The palantiri are a collection of indestructible crystal stones used in Tolkien’s fictional Middle Earth as a means of “far-seeing” communication.
The wizard Saruman uses one of the all-powerful seeing stones to surveil his foes and is ultimately corrupted by the unbounded knowledge that it provides him. Sauron — the main villain in the books and the films — reaches Saruman through the palantir and manipulates him into doing his bidding.
Critic and leading Tolkien scholar Jane Chance Nitzsche wrote that Saruman uses the stone to “seek Godlike knowledge by gazing in a short-sighted way” into the palantir. By opting for “mere knowledge” instead of actual wisdom, the wizard eventually met his downfall.
In the movie, you might also remember Peregrin “Pippin” Took mischievously snatching a palantir while Gandalf and the others are asleep. He and the rest of the story’s heroes continuously dodge their enemies’ line of sight in order to complete their main quest: destroying the One Ring and ridding Middle Earth of such a source of evil.
Palantir, the tech firm, creates software that gives its customers a wide-ranging, searchable database to find what they’re looking for. So naming the company after an object that provides a broad scope of sight might seem fitting.
But critics say that harnessing Palantir’s tech as a surveillance tool, especially while partnering with such agencies as Immigration and Customs Enforcement, could be less than heroic. The company has provided ICE with data from the Department of Health and Human Services, which resulted in hundreds of immigrants being arrested. The company also works with law enforcement agencies.
Palantir isn’t the only tech company connected to Thiel that bears a LOTR-inspired name and has drawn criticism.
He was an early investor in military-contracting startup Anduril, which was named after the magical sword in the series that was wielded by the trilogy’s hero, Aragorn. The company, founded by Palmer Luckey in 2017, was recently awarded a contract with US Customs and Border Protection to build a virtual “wall” as a means to prevent illegal crossings into the US. The system will utilize surveillance towers to detect movement.
Fans of the beloved books have taken issue with companies that have names inspired by “Lord of the Rings” and work with border authorities like CBP.
“It’s really not even close to the point, but between this and [Palantir], wtf is up with tech bros using Lord of the Rings names for their big data services for the military?” a Twitter user said last year. “Did I miss some pro-war/surveillance message in Tolkien’s work?”