Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Four Gems: Feanor and the Silmarils

Feanor has always been my favorite character in the Legendarium, and it has always been extremely difficult for me to pin down what exactly is is about him that fascinates me. It wasn’t until after the discussion in Monday’s class, where the language Tolkien uses to describe the Silmarils themselves was examined, that something began to form in my mind. It may be too far ‘out there’ but I find it incredibly interesting, so why not write a blog post on it.

At the beginning of “On the Silmarils and the Unrest of the Noldor,” the crystal of the Silmarils is compared the bodies of Elves and Men: “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.” The Silmarils have a life to them beyond what we would attribute to a gemstone, which is especially fitting, considering the role which they play in the history of Middle Earth. What I was immediately reminded of were descriptions of Feanor himself. Of all the figures in the Legendarium, he is the one whose spirit receives most dicussion.

Feanor is called the Spirit of Fire; his birth name is Curufinwe. His mother Miriel retires to Mandos after his birth, claiming that he has sapped her of her strength. Surrounding Feanor’s birth, though, is some language of creation that would seem to belong more with an artifact being made than the birth of a living creature. Miriel was a great weaver, “for her hands were more skilled to fineness than any hands even among the Noldor” (Of Feanor). She puts forth a strength into him that could have supported many children, and so a fire burns within him that gives him this nickname, and also sets him apart from the other Noldor.

Rereading this passage, the only “things” within the Legendarium that really compare to this description of Feanor are the Silmarils. Both are well-crafted and beautiful, and both are filled with a light unlike that found in others of their kind. It is important that Feanor is always filled with fire, and not light, while the Silmarils are connected with fire most prominently in the cited passed from “On the Silmarils”. While the Silmarils are unbroken and cannot be handled by anything evil, Feanor is marred.

In “On the Sun and the Moon” his fall is described, “And they mourned not more for the death of the trees than for the marring of Feanor: of the works of Melkor one of the most evil. For Feanor was made the mightiest of all parts of body and mind, in valour, in endurance, in beauty, in understanding, in skill, in strength and in subtlety like, of all the Children of Iluvatar, and a bright flame was in him.” If the Silmarils were actually living creatures, they would be described like this. In addition, Feanor’s fall isn’t described as a fall here, but as a marring,and like the death of the Two Trees. The Trees themselves have gemlike qualities, being silver and gold and full of light.

Feanor seems more like a gem than an Elf, in many ways. The great difference between the two is that the gems in Middle Earth remain unbroken and fundamentally good, while Feanor’s fall (or marring) cannot be denied. There are several reasons that could be suggested for this. The most obvious being that Feanor isn’t actually a gemstone, but an elf with free will. This aside, there is also the peculiar instance of his death, where Feanor’s body burns away because the fire of his spirit was too much. It’s as though the crystal of his body was not strong enough to contain the fire of spirit, though he was a Child of Iluvatar.

A possible solution to this might be that as Feanor turns from Iluvatar and his spiritual connection to the Silmarils, he is no longer this perfect, well-formed creation and so the fire of his soul slowly erodes his body as his acts become more evil. If gemstones in Tolkien’s universe are, as we discussed in class, deeply religious objects that serve as physical connections to heaven, then as Feanor loses this connection his own gem-like qualities start to disappear, and his inner fire gradually consumes him.

Thinking of Feanor in these terms, part crafter and part crafted thing, helps make sense of how well he is put together, his burning spirit, the dissolving of his body, his marring (and that this marring is an act of evil) and the fact that “the works of wonder for the glory of Arda that he might otherwise have wrought only Manwe might in some measure conceive” (Of the Sun and the Moon). As a maker he lost his spiritual bond to the divinity of the Silmarils, and as a made thing he was marred, much as the trees were, and by the same malice.

-CQC.

5 comments:

  1. Beautifully observed! Yes, Feanor is meant to be, in some way, himself a jewel. His marring is clearly likened to the marring of Arda itself by Morgoth's actions. Is it the case that the Silmarils themselves could not be marred, however? Certainly, Feanor's choice after the killing of the Trees would be meaningless if they could not, at least, be broken so as to release the light. But would this constitute a marring in the same way as Feanor's? I'm not sure!

    RLFB

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  2. It it an interesting thought that Feanor is himself a jewel. Can all of the Elves, Humans, Hobbits, etc. be jewels also by virtue of having a body housing an inner fire/soul?

    I think the fire imagery also draws a parallel between Feanor and Melkor who element power is also fire. Both are flawed individuals, were the most abitious (and probably arrogant) members of their kind. Also, both of their fates were intertwined through the silmarils in ways that neither fully understood. For both of them, their desire for the jewels led to their ultimate downfall.

    Going back to the jewel imagery, I'd say Feanor was a flawed jewel. His housing was too weak to contain his inner light. However, he was also unlike a jewel. One the primary aspects of a jewel like diamond, ruby, etc. is that they are incoruptable. They cannot rust or melt or warp. Feanor was corruptable. His heart could be darkened both by the words of Melkor was well as his own personal failings.

    -Jason A Banks

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  3. Beautifully observed! Yes, Feanor is meant to be, in some way, himself a jewel. His marring is clearly likened to the marring of Arda itself by Morgoth's actions. Is it the case that the Silmarils themselves could not be marred, however? Certainly, Feanor's choice after the killing of the Trees would be meaningless if they could not, at least, be broken so as to release the light. But would this constitute a marring in the same way as Feanor's? I'm not sure!

    RLFB

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  4. This is an incredibly fascinating interpretation of Fëanor. I wonder whether examining the contrasts with his wife, Nerdanel, might also shed some light on his character. Like Fëanor, she is a creator herself, yet she is presented in contrast to Fëanor. Fëanor creates the Silmarils, while Nerdanel creates impossibly lifelike sculptures. In personality, too, she is described as Fëanor’s opposite, despite her fiery hair. I would argue that this opposition is carried into her work, as well. Nerdanel’s creations have an outwards semblance of life, but lack the inner fire that truly makes them alive. Fëanor’s Silmarils, on the other hand, have fire in plenty, yet are, on the surface, just gems. What this contributes to your argument, I suppose, is that clearly appearances have no bearing on inner nature. Therefore I see no reason why, Fëanor, despite his outwards appearance as an elf, could not be interpreted as a gem himself.

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  5. I agree with your sentiment that Feanor is almost not a sentient being, since he is so singleminded and focused like a laser beam, even if it means the destruction of the Eldar. It is noteworthy that he is described as flame-like, when the Flame Imperishable is the fundamental creative power in Tolkien's Legendarium. All of Iluvatar's power comes from his possession of the flame imperishable which, it is implied, would give anyone omnipotence if they were able to find it. In the Ainulindale, Melkor looks for it, and Iluvatar has to hide it. This is clearly there to imply that, if Melkor had found it, he would have the same creative power. It is possible that Feanor is meant to be some kind of incarnation of the flame imperishable. That same fire that makes him so hotheaded is also what makes him such an amazing craftsman.
    -H.O.

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