Monday 4 January 2021

On the limitations of a palantir: Tolkien on the irrationality of despair

That greatest of Tolkien scholars, Tom Shippey, noticed something profound yet hidden in the Lord of the Rings - which provides narrative 'evidence' for Tolkien's frequent theme that it is always wrong to despair

Despair is wrong primarily because we live in the ongoing creation of a God who loves us as his children; so this world is being-created, moment by moment, with an eye to the primary purpose of life: which is providing each of us with the experiences we most need to learn from in terms of our Christian choice of resurrected life in Heaven. 


(Conversely, this world is Not designed for atheist-materialists, who disbelieve in Heaven. Their lives are indeed, by their own assumptions, meaningless and pointless.)

So, 'general' despair is wrong, and a consequence of lack of 'faith' - that is, lack of trust in God's loving goodness and personal concern for each-of-us. But specific causes of despair are also a mistake; mistakes of inference. 

Why? Because despair is the certainty of bad outcome, such that one gives-up hope. And - simply put - despair is always wrong because we never have conclusive reasons to give-up hope. 


Despair is not based on probability, but certainty - and that certainty is always false. A high probability of a bad outcome should be called pessimism. It is not despair because it is a best guess, and estimate; and we realise that even the very improbable sometimes happens. 

Note: It is vital to distinguish between despair and pessimism; and between hope and optimism. 

Despair is a sin, and is always-wrong; hope is a virtue and (for a Christian) always-right. Optimism and pessimism are merely conjectural judgments about the likely future - constrained by individual ability, information and honesty...


But more fundamentally, despair is not even about strict-probabilities of the future of a known situation; since we are very unlikely to be framing, to be understanding accurately, the real nature of the situation.

Even if we know a lot about a situation, we never know every-thing about it; and some specific thing (some 'fact') that we do Not know, may have the capacity to transform our understanding. 

If we knew that particular fact, then our 'conclusive reason' for despair would go. 


In the Lord of the Rings, there is a seeing-stone device called a palantir, which may be used to gather information. Yet, whenever we see a palantir in use to gather more information and make a judgment, an error is made.

Always, something important about the user's assumptions are wrong, and some vital fact is missing; and therefore his interpretation of the factual information is in error. 


For example, when Sauron sees Pippin in the Orthanc stone, Sauron assumes this is the hobbit ring-bearer ('Baggins') who has been captured by Saruman - and he dispatches a Nazgul to collect this precious prize. 

This is a mistake, which happens because Saruman does not realise that the palantir is no longer in Saruman's hands - and because he assumes the stone is being deliberately used, rather than merely the object of hobbit curiosity - an 'accident'. 

Later, Aragorn shows himself deliberately to Sauron, after Sauron has discovered that Isengard was defeated and (presumably) the stone taken. 

Sauron then assumes that Aragorn, as the heir of Isildur, has taken the Ring and is learning to use its power. Sauron therefore 'hastily' launches his assault on Gondor before this has been fully prepared - and is defeated. 


A third example is easily missed (I missed it! - but this is where Tom Shippey contributed his key insight) because it can be inferred only by a careful calculation of chronology. It is that Denethor uses the palantir at the time when Frodo has been captured by Sauron - and sees a hobbit in the enemy's hands

Denethor assumes that this is the Ring bearer hobbit whom Gandalf sent into Mordor, and that Sauron now has the Ring. Denethor therefore despairs, his mind breaks, and he descends into madness, suicide; and the attempted murder of his son Faramir (who Denethor assume, also falsely, to be certainly fatally injured). 

What Denethor does not know is that although this is indeed Frodo, and he is indeed in the enemy's hands - at that time Sam has the One Ring; and is not in captivity. 

And it turns-out that this small unknown fact is enough to transform the entire situation from one of 'certain' despair - to the success of the quest. 

This warning of Tolkien's is of crucial significance to these times. 

There really has been a successful global coup, and the world really is ruled by an evil totalitarian government. And there probably are a large proportion of the population who have taken the side of evil. 

From what I know, according to my framing of the situation, the probabilities for the future seem extremely adverse: therefore I am a pessimist about what is coming.


Yet my understanding is at least distorted, and may be wrong; and my information is certainly incomplete. There are many facts of which I am unaware. So I have zero grounds for certainty. 

On the other hand, I know that this is God's creation and is being-created moment by moment; and that (since we are all God's beloved children) this creation is always taking into account each individual in ways that I cannot comprehend - but can guess-at based on the way that loving parents regard all their individual family members. 

God does Not see mankind as an homogeneous mass; but instead sees each person as a beloved son or daughter in relationships with other sons and daughters. 

And God is not trying to optimise our temporary, mortal earthly happiness (although that is a factor); but is instead primarily focused on our eternal salvation and life as participants in the work of divine creation.  

We do not have the advantage of a palantir, which always shows the factual truth. But even the palatir does not show the whole truth; and it cannot interpret what its pictures mean. So, even a palantir may well be deceptive - fatally deceptive. 

Our information is much less honest and reliable than that of a palantir; and we are even less 'wise' than either Sauron or Denethor...

So, as Christians we do not have grounds for general despair; and being poorly-informed fools, neither do we have specific grounds for despair - there may well be a transformative fact of which we are unaware. 


Therefore, be not afraid; be of good cheer! That is the only faithful and accurate way.

Trust in God! Follow Jesus Christ! 

And you cannot be wrong. 



Gary Bleasdale said...

The thought "it is a sin to feel despair/generalized futility about life when you have received the gift of the Holy Ghost" came to me very markedly yesterday during our family sacrament, after drinking the blood of Christ, to the point where I felt compelled to share this message with my family.

The fact that engaging in (that is,accepting) this sort of spiritual death spiral, even for a short while, was a serious reason to repent, was also made clear to me.

You have fleshed out clearly in this post, what was given to me as a Flash of insight, which I understood clearly as True without having reached that conclusion by step-by-step reasoning.

Like yourself, and I suspect most of your readership, I am not a short-term Optimist, and think generally speaking, quality of life for most will get worse quite quickly, in unexpected ways. This can tend to produce feelings of despair, when, as is usual, we are not in a "spiritual" frame of mind.

However, I do think that God will intervene for his faithful and will not allow them to endure anthing which will not redound very clearly for their spiritual benefit, and I suspect that He will also intervene in the temporal life of most of his faithful (except those who either do not need it, or whose lessons are best learned in another way).

I believe that 2021/2022 will be the pivotal years of the Coup/War started in 2020. I also believe that nobody has a clear victory yet, not even (especially not) those who are feeling themselves to have won right now.

The vision I get of the next two years, is of passing from a world where everything is "floating in the air", maintained in an insustainable place by forces of deception, to one where only those things which manage to erect themselves on solid (true) foundations, will continue.

This implies that many very large and unexpected enterprises/organizations/ideas will end up falling and crashing, and will also give a new chance for smaller units (individuals and families) to position themselves with a strength and a newfound potency they may never have had before.

This latter situation depends upon following the constant, continual guidance of the Holy Ghost, and practicing exceptional spiritual hygiene, which means it will be open to potentially to all, but in practice to a few.

And this, in turn, depends upon building living life by following True and Solid principles - one of which is "Despair is a sin against the Holy Ghost."

Doktor Jeep said...

I have always wondered why Denethor got such a savage treatment in Jackson's film.

BenL said...

Thank you Bruce. What a nice hopeful message. Kind of just when I needed it.

Avalon John said...

I believe that this post is a crucial read and for me it was as timely for my situation as to surpass coincidence. Thank you for being the vessel for this message that while general, is strikingly personal and relevant to me (and no doubt many others).

Bruce Charlton said...

Gary, Ben and John will be unsurprised to know that this was one of the posts that I had a strong intuition needed to be done. I had not intended to post today, because I had some early commitments; but in response to this feeling I just managed to get it written in the brief time available. As *always* when I post in response to such a prompting, I receive confirmation (by comment, or e-mail) that someone (or, in this case, more than one) 'needed' it exactly 'now'. When this happens, I am reminded just why I continue blogging.

Kristor said...

Bruce, thanks for this post. For me, too, it came at an uncannily apt moment.

I'm thinking often these days of Churchill at the absolute nadir of Britain's chances, with the army still stuck at Dunkirk and about to be annihilated. He never gave up hope. This was the nub of his epic speech at Parliament - we shall fight them on the beaches, etc. - which was the beginning of the beginning of turning things around.

Keep fighting, brother.

Bruce B. said...

I'm not a huge fan of LOTR but my favorite quote from the books was Gandalf's "despair is only for those who see the end beyond all doubt."

That quote always jumped out on me and I remember putting it in an online profile somewhere.

Rich said...

Thanks as always, Bruce. I too needed this at the moment.

William Wildblood said...

We talked the other day about reasons for hope, apart from assurances in the New Testament that all will end well for those who remain faithful to God. Paradoxically, I find a great cause for hope at the moment is in just how bad things have become and how quickly that has happened. There can no longer be any doubt that spiritual evil is a real thing and if spiritual evil is a real thing that means spiritual good is real. And good always defeats evil, just as light always defeats darkness, because there has to be good in the first place for evil to have something to destroy. The evil that has festered in men's hearts for centuries is all being brought out now, exposed so it be dealt with and cleaned from the system. There will be casualties but only amongst those with hard hearts who reject God. Then a new day will dawn.

I have come to the somewhat surprising conclusion that we are privileged to be alive now. We have a great opportunity to serve God.

Joseph A. said...

This is excellent and wise.

I'm often dumbstruck by just how pervasive providence is . . . I don't know how it occurs, only that it does occur. Just a silly example from yesterday -- I had just left the grocery store when I noticed a fabric face mask in the street -- one with a pretty design of green and purple. A minute later, I noticed a woman who was putting groceries in her car next to mine, and I remembered seeing her earlier in the store and realizing that she was pregnant (and far along). So, I said "Good luck." She smiled and then, quite bizarrely, responded with "I've lost my face mask." I then replied that I had just seen a mask on the ground, and it turned out that it was hers. I pondered the sequence later and marveled at its improbability. Now, the skeptically minded would just dismiss this as chance, but these weird, "chance" events happen _all the time_. Instead of chance, I rather think that the Lord is mindful even of the sparrow -- and of his daughter's minor concerns. In contrast to this, we can think of the endless list of human tragedies and wonder why God permitted such to occur. I have no answer, but it does seem that the Lord and his hosts work rather actively around me. Maybe, I'm a particularly fragile case and need lots of extra attention. I certainly don't deserve it, and yet it happens. Or perhaps we witnesses of miracles simply pay attention. I don't know.

Thanks, again, for this beautiful post.

Bruce Charlton said...

@Kristor - Thanks. There are (in England, anyway) striking difference from 1940 - including a sense that people's instincts have become disordered; also that groupishness (the spirit of groups, as if affects individuals) is nearly-always net-malign.

I think now we really need to think; become conscious, make active choices - from our-selves.

...Which is one reason why 'Eastern' spirituality is so malign in effect the West, here and now - to aim to delete the Self and stop thinking (or ignore thinking) is just about the worst thing we can do.

All this is double edged; we must rely on our-selves to initate escape and victory; but also, this means we can start immediately, without waiting for others - or to persuade others.

Bruce Charlton said...

@William "good always defeats evil, just as light always defeats darkness, because there has to be good in the first place for evil to have something to destroy... There will be casualties but only amongst those with hard hearts who reject God. "

We don't disagree - but I think you need to be clearer in distinguishing that Good will indeed defeat evil in an overall and ultimate sense (indeed, I would say that this has already happened, in that Heaven is permanent and ineradicable).

But at the same time, as you say in your second sentence; evil can (and apparently often does) defeat good in individual persons.

Plus, good defeats evil after death, but not necessarily in this mortal life on earth; which might well cease altogether (e.g. the world and everything on it might be destroyed).

I think it is necessary to be clear about these distinctions, because some Christians - I believe wrongly - seem to assume that good will win in every individual, sooner or later; and that good will eventually beat evil in earthly, human society.

James said...

Joseph Pearce, in Frodo's Journey, commented on palantir's etymology: is intriguing that Tolkien, through the words of Gandalf, makes a point of translating the literal meaning of the word palantir. Gandalf informs Pippin and therefore the reader that the word 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.”

Anna said...

Thank you, wonderful post.