Sep 11 2009 4:32pm

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

cover of The Two TowersBy 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.

« Two Towers III.10 | Index | Two Towers IV.1 »

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.

Azara microphylla
1. Azara
Kate: 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.

Even at home in the Shire, the hobbits had a pretty low-tech level of lighting, and they've been travelling through the wild for a long time now. Even if their night vision is nothing special, they'd have had so much practice by this time that I imagine Pippin could make sense of quite a lot of things we'd struggle to see in the dark.
Kate Nepveu
2. katenepveu
Azara: ooh, point! That is, we don't know what the resolution on a palantir is, but certainly Pippin would have more practice in decoding such images than I would, regardless. Thanks!
j p
3. sps49
Gandalf appropriated the palantír so quickly that I don't doubt he knew exactly what it was.

And duh, the Nazgûl took Minas Ithil how long ago and you are not sure if Sauron looted it for cool stuff? The Wise aren't, very.
4. DemetriosX
I was also going to point out that hobbits have excellent eyesight and probably see pretty well in the dark, since they are tunnel builders and dwellers. Plus, as good hunters, they are probably pretty good at estimating numbers from little information.

What really jumps out at me here is something that is hard to notice if you aren't familiar with what's coming or are too busy riding the narrative flow to think about it. Gandalf warns Aragorn about using the palantir, and Aragorn assures him that he isn't at all hasty. And yet, if I remember correctly, Aragorn is going to look into the thing sometime in the next couple of days basically just to say, "Hey, eye-boy! Guess what!" Yeah, that's not "hasty or unwary."

I like the final image in this chapter and it tells us something about how smooth Shadowfax's gait is.
5. EmmaPease
I'll note that the White Council might not have thought about the palantiri since it only started meeting since 2463 and only meets infrequently (on the order of decades between meetings it seems). It was probably left to the individual members to investigate in their own areas and report if something was significant and Saruman is the obvious choice for palantiri (and we know now why he wouldn't report). It is unlikely any of the other wizards have ever seen a palantiri in Middle Earth nor have any of the elves.

The palantiri were probably also only one of many marvelous devices that Elendil brought out of the West though most, like several of the palantiri, have been lost or destroyed. The wise didn't have time to track them all down.
Susan James
6. SusanJames
@DEmetriosX- "eye-boy" LOL! But actually Aragorn does not look into the stone "hastily." He has good reason and considers carefully. If I remember right, he is trying to draw Sauron's eye to him in order to keep it from Frodo. (You know, I just have to defend the guy)

And Kate, I'm wondering if Gandalf does not want to flaunt himself in front of Sauron because he does not feel quite ready, quite "there" after his reincarnation. I believe he knows his true showdown is with the NazgulKing, not really with Sauron. (and can I say how much I hate that scene in the movie where GAndalf seems to quail before the King? )

I really enjoyed the review. Great insights. The fainting star line is very cool. And so are the shifts in mood. Perhaps when one is near a Nazgul everything seems dead- zombie like landscape but as the fear lessens, one sees the positive again.
Michael Ikeda
7. mikeda

What Gandalf says to Theoden and Aragorn "I had considered whether or not to probe this stone myself to find its uses" seems to suggest that he did not realize it was a palantir (although he certainly realized it was SOMETHING important).
Tony Zbaraschuk
8. tonyz
Unfinished Tales has an essay on the palantiri which provides a lot of extra detail about the Stones, though some of it seems hard to square with the chapter here. One point that does come up is that Gandalf's sudden haste to reach Minas Tirith with Pippin is due to his sudden fear that Denethor might have come, like Saruman, under the direct influence of Sauron in the same way. (Probably this is Gandalf putting together some observations from his last visit to Gondor with his new knowledge that the palantiri are active and can be used as direct conduits of compulsion, instead of just as observation or possibly communication.)

Denethor has, of course, been using the Anor-stone, but he's very strong-willed (maybe more so than Saruman), and he's additionally protected (as Aragorn will be) by the fact that he has some legitimate right to use his palantir. Morality and magic are never far removed in Middle-earth, or perhaps it would be better to say that the impact of moral right has great effect.

There's also an interesting speculation in Unfinished Tales that Denethor and Saruman may have been in contact. I don't think that's ever been followed up anywhere, but... what would they say to each other?

And another interesting speculation: it's not confirmed that Sauron was using the Ithil-stone, it's just assumed (since that Stone was in a fortress taken by the Nazgul), but there are three lost Stones (Amon Sul, Annuminas, Osgiliath) that in theory Sauron could have been using instead.

If the Wise thought at all about the Ithil-stone, they probably figured out that nobody in Gondor or Orthanc would be stupid enough to use their stones and get into direct brain-on-brain action with the Dark Lord (or anyone else, like say the Lord of the Nazgul, who might have had the Ithilstone -- remember it's not for a long time that they learn that the Necromancer of Dol Guldur is indeed Sauron). Indeed, I wouldn't be surprised if Saruman himself had made some kind of dismissive comment along those lines around the time he decided to start using the Orthanc stone...

Agree that the description of Sauron is a very effective piece of understated horror -- especially Pippin's comment about Sauron suddenly seeming to see him; the sound of the Dark Lord's laughter is like being "stabbed with knives." Ouch.

The infodump about the Stones is very well done.
9. pilgrimsoul
Pippin is succumbing to temptation and is being silly and immature, yet he is a "humble" character. The corresponding temptation of the great ones must be more powerful. In a sense Pippin saves them from a greater disaster, as Gandalf almost admits. And yet one cannot imagine Merry looking into the Orthanc Stone no matter what Aragon says.
10. pilgrimsoul
Pippin is succumbing to temptation and is being silly and immature, yet he is a "humble" character. The corresponding temptation of the great ones must be more powerful. In a sense Pippin saves them from a greater disaster, as Gandalf almost admits. And yet one cannot imagine Merry looking into the Orthanc Stone no matter what Aragorn says.
11. DemetriosX
SusanJames @6, I'm really not all that sure how well-considered Aragorn's use of the palantir really is. It seems like it takes him a while to get around to it, but that's because we have all of Book IV and at least one chapter of Book V between Gandalf giving it to him and his challenge of Sauron. I've been trying to pin down the dates, but the best I can do is that he got the palantir on March 5 and he used it sometime before taking the Paths of the Dead on March 8. My best guess is that he used it on March 6 since he was still in the Hornburg. Yeah, he says he wants to draw attention away from Frodo, but it sounds rather like an excuse to me.
Susan James
12. SusanJames
DemetriosX. You're right about the time-but I still think he considers before using it. I don't recall all the details but doesn't he get some message or something that spurs him to do it? Gandalf is gone and he's left to make his mind alone. Is he hasty? maybe so. Is he brash? he does show Sauron the reforged sword. So yea, but maybe a little youthful hastiness is what's needed. (Aragorn being young by the reckoning of "the wise"). Maybe its like the hobbits stirring up the Ents.

I sort of like that idea-the exuberance of youth moving to make change- coming from Tolkien who, as much as I love his work, was rather stodgy and conservative in his views toward women.

Aragorn has waited patiently, humbly hiding his identity for years awaiting the right moment. He doesn't seem bitter about it (in the book) and I don't think he'd throw all that away in one brash act. I still say he considered his move and judged it right, even if it is somewhat hasty.

Later,if I remember right, he doubts himself saying Sauron moved against him faster than he'd anticpated and yet it all works because it causes Sauron to empty his land of his armies making Frodo's task a little easier.

On a side note, Aragorn's doubts are one of the things that endears him to me. He's not wishy washy by any means, but he's far far from arrogant.

And finally as for Denethor- he may not have fallen prey to Sauron as Saruman did, but Sauron was still using him- what he allowed Denethor to see clouded Denethor's judgement and weakeded Gondor.
Azara microphylla
13. Azara
Something that has just struck me reading this is that the books never seem to make any connection or comparison between the palantirs and the Mirror of Galadriel. To me there's a certain old-style masculine/feminine dichotomy in the way that the indestructible palantirs were constructed by elven smiths, while Galadriel achieves a similar result by sloshing a bit of water in a basin.
Kate Nepveu
14. katenepveu
sps49 @ #3, I think Gandalf is unlikely to lie when he says that he didn't know what the palantir was for certain until Pippin looked in it.

Also, because I like looking things up, Appendix B says that Minas Ithil fell in 2043; it's now 3019. (Osgiliath fell all the way back in 1432.)

DemetriosX @ #4, I'm not sure I quite agree with your characterization of Aragorn's actions, but you're right that it is much sooner in time than might be obvious given the splitting up of the books. It'll be interesting to think about when we get there.

EmmaPease @ #5, thanks for looking up the formation of the White Council; that hadn't occured to me. But I wouldn't make so much fun of the Wise if it hadn't been for Gandalf's saying "yet". Yet!

SusanJames @ #6, Gandalf does say "I am not ready for such a trial, if indeed I shall ever be so," so that's evidence on the side of Gandalf not feeling ready post-reincarnation. As for whether his true confrontation is the Witch King, I don't remember well enough to say--I don't even remember if he knows of the prophecy.

tonyz @ #8, huh, I suppose there's no reason Gandalf couldn't have feared Denethor also being in contact with Sauron and under his sway, but that absolutely never occured to me before and for some reason it doesn't click with me.

What, indeed, would Denethor and Saurman have to say to each other? The mind rather boggles, or at least mine does.

pilgrimsoul @ #9, And yet one cannot imagine Merry looking into the Orthanc Stone no matter what Aragon says. -- no, I really can't either, you're right. That's a great point, thanks for mentioning it.

Azara @ #13, ooh yes, let's compare and contrast the palantir and the Mirror of Galadriel. Excellent topic.

My immediate reaction is that the difference in materials is due to the difference in use: anyone, it seems, can use a palantir (though I imagine with different levels of success), while the Mirror is _Galadriel's_, and presumably gets its power from her and thus doesn't need hardware as a source (to mix my metaphors somewhat).

Can the palantir also "show things unbidden, are often stranger and more profitable than things which we wish to behold"? I don't get that impression. *finally digs out copy of _Unfinished Tales_* No, I don't think so. So that's another difference, which seems commensurate with the difference in form.

Anything else?
15. sotgnomen
Unless I'm completely washed away here, the Palantiri cannot see into the future..? That is quite a major difference, and lessens them compared to Galadriel(which I find fitting)

I suppose it would have been quite clever of Sauron to use Saruman to sway Denethor, as he does not yet know of Sar's betrayal. Can the Voice carry over the palantiri?

Come to think of it, I seem to remember that Saruman was allways much more welcome than Gandalf in the White City. And I also believe it said somewhere that all the stewards of Gondor used the palantir, but Denethor was the first with enough brass(or desperation) to turn it towards Mordor.

Now we can speculate on exactly how Saruman talked his way into Orthanc in the first place..Eeee,fun!)

As for Aragorn, I believe he was troubled by the message from Galadriel about the Paths, and what pushed him to use the palantir was the message from the sons of Elrond along the same lines.

Imagine him wondering why the Paths should be important, when they lead to the sea and not Minas Tirith, deducing deducing the possibility of a corsair fleet(after all, he fought them when he was last in Gondor). But he cant just go haring off on a possibility and risk being stuck while the battle rages at Minas.

And all the while, in the back of his head he is counting the days, knowing that Frodo must be on the borders of Mordor by now.

So I wont hear any more talk of rashness, when all through the books so far we've been shouting for him to step up(see comments on his leadership after Gandalf falls). Shame on you all! ;)
Michael Ikeda
16. mikeda

The essay on the Palantiri in "Unfinished Tales" says that during the reign of the Stewards the Anor-stone was "kept as a closely-guarded secret, accessible only to the Ruling Stewards and never by them used (it seems) until Denethor II."

(Denethor II being, of course, the Denethor of LOTR.)
Kate Nepveu
17. katenepveu
sotgnomen, of course you're right, the palantir can't see into the future (any future)--thanks, that would be a big one!
18. sotgnomen

Ah, you're right. I got mixed around, because he himself used it for a long time fairly safely before he got desperate enough to look toward mordor.
Still, this does make the fact that Saruman was so much in favor compared to Gandalf suspicious, and could explain where the animosity to Gandalf in Gondor came from.

(Of course, this is idle speculation, and for me it does not quite feel right in relation to the epic saga quality of LOTR, but more at home in the WOT-blog or some such:P)
19. pilgrimsoul
@Kate One of the reasons I joined the discussion was your graciousness and willingness to engage in sharing views and ideas.

The comments offered up have been very intriguing and suggestive--very fruitful for a reread of LOTR.
Matt Austern
20. austern
I wouldn't assume Gandalf was lying when he said he didn't know what the palantir was, but... Remember what Gandalf said when Frodo asked him how long he had known about the Ring: "I have known much that only the Wise know, Frodo. But if you mean 'known about this ring', well, I still do known know, one might say. There is a last test to make. But I know longer doubt my guess."

At the point he said that, he had very strong circumstantial evidence that he'd been gathering for decades--and that wasn't enough for him to say that he actually knew. He obviously considered it important to distinguish between being almost certain of something and knowing it.

So yes, he didn't know what the palantir was, but perhaps he had a guess that he didn't have much reason to doubt.
21. DBratman
I agree with Emma Pease @5 about the Wise and the Palantir. The fact that they hadn't gotten around to considering the question does not suggest to me that they're mentally deficient. Rather it convinces me that they had a lot more on their minds that we don't even know about. Effects like this play a large part in making this a rich and deep sub-creation.

Also I agree with Susan James @6 about Aragorn's use of the Palantir. In Book 5 Chapter 2, Aragorn discusses his strategy here. He's not just trying to distract Sauron from Frodo. He's also trying to taunt him and press him to attack before his full strength is built up. In strictly military terms, this is the West's best chance.

It is also a conscious strategy of Aragorn's (and later also of Gandalf's) to deceive Sauron into thinking that they have the Ring and are probably disputing with each other over who gets to use it. Again, this presses Sauron to attack early, because if a single leader did emerge with control over the Ring, Mordor would be in deep trouble.
22. DBratman
Two more very significant points about this chapter:

1. Pippin's account of what happened when he used the palantir is the closest thing to an on-stage appearance by Sauron in the entire book.

It's audacious of Tolkien to leave his title character off-stage like this, and even more audacious of him to do so with the principal antagonist. I can't count the number of writers of epic fantasy who treat this fact as if Tolkien made the most gigantic authorial blooper in the history of fantasy literature. "You have to show the inner thinking of your bad guys," they say, ignoring that 1) to Tolkien, evil is all the same, and by showing the inner thinking of Gollum and Saruman, he's giving us quite enough of the empty nihilism that's been eating away at Sauron for far longer; 2) that most of these authors, when they do show us what their Enemies think, are creating ridiculous, unbelievable characters who'd have been better off left as mysteries.

2. Functionally, the palantir are a kind of combination cellphone and GPS system. It is striking, therefore, that they don't feel like a mechanical device. At least to me. This contrasts most strikingly with the magical systems of other authors. I'm thinking especially of the similar communication-at-a-distance devices in Paul Edwin Zimmer's "The Dark Border", which really feel just like telephones, including "Hello? Hello? Can you hear me? We must be getting a bad connection" type conversations. It just spoils any sense of actual, you know, magic, which Tolkien conveys so effortlessly.
Susan James
23. SusanJames
@sotgnoman OK- I'm shamed, but I'm also grinning. Someone who'll defend Aragorn even more than I do! Yea, he's been my hero since I was 12. And thanks for reminding me of Galadriel's message. I knew there was something that spurred me but for some reason I thought he'd recieved the message before the scene at Orthanc.

@austern- very good point about Gandalf and like Arargon its one of the reasons I love them so much- their humility. They recognize that they don't know it all and few ever can. Something which trips up Saruman and Sauron and Denethor. Humility is a big theme with Tolkien.

Now some of you may be saying Gandalf? humble? yes, I remember the line in Moria "I talks to myself out of the long habit of speaking to the wisest person in the room," but he's always ready to admit there are powers greater than his own. And he delights in being surprised by the hobbits' hidden talents.
Azara microphylla
24. Azara
Interestingly, even though the palantiri can't show the future, it appears to be possible for them to show even the very distant past: Gandalf would like to use the palantir to see Feanor at work.
25. DrDaveT

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.

I think it also permits the reader some suspense about whether Pippin has been suborned or otherwise corrupted by the experience. Gandalf & company take some time to seriously consider the possibility that Pippin isn't 'safe' any more, and the suggestion is that part of why Gandalf takes Pippin with him is to get him away from the others and to keep an eye out for signs of evil influence.

DBratman @ 22, part 1 -- I couldn't agree more, but you've now given me the hideous mental image of what LOTR would have looked like if written by David Weber. Now what am I going to use for eyes?
26. Dr. Thanatos
Just joining the discussion:

1 Galadriel's Mirror: She possesses Nenya, which in a few places is the ring associated with water . Coincidence?

2 Aragorn and the Palantir: I think it was well thought out and part of strategy. Sauron was not expecting an heir of Elendil and this would certainly unnerve him and cause him to act in haste---which Aragor said was the goal.

3 Gandalf vs Denethor: It's explicit later that Denethor knew Gandalf was working with an heir of Isildur, who would if successful take away the rule of Gondor

Anyway, thanks for the re-read and the chance to think these items through!
27. Dr. Thanatos
Followup Comment on Elvish Rings (on re-reading I was not real clear):

Gandalf was known for his work with fire and was revealed in the final paragraphs as bearing Narya, the Ring of Fire. Galadriel had Nenya, which was never explicitly called the Ring of Water but the elvish word Nen carries this connotation. The only "magic" we saw her do involved pouring a pitcher of water in a bowl, breathing on it, and channel-surfing. Elrond had Vilya, the Ring of Air. Can anyone think of an example of something Elrond did or was known for that had to do with this? I seem to remember someone saying something about the quality of the air in Rivendell, but I can't think of the chief elven ring as being just some kind of magical air freshener...
28. pilgrimsoul
I agree that Sauron is better left of stage as it were. The "banality of evil" is the phrase that enters my mind. He would not be a very interesting character after all.
Kate Nepveu
29. katenepveu
sotgnomen @ #18, heh.

pilgrimsoul @ #19, I'm glad to hear it. I've been fascinated and enlightened by other people's perspectives and experiences during the re-read, and I'm always pleased when more people chime in.

austern @ #20, thanks for the reminder about Gandalf's preference for a really strong level of certainty. I still think that if he was pretty sure, he wouldn't have been thinking of probing the palantir to confirm it, because he would have known it was dangerous, but it's a bit of evidence I hadn't taken into account.

DBratman @ #22, the closest thing to an on-stage appearance by Sauron in the entire book

Huh, you're right, I'd missed that bigger-picture perspective. I agree that as conceived, Sauron was much better left off-stage.

Also, to Tolkien, evil is all the same, and by showing the inner thinking of Gollum and Saruman, he's giving us quite enough of the empty nihilism that's been eating away at Sauron for far longer

Now that is interesting, and I'm not sure I agree. Well, I disagree with the last clause, unless you're using a different definition of nihilism than I am familiar with, and I'm not sure I agree with the first.

When I read _The Silmarillion_, I thought Morgoth & Feanor's falls were the rest of pride & ambition that were thwarted and twisted into the desire for mastery and domination. And I think this would fit Saruman, Wormtongue, and even Denethor. But I'm not sure it fits Gollum--this conversation, however, may be premature. I will have to think about it.

DrDaveT @ #25, true that the POV pullback provides some suspense about the effect on Pippin, though the transition back to his POV is quick enough that I'm not sure how great the effect is. Anyone remember from their first time reading?

Dr. Thanatos @ #26-27, welcome! Huh, I hadn't realized that Galadriel's Ring wasn't explicitly stated to be of Water in the text of _LotR_, at least not that I can find in a search of the e-text. I just assumed it was.

just some kind of magical air freshener

Heh. I doubt it was anything that literal, but I don't really know what Elrond would have used his Ring for. I thought I remembered some comparison between Lorien & Rivendell, but now I can't seem to put my hands on it.
Soon Lee
30. SoonLee
I think Gandalf removing him from the vicinity of the palantir had a twofold purpose, to remove him from temptation & secondarily so that Gandalf could keep an eye* on him for signs of subversion.

Kate @229:
IIRC there were references within the text of LotR that the Elven rings were not made for dominance but other purposes including for preservation? I always thought that both Rivendell & Lorien exemplified this quality.

*Is it just me or were there a lot of mentions of eyes in this chapter, Gandalf's half-closed eye when Pippin stole the Palantir, Pippin's eyes following using the Palantir, the description of Sauron, not to mention that the Palantir itself is an eye (in both form & function).
Soon Lee
31. SoonLee
Note that Sauron is not described as all, while the Nazgûl or its flying beast “had a horrible — no, no! I can’t say.”

I thought this felt very H.P. Lovecraft; the description of horrors as indescribable.
32. DemetriosX
SoonLee @31 I thought this felt very H.P. Lovecraft; the description of horrors as indescribable.

That's not entirely strange. Most of Lovecraft's major influences were British: M.R. James, Arthur Machen, Lord Dunsany. It wouldn't be out of the question for Tolkien to have read any or all of these and also derived some influence for creating feelings of horror.
33. *** Dave
We don't know overly much about magic widgets in the Tolkien's world, except when they come on stage. Gandalf implies there are many magic rings about, which is why it takes him so long to figure out what Bilbo "has got in his pocketses." Similarly, there may be many orbs in the world, many now lost or locked away (they seem like the sort of thing Saruman would collect, as well). It's not unreasonable that Gandalf wouldn't automatically know for certain that was a palantir that dropped in his proverbial lap, even if he suspected it.

The palantiri have clearly been keeping a low profile for some thousands of years, with the locations of many lost, the others not clearly in use. While interesting gadgets of royal provenance and of great utility for running a kingdom, they're not what you'd think of as a *weapon*, especially if the network seems to be down and the users aren't much interested any more. I'm not surprised that none of the Wise paid much attention to them. There may have been many other gewgaws lost at Amon Sul, Minas Ithil, Osgiliath, etc., that were of greater concern.

Finally, I love the idea of Denethor and Saruman speaking on occasion via palantir. They could be ceremoniously flattering, secretly disdainful, covertly pleased by the high-ranked source of info they each had, and they could pass some time complaining about those contemptably low-born horsey types they both have to make nice to.

For that matter, given how Saruman worked to degrade the leadership and will of Theoden, he may have even been the one to suggest to Denethor that he seek out an "open circuit" on another palantir, just in case one was out there that might be of future advantage to Gondor.
34. Dr. Thanatos
Well, Galadriel and Gandalf had active roles in the scheme of things; Elrond was more passive. We are told that "in Rivendell the memories of ancient things are to be found; in Lorien the ancient things still lived."

If Elrond used the ring, it would be in the context of historical preservation .

Seriously, we saw Gandalf do things that in retrospect probably were enhanced by the ring of Fire; we saw Galadriel do at least one thing that involved water that could be tied to her ring.

The only thing I keep coming back to is that Elrond after the death of Gil-Galad established the refuge of Rivendell; and there are several comments that stand out in my mind where people say something about the air there. Could this tie in with his role as a preservationist of ancient knowledge?

It just seems that Papa Tolkien gave us clues about the other two rings that seemed to tie into their association with an element; it would seem strange to me for him to leave the third ring untouched, as it were.
35. pilgrimsoul
@soon lee #30
Whoa! Your insight about eyes. Yes! Hadn't realized it until you pointed it out.
Sam Rateliff
36. savings
I try to not get caught up in the tiny details of fantasy type stories. I really enjoyed this.
37. DBratman
DemetriosX @32: Tolkien is known to have read at least some Dunsany.

Soon Lee @31: But Pippin's aborted description doesn't read very Lovecraftian to me. Lovecraft's schtick was to go on and on describing how indescribable his nasties were, while what is happening here is that Pippin is too revolted by what he saw to go on, rather than being unable to describe it.
Soon Lee
38. SoonLee
DBratman @37:

Would that Lovecraft had a Gandalf at hand to cut short his interminable rants on indescribable horrors from out of space what men are not meant to know. ;)
39. Confutus
From book 5 ch 2 and appendices, Aragorn used the palantir in the late morning of March 6, when he reached the Hornburg just after being met by his kinsmen from the north in the early morning with a message from Elrond; "If thou art in need of haste, remember the paths of the dead".

Need of haste? *What* need of haste? What's going down that I don't know about and should?
Soon Lee
40. SoonLee
Confutus @39:
Keep reading, and all will become clear. :)
41. Confutus
Actually, that was a belated response to DemetriosX @11, who still thinks Aragorn was being rash in using the Stone. I was attempting to speak for Aragorn, using a different voice than his own. He gave Gimli his secondary reasons and left the primary one unspoken.
42. Confutus
Kate at @14, Gandalf is indeed aware of the prophecy concerning the Witch-king, but we aren't there yet.
Kate Nepveu
43. katenepveu
SoonLee @ #30, yes there's a mention about the Three & preservation, I was just wondering if there was a difference between Elrond & Galadriel's Rings/uses in this regard.

And ooh, eyes! Good call!

*** Dave @ #33, your imagining of Denethor & Saruman talking via palantir wins you a shiny Internets for the day. Brilliant.

Dr. Thanatos @ #34, I think that was the quote about Rivendell v. Lorien that I was thinking of. Thanks for finding it.

Confutus, welcome, and thanks for the references.
44. Joanne
I'm a long time reader who finally got the nerve to post.
I absolutely love the reread (and posts) it has given me so much new insight into the books.

About the elven rings and Elrond,
I seem to remember Elrond was particularly known for his healing skills. However, I'm not sure how this would relate to air in particular.
The healing power of the athelas plant is associated to its fragrance. So maybe there is a connexion there?
jon meltzer
45. jmeltzer
#33: Actually, they're telling each other Gandalf stories.
46. Dr. Thanatos

Good call! I had completely forgotten the "Dr. Elrond" part.
47. Dr. Thanatos
Come to think of it...
Whenever Aragorn healed, there was a sense of fresh air. (I think) When Sam and Frodo were staying in Ithilien, Sam made a comment about Faramir having an air about him; Faramir made a comment about sensing the "air of Westernesse." Elrond heals and has a Ring associated with Air. Athelas produces a clean scent in the air. Is this tying together with the air/scent of the West being associated with healing ?

Perhaps a bit of a reach, but it's up there with Denethor skyping Saruman...
Kate Nepveu
48. katenepveu
Joanne @ #44, welcome, though if our conversation has been intimidating to join I'm very sorry to hear it and would appreciate any suggestions on ways to make it less so.

About the connection with healing that you and Dr. Thanatos make to air--it might be more thematic than magical, but I like it.
49. PerKellum
Also a new poster (so hello all).

Regarding the elemental associations of the three rings (and what might represent the element of air at Rivendell)...

The four mythological Irish treasures ( were the Stone of Fal, the Spear of Lugh, the Sword of Nuadu, and the Cauldron of Dagda. These are sometimes associated with the post-Golden Dawn tarot suits of Pentacles, Wands, Swords, and Cups/Chalices, which in turn have a traditional association with the elements earth, fire, air, and water respectively.

In Lord of the Rings, Gandalf wears the ring of fire and is known for his staff (tarot wands typically look more like a staff than a Harry Potter-style wand). Admittedly all the wizards had staffs, but Gandalf's name derives from his staff, apparently meaning Staff-Elf.

Galadriel wears the ring of water and makes use of the Mirror, which is described as a basin of silver on a pedestal, and so not unlike a cauldron.

Elrond, in this scheme of things, by wearing the ring of air would be associated with a significant sword -- and he was keeping Isildur's sword for Aragorn, and arranged its reforging into Anduril. Also associated with the element of air would be wisdom, clarity of thought, diplomacy.

I'd not given this any thought until the subject of the three rings came up here, but it does seem to fit, and Tolkien was surely aware of the Four Treasures.

Of course, that would mean it's the Stone of Fal/Element of Earth that seems to be missing from Lord of the Rings. (The Kings of Ireland were crowned on it, and it would cry out if the King was rightful and gift him with a long reign.)
Soon Lee
50. SoonLee
PerKellum @49:

Welcome & fascinating thoughts.

I see your Irish treasures, missing the Stone of Fal and raise you Gondor (etymologically, 'land of stone') where the kings are crowned...
51. PerKellum
SoonLee @50:

It is the land of stone -- I'd missed that. As you got me wondering if it was the land of a specific stone, I poked about in Google a bit and found the LOTR Wiki (which suggested Gondor was just named for its stony mountains).

However, there was also an entry for the Stone of Erech -- where the people who'd haunt the Paths of the Dead swore their oath to Isildur, and where Aragorn asserted his Kingship to make them honour their oath.

Apparently the Stone of Erech was brought out of Numenor, echoing the stories of the Treasures of Ireland, and making it a strong suspect for the Stone of Fal.
Michael Ikeda
52. mikeda
DBratman@22 closest thing to an on-stage appearance by Sauron

Unless one counts the "huge shape of shadow" that appears near the beginning of the chapter "The Field of Cormallen" (Book 6, Chapter 4).

The way the shadow arises and is blown away by the wind seems to parallel what happens to Saruman's spirit near the end of "The Scouring of the Shire."
Kate Nepveu
53. katenepveu
PerKellum, welcome and thanks. I'd been aware of the four Irish treasures, but hadn't made that connection--I like it very much! It's the kind of thing that doesn't intrude if you aren't aware of it, but it's a nice mythological resonance if you are (and maybe even if you aren't, as witness this conversation).
Tony Zbaraschuk
54. tonyz
Gand-alf : "wand-elf" (maybe it's clearer if you pronounce it with a Scandinavian accent)

I don't think Tolkien is trying for a "four" relevance anywhere: three, five, and seven are much bigger numbers for him.

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