Fëanor – the brightest flame of the Noldor
“Curufinwë was his name, but by his mother he was called Fëanor, Spirit of Fire”
“Fëanor grew swiftly, as if a secret fire were kindled within him. He was tall, and fair of face, and masterful, his eye piercingly bright and his hair raven-dark; in the pursuit of all his purposes eager and steadfast. Few changed his courses by counsel, none by force. He became of all the Noldor, then or after, the most subtle in mind and the most skilled in hand.”
Fëanor, son of Finwë and Miríel, was the first of the elves to actually be born – and the first to have a mother and a father (Morgoth’s Ring). He was truly brilliant – the original shining star of the Noldor – but as stars are wont to do, he imploded. He fell from grace – plummeting from the highest peaks to the depths of madness. Did he deserve such a fate? Many would say that he did. Certainly he was arrogant, restless and hot-tempered, he invariably went against the wishes of the Valar, and certainly he thought he had the world at his feet.
And why shouldn’t he think like that? He was the son of Finwë, by his beloved first wife Miríel. He was tremendously gifted, and the fire of life burned in him like a flame – threatening to consume but at the same time providing genius. He entwined the blended light of Telperion and Laurelin in the inner fire of the Silmarils – a working that took him above the ranks of the Eldar into another realm altogether. He had the world at his feet – and probably would have continued to do so if it hadn’t been for the malice of Melkor.
The Silmarils and Melkor
When Fëanor had come to his full power, he was seized with a new thought – about how to preserve the light of the Trees. He began a long and secret work, into which he summoned all his lore and power and skill, asking the aid of none save Nerdanel, his wife, and at the end of it, he fashioned the Silmarils. The three jewels were made of crystal which housed an inner fire made of light from the Trees. The light was the life-blood of the jewels, pulsing through their structure, yet still being contained in their core. The Silmarils shone as the stars of Varda even in the blackest room, and they were indeed living things, rejoicing in light and beaming it out in marvellous hues. All who saw them were filled with wonder, and soon Varda hallowed them, so that no mortal flesh or anything of evil might touch them. Fëanor’s heart became bound to his marvellous creations.
However, Melkor soon came to lust after the Silmarils, and realised that he would have to destroy Fëanor to obtain them. At the same time, he also wanted to destroy the relationship between the Elves and the Valar, and again, unfortunately for Fëanor, Melkor’s eye fell firmly on him as a target for his mischief. Melkor started foretelling the coming of Men, and it became whispered among the Noldor that the gods wanted to reserve the kingdoms of Middle-earth for the younger and weaker race whom they might more easily sway, defrauding the Elves of the inheritance of Ilúvatar. And Fëanor sat at the centre of Melkor’s planning, consciously renouncing Melkor and his doings, but still unknowingly being swept up in the Dark Lord’s tide of evil.
“though he still dissembled his purposes with great cunning, Melkor sought now ever more eagerly how he should destroy Fëanor, and end the friendship of Valar and Eldar.”
“Melkor laughed in his secrecy, for to that mark his lies had been addressed, hating Fëanor above all, and lusting ever for the Silmarils.”
“Melkor set new lies abroad in Eldamar, and whispers came to Fëanor that Fingolfin and his sons were plotting to usurp the leadership of Finwë and of the elder line of Fëanor, and to supplant them by the leave of the Valar”
I don’t think it would be fair to suggest that any Elf could withstand a full-blown war waged against him by Melkor – even a war that was waged simply through emotional and mental means. Especially a war which the elf did not know was occurring. Out of all the people on which Melkor decided to bestow his hatred, only one managed to resist him – and she was half-Maiar. Melkor continued to spread his lies and trickery among the Noldor, and Fëanor became enmeshed in a web of deceit to the point where the words coming out of his mouth were just what Melkor wanted him to say.
“he urged the Noldor to follow him and by their own prowess to win freedom and great realms in the lands of the East … for he echoed the lies of Melkor, that the Valar had cozened them and would hold them captive so that Men might rule in Middle-earth.”
From then onwards, Fëanor was effectively corrupted by Melkor. Indirect evil can be just as effective and overwhelming as direct evil.
Eventually, Fëanor was summoned in front of the Valar for his rebellious acts and words, and was banished from the city of Tirion:
“he was summoned to appear before them at the gates of Valmar, to answer for all his words and deeds. … Fëanor standing before Mandos in the Ring of Doom was commanded to answer all that was asked of him. Then at last the root was laid bare, and the malice of Melkor revealed … But Fëanor was not held guiltless, for he it was that had broken the peace of Valinor and drawn his sword upon his kinsman … “Therefore this doom is now made: for 12 years thou shalt leave Tirion where this threat was uttered. In that time take counsel with thyself, and remember who and what thou art.””
But even in that – whether the Valar realised it or not – they were all still dancing to Melkor’s tune. He wanted strife between the elves and the Valar – and that is what Mandos gave him.
The first exile of Fëanor
Fëanor then moved away from Tirion to Formenos, taking his sons and his father Finwë with him. There, Melkor sought him out and tried to sway Fëanor back towards his old ideas of leaving Aman. While Fëanor’s heart was still bitter at his humiliation at the hands of Mandos, his inner fire burned through Melkor’s fair form and perceived his underlying lust for the Silmarils. Hate overcome Fëanor’s fear, and he threw Melkor out of his house.
It is never a good idea to anger a Vala:
“Then Melkor departed in shame, for he was himself in peril, and he saw not his time yet for revenge; but his heart was black with anger.”
So where did this leave Fëanor? He already had the hatred and envy of Melkor because of the Silmarils, and now he managed to humiliate the Vala – a situation that arose originally because of his unrivalled craftsmanship, followed by a Vanyar-like arrogance and stubbornness. Then just to make things worse, Fëanor managed to torment the rest of the Valar by refusing to let them break the Silmarils to regain the light of the Trees. After Melkor and Ungoliant’s deadly attack on the Trees, Yavanna asked Fëanor for a small amount of the Light to recall life to the Trees before their roots died. He heard the Vala, then remained silent for a while, thinking – and only Aulë seemed to realise that Yavanna’s request was very difficult for Fëanor, and that the Valar were asking of Fëanor more than they knew. Eventually Fëanor spoke:
“But Fëanor spoke then, and cried bitterly: ‘Verily for the less even as for the greater there is some deed that he may accomplish but once only. And in that deed his heart shall rest. Mayhap I can unlock my jewels, but never again shall I make their like; and if they be broken, then broken will be my heart, and I shall die.’
Fëanor brooded in the dark. And it seemed to him that he was beset in a ring of enemies, and the words of Melkor returned to him, saying that the Silmarils were not safe, if the Valar would possess them. ‘And is he not Vala as are they,’ said his thought, ‘and understandeth their hearts? Yea, a thief shall reveal thieves.’ Then he cried aloud: ‘Nay, this thing I will not do of free will. But if the Valar will constrain me, then verily shall I know that Melkor is of their kindred.'”
In this, Fëanor was, of course, misguided. It was an error to assume that the Valar thought in the same manner as Melkor, and another error to believe that the worth of the Silmarils – even to their creator – was greater than the confounding of evil.
But again, it is easy to sympathise with Fëanor. Firstly, who would want their most treasured possessions taken away and broken – even if it was for a good purpose. Secondly, and far more importantly, are the properties of the Silmarils themselves. There does seem to be some analogy between the Silmarils in the First Age and the One Ring in the Third Age. Both were created by the master craftsman of their times; both contained an incredible amount of power; both inspired lust and envy; and both were created to increase the glory and power of the makers. Sauron searches for the One Ring, Melkor searches for the Silmarils. Both are happy to obliterate whatever gets in their way on their quests – and for Melkor, before he gets into his later nihilistic madness, his target for destruction is the bright flame of Fëanor.
The main difference between the Silmarils and the Ring, of course, is that Fëanor could not bring himself to destroy the Silmarils, thereby averting a series of great evils, while the One Ring was eventually destroyed – albeit, not by its maker. It would be impossible to believe that Sauron could destroy the Ring, and I would think that the same impossibility could well apply to Fëanor.
So, I believe that it is possible to say that Fëanor was not just acting selfishly when he refused the Valar’s request. He could have also been under an immense pressure from the Silmarils themselves.
The Second Exile of Fëanor
Melkor’s later attack on Formenos, leading to the death of Finwë and the theft of the Silmarils, was the catalyst for the Rebellion of the Noldor.
“Fëanor … cursed also the summons of Manwë and the hour in which he came to Taniquetil, thinking in the madness of his rage and grief that had he been at Formenos his strength would have availed more than to be slain also, as Melkor had purposed. … His father was dearer to him than the Light of Valinor or the peerless works of his hands”
Normally, Fëanor is blamed for inciting the entire Rebellion of the Noldor, but it must be remembered that Morgoth had spent much time working his insidious lies around all the Noldor – not just Fëanor. They were ripe for foment. If you add to this situation the grief-crazed Fëanor, who was capable of great words, great rallying cries – you have the potential for disaster. For sure Fëanor was responsible for a good deal of the suffering of the Noldor, but was it entirely his fault, and was he operating in right mind and out of Morgoth’s clutches? No.
“Fëanor was a master of words, and his tongue had great power over hearts when he would use it; and that night he made a speech before the Noldor which they ever remembered. Fierce and fell were his words, and filled with anger and pride; and hearing them the Noldor were stirred to madness. His wrath and his hate were given most to Morgoth, and yet well nigh all that he said came from the very lies of Morgoth himself; but he was distraught with grief for the slaying of his father, and with anguish for the rape of the Silmarils.”
To the Noldor, he unknowingly echoed the lies of Melkor, saying that the Valar were holding them prisoner so that Men could rule in Middle-earth. He entreated them to join him in war against Melkor – a war which the Valar must take some responsibility for starting.
“After Morgoth to the ends of the Earth! War he shall have and hatred undying. But when we have conquered and have regained the Silmarils, then we and we alone shall be lords of the unsullied Light, and masters of the bliss and beauty of Arda. No other race shall oust us!”
“Shall we mourn here deedless for ever, a shadow-folk, mist-haunting, dropping vain tears in the salt thankless Sea? Or shall we go home? In Kuiviénen sweet ran the waters under unclouded stars, and wide lands lay about where a free folk might walk.” (Morgoth’s Ring, p111)
“But all he said both wild and wise,
Half truth and half the fruit of lies
That Morgoth sowed in Valinor,
in other songs and other lore
recorded is. He bade them flee
from lands divine, to cross the sea,
the pathless plains, the perilous shores
where ice-infested water roars;
to follow Morgoth to the unlit earth” (Lays of Beleriand, p211)
Can you imagine the effect of such a beautiful and heart-rending speech on a folk who are already stirred up by the murder of their king, the theft of their most precious jewels, and Fëanor’s declaration of war on Melkor?
The Oath of Fëanor
Fëanor swore an oath – as did his sons – that none could break, vowing pursuit with never-ending vengeance and hatred, any one of any race who should hold or take or keep a Silmaril from their possession.
“‘Be he foe or friend, be he foul or clean,
brood of Morgoth or bright Vala,
Elda or Maia or Aftercomer,
Man yet unborn upon Middle-earth,
neither law, nor love, nor league of swords,
dread nor danger, not Doom itself,
shall defend him from Fëanor, and Fëanor’s kin,
whoso hideth or hoardeth, or in hand taketh,
finding keepeth or afar casteth
a Silmaril. This swear we all:
death we will deal him ere Day’s ending,
woe unto world’s end! Our word hear thou,
Eru Allfather! To the everlasting
Darkness doom us if our deed faileth.
On the holy mountain hear in witness
and our vow remember, Manwë and Varda!'”
After a long debate involving all the Noldor, the Rebels decided to leave Aman and travel under Fëanor’s leadership to Middle-earth. When Fingolfin spoke again for delay and heed, a great shout went up of elves clamouring to be gone. So Fëanor drove them on, fearing that any delay would cause a cooling of ardour, and the Valar sat by and watched. But eventually, as Fëanor came forth from Tirion, Eönwë appeared to chastise Fëanor, saying that again he was exiled to unlearn the lies that he believed true. Fëanor replied, full of fire and blazing drive:
“if Fëanor cannot overthrow Morgoth, at least he delays not to assail him, and sits not idle in grief. And it may be that Eru has set in me a fire greater than thou knowest. Such hurt at the least will I do to the Foe of the Valar that even the mighty in the Ring of Doom shall wonder to hear it.” … In that hour the voice of Fëanor grew so great and so potent that even the herald of the Valar bowed before him as one full-answered, and departed.”
If we look at the Oath and the subsequent Noldorian debate, it is easy to see that Melkor is still influencing Fëanor, deluding him that he was fighting for a noble cause, a cause that needed to be taken up by someone – and that as the Valar were sitting back and not pursuing Morgoth, Fëanor was the natural choice to take up leadership of the cause. Note that the Silmarils are not mentioned. Another interesting point raised by this is the actual power of Fëanor – any normal elf would realise quite quickly that they couldn’t take on, and conquer – a Vala, especially Morgoth. So why does Fëanor go out on this “suicide” quest, why does he say to Eönwë that he may have more power than expected, and why does Eönwë seem to take an order directly from Fëanor? Coupled with earlier references to spirits of fire make me sometimes think of Fëanor more as a fire spirit than a true elf, an impression only enhanced by the Shibboleth of Fëanor, in which Fëanor is described as great in body and mind beyond the measure of the Eldar.
While on the early stages of their journey, Fëanor realised that it would be best to sail to Middle-earth, rather than cross the ice of the Helcaraxë. He decided to persuade the Teleri to join his rebellion against the Valar. When they would not, he started seizing their ships in his desperation to get across the seas to Middle-earth. There is nothing that can be excused in the massacre that followed. The Teleri tried to stop the Exiles from taking their ships, and cast many of the Noldor into the sea. Swords were drawn, and many elves were killed on both sides. It was the first Kinslaying – an act abhorred both by elves and Ainur. Many more of the Teleri were slaughtered as they had less strength than the desperate Noldor, and their bows were slender. Soon after the slaughter, Mandos appeared to the Noldor, pronouncing their Doom:
“Tears unnumbered ye shall shed; and the Valar will fence Valinor against you, and shut you out, so that not even the echo of your lamentation shall pass over the mountains. On the House of Fëanor the wrath of the Valar lieth from the West unto the uttermost East, and upon all that will follow them it shall be laid also. Their Oath shall drive them, and yet betray them, and ever snatch away the very treasures that they have sworn to pursue. To evil end shall all things turn that they begin well; and by treason of kin unto kin, and the fear of treason, shall this come to pass.”
Clearly, participating in, and commending, the Kinslaying was Fëanor’s worst crime. There is little excuse that can be given for him, and indeed, there should be little excuse for what he did. Except maybe for the one defence that he did have. The same defence that he had from the second that Melkor first saw the Silmarils. How can Fëanor be clearly judged when every aspect of his life, and even his thoughts, were being controlled by Melkor? Controlled in a very insidious way, for sure, but controlled none the less. So while Fëanor could easily be despised for his actions, I’m not so sure. Yes, he did terrible things. Yes, he killed many of his kin – one of the most heinous crimes for an Elf. Yes, he led his family into Exile and into the wrath of the Valar. But who was Fëanor at that point? Was he the burning bright Fëanor, Lord of the Noldor, who was attractive, fascinating and passionate? Or was he the Fëanor that was held in thraldom and torment by Morgoth, and worst of all, was probably unaware that he was fulfilling the Dark Lord’s desires? The answer is obvious. But what does this distinction actually mean? I guess it depends on your personal view on punishment. Should someone be punished who commits a crime while under the influence of another, more evil, person? Yes, I think they should, and yes, Fëanor deserved punishment for his actions. But I don’t think he should have been branded evil, vilified by the Elves and rejected by the Valar for something that was partially their fault to start with.
Even the Valar seemed to realise this in their hearts. One of the most moving passages ever written by Tolkien is on this subject:
“And they mourned not more for the death of the Trees than for the marring of Fëanor: of the works of Melkor one of the most evil. For Fëanor was made the mightiest in all parts of body and mind, in valour, in endurance, in beauty, in understanding, in skill, in strength and in subtlety alike, of all the Children of Ilúvatar, and a bright flame was in him. The works of wonder for the glory of Arda that he might otherwise have wrought only Manwë might in some measure conceive. And it was told by the Vanyar who held vigil with the Valar that when the messengers declared to Manwë the answers of Fëanor to his heralds, Manwë wept and bowed his head.
But Mandos said: … “To me shall Fëanor come soon.””
When Fëanor and his host reached Middle-earth, they landed in the wastes of Lammoth, known as the Great Echo, and indeed the shouts and cries of his host were multiplied and bounced around the shores of the North. Furthermore, the noise from the burning of the ships was also enlarged, and flooded through the land sounding like a tumult of great wrath.
The host then passed up the Firth of Drengist to Hithlum, coming at last to the lake of Mithrim, where they made their camp. However, before the camp’s defences had been raised, Morgoth swept down on the Noldor in a sudden attack, having been attracted to the noise and light of the elves’ arrival in Middle-earth. Thus started the Dagor-nuin-Giliath, the Second Battle of Beleriand. The Noldor managed to repel the hordes of darkness from Mithrim, but even then Fëanor would not stop, and he pressed forwards toward Angband.
“he was fey, consumed by the flame of his own wrath. Thus it was that he drew far ahead of the van of his host; and seeing this the servants of Morgoth turned to bay, and there issued from Angband Balrogs to aid them. There upon the confines of Dor Daedeloth, the land of Morgoth, Fëanor was surrounded, with few friends about him. Long he fought on, and undismayed, though he was wrapped in fire and wounded with many wounds; but at the last he was smitten to the ground by Gothmog”
Fëanor survived long enough to be carried off the battlefield by his sons. When they reached the Ered Wethrin, Fëanor saw Thangorodrim – his last sight on Middle-earth. On seeing those mighty towers, he finally realised that no power of the Noldor would ever overthrow Angband and its evil empire, and he cursed Morgoth thrice. He laid it upon his sons to uphold their oath, and to avenge their father. Then he died; and as his fiery spirit sped to Aman, his body burned away, turned to ash and blew away like smoke in the breeze.
His spirit sped to the Halls of Mandos, from whose chambers it never left.