Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Hold Me Blameless in This: Míriel's Death and the Excess of Creation

If the joining of organic and artistic creation represented in the creation of Ilúvatar is a great virtue in Tolkien’s cosmos, no one would seem to epitomize that virtue better than Fëanor: creator of the Silmarils, begetter of a record-holding seven sons “in days of old, at a time when the Eldar were still few and eager to increase their kind” (Morgoth’s Ring, 210).  In their conception, both creations represent this highest virtue, the beautification and cultivation of Arda that is embedded in the biological-cultural purpose of the Elves; yet both are ultimately entwined in, and implemental to, the major crisis that befalls Eldarin civilization in that (or any) Age.  The causes of this downfall, and Fëanor’s role in it, have already been discussed at length, but considered from this angle of production, of glorification of creation, it seems problematic that his exemplary fulfillment of the cause is resultant in such rampant destruction.  Do his extraordinary powers of creation simply overstep that bonds of that which is definably good?  Or are they precipitated by conditions that are already flawed in the cycle of organic-artistic production? 

It seems important to recognize that the rise of Fëanor is preceded by a prematurely terminated marriage. The loss of Míriel is a troubling and foreboding occurrence, during an otherwise untroubled period of Noldorin history.  Her death disrupts what would have presumably been a productive relationship by typical Elf standards, resulting in the birth of “seldom more than four children” (MR 210).  However, bearing Fëanor sapped his mother both of “the strength that would have nourished the life of many,” and her own vitality, leaving Míriel’s exhausted fëa to depart from her body (Silmarillion, 63).  While Finwë weds Indis to make up for this loss – both of love, and of child-bearing – it is in Fëanor whose life seems most to compensate for the loss of his mother’s.  Taking his name in honor of her foreknowledge of his character, he puts the fire of his uncommonly potent spirit to a lifetime of prolific artistic and biological creation.  The “embodiment” of spirit – in gems, in sons – is Fëanor’s trade, even as the hröa of Míriel lies, sans f ëa, in the gardens of Lórien.  

On the brink of giving up her life, the fading Míriel expresses her own concerns for the impact it might have:  “It is indeed unhappy…and I would weep, if I were not so weary.  But hold me blameless in this, and all that may come after” (Silmarillion, 64).  Her foreknowledge of her child’s nature is not something unique among elf-woman, yet the fact that that child is Fëanor positions her statement in the ominous frame of the events that do, in fact, follow.  Indeed, we cannot blame put the blame on Míriel, and no one does, least of all her son and husband.  Yet the fact that she is the instrument of this glitch in the system, this overabundance of fëa, implicates the role of the intimacies of family life in the political, world-historical spheres of Tolkien’s world. 

The severity of her death and her yearning “to be released from the labor of life,” particularly at a time of such bliss for the Noldor, represent a first strand of grief in the great tableau of which is to shortly follow (as a seamstress, perhaps her role is fitting here).  Most notably, the disruption caused by the death of Míriel is evidence of the weight placed on marriage throughout the history of Arda.  The ways in which both her husband and son counterbalance her absence represent decidedly unnatural paths, for elf familial structure, an excess of wives, and an excess of sons.  If, as we discussed in class, the marriages that occur between men and Elves, at critical junctures in the history, are part of the healing of Arda Marred, the work that is being done to restore and renew the world that was broken, the most notable marriages of the house of Finwë seem to present evidence, in certain circumstances, of that marring.  

Both the unions of Fëanor and Nerdanel and Finwë and Indis, though objectively as blessed as any other – even, the case of Finwë’s remarriage, endorsed by the Valar, though after considerable debate – precipitate the conditions that give rise to the revolt of the Noldor.  Whereas in those marriages that produce the half-elven line – between Thingol and Melian, Beren and Lúthien, Aragorn and Arwen – there is a diminishment of light, a mingling into the twilight age from which men will take up the reigns of the world, carried within the bonds of the house of Finwë is an excess of light, such that it gradually, and finally violently, seeks to diminish itself. “Light,” here, can be taken almost entirely to indicate Fëanor, who, caught up in the design of Melkor, instigates and leads the rebellion, yet he is a synecdoche for the Noldor at large, the people who, in their creative and productive nature, all harbor that innate “fire” of generation. .  Following the logic of Verlyn Flieger, though the stated causes of Fëanor indicate reclamation of their birth-land, and spurning the yolk of the Valar, in revolting the Noldor can be seen as correcting for this excess.  Crossing the Sea (and the Helcaraxe), they extinguish themselves as a people, never again approaching the artistic output of this golden age of creation.  

- J. Wetherell 


  1. Excellent insight into Feanor's role as both artist and father! I also like very much the way in which you consider the problem that Miriel's death creates for thinking about the role of creation in the legendarium. How, indeed, if creation is a good thing, can there be too much of a good thing, as clearly in Feanor's case there is?


  2. Indeed, there is a sense in the passing of Miriel that her creative energy will somehow be channeled to Feanor. One might say that he burns up the gift of creation, and had the power to do so, since his light was amplified by that of his mother. But I had never thought of it – the energy of creation - as a bad thing, or as potentially excessive in a negative way. Your post is, as you can tell, making me rethink this. Do you think there are other examples that might corroborate this excess of creation, artistic or organic? Thinking on artistic excess, I turn back to the beginning of the quarter, when we read the wonderful little story ‘Leaf by Niggle.’ There is something exhausting about creation, although we find in that story a kind of redemption. Or, taking an alternative line, does this mean that some creations just shouldn’t be created? Are some creations unspeakable, that is, never to be born in a living language? Would Melkor be such an example? At what point is the light no longer dazzlingly bright, before it begins to hurt? It makes me think that something very sinister lies on the other side of that light. Of course, these questions do no contest what you write. I’m just wondering what the implications are of what you point out, because you’ve really shaken my simple good/evil and light/dark dichotomies. I wonder: Feanor is associated with fire. Is it possible to think of him as heat without light? This would fit with him as a kind of craftsman too.