Of the Palantíri

These were stones of perfect round shape and had the abilities to show images from distant places and times. It seems they were initially made for this purpose alone. People, who knew how to use them, could interchange therefore information from afar, both in distance and time.

palan (Quenya) far and wide

tir (Quenya) watch; watch over

In the Simarillion, (Chapter 6, Of Fëanor and the Unchaining of Melkor), they are mentioned as one of the first creations of the restless mind and high craft-skills of Fëanor.

The first gems that Fëanor made were white and colourless, but being set under starlight they would blaze with blue and silver fires brighter than Helluin; and other crystals he made also, wherein things far away could be seen small but clear, as with the eyes of the eagles of Manwë. Seldom were the hands and mind of Fëanor at rest.

It seems that the Palantíri were at some later period offered as a gift from the Eldar to the Numenoreans.

HoMe XII (The Prologue And Appendices To The Lord Of The Rings) lays further the story of how the “seeing stones”'' were brought to Middle Earth and their fate in later years.

3319. The great fleet of Ar-Pharazon? sets sail into the West and encompassing Avallon assails the shores of Valinor.
Numenor is destroyed, and swallowed up by the sea. The world is broken and Valinor separated from the lands of the living.

Elendil and his sons Isildur and Anarion escape and fly east with nine great ships to Middle Earth. They bring with them the Seven Stones or Palantíri, gifts of the Eldar of Avallon, and Isildur brings also a seedling of the White Tree of Avallon.

The Palantíri, or the Seven Stones of Sight, were divided, and set up in towers: three in Arnor, at Annuminas, and at Amon Sul, and upon the Emyn Beraid looking towards the Sea; four in the realm of Gondor, at Osgiliath, at Minas Ithil, at Minas Anor, and at Orthanc in Angrenost (Isengard).

The “Early Legend” (HoMe):

Therefore they built very high towers in those days, must be the first reference to the White Towers on Emyn Beraid, the Tower Hills. Cf. The Lord of the Rings Appendix A (I. iii), where it is told of the palantir of Emyn Beraid that Elendil set it there so that he could look back with "straight sight" and see Eressea in the vanished West; but the bent seas below covered Numenor for ever.

HoMe XII (The Prologue And Appendices To The Lord Of The Rings)

1974. End of the North-kingdom. The Witch-king destroys Fornost, lays the land waste, and scatters the remnants of the Dunedain. Arvedui flies north taking the Palantíri(the two that remain). He attempts to escape by ship to Gondor from Forochel, but is lost at sea, and the Stones disappear. His sons take refuge with Cirdan.

Arvedui's fate: his death is given as 'slain 1974'. In a subsequent addition the same is said of his flight by ship and drowning as in C, and the loss of the Palantíri in the shipwreck is entioned, but they are not identified: they are called simply 'the two that remain'.

In this text that of Amon Sul was lost when the tower was destroyed ('Maybe it was taken by the Witch-king', p. 209, Arveleg I). So also in C the Palantíri taken by Arvedui are those of Annuminas and Emyn Beraid, for in that text the Stone of Amon Sul was said to have been broken (p. 194, Arveleg I). C was emended to say that it was saved and removed to Fornost (ibid.): this was the final version of the history, with the Stoneslost in the sea becoming those of Annuminas and Amon Sul, while that of Emyn Beraid, which had a special character, remained in the North (see RK p. 322, footnote, and Unfinished Tales p. 413, note 16). But the C text was not emended in the present passage.

Reference about the history of the seven Palantíri is given in "The Lord of the Rings", The Two Towers, when Gandalf mentions some facts on the matter.

"Pippin was silent again for a while. 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 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."

"The Palantíri came from beyond Westernesse from Eldamar. The Noldor made them. Fëanor himself, maybe, wrought them, in days so long ago that the time cannot be measured in years."

"Perilous to us all are the devices of an art deeper than we possess ourselves"

"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 Annúminas, and Amon Sûl, and Elendil's Stone was on the Tower Hills that look towards Mithlond in the Gulf of Lune where the grey ships lie."

"Each palantír 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."

"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."

"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 Fëanor at their work, while both the White Tree and the Golden were in flower!' He sighed and fell silent."

As for their appearance and function of the Palantíri, a more detailed information is given in the Unfinished Tales, “The Palantíri

They were perfect spheres, appearing when at rest to be made of solid glass or crystal deep black in hue..

They were very heavy but perfectly smooth, and would suffer no damage if by accident or malice they were unseated and rolled off their tables

Though without any external markings of any kind they had permanent poles, and were originally so placed in their sites that they stood "upright:" their diameters from pole to pole pointed to the earth's centre, but the permanent nether pole must then be at the bottom. The faces along the circumference in this position were the viewing faces, receiving the visions from the out-side, but transmitting them to the eye of a "surveyor" upon the far side…. But the minor Stones, those of Orthanc, Ithil, and Anor, and probably Annúminas, had also fixed orientation in their original situa-tion, so that (for example) their west face would only look west and turned in other directions was blank.

Only the surveyor using the Master Stone of Osgiliath could "eavesdrop." While two of the other Stones were in re-sponse, the third would find them both blank.

Alone the Palantíri could only "see:" they did not transmit sound. Ungoverned by a directing mind they were wayward, and their "visions" were (apparently at least) haphazard

The vision of the Palantíri was not "blinded" or "occluded" by physical obstacles, but only by darkness

A viewer could by his will cause the vision of the Stone to concentrate on some point, on or near its direct line

“Notes” to “The Palantíri”, UT

By themselves the Stones could only see: scenes or figures in distant places, or in the past. These were without explanation; and at any rate for men of later days it was difficult to direct what visions should be revealed by the will or desire of a surveyor. But when another mind occupied a Stone in accord, thought could be "transferred" (received as "speech"), and visions of the things in the mind of the surveyor of one Stone could be seen by the other sur-veyor. These powers were originally used mainly in consultation, for the purpose of exchanging news necessary to government, or advice and opinions; less often in simple friendship and pleasure or in greetings and condolence. It was only Sauron who used a Stone for the transference of his superior will, dominating the weaker surveyor and forcing him to reveal hidden thought and to submit to commands. [Author's note.]

"Notes” to “The Palantíri”, UT

16 The case was different in Arnor. Lawful possession of the Stones belonged to the King (who normally used the Stone of Annúminas); but the Kingdom became divided and the high-kingship was in dispute. The Kings of Arthedain, who were plainly those with the just claim, maintained a special warden at Amon Sûl, whose Stone was held to be the chief of the Northern Palantíri, being the largest and most powerful and the one through which communication with Gondor was mainly conducted. After the destruction of Amon Sûl by Angmar in 1409 both Stones were placed at Fornost, where the King of Arthedain dwelt. These were lost in the shipwreck of Arvedui, and no deputy was left with any author-ity direct or inherited to use the Stones. One only remained in the North, the Elendil Stone on Emyn Beraid, but this was one of special properties, and not employable in communications. Hereditary right to use it would no doubt still reside in the "heir of Isildur," the recognized chieftain of the Dunedain, and descendant of Arvedui. But it is not known whether any of them, including Aragorn, ever looked into it, desiring to gaze into the lost West. This Stone and its tower were maintained and guarded by Círdan and the Elves of Lindon. [Author's note.] – It is told in Appendix A (I, iii) to The Lord of the Rings that the Palantír of Emyn Beraid "was unlike the others and not in accord with them; it looked only to the Sea. Elendil set it there so that he could look back with 'straight sight' and see Eressëa in the vanished West; but the bent seas below covered Númenor for ever." Elendil's vision of Eressëa in "the Palantír of Emyn Beraid is told of also in Of the Rings of Power (The Silmarillion p. 292); "it is believed that thus he would at whiles see far away even the Tower of Avallónë upon Eressëa, where the Master-stone abode, and yet abides." It is notable that in the present account there is no reference to this Master-stone.

“Notes” to “The Palantíri”, UT

The later note referred to in note 17 treats some of these aspects the Palantíri slightly differently; in particular the concept "shrouding" seems differently employed. This note, very hasty and somewhat obscure, reads in part: "They retained the images received, so that each contained within itself a multiplicity of images and scenes, some from a remote past. They could not 'see' in the dark; that is, things that were in the dark were not recorded by them. They themselves could be and usually were kept in the dark, because it was much easier then to see the scenes that they pre-sented, and as the centuries passed to limit their 'overcrowding.' How they were thus 'shrouded' was kept secret and so is now un-known. They were not 'blinded' by physical obstacles, as a wall, a hill, or a wood, so long as the distant objects were themselves in light. It was said, or guessed, by later commentators that the Stones were placed in their original sites in spherical cases that were locked to prevent their misuse by the unauthorized; but that this casing also performed the office of shrouding them and making them quiescent. The cases must therefore have been made of some metal or other substance not now known." Marginal jottings asso-ciated with this note are partly illegible, but so much can be made out, that the remoter the past the clearer the view, while for distant viewing there was a "proper distance," varying with the Stones, at which distant objects were clearer. The greater Palantíri could look much further than the lesser; for the lesser the "proper distance" was of the order of five hundred miles, as between the Orthanc-stone and that of Anor. "Ithil was too near, but was largely used for [illegible words], not for personal contacts with Minas Anor."

The orientation was not, of course, divided into separate "quarters" but continuous; so that its direct line of vision to a surveyor sitting south-east would be to the north-west, and so on. [Author's note.]

In a detached note this aspect is more explicitly described: "Two persons, each using a Stone 'in accord' with the other, could converse, but not by sound, which the Stones did not transmit. Looking one at the other they would exchange 'thought' – not their full or true thought, or their intentions, but 'silent speech,' the thoughts they wished to transmit (already formalized in linguistic form in their minds or actually spoken aloud), which would be received by their respondents and of course immediately transformed into 'speech,' and only reportable as such."

About the effect of a Palantír over an “unskilled” surveyor one can learn a lot from

“The Lord of the Rings”

The Two Towers:

"Pippin ………. 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…."

"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."

The Return of the King:

''"Then suddenly Denethor laughed. He stood up tall and proud again, and stepping swiftly back to the table he lifted from it the pillow on which his head had lain. Then coming to the doorway he drew aside the covering, and lo! he had between his hands a palantír. And as he held it up, it seemed to those that looked on that the globe began to glow with an inner flame, so that the lean face of the Lord was lit as with a red fire, and it seemed cut out of hard stone, sharp with black shadows, noble, proud, and terrible. His eyes glittered…"

‘Pride and despair!’ he cried. ‘Didst thou think that the eyes of the White Tower were blind? Nay, I have seen more than thou knowest, Grey Fool. For thy hope is but ignorance…''

"Then Denethor leaped upon the table, and standing there wreathed in fire and smoke he took up the staff of his stewardship that lay at his feet and broke it on his knee. Casting the pieces into the blaze he bowed and laid himself on the table, clasping the palantír with both hands upon his breast. And it was said that ever after, if any man looked in that Stone, unless he had a great strength of will to turn it to other purpose, he saw only two aged hands withering in flame".


All these facts are quite astonishing, as the Palantíri seem to be rather devices of our own contemporary days – distant in time from both - the events described in the Middle-earth myths and the years J.R.R Tolkien himself lived and wrote.

From the point of view of contemporary time, our time, a Palantír could be:

a monitor

a video camera

a video-recorder....

And not even our modern technologies have yet achieved “seeing through time”, which the Palantíri offered in Middle-earth!

These facts inevitably arise a question: “Where and How did J.R.R.Tolkien come up with the idea of the “seeing stones?”

But just like many other wonders that the Professor created in Middle-earth, these, too, have not found exact explanation.

See also: The Palantíri

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