The Lord of the Rings Reread

LotR re-read: Two Towers III.11, “The Palantír”

By at least one measure, we have hit the halfway point of The Lord of the Rings with the chapter “The Palantír,” which is the end of the first of two books making up the middle volume. Page-wise, we’re actually more than halfway through; structurally we’re behind, since there are six books plus the Appendices. I prefer to call this glass half-full, however. So: yay, halfway through!

As usual, spoilers for all of LotR and comments after the jump.

What Happens

The visitors leave Isengard and stop for the night after a short ride. Pippin envies Merry for riding with Gandalf, where he was in a position to ask questions, and eventually admits to being very curious about the crystal ball he picked up. Merry promises to help him inquire in the morning.

But Pippin can’t wait and sneaks the ball away from a sleeping Gandalf. When he looks in it, he struggles to get away and cannot, until he falls back with a cry. He is discovered lying rigid, eyes open, by the rest of the camp. Gandalf rouses him to consciousness and demands to know what happened. Pippin says that he saw a tower with winged creatures flying around it, and then “he came.” Sauron forced him to confess that he is a hobbit, directed him to tell Saruman “that this dainty is not for him. I will send for it at once,” and then gloated over him. Gandalf looks closely at Pippin, decides he is not lying, and forgives him. Pippin goes back to bed with Merry to sit beside him.

Gandalf asks Aragorn to take charge of the stone, which he does as of right, identifying it as a palantír set in Orthanc by the Kings of Gondor. Suddenly a Nazgûl passes overhead. Gandalf tells everyone to ride immediately, scoops Pippin onto Shadowfax, and is gone.

On the ride, Gandalf tells Pippin that the palantír was made by the Elves long ago and were used to guard and unite Gondor, but most of them were lost. Sauron acquired one and when Saruman used the Orthanc-stone to gaze on Mordor, trapped him. Now one Nazgûl has come to see what Saruman has been doing after the failed Orc raid, and another will be coming for Pippin. Gandalf fears that they will discover that he is alive or that an heir of Elendil lives, and so they flee to Gondor.


It’s been a while since I remarked on the text’s rhythmic reversals, so here’s one that caught my eye. As they travel away from Isengard, the descriptions are at first bleak and forbidding:

Night came down from the mountains. All the mists were gone. A chill wind blew. The moon, now waxing round, filled the eastern sky with a pale cold sheen. The shoulders of the mountain to their right sloped down to bare hills. The wide plains opened grey before them.

But when they camp, the landscape is softer and full of the potential of spring:

Then they turned aside, leaving the highway and taking to the sweet upland turf again. Going westward a mile or so they came to a dale. It opened southward, leaning back into the slope of round Dol Baran, the last hill of the northern ranges, greenfooted, crowned with heather. The sides of the glen were shaggy with last year’s bracken, among which the tight-curled fronds of spring were just thrusting through the sweet-scented earth. . . . They lit a fire in a hollow, down among the roots of a spreading hawthorn, tall as a tree, writhen with age, but hale in every limb. Buds were swelling at each twig’s tip.

Note also the two reversals within the second paragraph: last year’s bracken but new fronds, old but hale.

* * *

Pippin stealing the palantír is carefully built up to, with little steps along the way to allow him to continue. First he asks Merry for help and is refused for the moment. Then the camp falls quiet and there’s nothing to distract him and no-one to watch what he does. Then he goes to Gandalf . . . who is not awake after all, even though he looks it at first, and whose hand “seemed only just to have slipped off [the palantír] to the ground.” Then he successfully pulls the switch, and uses that very success as a justification for looking, because now Gandalf is clutching the fake. He doesn’t just jump straight to “I’m going to take this,” but has to work up to it. Of course the plot enables him, as it must, but nevertheless, the entrancing effect of the palantír is not instant or overwhelming.

This bit is from his point of view, and indeed this chapter returns very firmly to the hobbits as POV characters: first jointly (as they leave, “the hobbits thought of their first meeting” with Treebeard), then Merry, then Pippin. The narrative steps back from Pippin’s POV as soon as he looks into the palantír—not at the section break two paragraphs later, which increases the suspense of what’s happening to him—by describing him from outside, as “looking like a greedy child stooping over a bowl of food.”

Pippin’s description of his encounter with Sauron, along with the subsequent conversation among the humans, are also told from a very external point of view, not returning to Pippin’s thoughts until he’s riding away with Gandalf. My guess is that this was to avoid having to depict the immediate sensory and emotional experience of communicating with Sauron himself, which would be pretty darn hard to do well. Instead we’re left to imagine the horror from its effects—the inability to get away, the passing out rigid and eyes open, the hysterical response upon awakening.

Note that Sauron is not described as all, while the Nazgûl or its flying beast “had a horrible — no, no! I can’t say.” This leads me to infer that there is nothing particularly remarkable about his appearance, or at least not more remarkable than the power of his mind.

(Also, it’s a bit hard for me to believe that Pippin could have counted the things flying around a tower at night as their wings cut off the stars. But I’ll allow it because I don’t know how non-obvious it would have been otherwise to first readers at the time that they were flying Nazgûl, especially since that’s a piece of setup wanted for later in the chapter.)

* * *

The conversation after Pippin goes back to bed. The themes of weakly supernatural good and evil’s own weaknesses again recur: Théoden quotes an old saying that “oft evil will shall evil mar,” and Gandalf remarks on how they have been “strangely fortunate” (previously he told Pippin that “You have been saved, and all your friends too, mainly by good fortune, as it is called”).

Here is a conversation in a formal/high mode that does work for me, after so many haven’t in this book:

‘ . . . Will you, Aragorn, take the Orthanc-stone and guard it? It is a dangerous charge.’

‘Dangerous indeed, but not to all,’ said Aragorn. ‘There is one who may claim it by right. For this assuredly is the palantír of Orthanc from the treasury of Elendil, set here by the Kings of Gondor. Now my hour draws near. I will take it.’

Gandalf looked at Aragorn, and then, to the surprise of the others, he lifted the covered Stone, and bowed as he presented it.

‘Receive it, lord!’ he said: ‘in earnest of other things that shall be given back. But if I may counsel you in the use of your own, do not use it — yet! Be wary!’

‘When have I been hasty or unwary, who have waited and prepared for so many long years?’ said Aragorn.

‘Never yet. Do not then stumble at the end of the road,’ answered Gandalf.

I’m not exactly sure why this one gives me chills. Maybe because it’s not in so high a mode as to be jarring after the conversation with Pippin, but still evokes both what’s happened and what’s to come?

Finally about this, Gandalf says here that “it would be disastrous for him [Sauron] to see me, yet,” which surprised me because I’d had the vague idea that Sauron already knew he was back. I was thinking either of his intervention with Frodo on Amon Hen, or his prior appearance at Isengard; but I guess Sauron wouldn’t necessarily know who was striving with him, and even if Saruman knew Gandalf had been there during the Ents’ attack (unclear), he hasn’t reported in for a while.

(This makes his later suggestion that “the burned hand teaches best” an exaggeration, I think, insofar as it implies that if he had figured out what the palantír was in time, he would’ve let Pippin learn the hard way.)

* * *

The paragraph where the Nazgûl flies over is very effective at conveying its speed and deadliness:

At that moment a shadow fell over them. The bright moonlight seemed to be suddenly cut off. Several of the Riders cried out, and crouched, holding their arms above their heads, as if to ward off a blow from above: a blind fear and a deadly cold fell on them. Cowering they looked up. A vast winged shape passed over the moon like a black cloud. It wheeled and went north, flying at a speed greater than any wind of Middle-earth. The stars fainted before it. It was gone.

This is particularly evident in the last two sentences which, by being so short and sharp after longer more descriptive ones, really evoke the rapid passage of the Nazgûl. Also, I think “The stars fainted before it” is just cool.

* * *

Gandalf’s characterization. Merry gets to be the author’s mouthpiece early in the chapter as he gives an assessment of the returned Gandalf that I don’t think he’s had long enough to form:

He has grown, or something. He can be both kinder and more alarming, merrier and more solemn than before, I think. He has changed; but we have not had a chance to see how much, yet.

But we do see this in the rest of the chapter, I think, maybe even more so than in prior chapters with Gandalf. (The hobbits bring out more sides of him too, perhaps?) He’s quite stern with Pippin at first when he’s questioning him, and then shifts to kindness and forgiving after (“my dear hobbit”), and is remarkably open and good-humored about Pippin’s questions on the ride at the end of the chapter—even his exasperated exclamation about Pippin’s inquisitiveness is pretty mild, and he doesn’t actually stop answering his questions.

A few scattered comments on the info-dumping at the end of the chapter:

What are the hobbits’ rhymes of lore, I wonder? Besides about the growing of pipe-weed?

Gandalf says the Council “had not yet given thought to the fate of the palantíri of Gondor in its ruinous wars.” Not yet? It’s only been, what, roughly one and a half millennia since Amon Sûl was destroyed and the palantír at Osgiliath was lost?

Another remark about the similarities and levels of evil, when Gandalf comments on Saruman’s mental capture by Sauron: “The biter bit, the hawk under the eagle’s foot, the spider in a steel web!” (Which he must’ve enjoyed saying, don’t you think? On a rhetorical level, I mean.)

We’d speculated, long long ago now, that the Nazgûl were objectively less powerful at the beginning of the story. There’s a bit of evidence for this here, I think: Gandalf says that Saruman “may try to trap the Nazgûl, or at least to slay the thing on which it now rides the air. In that case let Rohan look to its horses!” Which sounds like a loose Nazgûl would be a lot scarier than they were when Gandalf and the rest drowned all their horses in the River, back in book I.

And we leave Pippin for now in transition, with the story starting to fully engulf him, but nevertheless at a brief pause before we radically switch gears:

As he fell slowly into sleep, Pippin had a strange feeling: he and Gandalf were still as stone, seated upon the statue of a running horse, while the world rolled away beneath his feet with a great noise of wind.

It’s a cliffhanger, and more of one than I remembered, but the imagery is a bit of a consolation there, at least to me.

Frodo and Sam and Gollum next time, and I think it may be kind of odd going back to them after so long. Let’s find out.

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Kate Nepveu is, among other things, an appellate lawyer, a spouse and parent, and a woman of Asian ancestry. She also writes at her LiveJournal and booklog.


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