Features, Legendarium, Tolkien 101

Tolkien 101: Fëanor

07.14.10 | Kunochan | 1 Comment

Tolkien 101 is a series of short articles designed to introduce new Tolkien fans to important characters, concepts, and vocabulary from the published works of JRR Tolkien.

If you were introduced to Tolkien’s works through Peter Jackson’s film trilogy, or if you are just curious about the background of Tolkien’s invented world (his “Legendarium”), then these articles are meant for you.

Fëanor is one of the greatest characters of The Silmarillion; although Beren Erchamion, Lúthien Tinúviel and Túrin Turambar are more traditional heroes, it’s Fëanor’s choices for both good and evil that create the conflicts that drive the bulk of the story.

Fëanor is mentioned twice in The Lord of the Rings, three times if one counts the Appendices; the Silmarils he created are mentioned once. But his spirit haunts the story, as his actions create the history of the First Age of Middle–earth, and lead inexorably even to the creation of the One Ring. This is the strength of Tolkien’s Legendarium; that like real history, each piece fits into every other.

His name was Curufinwë, but his mother called him Fëanor (“FAY-uh-nor”), the “Spirit of Fire.” (Tolkien equated fire with the creative power, as in the “Flame Imperishable” used to create the world.)

He was tall, and fair of face, and masterful, his eyes piercingly bright and his hair raven-dark; in the pursuit of all his purposes eager and steadfast.

The story of Fëanor (told here as briefly as possible) begins as the story of the earliest Elves.

When the Elves were first created, the Valar (gods or archangels) invited them to come to Aman in the Uttermost West, to live in peace and safety in the holy light of the Two Trees. Some Elves refused the summons; others traveled west but never completed the journey, such as the Sindar, the people to which Legolas belonged; but three groups arrived in the West. One of these was the Noldor, a people dedicated to knowledge and craft.

The greatest of these was Fëanor, the firstborn son of the High King of the Noldor. So great was Fëanor’s spirit that his mother died giving birth to him. He was born in Aman, as was his half-niece, Galadriel. They held an intense dislike for each other; it is said in The Silmarillion that Galadriel looked into Fëanor’s mind and saw only darkness. In fact, when Fëanor requested a lock of Galadriel’s famous blonde hair to make a jewel, she scandalously refused him. Fans of The Lord of the Rings, both the books and the films, might realize the importance of this in that later story – if you can’t figure it out, I’ll reveal it below.

Fëanor was the greatest craftsman who ever lived, his skill rivaling even some amongst the Valar and Maiar (minor gods or angels). And it was the greatest of his creations that was the catalyst for most of the tragedies of the “Quenta Silmarillion,” the collection of tales that makes up the bulk of The Silmarillion.

Fëanor took the light of the Two Trees and stored it in three Great Jewels, devised from a substance only he could create. Making these jewels, the Silmarils, was his greatest task, and he would never be able to repeat it. Even the Vala Aulë, god of craftsmen, could not discover how the Silmarils were made. All agreed they were the most beautiful objects ever made.

The day came when Sauron’s master, Melkor, along with Shelob’s forebear, Ungoliant, destroyed the Two Trees and fled to Middle-earth. With Aman cast into darkness, the Valar came to Fëanor, and begged him to destroy the Silmarils, releasing the light trapped within so they could use it to bring the holy Trees back to life.

Fëanor refused.

Indeed, Melkor had been spreading lies amongst the Elves of Aman, and particularly the Noldor, saying the Valar kept them prisoner. The Elves had begun arming themselves in paranoia and suspicion, and Fëanor had drawn a sword on his own half-brother. In punishment, Fëanor and his father the King had accepted a brief exile in the north of Aman; but Fëanor resented the Valar for this, as he felt he had done nothing wrong.

Then even worse news came – fleeing from Aman after the destruction of the Trees, Melkor and Ungoliant came across Fëanor’s father, whom they slew. And they stole the Silmarils.

Now, in the face of his father’s death and what he believed was the Valar’s attempt to “steal” the Silmarils, Fëanor led his people in revolt. They would return to Middle-earth to get revenge on Melkor, whom Fëanor renamed “Morgoth” (“The Black Enemy”); and regain the Silmarils. Fëanor and his Seven Sons took a terrible, unbreakable oath, one that would lead to the War of the Jewels and bring a terrible curse down on the Noldor and on the Elves of Middle-earth.

Galadriel would not take the oath, and did not support Fëanor; but she followed him to Middle-earth, seeking a realm of her own to rule.

When the rebel Noldor approached the shores of Aman, they stole boats belonging to another tribe of Elves, and slew many. This crime was known as the First Kinslaying.

The Valar then declared the Doom of Mandos, which shut the rebel Noldor out of Aman, and declared that the Oath would turn to a curse. But Fëanor laughed off the warnings of the Valar, and certainly would not turn back to seek pardon.

It became clear that the stolen boats would not hold all the rebel Noldor; so Fëanor collected his most loyal followers and set sail, abandoning the rest on the shore. When he arrived in Middle-earth, he burned the boats. Unable to go forward or turn back, the remaining Noldor, Galadriel included, walked across the Grinding Ice of the far north to cross the sea to Middle-earth, and many died on the journey.

But Fëanor’s victory and treachery were short-lived. Morgoth learned of Fëanor’s arrival and sent a great army to slay the rebel Noldor. The Noldor won the battle, but Fëanor foolishly chose to press north to assault Morgoth’s great fortress of Angband. There, Fëanor was slain by Balrogs.

But the effects of Fëanor’s terrible oath, and the curse set upon the Noldor because of the Kinslaying, did not end with Fëanor. His sons set out to take the Silmarils from Morgoth or from anyone else who laid a hand on them; and many evil deeds were performed for the sake of the oath. All seven sons came to unpleasant ends.

Here are some ways in which Fëanor figures into The Lord of the Rings:

Gandalf suggests that the Palantíri, the Seeing-Stones of Númenor that cause so much tsuris for Pippin, Saruman and Denethor, were created by Fëanor in Aman, and later gifted to the Númenoreans. Gandalf should know – he lived in Valinor at the time.

Tolkien wrote at one point that Fëanor created the Elfstone, the Elessar or Stone of Eärendil, that Arwen gives to Aragorn. But other writings identify other creators for the Elfstone.

The Gates of Moria, the ones that open when Gandalf speaks “mellon” (“friend”), were not made by Fëanor, who was long dead, but by the Elves of Eregion, whose leader was Fëanor’s grandson Celebrimbor, the maker of the Elven Rings. The Gates of Moria display the Star of Fëanor, which was the symbol of Fëanor and his Sons. The silver star is said to represent a Silmaril.

Fëanor created the Fëanorean letters or Tengwar, the script used for the inscription on the Gates of Moria. Although he had not invented the first Elven letters (which were presumably the first writing system ever invented), he improved on those letters and created the alphabet that would be the basis for many later writing systems.

Are you wondering how Galadriel’s refusal to give Fëanor a lock of her hair relates to The Lord of the Rings? Galadriel has gifts for each remaining member of the Fellowship, but does not know what to give to Gimli, as she is unfamiliar with Dwarves. Embarrassed, he asks for a lock of her hair, for the same purpose Fëanor wanted it – to use it in jewelry. This time, she permits it, and to the shock of the other Elves, cuts three strands of her hair for Gimli.

This minor event is representative of two things. First, Galadriel has mellowed and gained wisdom throughout the millennia, and is no longer so proud that she will not give such a simple gift. And second, Gimli requests this gift out of sheer love and awe for Galadriel, and with no thought of his own enrichment or aggrandizement; this in sharp contrast to Fëanor.

Tolkien did not like allegory in fiction, and the only message he would own up to embedding in his writings was of the dangers of rampant industrialization. He admired those who could create great works of ingenuity, but believed this power had to be tempered with wisdom. For Tolkien, Fëanor represented those endowed with the power to create, but who lacked the wisdom to use their creations for good.

See also: “Tolkien 101: The Basic Cosmology of Tolkien’s World.”

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