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Leaving aside Minas Tirith and Minas Morgul which have towers as part of their overall structure, there are two very important towers, sometimes called the titular towers of the second book of the trilogy, which are clearly symbolically very important, namely Orthanc and Barad-dûr (Saruman's and Sauron's places, respectively).

But why? Towers are designed to guard and to spy, and both towers seem poorly suited to these purposes. Neither tower is part of a fortification, they are isolated, in the centre of their respective power's territory.

Are they to spy? Again, a tower that is designed to spy is typically built at the edge of a territory controlled by a power, or at the very least on high ground. Both towers are surrounded by mountains in the books (Saruman at least has a decent view in the films).

These towers are clearly not designed merely to protect their occupants and form a seat of power, for otherwise a dungeon or castle would serve better. Clearly Tolkien's choice of tower for these villains is very important, but it is not jumping out at me why.

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    Wizards live in towers. It is known – Valorum Jun 17 at 19:03
  • You might want to note that Orthanc is made of a material that's (effectively) unbreakable. – Valorum Jun 17 at 19:04
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    As an expression of their power perhaps? Standalone towers, especially tall, thin ones, are hard to build and expensive to maintain with non-magical iron-age technology. So they are visible demonstrations of their occupants great magical power. – DavidW Jun 17 at 19:20
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    I believe the "Two Towers" the title refers to are Orthanc and Minas Morgul. – DJClayworth Jun 17 at 19:42
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    @DJClayworth We have a question about that. – Rand al'Thor Jun 17 at 19:52
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I would only add some additional remarks to the existing excellent answers.

Regarding Orthranc:

  • It is not isolated: it is inside the Circle of Isengard, an ancient and formidable, though not very sophisticated stone fortress.

  • Nor is it randomly placed: Isengard was originally built by second age Numenoreans to guard the gap between the White Mountains and the Misty Mountains, barring the passage of Sauron's forces form Calenardhon (later Rohan) to Eriador.

  • And it is suitable for spying: It holds a Palantír, a magical seeing-stone, so it does not need to be at the brink of enemy territory or be at high elevation, to see very far. (Though, as said before, it was on the frontier in the Dark Years, when the Numenoreans and High Elves keept only Eriador (and Lindon) from the Shadow)

  • It is also worth noting, that it is probably not the "dream-residence" and "stone self-expression" of Saruman, as Barad-dur is to Sauron: When the Wizard wanted to settle, this was about the only abandoned Numenorean tower in decent condition, that he could get, also having a Palantír and a strategic location, and clearly better than a castle he himself could have built with his (then) few servants. So even though he might have preferred another liar, he had to use what he found.

  • In the times before artillery, if you have very few men (and Saruman did not have a large following of orcs and Dunlending back when he chose Isengard), a tower, by virtue of its smaller perimeter, is more defensible than a castle.

  • The Numenoreans studied the stars, and probably used the top of Orthranc as an observatory. If I remember correctly, Saruman is also said to have practised this art or science.

Regarding Barad-dur:

  • It is not isolated: It is inside Mordor, and its northern industrial zone and military staging ground, Gorgoroth. Since Mordor is encircled by mountains on three sides, and has only two heavily guarded entrances (Morannon and Cirith Ungol), the Dark Tower is effectively the keep of a very oversized castle.

  • It is suitable for spying: Since Sauron has some quite effective "spiritual sight" or whatever (regardless of whether he is actually an Eye or not), and by the rebuilding of Barad-dur also posesses a Palantír, he can spy very well form his tower. Also, Dark Lords do not only need to spy on their enemies: He has constantly supervise his own subjects: Undisciplined Orcs, stupid Trolls, animals enthralled by sorcery. Building a tall tower in the middle of his core territory is therefore a logical decision: It send the message of "Big Brother is watching" to all servants of him.

Other considerations:

  • Since the Tower of Babel, overly tall towers are a symbol of the foolish rebelling against God. Since Sauron (and his master, Melkor) are in rebellion against Eru, the almighty creator of Ea, it is an appropriate parallel.

  • Other Powers on Arda previously used towers for a variety of purposes: At first the Valar positioned great lamps on tall pillars to light Middle-earth. Then Manwe had a great mountain (Taniquetil) as look-out place and power statement, while Melkor likewise had Thangorodrim. Later Ingwe, High King of all Eldar, built Mindon Eldaliewa in Tirion, while Turgon also had a tower in Gondolin. It was logical for the evil lords in the Third Age likewise emulate their master and challenge and mock the good powers. (Just like Melkor made trolls in mockery of the ents, and Sauron named his battering-ram in honor of the ancient Grond.)

  • Towers also allow for some dramatic events story-telling wise: Gandalf can converse with the shut in Saruman and then have the Palantír thrown at him, which would be scarcely possible would the White Wizard be hiding in a dungeon. The Barad-dur can collapse, which would not look nearly as good if it would be a flatly built castle.

  • There is a large variety of tower-like structures used for habitation from around the word, that before siege weapons would have been quite safe: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tower_house

  • Buzz's answer is very good, but the mention of Tower of Babel had not occurred to me, nor the supervision and inspection of their own subjects. – Stumbler Jun 22 at 20:47
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We ought to look carefully at how Tolkien used the word tower in The Lord of the Rings. The oldest and primary sense of the word is (per the Oxford English Dictionary),

  1. A building lofty in proportion to the size of its base, either isolated, or forming part of a castle, church, or other edifice, or of the walls of a town,

with this meaning stretching back to Old English. However, Tolkien uses the word tower fairly consistency in a secondary sense. The second OED definition is:

  1. Such a structure used as a stronghold, fortress, or prison, or built primarily for purposes of defence. (In this sense the name is sometimes extended to include the whole fortress or stronghold of which a "tower" in sense 1 was the original nucleus.)

The towers of Minas Anor/Tirith, Minas Ithil/Morgul, and Barad-dûr are certainly towers in the bolded sense; they are city-sized fortresses with prominent towers at their centers.

With regard to Orthanc, the full nature of the structure is less clear. Orthanc is certainly not a city-sized edifice like the Tower of Guard or the Dark Tower. However, it is not clear from the descriptions of the structure whether there was a significant ground-level fortress attached to the pinnacle. An early concept drawing by Tolkien showed Orthanc as quite castle like:

Castle Orthanc by Tolkien

Tolkien provided another, less castle-like, version of the structure later on,

Tower Orthanc by Tolkien

However, this version is still not as starkly vertical as most depictions of Orthanc (by Alan Lee, etc.)

This suggests that Tolkien conceived of Orthanc as definitely a practical fortress, in addition to having/being a tower.

And for another "towered fortress" interpretation of Orthanc, see this image from the book Realms of Fantasy.

*Realms of Fantasy* Orthanc

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    I think it's worth adding that, at the time of LotR, the whole of Isengard is fortified (see Gandalf's description at the Council of Elrond, or the chapters set in Isengard in the Two Towers), and Orthanc is at the centre of Isengard. Whilst the tower may not have been directly joined to any larger structure, it certainly wasn't isolated. – Ian Thompson Jun 17 at 20:46
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As you say, towers are designed to guard and to spy. That doesn't mean that they are only useful as part of a fortified wall (like the Towers of the Teeth that guard the Black Gate), or to spy on a land from the border (like the tower of Cirith Ungol that was built to spy on Mordor).

Towers are strong defensive structures that can protect those inside. There are plenty of examples in our world of stand-alone castles from medieval times. Their height makes it easy for defenders to see attackers in good time and allows them to throw things (rocks, boiling oil, insults) on anyone attempting to break in.

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