Tuesday, March 9, 2021

2nd Book First: The Two Towers

the original tome, battered but intact

As a kid, I read what I could find. Thanks to the vagaries of bookstores and the limitations of libraries, there were at least four great fantasy series that I entered via the second floor, book number two, sometimes without even knowing I'd missed the actual entrance.

Yes, this is a story about olden days. 

The Lord of the Rings was my first missed doorway. My mother had the full unlicensed Ace trilogy. She wouldn't let me read it when I was in second grade, living in Heidelberg Germany, but that probably wouldn't have stopped me for long, except that our teen babysitter smoked cigarettes in our apartment and borrowed The Fellowship of the Ring. Cigarettes? Forgiven.  The Fellowship? Gone with a moving van when the girl's family got shipped off-base a couple months later.

Mom refused to buy a new copy of the book. I suspect that her arguments--the former babysitter's ongoing obligation to return the copy, and money--were screens for the fact that she just didn't want me reading Tolkien as a second or third grader. But it's also possible that we couldn't find a copy. We were in Germany, the Ace books were being outed as unapproved, and we certainly never shopped anywhere that had them for sale. About a year later Mom tried to get me to read The Hobbit, but that wasn't gonna happen, that book was for kids. Said me. 

So in fourth grade, still in Germany, I read The Two Towers. For me, the Lord of the Rings didn't start with Bilbo's 100th birthday party, hooded riders in the Shire, and hapless hobbits having to be rescued from trees and barrow wights. It started with three kickass warriors--an elf, a dwarf, and a ranger--chasing orcs across an endless plain. The orcs' hobbit victims felt less hapless, given that they (spoiler alert) eventually figured out how to cut themselves loose and run away. Riders of Rohan? Keeping score at Helm's Deep! Onward! There are people who dislike The Two Towers because it's a sequence of military encounters and landscapes, punctuated by ents. For me, growing up on Army bases, trying to figure out ways to play with my Airfix Roman and barbarian armies, a book of fantasy military encounters was exactly what I was looking for. I reread The Two Towers as soon as I finished the first pass, since the Frodo stuff at the start of Return of the King made me aware I didn't actually understand what was going on. 

We returned to the USA before I entered fifth grade. Our first week back, Mom went shopping at a big American bookstore and returned with a present: Ballantine's The Fellowship of the Ring. She cared that it was an authorized edition. The picture of the author on the back revealed that Tolkien smoked a pipe like my dad. We were home.


  1. Weird… my local library didn’t have a copy of Fellowship. I probably read The Two Towers and Return of the King five or six times each before I finally read the first book. And at a similar age too

  2. My own variation of "we pick up our story, already in progress:" The year before we moved to Leavenworth, I read the "Riddles in the Dark" chapter of "The Hobbit" in one of those periodic magazines for kids of the era (I wish I could find or remember the title!), and I loved it to pieces. So I went to the library, nabbed the book, and read on to see what happened to Bilbo and Gollum after that bit, without reading the first four chapters of the book. Then on to LOTR proper, probably finished around the time we became neighbors. I don't think I actually read the beginning of "The Hobbit" until around 1991 . . . when I read it aloud to my wife (along with the rest of LOTR) when we lived in Idaho and had an infant daughter who would tend to go to sleep to the sound of me reading, which was its own blessing! It changed my understanding of the narrative, for sure!

  3. When I found my 11 year old son reading "A Game of Thrones" I told him "You can read those if you're ready to have a conversation about incest and sexual violence or you can read these authographed Dragonlance books I just brought back from a con". Long story short, he read Pillars of the Earth instead. :)

  4. I did read the Hobbit as a bedtime story to him when he was 6 to 7, though. :)