the characters.

Pippin’s Pipe

Soon after his reunion with Aragorn, Legolas, and Pippin following the Orc battle, Gimli expresses a yearning for a good smoke. Pippin remembers that he has a spare pipe that he has been carrying with him throughout his travels. It is clearly of great personal value to the hobbit: he calls it a treasure, “as precious as Rings to me.” Yet Pippin offers this pipe to Gimli, who says that he is deep in the hobbit’s debt for such a gift. This little pipe is much more than just a trinket given by one friend to another; it is, rather, a symbol of the mutual caring that binds the Fellowship together. Gimli’s desire for a pipe is no matter of life and death, which makes Pippin’s eagerness to please the dwarf all the more endearing. Pippin simply wants his friends to be as happy and comfortable as possible, especially in light of the burden of the quest. In this regard, Pippin’s pipe symbolizes the very best aspect of the Fellowship, the bond that gives its members strength and may help them prevail in the end.

The Dead Marshes

As Frodo and Sam make their way to Mordor, Gollum leads them through an unpleasant region known as the Dead Marshes. As they pass through the swampland, Sam is deeply disturbed to see flickering lights in the corner of his eye, images of faces that come and go fleetingly. Frodo says that he sees the lights and faces as well. Gollum informs the hobbits that the lights are the “candles of corpses”; he tells them not to look, so as not to be seduced into following the lights. The corpses to which Gollum refers are the bodies of slain warriors—Orc, Man, and Elf—who died in a battle on the site long before.

In this sense, the Dead Marshes are a physical reminder of the way in which the present is bound to the past in the world of The Lord of the Rings. The past constantly haunts the present in the novel, whether in the form of powerful traditions, ancient songs, prophecies, or memories of those who died long ago. Moreover, the union of former enemies in death—Orcs and Men fight each other in life, but join each other in death—suggests the deep unity of creation that often goes forgotten or ignored in the world of the living. The differences and divisions that lead to war are flimsy and meaningless compared to the everlasting togetherness of death.