Consuming Sons: The Nihilism of Fëanor and Denethor, part 1

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.

Advertisements

Fëanor’s Nietzscheanism, Dionysianism

Fëanor is one of Tolkien’s most tragic characters, not only in the classical sense discussed by Aristotle in his Poetics, but also in the sense developed by Nietzsche in that other landmark analysis of the ancient genre, The Birth of Tragedy Out of the Spirit of Music. I hope someday to develop the Nietzschean undertones of Feanor’s character, motives, and speeches (undergraduate thesis, anyone?), but for a teaser, here are a couple of passages juxtaposing Fëanor’s demagoguery in persuading the Noldor to leave Valinor and return to Middle-earth, and Nietzsche’s (remarkably similar in spirit) exhortation to a Dionysian renunciation of the complacent life and the affirmation of forging one’s character and hearty-hood through the hammer and anvil of conflict and strife:

“‘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.’” (Silmarillion, “Of the Flight of the Noldor,” 83, 85)

“Yes, my friends, believe with me in Dionysian life and the rebirth of tragedy. The age of the Socratic man is over… Only dare to be tragic men; for you are to be redeemed… Prepare yourselves for hard strife, but believe in the miracles of your god.” (Nietzsche, The Birth of Tragedy, sect. 20)