Fëanor/Fingolfin : The feud in Mithrim

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Quite a long time ago (a year ago maybe ?) someone sent me this question on Tumblr :

« What do you think would have happened if Fingolfin had arrived un Hithlum and found his brother still living?« 

This user was talking about The Silmarillion, when the Exiled Ñoldor return to Middle-earth, after Fëanor’s death and the crossing of the Helcaraxë by Fingolfin and his host.

Indeed, when he sets foot in Beleriand, Fëanor is already dead, and Maedhros (the older son of Fëanor) has been taken captive by Morgoth. Maglor, the second son of Fëanor, is more or less the official king of the Exiled Ñoldor, or at least the regent (the sons of Fëanor don’t know if their brother is dead or alive).

Before diving into my speculations, let’s see what we learn from the texts. What does the published Silmarillion tell us about Fingolfin at that point?

First of all, at the end of chapter 9, we learn about Fingolfin’s state of mind when he finds out he has been left behind:

“Then Fingolfin seeing that Fëanor had left him to perish in Araman or return in shame to Valinor was filled with bitterness; but he desired now as ever before to come by some way to Middle-earth and meet Fëanor again.”

The Silmarillion

Now the question would be why. What exactly does he have to say to Fëanor? What would he do to him? Fight a duel? Kill him in cold blood? Yell at him? Or does Fingolfin want to prove his half-brother that he and his people would not surrender so easily? That he and his people are stronger, nobler, and much more resistant than Fëanor might have thought? (when you think of the pride of the Ñoldorin princes that would make real sense).

And yet.

What is the first thing Fingolfin did when he set foot upon Middle-earth?

He marched on Angband.

When you come to think about it, it is quite surprising, right? He crossed the Ice to meet Fëanor, but he decides to knock on Morgoth’s gates first. Why?

The first answer is quite simple: Morgoth is weakened by the light of the young sun, he’s vulnerable : better take advantage of it. Yet, Fingolfin doesn’t know exactly about Morgoth’s state, he can only have a few guess. This answer is therefore not satisfying enough.

Let’s return to this dear Ñoldorin pride, shall we? Fingolfin and his people have just accomplished a deed unprecedented in terms of resistance, survival, strength and determination. They’re to be admired. And Fingolfin must know it. How could he not acknowledge their own courage, how could he not be proud of their accomplishment?

And why not increase this new fame in order to dismiss the House of Fëanor and claim the crown?

Honestly, that’s just one of the ways to analyse his motives, and do you know what makes me think that’s part of his initial plan? This:

Fingolfin unfurled his blue and silver banners and blew his horns (…) and the Elves smote upon the gates of Angband, and the challenge of their trumpets shook the towers of ThangorodrimThe Silmarillion

Obviously, it’s not like they try to pass quietly through the lands : they’re not betting on a surprise attack; Fingolfin and his people want to be heard, they want to be seen and acknowledged, they’re showing up, and I do believe that they don’t simply want to challenge and impress Morgoth; the challenge and the impressive display is also a warning (?) for the Fëanorians. (Did it work? Spoilers: Pretty much.)

But Fingolfin eventually withdraws and goes to Mithrim because he is “of another temper than Fëanor” (is he, really? We’ll see that later) and “he had heard tidings that there he should find the sons of Fëanor”.

And not Fëanor himself.

So, according to The Silmarillion, when he marched on Angband he already knew Fëanor was dead. That could be one of the reasons why he didn’t instantly try to find his nephews, and walked to Angband instead. Maybe not. [in “The Grey Annals“ (HoMe XII) Fingolfin learns about Fëanor’s death when he meets his sons in Mithrim. Nevermind.]

So instead of drowning into his bitterness, he attacks. Not the Fëanorians, but Melkor. Best way to express your rightful anger, right? But let’s be serious.. it’s mostly a strategic move: he needs to see by himself and test the defence of Angband, and at the same time, display his superiority in regards of the Fëanorians.

In any case, he was prepared to deal with the sons of Fëanor, and let’s keep in mind that, according to The Silmarillion, “Fingolfin held the sons the accomplices of their father”, therefore, I’m pretty sure he dealt with them more or less like he would have dealt with Fëanor. Therefore, with Fëanor alive, the situation at this point would have been pretty much the same ON FINGOLFIN’S SIDE, and probably his followers; “no love was there in the hearts of those that followed Fingolfin for the House of Fëanor”-> Fëanor, the sons, their people… not only Fëanor. I believe the presence of Fëanor in Mithrim wouldn’t have changed much of their reaction at this point.

Now, if you ask me: would Fingolfin have killed Fëanor or attacked his people? I think not. Because if he had planned to be aggressive, he would have attacked the Fëanorians no matter what. And he would have done it with Fëanor dead. But he didn’t. He gave them a chance to repent and to make things better.

On the other hand, Fëanor’s reaction to his half-brother showing up would have probably led to a very interesting and tragic situation… which I can but try to imagine.

Obviously, when Fingolfin marched forth against Angband with his trumpets and banners, the Fëanorians were quite impressed (Fëanor’s host was “filled with amazement at the valour that had brought the friends whom they had abandoned over the Ice of the North”), completely dumbfounded and even quite horrified. Although they must have been relieved to see that their cousins (those they got along with) were safe, they had never expected to see them reach Beleriand. I’m certain Fëanor would have been no less impressed.

Yet, if Fëanor had some regrets (which is possible), shame and pride and fear of treachery and his claim to the throne would have mingled into something pretty ugly and I’m fairly certain that he wouldn’t have even accepted to withdraw to the other side of the lake. Which would have obviously increased the tensions. Because remember: it’s not only about Fëanor and Fingolfin, but also about their respective followers… which were, well, numerous. And angry. And bitter kr shameful. We know that “many of Fëanor’s people indeed repented of the burning at Losgar””. Would they openly repent with Fëanor around? I’m not so sure. Moreover, “they would have welcomed them [Fingolfin’s people], but they dared not, for shame”. With Fëanor alive, it is not only shame which would have hindered them.

So, I believe that if Fëanor had been alive, the situation would have eventually escalated into an actual strife because of the Fëanorians, after an accumulation of tensions. Fingolfin would have done the exact same things, yes, but Fëanor and his sons would have been much more aggressive. Not only because Fëanor is Fëanor, but also because of the emotional state of the Fëanorians: in the canon, we are told that if the Fëanorians don’t attack the host of Fingolfin, it’s because they know they’re outnumbered. Indeed, we learn that the followers of Fëanor “removed their dwellings to the southern shore” right after the narrator had told us that Fingolfin’s people are “more numerous than the followers of Fëanor” ; we can immediately see the causal relationship here. Moreover, at this point, the Fëanorians are also mourning. Their father is dead. Their brother, if he’s not dead, is being tortured. They’re not in a psychological position to challenge Fingolfin’s host. But with Fëanor alive (and Maedhros still with them), this very situation would have been different precisely because they would have felt stronger. More hopeful, somehow.

Now we must also keep in mind the metatextual bias involved by Tolkien’s texts ; Fingolfin is a revered king and most often he’s portrayed as the “good guy” in comparison to Fëanor who is the son of Finwë always associated with wrath and foolhardiness. Therefore, the elven chroniclers would not portray Fingolfin as reckless, or wrathful, if only to better mark the difference between those two characters. But the bias also portrays Fingolfin as nobler. We ought to see him as wise, and even when dealing with the worst (i.e. the face to face combat with Morgoth) he must not be depicted like his wrathful half-brother ; check the difference of treatment between the last fight of Fëanor and that of Fingolfin and you’ll see my point ; although their motives and psychological states are quite similar, those last desperate fights of two headstrong characters are radically different in their treatment, just like the two portraits which thus appear. Nonetheless, they’re driven by the same recklessness and hybris, which, by the way, hints at Beowulf, and which Vinent Ferré underlined in Lire Tolkien : Fingolfin’s challenge is a “pointless and piddling action”, just like Fëanor when he runs against the Balrogs… but I’m digressing, or maybe not that much since pride is at the the core of this meeting between the two Ñoldorin hosts, which are both subject to those flaws. A quick look at what we can find in the Shibboleth od Fëanor is enough to better apprehend Fingolfin’s temperament:

“Fingolfin had prefixed the name Finwë to Ñolofinwë before the Exiles reached Middle-earth. This was in pursuance of his claim to be the chieftain of all the Ñoldor after the death of Finwë, and so enraged Fëanor that it was no doubt one of the reasons for his treachery in abandoning Fingolfin and stealing away with all the ships. ».

HoMe XII

And he did that after he had sworn to Fëanor that he would follow him… Fingolfin is not flawless, far from it, and he resemble his half-brother more than people tend to assume (After so many years in this fandom, yes, I can assert this is a persistent tendency) and it would be a shame to miss the complexity of this character.

But let’s go back to the situation at stake here, and have a look at some older drafts to detect some hints; In The Grey Annals, it is not a peril of “strife” between the princes, but of ”war”, a semantic difference which is relevant, if you want my opinion… In the pre-LOTR Quenta Silmarillion, not only “there was little love between those that followed Fingolfin and the house of Fëanor”, but here “their hearts were filled with bitterness”. The same bitterness that drove Fingolfin through the Helcaraxë precisely to find Fëanor…?

And you know bitterness is a double-edged motive, right?

Besides, if the main reason Fingolfin crossed the Grinding Ice was to find Fëanor, you can be sure that the feud around the lake doesn’t only rely on bitterness. There must be anger, dismay, wrath, and a little wish for revenge. And honestly, if it took the rescue of Maedhros +  the surrender of the crown by the Fëanorians (that is a complete humiliation) + the gift of their best horses to assuage the feud, then the latter must have been driven by something much heavier, much more dreadful than bitterness. It is not simply a political disagreement, they left them to DIE.

Although I appreciate the noble portrait of Fingolfin as a magnanimous lord, he must have felt much more tensed and revengeful than the narrator wants us to believe (and honestly, Fingolfin is probably one of the most interesting character to look at through the perspective of narrative bias).

But those are pure assumptions and I wouldn’t base my arguments on that… I just believe it is important to keep it mind.

Another element that is essential (and that will be my last point), is that this episode exists from the very first draft of the Silmarillion ; (see the “Earliest Silmarillion” in HoMe IV, in which the main difference is that Fingolfin doesn’t march on Angband after his arrival and goes directly to meet the House of Fëanor. This early existence implies that Fëanor’s death is crucial for the unfolding of the story, and it is crucial for it to happen at this point of the timeline – and when you come to think about it, it makes sense ; if Fëanor doesn’t die, Maedhros would have hardly been taken by Morgoth, so no rescue by Fingon, which is by essence, the tool that healed the feud between the two Ñoldorin hosts. Without Fingon’s rescue of Maedhros, you can be pretty sure the “peril of strife between the hosts” would have ended in an actual strife, with or without Fëanor – but with Fëanor, Maedhros would haven’t been captured, sooooooo…. No rescue, no peace. QED

After all, don’t forget that “Morgoth arose from thought, and seeing the division of his foes he laughed” and the old pre-LOTR Quenta Silmarillion reminds us that “they achieved nothing” while the feud lasted, although Melkor was hesitating and was therefore vulnerable… can you imagine the rest of the story if the Ñoldor couldn’t have put their bitterness and resentment aside to cooperate? 

Basically:

Fëanor survives -> no ambush -> no capture of Maedhros -> no rescue -> no healing of the feud -> no cooperation between the Ñoldorin princes -> no agreement as to who would be the king -> more tensions (war?) -> victory of Morgoth through the Ñoldor’s’ own incapacity to work together…

And finally, the rescue of Maedhros and the latter’s surrendering of the crown are not only very emotional but also heavily symbolic, way too much to not exist ; they convey messages that are at the core of the whole story of the Ñoldor.

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