Throughout J.R.R. Tolkien’s sprawling masterwork The Silmarillion there are an ungodly amount of names, dates, battles, and locations to learn and remember. It’s like a history textbook in that way. And, like actual human history, there are a few names that rise above the rest in terms of their influence and importance. In this installment of The Silmarillion, Nerdsplained, we’ll take a look at the one figure who, perhaps, stands above all the others, except maybe Melkor. That’s right, it’s time to talk about Feanor.
Who is Feanor?
In our post on the Elves, we mentioned that they were divided up into some very broad categories, and that the main one of these were Elves who had seen the light of the Trees of Valinor, and those who had not. Of the ones who did see the light (the Calaquendi), there were three great families – the Vanyar, led by Ingwe; the Noldor, led by Finwe; and the Teleri, led by Elwe and Olwe.
The word ‘Noldor’ in Tolkien’s invented Elvish languages translates as “Deep Elves.” It’s interesting to me that Tolkien never really defines what he means by term. I sort of interpret it as “deep” in the sense that whatever they put their minds to, they took it to the greatest degree possible. And no single elf embodies that more than Feanor, son of Finwe.
Feanor was Finwe’s only child by his first wife Miriel Serinde. The book says that when Feanor was born, he drew so much of her life energy that she grew weary and departed the world. Feanor was most beloved of all of Finwe’s children, because he reminded Finwe of Miriel. The Silmarillion also says of Feanor,
“For Feanor was made the mightiest in all parts of body and mind: in valour, in endurance, in beauty, in understanding, in skill, in strength and subtlety alike: of all the Children of Ilúvatar, and a bright flame was in him.“
So basically Feanor was the greatest, most talented, most accomplished, bravest, most gifted, and most handsome elf that ever lived. And that is saying A LOT…
Why is Feanor so important?
Well, let’s start with a partial list of his creations, shall we?
- The Silmarils
- The Palantiri (you know, the seeing stones from LOTR)
- Feanorian lamps (perpetual blue-flamed lamps that couldn’t be extinguished by water or wind)
- Tengwar script (the method used to write Quenya, the high Elvish language)
That’s not a bad resume! Unfortunately, it seems like for every amazing thing he did, he also had a royal screw up of some sort or another. For instance…
- He antagonized Melkor, making him even more covetous of the Silmarils.
- After Melkor stole the Silmarils, Feanor swore an incredibly rash and poorly-considered oath not to rest until he had recovered them, nor to suffer anyone else to possess them except he and his family.
- He goaded his seven sons into also swearing this oath.
- He and his people killed other Elves for the first time in history in order to steal their ships and pursue Melkor across the ocean to Middle Earth.
- After obtaining the ships, Feanor took some of his people and abandoned others that had followed him, and crossed the ocean.
- After arriving in Middle Earth, Feanor ordered the fleet of ships they had sailed on to be burned, taking away everyone’s chance to return until the Silmarils were recovered.
There are others, but the biggie is the oath that he and his sons swore. It is not much of an exaggeration to say that every bit of the conflict and war that took place in between that oath and the War of Wrath was related to that terrible oath.
Feanor is like a case study in how being the best at basically everything all the time can be much more of a negative than a positive. He is the ultimate lesson in Tolkien’s creation about how great skill and ability must also be tempered with wisdom, compassion, and humility. And, in that sense, I think Feanor is a fantastic lesson for these contentious times we live in.
Don’t be like Feanor – valuing power and renown above all else. Don’t be like Feanor – arrogant and smug. Don’t be like Feanor – so preoccupied with your own greatness that you lose sight of the greater good.