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On the Palantír and Meddling in the Affairs of Wizards

palantir
Katie

Katie

Katie spends her days reading about medieval history and her evenings wondering if it’s too late to drop out of graduate school and become an astronaut.
Katie

The last few chapters of The Lord of the Rings have felt a bit like a victory march. Since the unexpected triumph at Helm’s Deep, things proceeded along a consistently optimistic path. Everyone celebrated their success in “The Road to Isengard.” They reunited with old friends in “Flotsam and Jetsam.” And they confirmed their victory over Isengard in “The Voice of Saruman.” Things felt cheerful, and relatively relaxed: an unexpected dynamic for the close of a second act (after all, third-act dawns tend to look brighter thanks to the second-act darkness that comes before). Things seem calm. And then Pippin looks into the palantír.

The sudden shift in tone and momentum that results from this event shocks Book III out of its more lackadaisical pace and reorients the narrative. It’s an old trick – triggering a disaster (or near-disaster) just as soon as things seem safe and promising. But Tolkien utilizes it well here. Not only does Pippin’s encounter with the palantír inject the narrative with a shot of adrenaline, but it does so in a thematically coherent and satisfying way. It touches on the dangers and necessity of inquiry. It takes a look back to Saruman. And – maybe most importantly – it paves the way for Book IV, for Frodo and Sam.

The Palantír and Sauron

Pippin’s theft of the palantír and his experience with it happens quickly. The entire encounter with Sauron lasts perhaps half a paragraph. It’s an interesting storytelling choice: Tolkien dispenses with the possibilities inherent in playing out the drama of the encounter live, and instead lets what occurred slowly unspool itself to the reader.

To the reader, Pippin looks into the orb, sees some lights, and then something happens – he goes rigid, he cannot look away, he screams. It’s obvious that something is wrong. When Gandalf rushes up to him Pippin cries out in a “shrill and toneless voice” and shrinks back from Gandalf. “It is not for you Saruman,” he says. “I will send for it at once.”

When you know what’s happening, the impact of those words hits home immediately. But when you’re reading for the first time, the real import of what just happened only reveals itself as Pippin begins to tell the story of what happened:

 I saw a dark sky, and tall battlements…And tiny stars. It seemed very far away and long ago, yet hard and clear. Then the stars went in and out – they were cut off by things with wings. Very I big, I think, really; but in the glass they looked like bats… I tried to get away because I thought it would fly out; but when it had covered all the globe, it disappeared. Then he came. He did not speak so that I could hear words. He just looked, and I understood.
“So you have come back? Why have you neglected to report for so long?”
I did not answer. He said “Who are you?” I still did not answer, but it hurt me horribly; and he pressed me, so I said: “A hobbit.”
Then suddenly he seemed to see me, and he laughed at me.

I found this passage to be fascinating. Tolkien has always been adept at crafting dream sequences, or pseudo-dream sequences. They feel enough like little myths in the center of a story that he slips into a distinctive, comfortable style: dark skies, tiny stars, tall walls. Things are evocative, but disconnected. This scene adopts this style fully, but as the readers makes their way through it, it becomes underlined by a distinctive sense of urgency. Rather than just a dream or vision of some kind, it becomes increasingly obvious that the danger is real. Pippin is in communication with Sauron himself.

Sauron’s depiction here is also really interesting. He is offhand and awful, casually cruel and powerful. His first line of dialogue makes him sound almost like a vaguely-annoyed middle manager. Nothing he does is overtly awful or overwhelming or terrifying. But at the same time, these three little lines of dialogue make him seem far more unsettling than Saruman ever was (despite the latter’s more desperate attempts at grandeur). Sauron here is casual, flippant. He doesn’t seem to care much that Saruman has not reported – he doesn’t even initially realize that he’s talking to someone different. When he asks Pippin who he is and doesn’t receive an answer, he doesn’t bother with cajoling or manipulation. He simply hurts him. And when he does get an answer, he just laughs.

It’s the inverse to Gandalf’s laughter in the last chapter. Gandalf laughs when a malicious spell is broken without success; Sauron laughs when he feels it has broken someone else. Tolkien doesn’t try to articulate how awful Sauron is, how powerful or full of grandeur. He just makes him cruel.

palantir

“We have been too leisurely. We must move.”

All of this would be enough to shock the chapter into motion. Gandalf realizes immediately that haste is of the essence (thank goodness we’ve left the Ents behind). Even after the palantír, though, there’s a sense of safety. Through a mix of sheer luck and hobbit toughness, Pippin managed to get through his encounter with Sauron unscathed (nice job, Pip!). If anything, their situation has improved. Gandalf no longer feels the need to probe around the palantír and possibly expose himself; Sauron is distracted by the fact that he thinks a jewelry-laden hobbit is likely locked up in Isengard. Aragorn takes guardianship of the palantír, leaving it in good hands and setting up some of the events of Book V.

And then the Nazgul arrives:

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.

It’s another great description, deploying that most Tolkien-y of Tolkien-prose-tricks, long sentences punctuated by one or two short ones as the end. And the havoc that it causes is amazing. It can be easy to forget how much of a holding pattern Sauron has been in for the entire book, how much he felt like a distant, abstract threat. This was only compounded by Saruman’s increased prominence.

But then, in the space of three pages, we have Sauron speak to Pippin and a Black Rider flying over the camp, blotting out the stars. Gandalf seems frantic – in the space of a few minutes he changes plans, splintering the company into three and flying off into the night at high speeds, Pippin in tow.  It’s a great end to Book III, a sense that danger and uncertainty has broken over the camp like a sudden, unexpected thunderstorm.

“All Wizards Should Have a Hobbit or Two in their Care”

Two more final points before we finish up. First – I appreciated how hobbit-centric this chapter is. It feels fitting for the book as a whole and it serves nicely to set up a more hobbit-heavy future for readers. Merry mentions Sam by name (the first time anyone mentions either Frodo or Sam in a while). Through the palantír, Sauron thinks that Pippin is the ringbearer. And near the chapter’s start, Gandalf mentions to Merry that he and Pippin were likely of great interest to Saruman, and weighed heavy on his thoughts.

The focus on hobbits – plus the sudden, unavoidable reorientation towards Mordor and Sauron – serves nicely to set up Book IV, which will backtrack to our other two hobbits, who’ve never let Mordor stray too far from their thoughts. It’s subtle, but it is a nice balancing act by Tolkien that he was able to make this chapter function as both a capstone to this book and a transition to the next one.

And finally, I also just really enjoyed Gandalf and Pippin together in this chapter. Their scenes together are always really delightful and they bring out the best in each other as characters. But I also appreciated how Pippin’s little arc in this chapter functions as a counterpoint against Saruman’s. It isn’t hard to read Saruman’s story as one that condemns overeager inquiry – he’s always trying to create, mold, shape, investigate. Gandalf even seems to confirm that “Alas for Saruman!” he says in reference to the palantír. “It was his downfall, as I now perceive. Perilous to us all are the devices of an art deeper than we possess ourselves.”

palantir

And at first, in this chapter, it feels as if Pippin is falling into a similar pattern. He’s resentful at the chapter’s start that Gandalf would not be more forthcoming with his information. When Merry chides him not the meddle in the affairs of wizards – “for they are subtle and quick to anger” – Pippin responds with exasperation. “Our whole life for months has been one long meddling in the affairs of wizards,” he says. “I should like a bit of information as well as danger.”

Pippin seems to be ultimately punished for this attitude: his curiosity exposes him to an all-powerful dark lord (and Gandalf yells at him). But at the same time, there’s a caveat to this message in the chapter’s coda. As Gandalf and Pippin ride towards Minas Tirith on Shadowfax, Pippin peppers Gandalf with questions. And Gandalf answers, willingly.

It’s a nice correction. Or maybe better, it’s a nice nuance. When Gandalf asks Pippin what he wants to know, this is how he responds. “The names of all the stars, and of all living things, and the whole history of Middle-earth and Over-heaven and of the Sundering Seas,” laughed Pippin. “Of course! What less?” Pippin’s knowledge is rooted in a desire to understand; Saruman’s in a desire to shape and to acquire. It’s such a key difference in Tolkien.  As Gandalf said, “all wizards should have a hobbit or two in their care.”

Final Points

  • I had forgotten (or never knew?) the etymological connection between Osgiliath and stars. It’s such a lovely name for a city.
  • Another rare Tolkien naming failure: Tirion upon Túna. The first half is good; the second half is not.
  • “A beautiful, restful night,” said Merry to Aragorn. “Some folk have wonderful luck. He did not want to sleep, and he wanted to ride with Gandalf – and there he goes!” Merry was honestly on fire this entire chapter. Merry is so great.
  • I found it really sweet that Gandalf’s desire to look into the palantír and remove it from Sauron’s control was not based on pride or a conflict of power. Gandalf just really wanted to use it to look back at Tirion and Fëanor.
  • The last bit of this chapter has always stuck with me: “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 somehow manages to be peace and ominous at the same time, though I couldn’t tell you how.
  • Prose Prize: “Ents in a solemn row stood like statues at the gate, with their long arms uplifted, but they made no sound… Sunlight was still shining in the sky, but long shadows reached over Isengard: grey ruins falling into darkness.” It feels fitting to give the Ents one final appearance, before the Company move out of Isengard, and to make that final appearance feel so picturesque.
  • We’ve made it to the end of Book III! It’s been such a delight talking about Tolkien to all of you. I’m looking forward to continuing it with Book IV – I was really fond of this section of The Lord of the Rings when I was younger, so I’m excited to see how it holds up on this read-through. We’ll check in on Frodo and Sam around mid-July. I’ve missed them!

All film stills are from Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King (2003), courtesy of New Line Cinema. The painting of Gandalf and Pippin riding to Minas Tirith is courtesy of Ted Nasmith.
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  • WanderingUndine

    If this is the end of the second act, do you consider all of FotR the first act? Make sense to me.

    For a while after we watched the LotR films, my brother yelled “Fool of a Took!” at me whenever I did something he considered foolish.

    “The stars fainted before it” is a great line. I guess it means the stars seemed to grow fainter before (and/or after?) the Nazgul passed below them, but it makes it sound like the Nazgul was so powerful or terrifying that its passage made the very stars fall down unconscious.

    *wriggle* Two weeks until my favorite LotR “book” and my darling Gollum…

    • Katie

      I do? It’s not perfect, and you could argue that really Book I is act one, and then divide things up accordingly. But I do kind of think of both this and the close of Book IV as the joint end of the second act. Is that cheating? I’m gonna do it anyway.

      And isn’t it? Yeah, I think it just means a darkness surrounds it but it sounds like an active, physical power.

    • Katie

      And hooray! As a kid Book IV was my favorite too, I’m excited to see if that changes.

  • Bo

    Is it this book or RotK where Sam and Frodo have a HUGE chapter that dwarfs (har!) all the others? I know there’s a chapter like that and it was intimidating as hell to get through the first time.

    I always loved the honest, innocent inquisitiveness the hobbits have. Like you said about Pippen, he just wants to understand. They’re all like this in some way. I can totally relate because I’m much the same way. There’s such a wonder in discovering the secrets of the world, and the hobbits always made me feel that wonder.

    Sometimes it ends up like this, but Pippen recovers nicely and continues being adorable.

    • Katie

      Ooh, I’m not sure? I’d always thought of The Council of Elrond as the long, intimidating chapter of the series. There may well be another coming up though (don’t have access to my books right now!)

      And yeah, it’s a nice balance. Pippin’s inquisitiveness gets him in trouble a lot but it’s not portrayed as an inherently bad trait. Probably because pippin has the kindness and humility to balance it out.

    • Mytly

      Not sure which chapter you’re referring to. The Scouring of the Shire is the longest chapter in the whole of LOTR, and it’s obviously in ROTK, but that’s not exactly about just Sam and Frodo. Do you mean The Tower of Cirith Ungol, which is the first chapter of Book VI (and thus in ROTK)?

  • Maidens&Mules

    Gandalf’s comment about flying into greater danger sums up this chapter almost perfectly. The whole chapter has a rather creepy, ominous vibe to it. Saruman may have been defeated but the real enemy is still out there.

    Pippin looking into the palantir is also the closest we come to actually meeting Sauron. The description of Pippin being drawn to look into the palantir is eerily similar to Frodo being drawn to put on the Ring. And Sauron himself is depicted almost as an eldritch abomination. We don’t see him directly, we only get Pippin’s description of his nightmarish, mind-melting, soul-searing vision of him. Peter Jackson depicted Sauron, symbolically, as a giant, all-seeing eye, and it’s probably about as good as it could have been, but there’s something about how Sauron is described in that one scene that I don’t think can be translated to a visual medium. It’s fitting that this glimpse Sauron comes immediately after an extended confrontation with Saruman. To Sauron, Saruman, and indeed Gandalf are as insignificant as Pippin.

    I wish we’d gotten more info on the palantiri. Magic stones from beyond the sea, a literal gift from the gods, that allow people to see things far away and converse directly with one another, mind to mind, is one of the trippiest things Tolkien came up with.

    • Katie

      That’s a wonderful point! I hadn’t thought about the comparison to the Ring.

      And yes, that’s tricky. Tolkien benefits so, so much from the less-is-more approach to magic and evil in his world. But at the same time, I’m not sure how well that translates to a visual medium. There’s a part of me that’s probably always going to see PJ’s flaming eye as kinda silly? But I’m not really sure what would have been better, so I’m not really in a place to criticize.

      • Kaesy

        This was one of the things I actually really liked in the Hobbit movies: the appearance of the Necromancer in that sort of flash-vision thing. (But it’s probably easier to get the right ominous feeling in such a manner than with something you’re going to have to keep showing through the movie)

      • Maidens&Mules

        I think the flaming eye worked well in small doses, when it was clear that Sauron wasn’t really a giant flaming eye, that’s just how Frodo perceived him at that moment, or like in the Mirror of Galadriel, where it’s clearly meant to be symbolic rather than literal. I agree that he did overdo it at times though.

        • Katie

          That’s true! It was definitely fine in the first movie (pretty good, actually?). I think I just got annoyed by the third movie when it turned Sauron into a big searchlight.

        • Mytly

          I think PJ kind of dropped the ball with his depiction of Sauron. Pretty nearly all the non-book readers who watched the movies came away with the idea that Sauron was literally a giant flaming eye – which, of course, led to a lot of puzzlement and mockery about how an eye was going to wear a ring. The use of the eye as a metaphor was not bad, but he should have made it more clear that it was in fact only a metaphor (in fact, the lines kind of get blurred in ROTK, I think).

          • Katie

            Yeah. From what I remember in RotK, after the Ring gets destroyed, Barad-dur comes tumbling down and it definitely seems like Sauron is a flaming eye who died from a bad fall.

  • Priscilla

    “The names of all the stars, and of all living things, and the whole history of Middle-earth and Over-heaven and of the Sundering Seas,” laughed Pippin. “Of course! What less?”

    This was one of my favorite lines as a kid, probably one of my favorites still. I find the feeling incredibly relatable, as I’m curious and make a lot of questions myself. Because, well, what less? 😉

    I remember in my first reading I was sooo eager to see Sam and Frodo again and I was disappointed to learn I would only see them in Book IV. But then Book IV came and I actually wanted to keep following the adventures of Gandalf, Aragorn, etc.

    • Katie

      Me too! I love Pippin’s answer so much. It’s so charming and lovely and it’s the level of curiosity I aspire to, haha.

  • Ангелина (Angelina)

    I loved that chapter, too, I loved it because it was fairytale-y – well, you know, all this stories with broken taboos – and yet it was incredibly humane in nature. It was not that some supernatural power punishes the trespasser, more that he messes with wrong people and gets punched as a result.
    Even Sauron here is somewhat down-to-earth. Though I considered his laughter to be a result of surprise: like, he was ready to talk shop with a Maia, and here he meets a mere hobbit. More or less ‘And this is what I am presumed to fear, bwahaha’ of sorts.

    • Mytly

      Hmm, it’s not like Sauron ever feared the hobbits. His reaction is more like ‘Oh, so this is the puny thing that stole my Ring. Damn, it’s going to be laughably easy to get it back from this pathetic creature!’

      • Ангелина (Angelina)

        Well, he feared not the Hobbits as a class, but The Ring-Bearer as an idea. And here he (thinks) he encounters this mysterious figure personally, and it is so (in his opinion) pathetic.

  • Fyodor

    Great point on the Palantir as MacGuffin (sub-guffin?), accelerating the plot after the post-action lull. Tolkien is particularly clever in integrating the Palantir into what is now a very complicated web of narrative(s). It explains the close collaboration between Saruman and Sauron, it gives us our first real taste of Sauron as a person (rather than just an overshadowing malevolence), feeds the backstory of Aragorn’s inheritance (and broader Middle Earth), delivers a spectacularly successful strategic misdirection aiding Frodo and sets up a massive strategic coup for Aragorn.

    On those last two points, it’s only much later, as the story unfolds, that we can look back and realise the importance of this one night and the Palantir in enabling the ultimate victory. It’s possible but arguably unlikely that Frodo and Sam could have made it to Mount Doom without Sauron’s attention being distracted towards the West and the presumed Ringbearer. But the strategic benefit goes beyond that misdirection/distraction; it also triggers Sauron to launch his attack upon Gondor prematurely. His hunger for the Ring, the defeat of his ally Saruman, the revelation of Elendil’s heir after Aragorn uses the Palantir THAT SAME NIGHT (albeit related in a whole ‘nother book!) and the threat of Gandalf with (he presumes) the Ring combine to induce Sauron to launch his multi-pronged attack upon Gondor too early. Aragorn contributes to this by revealing himself (and Anduril) to Sauron and by wrenching enough control over the Palantir to see the preparations to attack Gondor from the South. It’s only by defeating that attack and using the fleet at Pelargir to sail to Minas Tirith that Aragorn et al are able to save the day at the Battle of the Pelennor Fields. But here’s a question I’ve often pondered: what if Pippin hadn’t meddled with the Palantir that night? Would the improbable conjunction of events driven by that one piece of Tookish foolishness have been thrown off, dooming the West? It’s another example of Tolkien’s (too?) intricate plotting.

    Excellent point on the hobbity continuity from this chapter into the next book, but it’s impressive that Tolkien also feeds the continuity between this chapter and Book V. By introducing the seven stars and white tree of Arnor & Gondor in Gandalf’s discussion of the Palantiri’s origins in this chapter Tolkien seeds the encounter between Aragorn and the Grey Company, including the banner created by Arwen, delivered by Halbarad.

    Linguistic trivia: I’ve always been tickled by the fact that Palantir has the same literal translation as television.

    • Mytly

      Well, it kind of allows you to do the same thing as a TV – seeing distant stuff – so the naming is not that strange. That said, the Palantir actually has more in common with a phone, since it allows two-way communication across great distances.

      • Fyodor

        Oh, I don’t think the naming is strange; it’s quite logical, as you say. I’m just amused that Tolkien’s magical macguffin in a fantasy novel from the 1950s was soon to be ubiquitous in homes around the world. It’s a fun example of Clarke’s aphorism on tech & magic.

        And of course you’re right about the two-way communication (maybe it’s Skype?) but that also set me off, imagining Saruman and Sauron checking in on each other.

        [ring, ring]

        Sauron: Hello?
        Saruman: Yo Ronnie, wazzaaap?
        Sauron: Oh, hi, Manny. Drinking a bud, planning world domination. You?
        Saruman: Same.
        Sauron: True. True.

        • Mytly

          I’ve also read about the Palantir being compared to a computer – though it’s far less complex, IMO. But yeah, comparing it to a computer/phone program/app like Skype works.

          Clarke’s maxim is amazing – it’s particularly useful to apply it to fantasy, even recent fantasy, to see how far technology outstrips writers’ imaginations. For example, there are plenty of supposedly magical items in the Harry Potter series – the first few books of which were written/set in the 1990s – which have long since been overtaken by technology. In fact, access to modern Muggle technology would break the plots of a number of HP books. For example, in OotP, when Harry desperately wants to communicate with Sirius … a cellphone would solve all his problems. Or in the first book, when the trio spend months researching Nicholas Flamel in the library … as opposed to doing a 2-second Google search.

          Haha, I love Ronnie and Mannie!

  • Mytly

    Argh, how did I miss this review? 🙁 Usually I check the Fandomentals homepage obsessively for new LOTR reviews, but somehow this one slipped through the cracks. Anyway, better late than never.

    • Katie

      I’m glad you still made it! 🙂