Those who have read The Lord of the Rings will know about the palantiri, the seeing stones which we look into at our peril. Anyone who looks into one of these stones does not see a complete lie. On the contrary, what he sees might be true. The problem is not that he is seeing a lie but that he is only seeing that part of the truth that the dominant will that controls the stones wants him to see. Thus Denethor, the Steward of Minas Tirith, develops the habit of looking into one of these stones and is shown repeatedly the sheer might of the enemy which is marching on his city and country. Faced with such seemingly insurmountable odds, he despairs of any chance of withstanding the onslaught of evil and commits suicide.
The problem is that it is Sauron’s will that controls the stones. Sauron, a demon whom Tolkien describes as the greatest of Satan’s servants, shows Denethor what he wants Denethor to see. Denethor, not exhibiting the cardinal virtues of prudence and temperance, does not have the sense to refrain from peering into the stones and is thereby seduced into believing that the triumph of evil is inevitable.
Perhaps, on one level, and most obviously, the palantiri can be likened to the crystal balls of the spiritualists which purport to see into the spiritual realm. It was the experience of this sort of palantir stone which prompted or provoked G. K. Chesterton to write “The Crystal”, one of his finest poems, after his wife had succumbed to the lure of spiritualism following the suicide of her brother:
I saw it; low she lay as one in dreams,
And round that holy hair, round and beyond
My Frances, my inviolable, screamed
The scandal of the dead men’s demi-monde.
Close to that face, a window into heaven,
Close to the hair’s brown surf of broken waves
I saw the idiot faces of the ghosts
That are the fungus, not the flower, of graves.
You whom the pinewoods robed in sun and shade
You who were sceptred with thistle’s bloom,
God’s thunder! What have you to do with these
The lying crystal and the darkened room.
Leave the weird queens that find the sun too strong,
To mope and cower beneath Druidic trees,
The still, sweet gardens of the dastard’s dream.
God’s thunder! What have you to do with these?
Low fields and shining lie in crystal-land
Peace and strange pleasure: wonder-lands untrod,
But not plain words, nor love of open things,
Truth, nor strong laughter, nor the fear of God.
I will not look: I am a child of earth,
I see the sun and wood, the sea, and grass.
I only saw one spirit. She is there
Staring for spirits in a lump of glass.
Chesterton encapsulates the dangers of the crystal balls of the spiritualists with his customary clarity and brilliance but he does not encapsulate the fullness of what Tolkien means by the palantiri. The full meaning is revealed by Tolkien when he tells us, in the words of Gandalf to Pippin, that the word palantir literally means “that which looks far away.” More specifically, “palantir” has its etymological roots in the elvish language of Quenya and consists of two elements: palan which means “far and wide”, and tir which means “watch.” This being so, palantir is often translated as simply “far-seer.” Here we see Tolkien linguistically at his most playful because “far-see” in German is Fernsehen, the German word for television, and indeed the word television itself also means “far-see” or “far-seer.” Tele is Greek for “far” and video is Latin for “see.”
Television was very much an ascendant technology at the time that Tolkien was writing The Lord of the Rings and he was clearly unsettled by the power that this new magic possessed to spread propaganda. In 1944, in the midst of the writing of his epic, Tolkien had written a letter to his son in which he lamented the lies being disseminated by the BBC and the Ministry of Information, the latter of which would inspire Orwell’s Ministry of Truth, the propaganda ministry in Nineteen Eighty-Four. Today, more than seventy years after Tolkien had satirized the dark magic of television, through the power of the palantiri, there is a deeply ironic and wistfully whimsical lesson to be learned from Denethor’s experience as a TV-addict. Put bluntly and abruptly, if we watch too much television, with its daily dose of the Dark Lord’s propaganda, we will be driven to suicide!
Putting such whimsy to one side, we must realize in all sobriety that having a television in our home is akin to possessing a palantir stone. This should be a scary thought because the danger inherent in the possession of such a “far-seer” is that we are in danger of being possessed by our possession of it. It saps our will and it encourages anger, which is always ultimately self-destructive. In truth, and this is not the time for mincing our words, possessing a television is like inviting the devil into the room, enabling him to spew forth his propaganda, defacing the fullness of truth with his half-truths and defiling the goodness of our home with the filth of his seductive lies. Why do we tolerate such a guest? Why do we want him there? Why don’t we do the only good and honest thing? Why don’t we exercise the freedom of our will by exorcising the demon from our home? We only need to pull the plug and place the TV in the dumpster. If we are unable to do so, or do not want to do so, dare we admit that it’s because we are too attached to it, that it has become too “precious” for us to part with? Do we possess our television, or does it possess us?
Books by Joseph Pearce may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore.