Let’s talk about structure. It’s one of my favorite aspects of storytelling, and one of my favorite to think about. Even with the same group of characters, the same setting, the same plot – there are so many different ways to tell a story, to group it together and give it substance. And it’s so delicate: the smallest flaw can destabilize all the rest.
As we’ve touched on a couple of times already, it’s hard to talk about The Two Towers without talking about narrative structure. Beyond the complete absence of Frodo and Sam for 243 pages (!) we have separate (though parallel) narratives for Merry and Pippin and for Aragorn, Gimli, and Legolas. So far, this has worked well. Bouncing back and forth between the two has generally enhanced each storyline, giving the whole story a greater sense of scope and momentum. It’s a bit funny, then, that when we finally get a semi-reunion of the Fellowship we hit our first real structural stumbling block.
The March of the Ents
“Flotsam and Jetsam” isn’t a bad chapter. It’s charming, as all hobbit-y chapters are. It’s genuinely nice to see the Fellowship, who have had a deeply tough week, get a chance to relax, smoke pipes, and eat food together. And there are Ents, so I’m not going to complain.
That said, it seems like a missed opportunity to simply have Merry & Pippin recount the story of the Ents attacking Isengard, rather than actually showing it. It’s such a sensory event, filled with striking images and sounds, that it seems like a waste to tell it as a retrospective monologue. It could have paired so well as a companion piece to Helm’s Deep, a sort of joint climax to the Book as a whole.
Take this passage:
The whole air was full of creaking. It was very dark, a cloudy night. They moved at great speed as soon as they had left the hills, and made a noise like rushing wind. The Moon did not appear through the clouds, and not long after midnight there was a tall wood all round the north side of Isengard. There was no sign of enemies or any challenge. There was a light gleaming from a high window in the tower, that was all.
Or the response of the Ents to the death of one of their own:
That sent them mad. I thought that they had been roused before; but I was wrong. I saw what it was really like at last. It was staggering. They roared and boomed and trumpeted, until stones began to crack and fall at the mere noise of them.
There are the outlines of a great emotional arc to this chapter. Ents are so powerful and so slow to unfurl their feelings. Watching the Ents slowly “rouse,” as Merry says, should have been a fascinating thing to watch. But the beats get skirted over so quickly, and the immediacy is lost in the fact that we already know how all of it ends. There are still excellent points – Merry’s description of fingers “freezing” onto rock as being like “like watching the work of great tree-roots in a hundred years, all packed into a few moments” is really evocative. But instead of feeling likes its own story, given the time and space to unfold, it almost feels like the narrative is playing catch-up with itself.
Of course, there are always sacrifices to this kind of thing. While a big set piece around the destruction of Isengard is something I’ll always miss, I do like a lot of what we get here. Though we’re still missing Frodo and Sam (and Gandalf is off with the Important People doing his Gandalf thing), this is the most we’ve seen of the Fellowship together in quite some time. And given that everyone is about to split up again – into even more groups! – it’s nice to have a bit of a breather, and some time for everyone to be happy.
There are a whole slew of little character beats and details in “Flotsam and Jetsam.” Gimli is delighted to see the hobbits again, declaring them truants for their captivity and only forgiving them upon being presented with a relative feast of food, wine, and pipe weed. Legolas is perplexed by these “strange folk” who are surrounded by a thick cloud of pipe smoke. The Pippin-Gandalf comedy powerhouse reunites, as Pippin recounts Gandalf’s failure to say hello upon returning from the dead, instead calling him a fool and sending him off an immediate errand. And Aragorn delights Pippin by decking himself out like “Strider the Ranger” again, all long legs, grey cloaks, and pipe smoke.
If someone told me that they loved this chapter for precisely those things, I couldn’t blame them for that. It is lovely and charming. But I can’t quite bring myself to fully let go of the idea of a real-time attack on Isengard, one more big moment before we hit Book III’s denouement and the setup for The Return of the King.
I also noticed that “Flotsam and Jetsam” follows “The Road to Isengard” in being a transitional chapter. Nearly everyone is very happy. People are coming together. But the groundwork is simultaneously being laid for problems to come.
The discovery of Longbottom Leaf marks the biggest one: Saruman, and his connections to the Shire. Saruman often comes across are relatively pitiful in this chapter. He’s helpless in the Ent attack, fleeing back to his tower and only barely escaping an unceremonious crushing courtesy of Quickbeam. His traps and machineries are ineffective, then flooded. Merry suggests that he may not have even known what was happening; he certainly didn’t know how to deal with it. Once again, a lack of imagination is the key to Saruman’s downfall.
But “Flotsam and Jetsam” also goes to great lengths to emphasize that Saruman is still a threat – his voice and his power of persuasion is so great that Aragorn says that less than a handful of individuals would be safe alone in a room with him (and even for these, it would be tough going). The Longbottom Leaf is a nice reminder of that continuing influence. Saruman is locked in a tower, but his reach persists, stretching all the way to the Shire. It’s a nice example of how problems are often relatively messy in Tolkien. Though he’s been “defeated,” Saruman is still a very real and present problem. I’m very excited to see him and hear him next chapter.
- Seriously though, the entirety of Book III takes place over nine days. Everyone must be so tired.
- I had some actual criticism instead of just fervent praise this time around. In all likelihood it’s because Tolkien had the horrifying audacity to use the phrase “misty, moisty morning,” for which I’ll never really forgive him.
- Pippin mentions that he never expected to find pipeweed on their journey. And yet he not only carried one pipe with him on the adventure, but two. Just in case. On a semi-related note, you can buy “Longbottom Leaf” in either tobacco or marijuana forms, because of course you can.
- I do like that at Pippin’s comment that Strider the Ranger had returned, Aragorn simply says “He has never been away. I am Strider and Dúnadan too, and I belong both to Gondor and the North.”
- My favorite small detail about this chapter (by far) is when Treebeard starts to rip off pieces of the walls of Isengard “in a leisurely sort of way, just to amuse himself.”
- Another nice Ent detail – “Quickbeam is a gentle creature, but he hates Saruman all the more fiercely for that.” That’s a nice characterization of Quickbeam, and a nice reminder that kindness ought not equate to weakness.
- We get to learn a little more about the Huorns, courtesy of Merry. “There is great power in them, and they seem to be able to wrap themselves in shadow: it is difficult to see them moving. But they do. They can move very quickly if they are angry. You stand still looking at the weather, maybe, or listening to the rustling of the wind, and then suddenly you find that you are in the middle of a wood with great groping trees all around you.” I like that the huorns are essentially the heroes of Book III but they are also essentially unknown and TERRIFYING. All of the alien aspects of the Ents, but magnified.
- The idea of problems in the Shire is a lot more viscerally upsetting to me now that I’m older. When I was younger I was sad about it, but there were bigger things to worry about. But I dunno, now it feels a lot more potently sad to me.
- Apologies for the lack of fan art this week (and the shorter article in general). I got a late start on finding it and didn’t get artist permission in time. I’ll be back on track for Saruman next time!
- Prose Prize: I’m a big fan of all the description of the Huorns. And the Ents. I kinda want to start a tumblr that’s just called Tolkien Talkin’ bout Trees. But I was also really partial to ““Still more water poured in until at last Isengard looked like a huge flat saucepan, steaming and bubbling.” It’s a fun and striking image, especially in a chapter with so much food. A very hobbit-y analogy.
- Contemporary to this chapter: To be honest, this whole chapter is a “contemporary to this chapter” in reverse. Only a few hours elapse here, and the rest of Book III will take place on this day (March 5th). Over to the east, Frodo and Sam are catching a glimpse of the Black Gate of Mordor, and making a choice that will take them towards Shelob. It’s a rough day for hobbit choices, as Pippin is about to find out.