Peter, Pippin, and the Palantír
Go back and re-read the sequences related to Pippin and the palantír, and I think you'll find something pretty striking: that Jackson does a better job of dramatizing Pippin and his relationship with Merry than does Tolkien...  

Analysis by Greg Wright


Peter, Pippin, and the Palantír  

This page was created on January 22, 2004
This page was last updated on May 31, 2005

Peter, Pippin and the Palantír

My librarian friend from Nashua pointed out to me the other day that my objectivity, with regard to Peter Jackson's filmed adaptation, seems to have gone by the wayside. I'm afraid he's probably right.

There's something about attending press screenings, press conferences and rubbing elbows with the stars—even having Viggo Mortensen ask you for an autograph—that's bound to make you feel more like an insider than an objective voice for the public. It's a process which is seductive, one which is—well, powerful. It's like toying with Rings of Power, or with the palantíri. Of the latter Gandalf says, "Perilous to us all are the devices of an art deeper than we possess ourselves." And I must confess—the art of film is clearly something beyond me. If it weren't, I'd be in Jackson's shoes, and not my own. And the power of Jackson's art has no doubt influenced my thinking due both to my attraction to it, and to my immersion in it.

But what does Gandalf mean, precisely, by what he says? Or, what, perhaps, is Tolkien getting at with the palantíri? And does Jackson treat those fiery orbs differently?

Right off the bat, I'll be very clear—this column will not be an exhaustive treatment of the issue, but merely an introduction. For those more interested in the palantíri, the best resources are the chapter in the The Two Towers titled, "The Palantír;" "The Pyre of Denethor" in The Return of the King, and "The Palantíri" in Unfinished Tales. The latter provides the most thorough discussion.

In a Nutshell

One of the most effective and gripping scenes in The Return of the King is Pippin's theft of the palantír. Having found it in the wreckage of Isengard, it preys on his mind. His obsession leads him to "borrow" the stone from the sleeping Gandalf, and he unwittingly puts himself—and the Quest—in jeopardy by exposing himself directly to the scrutiny of Sauron. It is fortunate (or perhaps providential) that Pippin is pure of heart, if willful, and that Sauron is misled by what he sees and hears.

But the movie doesn't tell us a lot of the things that the books do. What are the palantíri, for instance, and where did they come from? Well, they're not "crystal balls," and don't work that way. Properly speaking, they wouldn't even work if they were moved about during use, as is the case in the film. But they are like ancient videophones, tuned to specific frequencies and viewing directions, that have the ability to view what's going on at great distance (if the user knows how to control them); and they have huge hard drives attached which can store a complete record of everything they've seen in the past. They were made thousands of years previously by an elf named Feanor, and were given to Aragorn's ancestor Elendil. There were seven of them, and when the strength of the ancient kingdoms failed, they fell into disuse and many of them were lost. One remained at Orthanc, one at Minas Tirith, which Denethor uses; and one fell into Sauron's hands.

Jackson's Plot Point

In the film, the episode with the palantír mostly serves as a plot device to separate Merry and Pippin, and to goad Gandalf into departing Edoras for Minas Tirith. There's no indication that Saruman was even aware of the stone's presence at Isengard, or of its loss—though we know, of course, from the previous movies, that he's used it, and that Gandalf thought it unwise. There's also no reference in the film to the stone at Minas Tirith, nor to the role it plays in Denethor's despair. Most notable, perhaps, is the fact that the stone just sort of passes out of the story, without further mention. Where did it get to, after that night at Edoras? Did Peter Jackson just forget about it?

Early reports about the planned extended release of The Return of the King make it clear that much of this missing information will be restored. And—as I've perhaps too frequently, too vocally and too generously noted—Peter Jackson has had to make some tough choices about what to include in his films, and what to cut. With regard to the palantír, I think his choices were pretty effective. Sure, we don't get a lot of the details which purists like me really prefer. But go back and re-read the sequences related to Pippin and the palantír, and I think you'll find something pretty striking: that Jackson does a better job of dramatizing Pippin and his relationship with Merry than does Tolkien. This is not insignificant with regard to the success of the films. If a great deal of the emotional payoff of the battle for Gondor hinges on Pippin's song for Denethor—and I think it does—we have to concede that this payoff comes due to Jackson's investment in a host of small scenes related to Merry and Pippin, stretching all the way back into The Fellowship of the Ring. And this investment includes Jackson's treatment of the palantír, and his choice to emphasize Pippin's use of it at the expense of Aragorn's.

Tolkien's Plot Points

Tolkien, it must be said, does use the palantír to move the plot forward in much the same way as Jackson; but there's so much more, too. Not to give too much away for those who are anticipating the extended DVD (and want to keep it that way), it's fair to say that Tolkien also uses the palantír as exposition for three important plot points: the treachery of Saruman, the despair of Denethor, and the ascendancy of Aragorn.

According to Tolkien, Saruman meddles with things that he shouldn't. He believes that he can employ the palantír at Orthanc to further his own objectives, and even to selectively reveal himself and his purposes to Sauron. But the art of the stone is beyond him; his will and his powers are inferior to Sauron's; his purpose is corrupt; and, above all, he has no right to the use of the stone. For Tolkien, the palantír is the means of Saruman's undoing—not only because he increasingly falls prey to Sauron's corrupting power, but because he also unwittingly reveals his treachery to Sauron (before the Ring even leaves the Shire).

Of course, it remains to be seen whether Peter Jackson deals at all with Denethor's use of the stone in Minas Tirith. In contrast to Saruman, Denethor does have the hereditary right to use of the stone, as Steward of Gondor. So properly speaking, the stone itself is his ally in resisting the will and corrupting influence of Sauron, who has twisted the use of the stones to his own purposes. "There is nothing," Gandalf tells Pippin, "that Sauron cannot turn to evil uses." While "Sauron failed to dominate" Denethor, as Tolkien says in Unfinished Tales, Sauron still manages to "influence him by deceits." He reinforces negative thought with negative fact. There is a fleet of black ships, for instance, heading up Anduin, yes; but Denethor is unaware that those ships bring victory in battle, not defeat. Sauron's attention cannot always be on the stones, so Denethor can at times direct it to his own purposes; but often enough, the vision is clouded.

For Aragorn, however, things work quite differently: first, because he is the rightful heir to the stones; second, because his will is sufficient to contend with Sauron's; and third, because his judgment is sound. His claim to the palantír is enough, for Tolkien, to inspire Gandalf's fealty: bowing, he says to Aragorn, "Receive it, lord, in earnest of other things that shall be given back." He then cautions Aragorn about rash use of the stone, to which Aragorn responds, "When have I been hasty or unwary, who have waited and prepared for so many long years?" And so he does contend with the will of Sauron, and comes out on top. Tolkien's use of the palantír to emphasize Aragorn's kingly qualities will be an interesting challenge for Jackson and Mortensen.

The Real Lessons

Plot points and character development aside, there are some moral lessons to be drawn from the episode with the palantír.

First, and most obvious, is the difference between wisdom and folly. Whether in Tolkien or in Jackson—and perhaps even stronger in Jackson's case—there is no doubt that Pippin's presumptuous peek into the stone is unwise. Not only does it present a great personal danger to his mind, it presents a great danger to the Quest and the people of Middle-earth. The lesson? Know your bounds. Don't chafe at them. Earn respect, earn greater responsibility, and in the meantime practice humility. Even Jesus, the son of God, "did not consider equality with God something to be grasped," but instead humbled himself. If humility is good enough for Jesus, it's good enough for a Hobbit, and for us.

Second, and a little less obvious, is the fact that when we transgress—"fall", if you're Boyens and Walsh, or "sin" if you're Tolkien—we've no one to blame but ourselves. Pippin wants to claim that he "had no notion" of what he was doing; but Gandalf chides him, "Oh yes, you had. You knew you were behaving wrongly and foolishly; and you told yourself so, though you did not listen." So the problem with sin is not in knowing the difference between right and wrong, but purely in the doing. As the Apostle Paul notes, we are "without excuse."

But finally, the big lesson for Tolkien is that there simply are things bigger than us that we can't grasp, that we can't control; and that, if we meddle with them, we may be placing ourselves in grave danger. In Tolkien's mind, no doubt, such things included the mechanisms of war and the workings of atomic physics. Also, no doubt, he was considering things proscribed by Scripture: necromancy, invoking spirits, astrology. The point is not that these things are necessarily evil in themselves; but that, like the palantír, we can't always be sure of the powers behind such things, whether good or ill—and we are quite likely less well-equipped than we think to resist such powers.

It's fair to ask, I imagine—how immune can we really be to the power of film? Having allowed ourselves to be entertained by it—and entertained well, I might add—can we really remain objective? The voice from Nashua gives me pause...

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