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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 crystal ball, used for both communication and as a means of seeing events in other parts of the world.
Origins and characteristics
When one looks into a palantír, one can mentally communicate with other such stones and anyone who might be looking into them; beings of great power can manipulate the greater 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 only eight are specifically mentioned in Tolkien's published works. Fashioned of a dark crystal, they were indestructible by any means men possessed at the end of the Third Age; it was suspected that the fire of Orodruin, Mount Doom, might be able to destroy them. They were of various sizes; the smallest had a diameter of about a foot (30 cm), while the largest were much larger and could not be lifted by one man. Some, such as the Stones of Osgiliath and Amon Sul, had power over other stones including the ability to eavesdrop. The smaller stones required one to move around them, thereby changing the viewpoint of its vision, whereas the larger stones could be turned on their axis. 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. A wielder of great power such as one of the Maiar like Sauron could dominate a weaker user through the stone, which was the experience of Peregrin Took and possibly Saruman. 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 an enemies' eyes. Knowledge of this technique was lost long ago. 
At the end of the Third Age, the use of palantíri influenced 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 Orthanc-stone, he encountered Sauron, who was likely attempting to contact Saruman using the Ithil-stone. Sauron thought he saw the hobbit who had the One Ring. When Aragorn exercised his lawful authority as heir to the Kingdoms of Arnor and Gondor used the stone, he revealed himself to Sauron and wrenched the stone's power free of Sauron's will. As a lawful user of the stone, Aragorn then used the stone to see many things and most importantly the attack on the Falas, which he then intercepted by riding the Paths of the Dead with Rangers of the North. Denethor's constant use of the Anor-stone in Minas Tirith since becoming Steward of Gondor aged him as he battled with Sauron. The images that he saw steered by Sauron in part plus Faramir's apparently mortal wound convinced him that there was no hope for Gondor, which resulted in his attempted murder of Faramir and his own suicide in the tomb of the Stewards off the Rath Dinen, the Silent Way.
The stones were given to the Elf-friends, the Faithful Dúnedain of Númenor as a gift, during the Second Age. Elendil took them with him on his flight to Middle-earth; after the Kingdoms in Exile had been established, they were distributed among seven places: four in Gondor and three in Arnor. Originally, the stones of Arnor were at Elostirion, Amon Sul, and Annuminas; the stones of Gondor were placed at Angrenost (Isengard), Minas Anor (Minas Tirith), Osgiliath, and Minas Ithil.
After the destruction of Arnor and its successor states by the Witch-King of Angmar, the stones of Amon Sul and Annuminas were lost in Arvedui's shipwreck in the Bay of Forochel. The stone of Elostirion remained at the Emyn Beriad throughout the Second and Third Age but was aligned only with the Master Stone on Tol Eressëa. It could only look to the West. The stone of Osgiliath was lost during the Kin-strife when the Dome of the Stars was among the places sacked and burned in the city. The stone fell into the Anduin River and was not recovered. As for the other stones of Gondor, Sauron captured the palantír of Minas Ithil in 2002 T.A when the Ring-wraiths assailed Minas Ithil and took it a second time. Saruman, found the palantir of Orthanc when he was given possession of the Angrenost by Beren the Steward. The Anor-stone was used seemingly only by the Steward Denethor when he inherited his father's position in Minas Tirith.
After the War of the Ring, only the stone of Minas Anor remained in the possession of the king of the Reunited Kingdom as the elves took the stone of Elostirion with them into the West. The Ithil-stone was lost in the fall of Barad-dûr, and the Anor-stone would only show burning hands (of Denethor) unless one possessed sufficient strength of will to turn its images elsewhere.
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 the Master-stone of 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, but only 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 in the fall of Sauron, but since the stones are virtually indestructible, it would still be buried in the wreckage of the Dark Tower.
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 and their designated agents. There is no recorded use of the stone after the fall of Minas Ithil until the end of the Third Age.
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. Denethor was not broken like Saruman through this contact with Sauron. However, with the Ithil-stone, Sauron largely controlled what Denethor saw, leading to the latter's despair and insanity. Further, Denethor's constant struggle with Sauron caused him to age quickly and become grim. For instance, Denethor saw a black fleet of apparent reinforcements for Sauron's forces coming from supposedly safe territory, unaware that the black ships were carrying Aragorn's forces coming to relieve the city. Denethor was holding the stone when he committed suicide on a funeral pyre in the Houses of the Dead off on the Rath Dínen, 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 the Rankin-Bass adaptation of The Return of the King, Denethor sees the coming of the black fleet up the river Anduin, which leads him to despair. However, rather than being Elven technology, Gandalf refers to the palantír as a crystal ball - "the stuff of wizards."
In Peter Jackson's The Lord of the Rings films, the palantíri of Minas Ithil and Orthanc are included. 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 reveal 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 picks up a palantír swaddled in some robes. Aragorn proceeds to use this palantir to contact Sauron and goad him into concentrating on Aragorn's diversionary attack (it is not clear whether this is the Orthanc stone or the Anorian stone). 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, Unfinished Tales
- J.R.R. Tolkien, The Lord of The Rings Book III: The Two Towers
- J.R.R. Tolkien, Unfinished Tales
- J.W. Braun, The Lord of the Films (ECW Press, 2009)