311 – The Palantir

The Palantir

After chipping the stone steps of Orthanc, the palantir[A] remains a mystery to the first-time reader until Gandalf later explains it.  It will have vast influence on the events of The Return of the King, after Aragorn manages to take control of it and reveal himself to Sauron.  But that is far ahead of this chapter, which opens with incidental details.

As usual, Tolkien gives no clue.  The party simply depart, passing a broken white hand with red nails.  And the hobbits looking back see Treebeard resembling ‘the distant stump of an old tree’, just as they first saw him.

Gandalf mentions how the hobbits must be confusing Saruman.  Merry is offended at he and Pippin being called small rag-tag dangling behind Gandalf.  But this is misleading as most of Saruman’s remarks: he must wonder how they escaped the orcs, and if they ever had the One Ring:

“Be thankful no longer words were aimed at you. He had his eyes on you. If it is any comfort to your pride, I should say that, at the moment, you and Pippin are more in his thoughts than all the rest of us. Who you are; how you came there, and why; what you know; whether you were captured, and if so, how you escaped when all the Orcs perished – it is with those little riddles that the great mind of Saruman is troubled. A sneer from him, Meriadoc, is a compliment, if you feel honoured by his concern.’”

Gandalf also expresses some friendly irritation at their undisciplined questioning.  The others are experienced warriors and assume that their leader will tell them no more than they need to know.  The hobbits insist on a more human relationship, which Gandalf is tolerant of.  Much like a sensible parent with a promising small child:

“All Wizards should have a hobbit or two in their care – to teach them the meaning of the word, and to correct them.”

His liking for hobbits is part of what prevented him from becoming like Saruman, wholly concerned with power and incapable of seeing himself in error.

And he does explain.  The original idea was for everyone to go to Edoras, the King’s normal seat.  Instead they will go to Helm’s Deep, and then to Dunharrow for a grand muster of forces.  And they will ride through the hills, to avoid being seen.  Gandalf assumes Sauron will quickly learn of this setback to his plans:

“We have won, but only the first victor and that in itself increases our danger. There was some link between Isengard and Mordor, which I have not yet fathomed. How they exchanged news I am not sure; but they did so. The Eye of Barad-dûr will be looking impatiently towards the Wizard’s Vale, I think; and towards Rohan. The less it sees the better.’”

We don’t get any explanation as to how Gandalf knows this.  But Pippin and Merry discuss him, with the more perceptive Merry noticing some changes

“’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 think of the last part of that business with Saruman! Remember Saruman was once Gandalf’s superior: head of the Council, whatever that may be exactly. He was Saruman the White. Gandalf is the White now. Saruman came when he was told, and his rod was taken; and then he was just told to go, and he went!’”

Pippin fails to see it, but shows an unwise interest in what he calls a ‘glass ball’.  In response, Merry gives him a warning that has become famous:

“’That-glass ball, now. He seemed mighty pleased with it. He knows or guesses something about it. But does he tell us what? No, not a word. Yet I picked it up, and I saved it from rolling into a pool. Here, I’ll take that, my lad – that’s all. I wonder what it is? It felt so very heavy.’ Pippin’s voice fell very low as if he was talking to himself.

“’Hullo!’ said Merry. ‘So that’s what is bothering you? Now, Pippin my lad, don’t forget Gildor’s saying – the one Sam used to quote: Do not meddle in the affairs of Wizards, for they are subtle and quick to anger.’

“’But our whole life for months has been one long meddling in the affairs of Wizards,’ said Pippin. ‘I should like a bit of information as well as danger. I should like a look at that ball.’

“’Go to sleep!’ said Merry. ‘You’ll get information enough, sooner or later. My dear Pippin, no Took ever beat a Brandybuck for inquisitiveness; but is this the time, I ask you?’”

Gildor was the High Elf that Frodo, Sam and Pippin met, but Merry did not, having gone ahead to prepare Frodo’s new house at Crickhollow.  I don’t think we hear Sam mention it, but logically they should have talked it over at length.

Note also that Gildor says it as if it were a quote from someone else.  The elves may not wholly trust the wizards.  They may also remember that Sauron in the Second Age posed as Annatar, ‘Lord of Gifts’, resembling the later wizards.  Clearly there are tensions among those who are basically virtuous – and of course Saruman becomes a traitor, and Gandalf knows that the One Ring would turn him to evil.  In his letters, Tolkien suggests that the other two Istari, the Blue Wizards, founded a tradition of dubious magical secret societies.

The advice to Pippin is wise, and of course he does not listen:

“The thought of the dark globe seemed to grow stronger as all grew quiet. Pippin felt again its weight in his hands, and saw again the mysterious red depths into which he had looked for a moment. He tossed and turned and tried to think of something else.”

Unlike Bilbo, he takes more naturally to the role of burglar or thief.  He takes the globe, which Gandalf had wrapped in cloth and put under his arm – but the arm had slipped off.  Pippin takes it and replaces it with a rock.  He then has qualms, but continues to yield to temptation:

“’You idiotic fool!’ Pippin muttered to himself. ‘You’re going to get yourself into frightful trouble. Put it back quick!’ But he found now that his knees quaked, and he did not dare to go near enough to the wizard to reach the bundle. ‘I’ll never get it back now without waking him,’ he thought, ‘not till I’m a bit calmer. So I may as well have a look first. Not just here though!’ He stole away, and sat down on a green hillock not far from his bed. The moon looked in over the edge of the dell.

“Pippin sat with his knees drawn up and the ball between them. He bent low over it, looking like a greedy child stooping over a bowl of food, in a corner away from others. He drew his cloak aside and gazed at it. The air seemed still and tense about him. At first the globe was dark, black as jet, with the moonlight gleaming on its surface. Then there came a faint glow and stir in the heart of it, and it held his eyes, so that now he could not look away. Soon all the inside seemed on fire; the ball was spinning, or the lights within were revolving. Suddenly the lights went out. He gave a gasp and struggled; but he remained bent, clasping the ball with both hands. Closer and closer he bent, and then became rigid; his lips moved soundlessly for a while. Then with a strangled cry he fell back and lay still.

“The cry was piercing. The guards leapt down from the banks. All the camp was soon astir.

Everyone wakes, and Gandalf realises what has happened.  Shows concern for Pippin as a person – but also must know what has happened.:

“’So this is the thief!’ said Gandalf. Hastily he cast his cloak over the globe where it lay. ‘But you, Pippin! This is a grievous turn to things!’ He knelt by Pippin’s body: the hobbit was lying on his back rigid, with unseeing eyes staring up at the sky. ‘The devilry! What mischief has he done-to himself, and to all of us?’ The wizard’s face was drawn and haggard.

“He took Pippin’s hand and bent over his face, listening for his breath; then he laid his hands on his brow. The hobbit shuddered. His eyes closed. He cried out; and sat up. staring in bewilderment at all the faces round him, pale in the moonlight.

“’It is not for you, Saruman!’ he cried in a shrill and toneless voice shrinking away from Gandalf. ‘I will send for it at once. Do you understand? Say just that!’ Then he struggled to get up and escape but Gandalf held him gently and firmly.

“’Peregrin Took!’ he said. ‘Come back!’

“The hobbit relaxed and fell back, clinging to the wizard’s hand. ‘Gandalf!’ he cried. ‘Gandalf! Forgive me!’

“’Forgive you?’ said the wizard. ‘Tell me first what you have done!’

“’I, I took the ball and looked at it,’ stammered Pippin; ‘and I saw things that frightened me. And I wanted to go away, but I couldn’t. And then he came and questioned me; and he looked at me, and, and that is all I remember.’

“’That won’t do,’ said Gandalf sternly. ‘What did you see, and what did you say?’

“Pippin shut his eyes and shivered, but said nothing. They all stared at him in silence, except Merry who turned away. But Gandalf’s face was still hard. ‘Speak!’ he said.”

Pippin’s needs matter – but the question of how much Sauron now knows comes first.

“In a low hesitating voice Pippin began again, and slowly his words grew clearer and stronger. ‘I saw a dark sky, and tall battlements,’ he said. ‘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 big, I think, really; but in the glass they looked like bats wheeling round the tower. I thought there were nine of them. One began to fly straight towards me, getting bigger and bigger. It had a horrible – no, no! I can’t say.

“’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. It was cruel. It was like being stabbed with knives. I struggled. But he said: “Wait a moment! We shall meet again soon. Tell Saruman that this dainty is not for him. I will send for it at once. Do you understand? Say just that!”

“’Then he gloated over me. I felt I was falling to pieces. No, no! I can’t say any more. I don’t remember anything else.’

“’Look at me!’ said Gandalf.

“Pippin looked up straight into his eyes. The wizard held his gaze for a moment in silence. Then his face grew gentler, and the shadow of a smile appeared. He laid his hand softly on Pippin’s head.

“’All right!’ he said. ‘Say no more! You have taken no harm. There is no lie in your eyes, as I feared. But he did not speak long with you. A fool, but an honest fool, you remain, Peregrin Took. Wiser ones might have done worse in such a pass. But mark this! You have been saved, and all your friends too, mainly by good fortune, as it is called. You cannot count on it a second time. If he had questioned you, then and there, almost certainly you would have told all that you know, to the ruin of us all. But he was too eager. He did not want information only: he wanted you, quickly, so that he could deal with you in the Dark Tower, slowly. Don’t shudder! If you will meddle in the affairs of Wizards, you must be prepared to think of such things. But come! I forgive you. Be comforted! Things have not turned out as evilly as they might.’”

It does seem odd that Sauron does not question this hobbit properly.  You’d have thought he’d want to know instantly what has happened to the One Ring.  But that would spoil the story.  And presumably Sauron would know if someone as powerful as Saruman had the ring and was claiming it.  Might also not wish to share with Saruman whatever secrets this hobbit knows.

The first-time reader now learns more of what happened, including the mysterious word ‘Palantir’.  Gandalf now knows for certain what this is, and who it should belong to:

“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 palantir 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.”

This is a major shift: Aragorn stepping up to the role he was prepared for.  And Gandalf accepts this: he had never lost sight of his mission being to help rather than to command.

He also thinks it might be safer with Aragorn – that this is once again something that was meant to happen, like Bilbo finding the One Ring.  The hand of fate giving a chance of a victory against the odds.  Yet he must still advise:

“At the least keep this thing secret. You, and all others that stand here! The hobbit, Peregrin, above all should not know where it is bestowed. The evil fit may come on him again. For alas! he has handled it and looked in it, as should never have happened. He ought never to have touched it in Isengard, and there I should have been quicker. But my mind was bent on Saruman, and I did not at once guess the nature of the Stone. Then I was weary, and as I lay pondering it, sleep overcame me. Now I know!’

“’Yes, there can be no doubt,’ said Aragorn. ‘At last we know the link’ between Isengard and Mordor, and how it worked. Much is explained.’ ‘Strange powers have our enemies, and strange weaknesses!’ said Théoden. ‘But it has long been said: oft evil will shall evil mar.’

“’That many times is seen,’ said Gandalf. ‘But at this time we have been strangely fortunate. Maybe, I have been saved by this hobbit from a grave blunder. I had considered whether or not to probe this Stone myself to find its uses. Had I done so, I should have been revealed to him myself. I am not ready for such a trial, if indeed I shall ever be so: But even if I found the power to withdraw myself, it would be disastrous for him to see me, yet – until the hour comes when secrecy will avail no longer.’

“’That hour is now come, I think,’ said Aragorn.

“’Not yet,’ said Gandalf. ‘There remains a short while of doubt which we must use.

He also explains in more detail what happened:

“The Enemy, it is clear, thought that the Stone was in Orthanc – why should he not? And that therefore the hobbit was captive there, driven to look in the glass for his torment by Saruman. That dark mind will be filled now with the voice and face of the hobbit and with expectation: it may take some time before he learns his error. We must snatch that time.”

During Coventry Smial discussions of my original version, I was reminded of how much harsher Gandalf was in his earlier form, when Pippin dropped a stone into a well in Moria:

“Throw yourself in next time, and then you will be no further nuisance. Now be quiet! ‘”  (Book Two, Chapter 4: A Journey in the Dark.)

The new Gandalf is more tolerant, and freely accepts a duty of care.

It is agreed they should split three ways.  Gandalf will ride ahead with Pippin.

“We have been too leisurely. We must move. The neighbourhood of Isengard is no place now to linger in. I will ride ahead at once with Peregrin Took. It will be better for him than lying in the dark while others sleep.’

“’I will keep Eomer and ten Riders,’ said the king. ‘They shall ride with me at early day. The rest may go with Aragorn and ride as soon as they have a mind.’

“’As you will,’ said Gandalf. ‘But make all the speed you may to the cover of the hills, to Helm’s Deep!’”

Rather suitably, at this very moment a Nazgul flies over them:

“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.

“They stood up, rigid as stones. Gandalf was gazing up, his arms out and downwards, stiff, his hands clenched.

“’Nazgul!’ he cried. ‘The messenger of Mordor. The storm is coming. The Nazgul have crossed the River! Ride, ride! Wait not for the dawn! Let not the swift wait for the slow! Ride!’”

They had not previously crossed the Great River, and perhaps needed some special magic to do so.  This makes things even more dangerous, so Gandalf sets off at once on Shadowfax, taking Pippin with him.  And we learn no more about Aragorn and the others until Chapter 2 of Book 5, where their narrative resumes.

Pippin, showing great resilience, notices that Gandalf is riding bareback – what he calls elf-fashion:

“’I do not ride elf-fashion, except on Shadowfax,’ said Gandalf. ‘But Shadowfax will have no harness. You do not ride Shadowfax: he is willing to carry you-or not. If he is willing, that is enough. It is then his business to see that you remain on his back, unless you jump off into the air.’

“’How fast is he going?’ asked Pippin. ‘Fast by the wind, but very smooth. And how light his footfalls are!’

“’He is running now as fast as the swiftest horse could gallop,’ answered Gandalf; ‘but that is not fast for him. The land is rising a little here, and is more broken than it was beyond the river.”

Here you have realism within fantasy.  Shadowfax is impossibly fast, but he still has to be careful where he puts his hooves.

Gandalf also explains their journey to the inquisitive hobbit.  Then tries to recall what he once knew about the palantir:

“He heard Gandalf singing softly to himself, murmuring brief snatches of rhyme in many tongues, as the miles ran under them. At last the wizard passed into a song of which the hobbit caught the words: a few lines came clear to his ears through the rushing of the wind:

“‘Tall ships and tall kings
“Three times three,
“What brought they from the foundered land
“Over the flowing sea?
“Seven stars and seven stones
“And one white tree.’

“’What are you saying, Gandalf?’ asked Pippin.

“’I was just running over some of the Rhymes of Lore in my mind ‘ answered the wizard. ‘Hobbits, I suppose, have forgotten them, even those that they ever knew.’

“’No, not all,’ said Pippin. ‘And we have many of our own, which wouldn’t interest you, perhaps. But I have never heard this one. What is it about – the seven stars and seven stones?’

“’About the palantíri of the Kings of Old,’ said Gandalf.

“’And what are they?’

“’The name meant that which looks far away. The Orthanc-stone was one.’

Here again, we see that Gandalf has many of the same limitations as a human.  He has to learn things, and to remind himself of what he forgets.

They were made for good purposes, but are also dangerous:

“’Then it was not made, not made’ – Pippin hesitated – ‘by the Enemy?’

“’No,’ said Gandalf. ‘Nor by Saruman. It is beyond his art, and beyond Sauron’s too. The palantiri came from beyond Westernesse from Eldamar. The Noldor made them. Feanor himself, maybe, wrought them, in days so long ago that the time cannot be measured in years. But there is nothing that Sauron cannot turn to evil uses. Alas for Saruman! It was his downfall, as I now perceive. Perilous to us all are the devices of an art deeper than we possess ourselves. Yet he must bear the blame. Fool! to keep it secret, for his own profit. No word did he ever speak of it to any of the Council. We had not yet given thought to the fate of the palantíri of Gondor in its ruinous wars. By Men they were almost forgotten. Even in Gondor they were a secret known only to a few; in Arnor they were remembered only in a rhyme of lore among the Dúnedain.’

“’What did the Men of old use them for?’ asked Pippin, delighted and astonished at getting answers to so many questions, and wondering how long it would last.

“’To see far off, and to converse in thought with one another,’ said Gandalf. ‘In that way they long guarded and united the realm of Gondor. They set up Stones at Minas Anor, and at Minas Ithil, and at Orthanc in the ring of Isengard. The chief and master of these was under the Dome of Stars at Osgiliath before its ruin. The three others were far away in the North. In the house of Elrond it is told that they were at Annuminas, and Amon Sul, and Elendil’s Stone was on the Tower Hills that look towards Mithlond in the Gulf of Lune where the grey ships lie.

“’Each palantir replied to each, but all those in Gondor were ever open to the view of Osgiliath. Now it appears that, as the rock of Orthanc has withstood the storms of time, so there the palantír of that tower has remained. But alone it could do nothing but see small images of things far off and days remote. Very useful, no doubt, that was to Saruman; yet it seems that he was not content. Further and further abroad he gazed, until he cast his gaze upon Barad-dûr. Then he was caught!

“’Who knows where the lost Stones of Arnor and Gondor now lie buried, or drowned deep? But one at least Sauron must have obtained and mastered to his purposes. I guess that it was the Ithil-stone, for he took Minas Ithil long ago and turned it into an evil place: Minas Morgul, it has become.

“’Easy it is now to guess how quickly the roving eye of Saruman was trapped and held; and how ever since he has been persuaded from afar, and daunted when persuasion would not serve. The biter bit, the hawk under the eagle’s foot, the spider in a steel web! How long, I wonder, has he been constrained to come often to his glass for inspection and instruction, and the Orthanc-stone so bent towards Barad-dur that, if any save a will of adamant now looks into it, it will bear his mind and sight swiftly thither? And how it draws one to itself! Have I not felt it? Even now my heart desires to test my will upon it, to see if I could not wrench it from him and turn it where I would-to look across the wide seas of water and of time to Tirion the Fair, and perceive the unimaginable hand and mind of Feanor at their work, while both the White Tree and the Golden were in flower!’ He sighed and fell silent.

“’I wish I had known all this before,’ said Pippin. ‘I had no notion of what I was doing.’

“’Oh yes, you had,’ said Gandalf. ‘You knew you were behaving wrongly and foolishly; and you told yourself so, though you did not listen. I did not tell you all this before, because it is only by musing on all that has happened that I have at last understood, even as we ride together. But if I had spoken sooner, it would not have lessened your desire, or made it easier to resist. On the contrary! No, the burned hand teaches best. After that advice about fire goes to the heart.’

“’It does,’ said Pippin. ‘If all the seven stones were laid out before me now, I should shut my eyes and put my hands in my pockets.’

“’Good!’ said Gandalf. ‘That is what I hoped.’

As I’ve said in previous chapter studies, I believe that when he wrote this, Tolkien imagined Gandalf as Olorin having been of a later generation of Maia, born after the time of Feanor and the Two Trees.  And it is interesting that his first thought is to use it too look at some lost beauty

He also explains about the dark shadow they had seen earlier.  That the Black Riders now have winged beasts.  Also this is logically the first of two: a second would have been sent for Pippin, supposedly in Orthanc, but could not have arrived so soon.

“I was just wondering about the black shadow. I heard you shout ‘messenger of Mordor’. What was it? What could it do at Isengard?’

“’It was a Black Rider on wings, a Nazgul,’ said Gandalf. ‘It could have taken you away to the Dark Tower.’

“’But it was not coming for me, was it?’ faltered Pippin. ‘I mean, it didn’t know that I had… ‘

“’Of course not,’ said Gandalf. ‘It is two hundred leagues or more in straight flight from Barad-dûr to Orthanc, and even a Nazgul would take a few hours to fly between them. But Saruman certainly looked in the Stone since the orc-raid, and more of his secret thought, I do not doubt, has been read than he intended. A messenger has been sent to find out what he is doing. And after what has happened tonight another will come, I think, and swiftly. So Saruman will come to the last pinch of the vice that he has put his hand in. He has no captive to send. He has no Stone to see with, and cannot answer the summons. Sauron will only believe that he is withholding the captive and refusing to use the Stone. It will not help Saruman to tell the truth to the messenger. For Isengard may be ruined, yet he is still safe in Orthanc. So whether he will or no, he will appear a rebel. Yet he rejected us, so as to avoid that very thing! What he will do in such a plight, I cannot guess. He has power still, I think, while in Orthanc, to resist the Nine Riders. He may try to do so. He may try to trap the Nazgul, or at least to slay the thing on which it now rides the air. In that case let Rohan look to its horses!

“’But I cannot tell how it will fall out, well or ill for us. It may be that the counsels of the Enemy will be confused, or hindered by his wrath with Saruman. It may be that he will learn that I was there and stood upon the stairs of Orthanc-with hobbits at my tail. Or that an heir of Elendil lives and stood beside me. If Wormtongue was not deceived by the armour of Rohan, he would remember Aragorn and the title that he claimed. That is what I fear. And so we fly – not from danger but into greater danger. Every stride of Shadowfax bears you nearer to the Land of Shadow, Peregrin Took.’”

I can’t help wondering if this was a fix-up: Tolkien initially thought of the Nazgul as coming for Pippin yet missing him: then later realised that the distance was impossibly far.  It would still make a great scene, if we live to see someone dramatize Tolkien’s work as he himself wrote it.

In keeping with Tolkien’s preference for beauty over power, the chapter and Book Three end with Pippin’s odd vision of their ride

“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.”

Looking more widely, we can note that Pippin was immediately tempted by the Palantir.  He would not have lasted long had he touched the One Ring, or been entrusted with it.  Merry might done better: but also perhaps not, since he is more concerned with power.

We also see the humanising thing about Gandalf – he is often in doubt and freely admits error.  Very unlike Aslan in the Narnia stories.  And he is gentle with Pippin’s misbehaviour, since it was mostly Gandalf’s error.  He didn’t give a proper warning that the mysterious stone might be almost as corrupting and dangerous as the One Ring.  And the stone had also tempted him, just as the One Ring had.

And we leave them there.  Book Four switches back to Frodo and Sam, taking their story from their separation through the time of the events seen by the others in Book Three, before taking them a little into what we will be told of in Book Five.

Much of the later plot turns on the Palantir.  It makes Sauron move too fast, and improves Frodo’s chances.  It will also test many of the characters, with Denethor betraying his heritage.

Is it a matter of choice?  I’d suppose that if Saruman had really repented, he would have handed the Palantir over, and similar things might have happened.  He had his chance to do the right thing, and refused it.  Yet his most useful contribution, the palantir, comes be seeming accident into the hands of Aragorn, who will need it.  Wormtongue, who was offered his choice earlier by King Theoden and refused it, still serves a useful purpose.

Copyright © Gwydion M. Williams.

[A] Strictly, palantír.  But the web was designed by Anglos who seldom used diacritical marks.  I’ve had past experience of seeing properly accented letters turned into gibberish, so now I avoid using them.

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