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.