Denethor and Fëanor are two of Tolkien’s more tragic characters. I’ve mentioned before Denethor’s Hegelian-like statement admiring Sauron for his use of “others as his weapons” in the manner of “all great lords.” That Denethor proudly numbers himself among such company is evident from his follow-up, rhetorical question to Pippin: “Or why should I sit here in my tower and think, and watch, and wait, spending even my sons?” Though it is the most explicit—albeit ironic—statement of the crassly utilitarian approach to one’s own progeny, Denethor is not the first instance in Tolkien’s legendarium of a father wasting his sons to accomplish his own desired (and futile) ends.
Fëanor, to be sure, is better known for his use and abuse, not of his sons, but of those less directly connected with him, as by the end of his story he leaves worse off virtually everyone with whom he comes into contact. From his very beginning, his mother Míriel “was consumed in spirit and body” in delivering her son into the world, and eventually died from her weariness, but not before bequeathing to Fëanor his ominous name, meaning “Spirit of Fire.” And despite his remarriage and begetting two more sons by his second wife, we are told of Finwë that “All his love he gave thereafter to his son [Fëanor],” foreshadowing that it will not be only the mother who will be consumed by her son’s overweening spirit. In keeping with this premonition, when Fëanor is banished for a time by the Valar from the Noldorin city of Tirion for threatening his half-brother Fingolfin’s life at the point of sword, Finwë (showing a remarkable lack of sympathy for his younger son’s life) goes into voluntary exile with Fëanor. Even when Fëanor, after a period of twelve years, is temporarily summoned back to Tirion by Manwë for a festival, his father, for his part, refuses to attend, declaring that, “While the ban lasts upon Fëanor my son, that he may not go to Tirion, I hold myself unkinged, and I will not meet my people.” It is this Fëanor-fixation, moreover, that indirectly leads to Finwë’s death, for it is while Fëanor is away that he, protecting his sons Silmarils, is killed by Melkor. When he hears of his father’s fate, Fëanor blames and curses the summons of Manwë, an irrational and unfair response revealing perhaps a tinge of guilt and suppressed self-reproach on Fëanor’s part for the death of his father. To Fëanor’s credit, we are told that Finwë “was dearer to him than the Light of Valinor or the peerless works of his hands,” yet it is precisely the love of Fëanor that was Finwë’s doom, and we are perhaps invited to see a touch of tragic irony when the narrator rhetorically asks, “and who among sons, of Elves or of Men, have held their fathers of greater worth?” Inordinate love inevitably proves to be a devouring love.