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Timeline Event

Denethor begins to use the Palantír of Minas Tirith (estimated date)

Event Type: Military/Strategic

Age: 3rd Age - The Stewards

Year: 2984

Description:
An event in the aftermath of Denethor II's accession to Steward of Gondor; see that entry for more information:

It is said that [Denethor] dared to use the [palantír] of the White Tower, which none since the kings had looked in, and so saw much of the mind of Sauron (who had the Stone of Ithil), but was aged prematurely by this combat, and fell into despair.

The Peoples of Middle-Earth, HoME Vol 12, Part 1, Ch 7, The Heirs of Elendil: The Ruling Stewards of Gondor

'Though the Stewards deemed that it was a secret kept only by themselves, long ago I [Gandalf] guessed that here in the White Tower, one at least of the Seven Seeing Stones was preserved. In the days of his wisdom Denethor did not presume to use it,1 nor to challenge Sauron, knowing the limits of his own strength.'

The Return of the King, LoTR Book 5, Ch 7, The Pyre of Denethor

Gandalf should have been reported as saying that he did not think that Denethor had presumed to use it, until his wisdom failed. He could not state it as a known fact, for when and why Denethor had dared to use the Stone was and remains a matter of conjecture. ... it is probable ... that he began to use the Anor-stone many years before 3019, and earlier than Saruman ventured or thought it useful to use the Stone of Orthanc.2 Denethor succeeded to the Stewardship in 2984, being then fifty-four years old: a masterful man, both wise and learned beyond the measure of those days, and strong-willed, confident in his own powers, and dauntless. His "grimness" was first observable to others after his wife Finduilas died in 2988,3 but it seems fairly plain that he had at once turned to the Stone as soon as he came to power, having long studied the matter of the palantíri and the traditions regarding them and their use preserved in the special archives of the Stewards, available beside the Ruling Steward only to his heir. During the end of the rule of his father, Ecthelion II, he must have greatly desired to consult the Stone, as anxiety in Gondor increased, while his own position was weakened by the fame of "Thorongil" and the favour shown to him by his father. At least one of his motives must have been jealousy of Thorongil, and hostility to Gandalf, to whom, during the ascendancy of Thorongil, his father paid much attention; Denethor desired to surpass these "usurpers" in knowledge and information, and also if possible to keep an eye on them when they were elsewhere.

Unfinished Tales, Part 4, Ch 3, The Palantíri

'After [Finduilas'] death Denethor became more grim and silent than before, and would sit long alone in his tower deep in thought, foreseeing that the assault of Mordor would come in his time. It was afterwards believed that needing knowledge, but being proud, and trusting in his own strength of will, he dared to look in the palantír of the White Tower. None of the Stewards had dared to do this, nor even the kings Eärnil and Eärnur, after the fall of Minas Ithil when the palantír of Isildur came into the hands of the Enemy; for the Stone of Minas Tirith was the palantír of Anárion, most close in accord with the one that Sauron possessed.

'In this way Denethor gained his great knowledge of things that passed in his realm, and far beyond his borders, at which men marvelled; but he bought the knowledge dearly, being aged before his time by his contest with the will of Sauron. Thus pride increased in Denethor together with despair, until he saw in all the deeds of that time only a single combat between the Lord of the White Tower and the Lord of the Barad-dûr, and mistrusted all others who resisted Sauron, unless they served himself alone.

The Return of the King, LoTR Appendix A, Annals of the Kings and Rulers: Gondor and the Heirs of Anárion: The Stewards

... it was reasonably assumed that [the Ithil-stone] was destroyed by the defenders before Minas Ithil was captured and sacked; but it was clearly possible that it had been seized and had come into the possession of Sauron, and some of the wiser and more farseeing may have considered this. It would appear that they did so, and realized that the Stone would be of little use to him for the damage of Gondor, unless it made contact with another Stone that was in accord with it. It was for this reason, it may be supposed, that the Anor-stone ... was kept as a closely-guarded secret, accessible only to the Ruling Stewards and never by them used (it seems) until Denethor II.

Unfinished Tales, Part 4, Ch 3, The Palantíri

'But his wisdom failed; and I fear that as the peril of his realm grew he looked in the Stone and was deceived: far too often, I guess, since Boromir departed. 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. The knowledge which he obtained was, doubtless, often of service to him; yet the vision of the great might of Mordor that was shown to him fed the despair of his heart until it overthrew his mind.' ...

'It was in the very hour that Faramir was brought to the Tower that many of us saw a strange light in the topmost chamber,' said Beregond. 'But we have seen that light before, and it has long been rumoured in the City, that the Lord would at times wrestle in thought with his Enemy.'

'Alas! then I have guessed rightly,' said Gandalf. 'Thus the will of Sauron entered into Minas Tirith....'

The Return of the King, LoTR Book 5, Ch 7, The Pyre of Denethor

The breaking strain of Denethor's confrontation of Sauron must be distinguished from the general strain of using the Stone. The latter Denethor thought that he could endure (and not without reason); confrontation with Sauron almost certainly did not occur for many years, and was probably never originally contemplated by Denethor. ... Denethor could, after he had acquired the skill, learn much of distant events by the use of the Anor-stone alone, and even after Sauron became aware of his operations he could still do so, as long as he retained the strength to control his Stone to his own purposes, in spite of Sauron's attempt to "wrench" the Anor-stone always towards himself. It must also be considered that the Stones were only a small item in Sauron's vast designs and operations: a means of dominating and deluding two of his opponents, but he would not (and could not) have the Ithil-stone under perpetual observation. It was not his way to commit such instruments to the use of subordinates; nor had he any servant whose mental power were superior to Saruman's or even Denethor's.

In the case of Denethor, the Steward was strengthened, even against Sauron himself, by the fact the Stones were far more amenable to legitimate users: most of all to true "Heirs of Elendil" (as Aragorn), but also to one with inherited authority (as Denethor), as compared to Saruman, or Sauron. It may be noted that the effects were different. Saruman fell under the domination of Sauron and desired his victory, or no longer opposed it. Denethor remained steadfast in his rejection of Sauron, but was made to believe that his victory was inevitable, and so fell into despair. The reasons for this difference were no doubt that in the first place Denethor was a man of great strength of will, and maintained the integrity of his personality until the final blow of the (apparently) mortal wound of his only surviving son. He was proud, but this was by no means merely personal: he loved Gondor and its people, and deemed himself appointed by destiny to lead them in this desperate time. And in the second place the Anor-stone was his by right, and nothing but expediency was against his use of it in his grave anxieties. He must have guessed that the Ithil-stone was in evil hands, and risked contact with it, trusting his strength. His trust was not entirely unjustified. Sauron failed to dominate him and could only influence him by deceits. Probably he did not at first look towards Mordor, but was content with such "far views" as the Stone would afford; hence his surprising knowledge of events far off. Whether he ever thus made contact with the Orthanc-stone and Saruman is not told; probably he did, and did so with profit to himself. Sauron could not break in on these conferences: only the surveyor using the Master Stone of Osgiliath could "eavesdrop." While two of the other Stones were in response, the third would find them both blank.

Unfinished Tales, Part 4, Ch 3, The Palantíri


Notes

1 [Tolkien's] emendation ... of "Denethor did not presume to use it" to "Denethor would not presume to use it" was (apparently by mere oversight) not incorporated in the revised edition.

Unfinished Tales, Part 4, Ch 3, The Palantíri: Notes, Note 11

2 [Researcher note: the statement that Denethor, who came to power in 2984, may have used the palantír before Saruman seems inconsistent with what Tolkien stated elsewhere in the same chapter: that Saruman had studied the records of the Stewards and may have moved to Isengard in 2759 to take advantage of the Orthanc-Stone. It does not seem likely that Saruman waited over two hundred years to use it. However, it is known that Saruman was ensnared by Sauron via the palantíri circa 3000; perhaps that is the date alluded to.]

3 The use of the palantíri was a mental strain, especially on men of later days not trained to the task, and no doubt in addition to his anxieties this strain contributed to Denethor's "grimness." It was probably felt earlier by his wife than by others and increased her unhappiness, to the hastening of her death. [Author's note.]

Unfinished Tales, Part 4, Ch 3, The Palantíri: Notes, Note 13

Contributors:
Elena Tiriel 19Sep05

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