Which Two Towers?

A question perhaps not as common as Who is Tom Bombadil? or Do Balrogs have wings?, is the equally-ambiguous issue of which Two Towers give their name to the second volume of The Lord of the Rings.

From a book perspective I never found myself asking this question, since the answer seemed to present itself clearly – even though in contradiction with what the films have offered us.

First of all, let’s look at some of the possibilities brought up by many readers …Minas Morgul Ringwraiths

– Orthanc & Cirith Ungol

– Minas Tirith & Minas Morgul

– Barad-dûr & Minas Tirith

– Orthanc & Barad-dûr

And this is but a selection of the mix-and-match possibilities. These combinations are the result of correct assumptions based on certain moments in the story that take place in The Two Towers.

Orthanc seems to be an almost certain contender in any case, considering it features heavily in the second volume and is crucial to the Rohan storyline. At the same time, we are introduced to Saruman’s abode in Isengard in this book, and interestingly enough, so is its downfall. The journey of the rise and fall of Orthanc is documented in Volume II of The Lord of the Rings and it is therefore only natural to safely assume that this was one of the Two Towers.


The Two Towers PosterThe most tantalising and accurate combination from the above list, would be Orthanc & Barad-dûr. Indeed, Peter Jackson and his team came up with such a grouping for the second installment of the Trilogy. Such guess is as good as any, but perhaps more so than others due to the strong interactions between the two dominating forces of evil: attempting to thwart our heroes’ respective journeys on both fronts.

Naturally, the tower of Orthanc (as the seat of Saruman) and the Dark Tower of Barad-dûr (for the Dark Lord), seem appropriate as the eponymous Two Towers. There is no specific reason why these shouldn’t be the ones referred to in the book – and the argument may well be considered closed.

On the other hand, while from a cinematic perspective I take the above two as being THE Two Towers, when reading the book I get a completely different picture.

Taking into consideration the structure of the second volume – differing greatly from its film counterpart, especially the last eight chapters or so – I tend to lean more towards the towers being those of Orthanc and Minas Morgul.

We’ve already discussed the reasons for the inclusion of Orthanc so let’s proceed directly to Minas Morgul (not literally!).

– Orthanc and Minas Morgul

One of the most dominating threats for Frodo and Sam as they journey towards Mordor, is the presence of the Nazgûl – flying high in the air upon their winged creatures to search for the One Ring. The halflings, comprehending the impossible task of slipping through the Black Gate, are forced to tackle another entrance which takes them right into the valley of Minas Morgul – the city of the Ringwraiths.

It is here that one of the central moments in The Lord of the Rings occurs. In such close proximity to the claws of the enemy, our heroes find themselves in the middle of a concourse, as one of Sauron’s hosts marches out towards Gondor.

Much of these threats to the characters, do not come from Barad-dûr directly, but rather through Mordor’s servants: with attacks from Orthanc in the West and (more specifically) Minas Morgul in the East.

Undoubtedly, one of the main reasons why I’ve always considered both Orthanc and Minas Morgul as being THE Two Towers, was due to the book’s cover. For reading purposes, I use The Two Towers illustrationone of the HarperCollins hardback editions, containing Tolkien’s famous illustration of the towers standing opposite of each other.

One has the distinctive image of a hand (the White Hand of Saruman); whilst the other displays a crescent moon. If you recall, Minas Morgul was once called Minas Ithil (“Tower of the Moon“) before it fell in the hands of the enemy.

Furthermore, a winged creature can be seen travelling towards Orthanc from Minas Morgul’s direction, strongly suggesting the depiction of the final scene in The Two Towers –  when Pippin looks into the Palantír and a shadow dashes across the sky towards Isengard – leaving Gandalf no choice but to take the hobbit to Minas Tirith.

Ultimately, it’s all up to the reader. Whether or not Tolkien intended for this to remain a mystery, or perhaps he never realized it was so unclear in the book, we may never know.

But at the same time, it’s fun to speculate and this continues to generate appeal towards the multi-layered stories of Middle-earth: constantly providing us with amusement, no matter how many times we read the books.

In the meantime, what are YOUR thoughts on the Two Towers? 😉

12 thoughts on “Which Two Towers?

  1. I guess I always thought that Cirith Ungol had to be one of the two. Isn’t this the place Sam tries to rescue Frodo from? It’s the tower that has the most dramatic weight in this particular book.

    Help remind me… does the book version of Two Towers end with Sam running up against a closed stone door with the orcs and Frodo on the other side? That scene was awesome! I remember being disappointed it’s not how they chose to conclude the movie, although I suppose it would be too dark and open-ended.

    Excellent analysis.

    1. Hey Levi! Yes you are correct; the Two Towers ends with Sam slamming himself against the door – suspense and cliffhanger!

      Thanks for sharing and I hope you like the blog 🙂

  2. According to Tolkien, who came up with the title, there isn’t an answer. He was never really happy with the book being split into three, and was REALLY not happy about having to combine Books Three and Four.

    In a 1953 letter, he wrote: “The Two Towers gets as near as possible to finding a title to cover the widely divergent Books 3 and 4; and can be left ambiguous – it might refer to Isengard and Barad-dur, or to Minas Tirith and B; or Isengard and Cirith Unol.

    In another letter from 1954, he again admitted he wasn’t happy with the title Two Towers. “It must if there is any real reference in it to Vol II refer to Orthanc and the Tower of Cirith Ungol.

    The book sleeve, as you’ve noted, is of Orthanc and Minus Morgul. The first rough sketch of the cover, however, is of what appears to be Barad-dur and Minas Tirith.

    His publisher thought the title was fine (and at this point was probably pretty sick of dealing with Tolkien). “It sounds pleasant and the reader can exercise his imagination (or perhaps his speculative powers) on deciding which two towers were intended.”

    And that’s exactly what you did sixty or so years later. Great stuff!

  3. In the Forward of Book (part) 2 of the History of the Lord of Rings (edited by Christopher Tolkien) it says that in a letter to Rayner Unwin in March of 1953 (The Letters of J. R. R. Tolkien, no. 136) the good Professor himself suggested the title of “The Treason of Isengard” for Book 3 of LOTR (the first half of Two Towers). That then becomes the title of the second book in the History of the LOTR series, which makes it seem certain that one of the Two Towers must be (at least, in Tolkien’s mind at some point) the tower of Orthanc.

    It’s really the second tower that is the mystery. James, I think your suggestion of Minas Ithil is probably the best one. The only thing that prevents that from being certain (to me, at least) is the huge amount of dialogue of the Orcs in TTT regarding “Lugburz” (Barad-dur). What’s your opinion there?

    1. Hey Casey, thanks for the input! Your quote of the letter almost confirms the Orthanc tower as one contender.

      As for Lugburz, you are certainly right. They are in constant conflict with Saruman’s Uruk-hai and describing how they were sent as messengers from the Dark Tower. Nevertheless, as readers, we are never presented directly with an image of Barad-dur.

      Whereas near the end of The Two Towers, Tolkien dedicates almost a whole chapter describing Minas Ithil, the hobbits’ perilous journey in the valley, their run-in with the orc-army and the Witch-king; and the tower as a constant threat.

      Again, it’s just based on individual opinions here so anything is definitely a possibility – I guess that’s the beauty of Tolkien: the ever-present mystery 🙂

  4. I’m not sure if anyone posted this, but in my Revised Edition of the Fellowship of the Ring (1965), it states at the end of the book: “The second part is called The Two Towers, since the events recounted in it are dominated by Orthanc, the citadel of Saruman, and the fortress of Minas Morgul…” This is also in my paperback from the 1970s. I notice this text is not in my movie tie-in editions of the book.

    1. Hey Jim, you are correct. My edition also states that, but I always suspected whether those were the words of the book publishers or Tolkien himself. It certainly seems to point towards a particular set of Towers though 🙂

  5. There’s really no question about Orthanc. Cirith Ungol as the second Tower has always been my choice, simply because it is so significant to the action in book 4. I’ve always loved the ambiguity of the title, though. There are just SO MANY towers. Those Tolkien quotes Eric shared up there are cool.

    I also have a copy of an edition with that note about The Two Towers. I use the movie edtion copies when I’m writing about it because they’re indexed and hardback, so don’t wear out as easily, and I did not even notice the absence of the note.

    I’ve thought about writing a very similar post more than once.

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