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Palantír

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Palantír
Plot element from Lord of the Rings
First appearance
Created byJ. R. R. Tolkien
GenreFantasy
In-story information
TypeCrystal ball
FunctionScrying
Telepathic communication
Specific traits and abilitiesIndestructible sphere of dark crystal

A palantír (/ˈpælənˌtɪər/; pl. palantíri) is a fictional magical artefact from J. R. R. Tolkien's Middle-earth legendarium. A palantír (from Quenya palan, 'far; tir, 'watch over'[T 1]) is described as an indestructible ball of crystal, used for communication and to see events in other parts of Arda, whether past or future.

The palantíri were made by the Elves of Valinor in the First Age, as told in The Silmarillion. By the time of The Lord of the Rings at the end of the Third Age, the few palantíri remaining in existence are used in some climactic scenes by major characters: Sauron, Saruman, Denethor the Steward of Gondor, and two members of the Fellowship of the Ring, Aragorn and Pippin.

A major theme of palantír usage is that while the stones show real objects or events, they are an unreliable guide to action, and it is often unclear whether events are past or future: what is not shown may be more important than what is selectively presented. Further, users with sufficient power can choose what to show and what to conceal: in The Lord of the Rings, all uses of palantíri influence the action through deception or misreading of what is shown. Commentators such as Paul Kocher note the hand of providence in their usage, while Joseph Pearce compares Sauron's use of the stones to broadcast wartime propaganda.

Fictional artefact[edit]

Origins[edit]

In Tolkien's high fantasy The Lord of the Rings, the palantíri were made by the Elves of Valinor in the Uttermost West, by the Noldor, apparently by Fëanor himself. The number that he made is not stated, but there were at least eight. Seven of the stones given to Amandil of Númenor during the Second Age were saved by his son Elendil; he took them with him to Middle-earth, while at least the Master-stone remained behind.[1]

Four were taken to Gondor, while three stayed in Arnor. Originally, the stones of Arnor were at Elostirion in the Tower Hills, Amon Sul (Weathertop), and Annuminas: the Elostirion stone, Elendil's own, looked only Westwards from Middle-earth across the ocean to the "Master-stone" at the "Tower of Avallonë upon Eressëa", an island off Valinor. The stones of Gondor were in Orthanc, Minas Tirith, Osgiliath, and Minas Ithil.[1]

By the time of The Lord of the Rings, the stone of Orthanc was in the hands of the wizard Saruman, while the stone of Minas Ithil, (by then Minas Morgul, the city of the Nazgul), had been taken by Sauron. That of Minas Tirith remained in the hands of the Steward of Gondor, Denethor. The stone of Osgiliath had been lost in the Anduin when the city was sacked.[1][T 2]

Characteristics[edit]

Looking into a palantír allowed one to communicate with anyone else looking into another such stone. In addition, beings of great power could manipulate the stones to see virtually any part of the world.

Tolkien described the stones as made of a dark crystal, indestructible by any normal means, except perhaps the fire of Orodruin. They ranged in size from a diameter of about a foot (30 cm) to much larger stones that could not be lifted by one person. The Stone of Osgiliath had power over other stones including the ability to eavesdrop. The minor stones required one to move around them, thereby changing the viewpoint of its vision, whereas the major stones could be turned on their axis.[T 2]

The critic Tom Shippey's analysis of uses of Palantíri, with consistently unpredictable effects[2]
Viewer Image Presenter Incorrect assumption Actually Result, deceived
The Dark Lord
Sauron
Pippin, a hobbit Pippin,
foolishly
Pippin is "the halfling",
and has the One Ring;
Saruman has captured it
Another halfling, Frodo,
has the Ring
Sends Nazgûl to Orthanc,
does not watch Ithilien
The Steward of Gondor
Denethor
Sauron's armed might,
fleet of Corsairs of Umbar
approaching Gondor
Sauron,
selectively
Fleet is the enemy;
victory in battle impossible
Aragorn has
captured the fleet
Commits suicide
Sauron Elendil's heir (Aragorn)
with Elendil's sword
Aragorn,
boldly
Aragorn now has the Ring,
will soon attack Mordor
The Ring is on
its way to Mordor
Attacks Gondor prematurely;
fails to guard Cirith Ungol
or to watch Mordor

A wielder of great power such as Sauron could dominate a weaker user through the stone, which was the experience of Peregrin Took and Saruman. Even one as powerful as Sauron could not make the palantíri "lie", or create false images; the most he could do was to selectively display truthful images to create a false impression in the viewer's mind. In The Lord of the Rings, four such uses of the stones are described, and in each case, a true image is shown, but the viewer draws a false conclusion from the facts. This applies to Sauron when he sees Pippin in Saruman's stone and assumes that Pippin has the One Ring, and that Saruman has therefore captured it.[2][T 3] Denethor, too, is deceived through his use of a palantír, this time by Sauron, who drives Denethor to suicide by truthfully showing him the Black Fleet approaching Gondor, without telling him that the ships are manned by Aragorn's men, coming to Gondor's rescue.[3] Shippey suggests that this consistent pattern is Tolkien's way of telling the reader that one should not "speculate" - the word meaning both to try to double-guess the future, and to look into a mirror (Latin: speculum 'glass or mirror') or crystal ball – but should trust in providence and make one's own mind up, bravely facing one's duty in each situation.[2]

The English literature scholar Paul Kocher similarly noted the hand of providence: Wormtongue's throwing of the stone providentially leads to Pippin's foolish look into the stone, which deceives Sauron; and it allows Aragorn to claim the stone and use it to deceive Sauron further. This leads him to assume that Aragorn has the One Ring. That in turn provokes Sauron into a whole series of what turn out to be disastrous actions: a premature attack on Minas Tirith; a rushed exit of the army of Angmar from the pass of Cirith Ungol, letting the hobbits through with the One Ring, and so on until the quest to destroy the ring succeeds against all odds.[4]

The critic Jane Chance Nitzsche writes that Saruman's sin, in Christian terms, is to seek Godlike knowledge by gazing in a short-sighted way into the Orthanc palantír in the hope of rivalling Sauron, and, quoting Tolkien in The Two Towers, exploring "all those arts and subtle devices, for which he forsook his former wisdom".[5] She explains that he is in this way giving up actual wisdom for "mere knowledge", imagining the arts were his own but in fact coming from Sauron. This prideful self-aggrandisement leads to his fall.[5] She notes that it is ironic in this context that palantír means "far-sighted".[5]

Pearce compares Sauron's use of the seeing stones to "broadcast propaganda and sow the seeds of despair among his enemies" with the communications technologies used to spread propaganda in the Second World War and then the Cold War, when Tolkien was writing.[6]

In film[edit]

In Peter Jackson's The Two Towers, Saruman uses the Orthanc Palantír, the camera giving an overview as shown, and then zooming in, like a Palantír itself, providing the viewer with an omniscient picture of the whole of Middle-earth.[7]

A palantír appears in the film director Peter Jackson's The Lord of the Rings films. The Tolkien critic Allison Harl compares Jackson to Saruman, and his camera to a palantír, writing that "Jackson chooses to look through the perilous lens, putting his camera to use to exert control over the [original Tolkien] text."[7] Harl cites Laura Mulvey's essay "Visual Pleasure and the Narrative Cinema"[8] which describes "scopophilia", the voyeuristic pleasure of looking, based on Sigmund Freud's writings on sexuality. Harl gives as an example the sequence in The Two Towers where Jackson's camera "like the Evil Eye of Sauron" travels towards Saruman's tower, Isengard and "zooms into the dangerous palantír", in her opinion giving the cinema viewer "an omniscient and privileged perspective" consisting of a Sauron-like power to observe the whole of Middle-earth. The sequence ends fittingly, in her opinion, with Mordor and the Eye of Sauron, bringing the viewer, like Saruman, to meet the Enemy's gaze.[7]

Influence[edit]

The software company Palantir Technologies was named by its founder, Peter Thiel, after Tolkien's seeing stones.[9]

A telescope at the Lowell Observatory, using a main mirror with spherical curvature, has the acronym PALANTIR.[10] This stands for Precision Array of Large-Aperture New Telescopes for Image Reconstruction, and is meant to reference the "far-seeing stones in [the] Lord of the Rings".[11]

References[edit]

Primary[edit]

This list identifies each item's location in Tolkien's writings.
  1. ^ The Lost Road and Other Writings, part 3, "Etymologies" s.v. PAL, TIR. Tar-Palantir was also the name of the 24th ruler of Númenor, so named for being 'far-sighted'.
  2. ^ a b Unfinished Tales, part 4, 3. "The Palantíri"
  3. ^ The Two Towers, book 3, ch. 11 "The Palantír"

Secondary[edit]

  1. ^ a b c Fisher 2013, pp. 501–502.
  2. ^ a b c Shippey 2005, pp. 188, 423-429.
  3. ^ Kocher 1974, p. 63.
  4. ^ Kocher 1974, pp. 45-46, 69-70, 135-136.
  5. ^ a b c Nitzsche 1980, p. 25.
  6. ^ Pearce, Joseph (2014). Catholic Literary Giants: A Field Guide to the Catholic Literary Landscape. Ignatius Press. p. 316. ISBN 978-1-68149-074-8.
  7. ^ a b c Harl, Allison (2007). "The Monstrosity of the Gaze: Critical Problems with a Film Adaptation of "The Lord of the Rings"". Mythlore. 25 (3/4 (Spring/Summer 2007)): 61–69. JSTOR 26814608.
  8. ^ Mulvey, Laura (2001). Leitch, Vincent B. (ed.). Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema (PDF). The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism. W.W. Norton and Company. pp. 57–68.
  9. ^ "A (Pretty) Complete History of Palantir". Maus Strategic Consulting. April 2014. Archived from the original on 16 May 2014.
  10. ^ McCray, W. Patrick (2004). Giant Telescopes: Astronomical Ambition and the Promise of Technology. Harvard University Press. p. 107. ISBN 978-0-674-01147-2.
  11. ^ Gilbert, Sarah (2 May 2017). "Lowell Observatory to Lead $3.25-Million Project to Upgrade Telescope Array". Lowell Observatory.

Sources[edit]