In this biweekly series, we’re exploring the evolution of both major and minor figures in Tolkien’s legendarium, tracing the transformations of these characters through drafts and early manuscripts through to the finished work. This installment looks at the development and ultimate fate of Maedhros, eldest son of Fëanor—one-time high king of the Noldor, and foe of Morgoth.
The tale of Maedhros is one of the more tragic histories that Tolkien ever penned. Tolkien repeatedly emphasizes the elf’s potential to become a great leader and a spiritual warrior, a hero of great renown fit to stand alongside Beren, Lúthien, Glorfindel, and others. And yet, time and again, Maedhros’s heroic and self-sacrificing impulses break through the gloom of the first ages of Middle-earth only to be quashed and denied by the destructive power of the infamous Oath. Maedhros is an elf doomed from the first; his heroic actions and potential are driven into the dust and ultimately come to naught. Perhaps because of the tragedy and futility of his life, Maedhros has become a favorite among fanfiction writers, many of whom have, in wrestling with the elf’s often-troubling role in many of Middle-earth’s misfortunes, mined the depths of the emotional anguish and trauma lying just beneath the character’s surface. Maedhros attracts such devotion, it seems, because he exhibits the same characteristics that mark others out as heroes—but is kept in chains and ultimately destroyed by rash words spoken in his youth and by a cruel injunction from his dying father.
While the Noldor are still in Valinor, living among the gods, Maedhros remains practically anonymous, at least in the scope of The Silmarillion. He is simply one of Fëanor’s seven sons. Of them as a unit, as the children of Fëanor, we know only that some have the temper of their mother, Nerdanel, and some take after their father. At one point Tolkien writes that Curufin alone shared his father’s temper, but given stories of Caranthir and Celegorm especially, I suspect this was an assertion that later would have been qualified or removed altogether. Originally, Maedhros was closely aligned with his father; in the earliest drafts he is captured and tortured by Morgoth because he refuses to give up the Noldorin secrets of gem-craft (The Book of Lost Tales 1, hereafter BLT1, 271). From this we can assume that Maedhros has followed in his father’s steps as far as craftsmanship goes. But this notion fades away as the narrative develops, and Maedhros is never again explicitly identified with a craft.
In fact, as Tolkien revises, Maedhros is associated with Nerdanel and her craft, rather than with Fëanor and his. First, we know that Maedhros preferred to use his mother-name, Maitimo, and was remembered by it rather than by his other names: Maedhros, Nelyafinwë, and Russandol (The Peoples of Middle-earth, hereafter PM, 355). I read this as an intentional alignment with the sentiments of the mother above the father, a sort of memorial to Nerdanel, who was scorned and driven away by Fëanor. Maitimo means “well-shaped one,” which recalls Nerdanel’s genius for sculpting and bringing to life figures so realistic that they were often mistaken for living things. Secondly, Maedhros “inherited the rare red-brown hair of Nerdanel’s kin” (PM 353). Thus, not only does Maedhros choose to carry his mother-name—he also bears in some respect the image of his mother and her people. And again, given that Nerdanel was a sculptor, to whom image and physicality would have been of utmost symbolic importance, it seems possible that in marking Maedhros as like his mother’s kin in form, Tolkien was subtly commenting on the son’s inclinations. Maedhros could be seen as a work of Nerdanel that has been brought under Fëanor’s possessive control.
However, when Fëanor swears his blasphemous Oath, all his sons are there by his side; we are not told that any of them hesitated in swearing the Oath after their father: in fact, they all did so “straightway” (S 83). Neither does Maedhros stand out during the first Kinslaying, which involved the murder of the Teleri by the Sea and the theft of their white ships. It is not until the company is preparing to cross over to Middle-earth that Tolkien begins to add depth and color to his characterization of the Sons of Fëanor. Maedhros is first notable in The Silmarillion for the fact that he “stood apart” during the burning of the ships at Losgar, refusing to betray his friends despite the Oath and in disregard of his father’s anger. This is also the moment in which we first learn that Maedhros and his cousin Fingon had been dear friends before Fëanor’s rash words came between their families. This is a powerful moment in the text, and one that Tolkien uses to heal the breach between the two clans. Later, Maedhros will lament his part in the Kinslaying and attribute it to rash youth caught up in the madness of a persuasive leader.
Interestingly, though, in the very earliest drafts no oath is sworn until much later, and Fëanor is not present for its swearing. Instead of the Oath springing from Fëanor’s fey mood and mistrust of the Valar in Valinor, it is prompted by Maedhros’s capture and imprisonment in Angband, which occurs while he is away searching for the Silmarils. In “Gilfanon’s Tale: The Travail of the Noldoli,” we’re told that because of this, “the Seven Sons of Fëanor swore an oath of enmity for ever against any that should hold the Silmarils” (BLT1 271). This tale is, actually, the first appearance of Maedhros as we know him; previously, the name was given to Fëanor’s grandfather. Only as Maedhros’s true role in the narrative emerges do the stories of the infamous Oath—sworn in Valinor and in anger against the Valar—appear.
At this point, we start getting a clearer picture of the Maedhros who will take up his father’s mantle of leadership. In his abandoned alliterative verse poem, The Flight of the Noldoli from Valinor, Tolkien’s conception of Maedhros (here spelled “Maidros”) is more detailed: he is explicitly set apart during the Oathtaking by the following lines, in which he is described as
(the eldest, whose ardour yet more eager burnt
than his father’s flame, than Fëanor’s wrath;
him fate awaited with fell purpose)
Here Tolkien imagines Maedhros as even more passionate and driven than Fëanor—a radical claim given what we know of the “spirit of fire.” These lines, though they never appear in the published Silmarillion, are significant and suggest that the motivations and goals of father and son will come head to head. I have already argued that Maedhros is more like his mother than his father, and in these lines the friction between father and son is implicit. Maedhros is ardent where his father is wrathful—a key difference. But the final phrase is dark, giving us to understand that Maedhros’s spirit will in time be overcome by a dark fate. To Christopher Tolkien, this fate is the capture and torment on the cliffs of Thangorodrim (The Lays of Beleriand, hereafter LB, 165), but I would add to this that Maedhros’s entire life is fraught by the tension inherent in the above lines: his entire life is turned without reprieve toward a “fell purpose.” His passionate spirit is repeatedly challenged—and ultimately overcome—by the doom that ensnares him.
Fëanor’s death only produces more problems for his sons. At first they are bound to the Oath by their own words, but they also become compelled by the further injunction of their father, who, merciless even on his deathbed, “[lays] it upon his sons to hold to their oath, and to avenge their father” (The War of the Jewels, hereafter WJ, 18). After Fëanor’s passing, Maedhros becomes high king of all the Noldor, but he is, understandably, more focused on assaulting Morgoth. And while he is quite clearly accepted (by most) as a military leader and strategist, the idea of Maedhros as high king is never really developed by Tolkien and is left to fitfully haunt the background of his narrative. (Remember that Maedhros chooses not to use his patronym, Nelyafinwë, which means “Finwë third,” referring to his status as the heir of both Finwë and Fëanor.)
It is during this campaign against Morgoth that he is captured and kept a prisoner in Angband. When his brothers, fearing Morgoth’s treachery, refuse to treat for his release, Maedhros is chained by the wrist to the peak of Thangorodrim and left there to suffer, becoming Middle-earth’s original Promethean archetype and a sort of early example of a spiritual warrior undergoing initiation. After an untold number of tortuous days, he is saved by Fingon and a great eagle sent from Manwë, though he loses his hand in the process. This moment is particularly significant because it is not unlike the powerful spiritual initiations undergone by characters like Gandalf and Glorfindel. Maedhros is assailed by a demonic enemy, experiences great torment, and is brought through that torment into new life and power by an eagle, a symbol of the soul’s ascent or ecstasy. This experience plays itself out in an interesting way and suggests that Maedhros is entering the company of spiritual warriors of unsurpassed power. He recovers because “the fire of life was hot within him, and his strength was of the ancient world, such as those possessed who were nurtured in Valinor” (LR 277). At this point he relinquishes the earthly kingship of the Noldor and devotes himself to battling the demonic might of Morgoth. In this role, the fire of his spirit bears testament to his spiritual transformation.
During and after the Dagor Bragollach, the Battle of Sudden Flame, “Maedhros did deeds of surpassing valour, and the Orcs fled before his face; for since his torment upon Thangorodrim his spirit burned like a white fire within, and he was as one that returns from the dead” (Silmarillion 152). The comparable passage in The Lost Road clarifies that “the Orcs could not endure the light of his face” (LR 310). Here Maedhros can be identified with Gandalf, who dons garments of blinding white upon his return; Glorfindel, who transfigures into a “shining figure of white light” as he faces the Nazgûl (The Lord of the Rings I, xii, 214); and Frodo, who is compared multiple times to a clear glass filled with light. Maedhros’s transfiguration thus marks him as one who has passed through “death” into ecstasy, but it also sets him apart “as one that returns from the dead” (152). The phrase’s shift into the present tense highlights the process of returning rather than the result of returning, a small but significant change indicating that this transfiguration is a continual rising from the dead rather than a one-time escape from torment. Maedhros’s death(s) and resurrection(s) are cyclical and unending, not in the past but always ongoing in the present. The sentence’s construction also signals a future event: i.e., Maedhros is here characterized by the fact that he does not, as it were, stay dead. He is always in between, always experiencing the power of his rebirth.
But, unfortunately, Maedhros’s new life is constantly under attack by an enemy he cannot escape: the Oath that will drive him whether he keeps it or no. He becomes Morgoth’s greatest adversary, but his heroics are compromised by fate. At this point the texts are full of references to Maedhros’s despair and heaviness of spirit. He lives with “a shadow of pain […] in his heart” (LR 277); he repeatedly “forswears” his oath. He is “sad at heart” and looks on the Oath “with weary loathing and despair” (The Shaping of Middle-earth, hereafter SM, 189). Eventually, he is forced by the power of the Oath to make war on his kindred, which leads to a third Kinslaying, and even to threaten war against the Valar when the latter recover the two remaining Silmarils. At this point in the narrative we see the true extent of Maedhros’s torment. He has lost his mother through exile; his inheritance through tragedy; and his father, his dearest friend, and all but one brother to violent deaths. And he himself is brought in the end to despair. In one draft, Tolkien writes of Maedhros that “for the anguish of his pain and the remorse of his heart he took his own life” before Fionwë, herald of the Valar (SM, 190). In later drafts and in The Silmarillion, Maedhros casts himself into a fiery chasm, where he and the Jewel are devoured.
I find Maedhros’s tale all the more tragic because of the small tokens of hope scattered throughout the material Tolkien was never able to develop. For example, according to Unfinished Tales, Maedhros is the first bearer of the Dragon-helm of Dor-lómin (he passes it on to Fingon as a gift; it later makes its way to Húrin and, eventually, the hapless Túrin) (80). In many of the tales, Tolkien chooses to emphasize Maedhros’s reluctance to pursue the Oath’s fulfillment and his regret over all the harm it has caused. In a fascinating but incomplete story, Tolkien writes that a “Green Stone of Fëanor [is] given by Maedhros to Fingon.” Christopher Tolkien explains that although this tale was never fully written, it “can hardly be other than a reference to the Elessar that came in the end to Aragorn” (WJ 177).
Even more significantly, perhaps, one draft suggests that Maedhros (rather than Fëanor) rises again during the end times’ battle against Morgoth and breaks the Silmarils before Yavanna, so that the world can be remade and the hurts caused by Morgoth (and the Oath) healed. This original impulse, though it is rejected later, is a significant one, both moving and satisfying. Maedhros longs to restore what his father destroyed and his hesitancy in pursuing the Oath’s fulfillment is marked and emphasized by Tolkien in the texts (though its intensity varies throughout the drafts). Maedhros also serves as a stark contrast to the actions and attitude of Fëanor; he is Fëanor’s revision. The idea of Maedhros at last being able to fully make amends by willingly giving up the Silmarils to Yavanna (for the good of all) must have appealed to Tolkien, even though he eventually decided it must be otherwise.
Ultimately, Maedhros plays the role of the tragic hero. He is a doomed man, one who fails to succeed even when he does all the right things with the appropriate courage. Like Túrin, Maedhros is under a sort of curse that actually transforms the way the heroic world functions: while men like Beren are appropriately rewarded for their valor, Maedhros is subject to a reversal of the proper working of the world. The unflagging despair with which he approaches his oathkeeping, especially as his life nears its end, reflects the impossible situation in which he finds himself. And what can be done? There are few options open to the Fëanorians, and none are particularly hopeful. Indeed, even an appeal to the all-father himself is pointless:
Yet Maglor still held back, saying: “If Manwë and Varda themselves deny the fulfillment of an oath to which we named them in witness, is it not made void?”
And Maedhros answered: “But how shall our voices reach to Ilúvatar beyond the Circles of the World? And by Ilúvatar we swore in our madness, and called the Everlasting Darkness upon us, if we kept not our word. Who shall release us?”
“If none can release us,” said Maglor, “then indeed the Everlasting Darkness shall be our lot, whether we keep our oath or break it; but less evil shall we do in the breaking.” (S 253)
Maedhros’s reminder is born of a depression that prompts him to regard with bitterness the absolute inflexibility of the Oath that renders each and every choice effectually null and void, in that breaking and keeping lead equally to madness and the ruin of whatever they set their hands to. The Fëanorian touch is the touch of death. As Maglor rightly recognizes, there will be no escape from the darkness that overtakes them.
The picture Maedhros presents is bleak. Unlike many of Tolkien’s tales, this one ends in hopelessness and despair. Maedhros finds himself condemned by the Silmaril and its holy light for his wrongdoings and, unable to endure the torment of his exile, he accepts the weight of his own and his father’s misdeeds and enters the fires of the earth’s heart as recompense. But this is not the purifying flame of spiritual ecstasy that set him apart after his trial on Thangorodrim. Despite Tolkien’s promise that he is “as one that returns from the dead,” Maedhros does not return.
Top image: “It Ends in Flame,” by Jenny Dolfen.
Megan N. Fontenot is a dedicated Tolkien scholar and fan who finds Tolkien’s tragic and tormented characters practically irresistible. Catch her on Twitter @MeganNFontenot1 and feel free to request a favorite character in the comments!