Arda is full of characters who remain somewhat in the background and occupy only a small space in the narrative. However, once you delve deeper, they appear to have striking personalities and remarkable stories. In the present essay I would like to talk about one of such characters – Finarfin. 

There’s a popular belief among many readers of The Silmarillion, that Finarfin is a dull character with a weak personality. It’s true that he’s not as much in the forefront of the events as his brothers are, and thus is often dismissed as boring. However, such a label is not quite just. Let’s first get to know Finarfin a bit better: 

Finarfin was the fairest, and the most wise of heart.

(Silmarillion, p. 60)

Finarfin was of his mother’s kind in mind and body, having the golden hair of the Vanyar, their noble and gentle temper, and their love of the Valar. 

(Unfinished Tales, p. 295)

These descriptions are enough to show clearly how different from the Noldor Finarfin is. Being half Vanya, half Noldo in blood, he seems to be a full Vanya in character and mindset. He’s too calm and peaceful as compared with his hot-tempered brothers Fëanor and Fingolfin, and even with the Noldor in general with their insatiable thirst for knowledge and restlessness. Thus said, it’s no wonder that Finarfin prefers the company of the Teleri to that of his kin: 

He often sought peace among the Teleri, whose language he learned. 

(Unfinished Tales, p. 296)

Finarfin’s attachment to the Teleri and his appreciation of their culture goes even further than spending time with them and learning their language. He becomes good friends with King Olwë’s sons and weds his daughter Eärwen. Thus he is not only Teleri’s friend, but is also related to them. It doesn’t seem to be a pure coincidence. 

Among all the Elven kindreds dwelling in Valinor the Vanyar and the Teleri are most content with their lives, contrary to the Noldor who always seek to improve their skills, gain more knowledge and generally never sit still. Being the son to the Noldorin king Finwë, Finarfin doesn’t really belong with the Noldor. He simply doesn’t fit. Even his full brother Fingolfin, who is also half Noldo, half Vanya, is more on the Noldorin side and shares more traits with them being totally his father’s son. 

Finarfin is content with his life as it is. His nature and peace of heart lie in his personal inner harmony that the Elf inherited from his Vanyarin mother Indis. He needs no power, wishes no leadership in anything and doesn’t aim at mastering others. Finarfin’s ultimate talent is to live in the present and draw a clear border between what matters and what doesn’t. All kinds of conflict are alien to Finarfin’s nature. He has nothing to do with the unrest that starts tearing the Noldor apart and eventually leads to their downfall:

As well as he could he kept aloof from the strife of his brothers and their estrangement from the Valar. 

(Unfinished Tales, p. 265)

His wisdom, total unambitiousness and calmness combined together keep Finarfin almost unaffected by the upcoming rebellion and it’s aftermath. His gentle character, which is seen by many as weakness, saves him a lot of trouble. That’s why I see his quiet nature as an ultimate inner strength. 

First of all, Finarfin’s harmony of spirit is unshakeable. He isn’t ambitious, doesn’t care for power and wealth. By valuing spiritual over material Finarfin makes himself virtually impossible to corrupt. That’s why when Melkor starts sowing his lies among the Noldor, he probably doesn’t even consider Finarfin as a tool in his device. Even if he does, Finarfin is left totally unimpressed and the major strife starts unfolding between Fëanor and Fingolfin. They both grow very proud and  this gives rise to serious tensions.  Knowing of no such thing as pride, Finarfin isn’t easily influenced or led astray.

It’s in Finarfin’s nature to rely on his opinion alone, and such independence is a shield that guards him from all the unwanted, evil influence. Consider this simple case of his reluctance to switch to the sound /s/ from /þ/: 

…Finarfin, however, loved the Vanyar (his mother’s people) and the Teleri, and in his house  þ was used, Finarfin being moved by Fëanor neither one way or the other but doing as he wished. 

(Peoples of Middle-earth, p. 338) 

Using the /þ/ sound is probably the only matter which Finarfin and Fëanor agree on. Even in such a seemingly small issue as choosing how to pronounce certain words, Finarfin sticks to the tradition, which is dear to him, and his own beliefs, not to someone else’s ideas. This example shows both – his appreciation of the Vanyarin and the Telerin cultures and his firm will. As far as the Noldor are concerned, Finarfin lands in the minority camp, which is not something new to him when it comes to his relationship with his father’s kin, but he still stands his ground firmly. In a way this might be the most prominent Noldorin trait in him: steadfastness. But his steadfastness is based upon his wisdom which saves it from turning into sheer stubbornness. 

During Fëanor’s rebellion and his inflamed speech in Tirion, Finarfin becomes opposed to all the Noldor again. He doesn’t support Fëanor and calls to Noldor’s common sense: 

Finarfin spoke softly, as was his wont, and sought to calm the Noldor, persuading them to pause and ponder ere deeds were done that could not be undone: and Orodreth, alone of his sons, spoke in like manner. 

(Silmarillion, p. 89)

In fact, Orodreth is the only one who supports Finarfin openly. Others either side with Fëanor, or speak against him harshly, or keep quiet at all. Let’s now think for a moment: the rebellion is soaring, the Noldor are overexcited, Finarfin is surrounded by fires and chaos, madness is spreading like a contagious disease, and still he decides to speak his mind when virtually nobody supports him, remains unaffected by the avalanche of raging emotions. Isn’t it strength? Isn’t speaking your true – critically different from the others’ – opinion openly more challenging than just keeping quiet and saying nothing? I daresay it’s not an easy thing to do at all! 

In the heat of the moment Noldor’s common sense is overpowered by Fëanor’s eloquence and passion. It leads to massive frenzy. But Finarfin, as in the case with Melkor’s lies, is left absolutely unimpressed. He doesn’t let feelings overcome him and keeps his head cool in a very heated moment, when emotions are overflowing and the exchange of harsh words nearly leads to violence. There seems to be a steel pivot inside him – something that helps Finarfin keep his feet firmly on the ground. He’s like a solid rock in a fast-moving current: nothing can shake his confidence and inner strength, self-sufficiency and common sense. 

Finarfin’s speech isn’t aimed at bending Noldor’s minds to his will: he just wants them to think carefully before they commit a folly. This ability of his to think before acting rather than act before thinking stems from his gentle, thoughtful nature. Finarfin, as opposed to Fëanor, never acts on impulse but takes the only right decision after much pondering. He’s the embodiment of calmness and coolness ready to withstand the chaos that sweeps Tirion and the Noldor.

Thus I believe that his eventual departure to Middle-earth is a thought-out decision. Just like Fingolfin he undertakes the journey purely for the sake of his people who wish to go to Middle-earth. It’s a very noble deed on Finarfin’s behalf as «most loath was he to depart» (Silmarillion, p. 90). He lacks any selfishness whatsoever and is ready to sacrifice for the sake of others. Isn’t it a quality of a true lord?

However, following the Kinslaying at Alqualondë and the Prophecy of the North Finarfin forsakes the March:

But in that hour Finarfin forsook the March, and turned back, being filled with grief and bitterness against the House of Fëanor, because of his kinship with Olwë of Alqualondë; and many of his people went with him, retracing their steps in sorrow, until they beheld once more the far beam of the Mindon upon Túna still shining in the night, and so came at last to Valinor.

(Silmarillion, p. 95)

Finarfin’s reasoning is perfectly clear: he doesn’t want to be part of this march any more. Seeing that nothing can stop Fëanor from fulfilling his terrible oath, Finarfin wants nothing of it. The Teleri mean a lot to him: he’s kin to these people, he’s their close friend, he loves their culture and  simply can’t stand seeing them dying and suffering unrighteously. That is another ultimate depiction of his strength. Finarfin isn’t ashamed to turn back, as earning the label of a coward from the other Noldor is probably the most minor form of grudge that he can get from them. It’s also not the fear of the Valar that makes Finarfin turn back, as those Noldor who are afraid of the Powers’ possible rage, decide to go on with the road. While most Elves continue to Middle-earth for fear, stubbornness or shame, Finarfin has enough inner strength to turn back and to acknowledge that following Fëanor was a mistake. He shows himself as a flexible and sensible Elf, able to take right decisions and change the course of his actions when necessary. 

Finarfin does come back to Valinor, but if you think carefully he doesn’t exactly return to paradise. His children continue to Middle-earth, Valinor is darkened, the Valar and the Elves are dismayed, there’s only one tithe of the formerly great Noldor left and there’s overall confusion. Finarfin doesn’t know what he’s going back to – he can’t foretell the reaction of the Valar and the other Elves to his homecoming, he doesn’t know what’s going on in the formerly blissful realm and, above all, he doesn’t know what kind of life is in store for him in Valinor.

I think that the road Finarfin chooses in the end is no less perilous and dark than the road to Middle-earth. When in Valinor and pardoned by the Valar Finarfin is set to rule the remnants of the Noldor and undertakes the difficult task of rebuilding their lives from scratch, bringing them back to normal and putting the pieces of their broken happiness back together. The peace of the Blessed Realm was poisoned, the relationship – soured and the safety – shaken. As the King of the Noldor in Valinor Finarfin needs to make a lot of effort to mend what has been so rudely broken. I don’t think a coward or a weakling can achieve such a difficult task. As we can see later in The Silmarillion, Finarfin not only undertakes it with all his courage and wisdom, but also succeeds.

Finarfin is a vivid example of a background hero. His strength is soft and unobtrusive, it’s not on the surface and not visible at first sight. No one sees him as anything special, but once you get deeper into his character, you realise that what on the surface seems as weakness and dullness, in reality is great strength deep inside.

Works consulted:

  1. J. R. R. Tolkien – The Silmarillion (edited by Christopher Tolkien); HarperCollinsPublishers; London; 1999.
  2. J. R. R. Tolkien – Unfinished Tales of Númenor and Middle-earth (edited by Christopher Tolkien); HarperCollinsPublishers; London; 1998.
  3. J. R. R. Tolkien, Christopher Tolkien – The Peoples of Middle-earth; HarperCollinsPublishers; London; 2015.


Featured image – Creative Common Licence found at Pixabay.

9 thoughts on “Finarfin: soft strength.

  1. Thanks for this. I have to admit I have never given Finarfin much thought before. But now I think we can see much of his wisdom coming through in Finrod. I particularly liked your attention to the passage from ‘The Shibboleth of Fëanor’ in ‘The Peoples of Middle-earth.’

    1. Thank you very much, Tom! He’s a hero-in-the-shadows indeed. I’ve always felt a bit sorry that he’s often dismissed as boring, weak or even a coward, so decided to try and show that he can be seen differently. It was fun to get bits of information about him from various sources.

  2. Great discussion of an often overlooked character! Like Tom, I haven’t given him much thought either, though I sensed there was a great guy in there somewhere. Until now, I’ve mostly seen him as a factor in the background of Finrod and Orodreth.

    I really appreciated the insight on how his physical appearance reveals something of his personality; he looks and acts more Vanyarin than Noldorin, which reminds me of Túrin’s resemblance to Morwen. But even through the strife of his brothers, Finarfin generally stays out of it … and is rewarded, it seems, with a kingship.

    And the linguistic bit from the “Shibboleth” is wonderful! So often in Tolkien’s world, language reveals something deeper in the mindset of a person or people, and the fact that he went along with the shift to þ — despite not wanting to — speaks volumes.

    Back to Finrod and Orodreth: I’m fascinated how much they each display incomplete halves of their father’s personality. Finrod strikes me as wise but bold, not gentle; embracing exile for the sake of following Turgon in the “Flight of the Noldor” and eventually leaving Nargothrond to aid Beren’s quest (neither of which is excellent judgment, though I can’t fault him for either decision). Orodreth, on the other hand, in his final days as ruler of Nargothrond, displays Finarfin’s gentleness to a fault (meekness, really) and a lack of wisdom. Both of them are slain, whereas Finarfin, who had a better combination of both traits, remains whole in the Undying Lands.

    1. I just reread this and realize that I had the bit from the “Shibboleth” backwards, didn’t I? þ was the original letter, and Finarfin retained it as Fëanor did, but for reasons of tradition, not personal pride. O, hasty clicking of the “Post Comment” button!

    2. That’s a great observation on Finrod and Orodreth! I’ve never thought of their characters this way, and it seems that Finrod’s and Orodreth’s good traits – being noble and gentle respectively – reach extreme levels in them. Thus, not being combined with the other trait, they seem to disrupt the inner balance. Finarfin, on the other hand, is very balanced. It seems that any extremes – even if they concern a good quality – are never good.
      I also love how small details, especially linguistic ones, help understand a character better and mean so much! They might seem unimportant at first sight, but once you dig deeper, they reveal so much.

      1. Great point about even good qualities being bad when taken to extremes. I’m reminded strangely of Gandalf’s fear of the Ring and how it would make its way into his heart through “pity for weakness and the desire of strength to do good.” Even that great selfless love of Olórin, it seems, could lead to something bad with limitless power attached to it.

      2. There are indeed traits of this good-gone-bad possibility in Gandalf. Strange as it may seem, even pity can become bad when extreme.

  3. Great post!
    I personally think that the discussion of the three brothers before the flight of the Noldor is one of the highest points in the Silmarillion. Tolkien manages to put truth and lies in the words of all of them, to the point that when I read it I kept thinking, “I’m going crazy! Who’s right and who’s wrotng???”
    I think that Tolkien acieved this by giving each of the brothers a position that is partly sharable and understandable, with fiery Feanor and cool Finarfin on the far sides and Fingolfin in the middle position. In this way, Tolkien has the possibiltyt to shaw the entire spectrum of how people reacts to terrible events. All three reactions are believeable and understandable, and this is what makes that such a powerful episode in my opinion.
    In many respectcs, Finarfin is the embodiment of what I love in Tolkien’s stories and aesthetics: he has such an alternative position and vision towards valor. To Tolkine, valour is more in the preservasion of life than in the fight for it. Protecting, healing, dabating to find a solution is more valuable to him than fighting, striking, revanging… even if these positions too have a value in life and they shouldn’t be shy away of preconcept.
    In this respect, Finarfin is very much like Sam: a quiete hero.

    1. Thank you, Sarah!
      Finarfin is one of my favourite characters of the entire Legendarium. What I love about him is exactly what you’re talking about: there are situations when keeping calm is more difficult than drawing out a sword and starting a fight. His leadership is in wisdom, in the ability to take reasonable decisions under great pressure and to keep his head cool when the world around him is going crazy. That’s what I absolutely love about him!

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