Jessica Yates *

This essay is inspired by a theory of Tom Shippey, put forward in four different places, three of them with reference to the Peter Jackson film, The Return of the King. Shippey wrote [1]:

What did he see on the 13th, the day when Faramir was brought in, the day the ‘pale light’ was seen flickering? The 13th is the day when Frodo is captured and taken to Minas Morgul [sic: it was the tower of Cirith Ungol]. The likelihood is that that is what Denethor has seen, in a vision controlled by Sauron.

Elsewhere [2] Shippey comments on the scene when Denethor returns from his “secret room under the summit of the Tower” with his face “grey, more deathlike than his son’s” and his words to Pippin on the next page “the Enemy has found it, and now his power waxes”, Shippey wrote that “Denethor is allowed to see Frodo captured in the palantír and thinks Sauron has the Ring”.

In his Hope College lecture [3], Shippey said that the palantíri were used four times in the book: by Pippin on 5 March; by Aragorn on 6 March; by Saruman throughout the narrative, and by Denethor on 13 March: “Denethor sees Frodo captured at Cirith Ungol and mistakenly concludes that Sauron has the Ring.” I should add Denethor’s final view of his Stone, just before he goes to his death, in the early morning of 15 March, and Shippey also notes this in his book.

Finally, we have Shippey’s penetrating analysis [4], which approves of Jackson’s treatment, on the whole. Discussing the palantíri he argues that Jackson has nearly eliminated the element of false information that was part of Tolkien’s plan: Sauron seeing Pippin, and then Aragorn, and concluding that each had the Ring. Here is his discussion of Denethor:

On the 13th Faramir is brought back badly wounded, and Denethor retires to his secret chamber, from which people see “a pale light that gleamed and flickered … and then flashed and went out.” When he comes down, “the face of the Lord was grey, more deathlike than his son’s” (Lord Of The Rings, p. 803). Clearly Denethor has been using his palantír, but what has he seen in it? Much later on, close to suicide, he tells Gandalf that he has seen the Black Fleet approaching (as it is), though he does not know (though at that moment the reader does) that the fleet now bears Aragorn and rescue, not a new army of enemies (LOTR, p. 835). However, this does not seem quite enough to trigger Denethor’s total despair. Surely we are meant to realise that what he has seen in the palantír is Frodo, whom he knows to be the Ring-bearer, in the hands of Sauron. Both Frodo’s capture and Faramir’s wounding take place on March 13th; and one may recall that Sauron plays a similar trick by showing Gandalf and the leaders of the West Frodo’s mithril-coat and Sam’s sword in the parley outside the Black Gate. The matter is put beyond doubt, however, by what Denethor says to Pippin as he prepares for suicide. “Comfort me not with wizards! … The fool’s hope has failed. The Enemy has found it and now his power waxes” (LOTR, p. 805). “The fool’s hope” is Gandalf ’s plan to destroy the Ring (see LOTR, p. 795), and the “it” that “the Enemy” has found must be the Ring. Once again, then, Denethor has seen something true in a palantír, and has drawn from it a wrong conclusion.

What does the first-time reader of the text learn about the palantíri from Saruman’s, Pippin’s and Aragorn’s experiences with the Orthanc-stone? He learns (from Gandalf ’s inferences afterwards while riding with Pippin) that Saruman had no will to argue with Sauron. He was obsessed with the Stone and Sauron could compel him to come to the Stone at will: “How long, I wonder, has he been constrained to come often to his glass for inspection and instruction …?” asks Gandalf. Maybe Saruman’s dependence was aided by the fact that they were both Maiar, and on the same wavelength, so to speak, for their communication would have been wordless.

Pippin was obsessed with the Stone from first holding it, and “driven by some impulse that he did not understand” he stole it from Gandalf, found a place apart and gazed into it “like a greedy child”. He was then forced to answer the question Sauron put to him, by mindspeech only, which luckily only ran to “who are you?”, to which Pippin replied “a hobbit’” He did not give his name: Pippin felt physical pain as Sauron gloated over him. It would seem that conversational use has a longer range than distance-viewing, as Sauron did not see far enough to witness the destruction of Isengard by the Ents.

Finally Aragorn was able to wrench the Orthanc-stone to his bidding by force of personality and hereditary right. He showed himself to Sauron in a different guise, and displayed his sword. Then he used it to survey a large area of the country round, noticed the corsairs massing to sail up the river, and decided it would be his task to stop them. By the time Pippin reaches Minas Tirith we know the palantíri are dangerous. In the book Denethor refers to the Stones early on, and as Gandalf has already told Pippin of the Seven Stones and their locations, this is a clue for the first-time reader. “Yea … for though the Stones be lost, they say, still the lords of Gondor have keener sight than lesser men …” At this Pippin fancies that Denethor knows that he has looked into a Stone.

How much does Denethor know of Frodo’s quest? Denethor discovers the truth from Faramir, and responds with the classic phrase “a witless halfling”. Gandalf, despite Pippin’s experience, still did not anticipate Faramir’s news to recognise a serious danger to Frodo’s quest. Denethor uses his palantír twice in the book: once when Faramir is brought back near to death; and second just before he leads the procession to the House of the Stewards, when he sees the corsairs sailing up the river, presumably when he went up to the high chamber to bring the Stone down. Thus he did not see the battle when Aragorn and the Dead defeated the corsairs and filled the ships with allies. Sauron, however, sent him the vision, knowing that Aragorn had taken over the ships yet hoping to make capital out of Denethor’s delusion.

Although the palantíri do not show probabilities and alternatives, unlike the Mirror of Galadriel (and how uncanny it was for that mirror to predict the near-failure of the quest at Cirith Ungol), they may show more than simply events happening elsewhere, in ‘real time’. Gandalf expresses the desire to use the Orthanc-stone to look back thousands of years to Tirion, “while both the White Tree and the Golden were in flower”, a time which he had lived through as Olórin. Aragorn shows himself to Sauron in a different guise. After Denethor’s suicide, his Stone will only show, to all except the strongest of will, the image of “two aged hands withering in flame”.

Windows on the past

The key to these usages is found in Tolkien’s essay in Unfinished Tales, based on notes he wrote when revising The Lord of the Rings and assembled by Christopher Tolkien into an essay with notes. Tolkien wrote that the Stones could see “scenes or figures in distant places, or in the past”, and then “visions of the things in the mind of the surveyor of one Stone could be seen by the other surveyor” (note 5). In note 18 we read that “They retained the images received, so that each contained within itself a multiplicity of images and scenes, some from a remote past”. This explains why Gandalf believed that he could look back to Valinor; why Aragorn could make Sauron see him as dignified, not travel-worn; and why Denethor’s suicide was imprinted on his Stone for future viewers.

Until Shippey announced his interpretation, very few of Tolkien’s readers interpreted Denethor’s despairing return from his chamber as proof that he had seen Frodo captured. I disagree partly with Shippey and also with Tolkien, speaking through Gandalf, when he says “He was too great to be subdued to the will of the Dark Power; he saw nonetheless only those things which that Power permitted him to see.” In the essay from Unfinished Tales, Tolkien modified that assertion. When Tolkien revised this part of the story, under pressure, he may not have realised the need to change the text to something like “nearly all that he saw was under Sauron’s control”.

If Denethor went to his Stone when he chose, and it was not near at hand as Saruman’s was, there would be times when Sauron was otherwise engaged, though he may have come to his Stone quite quickly if he sensed that Denethor was ‘on line’ or had just ‘logged in’, extremely risky behaviour that Gandalf, surprisingly, did not anticipate. When Pippin suggests that Denethor consult Gandalf over Faramir’s illness, Denethor refused. Had he done so, and told him he had seen Frodo captive, Gandalf, although horrified, would have reassured him that the Enemy did not have the Ring — for Gandalf would have sensed it with his own Ring.

However, I believe that Sauron did not know Frodo was captured. Sauron would have had to discover Frodo on a routine sweep of Mordor, as no word was sent to the Dark Tower of the capture, and a Nazgûl only appeared to investigate just as Frodo and Sam were escaping.

First, had Sauron noted Frodo in his Stone, he would have sent a Nazgûl at once to fetch him to Barad-dûr, as he planned to do with Pippin. Second, if he decided to leave him there for a day to see if there was a rescue attempt, he would have monitored Frodo’s chamber and the access to the Tower to watch for a rescuer, so that when Sam arrived Sauron would have watched him give Frodo back the Ring. Disaster! However, there would have been no need to have left Frodo there. His potential rescuer(s) would not know Frodo had been spirited away under cover of darkness. Sam would have turned up at the Tower and found two troops of orcs in ambush. Disaster!

Even had Sauron left Frodo captive, missed Sam’s rescue, and then discovered Frodo had escaped, he would have mobilised Nazgûl and orcs to catch the fugitives. We are to assume that he left Frodo in the chamber; left the orcs to get on with killing one another; sent a Nazgûl when all the orcs were dead and not before; and only sent a small team hunting for the fugitives, assuming that if they couldn’t be found, that they were heading back through Shelob’s lair, and he needn’t bother about them.

If, however, he did not know about Frodo, it is surprising that he didn’t check up on Cirith Ungol until all the orcs were dead, and that, if he did check just before the Nazgûl arrived, he didn’t then catch Sam rushing up the stairs or giving Frodo the Ring!

There is textual evidence against Sauron knowing about Frodo. Both parties of orcs had been sent on patrol by Nazgûl, not by Lugbúrz (i.e. the Dark Tower), and only Shagrat’s mob, based at Cirith Ungol, owed loyalty to the Eye. Gorbag and Shagrat agreed that the Eye was “busy elsewhere” and they couldn’t get It to pay attention to the fear of Spies on the Stairs (which might have happened because the Witch-king sensed the Ring as his army marched out). Gorbag advised Shagrat to catch Frodo’s companion before he sent in his report, which suggests that Lugbúrz wouldn’t move in their direction first, and that the Eye was not focused on Cirith Ungol at all. As Sam climbed the tower he heard Shagrat tell Snaga that “News must get through to Lugbúrz, or we’ll both be for the Black Pits”, suggesting again that they had been left to their own devices, and that the Nazgûl, arriving just as Frodo and Sam were leaving, had not been sent by Sauron, but is making its own inspection, triggered off by the Watchers, and possibly the light from Galadriel’s phial. Finally, we know that the Eye was preoccupied on 16 March with a vision of Aragorn he saw on 6 March, well before Frodo and Sam climbed the Stairs, reinforced by watching Aragorn capture the corsairs’ fleet on 13 March and win the Battle of the Pelennor Fields on 15 March.

We also have Gandalf ’s assertion (and Tolkien’s, speaking through him) about what Denethor saw. Just after Denethor’s death Gandalf summed him up: “the vision of the great might of Mordor that was shown to him fed the despair of his heart”. And he repeated this at the Last Debate: “Denethor saw great forces arrayed against him in Mordor, and more still being gathered”. Were Gandalf wrong, and Denethor also saw Frodo captive, then Gandalf could also have been wrong to have said that Denethor saw only what Sauron permitted him to see.

Finally we have the evidence from the drafts, in The War of the Ring. In the draft outline (page 360 of the hardback edition), Denethor did not commit suicide. He greeted Aragorn coldly and suggested that as Faramir was likely to die, the line of Stewards would die out anyway, and thus Aragorn would become king. By the next outline (p. 374) Tolkien had decided that Denethor would die in the pyre, and then he wrote drafts close to the published work, a major difference being that Denethor knew that Aragorn had taken the corsairs’ ships, and still intended suicide, because he would not yield to a descendant of Isildur. Moreover, Tolkien first intended that Denethor would look in the Stone for the first time after Faramir returned, near to death (pp. 381–382), but later changed the story to read that Denethor had frequently consulted the Stone as an aid to war strategy. Had Tolkien intended us to understand that Denethor saw Frodo captive through Sauron’s control of the Stone, then it is likely there would have been a hint of this in the early drafts. However, the contentious passage does not occur in The War of the Ring. After Denethor’s suicide Pippin described Denethor’s departure and return to Faramir’s sickbed, and then Tolkien wrote that passage retrospectively.

Part of the scheme

I would also plead the opinions of Hammond and Scull (ref. 5: pp. 547–548). They also helpfully add (p. 608) details from a document kept at Marquette University, the Scheme, which says that after Shagrat arrived at Barad-dûr (on 17 March), he was slain by Sauron, presumably for failing to keep him informed, for losing two troops of orcs, and for letting the prisoner escape. Sauron’s haste to punish Shagrat therefore protected Frodo and Sam; Sauron did not send out the hunting party, it was ordered by the Nazgûl, who have a misleading description of Frodo and Sam, possibly gained from a wounded orc. The conversation between the tracker and the soldier, about to give up their hunt, is very useful.

The Scheme also has news of the escape of the prisoners reaching Barad-dûr “almost at same time as news of their capture” on 15 March, while in the draft quotes in Sauron Defeated (p. 10), a foot-soldier passes news of the capture to a rider, who brings the news to Sauron on the 14th or 15th. Sauron sends a Nazgûl to Cirith Ungol, who arrives too late. However, by the published Tale of Years Tolkien had decided to postpone news of Frodo’s capture reaching Sauron until 17 March, Shagrat going by foot.

Frodo’s mithril-coat is thus doubly useful: it delays the report to Barad-dûr; and causes two troops of orcs to massacre one another: Sam doesn’t even have to kill one orc — Snaga falls down the trap-door ladder and is killed (in the film Sam runs him through from the back).

(To be followed)

* Republished from Mallorn, The Journal of the Tolkien Society, spring 2009