In the book The Two Towers, Gandalf is puzzled as to how Saruman had been communicating with Sauron. Grima Wormtongue, rather conveniently, then throws Saruman's Palantir out the window of Orthanc, attempting to hit either Gandalf, Saruman, or both. Pippin picks it up, and Gandalf quickly snatches it from him and wraps it in a cloth. Clearly, he knows it is dangerous, but we later discover that he doesn't realize what it is.

Hours later, Pippin steals the Palantir and inadvertently uses it. Only then does Gandalf realize what it is. This would be understandable if Gandalf didn't know that Palantiri existed, or that there had once been a Palantir in Orthanc, or that the others had been lost long ago, but he reveals that he does indeed know all these things. His failure to immediately identify the Palantir is all the more confusing considering the fact that, as the group rode away from Orthanc, they heard Saruman shriek in horror, and Gandalf instantly knew that Saruman had just realized that Grima had chucked the Palantir out the window.

Gandalf's excuse for not figuring out what the weird crystal ball thrown from a wizard's tower was is weak at best - basically, he says "I was thinking about Saruman when the Palantir appeared, then I got tired":

But my mind was bent on Saruman, and I did not at once guess the nature of the Stone. Then I was weary, and as I lay pondering it, sleep overcame me. Now I know!
(The Two Towers, Book III, Chapter 11, "The Palantír")

He also says he is glad Pippin stole it, because if that hadn't happened, he would probably have used it himself (in his words, "I had considered whether or not to probe this stone myself to find its uses"), and if he had done so, he would have given Sauron far more information than Pippin did. This surprised me almost as much as Gandalf not recognizing the Palantir.

But I am still more flabbergasted by the fact that Gandalf didn't recognize the Palantir for what it was the moment he saw it, especially since the Palantir appeared while Gandalf was trying to figure out how Saruman had been communicating with Sauron. It seems to me that when he was wondering how a wizard was chatting with a mystical evil being and saw a crystal ball fly out of the wizard's window, he should have been able to put 2 and 2 together and make 4.

Is there an explanation for Gandalf's lapse more believable than the one he offers - "I was weary"?

Edit: For clarity's sake, I will lay out my case in as concise a manner as possible:

Gandalf knew that people once used glass balls to communicate;
and he was puzzled by how a guy had been communicating;
and Gandalf knew that the guy lived in a tower which once held such a ball;
and Gandalf knew that it was at least possible that the ball was still there;
and then a glass ball was thrown from that tower by the guy inside's lackey;
and Gandalf knew at once that the ball was potentially dangerous;
and then the guy inside saw that the ball was gone and shrieked;
and Gandalf instantly knew that the shriek was a reflection of the guy's displeasure at learning that the ball was gone;
and Gandalf is unimaginably wise.

In light of all this, Gandalf should, in my view, have been able to put the pieces together without a hobbit getting involved. I could have put the pieces together, and I am infinitely less wise than Gandalf. But the immeasurably wise Gandalf couldn't solve this mystery despite having the solution literally sitting in his lap.

See what I mean? The nature of the glass ball couldn't have been more obvious if it was written on the wall of Orthanc in letters 10 feet high.

I could understand Gandalf not immediately realizing Saruman had a Palantir if it hadn't been thrown at him and ended up in his lap, or if he hadn't been wondering how Saruman was able to communicate with Sauron when the Palantir was thrown at him, or if he was wondering about how Saruman was communicating with Sauron and the Palantir was thrown at him, but he had never heard of the Palantiri before. But he DID know all about the Palantiri, and he WAS wondering how Saruman was communicating with Sauron, and it WAS thrown at him, ad it DID end up in his lap. The pieces were all before him, yet he couldn't put this relatively simple puzzle together on his own until Pippin intervened and discovered exactly what the glass ball was.

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    Now there's a great question. Let me see if I can come up with something. No guarantees. Commented May 15, 2015 at 18:03
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    @Nerrolken "But my mind was bent on Saruman, and I did not at once guess the nature of the Stone. Then I was weary, and as I lay pondering it, sleep overcame me. Now I know!" (The Two Towers, Book III, Chapter 11, "The Palantír") Commented May 15, 2015 at 18:11
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    A speculative question for consideration: would you expect your enemy to use a Palantir, the primary and most effective means of communication with your greatest enemy, to just throw it out the window as a blunt object to club you with? I sure as heck wouldn't. The fact Wormtongue did this suggests that it is an object of less importance than it actually was. Also food for thought: why didn't he recognize the One Ring right away? ;)
    – jpmc26
    Commented May 15, 2015 at 23:01
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    This seems like a criticism of Tolkien's writing disguised as a question. The answer is exactly what you quoted, you just don't like it. Commented May 17, 2015 at 6:48
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    @PaulD.Waite - and yet, if you read only the part after the line you quoted, you'd have it in a nutshell. That part is concise. I won't apologize for being long winded.
    – Wad Cheber
    Commented May 19, 2015 at 16:48

6 Answers 6


From "The Palantiri" in Unfinished Tales:

"The palantir were no doubt never matters of common use or common knowledge even in Numenor"


"It is evident that at the time of the War of the Ring the council had not long become aware of the doubt concerning the fate of the Ithil-stone and failed (understandably even in such persons as Elrond, Galadriel and Gandalf, under the weight of their cares), to appreciate it's significance, to consider what might be the result if Sauron became possessed of one of the Stones and anyone else should then make use of another. It needed the demonstration on Dol Baran of the effects of the Orthanc Stone on Peregrin to reveal suddenly that the link between Isengard and Barad-dur (seen to exist after it was discovered that forces of Isengard had been joined with others directed by Sauron in the attack on the Fellowship at Parth Galen) was in fact the Orthanc Stone and one other palantir"

So the Stones had never been common knowledge, and furthermore knowledge of their whereabouts had been lost long ago. Orthanc had long been unmanned by Gondor and its Stone could have been removed and brought back to Minas Tirith. Gandalf knew about them from his research in the library of Minas Tirith. But he knew more about their history and the fact that they were lost than about their uses and possibilities. And he didn't know that Sauron had one palantir and that it could be used to sway others will, which became evident only after Peregrin used the Stone. The Stones had never been used to that end before in history. So in his mind, they were only a device for communication.

Also, he wasn't sure that what Wormtongue had thrown was in fact a Palantir. It could have been only a glass ball used as a decoration or anything else.

And that explains also why he suddenly decided to go to Minas Tirith, because he feared Denethor had also a Stone and that he may be swayed by Sauron, a thought that was not in his mind before.

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    problems - 1. he acts as though the stone is dangerous from the get go. Definitely not just a glass ball. 2. When they hear Saruman shriek, he immediately knows Saruman is freaking out about the stone being gone. He was almost expecting such a reaction. 3. He describes exactly what the palantiri are, what they do, how they work, where they used to be, who made them, why Saruman shouldn't have used his, and says the wizards knew all of this but never had time to look for them. 4. Common knowledge for average schmucks is different from common knowledge among wizards
    – Wad Cheber
    Commented May 15, 2015 at 19:05
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    Again, keep in mind that the palantir showed up right when Gandalf was wondering how Saruman had been communicating with Sauron. That is what makes his brain fart so especially surprising. The answer to his riddle fell in his lap and he had all the knowledge he needed to connect the dots, but he didn't... but still, +1
    – Wad Cheber
    Commented May 15, 2015 at 19:09
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    @WadCheber - for more information, read "The palantiri" in "Unfinished tales", everything is explained in details, some facts against, and some supporting your arguments. But I'm going to repeat myself: Gandalf wasn't clueless for sure. Only uncertain and prudent. And even if he suspected the ball to be what it was, he couldn't make sure unless he probed it. What Pippin made for him. And even if he had been certain, he couldn't know Sauron had one. After Pippin's probe into the ball, he was certain and he knew for sure. Hope you will appreciate the nuance.
    – Joel
    Commented May 15, 2015 at 21:23
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    Ah - there's the rub. He seems surprised to me but not to you. I think at last we understand one another, Frodo Baggins.
    – Wad Cheber
    Commented May 15, 2015 at 22:01
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    I just read again the whole thing, and he definitely doesn't seem surprise, he just mentions that he didn't realize at once what the ball was when Wormtongue threw it and didn't act fast enough to stop Pippin from picking the Stone because he was wary of his encounter with Saruman. And that afterwards he had time to ponder what it was. So at the time of the incident of Dol Baran, everything was confirmed. So yes, we understand each other.
    – Joel
    Commented May 15, 2015 at 22:09

I could have put the pieces together, and I am infinitely less wise than Gandalf.

You could put the pieces together, because you are reading about it in a book, where the author has specifically pointed out all of the relevant information and none of the irrelevant information, where the things Gandalf was concentrating on were barely mentioned in passing, all contained in a chapter titled "The Palantir".

Also, things are not as bad as you are painting them.

The fuller quote:

The hobbit, Peregrin ... has handled it and looked in it, as should never have happened. He ought never to have touched it in Isengard, and there I should have been quicker. But my mind was bent on Saruman, and I did not guess the nature of the stone, until it was too late. Only now have I become sure of it.

By "too late" he is referring to his guess not being immediate enough that he would have snatched up the palantir before anyone else could touch it. Looking at the small amount that happened between its being thrown and Gandalf taking it from Pippin, I'd guess the delay was all of about 15 seconds. Let he who has never been distracted for 15 seconds throw the first stone. ( See what I did there? :D )

Being sure of something is not something Gandalf does lightly. Here, he only says he's sure of it after Aragorn, heir of the line of kings that owned these extremely rare things (there were only 7) in the distant past, says that it is "assuredly" the Orthanc stone.

They were not widely known to exist:

It was not known to us that any of the palantiri had escaped the ruin of Gondor. Outside the Council it was not even remembered among Elves or Men that such things had ever been, save only in a Rhyme of Lore preserved among Aragorn's folk.

Very likely, Gandalf had never seen one himself.

Edit: Adding a few quotes from the Palantiri chapter of Unfinished Tales, to clarify how well known they were.

The palantiri were no doubt never matters of common use or common knowledge, even in Numenor. In Middle-earth they were kept in guarded rooms, high in strong towers, only kings and rulers, and their appointed wardens had access to them ... But until the passing of the Kings they were not sinister secrets. Their use involved no peril, and no king ... would have hesitated to reveal the source of his knowledge ... if obtained through the Stones.

... if the Stones of Anor and Orthanc were still guarded as treasures out of the past, known to exist only by a few, the Seven Stones of old were by the people generally forgotten, and the rhymes of lore that spoke of them were if remembered no longer understood. Their operations were transformed in legend into the Elvish powers of the ancient kings with their piercing eyes, and the swift birdlike spirits that attended on them, bringing them news or bearing their messages.

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    Seems to me like there were probably many objects in Middle Earth that might have had a similar description, but were not a palantir. That it wasn't immediately obvious to Gandalf, seems to suggest that rather strongly - I think his geek level in Middle Earth arcane objects must have been higher than any reader of Tolien's books. As this answer points out, some of us may be experts in the things that are in the books, but the world seems like it probably had many other details in it, which Gandalf also knew about. Seems like Gandalf being dense is unlikely to be accurate.
    – Dronz
    Commented May 16, 2015 at 6:52
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    @Wad The One Ring's existence was "common knowledge" yet it took Gandalf—who was specifically sent to Middle-Earth to fight Sauron—about 67 years to identify it.
    – Lexible
    Commented May 16, 2015 at 18:42
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    @Wad He most certainly did. He did not know the meaning of the lines "For's Isildur's Bane shall waken, And the Halfling forth shall stand," and he did not understand the ring, but he knew of it. And Gandalf certainly knew of the Ring.
    – Lexible
    Commented May 16, 2015 at 23:52
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    @Lexible - I certainly never doubted that Gandalf knew about the Ring - as I see it, the main reason he had to go to Minas Tirith to research it was because he simply didn't know what it looked like. He needed a physical description of it so he could identify it.
    – Wad Cheber
    Commented May 17, 2015 at 0:34
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    @WadCheber (1) Wisdom != knowledge. (2) Reread the Council of Elrond: Boromir was neither surprised by, nor asked questions about the existence of The Ring (although he misunderstands it, and is unwisely seduced by it, as Faramir *** was not***). (3) Duty calls.
    – Lexible
    Commented May 19, 2015 at 6:52

Why would Gandalf have immediately identified the palantír? There were only ever eight of the palantíri known of in Middle-Earth, and few remain in Middle-Earth by the Third Age: in the towers west of the Shire (and this one only looked to the master palantír in Aman, stewarded secretly by the Elves), at Orthanc, in Minas Tirith (long unused), and at Barad-Dûr (formerly at Minas Ithil). While the palantíri were gifts from Aman, the Istari are deeply "clothed" in mortal form and do not really recall their experiences in Aman. So while Gandalf may have learned of these extraordinarily rare and legendary things in learning Gondor's history, that is a very different thing than being familiar with the palantíri.

As a reader of Lord of the Rings, you have greater familiarity with the stone and its importance! Gandalf had to piece it together.

You can learn more about the palantíri in the essay and accompanying notes on them in Unfinished tales.

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    @WadCheber - He isn't stupid, he doesn't know for sure. He does take the ball from Pippin because he suspects it might be dangerous. But there is no way for him to be certain unless he tries to use it... which he doesn't do because he isn't stupid. So when Pippin uses it, it proves that his suspiscion is right
    – Joel
    Commented May 15, 2015 at 18:50
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    @Joel - No, he doesn't use it because Pippin beat him to it - he says so himself. He says he would have used it if Pippin hadn't, ad would have given Sauron more information than Pippin did in the process.
    – Wad Cheber
    Commented May 15, 2015 at 18:51
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    @WadCheber "makes Gandalf look stupid" To someone with the privileged perspective of reading LotR who is not accounting for the fact that Gandalf did not read LotR, perhaps. ;) You are confusing "historical knowledge of" with "personal familiarity with."
    – Lexible
    Commented May 15, 2015 at 18:52
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    @WadCheber He does know, now that he's thought about it; but he's never been the expert in that kind of thing - that's really more Saruman's field. He's got a few thousand years of lore to keep track of, after all :-), and he did say earlier, "I have forgotten much that I thought I knew, and learned again much that I had forgotten." Maybe this was one of the (mostly) forgotten things. Commented May 15, 2015 at 18:54
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    @WadCheber - He said that MAYBE he would have tried to probe the Stone to find it's uses. That's what he was pondering. And he says that would have been a great blunder now that he knew what it was and to what the palantiri was connected on the other end...
    – Joel
    Commented May 15, 2015 at 18:56

It seems clear from the passages you quote that stones like these are used for various purposes by wizards, hence he "had considered whether or not to probe this stone myself to find its uses." He snatched it up because he thought it might have some strong magic in it, but of its exact nature he was not sure.

This is simlar to how his understanding of the Ring grew. He's comes to know it's a magic ring, but he does not know its exact nature until much research and testing. As others have said, he is wise, but not omnipotent, and he is slow to judgment. That's part of what makes his character so interesting.

You do assume too much as to what all he knew, and how readily it was all at the tip of his mind. Also, he knows Saruman is a powerful wizard and probably has many magic items, and he knows he is not fully aware of the nature of them all. Saruman's shreik told him the stone was something Saruman valued, but he didn't shreik "AAAAH! YOU THREW THE PALANTIR OUT THE WINDOW?!?!?"

  • I assumed nothing- I repeated what he himself later said. Whether I am misrepresenting how close these facts are to the front of his mind is another issue.
    – Wad Cheber
    Commented May 19, 2015 at 16:51
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    Hmm. Gandalf is ancient, but not ancient in Middle-Earth, like an elf would be. Part of the strictures upon the Istari is that they are dudes, albeit dudes with elvish lifespans. They are not to wield power to achieve their goals. Using random artifacts from powerful, wily, vindictive and inimical wizards, without due diligence is most un-Wise. You'd want a lab of some kind, with safeguards in place before you just queried it, especially since the prior owner was skilled at persuasion. Death is not the issue here, it's the risk of having his will subverted. He can't risk that.
    – chiggsy
    Commented Jun 18, 2019 at 5:42

Before visiting Orthanc (T.A. 3019), Gandalf thought that Saruman's treachery was recent. Saruman had been the trusted leader of the White Council for hundreds of years (since T.A. 2463). If Saruman was still believed to be trustworthy when he moved to Orthanc (T.A. 2759).

Gandalf did not think that the palantir was in Orthanc because if it were, Saruman would have shown it to the Wise when he moved there. Instead, Gandalf assumed that the unknown glass ball thrown out the window was a magical item that Saruman had acquired recently, only after he had been corrupted.

Only once Gandalf recognizes the palantir, he realizes that Saruman must have been treacherous for at least 250 years. The trust the Wise placed in him had long been foolish.

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    Correct. He probably suspected it was a palantir when he saw it but was not certain because to the best of his knowledge there was no palantir in Orthanc.
    – jwenting
    Commented Apr 19, 2017 at 9:54

This is something that bother me too when reading the book. Right when Gandalf mentions that he doesn't know how Mordor and Orthanc are communicating I was like what the hell, he just picked up a ball thrown from orthanc that he knows is a valuable treasure from what he says right after taking it from Pippin and knows Saruman covets it from his shriek. The only solution that tamed my distaste for what seemed to me to be a slight plot hole is that there are other magical orbs of value in the world and not just the Palantiri. Much how Gandalf was unable to immediately identify the One Ring even though it was right under his nose and took years of researching even after he became suspicious to determine that it was the One Ring. So he was able to recognize that what grima threw was valuable and magical he did not yet understand the importance of the thing until Pippin used it and with that bit of evidence could deduce that this particular magic orb is a Palantir. The only thing that really give evidence is that Gandalf mentions later that he was going to tinker with it to determine its uses shortly after Pippin had used the stone but says that might have been a grave mistake if Sauron was to question him and he not be able to escape since Sauron most likely wouldn't have released him like he did Pippin.

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    Welcome to Scifi-SE! The point of this site is that someone raises a question and the community tries to provide answers. Your answer is actually none but a different, related question. But feel free to make it a question, or browse this site to see if your question might already have an answer...
    – Einer
    Commented Jul 10, 2017 at 7:07
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    @Einer, this is in fact an answer, but it's buried under a lot of content. The key sentence is here "there are other magical orbs of value in the world and not just the Palantiri. Much how Gandalf was unable to immediately identify the One Ring even though it was right under his nose and took years of researching even after he became suspicious to determine that it was the One Ring."
    – Edlothiad
    Commented Jul 10, 2017 at 8:21

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