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television: devil in the roomThose 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.”

Screen_shot_2010-12-07_at_6.10.18_PMTelevision 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

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17 replies to this post
  1. Joseph, I wholeheartedly agree. I had not thought of the palantir in that way, but it makes complete sense. Our family sold out TVs when we moved home 8 years ago. We never bought a replacement for our new home and we haven’t looked back.

  2. Excellent comments about television. My wife and I go without a television in our home periodically: each time it breaks down, we throw it away. Within a few months or years our son buys a new one for his family, gives us the old one, and the cycle begins again. But we are always refreshed and cleansed during the times we are TV-less. And your comments near the end of your essay on television remind me of what – as I recall – Neil Postman wrote in Amusing Ourselves to Death: television is a way of allowing the kind of people into your home who you wouldn’t allow into your home.”

  3. Sadly the article is deeply flawed because the television service of pre-WWII Britain was switched off at the start of WWII and did not resume until after it. Therefore, given that the Lord of the Rings saga was published entirely by 1949, it is unlikely that Tolkien critique can have been aimed at it. Which is a shame, because the article does make a valid point about the dangers of the TV – though the assumption that it is wholly under the control of the enemy is less well founded.

    • LOTR “published entirely by 1949”? Hardly. The publication dates for the three volumes were:

      FOTR: July 29, 1954
      TTT: November 11, 1954
      ROTK: October 20, 1955

      Tolkien did finish the book’s narrative in the late 1940s. But subsequent revisions were, he said, to make it a more Christian and Catholic book. Also, keep in mind that the dangers of television propaganda aren’t that different from those of radio, which he knew all too well. It was easy to extend the dangers of radio to television. Much of Hitler’s power over Germans (and FDR’s over Americans) came from radio addresses.

      Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 is undeniably anti-television. That’s one of its main points. And his book came out in 1953. It’s not too great a stretch to believe that Tolkien’s 1954-55 books are at least implicitly so.

      —–

      Radio and television have dangers that differ from anything in the past.

      * Unlike personal conversations, they can be centrally controlled and dictated. In fact, at that time virtually every European country, including Britain with its BBC, was making radio a government monopoly so it could be centrally controlled.

      * Unlike books, which take time to publish and endure for generations, radio and TV can quickly adapt to changing situations and even flip what they’re saying overnight. Recall Orwell’s remarks about that in 1984.

      Note too George Orwell’s criticism of Big Brother with “telescreen” in his novel, 1984, published in 1949. If Orwell can be criticizing television as a manipulative tool in 1949, why is it a stretch historically to see Tolkien doing so in 1954-55?

      No, if anything, Tolkien’s palantiri as a critique of the dangers of television was a common topic being discussed as he wrapped up LOTR in the late 1940s and early 1950s.

      —–

      Tolkien did tend to see technology in black & white terms. He hated telephones because they interrupted his life. Only when answering machine came along did he find them more tolerable.

      In my book-length Tolkien chronology, Untangling Tolkien, I deal with the harsh criticisms Tolkien made of airplanes in letters to his son Christopher during WWII. I point out that at that time aircraft were primarily being used for destruction from afar. Their later uses to transport the sick to medical care, to fight fires, and to allow ordinary people to travel long-distances inexpensively were well into the future.

      All that why it isn’t hard to see Tolkien making other criticisms of technology such as television, even if only explicitly, and doing so in a tale placed long before something like television could exist. In his tales, what we do with technology is often done with magic.

      –Michael W. Perry, author of Untangling Tolkien

  4. This reminds me of the story of Adam and Eve, whose actions are generally pronounced sinful. I had always considered them stupid. I once mentioned this to a preacher’s daughter, who replied that that was the opinion of her father. Not being able to resist going for a laugh, i dubbed her her father a highly intelligent man. She got my point, and I got my laugh. in addition to the satisfaction of knowing that a man of the cloth agreed with me.

    But, lately, trying to get it right, I decided that calling Adam and Eve stupid is incorrect. They simply had an insufficient perception of reality. They were not adequate at evaluating paradise. Thar being the case, why shouldn’t numerous human beings have failed to appreciate the life they enjoyed before television, and realize that introducing it into their–and, especially, into their children’s lives–would force out what was there? If they didn’t perceive that they were forcing out anything it’s because they didn’t believe they were losing, but adding. You might maintain that, with the mendacity prevalent in the medium today. the chickens are coming home to roost,. In reality, they returned long ago.

    .

  5. The Lord of the Rings was published in 1954-55, not 1949. Tolkien did begin its writing shortly before the beginning of World War II, but the section about the Palantir was written after the end of the war.

  6. The ONLY time my TV gets turned on is during a local weather event. Otherwise, it’s power strip is turned off so that it cannot “phantomly” consume a single watt of electricity.

  7. Steven, I didn’t say they weren’t.

    Here’s actor James Stewart’s take on the subject: I don’t know ’bout all this TV all day long now; there’s people ACTING all the time–they turn the thing on, somebody’s there ACTING at them. I wonder if that’s good for people–all this ACTING.”

    For some T.S. Eliot remarks on the subject, see his 1950 letter to The Times of London, in Peter Hitchens’ book The Abolition of Britain, pages 128-129.

  8. Funny though, how the internet was supposed to do away with the one-way idiot box, but was quickly subsumed by the same mass media companies, making the peronal computer into a two-way, ever-more-time-consuming idiot box. You want to walk away, right? OK that’s fine: we’ll put it in the palm of your hand and you can bring it along!

    • The difference, I think, is that the internet has the potential to be something great, the TV is by nature passive and mind numbing.

      I definitely know that the internet allows me to get info and opinions outside the mainstream media narrative and I save money on books by reading out of copyright ones online.

  9. There are some good shows … Married With Children, Jackass, and of course Top Gear. All are gloriously Politically Incorrect, and thus a form of rebellion against the left wing cyborgs. The latter, for example, routinely mocks electric cars and hybrids as well as the “Eco freaks” who support them all the while lusting after the things that make cars great – namely, power and speed.

  10. Joseph, as usual you make much sense and provide a new, wisdom-deepening perspective on your topic.

    All true. And at the same time, I am reminded of something remarkable that Russell Kirk wrote in one of his undeservedly lesser-known essays, included in The Wise Men Know What Wicked Things Are Written on the Sky:

    “In any age, unless we are to be vanquished utterly, we must take up the tools–the weapons, if you will–effective in that age. In the Age of Sentiments, television has become the great mover and shaker. I remind you that there persist in human nature both bad sentiments and good sentiments. Repairing once more to The Century Dictionary, we need to bear in mind that sentiment is more lofty than mere feeling and that there exist such sentiments as patriotism, honor, and duty. Sentiments of that order may yet be raised up in the Wasteland–and through the innovating instrument called television.

    “An age moved by high sentiments can be more admirable than an age mired in desiccated discussions. Those who fancy that the philosophical and political notions of John Stuart Mill can suffice to govern the pride, the passion, and the prejudice of man, bewilderedly wander in a ghost realm of yesteryear, and must perish. Is it a fantastic aspiration to endeavor to employ television as a means for our regeneration? If so, we must resign ourselves to a world dominated by the sentiments that “Dallas” rouses. Though in part a product of the Age of Discussion, I do not so resign myself–not yet. To the challenge of television, a courageous response remains possible. . . . At any rate, as Henry Adams was given to saying, the fun is in the process. To the studios, men of high sentiments!”

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