Fëanor the Spirit of Fire was the most gifted of all the Elves in linguistic lore. He could use language so well that his speeches affected those who heard them and inspired them to do different, though not always sensible, things. Thus, being gifted with words and able to use them potently, Finwë’s eldest son was also exceptionally good at insulting others. As a true loremaster, Fëanor was very sensitive to all language matters. When the sound /þ/* was substituted with /s/ in Quenya, some adapted to it, while some did not. For Fëanor the usage of /þ/ was a personal matter as it was the sound his mother had used in her speech. So when most Elves switched to /s/, he could not keep silent and answering his sons’ question about why so many of their kindred used /s/ said to them: ‘Take no heed! We speak as is right, and as King Finwë himself did before he was led astray. We are his heirs by right and the elder house. Let them sá-sí, if they can speak no better’. (Peoples of Middle-earth, p. 336).

A linguist is very linguistic (and very poisonous) in his reaction. We could barely expect anything else from Fëanor, couldn’t we? This, in fact, is one of the mildest things the Elf uttered when he wished to express his disagreement or dissatisfaction. The true heart of his insulting talent lay in the Noldo’s ability to bestow various epithets on those he considered worthy of them.

Growing haughty and arrogant, Fëanor recognised no authorities, and it seems that the rank of a person he was directing his insult at or the place where he was doing it was of no importance to the Noldo as long as he had something poisonous to say. The fire within him burnt so fiercely that, when Fëanor was angered, his words became sharp like swords and aimed with the precision of the most skilled word swordsman.

Heated up by Melkor’s lies about Fingolfin’s wish to be the King of the Noldor in his stead, Fëanor wasted no time, got armed, walked into the hall full of the Elves where Finwë was holding a council and poked his brother’s chest with a sword: ‘See, half-brother!’ he said. ‘This is sharper than thy tongue. Try but once more to usurp my place and the love of my father, and maybe it will rid the Noldor of one who seeks to be the master of thralls.’ (Silmarillion, p. 72).

There is a jealous type in front of us, isn’t there? Such words are not a simple insult, but a downright threat. In this edgy situation Fingolfin was wise and sensible enough to walk away without saying a single word, and such disregard to his person must have enraged Fëanor even more. The threat aside, the key insult here is in the word ‘thrall’. It becomes a frequent reference Fëanor applies to the Elves of Aman: his perception is clouded by Melkor’s words, so he begins to believe that the Eldar are held in the Blessed Realm as thralls by the Valar forgetting that he is one of them and, then, a thrall, too. In the aforementioned situation the Elf goes as far as calling his kindred thralls for everyone to hear in the hall full of the Noldor, right in front of King Finwë. That does not sound exactly like a compliment, does it?

Another unflattering epithet is readily given by Fëanor to the Teleri when they refuse to aid the Noldor in their march to Middle-earth and do not lend their white ships to them. Enraged, Fëanor crushes his desperation and anger on Olwë: ‘Yet you were glad indeed to receive our aid when you came at last to these shores, fainthearted loiterers, and wellnigh emptyhanded. In huts on the beaches would you be dwelling still, had not the Noldor carved out your haven and toiled upon your walls.’ (Silmarillion, pp. 92-93).

The Teleri were the last Elves to arrive in Aman from Middle-earth after Oromë found them and the Valar summoned the Firstborn Children of Ilúvatar to Valinor. Such a delay is not a bad thing at all, and the Teleri used their time in Middle-earth well definitely not loitering in a fainthearted manner. Fëanor’s twist of this event is far from being accurate. Seriously, how arrogant can one get? The Teleri were wise enough not to meddle into the quarrels of the Noldor being too dignified for that and not caring an atom about their turf battles. They also have enough courage to rebuke the Noldor’s folly. In return the Teleri are represented as simpletons unable to build their own houses (though perfectly capable of constructing fair ships) and loitering slowcoaches. Well, that is not really nice, Fëanor.

Once Fëanor begins, he becomes unstoppable. After stealing the Telerin ships and killing a lot of the mariners, the Noldor sailed to Middle-earth and landed in the Firth of Drengist. Maedhros’s suggestion to send the ships back for the remaining Elves was met with Fëanor’s uproar: ‘What I have left behind I count now no loss; needless baggage on the road it has proved. Let those that cursed my name, curse me still, and whine their way back to the cages of the Valar! Let the ships burn!’ (Silmarillion, p. 97).

The wannabe master of thralls and his subjects (Fingolfin and his people that is) are granted yet another unflattering nickname. It is worth mentioning here that the needless baggage did not then whine their way back to the cages of the Valar but challenged the colds of Helcaraxë to arrive in Middle-earth with more triumph and stronger guts than Fëanor could ever dream of.

The epithet which takes the biscuit in the list of affronts courtesy of Fëanor’s is the one directed at none other than Melkor: ‘Get thee gone from my gate, thou jail-crow of Mandos!’ And he shut the doors of his house in the face of the mightiest of all the dwellers in Eä. (Silmarillion, p. 74).

Of all the insults uttered by Fëanor this one displays his arrogance in its most astonishing degree. Remember that Fëanor had no authorities?  Now we see that he, indeed, had none. Even Melkor was rendered speechless. Well done, Fëanor!


*roughly the equivalent of the voiceless sound /θ/ represented by th in English.

Works consulted:

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

Featured image: Ivan Aivazovsky – Ships in a Storm (Wikimedia Commons)

21 thoughts on “His sharp tongue or Fëanor’s talent to insult.

  1. Tolkien surely crafted his characters with much attention to detail. Thank you for yet another entertaining post, Olga.

  2. “Thralls” conspicuously contains a /θ/. Elves spent a lot of time their projects when they wanted to fully express their elven-craft. How long do you suppose Fëanor thought about his insults before he passed them off as extemporaneous zingers? A month each?

    1. Indeed 🙂
      A month is such a short time for Elves, but probably enough to come up with “fainthearted loiterers” or “jail-crow of Mandos”. And he surely kept a special notebook which he could consult before seeing someone so as to be prepared. “Let’s see what I’ve made up for my brother? Mmm, master of thralls would do”.

      1. I once had an app: Shakespearean Insult Generator which was fun and never put to use in earnest. And it pained in comparison to what Fëanor wickedly crafted. And yet as fun and humorous, they always seem poisonous.

        My preference is more more the direct San Gamgee quips, but this has been a very good look at the level of prideful arrogance and disdain personified in Fëanor.

        Thank you Olga.

  3. Hi Olga, I enjoyed this piece! I’ve not been doing much Tolkien research lately but decided to sit down yesterday and do a little and your post landed so I thought I’d bite 🙂

    If you look at those lines ‘Take no heed! We speak as is right, and as King Finwë himself did before he was led astray. We are his heirs by right and the elder house. Let them sá-sí, if they can speak no better’.

    He uses the word ‘right’ twice. I believe that’s Tolkien’s way of hinting at something.You find in the etymology of the word ‘right’, ‘straight’. This is the opposite to the twisting of the Enemy- ie the Ring. It is the Straight Road. However, in both uses it is Tolkien’s way of linking right as in ‘correct’ with ‘right to, what someone deserves, morally just claim’. We have a clue as to the relationship between language and inheritance.
    But there is something more subtle going on. Feanor is correct, and yet his actions lead to divisions and the loss of inherited lore. The political contention of the Shibboleth is framed as the letter of the law versus the
    spirit of the law. Both the House of Finarfin and Galadriel make their decisions to use (th) based on emotional reactions, not on the correctness of lore. One for the love of their kinship with the Vanyar and Teleri and the
    other for her dislike of Feanor. It is rescuing defeat from the jaws of victory. This is the converse of Gollum seizing the ring and leading to its destruction. It is another illustration of how even seemingly reasonable acts,
    or expediency, can lead to downfall. And conversely, seemingly evil acts can lead to victory over evil. A paradox which is best illustrated in the Akkallabeth and the escape of Elendil et al. They have to cut down trees to build ships in order to escape and preserve the Tree of lineage, (which finds physical expression in Nimloth). You have to destroy the tree to preserve it. Thus is the nature of the Fallen world.
    Melkor’s lies have led to the perversion of Feanor. He has blinded Feanor to the spirit of the law. ‘We speak as is right’ denotes the letter of the law. ‘We are his heirs by right’ denotes the spirit, which is the familial kinship. In short Feanor loves lore and language (Subcreaction) more than Creation. Tolkien is giving himself a salutary warning: Art versus Work/Family duty, aka A Secret Vice.
    Feanor’s claim as to the elder house finds an echo in Melkor who was the first spirit created by Eru. It is a claim which has no rational argument other than primacy being a function of time. Much like Feanor’s objection to his father taking Indis as his second wife and his half brothers and his own status of first born to Finwe. The lesson is, there is only one primacy, and that is with Eru. All else are followers. A Straight line can be drawn between any one point in history and the origin: Eru. That is the Straight Road and the true path of spiritual orientation. Any other path is bewildered within the limited horizons of the labyrinth of the Tree of Tales.

    Do we have any explanation of the curious words ‘Let them sá-sí’? I have a theory regards that and it involves the linguistic element ‘ai’ which I have identified as being associated with weaving and the Tree of Tales (language). And we find support in the story of Feanor’s mother, the Needlewoman Miriel. The splitting of the element ‘ai’ into sá-sí is a visual metaphor which is further illustrated in the splitting of the tree of lineage, which is very much the underlying theme of the rancorous political factions.

    1. Hi Carl!
      It’s great to hear from you! Thank you for your insightful comment.
      I have a theory about sá-sí. This sequence sounds softer that if it were interdental, and this softness is reminiscent of speaking in a lisping way — in both ways: as a defect of speech and an intentional manner of speaking. If you add other vowels to s, they don’t sound the same way sá-sí does.

      1. Ah interesting idea…the reverse of the lisp sound. I never thought of it that way. In replacing th with s he is alluding to the lisp. Yes, I think may well be what Tolkien has in mind. But if he is, he is suggesting that those (in context unreasonably) holding onto the th sound as having impediment of speech. How is sá-sí pronounced? ..the vowels?

      2. Right, like the speech defect and also the manner when you intentionally speak like you do to babies or when something is so cute that you start speaking in this sweet, sugary fashion.
        I think they must be /a/ and /i/sounds — the short ones, like in English words ‘up’ and ‘sit’.

  4. Yes, I think something like that is going on. Have you read ‘A Secret Vice’ Fimi & Higgins? The letters ‘a’ and ‘i’ featured in studies by Otto Jesperson and Edward Sapir about their phonetic fitness to the concept of size in both. I had identified that the two letters were linked before I read the Fimi and Higgins. I’d also identified the roles of the letters a and i in Tolkien’s works- well at least in my theory. So you’re saying that the ‘s’ functions as a kind of Lallwörten? A quote from the book……”By lall-words are meant such words as are formed by children in their earliest age, which accounts for the simple structure of these words. A is the most frequent vowel, the labials the most frequent consonants. Reduplication is common. Lall-words are an international linguistic phenomenon, and occur in almost identical forms in the most different quarters with the same sense, although there are exceptions to this rule. They naturally refer to persons and things that are of special importance to infants, and accordingly the most common lall-words are those denoting parents or other relatives, e.g. Gr. μάμμη, μάμμα ‘mamma’, Lat. mamma, OSlav. mama, Lith. mãma, Ir. mam; OHG muoma ‘Muhme’, Skr. māma-h ‘uncle’, Arm. mam ‘grandmother’; Gr. πάππα ‘papa’, Lat. pappa; Skr. tata ‘father’, Gr. ἄττα, Lat. atta, Goth. atta. (1919, p. xxxi)” (Tolkien, J. R. R.. A Secret Vice: Tolkien on Invented Languages).

  5. I read it when I’m on my exercise bike ha!…to stop me dying of boredom..I must have read most of it 4 times now already. I need to sit down again and go through thoroughly making notes. I might start a blog on WordPress one day…I like the format.

    1. It’s a great way to combine the good and the good 😀 I love the depth of the book, so also want to explore it more thoroughly.
      Wordpress is a great platform for blogging! Very convenient, easy to manage as well as popular among bloggers.

  6. “It is worth mentioning here that the needless baggage did not then whine their way back to the cages of the Valar”

    This comment however shows that Feanor thought they would return to Tirion. Often I see people commenting that Feanor meant Fingolfin and the others to die on Helcaraxe which wasn’t the case.

    I wonder where Feanor came up with word thrall. What did mean in context in perfection of Aman and before time slavery had occurred even in Middle-Earth since neither Men were born or orcs yet made.

    1. It seems that yes, Fëanor just wanted them to return in shame. I doubt he expected them to brave Helcaraxë and continue with their journey. What Fingolfin and others did deserves a lot of respect: that did demand bravery.

      That’s a good question about “thrall”. I think it might have come from his own feelings: he didn’t seem to feel free in Aman, felt as if he was in a cage, kept there by the Valar by force. Or, maybe, Melkor was the one who planted the idea and the word in his head.

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