When we talk about the cruelest villain in the whole Middle-earth – Melkor (or rather Morgoth) that is – we might be inclined to think that he is one of a kind in the whole of Ёa. However, if you take a closer look, it’s not exactly so. Melkor is indeed a mighty evil spirit that virtually no one can rival, but a lot of his traces can be surprisingly seen in the eldest son of Finwё and the greatest of the Noldor – in Fëanor. A careful look will reveal that these two have more in common than seems at first sight.
The first similarity that strikes as the one being right on the surface is that both – Melkor and Fëanor are the greatest representatives of their kindreds. When we first meet Melkor, one of the things we learn about him straight away is that «to Melkor among the Ainur had been given the greatest gifts of power and knowledge» (Silmarillion, p. 4). Later we hear Ilúvatar himself saying that «mighty are the Ainur and mightiest among them is Melkor» (Silmarillion, p. 5). This greatness can seem a wonderful gift indeed, but Tolkien clearly shows us that it’s not the case. Having a share in all the knowledge other Ainur have, Melkor is still not content: he wishes total dominion and an increase in his own glory. His greatness breeds arrogance and thus impatience, possessiveness, selfishness, desire to master and subdue others to his will. Rather than being with his brethren, Melkor prefers his own company. His burning desire to create things of his design is based not on his wish to improve the world or make it a better place, but on his selfish ambition to master, increase his own power and challenge Ilúvatar himself:
He had gone often alone into the void places seeking the Imperishable Flame; for desire grew hot within him to bring into Being things of his own, and it seemed to him that Ilúvatar took no thought for the Void, and he was impatient of its emptiness.
(Silmarillion, p. 4)
While being alone Melkor has a good chance to think without distraction, look into his own heart and there’s no better environment for conceiving secret things of his own imaginings that differ from those of others. Melkor’s seclusion is the first sign of his being at odds with the other Ainur, distancing himself from them and thus taking a step towards the darkness.
Fëanor comes into the tale much later than Melkor, but the initial similarity is striking:
Fëanor was the mightiest in skill of word and of hand, more learned than his brothers.
(Silmarillion, p. 60)
Such close resemblance is emphasised by Tolkien’s using the same word – mighty – to describe both of them, as well as the cleverest-among-his-brothers pattern. In Fëanor we see a character who stands out among his kin, possesses more knowledge than any of them and is more gifted than they are. Fëanor’s position among the Elves is the same as Melkor’s among the Ainur. Having already met Melkor and learnt about what his greatness breeds, we might as well watch out when Fëanor is around.
The first worrying sign comes when we learn that «Fëanor was driven by the fire of his own heart only, working ever swiftly and alone» (Silmarillion, p. 67). Just like Melkor Fëanor needs and wishes no company. While on the one hand it can stand for self-sufficiency and independence, which are not bad at all, on the other hand and in the context of Arda this seclusion is the sign of not fitting in, distancing from the kin and using ones privacy to plot things in secret.
In Fëanor we can also see the traces of Melkor’s impatience and restlessness:
Fëanor and his sons abode seldom in one place for long, but travelled far and wide upon the confines of Valinor, going even to the borders of the Dark and the cold shores of the Outer Sea, seeking the unknown.
(Silmarillion, p. 62)
Seldom were the hands and mind of Fëanor at rest.
(Silmarillion, p. 65)
Looking for the unknown, never sitting still, constantly at work, always on the go. Fëanor is restless, his impatience is growing. His greatness is slowly working its way towards arrogance and through it – to possessiveness, selfishness, pride and desire to master. As well pointed out by Shawn E. Marchese and Alan Sisto from The Prancing Pony Podcast, Fëanor is described as masterful and subtle (1). The same-rooted words are used about Melkor and neither is a positive characteristic. Masterful, among others, describes someone willing to dominate people and subtle is often the synonym for cunning. Neither Melkor, nor Fëanor wish to understand the minds of others. They rather want to be their lords and end up looking down on practically everyone around them.
Their reactions to the Silmarils is the embodiment of possessiveness at its highest. Having created the jewels, Fëanor becomes attached to them. But later this attachment grows into «greedy love». Fëanor’s own creation starts possessing him, becomes his master. When Melkor saw the jewels «he lusted for the Silmarils, and the very memory of their radiance was a gnawing fire in his heart» (Silmarillion, p. 69-70). Both attitudes remind an obsession more than anything else. Melkor and Fëanor not only lust for the jewels themselves, but also for their light. They’re driven by desire to possess the light rather than live peacefully in its radiance.
This poisonous combination of pride, restlessness and possessiveness in Melkor and Fëanor is very unhealthy. Among the bliss of Aman the storm is gathering from the lack of harmony and inner peace.
Disharmony becomes the root of all evil in Arda. It’s connected with greatness and the desire of the great to put their exceptional skills and knowledge to action. Hence restlessness and impatience as direct consequences of disharmony which leads to rebellion. The two geniuses feel underestimated, underrated and generally misunderstood. Both – Melkor and Fëanor rebel against the authority directly above them: Melkor rises against Ilúvatar and Fëanor – against the Valar. Both revolts involve causing substantial discord, a lot of others attuning to disharmony and strife, and both have far-reaching consequences for the whole of Arda for many an age. Based on arrogance, the rebels’ disrespect of authority and a shameless challenge to those in power points to the extreme levels of self-assurance, egocentricity and pride.
In the context of rebellion it’s curious how Melkor and Fëanor use words to sow the seeds of unrest. In Melkor’s case it’s music, that starts the discord during Ainulindalё. Knowing no words at the time of creation, Melkor applies another instrument available to him at that moment: his music. Using vigour, loudness and catching the singers nearby at unawareness Melkor forces them to attune to his music almost making them think that it was their own choice. When in Aman, Melkor uses words cunningly and artfully to get the Noldor murmuring. The Elves don’t even perceive his words as lies, but rather as a genuine counsel and wise advice:
Melkor would often walk among them, and amid his fair words others were woven, so subtly that many who heard them believed in recollection that they arose from their own thought.
(Silmarillion, p. 69)
Knowing exactly what to say and how to say it Melkor starts the strife which Fëanor develops further and worsens. The Noldo’s speech in Tirion is successful due to his power of words. It’s thanks to his passionate and art that he finally persuades the Noldor to leave Valinor and go to Middle-earth:
Fëanor was a master of words, and his tongue had great power over hearts when he would use it.
(Silmarillion, p. 87)
Words have a great power over minds and when put skillfully into speech, they have a fantastic effect. Finarfin isn’t very successful at persuading the Noldor to stay. Wise though he is, he lacks the same art with words that Fëanor has and thus all his noble attempts to prevent evil fail.
All these qualities are brewed and heated all the time on the inner fires of our characters’ spirits. Fëanor leaves us doubtless as to the nature of his self. His name is translated as Spirit of Fire and was given to him by his mother Miriel, who saw and perceived her son’s nature. We see that he «grew swiftly, as if a secret fire were kindled within him» and sometimes «the fire of his heart grew too hot» (Silmarillion, p. 64-65). Tolkien very often uses fiery vocabulary to talk about Fëanor. Words like burn, fire, fierce, hot only add up to the image of Fëanor’s impulsive nature. Just imagine the look he gives Melkor when the Ainu comes to Formenos:
Fëanor looked upon Melkor with eyes that burned through his fair semblance and pierced the cloaks of his mind.
(Silmarillion, p. 74)
Stirring up the fire can be very dangerous. Fëanor’s inner fire is the driving force in the basis of his creations. But on the other hand these flames consume Fëanor, get out of control and take hold of the Elf rather than him taking hold of the fire. Fëanor is surrounded by lights in the most crucial moment of his life – when he arouses the Noldor for the journey to Middle-earth («…and the hill and all the stairs and streets that climbed upon it were lit with the light of many torches that each one bore in hand» – Silmarillion, p. 87). Fire is his element and it’s no wonder he’s surrounded by it when he rebels against the Valar and a turning point in the Noldors’ lives comes. Later on Fëanor burns Teleri’s ships when he’s reluctant to send them for Fingolfin and his people. He could have drowned them or left them where they were. But instead he chooses to destroy them by means of burning. Even in his death Fëanor cannot be separated from fire. He’s killed by the Balrogs, whose weapon is a fiery whip, and when he dies, nothing is left of him – just ashes. Fire finally overcomes him.
Melkor is never explicitly referred to as having the spirit of fire. However, there are various hints that point to his exceptional connection with it. When he descends into Arda, he surrounds himself by fire:
…but because of his mood and the malice that burned in him that form was dark and terrible. And he descended upon Arda in power and majesty greater than any other of the Valar, as a mountain that wades in the sea and has its head above the clouds and is clad in ice and crowned with smoke and fire; and the light of the eyes of Melkor was like a flame that withers with heat and pierces with a deadly cold.
(Silmarillion, p. 11-12)
Melkor hath devised heats and fires without restraint.
(Silmarillion, p. 8)
The beginning of Melkor’s abode in Arda is rather heated. Besides, we learn that he kindles fires and «descended through fire and wrath into a great burning, down into Darkness» (Silmarillion, p. 23). Just like with Fëanor Tolkien uses a lot of fiery language to talk about Melkor, and we understand that it’s definitely present abundantly in his nature. Alongside all these Melkor seems to be especially fond of mastering flames in Arda (just think Dagor Bragollach and rivers of fire) so that he even surrounds himself with the Balrogs who carry fiery whips and originally were spirits of fire. As opposed to Fëanor, who at least gets something good out of his inner fire, Melkor’s flame is destructive from the very start and is applied to ruining, causing fear and marring.
Fire is uncontrollable and hard to master. It seems likely that it will (forcefully) master you rather than you learn to govern it. Fire means light as well as heat and as noticed by Verlyn Flieger, the appearance of fire points to some changes that are to come (2). While warmth is a positive notion, heat is not. It’s an extreme condition that withers, dries and ruins. Fëanor appears in Aman at approximately the same time that Melkor reappears there and even though these two are not in one team, their presence leads to eventual rack and ruin.
Being so similar it’s only natural that from the very start the attitude of these two towards each other is not much different: Fëanor and Melkor hate each other with all their hearts. Fëanor has all the reasons to choose Melkor as his bête noir after the latter slayed his father and stole the Silmarils. But this hatred started way earlier. In his turn Melkor hated all the Eldar but Fëanor did have a special place in his black list. I wonder if it might be a rivalry between the greatest Elf and the greatest Ainu? One thinks that the other will hinder his plans or be a serious obstacle. It might also be that while the opposites attract, the similarities don’t. Melkor and Fëanor feel too similar, Aman is too small for such great beings and breathing the same air in a closed space is unbearable to them.
The similarities in character are passed on to the similarities in actions. It’s interesting how some of Melkor’s and Fëanor’s deeds seem to be reflecting one another. First, both are exceptionally good at keeping back words. When Melkor is freed from his captivity he hides his evil thoughts on seeing the majestic Valar and the Eldar:
Then he looked upon their glory and their bliss, and envy was in his heart; he looked upon the Children of Ilúvatar that sat at the feet of the mighty, and hatred filled him; he looked upon the wealth of bright gems, and he lusted for them; but he hid his thoughts and postponed his vengeance.
(Silmarillion, p. 66)
When reconciling with Fingolfin Fëanor seems to be doing exactly the same thing. While Fingolfin is genuinely ready to forgive his half-brother and promises to follow him, Fëanor is not that eager. His reserved handshake (Fëanor took his hand in silence. – Silmarillion, p. 79), scarce words (So be it. – ibid.) and cold manner hint that his real feelings are directly the opposite. With Fëanor and Melkor not opening their minds fully, it can mean only one thing: their real thoughts are not as pure as they should be.
Another deed, which is already a serious crime, is the thefts Melkor and Fëanor commit. Their nature is strikingly similar. Melkor steals the Silmarils – the jewels dear to Fëanor which he won’t be able to remake. They’re a unique creation – something that Fëanor could only make once. When Melkor steals the Silmarils, he deprives Fëanor of two important and precious things – the jewels themselves and also of his father: when taking the Silmarils he slays Finwё, who was the only one to oppose Melkor and not to flee from him. When Fëanor sets to take the ships from the Teleri to cross to Middle-earth, he also meets with resistance from the Elves. For the Teleri their ships have the same value as the Silmarils for Fëanor. They’re a unique thing never to be remade – the jewels of the Teleri. In his violent theft Fëanor mirrors Melkor’s action by forcefully taking someone’s dearest creation and also spilling the blood of the innocent. Both acts are incredibly cruel and selfish, pointing out to the individuals (one – evil to the core and another – desperate) who are stopped by nothing in fulfilling their selfish desires.
It’s no surprise then that the two end up in the same way: Fëanor goes to Mandos to stay there forever and Melkor is thrown beyond the Doors of Night never to be seen in Arda. Both are guarded with special care. However, the seeds of evil sown by Melkor and Fëanor continued to sprout in Arda for long an age.
Inspiration for this essay is courtesy of The Prancing Pony Podcast.
(1) The Prancing Pony Podcast – Episode 13.
(2) Verlyn Flieger – Splintered Light: Tolkien’s World, Revised Edition; chapter 12 ‘Light and Heat’ (Kindle Edition).
- J. R. R. Tolkien – The Silmarillion (edited by Christopher Tolkien); HarperCollinsPublishers; London; 1999.
- The Prancing Pony Podcast.
- Verlyn Flieger – Splintered Light: Tolkien’s World, Revised Edition; The Kent State University Press; 2002 (Kindle Edition).
Featured image – Creative Common Licence found at Pixabay.