The second act of a three-act story is often dedicated to further exploring the characters in the play, and to subjecting our heroes to their lowest point so we might set the stage for a final, heroic resolution. J.R.R. Tolkien, no stranger to long-standing literary tradition, does not disappoint with the second of this three-part fantasy saga, the Lord of the Rings, with The Two Towers. And filmmaker Peter Jackson doubles down on that by delivering a second installment of his expansive film adaptation by exploring the themes of corruption, distrust and infighting, as well as the power of friendship, loyalty, and courage in the face of certain doom. Second acts are often the soft underbelly of a larger tale, but not so here, as we get a tale that is intrinsically tethered to its prologue and conclusion, yes, but triumphs on its own as a story of keeping the light of goodness alive amid the deepest kinds of darkness.
The story begins with the Fellowship of the Ring having broken apart on its quest to destroy the ring of Sauron by returning to Mount Doom, where it was forged, and casting it into the fire there. Frodo Baggins, the hobbit who carries Sauron’s One Ring, has struck off on his own, accompanied by his dear friend Samwise Gamgee, and later accompanied by the skulking, wretched creature known as Gollum, whose long ownership of the One Ring drives his desire to retake it from Frodo by guile or force. Meanwhile, the ranger Aragorn, the elf Legolas and the dwarf Gimli, in their efforts to rescue hobbits Merry and Pippin, who have fallen into enemy hands, takes its own turn, as they encounter the court of Théoden of Rohan, a once-great king ensorcelled into a stupor and made unable to lead his great nation of warrior horsemen. And for every moment the Riders of Rohan are idle, so grow the armies of Saruman, the corrupted wizard who seeks to join Sauron by waging his own war upon Middle Earth with his own legions of subhuman soldiers. Elsewhere, Frodo’s fellow hobbits Merry and Pippin endure great trials, first as prisoners of Saruman’s uruk, and later as the agents of an unlikely attack upon the source of Saruman’s power. All this, as a titanic struggle unfolds between the armies of Rohan and those of Saruman, the outcome of which will prove a tipping point for the fate of Middle Earth.
Here, we see the first epic battles of the War of the Ring, and for all of their colossal spectacle, we are never allowed to forget where the true heart of this tale’s struggle lies: in the intimate journey of Frodo, Sam and Gollum across the wastelands of Middle-Earth. The further from home Frodo gets, the heavier the Ring becomes, sapping his strength and very will to live. The dread power of the Ring would make Frodo easy prey for those who would steal the ring for themselves and more easily deliver it into Sauron’s waiting hand, and both Samwise and Gollum know it. The three characters must form an uneasy alliance; the hobbits need Gollum to find their way to Mordor without being discovered, but Gollum clearly plots to kill them both and take the ring for himself. Here, Sam emerges as the real hero, a faithful friend who discovers a seemingly limitless strength to carry his dear Frodo and to keep a watchful eye on Gollum. Frodo joined this quest out of a naïve willingness to help his friends, but not knowing what it would entail. Sam simply refuses to let his friend go into danger alone, and the greater that peril becomes, the sterner stuff Sam appears to be made of.
One can’t watch this movie and fail to be blown away by its extraordinary Battle of Helm’s Deep, which plays out in several extended sequences, offering an ebb and flow to the fight until at last we have a great, final charge and a deliverance of the most satisfying kind. It is the sort of ending that reminds us how stirring it is to not be abandoned in a time of need. As we see the bright light of hope burst across the field of battle, we are reminded of the valor of the righteous and the strength that comes in living by our pledges to each other. Before the fighting begins, we are treated to a poignant moment when King Théoden, rejuvenated and ready for battle, laments the state of the world and asks: “How did it come to this?” He knows how: by the slumber, fear and apathy of man, and by the cunning treachery of an evil we dare not admit lives among us. And by a refusal to trust the likes of his faithful nephew Éomer, and his stalwart niece Éowyn.
As we see heroic deliverance at Helm’s Deep, we are brought back to the mighty struggle of Frodo and Sam, in which Frodo despairs under the weight of his burden. He is frightened by how much farther they have to go, the seeming inevitability of their capture, and the sinister lurkings of their dubious guide, Gollum. Samwise feels all of those things, too, but he will not for a moment let his fears pile on Frodo’s, and that is where we get our moment of truth, as Sam encourages Frodo by telling his friend of the heroes of old and the stories their deeds have inspired. They are those same heroes, even if they don’t know it, and even if nobody expects it of them. As a more conventional heroism take shape on the battlefield of Helm’s Deep, a more stirring one takes shape in the bleak hinterlands of Mordor, where the extraordinary trials of simple folk are made surmountable by their unstoppable friendship. That is a kind of power greater than any sword, spell or ring.