In the fifth part of my “Reader’s Guide” series, I will address chapters 6-9 of The Silmarillion, which take place in the land of Aman. As mentioned in the last blog post, an Elf named Fëanor was born during this peaceful age. Among the Noldor (one house of the Elves), he was “the most subtle in mind and the most skilled in hand.” He discovered the art of making jewels “greater and brighter than those of the Earth,” and his greatest creations were three beautiful gems called the Silmarils, for which the book is named. The light within them was the same light that radiated from the Trees of Valinor. These jewels shone like stars, and Varda Elbereth hallowed them so that “no mortal flesh, nor hands unclean, nor anything of evil will might touch them, but it was scorched and withered; and Mandos foretold that the fates of Arda, earth, sea, and air, lay locked within them.”
The Unchaining of Melkor
If you recall, Melkor was defeated by the Valar and chained in the halls of Mandos for three ages. Once his punishment reached its end, though, Melkor was allowed to ask pardon from Manwë, promising that he wouldn’t be evil anymore and would instead try to fix all the wrong that he had done. You’re probably thinking, Manwë isn’t actually going to trust him, right? Well, you are partially correct. No one trusted Melkor at first. He was only allowed to roam the city of Valmar and not go outside of the Valar’s “sight and vigilance.” But as time went on, he gradually won over everyone by his good conduct (in the form of “aid and counsel”) and was allowed to walk freely throughout all the land. Melkor hid his true intent, however, and deceived many—even the Valar.
How could a being so wise and powerful as Manwë be fooled by Melkor’s lies? This is how Tolkien explained it: “…and it seemed to Manwë that the evil of Melkor was cured. For Manwë was free from evil and could not comprehend it, and he knew that in the beginning, in the thought of Ilúvatar, Melkor had been even as he; and he saw not to the depths of Melkor’s heart, and did not perceive that all love had departed from him for ever.” Two of the Valar remained suspicious of him, though: “Ulmo was not deceived, and Tulkas clenched his hands whenever he saw Melkor his foe go by; for if Tulkas is slow to wrath he is slow also to forget. But they obeyed the judgement of Manwë; for those who will defend authority against rebellion must not themselves rebel.”
The Darkening of Valinor
The releasing of Melkor was only the beginning. He greatly desired to possess the Silmarils, but Fëanor guarded them jealously. Thus Melkor began plotting his downfall and the downfall of all the Elves, spreading many lies among them “so subtly that many who heard them believed in recollection that they arose from their own thought.” His whisperings made the Elves mistrustful of one another and the Valar, and they began forging weapons in secret. After these seeds of discord were sown, Melkor enlisted the help of a vile spider named Ungoliant to invade the Valar’s domain. She devoured the pure light of the Two Trees of Valinor, Telperion and Laurelin, and poisoned them, plunging the whole world into darkness. Melkor also murdered Fëanor’s father, the king of the Noldor, and seized the Silmarils.
Fëanor’s Oath and the First Kinslaying
Fëanor, with great eloquence, persuaded his father’s people to pursue Melkor (now called Morgoth, the Black Foe of the World) and take back the Silmarils. He and his seven sons swore a terrible oath “which none shall break, and none should take, by the name even of Ilúvatar, calling the Everlasting Dark upon them if they kept it not…vowing to pursue with vengeance and hatred to the ends of the World Vala, Demon, Elf or Man as yet unborn, or any creature, great or small, good or evil, that time should bring forth unto the end of days, whoso should hold or take or keep a Silmaril from their possession.” This oath would pursue Feanor and his sons “to the world’s end,” and shape the early history of Middle-earth.
The Valar were grieved, but because Melkor’s lies had turned the Noldor against them, they could do nothing but warn them of great peril and danger on the journey ahead. Nonetheless, Fëanor and his followers departed Valinor, some reluctantly as the fire of Fëanor’s words started to die, and came to their seaside-dwelling brethren, the Teleri. The Teleri refused to lend their beautiful ships to Fëanor, warning him against the foolish errand. Fëanor took the ships by force and murdered many Teleri in what became known as the First Kinslaying.
The Noldor sailed north to a narrow, icy strait which was nearly impassable on foot. Along the journey, many ships had been lost, and they did not have enough to carry the whole host across the sea to Middle-earth. Faced with this dilemma, Fëanor committed great treachery by taking only those elves who were most loyal to him and leaving behind those he considered to be “needless baggage.” Once on the other side, he burned the Teleri’s beautiful swan-ships and never looked back. Those left behind, among them a fair lady called Galadriel, were unwilling to return to the Valar in shame and instead forged north through harsh, perilous lands and at last entered Middle-Earth.
These chapters were rife with conflict and betrayal and show how one small seed of deception can produce a harvest of pain and heartache. Melkor’s whispered lies corrupted Fëanor and caused great division among the Elves, which eventually turned into the murder and betrayal of his kinsmen. This is not the last we will hear of the Silmarils. In fact, the rest of the book revolves around the struggle of Fëanor’s sons to wrest the jewels away from Melkor (now called Morgoth).
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