The story of the publication of The Lord of the Rings is complicated, dear readers, and one element in that complication is the dividing of what JRRT thought of as a single book, into three. This entailed, among other things, creating titles for all three volumes and it’s interesting to see the discussion between Tolkien and Rayner Unwin, the publisher’s son, on the subject. (See Letters, 166-171 for particulars.)
Even as he was still thinking about volume three, however, JRRT had come to believe that volume two’s title had been found:
“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 Ungol.” (Letters, 170)
Towers might appear to be everywhere in Tolkien’s early life. From works like Andrew Lang’s (1844-1912)
The Red Fairy Book (1890),
he would have seen Rapunzel in her tower.
In church, he would have heard about the Tower of Babel (from Genesis 11.1-9 in the Hebrew Bible),
and with his curiosity about language (which we can trace as far back as when he was seven, as he tells WH Auden—see Letters, 213-214), the explanation given there of how different languages came to be and how they spread must have readily caught his attention.
As a devout Catholic, he would have heard the Virgin Mary described as an “ivory tower” (turris eburnea)
in the 16th-century “Litany of the Blessed Virgin Mary”.
He might have been taken to London, for a visit, or at least seen a postcard of the Norman keep, the “White Tower” at the center of the Tower of London.
And then, of course, on any day at Oxford, either as student or professor, he might have strolled past the remains of Oxford Castle and seen the surviving St George’s Tower.
Places like St George’s tower, however, were reminders of a long-gone military past. 2nd Lieutenant Tolkien
would have been well aware of the change.
Gunpowder weapons had begun to appear on battlefields in the mid-14th century and, once early cannon began to develop into increasingly large tubes called bombards, no stone castle, town, or tower was as safe as it might once have been thought to have been.
The most telling early example of the power of such things must have been their use at the final siege of Constantinople, in the spring of 1453, where elaborate walls which had stood for many centuries
were pounded to pieces by Ottoman artillery.
Military architects adapted, turning from the higher, thinner walls of castles to low fortifications banked with earth to absorb the power of huge stone or iron balls.
But, when it came to battle in the field, by the early 20th century,
and heavy artillery
had forced soldiers who had customarily (with the exception of sieges) fought above ground to dig into the earth to save themselves, even if only temporarily, from the quick and sure destruction of such weapons.
The castles of the Great War were now not towering stone structures, but elaborate below-ground fortifications
and concrete and iron bunkers were the closest thing to medieval towers.
For those going above ground, there were reminders, as well, that height meant being an easy target, like this famous church spire, with its drooping figure, hit repeatedly by artillery fire until it finally collapsed.
We have written several times in the past about gunpowder, or its equivalent, in Middle-earth (see, for instance: “Fourth Age: Big Bang Theory”, 17 February, 2016), and it certainly appears in some form in The Lord of the Rings, at Helm’s Deep and again at the Rammas Echor, the great wall which surrounds the fields and farms below Minas Tirith. Other than its use at these two places, however, this is a world in which the 20th-century Industrial Age violence into which JRRT had been pulled in 1916 was entirely absent. Instead, we have those towers Tolkien mentions in his letter about the title of the second volume: Isengard,
and Cirith Ungol.
Having seen what he did of modern war,
is it any wonder that Tolkien, in his wonderfully elaborate fiction, would retreat to the comparative safety of those towers of his past?
As always, thanks for reading and
For Andrew Lang’s Red Fairy Book, as well as all of the other Fairy books, and other good things, too, here’s a LINK to a site you’ll want to visit: https://www.worldoftales.com/fairy_tales/Andrew_Lang_red_fairy_tale_book.html#gsc.tab=0
We apologize, by the way, for the second appearance of the stave church illustration in our last posting. Our site was not happy about accepting illustrations last Wednesday for some reason and, though we gently encouraged it, it seems that it had a final moment of stubbornness and with a “So there!” it added a second copy of the image, which we didn’t notice till we’d uploaded the posting.