Are the Palantiri Really as Impractical as They Seem? (Day 43)

Camera: Imperial Savoy Film: FujiChrome 400D (expired 08/94)

Camera: Imperial Savoy
Film: FujiChrome 400D (expired 08/94)

“All that day they plodded along….” Strider and our hobbits continue closer to Weathertop, once known as Amon Sul.

Thoughts on the Passage – Book I, Chapter 11 (p184 50th Anniv. Ed.)
Tolkien describes Weathertop almost like a volcano: “It had a conical top, slightly flattened at the summit.” According to Journey of Frodo, Weathertop summit is 1,000 feet above sea level (the Marshes through which they just passed were around 100 feet above).

Being such a prominence, it’s no wonder that Weathertop has had quite a history dating back to the end of the Second Age, when the Numenorians came to Middle-earth. Then, it was called Amon Sul, meaning “hill of the wind.”

While it was strategic, Amon Sul was also where one of the Palantiri were placed. These were seeing stones, created by Feanor (the Elf who created the Silmarils) during the Time of the Trees, sometime before the First Age. There were seemingly quite a few of these just lying around until the fall of Numenor, when Elendil (father of Isildor) rescued seven of them and brought them to Middle-earth (in the year 3319, Second Age).

In essay “The Palantiri” (part of Unfinished Tales), they were described as “perfect spheres, appearing when at rest to be made of solid glass or crystal deep black in hue.” The smallest was a foot in diameter, though the stone at Amon Sul, the chief of the Palantiri, was so large that it could not be lifted by one man.

The Palantiri were placed on low tables, resting in a central cup. There were incredibly specific instructions on how to place them and where to stand when using them. When in use, they could only transmit sight, not sound. Tolkien lists an unbelievable amount of “fine print” when describing their uses and limitations. Somehow or another, the Palantiri were used to communicate over long distances. They weren’t evil or even really magical – they were simply seeing stones, one of the largest of which was atop Amon Sul, Weathertop.

In 3320, the year after the Palantiri were brought to Middle-earth, the construction at Amon Sul began. The seven stones were spread out through Arnor and Gondor. For over 800 years the tower stood on Amon Sul, and the Palantir worked as advertised. With the breaking up of Arnor (year 861 of the Third Age), however, the Weather Hills became contested and Amon Sul was highly sought after by the sub-kingdoms.

During the latter days of this fighting, around 1300, the northern sub-kingdom of Rhudaur, with the aid of the Witch-king of Angmar (even more to the north), assault the Weather Hills in an attempt to seize the palantir.

Not long after, in 1400ish, the Witch-king himself, leading his armies, lays waste to Rhudaur and Cardolan (to the south) and razes the tower at Amon Sul, but the Palantir was rescued by the Dunedain who carried it back to Fornost, their capital. This was in 1409.

There, in Fornost, it stayed until 1975 of the Third Age, when the Witch-king once more attacked, this time overrunning the last of the remaining sub-kingdoms, Arthedain. The last king of Arthedain, named Arvedui, fled with the Palantir into the mines to the north, but that didn’t work out so well, so he boarded a ship to escape. That ship, however, was trapped in the ice and sank. Along with it went the Palantir of Amon Sul, as well as another.

This is the story told in Appendix A of Lord of the Rings, but Tolkien’s other writings (mostly in the build up to writing to Appendices) give the Palantir of Amon Sul a different ending.

In 1409, when the Witch-king attacked, they destroyed the Palantir along with the tower. However, elsewhere (in Unfinished Tales, Tolkien writes that “they were indeed unbreakable by any violence then controlled by men, though some believed that great heat, such as that of Orodruin [Mt. Doom], might shatter them….”

In another draft, Tolkien wrote that while the tower atop Amon Sul was destroyed, “no one knows what became of the Stone. Maybe it was taken by the Witch-king.”

From that time until the relative present tense of the story (year 3018), Amon Sul remained in ruins, the Palantir lost or broken or destroyed or who knows. The mountain itself became little more than a landmark to those traveling the East Road. But some, like Gandalf and the Elves, remembered its origin.

A Few Notes:

  • It always amazes me how Tolkien fleshes out the little details. I could have given a lengthy history of each of the Palantiri, including one that was set up to look west to Tol Eressea in what used to be Numenor.
  • It also amazes me that while setting out to give a history of Weathertop, I ended up giving a history of the Palentir. I guess you can’t really separate one from the other.
  • While the main history comes from Appendix A, the other versions are given in The People of Middle Earth. I’ve referred to this book before, and it really is worth seeking out and picking up.
  • Using the Palantiri must have been exceedingly frustrating. Since you couldn’t hear the other end, you’d have to come up with little hand signals or be able to read facial expressions. I realize that it’s neat and magical and all that, but it’s this close to being the most impractical means of communication ever.

About the Photo
Well, this one is pretty obvious, but I’ve got a weird feeling that I’ve used it before. No idea why I would though, this is clearly Amon Sul (or as Amon Sul as I get). It’s the Desert View tower at the Grand Canyon.


  • Miles today: 5
  • Miles thus far: 205
  • 36 miles to Weathertop Summit
  • 255 miles to Rivendell
  • 1,574 miles to Mt. Doom

Today’s stopping place: Still on the way to the Weather Hills.(map)

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18 thoughts on “Are the Palantiri Really as Impractical as They Seem? (Day 43)

          • 1. I giggled at you thinking about it a lot. I hope it hasn’t kept you up at night.

            2. Tengwar Quenya mode or Sindarin?

            3. I made this a few months ago. Not sure if you saw it, but it makes me laugh.

            • Nah, it was my first idea, I just had to make sure.

              Fun fact: I know nothing at all about the languages. I know they were super duper important to Tolkien, but I’ve got no desire to learn Sindarin or dress like an Elf. That said, the swooshy kind.

              Ha! Awesome! That’s great. Which language is it? I was thinking of the more swooshy script, by the way.

            • That’s awesome. I don’t really know much about the languages. What is the literal translation for “let’s make out”? I assume it’s slightly different.

            • Oh, heh. I didn’t do a literal translation, just used the Tengwar Quenya alphabet and mode (punctuation) to write it. It’s not actual elvish, just English written using the alphabet.

              I don’t actually speak any of the languages, although I’ve been tempted by an online course. Maybe when the kids are a little older and I can immerse myself (although my husband would probably roll his eyes so hard they’d fall out of his skull).

            • Ah ha! Now that makes some sense.

              There are some courses and seminars online for pretty well the entire legendarium. Great stuff. I’ve listened in on the 35 part Silmarillion seminar, recently, and it was just inspiring.

              So go for it. I mean there’s no (middle) earthly reason you’ll ever need it, but why should that stop you?

  1. Add to that you seem to need a lot of energy to move the thing to whatever you want to see.

    However can’t it see back and forward in time as well? Or did I dream that? Maybe I’m thinking of the force…

    • As far as I know, I think it’s a present tense thing. And hell yes – they’re huge. The movie shows them as like crystal balls, but the smallest was the size of a basketball. The largest took two men (two Numenorian Men) to carry it. That’s ridiculous. Cut the crap, Feanor!

  2. I’m fairly certain that the one in the Tower of Ichthilion could see the future. Didn’t Sauron use that feature to manipulate Denethor?

    • Not technically, no. Sauron could feed his will/images into his stone and used it to mess with both Saruman and Denethor. But the stones themselves only had the power to transmit the present. The essay in Unfinished Tales doesn’t mention anything about the power to see the future, neither does the big ass JRR Tolkien Encyclopedia.

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