The front cover of my edition of The Two Towers has a picture of what looks like a man mounted on some vast flying creature:

A giant black snake-like creature with bat wings, uncanny faceted-looking eyes and a toothy mouth gaping to reveal a long red tongue curls around a rock facing a monstrous pile of walls, arches, towers and battlements extending vertically out of sight.  On the creature, just ahead of its shoulders, sits a being in a cloak, plate armour legs and a spiked coronal helmet.

The only thing that beast makes me think of is "dragon", but as far as I can remember, no dragons appear in The Two Towers or indeed in the whole of The Lord of the Rings. So I can't work out what one is doing on the front cover of the book. I'd also be interested to know what the city/structure in the background is. It looks like Minas Tirith, but again The Two Towers has no scenes set in Minas Tirith. Could it be Helm's Deep?

What does this picture depict?

  • 23
    Well I'm pretty sure that the Witch-king of Angmar riding his fell beast. As to the setting or scene, I've no clue.
    – Daft
    Commented Apr 10, 2015 at 10:08
  • 6
    That is barad-dur and the witch king on his fell beast
    – user31546
    Commented Apr 10, 2015 at 10:15
  • 1
    @fgysinreinstateMonica No sorry, I never want to see the Hollywood "adaptation" of such a great work of literature. Not even one second of one scene.
    – Rand al'Thor
    Commented Jul 16, 2020 at 11:12
  • 2
    Fair enough, your loss. I'm not normally one to go for book adaptations, but IMHO they did a more than fair job of it...
    – fgysin
    Commented Jul 16, 2020 at 11:16
  • 1
    The rider looks like Batman on a bad ear day.
    – FreeMan
    Commented Jul 27, 2022 at 17:41

2 Answers 2


The painting is known as "The Dark Tower", by John Howe. Howe is one of the greatest Tolkien illustrators, and worked with Jackson on the movies' art direction.

Originally painted in 1990 for the 1991 Tolkien Calendar, the image depicts Sauron's tower of Barad-dûr, in Mordor, with a Lovecraftian spin (it was based on an early Lovecraft-inspired painting Howe had made). It wasn't drawn explicitly for the cover of The Two Towers, so it doesn't necessarily depict a specific scene from that book, but Barad-dûr is one of the many choices for the titular Towers in the name of the book.

Having established the Tower being Barad-dûr, it came naturally to add a Ringwraith on his flying mount, as they "came more or less with the landscape", according to Howe. Tolkien might not have described these flying mounts precisely - usually just using "The winged Shadow" or "a flying darkness in the shape of a monstrous bird" - but Howe's interpretation (like many of his visual images for Tolkien's works) became the basis for Jackson's vision in the movies.

Here's Howe's commentary, available on his website:

I had (and still do) a collection of photos of the skulls of small animals - mice, rats, small birds - that an art school classmate and I had piled up and photographed. [...] From these snapshots, I had done a painting of the Nameless Isle, from the Dream Quest of Unknown Kadath, by H. P. Lovecraft. [...] Like many things, some paintings are a dry run, and I knew I had the foundations of Sauron's tower Barad-dûr.

And here's the full description of the flying creature, from The Return of the King, ch.6 - "The Battle of the Pelennor Fields":

[A] winged creature: if bird, then greater than all other birds, and it was naked, and neither quill nor feather did it bear, and its vast pinions were as webs of hide between horned fingers; and it stank. A creature of an older world maybe it was, whose kind, fingering in forgotten mountains cold beneath the Moon, outstayed their day, and in hideous eyrie bred this last untimely brood, apt to evil.

  • 1
    This answer and the one from @Daft would be perfect if combined. As it is, hard to choose - one has the detailed information while the other has the original image.
    – Omegacron
    Commented Apr 10, 2015 at 17:25
  • I like the hildebrant brothers Tolkien stuff better.
    – Escoce
    Commented Apr 11, 2015 at 14:20
  • @Omegacron I get what you're saying, but I feel like adding the full painting - which doesn't add much beyond the cover version - will just add noise to an answer based on quotes, and won't actually add information. Commented Apr 12, 2015 at 5:19
  • 2
    Brilliant answer! This is what I like about SE: people can ask a simple question and end up learning a lot more than they even realised there was to know, in a well-organised answer from someone who clearly knows their stuff.
    – Rand al'Thor
    Commented Apr 12, 2015 at 11:10

It looks to be The Witch-king of Angmar and his fell beast chilling out outside Barad-dûr.

The same image is on The Lord of The Rings wiki with the title:

John Howe - The Dark Tower

The ominous dark tower of Barad-dûr looms centre left, its spires and twisted arches extending well past the top of the picture.  In the right foreground is the black fell beast, bat-like wings attached to a sinuous snake-like body with spiky growths from its spine and jaw.  The Witch-king
in plate armour, black cloak and spiky helmet sits astride the fell beast, just ahead of its shoulders.

  • 4
    +1 for full picture and for getting there first, but Avner is going to have to get the tick for a fuller and more detailed answer.
    – Rand al'Thor
    Commented Apr 12, 2015 at 11:10

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