(Updated on 05/10/15)
We’ve reached the end of Book Three and the mid-point of the entire story. And no, I’m not going to use the damned umlaut thing. Sue me.
The heroes turn their backs on Saruman and ride out of Isengard. As they leave, Tolkien gives us witness to the symbol of this antagonist, 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 and the expansion of the War of the Ring.
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 what’s 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. It’s a little clumsy, but forgivable.
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”, the purpose of which must be completely alien to the reader.
You can make two very pertinent comparisons here, in terms of Pippins behaviour. He’s acting unlike himself, irrational and fidgety. Pippin’s young and carefree, but he isn’t a total dolt. 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 on 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. That the Palantir has this kind of effect is a little strange, but might have something to do with the residual influence of Sauron on it, which in turn may have been one of the reasons behind Saruman’s fall from grace.
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: “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.”
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 in the rest of the story, and that will be “off screen”. The antagonists’ few words are tantalising and cruel, as Sauron clearly relishes the idea that he will soon get his hands on a hobbit, and Tolkien is eager to place an emphasis on his laughter, “like being stabbed with knives“. The encounter nearly breaks Pippin mentally 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 encounter also invokes a fairly standard theme in fantasy , especially in this period, that of being corrupted by seeking knowledge. Indeed, this chapter and the last hits that point on several occasions. Pippin can’t help himself and seeks to discover what the ball really is, and is nearly annihilated because of it. Saruman sought greater power and wisdom, and become ensnared by Sauron through the Palantir, or so it is theorised here (something I don’t really like, as it sort of lets Saruman off the hook in terms of his personal responsibility). And Sauron himself, the very symbol of seeking that which is beyond your sphere Middle-Earth, be it power, control over magic or dark knowledge, is the antagonist of the entire epic, an utterly corrupted force far beyond saving, though he was not always evil.
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, again, 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, to act as an audience surrogate if nothing else.
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 gets to show a few facets of his personality in the interrogation too: his harshness and power (“The devilry! What mischief has he done-to himself, and to all of us?”) and more sympathetic and comforting nature (“I forgive you. Be comforted! Things have not turned out as evilly as they might.”)
Gandalf, speaking in a higher fashion than usual, hands the seeing stone over to Aragorn, and, in a very powerful moment, bows as he does so, seemingly acknowledging Aragorn as his superior: “Receive it, lord!”. 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 and is acknowledged as a higher power by Gandalf.
The Nazgul make their first appearance for a while and it’s 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, which is a bit oddly placed, considering it will be a while before we come back to it. As is typical, a lot of words get thrown at the reader here – an explanation of the Palantir’s, Osgiliath, Minis 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 a Nazgul due to arrive. Importantly, he notes that Saruman is not powerless by any stretch of the imagination. The chapter, and the book, ends on a strange image of Pippin’s, as he imagine he, Gandalf and Shadowfax as stone statues, the world passing underneath them, perhaps some kind of nod to a sense of destiny surrounding the group, unable to turn from their path, forced to go where the world will take them.
They’re off to Gondor anyway, but we won’t be seeing them for a while.
“The Palantir”, so short a chapter you could argue that it should have just been cut up and thrown into other chapters, serves its purpose as the coda for Book Three. There is some ill-wielded exposition and narrative choices present, from the simply set-up mini-narrative of the Palantir and Pippin’s obsession to it, to the info-dump on Gondor and its situation at the conclusion, but there are also better moments: Aragorn and Gandalf’s interaction and the wizard’s interrogation of Pippin. I would wager simply that Tolkien, who had multiple story strands in mind, just needed an inciting incident to get the required teams into being. Pippin’s foolish act, and the arrival of the Nazgul, are those incidents, giving the story the room it needs to propel all of these characters in different directions. It isn’t the most memorable or well written chapter in the story, but it does its job.
Book Three, “The Treason Of Isengard”, is done. Best moment, well I’m tempted to simply nominate the Battle of the Hornburg, which is fantastic, 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 characters in fantasy history.
For more Chapter by Chapter reviews of The Lord of the Rings, check out the index here.