The long-lived Ents rarely concern themselves with human power struggles; however, Saruman, an evil wizard who occupies a tower near the forest, has allowed his Orc workers to chop down trees, partly to feed the furnaces of his war ambitions and partly out of utter indifference to nature. Treebeard agrees to help the Hobbits, gathers other Ents, and, with Merry and Pippin on his shoulders, leads a march upon Isengard followed by furious “huorns,” who may be degenerate Ents or angry animate trees, a green army intent upon payback.
Gandalf, who is not dead, finds Aragorn, Gimli, and Legolas, and they ride across the plains of Rohan to Edoras, where Theoden reigns in a primitive yet dignified palace which suggests the world of “Beowulf,” a simpler and younger civilization than that of Gondor. Roused to action, Theoden, his Riders, Aragorn, Gimli, and Legolas gallop from the Golden Hall to Helm’s Deep, a fortress from which the horselords are mounting a defense against Saruman’s troops. Gandalf departs to seek other help, and after a night of graphic battle, he brings aid to the outnumbered Rohirrhim in the form of Huorns.
The company proceeds to Isengard, where Saruman’s tower is now surrounded by flood and rubble. Merry and Pippin, perched on a pile of debris, greet their friends and offer them bacon, beer, and pipe tobacco. The allies now plan to march to Gondor’s assistance by way of Edoras, but Gandalf counsels Theoden to muster his troops in Dunharrow, a hidden fastness in the hills, while he and Pippin ride ahead to Minas Tirith.
West of the river. Frodo and Sam, trailed by Gollum, wander through the Emyn Muil, a barren range of hills that demonstrates the harsh terrain of the Dark Lord’s lands. They capture Gollum, who is temporarily tamed by a promise to the One Ring, which he covets. He leads the Hobbits through the Dead Marshes, the site of a long-ago battle, where graves of humans and elves have been swallowed by quagmires and fens. Crawling through the festering swamp, they approach the Black Gate, a heavily fortified entrance to the land of Mordor. They shelter in the shadow of a mound of slag, choking on fumes from a land hopelessly defiled by Sauron, where “neither spring nor summer would ever come again,” a place “fire-blasted and poison stained.” Gollum suggests a “secret” way into Mordor, and the three follow the Mountains of Shadow south, where they encounter a guerrilla band of Men of Gondor, who maintain an outpost in a cave behind a waterfall in Ithilien, once “the garden of Gondor” and still possessing “a dishevelled dryad loveliness.”
The company captain Faramir lets Frodo and Sam go forward, but he warns them that the Pass of Cirith (Keareth) Urgol, Gollum’s destination, has an evil reputation. Rejoining Gollum, the Hobbits slip past Minas Tirith’s evil twin city, Minas Morgul, amid fields of noisome, toxic flowers and ascend a steep mountain pass. However, Gollum has twisted his vow and is taking them to the cavern of a giant spider Shelob, hoping that once she has devoured Frodo, he may find the Ring among the bones. Shelob stings Frodo; Sam, believing his master dead, wounds and repels the spider and accepts the burden of the Ring. Orcs from a guard tower just beyond the pass approach; as Sam uses the Ring to become invisible, he learns that Shelob stings not to kill but to immobilize “fresh meat.” Frodo is not dead, but the Orcs carry the unconscious Hobbit into the tower as Sam beats desperately on its brazen door.