Feanor & Fingolfin : Contrasting Death Scenes

Taking a kindergarten break here to hit what I suppose I would classify as my first “grad school” post. Wait, come back! Be ye not afeared!

I was musing on this subject after listening to the Tolkien Professor‘s weekly silmarillion seminar podcast, which happened to coincide with the same chapter I had just posted about. There was some discussion on that podcast about the similarities and differences between the deaths of Feanor and Fingolfin, successive high kings of the Noldor, and I thought I would throw in my two cents on the subject.

There are, on the surface, striking similarities between the two — they both charge in a suicidal, headlong rush at the front gates of Thangorodrim, and are promptly killed by Morgoth or his lieutenants for their presumption. But the superficial similarity is underscored by deep differences, and Tolkien obviously recognised this in his handling of the two events and the language he uses to describe them.

First, Feanor’s death-ride — he is described as “in his wrath”, laughingly ecstatic that he will “see the hour of his vengeance”. One of the Seminar presenters also noted Tolkien’s use of the word “fey” to describe Feanor, observing that it was also used to describe Theoden just prior to his death-charge on the Pelennor Fields. So arguably, Feanor’s lost his head at this point — they’ve just won a great battle, he’s got the adrenaline pumping in his veins, and he’s actually convinced that he’s going to win. When the Valar warned him it was impossible, and that Morgoth would only be defeated through the strength of the Valar themselves, it was clearly a crock. Feanor thus gives a big middle finger to the Valar, believing that godlike creatures actually erred, or that they lied to him to keep him in thrall to them (either perspective fits with his character). And this is not a subconscious feeling — Tolkien specifically comments on Feanor’s thought process that he had “dared the wrath of the Valar” — Feanor is well aware of the Valar’s position on the subject, and believes he has beaten them. The overwhelming impression one pulls out of this is pride — and even if there is no bible in Middle Earth, there certainly was in Tolkien’s very Catholic mind, and pride always goeth before a fall. Believing oneself able to set at nought the expressed dictates/purposes of God (or his designates, the Valar), also not so much a good thing.

But what of Fingolfin, Feanor’s half-brother? Every indication is that contrary to Feanor, Fingolfin knew the jig was up, and that he was riding to his death. Unlike Feanor, Fingolfin was not expecting to ride up, challenge Morgoth to single combat over the Silmarils, and win. Evidence is slight that Fingolfin himself cared one whit for the Silmarils — he followed his brother out of Valinor on the back of dutiful family loyalty, and it is worth noting also that he swore no deadly oaths to reclaim them. Every evidence points to two things : one, that Fingolfin was a follower, not a leader, constantly overshadowed by Feanor; and two, that he knew trying to defeat Morgoth on their own was a futile gesture. And yet, considering that, he went with Feanor anyway, which speaks volumes to his loyal character, I think. That being said, while Fingolfin recognizes that ultimate defeat is out of the question, he does seem to believe that the fencing in of Morgoth might still be a valid strategy — they cannot defeat him, but perhaps they can hold him at bay until the Valar get off their fancy thrones and come help. The strategy does work, for four hundred years…but then Morgoth blows his volcano top and the whole thing goes to hell. Fingolfin at that point is faced with the utter ruin of his plans — he always knew that Feanor’s plan was doomed, but the Siege of Angband was Fingolfin’s brainchild, and he had high hopes that it would work. So to see that all blow up in his face was a bad emotional blow.

Fingolfin rides forth to commit suicide — and the actions of the eagles I think reinforces that impression. Throughout the Silmarillion and LOTR, and even The Hobbit, the eagles display impeccable, down-to-the-second timing; divinely directed, one might argue. Their absence as Fingolfin engages in his sacrificial duel with Morgoth is telling, I think. Had Fingolfin WANTED to be saved, the eagles probably could have arranged it. But as someone on that podcast observed, they do not interfere with free will…and Fingolfin’s free will was bent towards suicide.

“But he could not now deny the challenge before the face of his captains; for the rocks rang with the shrill music of Fingolfin’s horn and his voice came keen and clear down into the depths of Angband; and Fingolfin named Morgoth craven, and lord of slaves. Therefore Morgoth came…”

The interesting parallel here I think is actually that Fingolfin challenges Morgoth to single combat, and Morgoth accepts the challenge. Not, emphatically, because he wants to (even though he knows he can beat him), but out of fear at losing face with his lieutenants. It’s that nasty pride making a resurgent appearance. It caused the downfall of Feanor, and it causes serious difficulties here for Morgoth in the surprising damage Fingolfin is able to inflict before being killed. He goes ever after lame in one foot from Fingolfin’s last sword hit. One might also observe that Sauron’s eventual defeat was also caused through pride — Aragorn riding to the Black Gate and challenging Sauron to come forth and show himself or be named a coward has eerie resemblances to Fingolfin’s similar actions many centuries earlier. Alas for Fingolfin, there is no secret hobbit sneaking into Thangorodrim to destroy the source of Morgoth’s power ;-).

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