The Two Towers and Free Will

by J. R.R. Tolkien

The center part of the trilogy builds to a dark hour:

  • The Fellowship is fractured and Boromir is dead.
  • Aragorn, with Legolas and Gimli go into the Paths of the Dead.
  • Frodo is bitten by Shelob and captured by Orcs and sits alone as a prisoner in a tower in Cirith Ungol.
  • Merry is left alone with Theoden.
  • Gandalf and Pippen go ahead to Minas Tirith, where Gangalf sees evidence of Denethor’s fall into despair in the face of the desperation of the situation.
  • Gondor is expecting a siege, and none are sure whether any help will arrive from Rohan or from the south.
  • The Nazgul take to the air on deadly steeds.
  • Faramir has not yet returned to his home city.

It is a universe of objective morality. No one can define their own good and evil.

Gandalf has a wisdom or knowledge that goes beyond what is visible and sees the unseen. He is aware that there is a material plane and a spiritual plane which touch and affect each other; from out of this reality is the theme of another reality and the importance of free will.

It is central to his theme that we, both male and female, are created in God’s image and that we have the ability and the responsibility to make real moral choices. Gandalf, in the Two Towers, gives Saruman a last chance for redemption. Elves and men are also incarnate creatures whose spiritual nature last beyond this life, continuing on as self-aware individuals.

Philology, the study of language, is at the center of Tolkien’s technique of communicating this truth. The invention of languages is at the foundation of the writing. Indeed, in one letter Tolkien writes that his work is “fundamentally linguistic in inspiration.”

To that end we readily see that no movie can possibly do justice to the text itself in any comprehensive way, since movies necessarily are primarily visual. God’s relation with creation is linguistic:

John 1:1

In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God and the Word was God. Goodness and truth are breathed through the words of many characters, their actions, and their intent.

Genesis 1:1-3

In the beginning God created heaven and earth. Now the earth was unformed and void, and darkness was upon the face of the deep; and the spirit of God hovered over the face of the waters. And God said, “Let there be light.” And there was light.

The Lord of the Rings was written when the popular culture was trying to prove that there was no such thing as free will. From Bertrand Russell to B.F. Skinner, the attack on free will raged. Some neuroscientists today are still hoping to map the brain to prove there is no free will, of “being in control.”

But scriptures and Tolkien are all about free will to do good or ill. It is called the “doom of choice” when Aragorn responds to Eomer’s questions. Determinism has no place here.

Tolkien’s The Silmarillion sets the stage for Middle Earth, dealing with philosophical and spiritual issues. He challenges us to look beyond the temporal values of the moment to see eternity in the convergence of the material and spiritual. Although Tolkien does not explicitly write allegory, he seeks his work to have an effect on the thought and experience of the reader.


Tolkien has much to say with respect to war or in the context to war. The Hobbit culminates in the Battle of the Five Armies. Four and half paragraphs are taken up with the historical setting for the battle, the geography of the battle site and the work of Gandalf in uniting the Elves, Men and Dwarves to fight a common enemy, giving up their enmity with one another.

A few brave men were strung before them to make a feint of resistance, and many there fell before the rest drew back and fled to either side.

Then the battle is described by the view point of a solitary Hobbit, Bilbo Baggins personalizing the war:

It was a terrible battle. The most dreadful of all Bilbo’s experiences , and the one which at the time he hated most—which it is to say it was the one he was most proud of, and most fond of recalling long afterwards, although he was quite unimportant in it.

Two pages later Bilbo looks on with misery,

Misery me!” [thought Bilbo.] ‘I have heard songs of many battles, and I have always understood that defeat may be glorious. It seems very uncomfortable, not to say distressing. I wish I was well out of it.

Before the battle ends, Bilbo is knocked unconscious and does not even get to relish in the moment of victory.

When Bilbo came to himself, he was literally by himself. He was lying on the flat stones of Ravenhill, and no one was near. A cloudless day, but cold, was broad above him. He was shaking, and as chilled as stone, but his head burned with fire….

Victory after all, I suppose!” he said, feeling his aching head. “Well, it seems a very gloomy business.”

There is little glory in good Elves, Men and Dwarves lying dead and injured. Tolkien experienced the WW I in the trenches in 1916 as an infantryman unable to see how he fit into the bigger picture of the battle, let alone the war. Tolkien lost two of his closest friends and he himself got trench fever. He knew intimately of what he was writing.

The final battle in front of the Black Gate closely parallels The Battle of the Five Armies –final major battles, several different armies coming together to fight a common foe with Gandalf as a critical agent in bringing the allied forces together to fight the common enemy, a Hobbit as an unimportant character does a reflection and is knocked unconscious, unexpected coming of the Eagles presaging an unlooked for hope and victory.

Again as the moment of battle began at the Black Gate we read the Hobbit’s perspective:

Pippin had bowed crushed with horror when he heard Gandalf reject the terms and doom Frodo to the torment of the Tower; but he had mastered himself, and now he stood beside Beregond in the front rank of Gondor with Imrahil’s men. For it seemed best to him to die soon and leave the bitter story of his life, since all was in ruin.

I wish Merry was here,” he heard himself saying, and quick thoughts raced through his mind, even as he watched the enemy come charging to the assault….

He drew his sword and looked at it and the intertwining shapes of red and gold; and the flowing characters of Numenor glinted like fire upon the blade. “This was made for just such an hour,” he thought. “if only I could smite that foul Messenger with it, then almost I shall draw level with Old Merry. Well I’ll smite some of the beastly brood before the end. I wish I could see cool sunlight and green grass again!”

Then even as he thought these things the first assault crashed into them….

So it ends as I guessed it would,” his thought said, even as it fluttered away; and it laughed a little within him ere it fled, almost gay it seemed to be casting off at last all doubt and care and fear.

Friends, sunlight and grass are really important in this tale, it is the stuff of life. Tolkien’s narrative brings us back to this even in the midst of battle. In The Two Towers, we get another Hobbit’s view, that of Samwise Gamgee:

It was Sam’s first view of a battle of Men against Men, and he did not like it much. He was glad that he could not see the dead face. He wondered what the man’s name was and where he came from; and if he was really evil of heart, or what lies or threats had led him on the long march from his home; and if he would not really rather have stayed there in peace.

So here Tolkien personalizes the enemy soldier and we remember Christ’s injunction to love our enemies. He has a name, heart, history, and may or may not be evil.

The one battle scene Tolkien chooses to emphasis is the battle between Eowin and the Nazgul and the subsequent death of King Theoden: a microcosm within the Battle of the Pelennor Fields. After Theoden is struck down, Eowyn (in the guise of Dernhelm) faces the Lord of the Nazgul in combat. With the aid of Merry she defeats him—although in the process she and Merry are wounded apparently mortally.

This battle is described in great detail: the “swift stroke” of Eowyn’s “steel-blade”; the fall of the Nazgul-Lord’s mace; each word spoken between the combatants; even to the shivering of shield and breaking of bone. Eowyn is not facing a foe of flesh and bones. The Nazgul she destroys is a spiritual foe—a wraith.

Though the battle takes place in the physical world with physical weapons we see the depths of a deeper reality. The spiritual plane is visualized in the physical realm. No battle with a physical foe is described in such detail. There is only sorrow, dread, and blind sick horror to Merry’s eye view.

Tolkien models the Rohirrim –the people of Rohan—directly after the Anglo-Saxon people. The language of Rohan is Old English (Anglo-Saxon). The welcome given to Gandalf, Aragorn, Gimli, and Legolas by the guards at the gates of Edoras (the palace of King Theoden is almost directly borrowed from the welcome given to Beowulf and his warriors by the beach-guards when they arrive at Heorot to visit Hrothgar in the Old English poem Beowulf.

Tolkien uses the idiom of Old English verse with really important actions described three times with three different images:

  • Shield was dimmed.
  • Morning was blotted.
  • Dark fell.

Hebrew verse uses parallelism for the purpose of clarification and emphasis.

The tension we find between the Rohirrim glorifying the life and death of a warrior and the alternate views of Merry are also seen in scripture when we see Israel taking over Caanan, later defending it, and then Jesus’ developed view of where our true battles are to be won. The Hobbits bring realism to our understanding of war as Jesus brings us to that junction of the physical and spiritual which so often gets lost in our lives.

King Theoden was “a man so bent with age that he seemed almost a dwarf” TT. He was deceived into thinking himself too old and frail to do anything. Convinced his people were weak, he felt his only hope was to withdraw into a defensive cocoon and let the world’s problems pass over him and his country. His thoughts poisoned, heart chilled weakening his limbs while others watch and could do nothing “for your will was in his [Wormtongue’s] keeping.” TT.

Falling under the spell of Saruman made Theoden unwilling to fight in the battle against Sauron or lead to the aid of his people to the desperate need of his neighbors in Gondor.

How many situations have we seen of this very sort of thing? How helpless have we felt?

And too, our society also has forgotten to teach the important stories of old but “teaching them only to children, as a careless custom.” But Gandalf comes and restores the king’s sight, he is healed. He and his people had forgotten that Rohan is just a small part of Middle-Earth, in both time and space. Theoden realizes he is not alone.

The real glory of the scene at the Battle of Pelennor Fields is the glory of those who choose to use what strength they have in them to resist evil. Theoden won the battle to choose well even though he himself dies in battle.

Merry’s victory comes in overcoming his fear in order to come to the rescue of Eowyn: “She should not die, so fair, so desperate! At least she should not die alone, unaided.”

Eowyn is so afraid of shame that she seeks death. There is a glory in her courage, “so fair, so desperate”, for glory through death in battle (an Anglo-Saxon ideal). Whereas her bravery and loyalty embody the best traits of the Rohirrim, this longing for glory in battle is their weakness. The pursuit of peace, garden and home are virtues sought by Hobbit, Faramir and Eowyn in the end—not battle.

The Battle of Helm’s Deep (TT) is the one important battle where there is no Hobbit. It only lasts one night but dominates Peter Jackson’s film version of The Two Towers. Dialogue centers especially to the current state of their hope or despair.

Aragorn and Eomer help each other at great personal risk, showing great trust in their allegiance. Their friendship is forged at the battle. Gimli too risks his life for Eomer who was ready to kill him when they first met. Gimli is at Eomer’s side when the battle is over. He later settles down to be Eomer’s neighbour in the Glittering Caves of Aglarond.

The enmity between Elf and Dwarf is completely gone as the deep friendship and comeraderie between Gimli and Legolas is clearly demonstrated.

There is no greater love than to lay down your life for a friend. This is most apparent in war. Friendships are forged deep in hardship.

The main characters subjugate their own desires for the good of the community to which they belong. Aragorn insisted that the whole Fellowship be blindfolded when the Elves of Lothlorien single out Gimli the Dwarf to be blindfolded before going into their kingdom. He rescues the Hobbits at the start of the Two Towers putting aside the longing of his own heart to go to Minas Tirith.

Even Boromir at the end of The Fellowship of the Ring gives up his own pursuit of glory in an attempt to save Merry and Pippin.


  • sacrifices his life to save the others
  • restores a kingdom when he restores Theoden
  • brings hope and help to all on the walls of Minas Tirith, not just to Denethor and Faramir.

Galadriel tells members of the Company that hope remains as long as “all the Company is true”, one Fellowship.

Moral victory is more important than military victory. We see it in the mercy towards Gollum Gandalf, Aragorn, Faramir, Frodo clinging to hope for both of them, and even Sam, King Thranduil and the Wood-elves who had Gollum in prison “with such kindness as they can find in their wise hearts”. Gloin the Dwarf, who himself had been prisoner of the Wood Elves as told in The Hobbit, notes bitterly, “You were less tender to me.” Mercy may help Gollum to find his cure. Yet, mercy is an end in itself.

Read The Hobbit, regarding Bilbo’s dilemma. Bilbo chooses, in a flash, fairness and pity increasing his greater risk of defeat. Frodo too shows mercy when a strategic attack on the ruffians in the Shire would seem prudent and does not kill them in The Return of the King.

We see clearly the understanding that we all have sinned and have fallen short of the glory of God. Frodo has seen the dark side within himself and chooses the light and life of mercy towards the men.

They were tempted even as Jesus was tempted in the wilderness—would he worship Satan in order to gain all the kingdoms Satan promised? No! The kingdom of God is not of this earthy stuff. It is more. It is the servanthood of Samwise Gamgee towards Frodo. It is the tenderloving care good friends have for one another.

Matthew Dickerson (Following Gandalf, 2003) poses two questions which Tolkien addresses in Lord of the Rings: “For what causes are we willing to fight (and seek victory)?” and “For what values we are willing to suffer defeat?”

The answers to these questions help us to make choices. Aragorn chose his heart—he cannot leave Merry and Pippin to “torment and death”; it would be wrong to forsake them. He forsook the military strategies of traveling south to Minas Tirith to bring aid to Gondor as he had promised Boromir, or the pursuing the Ring Bearer into the east to save the Quest from disaster.

“For this Captain of Minas Tirith, and heir to the Stewardship of Gondor, the value of truth is so important that he would not lie even to an enemy—not even to win a battle. The moral victory of speaking the truth is more important than any military victory that might be won through lies and deceit.

“We see a similar principle when Faramir weighs the moral good of Frodo’s keeping his promise to Gollum to have him as a guide, against the physical harm that might result from that promise should Gollum choose to betray him and guide him into evil (which in fact he does)” (Dickerson, 72). TT.

Faramir will not counsel Frodo to “break faith”, to “break troth”, to break a promise. Neither one will abandon the moral good for the sake of personal safety; so too with Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane.

The temptation to possess the Ring fell upon the wisest and noblest of Middle Earth—Gandalf, Elrond, Galadriel, Aragorn, and Faramir—all worthy of study. Temptation—something desirable we ought not have. Yet it is not power itself that is evil since Gandalf, Galadriel and Elrond wield their own power to no ill.

The intent of the heart which the Bible instructs us about reveals the fall of Saruman and Denethor with their loss of hope. “That loss itself is caused by the deceit of Sauron at work through the palantiri (the Seeing stones), which are being controlled by Sauron and thus reveal only what Sauron wants them to reveal.” Dickerson, 75. Only the Ring can give them a military victory and they refuse it for they refuse the corruption of the Ring.

Faramir, so different from his brother, points out in glaring terms that our behavior is out of choices. The son of Denethor had been testing Frodo when they first met and Frodo felt lied to. “I would not snare even an Orc with a falsehood” Faramir responds. Stumbling into the hands of Faramir’s men in Ithilien, Faramir guesses that Frodo has Isildur’s Bane which possesses great power. “I would not take this thing, if it lay by the highway. Not were Minas Tirith falling in ruin and I alone could save her so, using the weapon of the Dark Lord for her good and my glory. No, I do not wish for such triumphs.” TT.

By pg 86 of the Return of the King, Denethor, Faramir’s father tells him that his “gentleness may be repaid with death” when he discovers his son had the chance to obtain the Ring of Power and that he has let it go. Faramir replies, “So be it.” This is our “Amen.”

Faramir chose the moral victory of being gentle even at the cost of his life and the cost of his land. Denethor is willing to sacrifice moral virtue for the sake of victory—or for the sake of avoiding defeat. Morals are for peace time. How we see that with some of our armies today on CNN!

Galadriel’s Elven ring of power Nenya was forged for “understanding, making, healing, to preserve all things unstained” with its power caught up in the power of the One Ring. Sauron forged the One Ring to rule all the others so she knows that her powers will diminish should Frodo succeed in his quest. She chooses to diminish and fade away. She stated to her husband Celeborn, “Together through the ages of the world we have fought the long defeat.” She and the Elf-kind would “cast all away rather than submit to Sauron…” FOTR

Mark 1:15 Boromir repented of his sin, giving up his own quest to save Gondor
Eph. 2:8-9 faith in God’s work, not our own strength. Boromir saved from a great evil.

Gollum/Smeagol’s debate about the change within himself in “The Passage of the Marshes”. His near-repentance faded in the face of Sam’s continued unkind and untrusting treatment for “Sam was cocksure and a little conceited” Letters, p 329. Gandalf seeks for others to make good choices.

Luke 8:31 Denethor and Gollum perish in their evil, dying in flames—an image of damnation. Mt. 25:41

Mt. 5:7 Mercy is an aspect of one’s salvation, including pity, forgiveness.

Pity saved Bilbo from great hurt from the Ring. Showing mercy keeps Frodo from slipping deeper under the power of the Ring. Frodo’s moral choices to do right no matter the inconvenience or danger leads him to salvation. He is unable to complete the Quest without the object of his mercy taking the Ring for him and falling into the fire.

Note: Apologies for incomplete references. I just found this on an old 3 1/2 floppy and the books I referenced are long gone.