The Abyss Gazes Back: a Fëanor character analysis
Some time ago, I wrote a fairly lengthy essay on Tolkien’s Denethor – a complex literary character who I feel has been unfairly treated by cinematic adaptation. Today, I thought I would take a similar look at a Tolkien character that has never appeared in an adaptation (and who is unlikely to any time soon)… Fëanor son of Finwë. The Noldorin Byronic Hero, who is certainly Mad, Bad, and Dangerous to Know, even while defining the course of The Silmarillion.
Fëanor has been termed Tolkien’s supreme character. While some may quibble with that assessment (Gollum is another plausible candidate), the sheer grandeur of his tragedy cannot be disputed – a character who starts as the most gifted of the Elves, and who ends as the cause of untold suffering when his genius turns to madness. Fëanor is the quintessential impulsive hot-head, who rejects the authority of any but himself, even to the extent of defying the gods themselves. The Spirit of Fire shines brightly, too brightly, and burns those who come too close.
(i) Melkor Writ Small?
Handsome, charismatic, and moody heroes (or anti-heroes) are a dime a dozen in Romantic Literature. In that sense, Fëanor could be read as a sort of Elvish Heathcliff, brought low by cruel resentment and unhealthy obsession – and to judge by the fanfiction, some readers are willing to ignore his flaws in favour of his sexy glamour. But Fëanor is more than a mid-twentieth century reworking of early nineteenth century literary tropes. He operates on a much more mythological scale, and takes the Byronic Hero back to its roots – the raw charisma and heaven-shaking stupidity of Milton’s Lucifer – even while his character arc becomes defined by an interaction with Tolkien’s own Satan figure. Fëanor has genuine rhetorical power, which he uses to sway the Noldor (and the reader), just as Melkor/Morgoth gets others on his side during his musical revolt against Eru – in a sense, the conflict is the rebellious Lucifer of popular imagination set against the actual Devil, within the same story.
This notion that Fëanor is Melkor Writ Small is perhaps overstating the case – Fëanor is not capital e-Evil, and his terrible deeds are more madness than malice, the product of Melkor’s lies and discord. But when one recalls that Melkor is in origin the greatest of the Ainur, and turns against rightful authority in order to take possession of a Thing, while Fëanor is the greatest of the Children of Ilúvatar, and turns against rightful authority in order to (re-)take possession of a Thing, there is a sense that one maps out the path of the other. A descent from greatness into darkness.
Both put themselves at the centre of the universe, and are willing to fight the world as a result. Both encourage whole swathes of followers to Fall with them, Noldor and Ainur alike. Both have a habit of enforcing their will on others, to the detriment of all. Both defy any attempted correction, and persist in their staggering hubris. Certainly, Fëanor’s undying hatred of Melkor recalls the famous lines of Friedrich Nietzsche:
He who fights with monsters should look to it that he himself does not become a monster. And if you gaze long into an abyss, the abyss also gazes into you.
From his murder of the Teleri, to the theft and burning of their ships, to his betrayal of Fingolfin, and ultimately to the terrible burden he places upon his sons… the abyss certainly gazes back into Fëanor.
(ii) Eru Writ Small: Man (or Elf) as sub-creator
Smiths and their creative capacities play an important role in Tolkien’s mythological source material (e.g. Ilmarinen from Kalevala), but he put a Christian spin on matters. Integral to Tolkien’s notion of fantasy is the idea of sub-creation, the idea that Man creates because he himself is a creation, and that bringing into being new things emulates God Himself:
Fantasy remains a human right: we make in our measure and in our derivative mode, because we are made: and not only made, but made in the image and likeness of a Maker. (On Fairy Stories)
What holds for Man here holds for Elves, and viewed through this lens, Fëanor’s extensive creative endeavours represent a sub-sub-creation, bordering on meta-commentary beyond the Fourth Wall. While he did not (so far as we know) imitate his own real-life author and write fantasy stories, he did devise an improved Tengwar script, likely created the palantíri, and was famous for his artificial gems:
… [He] it was who, first of the Noldor, discovered how gems greater and brighter than those of the earth might be made with skill. The first gems that Feanor made were white and colourless, but being set under starlight they would blaze with blue and silver fires brighter than Helluin; and other crystals he made also, wherein things far away could be seen small but clear, as with the eyes of the eagles of Manwe.
Fëanor is, in this sense, not Melkor Writ Small (Melkor does not create, he destroys, twists, and taints), but rather Eru Writ Small – a sub-creator who adds his own invention to the glory of Arda. The Spirit of Fire and his works are thus a small embodiment of the great Flame Imperishable, a sub-creation that catches and reflects the light of the primary Creation. The silmarils are a literal example of this, since they preserve the light of the Two Trees, and as such are consciously derivative. This takes on extra relevance when the originals (the Trees) are destroyed.
Through Fëanor’s actions in this episode, we then see further exploration of the theme of sub-creation – the idea that some spectacular acts of sub-creation can only be achieved once. Fëanor tells the Valar that the silmarils are to him as the Trees were to them, something never to be repeated. Moreover, there is the idea that a creator may become excessively attached to their creation. This, of course, proves to be Fëanor’s downfall.
As an interesting note, Fëanor’s creation of inanimate objects is matched by his creation of animate ones. His seven children represent the largest family known to the Eldar – and I think it interesting that his wife, Nerdanel, is not notable for her beauty, but rather her own skill as a creator (she comes from a family of smiths, and has a hobby of sculpting statues). Fëanor’s driving concern in finding a partner is thus shared interest, not shallow appearance; Nerdanel shares his passion for creativity, and bringing things into being. “Seldom were the hands and mind of Fëanor at rest” – with seven sons, I suspect that applied to another part of his anatomy too, at least until the pair became estranged.
(iii) The Possessive
Another characteristic of Fëanor’s personality is his incredible capacity for emotional attachment, both to things and to people. He obviously clings to the silmarils even before they are stolen. He hoards them, Gollum-style, takes them with him to exile in Formenos, and then later refuses to break them in order to save the Two Trees. Such is his level of association with these jewels, he believes breaking them will break him.
After their theft, he launches a hopeless and terrible war in defiance of all good sense. Recall also that there is no magical allure associated with these gems – the silmarils are not like the Rings, which manipulate and warp psychology, but rather things of purely aesthetic and cultural value. Value placed upon them by Fëanor himself, and hardened by the blood-soaked nature of what followed – in short, this is a tragedy born not out of magic, but out of the mind of a madman.
It would be wrong, however, to see the silmarils as a one-off act of possessiveness on the part of a creator, though Fëanor is obviously a cautionary tale in that direction. Fëanor’s obsession with his parents, especially his mother, Míriel, is quite apparent. Míriel dies giving birth to him, so he, alone of Elves in Aman, grows to adulthood with a single parent. Fëanor accordingly becomes extremely protective of her memory – he resents the remarriage of his father, and the very existence of his resulting half-brothers.
He also becomes convinced that the linguistic change from ‘Þ’ to ‘s’ represents an insult to his mother (whose mother-name is Þerindë), and so he politicises the resulting dispute – followers of Fëanor’s faction identify themselves by their preference for the older sound. One almost imagines Fëanor seeing his mother as a martyr, and that he sees himself (the Son of Þerindë) as the only fit guardian of her legacy among the Noldor. Sigmund Freud would have a field day.
Fëanor’s affectionate attitude towards his father, Finwë, is similarly obvious. Finwë clearly pampers his eldest son – going into exile with him at Formenos in order to show solidarity, notwithstanding that Fëanor has pulled a sword on another of Finwë’s sons, Fingolfin. Meanwhile, Fëanor returns the favour – holding the evil Indis responsible for leading poor Finwë astray on the matter of ‘Þ’ and ‘s’ (clearly his father has no will of his own) – and proving positively inconsolable when Finwë is murdered:
… [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 of Men, have held their fathers of greater worth?
Considering Fëanor’s love for his works – to the point where he identifies himself with them – this says much. His passionate love for his parents (and the grief he feels at losing them) is as great as his capacity for passionate hatred.
But what of his children? His emotional affection for them appears less clear – but he retains his possessiveness, the sense that they are his relatives first, and independent agents second. Through the Oath, and then later, as he lays dying, he commits his sons to serving his selfish interests – he ties their fate to his to a disturbing degree, making them complicit in his crimes. He also instils in them the political Shibboleth of ‘Þ’ over ‘s’, which sets them apart from other Noldor.
He refuses Nerdanel’s pleas to leave her with at least one of the twins, and resents her decision to stay in Aman. And, of course, in the version of the story where Amrod is burnt along with the ships at Losgar, he suppresses his guilt. There is none of the grief he experiences at the loss of his parents here – it is as though he regards his sons as little more than extensions of himself, driven only to follow his will. Even the sons that take after their mother (Maglor) are expected to co-operate. And they do, because they are his sons, defined entirely by their dangerously possessive father.
(iv) The Masterful Scientist
Tolkien’s attitude towards science appears to be rather ambivalent. On one hand, he seems to acknowledge that science is a worthwhile route to knowledge (c.f. his castigation of the unscientific race doctrine in Letter 29, a comment he would not have made if he had considered science worthless). On the other, he expresses concern about lunatic physicists in the aftermath of Hiroshima. His work – which generally takes a sceptical view of technology – accordingly sits uncomfortably with modern ideas about scientific progress, and it is worth noting that Gandalf expresses a sentiment only a Humanities Major could concoct:
“He that breaks a thing to find out what it is has left the path of wisdom.”
No scientist would come up with that. Meanwhile the two great scientists of Tolkien’s mythos are… Fëanor and Saruman. Neither of whom cover themselves in glory.
Fëanor’s role as a scientist has been noted before, by Bushwell. It is an amusing piece, and correctly notes that those who would engineer a world tend to come to a bad end in Tolkien. I would further note that the name Noldor comes from the root word for knowledge, wisdom, and lore. The Noldor, in short, know things – it is their defining feature, just as the Vanyar are pious, and the Teleri like the Sea. Fëanor, between his distaste for divine, and his hunger for knowledge, is thus the most “Noldorin” of the Noldor.
Well and good. Where I feel Bushwell falls over is that she fails to engage with why Tolkien may have chosen to represent Fëanor and the Noldor in this way. For her, he is merely a Catholic Luddite who hungers for a pastoral world without newfangled technology. Perhaps Tolkien did hunger for such a world – but that is not the reason for his writing his stories the way he did. Rather, his portrayal of his two great scientist characters hinges on their perceived vulnerability to two particular dangers – excessive attachment to one’s own work, and excessive desire for domination over the world. The greatest sin in Tolkien’s work, after all, is the imposition of one’s will on another.
Fëanor’s excessive attachment to the work of his hands has already been noted, to the extent that he believes breaking the silmarils will break him. He is willing to murder his way to reclaiming them. Less obvious, however, is his scientific desire for domination. After all, unlike his fellow scientist, Saruman, Fëanor never launches an industrial revolution – he remains very much a craftsman, rather than someone bent on machines and mass-manufacture, and while Fëanor’s creations implicitly require mining, logging, and the burning of fuel, Tolkien never mentions environmental issues relating to the Noldor. Rather, I would suggest that the concept of mastery opens the door to corruption. Consider this description of Fëanor:
He was tall, and fair of face, and masterful, his eyes piercingly bright and his hair raven-dark; in the pursuit of all his purposes eager and steadfast. Few ever changed his courses by counsel, none by force.
Tolkien’s use of “masterful” conflates several meanings. It can mean that Fëanor is adept at mastering techniques and concepts, in order to create his wonders… or adept at mastering things (and people), in order to fulfil his own desires. In the event, masterful in this context means both – indeed, the text goes on to differentiate Fëanor from his wife:
Nerdanel also was firm of will, but more patient than Fëanor, desiring to understand minds rather than to master them
Tolkien’s argument is that there is a slippery slope leading from scientific mastery of things to political mastery of minds – hence the way the text portrays scientific progress, and why so many of Aulë’s pupils (Sauron, Saruman) seem to take a wrong turn morally. Man may be a natural sub-creator, but creation can be a perilous business in Arda Marred – Bushwell gets Tolkien’s conclusion, but misses his argument. It is further interesting that Fëanor prefers to operate on his own when creating – almost as though he fears he will find himself on the wrong end of mastery, or that his mastery over his creation will be threatened by someone else’s influence. In short, he is a control freak who fears control, and the situation worsens once Nerdanel leaves him.
(As a side note, I can think of only one other Tolkien character who gets labelled “masterful”… Denethor. Who, like Fëanor, seeks to influence others for his own purposes, and comes to a bad end).
(v) The Resentful
The flipside of Love is Hate, and while Fëanor cares passionately about the things he loves (his mother, his father, and the silmarils), the Spirit of Fire burns with hatred for those that come between him and his loves. Ergo, his designation of Melkor as Morgoth, and his reckless pursuit of his enemy from Valinor to Angband, a pursuit so reckless, he fails to wait for anyone else, and gets himself killed by Balrogs.
His distaste for the Valar comes from the perception that they are caging him and his people (again, the control freak fears control), and that they are punishing him for daring to do the right thing. The Teleri are clearly obstacles to him regaining what is his. And his estrangement from Nerdanel comes when he no longer lets her restrain his more unwise impulses. Fëanor increasingly sees his life as a struggle of wills between himself and the world.
At the risk of making unfounded speculation, I wonder if the more self-destructive aspect of Fëanor’s psychology unconsciously craves boundaries, so that he may fight against them. There is a whiff of a martyrdom complex about his behaviour, from the sulky victimhood of his initial exile, to his dismissal of the Doom of the Noldor – he is prepared to bring down his entire people, as if the more suffering, the better. If so, it even means his initial attraction and marriage to Nerdanel has strangely perverse foundations – he seeks out a rare person who can put limits on him, precisely because he hates it. Some people are never happy unless they are miserable, but Fëanor is potentially never happy unless he is angry.
In one prominent case, however, Fëanor’s unnatural resentment has a root in his possessive love. I refer to his distaste for Indis, Fingolfin, and Finarfin.
Recall that Míriel’s death leaves a significant hole in Fëanor’s life – it also leaves a significant hole in Finwë’s. Finwë, understandably, does not want to be alone, so he desires to remarry. The problem is that there was no scope for remarriage in Tolkien’s Catholic-derived Elvish culture, so the Valar have to make a special dispensation – Finwë may remarry, but only if his first wife remains in Mandos (he cannot have two living wives at the same). Ergo, Míriel must stay dead, and never return to the land of the living, which means that Fëanor will never see his mother again.
Small wonder then, that Fëanor’s grief turns to anger and resentment. Indis is not just usurping the place of his mother, but actually a warping of what it means to be Elvish, since her marriage to Fëanor’s father prevents his mother’s return. Fëanor further resents Fingolfin and Finarfin, since they are products of this fateful marriage.
With so much of Fëanor’s psychology revolving around hate and victimhood, he proves easy prey for Melkor’s lies. Not that Fëanor has any great fondness for Melkor at any point, but having his fears and prejudices confirmed (Fingolfin is an usurper!) pushes him closer to the edge of madness. Note also that his distrust of Fingolfin persists even after Fingolfin joins his rebellion – though there may be an element of projection going on too – as Gandalf notes with reference to Saruman, the treacherous are ever distrustful.
(vi) The Demagogue
As has been noted, Fëanor’s masterful nature applies to his manipulation of others as much as it does to his creative abilities. The best example of this is his passionate speeches to the Noldor, urging them to join his rebellion against the Valar. Fëanor paints the rebellion as a matter of liberation – of freeing his people from the overbearing constraints of life in Aman, so that they may take up their true destiny as rulers of great realms. His demagoguery feeds into the psychology of people who really ought to know better:
Galadriel, the only woman of the Noldor to stand that day tall and valiant among the contending princes, was eager to be gone. No oaths she swore, but the words of Fëanor concerning Middle-earth had kindled in her heart, for she yearned to see the wide unguarded lands and to rule there a realm at her own will.
Fëanor then tops this with his subsequent reply to the herald of the Valar, claiming that he is taking action against their foe:
Then turning to the herald he cried: ‘Say this to Manwë Súlimo, High King of Arda: if Fëanor cannot overthrow Morgoth, at least he delays not to assail him, and sits not idle in grief. And it may be that Eru has set in me a fire greater than thou knowest. Such hurt at the least will I do to the Foe of the Valar that even the mighty in the Ring of Doom shall wonder to hear it. Yea, in the end they shall follow me. Farewell!’
So great is Fëanor’s rhetorical power that the herald takes this as an answer.
In reality, of course, Fëanor’s rhetoric is entirely self-serving. His real interest is not liberation, but rather revenge (and recapture of the silmarils) – he wants to stir up passions sufficiently that his people will follow him on his personal vendetta, and wants to go after Melkor/Morgoth before cooler heads prevail. In terms of manipulation, the Kinslaying – as monstrous as it is – actually helps Fëanor in his goal, since it renders his fellow Noldor “partners in crime”, essentially forcing them to follow him to Middle-earth out of fear of what the Valar will do if they return.
(Ironically, however, once Fëanor is dead, the Noldor only make half-hearted attempts to recover the silmarils – largely because they realise it is an impossible endeavour. They are much more comfortable ruling their little realms in exile – just as most of them intended in the first place).
Jonathan McIntosh has an interesting post, suggesting that Fëanor has some serious Nietzschean characteristics – especially when he rails against the Noldor’s weak, comfortable existence in Valinor, and urges them to take the daring, dangerous, but supposedly more fulfilling, option of rebellion:
“‘Fair shall the end be,’ he [Fëanor] cried, ‘though long and hard shall be the road! Say farewell to bondage! But say farewell also to ease! Say farewell to the weak! Say farewell to your treasures! More still shall we make… But if any will come with me, I say to them: Is sorrow foreboded to you? But in Aman we have seen it. In Aman we have come through bliss to woe. The other now we will try: through sorrow to find joy; or freedom, at the least.’”
Can Fëanor be seen as Tolkien’s deconstruction of the Nietzschean Übermensch? Potentially, especially because Fëanor clearly does consider social boundaries, and to some extent even conventional morality, as something for lesser beings than himself. The rhetorical picture he paints of a new Noldorin world – one that shall not be displaced by mere mortals – can, at a stretch, be seen as the creation of a life-affirming value system, to replace the traditional deference to the divine (the Vanyar are weak and hold to slave morality. The Noldor are greater!). Fëanor’s own cultural efforts can also be seen as an attempt to fill the nihilistic void.
My objection to categorising Fëanor as an Übermensch is that I do not think he is thinking in such elaborate, philosophical terms. Yes, he rejects the authority of the Valar, but only because it suits him – his grief, anger, and resentment have aligned to convince him that this is the only way to revenge himself against Morgoth.
As such, his rhetorical vision is an insincere one, calculated to manipulate others. He is more than willing to drop Fingolfin, et al, later – and his celebration of strife and struggle is simply a self-serving device to convince the Noldor to leave Valinor behind. The burning of the ships at Losgar is not some grand statement of a new morality, but rather one Elf’s descent into the sort of nihilistic madness Nietzsche so opposed.
(viii) The Destructive Fire
The hallmark of Fëanor’s character is the fire metaphor that is present in his very name. Brilliant, spectacular, and dangerous, his creative fire is ultimately balanced out by his destructive fury – time and again, he causes immense woe to any who cross his path. His mother dies giving birth to him, all but one of his sons die in the futile quest he bequeaths them, and, as Mandos foretells, most of the named Noldor characters never return alive to Valinor. More – the tragedy of three Kinslayings ultimately descends from his actions and his blasphemous Oath. How appropriate then, as he dies, that the passing of his spirit consumes his body – in the end, Fëanor son of Finwë destroys even himself.
This concludes our lengthy look at Fëanor, a study of grand tragedy. He is an epic character in every sense – a larger than life creative genius, who ends up destroying his entire people along with himself and his family. A Byronic Anti-Hero gifted beyond measure and set on a mythological scale, who, like so many of Tolkien’s paragon characters, turns to darkness – or in his case a fiery nihilistic madness. He is a study of the sub-creation drive in its purest form, and a warning of what happens when that drive becomes misplaced and perverted by jealousy, greed, and power. He is fierce love turned to equally fierce hate. Some see Nietzsche’s Übermensch in him. Perhaps. Manipulative and masterful, he is undoubtedly one of the truly great characters of modern fantasy.