So what were the Two Towers?

This is a common question. Tolkien’s books are littered with towers – Minas Morgul, Orthanc, Barad-dûr, the Hornburg, Minas Tirith, Carchost, Narchost, Cirith Ungol – which two are *the* Two Towers?

This is a slightly artificial problem in that it only ever came about while making the books ready for publication. Tolkien’s original publishers decided to make the epic into a trilogy, and they also had the final say when it came to titles. In Letters #136, Tolkien wrote that, instead of the published titles, his suggested ideas had been “The Shadow Grows”, “The Ring in the Shadow”, and “The War of the Ring”. If these had been implemented, any debate about which were the two towers would never have arisen!

But as the question *did* arise, what did Tolkien say on the subject? It seems initially that even he was not too sure:

“The Two Towers get as near as possible to finding a title to cover the widely divergent Books 3 and 4; and it can be left ambiguous – it might refer to Isengard and Barad-dûr, or to Minas Tirith and Barad-dûr, or Isengard and Cirith Ungol.” (Letter #140, 17th August 1953)

“I am not at all happy about the title ‘the Two Towers’. It must if there is any real reference to volume II refer to Orthanc and The Tower of Cirith Ungol. But since there is so much made of the basic opposition of the Dark Tower and Minas Tirith, that seems very misleading.” Letter #143, 22nd January, 1954)

However, in a note to Letter #143, Carpenter brings up a first mention of the pairing of Minas Morgul and Orthanc:

“In a subsequent letter to Rayner Unwin (no. 143), Tolkien is more definite that the Two Towers are ‘Orthanc and the Tower of Cirith Ungol’. On the other hand, in his original design for the jacket of The Two Towers … the Towers are certainly Orthanc and Minas Morgul. Orthanc is shown as a black tower, three-horned … and with the sign of the White Hand beside it; Minas Morgul is a white Tower of the Rising Moon.” Letters, notes section

Indeed, the original cover of “The Two Towers” is perhaps our best indication of Tolkien’s final thoughts on the matter. It is not a picture that he drew blithely, instead seeming to put a lot of thought into it, discarding several drafts before settling on a final design. His first draft showed what is probably Barad-dûr and Minas Tirith, but his next version, and the final design, settled on Orthanc and Minas Morgul.

So I think we can say that Tolkien eventually decided, whether happily or unhappily, on Orthanc and Minas Morgul – one of the more sensible combinations.

Orthanc and Minas Morgul

Why these two above all the other combinations? Well they represent two big storylines from Books 3 and 4 of “The Lord of the Rings”. Barad-dûr does not become prominent until “The Return of the King”, so that can be dismissed, even though Tolkien seems to have originally considered it a possibility, and though Peter Jackson used it on “The Two Towers” posters, opposite Orthanc. Minas Tirith can perhaps be discarded because it is much more of a city than simply a tower, and the Hornburg because it is situated in Rohan, way beyond the main battle lines.

Cirith Ungol was the other main tower considered for one of the positions, and really, there seems little reason for Tolkien to have changed his mind from Cirith Ungol to Minas Morgul. Indeed, Cirith Ungol plays a much larger role in “The Two Towers” than Minas Morgul does.

So why Minas Morgul and not Cirith Ungol?

The editorial text at the end of “The Fellowship of the Ring” states that

“Here ends the first part of the history of the War of the Ring. The second part is called “The Two Towers”, since the events recounted
in it are dominated by Orthanc, the citadel of Saruman, and the fortress
of Minas Morgul that guards the secret entrance to Mordor…”

Dominated by Orthanc? Fair enough. Dominated by Minas Morgul? That is a more dubious claim.

I wonder if perhaps Tolkien’s true preferred solution remained as Orthanc and Cirith-Ungol, but that he changed his mind to Minas Morgul, as the Tower of Sorcery was a better subject to illustrate, and provided a more visual contrast to Orthanc. At least, I think that that is my preferred solution to the problem!


– “The Fellowship of the Ring”
– “The Two Towers”
– “The Letters of JRR Tolkien”

Written by Atalante