Hoarded Silmarils

Consuming Sons: The Nihilism of Fëanor and Denethor, part 2

The statement that Fëanor loved his father even more than the “peerless works of his hands”—an oblique and hence, again, possibly ironic reference to the Silmarils—leads us to the next great exploitative relationship of Fëanor. Although not exactly “consumed” by Fëanor, the Silmarils are nonetheless by him “locked in the deep chambers of his hoard.” In this we have echoed the almost identical expression Tolkien uses in his essay “On Fairy-Stories” to describe the effect familiarity and possessiveness have in stifling the otherwise marvelousness and wondrousness of the things of our everyday experience. As Tolkien describes them, things have been made to suffer the “drab blur of triteness” that is “really the penalty of ‘appropriation.’” They are “things that we have appropriated, legally or mentally. We say we know them. They have become like the things which once attracted us by their glitter, or their colour, or their shape, and we laid hands on them, and then locked them in our hoard, acquired them, and acquiring ceased to look at them” (emphasis added). Through Fëanor’s possessive love and admiration for “these things that he himself had made,” accordingly, Tolkien’s purpose in part seems to be to symbolize the kind of greedy, “consuming” mentality that must eventually suffocate or suppress the very beauty and allure that the Silmarils represent and embody.

That Fëanor’s attitude towards the light of the Silmarils is, finally, (like Ungoliant’s) ultimately a devouring rather than ennobling and freeing one may be seen in his refusal, after the attack of Melkor and Ungoliant, to sacrifice the Silmarils so that the Trees of Valinor, the source of the Silmarils’ own light, might be healed and their light restored. For Fëanor, what is of value in the Silmarils is apparently not their light per se (otherwise he presumably would be more solicitous for the good of the Trees from which their light came), but the fact that the Silmarils are his. Thus, in his very possessiveness Fëanor himself has effectively denied them their fantastical “otherness” and independence from himself and so reduced the Silmarils to something less than what they truly are and meant to be.

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3 thoughts on “Hoarded Silmarils

  1. Very good entry with many interesting points. However I feel Feanor’s possessive attitude toward the Silmarils and his refusal of the Valar cannot just be dismissed as greed.

    I think Feanor see’s the Silmarils as an improvement over the trees as vessels for the light being both invulnerable and transportable (last being important as Feanor purposed to leave Valinor and because their light therefore could potentially reach more of creation/arda), and he was rightfully (to my mind) angry that the Valar looked upon the Silmarils as a potential back-up for their own failed creation.

    I dare call the trees a failed creation because like the pillars they are vulnerable to attack by Morgoth, and while they have improvements over the first pillars of light such as a day/night cycle they also represent a step backwards as they only illuminate Valinor, so by asking this of Feanor, I feel, they are not acknowledging the children as essential instruments in the sub-creative process – seeing only themselves as the main decision makers / sub-creaters under Illuvatar.

    So while I do not completely reject your thorough critique of Feanor, I find it too easy, and I find the story of Feanor to be atleast in some part Tolkien’s critique of the Valar. Let’s not forget that Feanor’s birth itself was a fundamental problem for the Valar. Because the children by nature comes from Illuvatars primary motion, and the Valar holds it to be true that Illuvatars primary motion by nature is always beneficial (in other words Feanors “consuming” fire comes from Illuvatars primary motion, and is therefore by nature beneficial and therefore cannot be blamed for the death of Miriel, which also to my mind destroys your entire premise).

    While in the end the Valar blamed Morgoth for marring the hroa of the world and through that the body of Miriel, thereby creating the possibility for Miriel to die of the birth of Feanor, I feel that the Valar perhaps at this stage atleast thinks themselves perfect (which would be a mistake in judgement even for a Valar to Tolkiens mind), and Feanor is Illuvatars wake up call to them.

    None of which of course should excuse Feanor for his crimes. However its not a one-sided story. Tolkien is more complex than that.

  2. For clarification:

    When I say that the Valar (still?) considers themselves and the fruit of their hands (Valinor) perfect at the time of Feanors birth. I mean that they do not consider the possibility, that they are still themselves evolving (learning) and therefore by nature susceptible to introducing imperfections in their creations. Instead they grab the easy solution and blame Morgoth as the ultimate source of all errors.

    It may therefore well be that Miriels body as she lived in Valinor changed so that it became a more pure vessel for the spirit, but one which provided less protection between the spirit of the mother and the child.

    The elves according to Tolkien gives up some of their spiritual essence (the fea) to their children, and in Middle-Earth where the body of Miriel perhaps would have provided a better barrier being less pure, and bearing Feanor would perhaps have been a none issue.

    • Thanks for the reply, Andrew. Fëanor is, in my view, certainly one of the most complex and fascinating of Tolkien’s characters, so I would be the first to admit that there is far more going on with him than I could do justice to (certainly far more than I could tackle in a single post).

      You say that Fëanor sees his Silmarils as an “improvement” over the Two Trees. While I suppose this is possible, the explanation the text itself gives is that Fëanor had some kind of dim premonition of the coming destruction of the Trees and his desire to see their light preserved. Does this make the Silmarils superior to the Trees, then? Perhaps in a very limited sense, but again, this by itself doesn’t seem to be Fëanor’s express motive. You also suggest that Fëanor also makes the Silmarils because he knows that he is going to leave Valinor and wants to take some of the light with him, but we don’t get any hint of a plan to return to Middle-earth until after Melkor has absconded there with the Silmarils.

      And I wonder if it’s necessary to see the Trees as a “failed” sub-creation on the part of the Valar. Perishability, corruptibility, or vulnerability to destruction, Tolkien would say, is an inescapable and necessary part of any creaturely sub-creation in this world (only Iluvatar’s purposes are “Imperishable”), and even the Silmarils can presumably be destroyed, as when Yavanna fears “that the Silmarils would be swallowed up” by Ungoliant and thus “fall into nothingness.”

      I think you are right, however, that there is a subtle critique of the Valar throughout this scene, but I think I would describe it differently than you do. Fëanor is overly possessive of his Silmarils, and views his claim to them as absolute, and while he certainly does have authority over them, he also must recognize (as we all must) that our sub-creations are just that: creations subordinate to Iluvatar’s own act of creation, and therefore we must use our subcreations in obedience to him, and that means, in part, putting them to the service of others. In the dialectical terms Tolkien uses in “Morgoth’s Ring,” Fëanor’s claim to the Silmarils is a matter of “justice,” but the Valar’s claim is a matter of “healing.” While the demands of “healing” cannot be allowed to trump those of “justice,” it is nevertheless the higher claim or value. Thus, their failure in this scene, I would submit, is not so much a moral one as it is a rhetorical and diplomatic one. Instead of urging Fëanor to give up the Silmarils (which he should have done), they should rather have remained silent and allowed him to come to this conclusion by himself (as Elrond does, by comparison, with Frodo at the end of the Council of Elrond).

      Thanks again for the post, and the food for thought.

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