In Which the Noldor Begin Another (and This Time Regrettable) Game of Follow the Leader and then…WTF Fëanor?!!
When last we left the intrepid Noldor in the first half of the ninth chapter, “Of the Flight of the Noldor,” they were listening to the moody but charismatic Fëanor: first trying to convince them to leave Valinor and pursue Morgoth to Middle-earth, then swearing vengeance against “whoso should hold or take or keep a Silmaril” up to and including anyone there in the audience. Since there is still much exposition to cover in this chapter, it is again easier to summarize what doesn’t happen: The Noldor don’t have a lovely picnic with the Teleri and swap sea shanties. Manwë and Mandos do not keep mum and mind their own business. And Fëanor certainly does not adopt a No Elf Left Behind policy and stand by it.
All these non-events aside, this is the chapter that brings us back to Middle-earth at long last. For many of the travelers, this is a one-way trip…in this life.
Dramatis personæ of note:
- Fëanor – Noldor prince, contender for Morgoth’s title of “Supreme Asshole”
- Fingolfin – Noldor prince, reluctant grand marshal of the Elven parade
- Manwë – King of the Valar, watcher from the skies (watcher of all!)
- Mandos – Vala, prognosticator of prognosticators
- Olwë – Teler, rightfully unaccommodating king
Of the Flight of the Noldor, Part Two
Fëanor has been convincing. He commands the floor—err, well, the stairs and streets and balconies of the city of Tirion, where he’s been speechmaking. But, after his spirited Oath—which all seven of his sons made as well, possibly without thinking through the finer points— others among the Noldor speak out against him. Not necessarily about the Oath (best not to touch on that), but about his rebellion and proposed flight.
One such is Fingolfin, who in the previous chapter had very much wanted peace between them with his whole “Half-brother in blood, full brother in heart will I be” olive branch. But now Fëanor has upped his crazy talk and Fingolfin just doesn’t like where he’s going with all this. Has their father’s murder unhinged Fëanor completely? Harsh words are said between them—again, in front of everyone—and they nearly come to blows. Then Finarfin, their younger brother, speaks up. But he just wants calm.
Then, all their kids start picking sides: Turgon and Finrod don’t care for Fëanor’s ideas, for example, but Orodreth is with his dad and just wants everyone to chill. Whenever Tolkien throws a bunch of names at you in one paragraph, it’s helpful to have a diagram handy.
Interestingly, Galadriel’s own career of fighting “the long defeat,” as she calls it in the far distant future, begins here in this moment. We’re told she is the “only woman of the Noldor to stand that day tall and valiant among the contending princes” who was moved by Fëanor’s words. Which I actually take to mean that most of the female Noldor aren’t buying into Fëanor at all, at least not enough to want to leave. But Galadriel does. Now, she does not like Uncle Fëanor—like, at all (there’s a bit of not-necessarily canonical history between them concerning her hair)—but she is at least agreeing with his whole let’s-get-out-of-Valinor thing. She has her own ambitions—and would be keen on ruling her own realm somewhere, now that you mention it. So let’s all watch her career with interest.
Anyway, at last Fëanor wins the day—if not the Most Popular vote, you might say. Therefore the Noldor will go!
Finarfin asks if they could all just wait a while first, but he’s shouted down, so preparations get immediately underway. The Noldor pack up their greatest possessions, things they made or shaped with their own hands: weapons, jewelry, and other objets d’art that on the long road ahead will be both “a solace and a burden.” Now, being Elves, they would normally take a long time to get going, but Fëanor is their taskmaster. He spurs them on with haste, knowing how much Elves like to tarry and not wanting their hearts to cool down. But I mean, at least they’re not Teleri-slow, right?
At first, no word comes from Manwë and the Valar. They know what’s going down but they aren’t trying to stop the Noldor. One, because restraining the Elves would be tampering with their free will—the Valar are as elders, not bosses—and doing so would only make Fëanor’s stinging accusations seem that much the stronger. And two, c’mon, these are Elves. They’ll surely stop and feast like twenty times before they even reach the shores. The Valar don’t really seem to think Fëanor can pull this off. Look how long it took Oromë, a Vala, just to get them all over here in the first place! And that was with Ulmo’s help carting them across the Great Sea.
And true enough, although his people will follow him, they won’t all acknowledge Fëanor as King of the Noldor. Most love the steadfast Fingolfin best and will only go if he leads. Fingolfin begrudgingly agrees, not wanting them to be sundered again—there’s been enough Elf-sundering in Arda already—and he hates the idea of them marching into Morgoth territory with only rash Fëanor to look to for guidance. No doubt Fingolfin’s own words from the day of the festival echo painfully in his mind:
Thou shalt lead and I will follow. May no new grief divide us.
Fingolfin is an Elf of his word. But still, this doesn’t make Fëanor the new ruler. Personally, I like to believe Galadriel is the one who starts the #NotMyKing movement among the Noldor, in regards to Uncle Fëanor. We’re also told a full 10% of the Noldor (a “tithe”) simply don’t leave at all—probably Tirion’s street sweepers and lamplighters. Hey, someone has to keep the lights on.
Thus two hosts set out from Tirion at slightly different times, Fëanor at the head of a small one, Fingolfin at the head of a much larger one. And it’s once they’re out the gates of the city that a messenger from Manwë approaches. Finally, word is coming down from Taniquetil to convey the Valar’s official stance:
Go not forth! For the hour is evil, and your road leads to sorrow that ye do not foresee. No aid will the Valar lend you in this quest; but neither will they hinder you; for this ye shall know: as ye came hither freely, freely shall ye depart.
Moreover, the decree confirms that by Fëanor’s own Oath, he’s now officially cast out of Valinor (yeah, even though he’d never go back, anyway); everyone else would be welcomed again. And as for Fëanor defeating Morgoth, as he aims to? Well, not for nothing, but there’s zero chance of an Elf overcoming any Vala-tier being. Not even if Fëanor was powered up at three times his current level, armor class, and hit points could he do this…err, is more or less what Manwë is trying to say. He’s not boasting, just speaking plainly.
But Fëanor isn’t fazed by this. He actually laughs. Oh, really? Things are going to get sorrowful, Manwë? Hasn’t sorrow already come to this so-called Blessed Realm? Fëanor throws a few insults back at the Valar, and that’s that. On they march.
The last two Elves trailing behind in Fingoflin’s host are his brother Finarfin and Finarfin’s eldest son, Finrod (again, Galadriel’s big brother). It’s worth remembering these two, especially Finrod—the coolest Elf in Tolkien’s entire legendarium. (And that’s an objective fact). These are essentially the two Noldor least eager to leave Valinor. Not until Chapter 15 will we be given the clearest reason for Finrod’s reluctance, but I’ll just point out now that he’s leaving someone special behind. To me, this moment recalls Book Two of The Lord of the Rings when the just-formed Fellowship is readying to depart Rivendell.
Aragorn sat with his head bowed to his knees; only Elrond knew fully what this hour meant to him.
A lot may be going on with the entire Noldor people, but it’s also a huge and somewhat sad hour in one Elf’s story, and also one there’s no going back from. Finrod’s fate, like Aragorn’s, must now unravel. It’s going to be thick with dangerous and trials.
The Noldor stroll due east towards the Great Sea, and it dawns on Fëanor that he’ll still need to cross it. It would be way too awkward to ask the Valar if they could borrow another island-ferry. And sure, the Noldor could just follow the coastline north where the waters between Aman and Middle-earth are much narrower, but yeesh! Even that’s going to be a very long journey on foot. It sure would be be easier if they all had ships to sail on…
Say, you know who’s got ships? The Teleri! The good ol’ Last-comers. If anyone can convince that flock of beach Elves to (1) lend them their ships and (2) hey, maybe even come with the Noldor back to Middle-earth, it’s the great Fëanor! But when Fëanor’s smaller host reaches reaches Alqualondë, the Haven of Swans, its ruler, Olwë, wants nothing to do with their exodus. Moreover, the Teleri are happy here on their isle and their shores. Though they are sad that their Noldor friends want to go.
“We only just got here,” it’s like they’re saying, “y’know, like three hundred years ago or whatever!” And that’s in Valinorean years.
So naturally, Olwë refuses to give over his boats to Fëanor. The swan-decorated ships are to the Teleri “the work of our hearts,” he claims, not to be made again. Like the Silmarils are to Fëanor. Moreover, even helping the Noldor to make their own ship would be counter to the will of the Valar—the Teleri don’t want to rock that boat, as it were. Plus they like the Valar. Ulmo especially is their guy. You know, Ulmo, who always had Mel…err, Morgoth’s number. Plus, those two sea-loving Maiar, Ossë and Uinen, are their pals. Yeah, the Teleri aren’t going to be complicit in any rebellion.
Fëanor tries to be reasonable for like a second, then he changes gears and starts using Fëanorian logic and name-calling. He labels the Teleri “fainthearted loiterers” who benefited from the Noldor when they first arrived and now won’t return the favor.
“In huts on the beaches would you be dwelling still, had not the Noldor carved out your haven and toiled upon your walls.”
But Olwë answered: “We renounce no friendship. But it may be the part of a friend to rebuke a friend’s folly. And when the Noldor welcomes us and gave us aid, otherwise then you spoke: in the land of Aman we were to dwell for ever, as brothers whose houses stand side by side.”
If only Fëanor understood what brotherhood means. Not like he gets along with his actual brothers. At this point, I really want Olwë to be like, “Listen, kid. Your dad and my big brother were besties. To think that the son of Finwë would be giving his old man’s friends such a hard time…” In any case, Olwë puts his foot down.
All Fëanor sees at this point is a Teleri-shaped obstacle between him and his precious Silmarils. They’re a speed bump, a barrier that needs to be pushed past. So after some brooding and mustering, Fëanor leads his army of Noldor down to the docks to seize the ships by force. The Teleri push back. Some Noldor are tossed into the water. Noldorin blades are drawn…
And this is the truly heartbreaking part of this chapter. Even the slaying of Finwë isn’t as tragic. I mean, Morgoth (né Melkor) is the author of evil. Of course he’s going to kill some folks. But Elf battling Elf? This is the very first time, and so we come to the Kinslaying, the Cain and Abel moment for the High Elves. And it’s the first step on the aforementioned road that “leads to sorrow that ye do not foresee.” Manwë totally called it.
Initiative is rolled. Blood is spilled as battle erupts right there on the ships and piers of Alqualondë. Many Elves on both sides are slain, Noldor and Teleri alike. But the Teleri are armed with mere bows, while the Noldor fight with what are likely some of the finest swords Arda will ever see. You can bet Mandos is made aware of all this rather quickly now, as the spirits of the slain await his summoning to his halls.
To make matters worse, as the host of Fingolfin starts to catch up, those at the front see battle and rush to join in. They don’t know how this began or who began it, only that Noldor are being slain. To arms! Bolstered by Fingolfin’s vanguard, Fëanor’s group wins the day, beating the Teleri soundly; “a great part of their mariners that dwelt in Alqualondë were wickedly slain.” When the battle dies down, the Noldor commandeer the Teleri’s ships and start rowing north.
Olwë, who was not killed, calls out a prayer of help to Ossë. He’s a violence-prone Maia, surely he’ll do something! But the Maiar have been forbidden by the Valar from interfering. However, Ossë’s wife, Uinen, knows what’s happened, and she weeps for the Teleri. And when the Lady of the Seas is upset, well…shit’s going to get real. Waves roar up from the sea and actually wreck a bunch of the ships, slaying yet more Noldor. (Ossë knows he’s got the best wife!) Still, most of the Noldor survive and escape northward, working their way along the coast outside the mountain-fence of the Valar.
Now, a whole bunch of Fingolfin’s host—pretty much everyone not in the vanguard—did not take any direct part of the Kinslaying, yet they’re guilty by association. They’re still following Fëanor, after all. Finarfin especially would indeed have a heavy heart about this. All he ever wanted was for everyone to just get along. Oh, and his wife is Eärwen, the Swan-maiden of Alqualondë. She’s Olwë’s own daughter and is from this port city! That’s right: Finarfin married a Teleri Elf-maid, and then his idiot half-brother led a slaughter upon his father-in-law’s people. Damn that’s awkward.
Of the Kinslaying at Alqualondë more is told in that lament which is named Noldolantë, the Fall of the Noldor, that Maglor made ere he was lost.
Maglor. A few chapters ago, when we were first introduced to Fëanor and his sons, we learned that Maglor was one of the nicer ones. He’s a singer and poet, and here we’re told that he—he who was absolutely part of the Kinslaying and ran through who knows how many Teleri with his own sword—is the one who later writes it all down! Who sings about it. Who makes sure the tragic tale is told. The lament marks, in his own mind, the fall of the Noldor. History may be recorded by the victors, but at least among Elves, it doesn’t necessarily portray the wrongdoers favorably.
“Spoiler” Alert: We’re told that at some point after making a name for himself, Maglor will be…well, lost. Given the trajectory of Fëanor and his sons, this should surprise no one. By virtue of their impetuous Oath, all of them are ill-fated, even those who try to do some good.
At this point the Noldor march (and some row) north along the shoreline. This is, no doubt, a grievous time. Even the most hard-hearted of Elves—like Fëanor, who believes he’s in the right—still know that they’ve crossed a line. To Fëanor it’s clear that the end justifies the means, but there’s no joy in the killing of a Child of Ilúvatar by another. And theirs is a paradox of confinement, for Elves are bound to Arda. The victims of the Kinslaying, Noldor and Teleri, will now be hanging out together in the Halls of Mandos. What does one disembodied Elf say to another? And what does the spirit of Finwë now say to his own kinsmen who’ve joined him?
Well, the Noldor don’t get out of Valinor without a scolding. Right at the very border between Valinor and the wastelands that follow, a dark figure appears on a high rock looking down on them. They think it’s Mandos himself who’s come this time. Certainly it’s his words that boom down upon them in the most ominous of The Silmarillion’s monologues, probably with just enough reverb to emphasize the gravity of the situation.
Mandos’s words here will be known as the Doom of the Noldor or the Prophecy of the North. They’re fascinating, because although they sound like some verbose if poetic hex, they’re actually more of a statement of insight than a curse. It starts strong with:
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.
So now it’s official. All these Noldor are banned from Valinor henceforth. But soon it points a finger squarely at Fëanor & Sons:
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 things turn that they begin well; and by treason of kin unto kin, and the fear of treason, shall this come to pass.
Mandos isn’t inflicting anything on them; he’s trying to make clear what may not be obvious to them: that by their very actions, fear of betrayal is inevitable. If you lie enough to someone, you will be distrustful of others. If you betray someone, you will fear betrayal in turn. Kill another, then you know that others will be capable of killing you.
Ye have spilled the blood of your kindred unrighteously and have stained the land of Aman. For blood yet shall render blood, and beyond Aman ye shall dwell in Death’s shadow. For though Eru appointed to you to die not in Eä, and no sickness may assail you, yet slain ye may be, and slain ye shall be: by weapon and by torment and by grief; and your houseless spirits shall come then to Mandos. There long shall ye abide and yearn for your bodies, and find little pity though all whom ye have slain should entreat for you.
He is emphasizing the weariness that will fall on even those who don’t die. “As ye have made thy bed,” I imagine Mandos might have closed in an early draft of this Prophecy, “So ye shall now, by its making, lie in it.” But that’s just me. Instead, Mandos ends with…
The Valar have spoken.
Most of the Noldor blanch at this pronouncement of doom. They’re shaken. But hard-headed Fëanor goes full-on Morgoth here and doubles down in his wrongness. He basically says, “Yeah, well. At least we’re not cowards or anything. And what we go on to do will be talked about forever.”
And that’s all true, too. Fëanor is a lot of things—a jackass, an arrogant popinjay, a grade-A prick, and a real piece of work—but he’s not a knowing liar. He has conviction. He says what he means and somehow, in his Morgoth-infected ego, he believes what he’s doing is best for his people. But who are we kidding? It’s mainly for himself and kind of his family, too. He’s crossed so many red lines already, and we’re still not done.
But Finarfin just can’t do this anymore. And others of the Noldor do turn back from this brink. Along with his wife and many others, Finarfin throws in the towel and retraces his steps back to Tirion in order to seek (and soon to receive) pardon from the Valar. And this he has to do without his five children, of whom Finrod and Galadriel will prove the most memorable in the larger story. It’s moments like this I like to think of when I read The Lord of the Rings. The Galadriel we first meet in Lothlórien is a Galadriel who hasn’t seen her own parents in well over seven thousand years—because of this one moment, and her mixture of stubbornness, pride, and loyalty to her people who are all now committed to this road.
After presumably some very bittersweet goodbyes, the bulk of the Noldor press on to the north with their ill-gotten ships and come eventually to where they can see “the first teeth of the ice that floated in the sea.”
The Helcaraxë, the Grinding Ice, is near! The only beings who’ve traversed this nightmarishly frozen land before them were Morgoth and Ungoliant. The cold mists of this region block out the stars which the Elves love so much, so their morale is taking a hit. And in a world with no sun, no moon, no more light from the great Trees, and now no stars, it’s utterly dark, with no promise of dawn.
Fëanor knows of the turmoil in the hearts of his kinsmen, and now there is fear of betrayal. (Just as Mandos foretold.) He knows there are some cursing him behind his back. But he’s thinking about the future, his sons, and himself first. Regrettably, he’s long since disregarded his wife Nerdanel, who stayed in Valinor. All seven of her baby boys have left her behind, too. It’s a tragedy.
Well, they’ve still got some Teleri ships, but there aren’t enough of them for all the Noldor. Not in one crossing, anyway. They’d have to ferry back and forth for a while to get everyone across even in this narrower part of the sea.
But then Fëanor achieves a new low. He takes his sons and only those of the Noldor he thinks are the most loyal to him, and when the time is right he stealthily seizes all the ships they’ve got. The wind favors them as they sail secretly across the cold waters just south of the Helcaraxë—a far swifter journey than going by foot across treacherous ice floes, that’s for damned sure! They make landfall on Middle-earth in its far northwestern corner, to the mouth of a great firth, a place called Losgar.
At which point Fëanor’s eldest son, Maedhros, speaks up. He doesn’t see his dad’s intent yet, and moreover, he cares about those they left behind. Who’s to fetch them, he asks, and who’ll come first? Foremost on Maedhros’s mind is Fingon (one of Fingolfin’s kids), who he’d always been good friends with.
But Fëanor, in a total dick move, actually laughs at the question. Then he answers his son:
None and none! What I have left behind I count now no loss; needless baggage on the road it has proved. Let those that cursed my name, curse me still, and whine their way back to the cages of the Valar! Let the ships burn!
Again, he believes his own skewed truths. Never mind the other Noldor who fought on his behalf and shed Elf blood. Never mind that they’d gone this far because of his leadership and hadn’t turned back even after Mandos’s foreboding judgments. Tough shit, says Fëanor. Sucks for them. Feanor then sets the ships, the “fairest vessels that ever sailed the sea,” alight.
And though we’re not told in this chapter, Fëanor’s son Celegorm has with him a very special dog. This intelligent pooch won’t have his tale told for many, many pages yet, but I just want to point out that he’s here, too, and would bear witness to the burning of the ships. Given what we learn about his compassion, this hound of Valinor says nothing—it’s not yet time for him to speak—but probably sits and watches sadly. Tail barely swishing as the fires consumes the beautiful swan-ships.
It’s not just Fëanor, his sons, and their loyal followers who watch the conflagration. For “keen are the eyes of the Elves,” as Aragorn will one day proclaim. And so across however many miles of dark water that lie between them, Fingolfin, Finrod, Galadriel, and all those left behind by Fëanor can see the burning, “red beneath the clouds.” They know what’s what. #NotMyKing, indeed.
So they’re faced with a choice. Fingolfin could turn back to Valinor, doubly shamed, and join Finarfin—or else press on and take his chances in the teeth of the Helcaraxë. He is filled with bitterness and wrath, and man oh man, would he really really like to see Fëanor again for a little chat. Like, in a Tulkas-wants-to-meet-Morgoth-again sort of way, if you understand me.
So Fingolfin and the rest of the Noldor choose the long and hard trek across the deadly floes of the Grinding Ice.
There’s no sun, no daylight. Just their pale lanterns and torches and the sheer grit of the High Elves. Of course, they are all Calaquendi, Elves of the Light, who have dwelt long in the radiance of the Two Trees. They’re tough beyond our understanding and “the fire of their hearts was young.” Yet they still suffer hardship and even lose many of their people to the frigid perils of the Helcaraxë. The wife of Turgon is one such. Whether she drops in a scouring storm of ice, slips into some deadly crevasse, or just perishes in the utter cold, she is the closest thing we get to a face representing the suffering of the Noldor at this time. Nothing in their centuries of long life in the Blessed Realm has prepared them for this. This is a seriously dramatic crossing, long and brutal.
How dramatic? Let’s just say that I imagine some haunting Lisa Gerrard-type vocals layered over any musical montage that might be scored for this grim trek, punctuated by some chilling percussion. Maybe with some actual breaking ice sound effects. Or is that just me?
“Spoiler” Alert: So right at the very end of this chapter we’re told that those who marched behind Fingolfin “blew their trumpets in Middle-earth at the first rising of the Moon.” To which my first thought is: the Noldor brought trumpets with them?!?! I mean, of course they brought their favorite gems and ornaments, swords and shield, and probably banners and family heirlooms, and presumably plenty of warm furs because even though they didn’t plan on crossing the Helcaraxë they still knew they were going to spend a fair amount of time in the far north. But they also brought instruments, which…yeah, that shouldn’t be surprising. Elves do love music (“O! Tra-la-la-lally!”). I guess I just hadn’t pictured the host of Fingolfin as a majestic marching band. But one never knows when one needs to sound out something dramatic. And why not the Moon?
Wait, there’s suddenly a Moon now? And with a capital “M,” too! It’s almost as if the Valar haven’t just been sitting around biting their nails when the Noldor strolled away….
In the next installment, which addresses the chapter “Of the Sindar,” we won’t find out about the Moon’s first rising. Not just yet. Instead we’ll learn how Middle-earth has fared while the Noldor were still futzing around in Valinor, and while Morgoth was still chained up in Mandos’s basement. And we’ll learn what become of all those Teleri who tarried so long and never made it over the pond. And say! Who are those short, bearded fellows coming up over the eastern horizon…?
Top image: “The Burning of the Ships” by Ted Nasmith