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 is the final one in a short series looking at Fëanor, one of the greatest Noldor, father of seven mighty sons, and creator of the Silmarils.
We’ve come now to the end of Fëanor’s story: to the infamous Oath and the havoc it wreaks on Valinor, Middle-earth, and especially the Noldor. In the title of this series of articles, I’ve called Fëanor the “Doomsman of the Noldor” for this reason. Mandos is known as the Doomsman of the Valar because he is the one who pronounces fates, sees the future, and is especially good at seeing through difficult situations to their cores. I’ve named Fëanor similarly because it is his Oath, his set of ritualized words, that bind the Noldor in a doom they can’t escape.
In the last installment, we ended in near darkness as Fëanor rejects the plea of Yavanna and then curses Melkor to everlasting darkness, naming him Morgoth. He also accuses the Valar of greed and selfishness, though in one of Tolkien’s drafts he spurs his people on to a sort of “manifest destiny” project—one that’s distinctly racialized, and one that uses as its foundation the very lies Morgoth has been spreading. But there was a glimmer of hope in the words of the narrator, who points out that at this point, Fëanor still had a chance which, if he had taken it, would have changed the courses of history.
Only he doesn’t. Fëanor strides from the feasting place of the Valar into the utter darkness and disappears for a while. He returns suddenly, The Silmarillion tells us, and “called on all to come to the high court of the King upon the summit of Tuna” (82). A powerful scene ensues: Fëanor is a master artist, of words and not just of metals and gems. And here, illuminated by red torchlight and in the high place of the King (a mighty, symbolic gesture), he fashions a great speech.
The story as it’s told in the first Book of Lost Tales (BLT1) emphasizes Fëanor’s madness in this moment. Tolkien writes that “many thousands of [the Elves] come to hear his words bearing slender torches, so that that place is filled with a lurid light such as has never before shone on those white walls” (180). It’s particularly interesting to me that the light here is described as “lurid.” The OED gives a couple of useful definitions for the word: “Pale and dismal in colour; wan and sallow; ghastly of hue,” or “Shining with a red glow or glare amid darkness.” We should pay particular attention to this because light is such a powerful symbol in Tolkien’s work. And this is the first light we have come across since the murder of the Two Trees plunged the world into darkness. Their Light was pure and holy, bringing health and piece. The light of the torches in this moment is in direct contrast to that, emphasizing that Fëanor can’t reproduce that hallowed light. This is important because, as we’ve discussed previously, Fëanor had forgotten that the light imprisoned in the Silmarils wasn’t his own; this “lurid light” reminds us that though the Noldor are looking to Fëanor during this harrowing experience, he can’t even begin to offer what Ilúvatar and Yavanna had given them in the first place.
The Silmarillion goes on to say that the voice of Fëanor:
…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. […] He claimed now the kingship of the all Noldor, since Finwë was dead, and he scorned the decrees of the Valar.” (82)
I suspect that Tolkien did not approve of Fëanor taking the kingship, even if he had a right to it. Much of the literature and culture Tolkien studied as an academic (such as Beowulf) insists that a good king is, above all, generous towards his subjects: in fact, kings were often called “ring-givers” or “treasure-givers” because it was seen as their duty to reward those who were loyal to him with gifts. An ungenerous king is no king at all, nor does he deserve loyalty and respect from his subjects. Good kings, on the other hand, are givers. Fëanor does not fit the bill. He’s close-handed, stingy, and locks his treasures away so that only a select few can even see them. This is, I think, the first sign that Fëanor is not just a bad king—but that he had no right to be king in the first place.
Fëanor then gives a speech that directly implicates the Valar in the actions of Morgoth, for “are not they and he of one kin? […] And what else have ye not lost, cooped here in a narrow land between the mountains and the sea?” he asks (Sil 82). His words appeal to the variety of people gathered to hear him speak: those who are grieving for the loss of their king; those who are afraid because of the darkness; and those who, like Galadriel, are desirous of wider lands to explore and rule. And yet, The Book of Lost Tales 1 calls him “demented” in this moment (180). As we discovered in the last installment, Fëanor can’t seem to see that his words are just building on the lies that Morgoth has been disseminating.
He then appeals to their sense of wonder and their courage, invoking their memories of Cuiviénen—memories which, ironically, he himself doesn’t share because he was born in Valinor. “Shall we mourn here deedless for ever,” he asks, “a shadow-folk, mist-haunting, dropping vain tears in the thankless sea? Or shall we return to our home? In Cuiviénen sweet ran the waters under unclouded stars, and wide lands lay about, where a free people might walk. There they lie still and await us who in our folly forsook them. Come away! Let the cowards keep this city!” (Sil 82-83). So Fëanor urges them on to glory and great deeds, which in itself is not wrong. But he does so by casting aspersions on the Valar and driving the Noldor to a seething madness that will not easily be assuaged; his speech, like that of Saruman after, is manipulative and calculated to produce a specific response.
And then, in the heat of the moment and to crown his moving speech, Fëanor does as he should not have done:
Then Fëanor swore a terrible oath. His seven sons straight-way sprang to his side and took the selfsame vow together, and red as blood shone their drawn swords in the glare of the torches. They swore an oath which none shall break, and none should take, by the name even of Ilúvatar, calling the Everlasting Dark upon them if they kept it not; and Manwë they named to witness, and Varda, and the hallowed mountain of Taniquetil, vowing to pursue with vengeance and hatred to the ends of the World Vala, Demon, Elf or Man as yet unborn, or any creature, great or small, good or evil, that time should bring forth unto the end of days, whoso should hold or take or keep a Silmaril from their possession. (Sil 83)
The narrator then observes that “many quailed to hear the dread words. For so sworn, good or evil, an oath may not be broken, and it shall pursue oathkeeper and oathbreaker to the world’s end” (83). The Oath of Fëanor and his sons is unlike any other that we see in Tolkien’s legendarium. In The Lord of the Rings, for example, Merry and Pippin swear oaths to Théoden and Denethor, respectively. We know that the Men of the Mountain swore an oath to Isildur, which they then broke, binding themselves in eternal torment until a time of reckoning. But Fëanor’s oath is something altogether different. It does, interestingly, follow a lot of the conventions of oath-taking (medieval and likely earlier): it’s sworn on weapons, it invokes deities (as both witnesses and presumed judges of the oath’s keeping), it names a sacred object (Taniquetil) as a witness, and, finally, it lays out specific stipulations that define the keeping of the oath.
I think this is part of what the narrator means when they say that “so sworn, good or evil, an oath may not be broken.” Fëanor and his sons did everything appropriately: since the Oath was sworn in this manner—correctly, in other words—they aren’t allowed to break it. But of course, there’s something else going on, too. Think about how powerful the words of Fëanor are, and think about the fact that in this early age of Arda, the making of things is always accompanied by the speaking of a word or words; a good example is of course Ilúvatar creating the world through the words “Eä! Let these things Be!” (Sil 20), but we could also think about how Yavanna often sings to make things grow.
Naturally, Fëanor doesn’t have the power of Ilúvatar or of Yavanna, but I think his Oath acts in a similar way. Because he’s speaking the Oath in a ritual (and thus very serious and sacred) context, they seem to have even more power than his words normally do. So when the narrator says that if you swear an oath in this way it can’t be broken, part of what may be inferred is that the Oath can’t be broken because Fëanor is speaking highly ritualized language in a time when words have actual, physical power to shape the world.
And because of this, his words literally come to life. The narrator says that the Oath “shall pursue oathkeeper and oathbreaker to the world’s end.” Even the one who keeps the Oath can’t escape from its bounds. After this, too, the Oath is consistently spoken of as an active agent: it is not passive, not mere words—it is alive. It sleeps. It wakes. It drives and pursues. It bides its time and then goes to work with a vengeance.
Furthermore, the language of the Oath is painfully specific: Fëanor and his sons must pursue any “Vala, Demon, Elf or Man as yet unborn, or any creature, great or small, good or evil, that time should bring forth unto the end of days” (Sil 83). Every living thing that ever is or shall be is implicated in the Oath—every desire, every fate. Indeed, most if not all of the ensuing violence and chaos in The Silmarillion can be traced back to the Oath in some way. The all-inclusive language used in relation to time here is particularly significant, for it allows the Oath to reincarnate itself: so long as the Silmarils exist, they might be retaken or even named in desire, causing the Oath to awaken once again. The Oath can be kept, per se, but it cannot ever be fulfilled, so long as that threat remains. This is why the Oath “shall pursue oathkeeper and oathbreaker to the world’s end.” Its fulfillment is forever out of reach, “beyond all hope,” as Maedhros says (Sil 252).
I think one way we can begin to understand the Oath is actually to compare it to the One Ring. Both the Oath and the Ring threaten to bind in everlasting darkness and both pursue and possess the oathtaker/Ring-bearer. The Oath of Fëanor is sworn in order to rule the Jewels, which hold “the fates of Arda, earth, sea, and air” (Sil 67), and which have their current resting places in (you guessed it) earth, sea, and air. The Ring is forged to dominate all life, yes, but specifically the three Elven rings, rings of earth (fire), sea (water), and air. Domination is the key term, here. It inspired the swearing of the Oath and the forging of the Ring, and it demands the keeping of each. And the Ring, like the Oath, has a mind and will of its own, often being spoken and written about as something that is capable of acting on its own.
Now, it’s important that we understand just what Fëanor—and by extension, his sons—has done before moving forward. He has, in effect, doomed the Noldor by creating a new reality through language. He has unleashed a force of malice upon the world—a thing that is (pardon the expression) alive without breath. From this point forward, the Oath ravishes the Noldor; none, it seems, are safe from its grasping claws and slowly but surely, all the fates of the Noldor are inextricably bound together, hurtling towards inescapable darkness.
The Oath sworn, Fëanor implicates all the Noldor in its fulfillment as he urges them on to departure, fearing that if he lets up even for a moment, he’ll lose their interest (Sil 84). So they move too quickly, leaving no time for their hearts to cool after the scene they just witnessed. In that hour Manwë sends a messenger to the Noldor, declaring that Fëanor has been exiled forever because of his Oath; but he urges the others to stay and avoid the folly that is driving them. But “the voice of Fëanor grew so great and so potent that even the herald of the Valar bowed before him as one full-answered” (Sil 85). Thus the Noldor continue on their way, but many, Finarfin and Finrod included, lag behind, often looking back “to see their fair city, until the lamp of the Mindon Eldaliéva was lost in the night” (85).
The Noldor then came to the Teleri, and asked use of their ships, but the Teleri are skeptical of the madness of their cousins, and more devoted to the Valar, so they refuse the use of their precious vessels. So Fëanor begins to take away the ships by force, and the Teleri, naturally, resist him. Thus the first battle is initiated, and because they are of lesser strength and had not, as the Noldor had, poured so much energy into the making of weapons, the Teleri are defeated. The Noldor escape with the ships. This is the first Kinslaying: “Uinen wept for the mariners of the Teleri,” the narrator observes; “and the sea rose in wrath against the slayers, so that many of the ships were wrecked” (Sil 87).
But they escape, and are met by yet another herald of the Valar: “Some say it was Mandos himself, and no lesser herald of Manwë. […] Then all halted and stood still, and from end to end of the hosts of the Noldor the voice was heard speaking the curse and prophecy which is called the Prophecy of the North, and the Doom of the Noldor” (Sil 87). The first half of the prophecy and curse addresses specifically the evil launched by the Oath:
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 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. The Dispossessed shall they be for ever. (Sil 88).
Fëanor then, in his madness and his pride, adds to the Doom of the Noldor, saying:
We have sworn, and not lightly. This oath we will keep. We are threatened with many evils, and treason not least; but one thing is not said: that we shall suffer from cowardice, from cravens or the fear of cravens. Therefore I say that we will go on, and this doom I add: the deeds that we shall do shall be the matter of song until the last days of Arda.” (88)
Then most go on, but Finarfin and many of his people turn back, for he was kin to the Teleri, and his grief was too heavy to bear. The others, driven by the raw will of Fëanor, go forward until the come to the Helcaraxë, the grinding ice at the northernmost point of the Encircling Sea. And there, in the night on those cold and pitiless shores, Fëanor sneaks away with his house in the ships, leaving Fingolfin and his house behind. When Maedhros, his eldest son, innocently asks whether the ships in returning might bring his friend Fingon back first, Fëanor laughs “as one fey,” and he reveals that he has no intention of bringing anyone else across…
Then Maedhros alone stood aside, but Fëanor caused fire to be set to the white ships of the Teleri. So at that place which was called Losgar at the outlet of the Firth of Drengist ended the fairest vessels that ever sailed the sea, in a great burning, bright and terrible. And Fingolfin and his people saw the light afar off, red beneath the clouds; and they knew that they were betrayed. (Sil 90)
Some stories say that unknowing Fëanor left one of his youngest sons in the ships, because he had fallen asleep; and so he was burned alive, and Fëanor lost the first of his sons as Nerdanel had foreseen.
Fëanor and his people then push further into Middle-earth, making war against the hosts of Morgoth, until “upon the confines of Dor Daedeloth, the land of Morgoth, Fëanor was surrounded […]. [At] the last he was smitten to the ground by Gothmog, Lord of Balrogs” (Sil 107). Fëanor’s sons bear him away, but on a mountain pass he has them halt. He lives out his last moments as he lived the rest of his life:
…he cursed the name of Morgoth thrice, and laid it upon his sons to hold to their oath, and to avenge their father. Then he died; but he had neither burial nor tomb, for so fiery was his spirit that as it sped his body fell to ash, and was borne away like smoke; and his likeness has never again appeared in Arda, neither has his spirit left the halls of Mandos. Thus ended the mightiest of the Noldor, of whose deeds came both their greatest renown and their most grievous woe. (Sil 107)
But the story of Fëanor does not end here, in fire and doom: it is written that in the last days, Fëanor will rise again to finish his long fight against Morgoth, and in the end he will yield up the Silmarils to Yavanna, so that she might renew the broken world (The Shaping of Middle-earth 198). This is a comforting thought. Even Fëanor is not outside of the arc of redemption. The Doomsman of the Noldor, the one whom Tolkien called the “chief artificer of the Elves” (Letters 148), will be taught wisdom, restraint, and generosity in the halls of Mandos, so at the end of time he will be the one to make the healing of the world possible.
 I have spent an undue amount of time considering the possibility that the Elven rings were actually forged to represent the Silmarils or even to protect the resting places of the Silmarils against Sauron. With that comes the possibility, then, that part of Sauron’s purpose for the One Ring was to gain access to the resting places of the Silmarils through the Elven rings, and thus to allow for the return of Morgoth (since he will return only when the Silmarils are again gathered together). If this is true, it adds special significance to Galadriel’s rejection of the One Ring: she might have been rejecting a chance (as the last of the Noldor) to once again reclaim the Silmarils. If so, then her triumph over the temptation and her symbolic redemption of her people is even greater than we had supposed. So far I have come across nothing to prove my wild theory beyond a doubt, but I cling to it with fervor all the same.
Megan N. Fontenot is a 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, and even happier to find a glimmer of hope even in a dark tale. Catch her on Twitter @MeganNFontenot1 and feel free to request a favorite character while you’re there!