June 19, 2014

What Are The Two Towers?

In this post I attempt to tackle one of the first questions Tolkien fans have asked since The Two Towers was first published in 1954.  Which towers are the ones Tolkien references in the title of Volume 2 of The Lord of the Rings?  Jump the break to find out...

Throughout The Lord of the Rings (and most of Tolkien's myths) we come across many different towers.  Narrowing them to two can often be a difficult task, especially since Tolkien left it "ambiguous" on purpose (Letters No. 140).  Unlike his other enigmas though (e.g. Tom Bombadil), this riddle has an answer (or two).  To start our investigation we must start with a list of some of the main towers discussed in The Two Towers.
  • Orthanc
  • Minas Tirith
  • Minas Morgul
  • Orc Tower at Cirith Ungol
  • Barad-dur
Second, The Two Towers is comprised of two "widely divergent Books" (Letters No. 140).  The first half (Book III) primarily follows the path of The Three Hunters (Aragorn, Legolas, and Gimli) while the second half (Book IV) follows Frodo and Sam.  With two such vastly different books it would make sense that the titled towers would come from either sides or paths of the story to tie the volume together.  With this in mind let's split our list of towers:

Book III Towers
  • Isengard (Orthanc) 

Book IV Towers
  • Minas Tirith
  • Minas Morgul
  • Orc Tower at Cirith Ungol
  • Barad-dur

In our Book III list Orthanc stands alone.  It was this tower that served as the residence of Saruman, the main antagonist in Book III.  He was the one who orchestrated the events and armies that nearly conquered Rohan.  Towards the end of Book III he is defeated and Isengard is destroyed.  It is an important location in the book that represents an important character and for that reason I think Orthanc is one of the Two Towers.  Furthermore, Tolkien himself affirmed this in letters (No. 140, 143) and in his jacket design for The Two Towers (which will be discussed later).

The second tower is a bit trickier to identify.  Fans often bring up Minas Tirith and Barad-dur as candidates.  Much is said of the White City and the "basic opposition of the Dark Tower and Minas Tirith" is a recurrent theme throughout the The Lord of the Ring (Letters No. 143).  However, we never actually go to Minas Tirith.  While it is talked about it is not a key player like in The Return of the King.  In The Two Towers there are many other strongholds that would better fit the bill.  Even though Tolkien first suggested this pair (Letters No. 140, J.R.R. Tolkien; Artist & Illustrator [178]) he later criticised this connection and called it "misleading" (Letters No. 143).  

A poster for The Two Towers film with Orthanc
in the foreground and Barad-dur behind
While I think Minas Tirith is discredited as a contender, Barad-dur could still stand alongside Orthanc.  These two are the two towers most casual fans are probably familiar with since this is the position taken in the film.*  I think it is a very safe interpretation and one that has a fair amount of support.  Saruman and Sauron were the principal antagonists in The Two Towers and The Dark Lord is heavily involved in Books III and IV.  Throughout the story parallels are often drawn between the two (especially after Gandalf recovers Saruman's Palantir).  Out of all the combinations these two (the villains) tie the halves together best.  

This combination was also first suggested by Tolkien (in Letter No. 140).  

*This was really the only option left for the filmmakers to explore since in the films Frodo & Sam wouldn't reach the next two towers until the Return of the King film.

Minas Morgul

Minas Morgul is another possible contender for the second tower.  It is a very important location and one that Frodo and Sam pass (very closely!) on their way to Cirith Ungol.  The best support for this idea comes from Tolkien's original jacket design for The Two Towers:

On the right we see Orthanc with the White Hand of Saruman underneath (affirming Orthanc as one of the two).  On the left a white tower is pictured.  At first glance one could mistake it for the White Tower of Ecthelion (at Minas Tirith), but a closer look reveals that it is actually Minas Morgul.  This is evidenced by the moon underneath (and above).  The symbol of the moon comes from the city's name before it was taken by the Ringwraiths, Minas Ithil (Ithil = Moon).  Even after it was taken by the Nazgul the moon remained an icon of the city.  The black creature in the middle depicts one of the final scenes at the end of Book III in which a Nazgul flies on a fell beast from Mordor to Isengard, further confirming this connection. 

The Tower of Cirith Ungol

At the end of book IV Frodo is taken prisoner by the orcs of Cirith Ungol and taken to a tower there.  Sam follows and just when he gets inside the fortress the book ends and we're left with a huge and suspenseful cliffhanger that won't be resolved until Book VI.  It forms an important part in the story and it's a key tower that Frodo & Sam come across during their journey in Volume II (The Two Towers).  In a letter written to Rayner Unwin, the son of Tolkien's publisher, the Professor wrote about this connection 

It [the title, 'the Two Towers'] must if there is any real reference in it to Vol II refer to Orthanc and the Tower of Cirith Ungol. (Letters No. 143)

In Conclusion

Like so many mysterious in Tolkien's works, there isn't one definitive answer.  Despite this difficulty I think we can still reach a few conclusions regarding the title.

  1. The title was left ambiguous on purpose and is open to some interpretation and/or inference.
  2. One of the Two Towers is Orthanc, representing Saruman.
  3. The second tower could be Barad-dur, Minas Morgul, or the Tower of Cirith Ungol, all of which have support within the text and externally. 

Which towers do you think are the Two Towers?  Share your thoughts and comments below!


  1. Great post! I've always thought (I have no idea why) that the towers in the book were Orthanc and Minas Morgul. I'm not sure if I heard it somewhere or something :) Since Book III and IV are togethor in the movie, I suppose they couldn't do it like, "Book III has one of the towers and Book IV has another." I like how they make it "the union of the Two Towers." That's just my personal opinion :)

    1. Absolutely. Orthanc and Barad-dur tie the story together much more nicely than the other combinations, especially in the film. In the movie Minas Morgul or Cirith Ungol couldn't even be considered as options since they don't appear until RotK!

  2. Brilliant! I am enjoying your new blog posts. I myself have the 'jacket design' collection of the books. On the back of the book it confirms your findings, as it states: "The cover of this new edition of 'The Two Towers' is based on Tolkien's own unused sketch of 1954. It shows the One Ring above Mount Doom, flanked by the towers of Minas Morgul and Orthanc, while above it flies a Nazgûl. The tengwar inscription in the centre reads, 'In the land of Mordor where the shadows lie.' At the base of Minas Morgul are the nine rings of the Ringwraiths, while above it a crescent moon hints at the earlier name of the tower, Minas Ithil, Tower of the Moon, before it was taken and defiled by Sauron's forces. Above and beneath Orthanc, a wizard's pentacle and a white hand symbolize the influence of Saruman." This implies that the two towers are indeed Orthanc and Minas Morgul, which Tolkien drew himself. I believe that in Tolkien's works these are the two towers however in PJ's films' continuity they definitively seem to be Barad-dûr and Orthanc, as is hinted throughout the TT film.

    1. Thanks! If you ever interested and get the chance I highly recommend you check out pages 179 - 184 in Wayne G. Hammnond's and Christiana Scull's "J.R.R. Tolkien: Artist & Illustrator". There they provide a lot more info about the creation process Tolkien went through in designing the jackets. Included is one of the earliest sketches for the cover of The Two Towers that features Barad-dur and Minas Tirith [picture 178]. Later designs all show Orthanc and Minas Morgul though. It certainly seems that that Tolkien wasn't really sure which two he wanted to label as the Two Towers as first.