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Monday, January 03, 2011

Galadriel, Fëanor, and the Silmarils

Fëanor, Galadriel, and the Silmarils

The central story of Tolkien's sub-creation, at least until the time of the rings, is the story of the Silmarils.

The elves, who were immortal, barring accident or violence, first appeared in what would become Middle-Earth. The Valar found them, and persuaded some of them to come into the West, to the realm of the Valar. Those who did so were known as the Noldor, and were led by Finwë, Olwë and Elwë. Finwë was considered the first High King of the elves. Finwë had three sons, Fëanor, Fingolfin and Finarfin. Galadriel was the daughter of Finarfin, hence Fëanor's niece. (For more on Galadriel, here. See here for a pictorial family tree.)

Fëanor had a mind that was ever busy, ever creative. Beside the creation of the letters named after him, he made the Palantíri. His crowning achievement was the three Silmarils. These jewels captured the light of the two trees of Valinor, the main source of light in the world at that time. (The sun and moon had not yet appeared, but there were stars.) But Fëanor became so enamored of his own creation that it was easy for Morgoth, then still in the realm of the Valar, as one of them, to lead Fëanor astray through them. Morgoth also sowed seeds of jealousy between the sons of Finwë, and they became proud and haughty. (Not so haughty as Morgoth, who plotted to destroy the elves, and to do great evil to the Valar.)

Shippey believes that Fëanor's restless creativeness represents Tolkien's creativeness (pp. 239-240).

Tolkien wrote that Fëanor's character was deeply influenced by the death of his mother, Míriel. In the Blessed Realm, at least, the elves could lay down their lives for a while, then could take them up again. Míriel did not choose to return for a long time, even as elves count time, and eventually Fëanor's father was given permission to marry again. This embittered Fëanor, already a proud and haughty individual. Another reason for his bitterness, or at least for contention between Fëanor and other elves, was pronunciation. This may seem surprising, but shouldn't be. Tolkien, himself, was much concerned with language, and so was Fëanor. ("The Shibboleth of Fëanor," in The Peoples of Middle-Earth, Christopher Tolkien, editor. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1996.)

Fëanor kept the Silmarils locked up, except when he wore them himself. Morgoth, with Ungoliant, the great spider spirit, came to the realm of the Valar by stealth, and destroyed the two trees. They also killed Finwë, and took the Silmarils back to Middle-Earth. However, before this murder was known, the Valar asked Fëanor for the use of the Silmarils, the only way to revive the two trees. Fëanor, who had been previously punished by the Valar for a prideful act, refused.

Fëanor was a master of words, and his tongue had great power over hearts when he would use it; and that night he made a speech before the Noldor which they ever remembered. (Silmarillion, 82.)

He urged the elves who followed Finwë, his father, the Noldor, to leave the realm of the Valar and return to Middle-Earth, because the Valar could not protect their own realm, and because they were trying to hold the elves from their destiny. Then Fëanor swore that he would contest anyone who took a Silmaril into their possession, regardless of the consequences, and his seven sons joined him in that oath. Galadriel, the granddaughter of Olwë, did not swear the terrible oath of the house of Fëanor, but she decided that she wanted to return to Middle-Earth and establish a realm of her own. She eventually established Lothlorien, with her consort, Celeborn.

Tolkien wrote:
So it came to pass that when the light of Valinor failed, for ever as the Noldor thought, [Galadriel] joined the rebellion against the Valar who commanded them to stay; and once she had set foot upon that road of exile, she would not relent . . . Her pride was unwilling to return, a defeated suppliant for pardon; but now she burned with desire to follow Fëanor with her anger to whatever lands he might come, and to thwart him in all ways that she could. Pride still moved her when, at the end of the Elder Days after the final overthrow of Morgoth, she refused the pardon of the Valar for all who had fought against him, and remained in Middle-earth. It was not until two long ages more had passed, when at last all that she had desired in her youth came to her hand, the Ring of Power and the dominion of Middle-earth of which she had dreamed, that her wisdom was full grown and she rejected it, and passing the last test departed from Middle-earth forever. (The Peoples of Middle-Earth, p. 338. In Peoples, but not in all of his works, Tolkien put a symbol over the N at the beginning of the word, Noldor. I haven't found a way to place that symbol in this blog.)

(Galadriel's speech, rejecting the One Ring, is below.)

Fëanor and his followers needed ships to return to Middle-Earth. They came to the people of Olwë, who had made wonderful ships, "the fairest vessels that ever sailed the sea," (Silmarillion, 90.) and took them by force, killing many of Olwë's people. Fëanor had the ships burned. Galadriel fought against him, but sailed to Middle-Earth, as did Fëanor and many other elves, after the battle was over. Bob Downing suggests, in an on-line article that doesn't seem to be available anymore, entitled "Galadriel: Lady of Lóthlórien," that the reason Galadriel sailed may have been partly because she was disillusioned that the Valar were unable to protect the Two Trees.

Purtill writes (p. 158) that Tolkien:
". . . often gives us characters faced with basically the same problem and shows one handling the problem in the right way, the other in the wrong way . . . Insofar as it can be said that characters from two different stories (though with the same underlying mythology) are contrasted, I think that Galadriel is the intended contrast character to Fëanor; her rejection of the Ring contrasts with his refusal to give up the Silmarils."

The Noldor and the other peoples of Middle-Earth then endured long years of hostility from Morgoth and his followers. Many elves, including Fëanor and his seven sons, were killed. Eventually Beren, a human hero, and Luthien, daughter of Elwë, took a Silmaril from the iron crown of Morgoth. Idril Celebrindal, great-granddaughter of Finwë through his second son, Fingolfin, married Tuor, another human hero. Their son Eärendil, who married Elwing, granddaughter of Beren and Luthien, took a Silmaril to the realm of the Valar and asked for their help in overthrowing Morgoth, which was the eucatastrophe at the end of the First Age. Eärendil, who was the father of Elrond and Elros, and, hence, Aragorn's distant ancestor, was placed in the heavens with his ship, and the Silmaril became a star.

For more on Fëanor, see "It's All in the Family: The Elweans and Ingweans," by Michael Martinez. (Also published as Chapter 3 of Martinez' Understanding Middle Earth: Essays on Tolkien's Middle-Earth. Poughkeepsie, NY: ViviSphere, 2003, pp. 47-79.) Here's the Wikipedia article on Galadriel.

More on Galadriel
Gandalf and Galadriel both choose not to take the ring as their own. Galadriel tells Sam and Frodo that she has power to resist Sauron, near the end of The Fellowship of the Ring, in spite of Sauron's desire to discover what is going on in Lothlorien. Richard Purtill, in his J. R. R. Tolkien: Myth, Morality, and Religion (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2003) says that, as Galadriel confides this to Sam and Frodo, she shows that she has won "the battle to know the mind of the Dark Lord without being bent to his evil (p. 114). This is a battle that Denethor, Steward of Gondor, and also Saruman, have lost. Then, Galadriel resists the temptation offered her by Frodo -- he offers her the One Ring. Here is Galadriel's speech to Frodo and Sam:

"And now at last it comes. You will give me the Ring freely! In place of the Dark Lord you will set up a Queen. And I shall not be dark, but beautiful and terrible as the Morning and the Night!" . . . She lifted up her hand and from the ring that she wore there issued a great light that illumined her alone and left all else dark. . . . Then she let her hand fall, and the light faded, and suddenly she laughed again, and lo! she was shrunken: a simple elf-woman, clad in simple white, whose gentle voice was soft and sad.
"I pass the test," she said. "I will diminish, and go into the West, and remain Galadriel." Fellowship, p. 381.

This dialog is changed little, if at all, in the movie. Dickerson writes of this episode, in Following Gandalf, that "Galadriel summarizes the point . . . that moral victory is the most important victory; that it is better to suffer a military defeat and a loss of everything than to suffer a moral defeat; better to 'cast all away rather than to submit to Sauron.'" (p. 81)

In her "Mara and Galadriel: MacDonald’s and Tolkien’s Vehicles for Spiritual Truth," (Mara is a character in George MacDonald's Phantastes, a nineteenth-century work of fantasy which C. S. Lewis said influenced him. It is certainly still worth reading, and, I believe, still in print.) Betsy Matthews says:

. . . characters such as Mara and Galadriel hold such magnetism. Certainly, neither is the central character . . . but each . . . provides a very clear picture of God, a picture made clearer because they are female. Among the many characteristics these women share, they are beautiful, able to instill fear into others, know the suffering the future holds, and are compassionate. Mara and Galadriel are strikingly biblical in ways the traditional fairy tale "God-figures" (often the fairy godmothers) are not. This picture of God is not one merely of God the Father, but is a composite picture of the Trinity. [Note: as of January 2, 2018, I am unable to locate a current source for this quotation.]

One of the most remarkable facets of God portrayed through these characters is the clear picture of Jesus as the suffering servant and the suffering to which his followers are called. . . . These women suffer great sorrow and witness evil, yet remain pure and hopeful, thus pointing to the hope Jesus had on earth and God’s children have during their earthly sufferings as they anticipate their future glorification.

Tolkien wrote that Galadriel was not a stand-in for Mary:

I think it is true that I owe much of this character to Christian and Catholic teaching about Mary, but actually Galadriel was a penitent; in her youth a leader in the rebellion against the Valar (the angelic guardians). At the end of the First Age she proudly refused forgiveness or permission to return. She was pardoned because of her resistance to the final and overwhelming temptation to take the Ring for herself. (Letters, p. 407)

Stanford Caldecott disagrees with Tolkien, or my interpretation of Tolkien, on this matter. He thinks, and presents evidence that Galadriel, and, more so, Elbereth, are Mary-figures in Tolkien's work. He does not suppose that she started that way, during the long gestation of Tolkien's products, but that he gradually came to change her from a close follower of Fëanor to one in serious disagreement with him. (The Power of the Ring: The Spiritual Vision Behind of the Lord of the Rings. New York: Crossroad Publishing Company, 2005, p. 53-55.)

Galadriel played a central role in The Lord of the Rings trilogy, although a role mostly in the background, rather than on-stage. It was she who summoned the White Council, (over 400 years before Bilbo was born, according to the chronology in Return) with the idea of uniting the opposition to Sauron. She wanted Gandalf to be the leader of this Council. (Fellowship, p. 372) When Gandalf was overthrown by the Balrog (like him, a Maia, but one who had rejected good) the remaining Fellowship rested and were renewed in Lothlorien, which realm was an expression of Galadriel's power. Galadriel showed Frodo and Sam something of the importance of the choice they had made, to take the One Ring to the fire and destroy it. Galadriel warned Boromir of the spiritual peril that he was in. Galadriel won Gimli, the representative of the Dwarves, to friendship and appreciation for the elves, and it was during their time in Lothlorien that Gimli and Legolas, representative of the elves in the Fellowship, became such great friends. She gave gifts to the fellowship. Frodo's was a small vessel, or phial, containing the light of Eärendil's star. (Fellowship, p. 393)

Frodo used the star-glass when in the lair of Shelob, the great spider, and called upon Galadriel, probably as a war-cry of sorts. (Towers, pp. 329-330) Sam also used the star-glass (Frodo gave it to him while he was cutting spider-webs with his sword, with both hands.) When Sam thought Frodo was dead, and almost gave in to despair, he also called on Galadriel, and on Elbereth, the Queen of the Valar, and used the light-emitting phial to defeat the spider. (Towers, pp. 337-339) As Dickerson points out, Galadriel clearly had faith in a higher power, and communicated that to the Fellowship during their stay in Lothlórien. (Following Gandalf, p. 198.) That glass, Galadriel's great gift to the ring-bearer, was taken on the ship that bore Galadriel, Gandalf, Elrond, Bilbo, Frodo and others to the Blessed Realm, which was the last sight Sam had of Frodo. (Return, p. 310)

Galadriel gave other gifts in Lothlórien. One of these was to Gimli, the dwarf. Caldecott discusses that gift:

Her parting gift to Gimli is highly significant. He asks for a single hair from her head, which he intends to enshrine within imperishable crystal. In the elder days Fëanor had asked the same, and been refused three times, for her tresses were famed for seeming to contain the light of the Two Trees. . . . Now she gives Gimli three hairs, one for each of the ancient refusals, which were bound up with so much grief for the Elves. Galadriel's gift heals the long rift between her people and the Dwarves. It implies that she now repents of any part her pride may have played in the long tragedy. (The Power of the Ring, p. 54.)

When Gandalf fought the Balrog, during the journey of the Fellowship through Moria, He said that he "wandered far on roads that I will not tell." (Two Towers, p. 106) Mostly likely Tolkien meant that Gandalf somehow went back to the Blessed Realm, in the far West. He returned to the top of the mountain, with a body changed, and was carried, by an eagle, to Lothlórien, to meet with Galadriel. The eagle said that Galadriel had asked him to bring Gandalf to her. Gandalf told Aragorn, Legolas, and Gimli that he found healing, and counsel, in meeting with Galadriel, and also counseled her. Perhaps Galadriel's husband, Celeborn, was also involved, but Galadriel had the pre-eminence in such matters. From then on, Gandalf had new power, which enabled him to deal with Saruman.

Galadriel is perhaps the most intriguing character in Tolkien's writing, and I agree with Matthews that she is not the typical fairy godmother. She may provide a clearer picture of God than, say, Elrond. However, I'm not sure that Matthews has read, or understood, as much Tolkien as she might have. As the previous section indicates, Galadriel was not all, or always, goodness and light, and she made at least one choice against the good, and for pride. But, then, Mary, Christ's earthly mother, was born to a sinful race, and, according to most Protestants, was a sinner herself, like the rest of us, although redeemed. Perhaps Matthews is right about Galadriel. As Matthews says, she does exhibit hope, in spite of whatever her past may have been, and gives hope to the Fellowship as they part from the realm she shares with Celeborn. Surely Frodo and Sam would have failed to achieve their quest without the light she gave them, without its message of hope.

Tolkien wrote of Galadriel, after describing her desire to rule without oversight:

Yet deeper still there dwelt in her the noble and generous spirit . . . of the Vanyar, and a reverence for the Valar that she could not forget. From her earliest years she had a marvellous gift of insight into the minds of others, but judged them with mercy and understanding, and she withheld her good will from none save only Fëanor. In him she perceived a darkness that she hated and feared, though she did not perceive that the shadow of the same evil had fallen upon the minds of all the Noldor, and upon her own. (Peoples of Middle-earth, pp. 337-8)

Perhaps the best summary, for Galadriel and for us, is that we began as proud rebels, and end as penitents, rejecting, at the last, the worship of ourselves for the worship of the One. What a character, and what a sub-creation!

Today is Tolkien's birthday. He was born in 1892. Thanks for reading. (Revised slightly, April 2, 2011, and again on October 14, 2013, and January 2, 2018)


Anonymous said...

Much enjoyed this post. Sheer coincidence that I came across it the day you posted it - I happened to be re-watching the Lord of the Rings with my husband this past week, which led him to re-read parts of the Unfinished Tales and the Silmarillion, and in turn led to a discussion of how to pronounce Feanor's name. One thing led to another. I enjoyed your thoughts, but would argue that Tolkien, as a Catholic, would hardly have created the proud and formerly rebellious Galadriel in the image of the humble and obedient Mary, who in the Catholic tradition was born without sin.

Martin LaBar said...

Thanks, Anonymous.

That's a good point about Mary's humility and sinlessness, and I hadn't looked at it that way.

I don't know how to pronounce Fëanor either.

Unknown said...

Feanor, I imagine, is pronounced 'Faynor': I may be wrong. If the e and a were the other way around, it would almost certainly be Fanor as, in Anglo Saxon (Tolkien's main subject)'a' is shown as a sort of 'a and e' run together. The symbol above the 'e', doubtless, changes the pronounciation. If it was a line rather than a dot, this would be easier! As it is, I think (or guess) it's Faynor.

Martin LaBar said...

That works for me.

Thanks, Unknown.