Immediately after Frodo the Ring-bearer and Sam set off to fulfill their quest for the destruction of the Ring of power, a band of orcs captures the two remaining hobbits, Merry and Pippin. In an attempt to defend them, Boromir of Gondor is mortally wounded. Dying, he confesses to Aragorn that he tried to take the Ring from Frodo, who had put on the Ring and vanished to escape him. Aragorn, Legolas, and Gimli prepare Boromir’s body, place it in an elven boat, and send it over the falls down the Great River. They then follow the tracks of the orcs in an attempt to rescue Merry and Pippin. After several days, they meet a company of Riders of Rohan led by Éomer, the nephew of King Théoden, who reports killing the orcs. The Riders of Rohan did not see the hobbits, but they lend horses to the travelers to follow the trail.
Pippin had tempted an orc to run away with the hobbits for the Ring, which the orc thought was in the hobbits’ possession. When a Rider kills the orc, Pippin and Merry escape in the darkness. They enter the mysterious forest Fangorn, where they meet Treebeard, the leader of the ents, who shelters them. After hearing their story, Treebeard calls an Entmoot to decide what action the ents should take against the forces of evil. On the third day, the treelike ents reach their decision and march on Isengard, the traitor Saruman’s stronghold.
After the three hunters find hopeful signs that their friends have escaped the orcs, they enter Fangorn. There they meet Gandalf, who has returned from the depths with new power as the result of his ordeal. He calls to Shadowfax, the great horse borrowed from Rohan’s king, and the four ride toward Théoden’s hall. Théoden, who is bent with age, greets Gandalf inhospitably. His pale, wizened minister Wormtongue, who nourishes the king’s infirmities, sits at Théoden’s feet and vilifies Gandalf until Gandalf raises his staff, lightning flashes, and Wormtongue is sprawled on the floor. Gandalf leads Théoden from the shadowy hall, and the old king stands erect and returns to manhood. He announces his determination to lead his people against Saruman. To Wormtongue, whose treachery Gandalf has exposed, he offers a choice: Ride into battle against Saruman or accept banishment. Wormtongue spits and rides away to join Saruman. Théoden leaves his niece Éowyn to act as regent in his absence, and Gandalf departs on a secret mission.
The battle of Helm’s Deep is fought with great odds favoring Saruman’s orcs and wild hillmen. Éomer and Aragorn perform heroic deeds, and Gimli and Legolas compete to see which of them can kill more orcs. With the morning, a strange forest appears on the hills. Théoden leads a gallant charge, and Gandalf returns as the White Rider, striking terror into the enemy. The orcs flee into the forest, but not one comes out.
After the battle, Gandalf leads Théoden and others to Isengard for a parley with Saruman. On the way, they see several ents, and during the night the strange forest strides past them. Arriving at Isengard, they find devastation. The walls are torn down, and the stronghold itself is filled with steaming water; only the ancient impregnable tower, Orthanc, remains undamaged. Seated at the ruined gates are Merry and Pippin. Merry welcomes them in the name of Treebeard and informs them that Saruman is closeted with Wormtongue in Orthanc. The hobbits tell how the ents attacked Isengard, destroyed its walls with their rootlike hands, and diverted the river waters through Saruman’s underground domain. Then,...
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to their amazement, Gandalf arrived and asked Treebeard for help against the orcs, and the walking forest moved off toward Helm’s Deep. Finally, Wormtongue arrived. Treebeard gave him the choice of joining Saruman or waiting for Théoden and Gandalf; he had chosen Saruman.
Gandalf calls Saruman to the window of Orthanc. The corrupted wizard tries to sway them with his persuasive voice, but this attempt at enchantment fails, and Gandalf offers him freedom to join them against Sauron or to go to Mordor. He refuses to leave Orthanc and turns away, but Gandalf calls him back, casts him from the White Council, and breaks his staff. As Saruman crawls away, Wormtongue flings a heavy crystal ball at Gandalf. It misses its target and Pippin picks it up, but Gandalf quickly retrieves it. The company leaves the ents to keep Saruman from escaping and rides back toward Théoden’s hall. Pippin slips the crystal ball away from Gandalf and looks into it. His eye is drawn to the Dark Tower in the crystal, and, confronted by Sauron, he loses consciousness. Gandalf revives him and learns that Sauron had failed to question him about the Ring.
Meanwhile, Frodo and Sam are traveling through barren country, trailed by Gollum. They waylay him but spare his life, and he swears by the Ring to serve Frodo loyally. From this point, he becomes their guide, leading them toward Mordor. During their journey, Ringwraiths sometimes pass overhead, striking terror into their hearts. As they draw nearer to Mordor, the Ring grows heavier, and Frodo feels the constant probing of Sauron’s evil Eye. They enter Ithilien, a wooded land with flowing streams. Frodo and Sam are captured by men of Gondor led by Faramir, the son of Denethor and brother of Boromir; Faramir tells the hobbits that he has seen Boromir’s body floating in an elven boat. In a rock chamber behind a waterfall, he questions them and learns more about their errand than they intend to divulge; he promises help and gives them provisions. He spares the life of Gollum at Frodo’s entreaty, leads them back to the forest, and sends them on their way.
Gollum leads them toward the tower of Minas Morgul, from which an army marches out led by the chief Ringwraith, who stops as if drawn by the power of the Ring but then marches on. Gollum slips away. When he returns and finds Frodo and Sam asleep, a good impulse almost redeems him, but the evil light comes back into his eyes. He leads the hobbits far into a climbing tunnel and there deserts them. They hear a bubbling noise, and Frodo holds up the glass given him by Galadriel, the Elf-Queen. In its piercing light appears Shelob, a huge spidery monster. Blinded temporarily by the light, she retreats. The end of the tunnel is blocked by her web, but Frodo cuts through the cords with his elven sword, Sting, and runs outside. Sam sees that Shelob has used another exit and is pursuing Frodo. As he shouts a warning, Gollum leaps on Sam’s back. Driving Gollum off, he turns back to see Shelob winding Frodo in cords. He snatches up Sting and attacks her. As she flings her foul body on him, he holds Sting so that she wounds herself. In agony, she drags herself back to her hole, leaving a trail of slime.
Finding no sign of life in Frodo, Sam decides that he must try to complete the quest alone. When he hears orc voices, he puts on the Ring and vanishes. The orcs discover Frodo’s body and carry it toward the tower. Sam learns from their talk that Frodo is not dead but only stunned. Frodo is alive and a captive, and Sam is locked outside.