When it comes to stories by J. R. R. Tolkien, you can always rely on him in providing his readers with the most many-dimensional characters. There are rather few who are either absolutely good or absolutely evil: most individuals in the tales of Arda are rather complex and have their own — not always easy — fates. Maedhros, the eldest son of Fëanor, is definitely one of such characters.
Verily, certain actions of Fëanor’s sons deserve the righteous anger and disapproval, and Maedhros is not blameless in what the seven did driven by their oath and the desire to reclaim the Silmarils. However, his line of behaviour was very different from some of his brothers: even though he did take a very active part in the Second and Third Kinslayings and urged Maglor to steal the Silmarils after the War of Wrath, Maedhros also contributed a lot to the war against Morgoth (even though some of his reasons might have been purely personal), showed great wisdom in many of his actions and aimed at uniting the Elves in Middle-earth for their common good.
The whole character of Maedhros shows how strong mentally and physically he was. Not only was he called Maedhros the Tall, but he also stood tall in his deeds of valour and wisdom in Middle-earth. His resilience, strength and willpower can be exemplary to many. Even in the darkest hour of Fëanor’s treachery in Araman, Maedhros was the only one to stand aside when the ships were being burnt and remembered his friendships forged as far back as in the peaceful times in Valinor. Nor was he easily daunted by hardships. Maedhros’s torture at Thangorodrim did not break him, but rather turned him into a stronger and wiser person:
There Maedhros in time was healed; for the fire of life was hot within him, and his strength was of the ancient world, such as those possessed who were nurtured in Valinor. His body recovered from his torment and became hale, but the shadow of his pain was in his heart; and he lived to wield his sword with left hand more deadly than his right had been.
(Silmarillion, p. 125)
After Fingon’s rescuing him from Thangorodrim assuaged the hatred between the Houses of Fëanor and Fingolfin, Maedhros did his best to further improve the relationship between the Houses and repay his kinsman in the same manner. Not only did he relinquish the High Kingship to Fingolfin, but he also was on friendly terms with the Houses of Fingolfin and Finarfin. Being of different temper than his father, Maedhros did not want to antagonise the other Elves and withdrew with his brothers as far as it was possible from the other Noldor. He was fully aware of the attitude some had to the Sons of Fëanor and also of some of his brothers’ tempers. So, they went eastwards from Mithrim to the regions around the Hill of Himring:
There Maedhros and his brothers kept watch, gathering all such people as would come to them, and they had few dealings with their kinsfolk westward, save at need. It is said indeed that Maedhros himself devised this plan, to lessen the chances of strife, and because he was very willing that the chief peril of assault should fall upon himself; and he remained for his part in friendship with the houses of Fingolfin and Finarfin, and would come among them at times for common counsel.
(Silmarillion, p. 127)
That was a very wise and noble thing to do. Perhaps, it was Maedhros’ intention not only to get his brothers out of harm’s way, but also of apologising to Fingolfin not only in words but also in deeds for the desertion in Araman. While fortifying and keeping watch on the tough region of Himring was unlikely to fully rival the terrors of Helcaraxë that Fingolfin and his people were forced to endure, the match in the levels of discomfort and danger was more or less proportional. The Hill of Himring itself and the lands around it were very vulnerable to attacks from Angband as there was very little natural defence. Besides, the region was very cold, even as the translation in The Silmarillion suggests, and open to bitter-cold winds.
Maedhros realised full well the importance of establishing peace among the Elves of Middle-earth. He was well aware that teamwork was vital if they wanted to have at least some chances of keeping Morgoth at bay, knew that the fight against the Dark Lord would be vain if they were all divided by their own inner strife. While it was Morgoth’s plan to sow the seeds of dissension among the Elves themselves and also between Elves and Men, Maedhros tried to do completely the opposite: to heal the feud initiated by Melkor in Valinor, to unite everyone in their common fight against the common enemy:
Yet Morgoth would destroy them all, one by one, if they could not again unite, and make new league and common council; and he began those counsels for the raising of the fortunes of the Eldar that are called the Union of Maedhros.
(Silmarillion, p. 222)
That was Maedhros’s grandest intention and also possibly his biggest failure. No matter how noble and wise the design was, it led to the battle that became known as Nirnaeth Arnoediad. Being under the curse of Mandos, Maedhros suffered greatly from the consequences of his oath, and that showed especially tragically in this battle. In it the Prophecy of the North unfolded in so many of its aspects. There was everything: a good design going astray, despicable treachery, bloodshed and unnumbered tears. Despite Maedhros’s careful planning, everything went completely pear-shaped, just as Mandos had foretold. Thus, the oath, which the brothers had sworn in their madness, and its aftermath proved mightier than any good designs and motives. Once spoken, such an oath could not be easily unsaid or forgotten, and its consequences, no matter how bitter they were, had to be fully reaped.
In the tragic fate of Maedhros, and also of his brothers, another aspect of the Prophecy of the North showed very vividly. They were indeed ever the Dispossessed. First, the brothers were dispossessed of the Silmarils when they were stolen by the enemy, then — of the High Kingship, and finally — of the right to own the Silmarils as their heirloom. The sevens‘ grievous deeds and horrible crimes deprived them of the right to possess the Silmarils though they were forged by their father and could be considered theirs by right of heritage. Theirs became “hands unclean” because of what the brothers had done in their mad chase after the jewels and the cost at which they had tried to reclaim the stones. Only Maedhros and Maglor lived to see that everything they had been fighting for was, in fact, for nothing and in vain, and the magnitude of their personal tragedy at that dark hour of realisation can only be guessed.
While the sons of Fëanor come across as rather controversial characters, Maedhros is definitely the one who deserves respect and pity: even though his life was full of reckless, foolish deeds, he was not completely lost to evil and, on the contrary, did his best to fight against it.
J. R. R. Tolkien – The Silmarillion (edited by Christopher Tolkien); HarperCollinsPublishers; London; 1999.
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