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The palantiri tend to confuse me a lot: as we see with Sauron, Denethor and Saruman you can clearly see far places and communicate with other beings, but how precise were these seeing stones? For example could Sauron literally watch the Fellowship through his palantir? If so why did he not see Frodo and Sam in the Emyn Muil?

So how were these stones used?

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    possible duplicate of How does a palantír work? – maguirenumber6 Apr 12 '15 at 14:05
  • I think the "could Sauron spy on the Fellowship" part is sufficient to leave this one open. – user8719 Apr 12 '15 at 14:13
  • Sorry. I'm new to this. – maguirenumber6 Apr 12 '15 at 14:18
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    @maguirenumber6 - it's OK, it's useful to have these 2 questions linked anyway. – user8719 Apr 12 '15 at 14:31
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An example of Palantír usage is given in the Palantíri essay in Unfinished Tales:

For example, Denethor sitting before the Anor-stone anxious about Rohan, and deciding whether or not at once to order the kindling of the beacons and the sending out of the "arrow," might place himself in a direct line looking north-west by west through Rohan, passing close to Edoras and on towards the Fords of Isen. At that time there might be visible movements of men in that line. If so, he could concentrate on (say) a group, see them as Riders, and finally discover some figure known to him: Gandalf, for instance, riding with the reinforcements to Helm's Deep, and suddenly breaking away and racing northwards.

And more specifically:

A viewer could by his will cause the vision of the Stone to concentrate on some point, on or near its direct line. The uncontrolled "visions" were small, especially in the minor Stones, though they were much larger to the eye of a beholder who placed himself at some distance from the surface of the palantír (about three feet at best). But controlled by the will of a skilled and strong surveyor, remoter things could be enlarged, brought as it were nearer and clearer, while their background was almost suppressed. Thus a man at a considerable distance might be seen as a tiny figure, half an inch high, difficult to pick out against a landscape or a concourse of other men; but concentration could enlarge and clarify the vision till he was seen in clear if reduced detail like a picture apparently a foot or more in height, and recognized if he was known to the surveyor. Great concentration might even enlarge some detail that interested the surveyor, so that it could be seen (for instance) if he had a ring on his hand.

Based on this Sauron almost certainly could have used the Ithil Stone to spy on the Fellowship and to view Frodo and Sam.

There is however a weakness; as is noted earlier in the same source, Sauron was not a legitimate Palantír user and so his use of it would be somewhat less effective:

...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's not made completely clear what exactly being "far more amenable" entails, nor whether it relates to just being able to control a Palantír versus whether it relates to how much information or detail one might obtain while using it.

As for why Sauron didn't use the Ithil Stone to spy on the Fellowship or on Frodo and Sam, the following possibilities present themselves (I don't pretend this is an exhaustive list):

  • Maybe he did but it's just unrecorded in the texts,
  • Maybe he tried and failed: he would have had to already know almost precisely where they were in order to do so,
  • Maybe he never tried for the same reason as above (not knowing where they were),
  • Maybe he didn't feel they were of sufficient importance to be worth bothering with (due to it being inconcievable to him that someone would attempt to destroy the Ring),
  • Maybe his control over the Palantír was not sufficiently strong enough to allow him to do so.
  • I immidiately thought of these passages when I saw this question, but you beat me to it :) – maguirenumber6 Apr 12 '15 at 15:03
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The Stones were used by the Dunedain to keep an eye on their borders and for communication. The event that passed between Arvedui and the Council of Gondor when he claimed the crown was via the Palantir.

Doubtless they were used in the consultations between Arnor and Gondor in the year 1944 concerning the succession to the Crown. [The Palantiri; Note 1]

Pippin asked Gandalf a similar question to your own.

What did the Men of old use them for?

To see far off, and to converse with one another... in that way they long guarded and united the realm of Gondor. [The Palantir]

He said that the Orthanc Stone "alone could do nothing but see small images of things far off and days remote." [The Palantir]

The Stones could not see in the dark, but it could see through things like into a room as long as it was lit. It could make remote objects clear to the viewer and could not read an unwilling mind. Its use could be straining on the person using it especially when they had to focus hard. In Note 18 to The Palantiri it is said,

The greater palantiri could look much further than the lesser; for the lesser the 'proper distance' was of the order of five hundred miles, as between the Orthanc stone and that of Arnor.

The two large Stones which I mention below can see significantly further than the 500 miles distance of the lesser Stones with a fixed orientation.

Sauron

used a Stone for the transference of his superior will, dominating the weaker surveyor and forcing him to reveal hidden thought and to submit to commands. [The Palantíri, Note #5]

There were 7 Stones divided between the two kingdoms.

Gondor

Orthanc-stone - Isengard, had a fixed orientation.

Arnor-stone = Minas Tirith, had a fixed orientation.

Ithil-stone = Minas Ithil, it was thought to be either lost or captured by Sauron. It had a fixed orientation.

Osgiliath-stone = Osgiliath, it was the master stone and could eavesdrop on 2 other stones in communion, other stones could not do this, they would just see the stones as blank. It was a big stone that could only be lifted by more than one man. It was lost in the waters when King Eldacar was attacked the the tower burned. It could be revolved and still see in any direction.

Arnor

Amon Sûl-stone = The chief stone of the North; it was the largest and most powerful stone, mainly used to communicate with Gondor. It had to be lifted by more than one man. It was lost at sea. It could be revolved and still see in any direction.

Elendil Stone = Emyn Beraid, was not used for communication, but rather to look to the West where even Eressëa could be seen.

Annúminas-stone = Annúminas, Fornost, was lost in the sea. It had a fixed orientation.

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