“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.”
The palantíri (singular palantír) were originally the craft of the ancient Elves, gifts to the kings of fair Númenor, the wisest and longest-lived of all men. However, after many years and with the influence of Sauron, the Númenoreans became wicked and greedy, and in their pride and folly they attempted to conquer the Undying Lands beyond the West. In response, a great wave destroyed them and sank their beautiful isle of Númenor to the bottom of the sea. Out of this destruction sailed forth the last remnant of the Numenoreans who had remained true: Elendil and his sons, upon nine ships, seven with a star emblazoned upon their sails. For these seven carried each a palantír, a perfect sphere of deep black crystal, heavy, smooth, and unbreakable. With these, the Kings of the Realms in Exile – northern Arnor and southern Gondor – could gaze at events from afar, and communicate their thoughts to other wardens of the stones.
Seven palantíri there were in Middle earth: three in Arnor, and four in Gondor. In the North, one stone was held at Annúminas, the city of kings, while another was kept at Amon Sûl, the keep of Arnor. However, when the Northern Kingdom failed and the fortifications at Amon Sûl were laid bare to Weathertop, the stones were lost in flight by shipwreck over the frozen sea. In the South, the greatest stone was housed at Osgiliath, the capital city, but was lost in the civil wars of men that followed. Another was maintained at Minas Ithil, the Tower of the Moon, but when the turret was lost to the Nazgûl and became Minas Morgul, the palantír fell into Sauron’s hands. The last two of Gondor were kept in the cities of Minas Tirith and Isengard, long forgotten by even the wise until Saruman rediscovered their power. Hence they became the “lost seeing stones of Númenor.”
The lure of the palantíri: the lore of the lost seeing stones. What power there is to see and communicate at a distance, what temptation to be drawn into these globes of glass? A risk too, foreshadowing our own modern mechanisms of long-distance communication: to be consumed, to be dominated, to be controlled like Saruman with our own device by powers beyond our proximity. A danger, also: to stumble into channels unknown to us, like Pippin, and to nearly give up our secrets and our spirits. The palantíri were tools, and like all tools subject to the intentions of both evil and good: within them capacity to command and be commanded, yet also the possibility to look afar at things of beauty and worth.
And what of the last palantír, the one in the North at the Tower Hills of Emyn Beraid? This stone was different, for having been set up in the high tower of Elosirion, it was said that it wouldn’t communicate with the rest but only looked back over the Sea towards the vanished West. Though the palantíri had been darkened by the hand of Sauron, perhaps in this last palantír did they yet maintain a noble purpose, though tinged with sadness: for from here could the exilic kings look back at the home they had lost, and remember the splendor of Númenor, and the high potential of mankind.