A palantír (pl. palantíri) is a magical artifact from J. R. R. Tolkien's fantasy legendarium. A palantír (sometimes translated as "Seeing Stone" but literally meaning "Farsighted" or "One that Sees from Afar"; cf. English television) is a spherical stone that functions somewhat like a crystal ball.
Origins and characteristics
When one looks into a palantír, one can communicate with other such stones and anyone who might be looking into them; beings of great power can manipulate the stones to see virtually any part of the world. They were made by the Elves of Valinor in the Uttermost West, by the Noldor and maybe even Fëanor himself. Many palantíri were made, but the number is not known. Some had power over other stones. They were of various sizes; the smallest had a diameter of about a foot (30 cm), while the largest filled a large chamber. The larger stones allowed one to walk around them, thereby changing the viewpoint of its vision. The Master Stone was kept in the tower of Avallónë on Tol Eressëa, but no record is made of successful communication from any palantír of Middle-earth to this one. They are believed to have a power over people, as seen from the experience of Peregrin Took and the Orthanc-stone. However, it is unclear if Pippin's compulsion to use the Orthanc-stone was imparted by the stone itself, or if it was a result of Sauron's influence over it. According to Gandalf, it is beyond the skill of both Sauron and Saruman to create the palantíri and that Sauron cannot make the palantíri "lie", or create false images (though he could show selective images to create a false impression in the viewer).
The stones' gaze can pierce anything except darkness and shadow. A technique called shrouding was used when something was to be kept secret from the enemies' eyes. Knowledge of this technique was lost long ago, although Sauron probably knew of it.
At the end of the Third Age, the palantíri were important during the events of The Lord of the Rings. Saruman looked through the Orthanc stone, and saw what he thought was an unassailable strength in Mordor, helping to corrupt him. When Pippin touched the stone, without intent to spy, Sauron, looking the other way with voyeuristic intent thought he saw the hobbit who had the One Ring, misdirecting him from the true infiltration of Frodo, then hundreds of miles away. When Aragorn used the stone, again without attempt to spy, Sauron thought that it meant that Aragorn had the Ring, again distracting him from the true presence of the Ring on its way to Mount Doom. When the Steward Denethor used the stone, he was convinced that there was no hope for Minas Tirith, driving him to suicide and nearly to the murder of Faramir.
Some of the stones were given to the Dúnedain of Númenor as a gift, during the Second Age. Of these, Elendil took seven with him on his flight to Middle-earth, and after the Kingdoms in Exile had been established, they were distributed among seven places: four in Gondor and three in Arnor. Sauron captured the palantír of Minas Ithil and used it to corrupt Saruman, who had the palantír of Orthanc; and Denethor, who had the palantír of Minas Tirith.
By the end of the Third Age, four had been lost, with two lost in Forochel, one in Anduin, and one buried amongst the ruins of the Dark Tower of Barad-dûr; a fifth had been rendered virtually unusable (the palantír of Minas Tirith showed only the burning hands of Denethor save to those with the strength of will to turn it elsewhere). Of the two remaining functional stones, one was retained by the king of the Reunited Kingdom; the other was taken from Middle-earth by the Elves.
Stones of Arnor
One Stone, called Elendil's Stone, was placed in the tower of Elostirion in the Tower Hills, just west of the Shire. Its location was only known to a few and it remained hidden there until it was taken back to the West with the three Elven Rings. It was unique among the stones brought to Middle-earth, in that it did not communicate with the others and would only look west along the Straight Road to Avallónë.
The palantír of Amon Sûl, most powerful of the three in Arnor, was kept for centuries in the Watchtower of Amon Sûl. When Arnor was divided into three kingdoms, all of them claimed Amon Sûl, largely because of the palantír. Just before Angmar captured and destroyed the Watchtower in T.A. 1409, the Stone was removed and taken to Fornost. It remained there until Fornost too was overrun, when Arvedui took it to Forochel. It was lost in T.A. 1975 when the ship on which he was travelling foundered in the ice.
The last Stone of the North was placed in Annúminas on the shores of Lake Evendim. When Annúminas was abandoned and the Kings moved to Fornost, they took the palantír with them. This Stone was also lost when Arvedui was shipwrecked.
Stones of Gondor
The Stone of Osgiliath was the largest and most powerful of the seven. It alone could "eavesdrop" on the others (only two palantíri could communicate with each other at one time, and none other but the Osgiliath stone could intercept that communication). It was placed in a tower on the great bridge in Osgiliath that crossed the Anduin. The domed ceiling was painted to resemble a starry sky, and gave its name (os-giliath, the Dome of Stars) to the city itself. This Stone was the first to be lost: during the civil war of the Kin-strife around the middle of the Third Age, the Dome of Stars was destroyed and the palantír fell into the River Anduin.
Minas Ithil (Minas Morgul)
One Stone was placed at Minas Ithil in the mountains that came to be known as the Ephel Dúath. When Minas Ithil fell to the Nazgûl in T.A. 2002, the Ithil-Stone came into Sauron's hands, and leading up to the War of the Ring was kept by him in Barad-dûr. It was presumably lost at the fall of Sauron, but since the stones are virtually indestructible, it would still be buried in the wreckage of the Dark Tower, or (as Christopher Tolkien speculates in Unfinished Tales) destroyed by the eruption of Orodruin.
One Stone was placed at Angrenost (Isengard) in Orthanc, the great tower built by the Dúnedain in the Second Age at the southern end of the Misty Mountains. In T.A. 2759, Saruman obtained the keys of Orthanc from Beren, the ruling Steward of Gondor, possibly because Saruman desired to use the palantír to garner information on his neighbours and their activities. The stone was also partially responsible for Saruman's fall from grace, as he was using it when he came upon Sauron, and was ensnared by him, though his transformation to one of the fallen Maiar had undoubtedly begun much earlier. Saruman later used the stone to confer with Sauron through the Ithil-stone in Barad-dûr. By showing Saruman selective visions of his new armies, Sauron convinced the Wizard that he was going to win the War of the Ring, regardless of whether he actually found the One Ring.
Later, Gríma Wormtongue cast the stone down from Orthanc, where it was recovered by Peregrin Took and turned over to Gandalf. Peregrin inadvertently contacted Sauron, after which Gandalf turned the stone over to Aragorn.
Using the stone, Aragorn declared himself as the heir of Isildur to Sauron, seeking to distract him from Frodo. Sauron was led to believe that the One Ring had fallen into the hands of Aragorn or some other Western leader, and this was partly responsible for Sauron's hasty assault against Gondor. Sauron's attack, before he was fully ready, deeply influenced the outcome of the war. The Orthanc-stone remained in the custody of the Kings of Gondor in the Fourth Age, the only one to remain fully functional.
One Stone, the "palantír of Anárion", was placed at Minas Anor, which eventually became the capital of Gondor and was renamed Minas Tirith. This palantír was used by the Kings of Gondor, but when Minas Ithil fell to the Ringwraiths, Eärnil II stopped using it; not only did Sauron now have access to the network, but the palantír of Anárion had the strongest link of all seven to the Ithil-stone. The Stone was not used again for many centuries, until Steward Denethor II, began to use it in an attempt to find out the enemy's movements and better protect his city. Eventually, Sauron encountered him (it seems that Denethor did not know he had actually been in contact with Sauron himself). Denethor, unlike Saruman, did not turn to wickedness, but his great efforts of will, regularly fighting against Sauron, caused him to age quickly. Furthermore, with the Ithil-stone, Sauron largely controlled what Denethor saw, leading to the latter's despair and insanity. For instance, Denethor saw a black fleet of apparent reinforcements for Sauron's forces coming from supposedly safe territory, unaware that the ships were actually carrying Aragorn's forces coming to relieve the city. Denethor was holding the stone when he committed suicide on a funeral pyre, and afterwards the Stone was rendered virtually unusable, as only people of great strength would see in it anything other than two flaming withered hands.
In Peter Jackson's The Lord of the Rings films, the palantíri of Minas Ithil, Orthanc, and Minas Anor (Minas Tirith) are included with alterations. As a consequence of eliminating the Battle of Bywater, Saruman is killed by Wormtongue much earlier (at the beginning of the extended edition of The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King) and the palantír of Orthanc is transferred to Gandalf by means of Pippin retrieving it from Saruman's corpse instead of Wormtongue throwing it from the tower window.
Aragorn also reveals himself to Sauron after the Battle of the Pelennor Fields in the extended version of The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King. It is unclear in the films whether Aragorn uses the palantír of Minas Anor or Orthanc to do this. In the book the revelation was the primary factor for Sauron's assault on Minas Tirith before he had fully readied his forces. This plot element is partially transferred to Pippin's use of the palantír in the films. Here, Aragorn is luring Sauron to the Battle of the Morannon, and Sauron responds by showing him a vision of a dying Arwen.
The theatrical cut of the film does not explicitly explain that Denethor had a palantír in his possession. His comment to Gandalf, "Do you think the eyes of the White Tower are blind? I have seen more than you know." (paraphrased from the book) may be an allusion to his use of the palantír. This is more explicit in the book, where it is implied certain visions are technically true but cast in an ambiguous or outright negative light by Sauron's influence. In the Extended Edition of the film, however, Aragorn approaches Denethor's seat in the throneroom and finds a palantír hidden in his robes. Aragorn proceeds to use the Minas Tirith-stone to contact Sauron and goad him into concentrating on Aragorn's diversionary attack (instead of using the Orthanc-stone, as in the books). Even the Extended Edition does not fully explain in dialogue the backstory of the palantíri, or how they came into the possession of Sauron, Saruman, and Denethor.
In the computer game The Lord of the Rings Online, it is hinted that the palantír of Osgiliath was not lost, but recovered by Sauron and sent to Carn Dûm so he could communicate with the Witch-king of Angmar or his Steward, Mordirith. When the player successfully attacks Mordirith, the palantír gets stolen by Amarthiel, who takes it to Annúminas. The player then has to steal the palantír, after which it disappears out of the plot, safely kept away. An unusual feature of this is the actual stealing and moving of the palantír of Osgiliath, which was, in the books, supposedly the largest one.
- J.R.R. Tolkien, The Lord of The Rings Book III: The Two Towers
- J.W. Braun, The Lord of the Films (ECW Press, 2009)