We’ve reached the end of Book Three and the mid-point of the entire story.
The heroes turn their backs on Saruman and ride out of Isengard. As they leave, Tolkien gives us witness to the symbol of this bad guy, the White Hand, lying broken and shattered on the roadside. It’s the symbolic end of this particular adventure, the little bad smashed and over as a threat. At least for now. This arc is over, and “The Palantir” acts as little more than a coda to the war with Isengard, and prologue for the Gandalf/Pippin plot of Book Five.
As the group rides back towards Helm’s Deep, Merry and Gandalf are back to exhibiting their classic traits. Merry is unknowledgeable about everything going on around him – knowing nothing about Rohan, Helm’s Deep, or whats been going on with the “big people” while Gandalf is being as dodgy as possible, refusing to really answer questions. The story of the chapter is set up in a brief paragraph, as Gandalf ponders about how Saruman was even able to maintain communications with Sauron.
Pippin is restless, and we know that something is up because that isn’t a very usual mood for him. It becomes very clear early in his conversations what’s he’s after, and that’s “the ball”.
You can make two very pertinent comparisons here, in terms of Pippins behaviour. He’s acting unlike himself, irrational and fidgety. He’s about to go and do something that he knows is fairly dumb, if not outright dangerous (Pippin is associated more with blind rather than purposeful stupidity). He’s twitchy and irritable. Most importantly, he’s unable to hide effectively what he is after, dropping his desire clumsily into the conversation, so clumsily that even Merry picks up in his need.
Sound familiar? We’ve seen this twice before, once with Bilbo at the very beginning of the story, in his behaviour towards Gandalf, and, in a more drawn out manner with Boromir throughout the course of Book Two. It’s that same kind of unnatural desire, addiction, it just isn’t the Ring in this case. Pippin’s behaviour is of a man who has to get his next fix, and is willing to do something incredibly risky in order to do it. Magic objects in Middle-Earth are, clearly, not for the easily controlled or influenced.
The actual scene with Pippin and the Palantir is fairly horrific and scary, if only because the reader can’t really have a clue what is happening to him. He’s talking to someone at some rate, or being forced to see something that he doesn’t want to see, and it’s painful.
Pippin does something here that neither Gandalf the grand master of magic, nor Frodo the plucky little hero will actually do: go face to face with Sauron, the big bad. Only one other character will do that later. The encounter nearly breaks him but, perhaps because of the inherent resilience within his species, he will survive. In fact, from this moment onward, he’ll become a much harder individual, so maybe this is what does that. In truth, he’s had, as Gandalf explains, a very lucky escape, on two counts. Sauron misses his chance to win the war in a stroke, and Pippin learns from his brush with fire.
The Palantir then becomes the plot device that allows Tolkien to begin moving forward into the endgame, at least for this group of characters. It’s time to start splitting them up, and Pippin’s misadventure allows Gandalf the excuse to bring him along on his impromptu trip to Minis Tirith. It comes off as just a tad convenient, but Tolkien clearly had enough of Merry and Pippin being an inseparable duo, and, besides, nothing new can be seen in this story without a hobbit being handy to gape at it.
As mentioned, Pippin’s encounter with the Dark Lord is lucky on two counts, and the second is part of the information war that is being waged. By simply seeing Pippin in the ball, Sauron has been put at a disadvantage, unaware of what the true picture is on the ground in Rohan. It may only last a few days, perhaps shorter, but this kind of espionage action is crucial within wartime. Days are important, and Pippin’s foolish action may have been a secret boon. In this, Tolkien appears to be trying to put a bit of a positive spin on the hobbits actions, but it is an effective spin at any rate.
Gandalf hands the seeing stone over to Aragorn, and, in a very powerful moment, bows as he does so, seemingly acknowledging Aragorn as his superior. To a point. He stands the hell back up fairly fast, and proceeds to give the man who would be king some unsolicited advice, so it’s not all subservience. But, it’s still another important moment for Aragorn, somewhat on a par with the reforging of Anduril, as he takes up another symbol of his destined office.
The Nazgul make their first appearance for a while and its a close one. It is, perhaps, a reminder of what’s to come, as the Ringwraiths will be back in the story in a major way in Book Five. As is typical of the guy, Gandalf rides off with Pippin quickly, and without much explanation. Dear oh dear. It will be a long time, and many events will take place, before this group is reunited again. It is a period where Aragorn, Merry and Pippin will face their big tests, and for Theoden, his last one. Reading it for a second time, one gets that sense of melancholy, knowing what is to come.
The final few pages of Book Three are given over to Gandalf and Pippin, and some brief exposition on Gondor. As is typical, a lot of words get thrown at the reader here – an explanation of the Palantir’s, Osgiliath, Minus Morgal. It’s all set-up for Book Five, so the reader doesn’t head into the major part of the War of the Ring without a clue of what is going on. Gandalf gives some brief, and last, thoughts to Saruman, who now finds himself trapped in his tower with Nazgul due to arrive. Importantly, he notes that Saruman is not powerless by any stretch of the imagination.
They’re off to Gondor anyway, but we won’t be seeing them for a while.
The movie puts “The Palantir” at the start of The Return of the King and keeps it the same as the book for the most part, though Pippin’s conversation with Sauron becomes the means by which Gandalf discovers the plan to attack Gondor. This has always been the assumption in the book (what else is there to attack?) but it’s a way to more clearly explain this, in a visual form, to people who haven’t read the book.
Book Three, “The Treason Of Isengard”, is done. Best moment, well I’m tempted to simply nominate the Battle of the Hornburg, which is awesome, but instead I’m going to give the nod to “The Uruk-Hai” for being an excellent chapter at moving the plot along while containing its own little story. The worst moment has to be Gandalf’s surprising and poorly explained resurrection, which remains, in my eyes, the weakest moment in the whole story.
Next time, we’re back with the Ring-bearer, his batman, and one of the most famous villains in fantasy history.
For more Chapter by Chapter reviews of The Lord of the Rings, check out the index here.