Interrupted feasts make a recurring theme in Tolkien. Some of these are minor interruptions, like Dwarvish intrusions into Elvish merrymakings in Mirkwood: they cause mostly annoyance to the Elves, rather than present a serious threat. Other feast interruptions to be found in Tolkien’s tales are far from being annoying trifles and have serious social implications.
Social significance of intrusions into a mead-hall is explicitly shown in Beowulf. Being the place of great public importance where a lot of feasts, alongside other events, are held, Heorot is the centre of the Danes’ interaction, values, peace and joy. Monster Grendel is infuriated by the sounds of harps coming from Heorot and launches his attacks on the once safe mead-hall of the Danes. These grievous deeds have serious social implications: his assaults on the mead-hall are aimed not just at the place itself or its dwellers, but straight at the society and their values. Michael Alexander thus describes Heorot:
Human society is at peace in Heorot and at war in Sweden and Frisia. Hrothgar’s hall, Heorot, is the scene of the sharing of food, drink and gold, and the house of all that stable and venerable in human life and society — order, custom, compliment, ceremony, feasting, poetry, laughter, and the giving and receiving of treasure and vows.
(Beowulf, p. xxvii-xxviii)
Thus Grendel’s attacks on Heorot are the attacks on these very qualities of the mead-hall. Its safety is badly shaken by his continuous assaults, and the once happy and content society of the Danes turns into frightened and anxious. The walls of Heorot are no longer safe: they offer no protection for their indwellers any more. Thus the peace is shattered not only inside the walls, but also inside people’s hearts: the small society becomes very vulnerable.
Tolkien used socially important intrusions into realms, and thus their societies, in The Silmarillion, but his approach was different from Beowulf’s poet’s with an important detail: the most meaningful intrusions were one-time rather than continuous actions, and they took place during prominent feasts, thus increasing their social impact and significance manifold.
Valinor was a safe and blissful realm established by the Valar in the land of Aman. The Powers themselves and the Eldar dwelt there in peace, which soon became poisoned. As Melkor was released from imprisonment, he, full of envy and hate, began sowing lies among the Elves, especially aimed at the Noldor, thus making them grow restless and quarrelsome. After Fëanor drew a sword against Fingolfin and Melkor’s devices became uncovered, the Dark Vala fled, preparing his final strike to the hateful land and people.
Together with Ungoliant Melkor cast his final blow with great malice and cruel precision: the pair destroyed the Two Trees of Valinor during a feast, which Melkor was well aware of. Times were set by Yavanna for the flowering and ripening of living things in Valinor, and when time came to gather the first harvest, the feast was made in praise of Eru:
This now was the hour, and Manwë decreed a feast more glorious than any that had been held since the coming of the Eldar to Aman. For though the escape of Melkor portended toils and sorrows to come, and indeed none could tell what further hurts would be done to Arda ere he could be subdued again, at this time Manwë designed to heal the evil that had arisen among the Noldor; and all were bidden to come to his halls upon Taniquetil, there to put aside the griefs that lay between their princes, and forget utterly the lies of their Enemy.
(Silmarillion, p. 78)
Manwë’s intentions were very noble and good, but Melkor made all of his designs go astray. The destruction of the Two Trees became a severe blow to the very essence of Aman. The Trees were the source of light and great delight to the dwellers of the Blessed Realm. That was the light that brought joy and enlightenment: because of their sojourn in the company of the Valar and in the light of the Two Trees the Elves of Valinor were reckoned wiser and more noble than their kindred in Middle-earth. Telperion and Laurelin were the heart of the Blessed Realm, and their death caused darkness, temporary chaos and permanent far-reaching consequences.
Apart from achieving vengeance on those he hated, Melkor’s timing for his gruesome deed was cherry-picked and intentional. By interrupting the feast praising Eru and meaning to heal griefs, sorrows and strife, he made a direct attack on the very intentions of Manwë, the authority of Eru, the safety and values of Valinor. The biggest sorrow of Aman was caused during the biggest festival in its history, and the land which was once safe and joyful became covered in gloom, both physical and spiritual. Melkor attacked the very joy and happiness of Valinor, Manwë’s attempts to heal the feud among the Noldor, the peace of the society of the Blessed Realm. Once protected, Valinor missed a blow into its very heart.
With that intervention from Melkor Manwë’s feast had the effect opposite to the one that he had intended: the Noldor grew even more restless at the Darkening of Valinor and, with their grief and sorrow at the Trees’ destruction fuelled by Fëanor’s words, left Aman for Middle-earth rebelling against the Valar, becoming exiles and falling under the Doom of Mandos.
Thus Melkor’s vengeance was achieved. It was his custom to cast especially cruel blows to those he hated the most, and the Hidden Kingdom of Gondolin was no exception. The existence of the realm and Turgon caused a continuous vexation to Morgoth during the whole of the First Age. When, aided by Maeglin’s treason from within, he attacked Gondolin, it was during the time of festival:
The host of Morgoth came over the northern hills where the height was greatest and the watch least vigilant, and it came at night upon a time of festival, when all the people of Gondolin were upon the walls to await the rising sun, and sing their songs at its uplifting; for the morrow was the great feast that they named the Gates of Summer.
(Silmarillion, p. 290-291)
Gondolin was the last Elvish stronghold in Middle-earth to stand against Morgoth: its building was prompted and safe-guarded by Ulmo’s power, its location was unknown. But the treason from within led Morgoth to the most hated realm which he destroyed after a long and careful preparation. For hundreds of years Gondolin was the embodiment of everything beautiful and safe, totally different to the hardships and disquiet of Middle-earth under Morgoth’s yoke; it was the reflection of Tirion upon Túna in the land of Aman. Gondolin was an island of sanity and safety in the sea of raging wars and never-ending battles. But it was helpless in the face of a sudden onslaught: even the most valiant fighting could not help the city stand.
Both Valinor and Gondolin share traces with Heorot: strong, wealthy, ever full of light and mirth, carefree, untouched by outer wars and reckoning little of the world without, they fall victims to their own complacency. Both horrible attacks are aided and arranged from within. Even with darkness or wars in the world without, both realms were torn by small inside conflicts and strife, which was also the case with Heorot. While the tumults of the wider world could shake neither realm, the tumults from within shook them much harder and when it was least expected, leading to disaster.
The full circle of interrupted feasts closes when Eärendil reaches Valinor during the time of festival:
And he [Eärendil] went up alone into the land, and came into the Calacirya, and it seemed to him empty and silent; for even as Morgoth and Ungoliant came in ages past, so now Eärendil had come at a time of festival, and wellnigh all the Elvenfolk were gone to Valimar, or were gathered in the halls of Manwë upon Taniquetil, and few were left to keep watch upon the walls of Tirion.
(Silmarillion, p. 298)
Just like the streets of Tirion and Valimar were empty when Melkor and Ungoliant cast their attack leading to the Darkening of Valinor and Noldor’s exile, so Eärendil entered the land at the same time when the streets were empty and everyone was busy feasting. This interruption of the festival was totally opposite to the previous two. Instead of causing destruction it brought hope and healing to the society. It was after Eärendil’s arrival in Valinor at a great risk to himself and his prayer that the Valar sent an army to Middle-earth and defeated Morgoth in the War of Wrath. The exiled Noldor were pardoned and were again welcome to Valinor. The cycle was over. The healing came in the same way the sorrow did hundreds of years before. One interruption caused great grief and shut the doors of Valinor for the Noldor, while the other healed those griefs and opened the way for the Noldor back.
Many feasts in Tolkien’s tales are more than mere excuses for eating and merrymaking. They are important events that have clear social purposes. The interruption of these feasts has vital implications for societies bringing either sorrow, or hope.
- J. R. R. Tolkien – The Silmarillion (edited by Christopher Tolkien); HarperCollinsPublishers; London; 1999.
- M. Alexander – Beowulf (translation and introductory notes by Michael Alexander); Penguin; 2013.
Featured image: Bayeux Tapestry; scene43; banquet (Wikimedia Commons)