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Welcome, dear readers, as ever.
Not so long ago, news came to most people through one—very undependable–source: rumor and gossip. As Shakespeare’s Rumor (depicted as “all painted with tongues” in a stage direction), who appears at the beginning of Henry IV, Part 2, Prologue, 1-5, describes herself:
“Open your ears, for which of you will stop
The vent of hearing when loud Rumour speaks?
I, from the orient to the drooping west,
Making the wind my post-horse, still unfold
The acts commenced on this ball of earth.”
At almost the same time as this play was written and first performed (1596-99), the first printed Western newspaper appeared, the Relation, in Strasbourg in 1605.
For the next 300-and-some years, newspapers were then the accepted conveyor of popular information about local, national, and world events. Until 1842, these could only convey that information in words, but, in that year, the first illustrated newspaper appeared, The Illustrated London News.
And soon other newspapers followed, opening a wider world of information to the reading public. In under a century, however, news appeared in a new form of technology entirely: the first news broadcast by radio believed to have been on August 31, 1920, by a set owned—perhaps not surprisingly by a newspaper— The Detroit News. Considering what radios looked like in the early 1920s, we doubt that many people heard it (this is an image from Lifestyle Magazine from 1923).
Radios soon improved, however, so that, along with newspapers, people could tune in to hear news, news sometimes more up-to-date than even the newspapers could supply. And then came television. Experiments had been made with television broadcasting as early as 1940, but steady broadcasting really only began in 1948, with CBS Television News.
And then the internet appeared, so that, today, more people are believed to get their news from some form of electronic means than any other (or so electronic means tell us). Practically anywhere you go in our world, you see people staring at screens (not always reading the news, of course—with the universe of apps, people can be doing almost anything imaginable), many of them so portable that you can watch people doing it while walking
even while driving (which, frankly, terrifies us!).
There is a problem with news, however, in every era. Shakespeare’s Rumor may have been pushed to one side by later technological innovations, but, in the form of so-called “fake news”, it’s still with us. And, in fact, faked news—news distorted—or even manufactured—has become a standard feature in newer technology. One has only to think about Nazi propaganda (certainly not the first, but perhaps, for us, the most extensive and most vivid), where—just as one example out of thousands—the mostly horse-powered German army of 1940
was publicly depicted as streamlined and gasoline-powered (or, even more high-tech, diesel-powered).
Some time ago, we talked about literacy in Middle-earth. There was no printed material, of course, and literacy appears to have been limited (we only have to mention Gaffer Gamgee saying of Sam, “Mr. Bilbo has learned him his letters—meaning no harm, mark you, and I hope no harm will come of it.” to imagine that not only was it limited, but there might even be a certain suspicion attached to it.)
And what news there was came by the oldest of methods:
“There were rumours of strange things happening in the world outside; and as Gandalf had not at that time appeared or sent any message for several years, Frodo gathered all the news he could. Elves, who seldom walked in the Shire, could now be seen passing westward through the woods in the evening, passing and not returning; but they were leaving Middle-earth and were no longer concerned with its troubles. There were, however, dwarves on the road in unusual numbers. The ancient East-West Road ran through the Shire to its end at the Grey Havens, and dwarves had always used it on their way to their mines in the Blue Mountains. They were the hobbits’ chief source of news from distant parts—if they wanted any: as a rule dwarves said little and hobbits asked no more. But now Frodo often met strange dwarves of far countries, seeking refuge in the West. They were troubled, and some spoke in whispers of the Enemy and of the Land of Mordor.” (The Fellowship of the Ring, Book One, Chapter 2, “The Shadow of the Past”)
(See also the scene in The Green Dragon a little later in the chapter, where there is discussion, all based on hearsay, about Shire and extra-Shire events, between Sam and Ted Sandyman.)
For two people in Middle-earth, however, news came by a method in a strange way like that of the internet: the palantir, and that news which they received was not to their advantage. Made “from beyond Westernesse, from Eldamar. The Noldor made them…” Gandalf tells Pippin. (The Two Towers, Book Three, Chapter 11, “The Palantir”)

The palantiri were made “to see far off, and to converse in thought with one another.” Although there were seven, one, that at Osgiliath, was the master: “each palantir replied to each, but all those in Gondor were ever open to the view of Osgiliath.” Saruman had one of the others
—the one under discussion in this chapter, after Pippin had almost come to disaster from looking in it—which Grima flung off Orthanc
in what, although unexplained, must have been an attempt to brain Gandalf.
Unfortunately for Saruman, what he presumably thought would benefit his quest for what he speciously tells Gandalf is “Knowledge, Rule, Order; all the things that we have so far striven in vain to accomplish…” (The Fellowship of the Ring, Book Two, Chapter 2, “The Council of Elrond”), becomes a snare, as it seems that the master stone of Osgiliath has fallen into Sauron’s hands and “Easy it is now to guess how quickly the roving eye of Saruman was trapped and held; and how ever since he has been persuaded from afar, and daunted when persuasion would not serve.” (The Two Towers, Book 3, Chapter 11, “The Palantir”)
There is another surviving stone, however, and, though it doesn’t turn its possessor into an unwilling ally of Sauron, its propaganda—faked news—does terrible damage, all the same. In the White Tower of Ecthelion in Minas Tirith,
holds a palantir and he, too, is caught, as Gandalf surmises:
“…I fear that as the peril in 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.” (The Return of the King, Book Five, Chapter 7, “The Pyre of Denethor”)
This overthrow, brought on by Sauron’s propaganda, results in Denethor accusing Gandalf of plotting “to rule in my stead, to stand behind every throne, north, south, or west” as well as delivering what clearly sounds like the “speech long rehearsed” Gandalf has long ago said that Saruman delivered to him in Orthanc:
“For a little space you may triumph on the field, for a day. But against the Power that now arises there is no victory. To this City only the first finger of its hand has yet been stretched. All the East is moving. And even now the wind of thy hope cheats thee and wafts up the Anduin a fleet with black sails. The West has failed. It is time for all to depart who would not be slaves.”
“to depart” quickly seems a euphemism for something much more radical as Denethor:
“leaped upon the table, and standing there wreathed in fire and smoke he took up the staff of his stewardship that lay at his feet and broke it on his knee. Casting the pieces into the blaze he bowed and laid himself on the table, clasping the palantir with both hands upon his breast.”
Here, we thought of all of those people we see who seemingly can never put down their phones—even in death Denethor still grips the very thing which has brought about his destruction.
Was JRRT sending us, here in the future, a warning: beware of your source of news—and sometimes let go of what brings it to you? We can only add his description of Denethor’s palantir when it was retrieved from the pyre:
“And it was said that ever after, if any man looked in that Stone, unless he had a great strength of will to turn it to other purpose, he saw only two aged hands withering into flame.”
Thanks, as always, for reading!
The new film, Dunkirk, opens with a British soldier catching a German propaganda leaflet based upon an actual one. Below on the left is the movie version, on the right the original. (Notice, by the way, that, in the one on the right, the English is not quite parallel to the French, including the line, “Your commanders (chefs) are going to flee by airplane.”) If Middle-earth had had a print culture, it’s easy to see such a leaflet being dropped by Nazgul over Minas Tirith!