Exploring the People of Middle-earth: Fëanor, Chief Artificer and Doomsman of the Noldor

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 week’s installment begins a short series on that most infamous of Noldorin Elves: Fëanor, father of seven sons and creator of the Silmarils.

Most great stories have characters around which the narrative itself orbits, anchored around their charisma, their compelling stories. We see this in history, as certain figures come to dominate the terrain and stand as giants, casting shadows in the stories we tell about the human journey. Something about the lives they lived—the quality that makes them larger than life, as we like to say—pulls disparate moments and events together, allowing us to see a cohesive narrative where one might not otherwise exist. Middle-earth has figures of this caliber, too: names like Lúthien, Túrin, Idril, and Frodo suggest to us not just individuals, but rather entire stories or movements in time.

Fëanor is perhaps the greatest of these figures.

Few have left such an enduring mark on the histories and legends of Middle-earth. And even from the beginning, Fëanor was destined to be such a figure: Tolkien called him the “chief artificer of the Elves,” a phrase which we’ll unpack more later, and which suggests his preeminent place among even the foremost of his people (Letters 148).

Indeed, none is said to have been the equal of Fëanor Curufinwë, unless it were Galadriel. The texts trace most of Fëanor’s great deeds, both good and ill, to the fire of his spirit and his burning desire, which mirrors that of Galadriel, to leave the world forever changed. In this, at least, he succeeded. In order to follow just how his influence transformed Tolkien’s understanding of the history of Middle-earth, I’d like to start by looking at the growth in complexity and foreshadowing in the accounts of Fëanor’s creation of the Silmarils.

Fëanor enters Tolkien’s early “Silmarillion” drafts as a renowned gem-smith, whose skill was unsurpassed in the devising of jewels. Originally, the Noldoli (as they were then called) created gems in an undisclosed process that depended on sea pearls gifted them by the Teleri (The Book of Lost Tales I, hereafter BLT1, 137). Thus, Fëanor’s crowning work, the Silmarils, were in Tolkien’s first conception, pearls bathed in the luminescence of the Tree Silpion (later Telperion), combined with a drop of that from Laurelin. According to that draft, only Fëanor could have accomplished such a feat of artistry, and this because “so great was the slender dexterity of [his] fingers” (BLT1 138). It’s unclear why this is the case, or why one would need “slender dexterity” to bathe pearls in liquid light. Regardless, at this stage the craft itself is relatively simple, complicated only by the unexplained assertion that Fëanor alone was capable of their making.

A later passage might help us understand this a bit more, though ultimately we won’t get any satisfying explanations. Tolkien writes of the light of the Two Trees that:

…not even the Gods could tame much to their uses, and had suffered it to gather in the great vat Kulullin to the great increase of its fountains, or in other bright basons [sic] and wide pools about their courts, for the health and glory of its radiance was very great. […] Those first makers of jewels, of whom Fëanor has the greatest fame, alone of the Eldar knew the secret of subtly taming golden light to their uses, and they dared to use their knowledge but very sparingly, and now is that perished with them out of the earth. (BLT1 202)

While it seems odd that the Eldar would be capable of works that even the Valar had failed at, this passage does elaborate on the idea that the manipulation of the Light required a special skill and power that only a very few had access to, Fëanor of course being the foremost of these.

As the drafts progress, and as he tells the story in different formats, Tolkien adds complexity to this original idea. The first real elaboration we’re given is in the earliest drafts of the Quenta Silmarillion. There it is said that:

Fëanor began on a time a long and marvellous labour, and all his power and all his subtle magic he called upon, for he purposed to make a thing more fair than any of the Eldar yet had made, that should last beyond the end of all. Three jewels he made, and named them Silmarils. A Living fire burned within them that was blended of the light of the Two Trees; of their own radiance they shone even in the dark; no mortal flesh impure could touch them, but was withered and was scorched. These jewels the Elves prized beyond all the works of their hands. (The Shaping of Middle-earth, hereafter SM, 106)

There’s quite a bit of unpacking we can do here. First of all, it’s important to point out here that by this time, the crafting of the Jewels has become “a long and marvellous labour” and no longer, apparently, involves bathing pearls in light. Rather, Fëanor needs both his inherent power and the “magic” of gem-craft he’s learned in order to accomplish his goal. Tolkien doesn’t offer an explanation for just what “subtle magic” means or entails. We know that later, he became skeptical of the term (see, for example, the confused response of the Elves of Lórien to the hobbits’ references to elf-magic, as well as Tolkien’s renowned essay “On Fairy-Stories”). But here, it appears that Tolkien took for granted the idea that this work went beyond simple smith-craft. It’s a task that requires something more—and this goes some way in explaining why Fëanor might have been the only one who could have made the Silmarils. It takes skill and dedication.

The other thing to notice is that in this simple description, hints of Fëanor’s arrogance and possessiveness have already entered. He specifically sets out to create something better than anything the other Elves have made. He wants them to last “beyond the end of all,” which implies that Fëanor resists, consciously or not, the limits of time and life put on the world by Ilúvatar. His creation will have no end—and not only that—it will outlast the end of all other things. The Jewels also come with their own prohibition: “no mortal flesh impure could touch them, but was withered and scorched.” Thus we are to understand that this light has been confined and hoarded in that it cannot be extended to those who are in darkness. We’ll see later that this description is a mirror image of one Fëanor uses to accuse the Valar, so it’s important that it appears here, so early in the textual life of the Silmarils. What we’re seeing here is a foreshadowing of what is to come: the prized Jewels are starting to reveal their shadow-side.

Later, Tolkien elaborated on the nature of the Silmarils and their making:

[N]ot until Sun passeth and the Moon falls shall it be known of what substance they were made. Like the crystal of diamonds it appeared and yet was more strong than adamant, so that no violence within the walls of this world could mar it or break it. Yet that crystal was to the Silmarils but as is the body to the Children of Iluvatar: the house of its inner fire, that is within it and yet in all parts of it, and is its life. […] Therefore even in the uttermost dark the Silmarils of their own radiance shone like the stars of Varda; and yet, as were they indeed living things, they rejoiced in light and received it, and gave it back in hues more lovely than before. (Morgoth’s Ring, hereafter MR, 94-95).

Tolkien introduces new and intriguing elements here. First and foremost, this passage impresses upon us the living quality of the Silmarils themselves. The Light within them is not a dead or insensible thing; rather, it is like the spirits of the Children of Ilúvatar. We should note this especially because later, the Oath of Fëanor itself will take up this living quality and will be spurred on by the lust that the Jewels inspire.

Furthermore, with this description Tolkien is setting up two central tenets of Fëanor’s character: his isolation and greed. Notice that Fëanor doesn’t tell a single soul how the Silmarils were made. As we saw in the last passage, he specifically takes up the task specifically because he wants to make a thing that’s better than everyone else’s things—so he holds the making of the Jewels like a secret recipe, telling no one how he accomplishes it, not even his beloved father. Now, this isn’t unusual for Fëanor. We read in The War of the Jewels that Fëanor was not only a craftsman: he was also an accomplished linguist. He devised the first writing system of the Eldar, and “is credited with founding the ‘Loremasters of the Tongues’” to carry out “linguistic lore and enquiry” (WJ 396). The text also informs us that he “probably knew more of [the language of the Valar] than any of the younger generations born in Aman,” but unfortunately, he “deliberately withheld his knowledge” out of bitterness and mistrust of the Valar (WJ 405). It’s times like this that I suspect one of the best words to describe Fëanor is actually “petty.”

I’ve said a bit about Fëanor and his personality defects in multiple other installments of this series, especially in those about his mother (Míriel) and his wife (Nerdanel), but I want to go back and reconstruct Fëanor’s life from his birth in Valinor to that fated day on which he commits the most heinous of betrayals and burns the ships at Losgar.

Fëanor was always talented and proud of it, but he wasn’t always one of the more important among the Noldor. Originally, Fëanor wasn’t related to any of the lords of the Noldor and “the other princes, Fingolfin, Finarfin, Fingon, Felagund, do not appear at all, in any form, or by any name” (BLT1 193). At one time, Fëanor was the only son of an elf by the name of Bruithwar (BLT1 160); later, in a draft labeled “Sketch of the Mythology,” Fëanor becomes the second son of Finn while Fingolfin is the eldest and Finnweg the youngest—and here they are full- rather than half-brothers (SM 15). Tolkien changed the birth-order almost immediately, however, making Fëanor the eldest. Appended to this draft is also a paragraph introducing the descendants of Finn, including for the first time a relatively complete section describing Fëanor’s seven sons (SM 16), who had only recently come into existence in a draft marked “Gilfanon’s Tale: The Travail of the Noldoli” (BLT1 271).

The shifts in Fëanor’s family unit are significant because they illustrate the growing complexity of the narrative in Tolkien’s mind. And that complexity, as we’ll see, is familial, political, and theological.

In time, Fëanor’s father becomes Finwë, and a close father-son bond develops. Fëanor “grew swiftly as if a secret fire were kindled within him, and he was tall and fair of face and masterful, and he became of all the Noldor the most subtle of heart and of mind, and the most skilled of hand” (MR 185). As he did so, “he became ever more like Finwë in statue and countenance” (MR 261): both were grey-eyed and had “raven-dark” hair (MR 272). When Míriel chooses to lay down her life after expending her spirit in giving life to Fëanor, Finwë and Fëanor bond over their grief, keeping watch by the side of her body’s shell. Unfortunately, this doesn’t last long: “During the time of his sorrow Finwë had little comfort from Fëanor. For a while he also had kept vigil by his mother’s body, but soon he became wholly absorbed again in his own works and devices” (The Peoples of Middle-earth, hereafter PM, 335). Again, we see Fëanor’s self-absorption and his tendency to isolate himself at work. In this case, it leaves his father lonely and without support or comfort. Despite this, the text still notes that “his father was dearer to him than the Light of Valinor or the peerless works of his hands: and who among sons, of Elves or Men, have held their fathers of greater worth?” (MR 295).

Fëanor’s relationship with his mother was complicated, as you might know if you’ve read about Míriel already:

Fëanor loved his mother dearly, though except in obstinacy their characters were widely different. He was not gentle. He was proud and hot-tempered, and opposition to his will he met not with the quiet steadfastness of his mother but with fierce resentment. He was restless in mind and body, though like Míriel he could become wholly absorbed in works of the finest skill of hand; but he left many things unfinished. Fëanáro was his mother-name, which Míriel gave him in recognition of his impetuous character (it meant ‘spirit of fire’). While she lived she did much with gentle counsel to soften and restrain him. Her death was a lasting grief to Fëanor, and both directly and by its further consequences a main cause of his later disastrous influence on the history of the Noldor. (PM 333)

Míriel’s recognition of the driving force of her son’s life (which we’ll talk about a bit later) reveals the extent to which she understood him and his motivations, but also knew exactly what would tempt him and draw him astray, likely because she experienced many of the same trials herself. We can see their similar temperaments in Míriel’s stubbornness in holding to her decision to not return to life with her husband and son.

When Finwë decides to remarry and the Valar hold counsel about whether or not this will be allowed, since Míriel isn’t technically dead, Fëanor is furious, despite the fact that “it is not recorded that he attended the Debate or paid heed to the reasons given for the judgement, or to its terms except in one point: that Míriel was condemned to remain for ever disincarnate, so that he could never again visit her or speak with her, unless he himself should die” (PM 335). Notice the phrasing of his reasoning. He doesn’t care that his mother suffered so much in life that to return to it would be past enduring. He doesn’t care that his father is bereaved, lonely, and has found in Indis consolation and, beyond all hope, the possibility of happiness. He doesn’t even try to understand the arguments of the Valar, or even of Míriel herself. All he cares about is that he can no longer have her.

Because of this, he “grudged the happiness of Finwë and Indis, and was unfriendly to their children, even before they were born” (PM 335). This is the birth of the division in the family of Finwë. Indeed, “many saw the effect of this breach in the house of Finwë, judging that if Finwë had endured his loss and had been content with the fathering of his mighty son, the courses of Fëanor would have been otherwise, and great sorrow and evil would have been prevented” (MR 263). Of course, this would have meant an unbearable loss in other ways, however, for “the children of Indis were great and glorious, and their children also; and if they had not lived, the history of the Eldar would have been the poorer” (MR 263). These divisions will become only clearer as the story progresses, especially as Fëanor accuses his half-brothers of treason and then abandons them at Losgar.

Fëanor’s relationship with his wife, Nerdanel, isn’t much better. At first he loves her for her mind and her inimitable craftsmanship, and even deigns to learn from her for a while (MR 274). They grow apart over the years, however, and by the time of Fëanor’s exile from the heart of Valinor, Nerdanel chooses to dwell with Indis rather than accompany her husband. She, like Míriel, softens Fëanor’s rough edges and counsels him in patience and gentleness while their relationship lasts. Eventually, though, Fëanor pushes even her away, rejecting her advice and going directly against her counsel (MR 274).

This sets up for us those people and things in Fëanor’s narrative that helped to shape his character. Ultimately, though, Fëanor directs his own life: he “was driven by the fire of his own heart only, and was eager and proud, working ever swiftly and alone, asking no aid and brooking no counsel” (MR 94). These faults only fester and darken as Fëanor continues, like Melkor before him, to go apart from others and work in the solitude and bitterness of his own heart and mind. In the installments that follow, we’ll look at his part in the rebellion of the Noldor, his infamous Oath, and the progress of the departure of the Noldor from Valinor. As we do so, we’ll see Fëanor’s character take on all the qualities and obsessions that are the particular temptation of the artist. Finally, we’ll see him choose the path of Melkor, who was once a creative craftsman himself, but who fell to ruin through pride and greed.

Megan N. Fontenot is a dedicated Tolkien scholar and fan who’s happy to have a way to share Tolkien with fellow fans even when the world seems to be falling to pieces. Catch her on Twitter @MeganNFontenot1 and feel free to request a favorite character while you’re there!

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