By Mary Biese, University of Notre Dame
It is no surprise that The Silmarillion (Sil) is primarily about the Silmarils, or that The Lord of the Rings (LR) centers around a Ring. What may surprise readers, however, are the similarities (and differences) between these jewels and their respective creators. How do these comparisons affect the ultimate fates of these powerful artifacts? This essay explores the deceit and desire for domination that underlie the rebellion of Fëanor, maker of the Silmarils, and that of Sauron, maker of the One Ring. It will also discuss the origin of evil, the qualities of sub-creation, the enslavement of wills, and the defeat of evil by humility and virtue.
Due to the influence of Morgoth, the source of evil in Tolkien’s Legendarium, Fëanor and Sauron rebel against the Valar and create jewel(s) that drive the events that follow. Their deceit and desire for domination underlie their rebellion and the nature of the One Ring. While obsession with these jewels is a problem in both The Silmarillion and The Lord of the Rings, the One Ring is by nature more sinister and therefore must be destroyed, whereas the naturally benevolent Silmarils are simply lost. One of Fëanor’s Silmarils becomes a star, which, via Galadriel’s phial, allows Frodo and Sam to destroy Sauron’s Ring. The story of the Silmarils finds its conclusion in the destruction of the Ring and the fall of Sauron, former servant of Morgoth. Ultimately, the Ring is unmade by the lowly hobbits Frodo and Sam, whose self-sacrifice and humility fundamentally undermine the deceit and domination-desire of Fëanor and Sauron.
Of the Creators
Both Sauron and Fëanor rebel against the Valar. But what is the root of their rebellion? As with all evil in Tolkien’s Legendarium, their respective falls from grace are a result of Melkor (later known as Morgoth), directly and indirectly. His indirect influence is a result of his original claiming and marring of Arda: “Morgoth’s power… was ‘nowhere absent’ though ‘nowhere absolute;’” it is infused in the whole world (Croft, 2017, p. 81); (see also Sil p. 255).
Melkor also mars the minds and hearts of those who listen to him, such as Sauron and Fëanor. The fallen Vala’s direct influence is seen clearly in Sauron:
In the beginning of Arda Melkor seduced him to his allegiance, and he became the greatest and most trusted of the servants of the Enemy, and the most perilous, for he could assume many forms, and for long if he willed he could still appear noble and beautiful, so as to deceive all but the most wary. (Sil p. 285)
Sauron joins Melkor’s revolt against Ilúvatar and the Valar very early on in the narrative, and before he makes his Ring. This quote highlights Sauron’s “perilous” power of deception, which plays a crucial role in the creation of the Ring.
Though “none of the Edalië ever hated Melkor more than Fëanor,” he is nevertheless “snared… in the webs of Melkor’s malice” (Sil p. 66). This comes to pass by the spreading of the lies of Melkor, who plants seeds of discontent and envy amongst the unsuspecting Eldar:
Many became filled with pride… Fiercest burned the new flame of desire for freedom and wider realms in the eager heart of Fëanor; and Melkor laughed in his secrecy, for to that mark his lies had been addressed, hating Fëanor above all, and lusting ever for the Silmarils. (Sil p. 68)
Fëanor cannot recognize Melkor’s influence over him since “he asked the aid and sought the counsel of none that dwelt in Aman, great or small” (Sil p. 66); he succumbs to the Vala’s lies, and eventually rebels against the Valar–first in murmurs, then in threats, and finally in leaving Valinor with a large host of Eldar and bringing about the infamous Kinslaying and betraying his half-brother and those who followed him.
Sauron and Fëanor are similar in their desire to dominate others. Fëanor’s rebellion, for instance, “was partially the result of Fëanor’s drive for vengeance on Melkor in response to his stealing of the Silmarils and killing of Finwë [his father], but another motivation… was to find a new land to rule over” (Moriarty, 2015, p. 3). The Valar rule in Valinor, but Fëanor wants to rule over his own land, his own people, without the overarching authority of the Valar, whom Fëanor mistakenly believes covet the Silmarils (as a result of Melkor’s lies).
Within Tolkien’s sweeping legendarium, ruling over something by subduing and dominating it is always one of the central evils, which is exhibited by the negative portrayal of Melkor, Sauron, [and] the Noldor [and their] claims or pursuits of dominion. (Moriarty, 2015, p. 14)
Fëanor is a king of the Noldor, and his rebellion is the central plotline concerned with the “pursuit of dominion” in The Silmarillion. Similarly, “Sauron seeks domination,” though he for a short time has “initial good purposes” (Alberto, 2017, p. 70).
An important difference between these two characters is the way in and the degree to which they influence others for the worse. Sauron, on the one hand, “is dangerous mainly because he can manipulate his appearance, speech, and intentions in ways that conceal his true purpose” (Alberto, 2017, p. 70). He is primarily a deceiver. When Sauron loses his ability to take a “fair” (Sil pp. 280-281) physical form after the destruction of Numenor, his power to deceive–a great portion of his power–is greatly diminished. Most of Fëanor’s many rash decisions, however, are simply driven by his own fiery temper and assisted by his mastery of words (Sil p. 82).
“So fiery was his spirit that as it sped his body fell to ash, and was borne away like smoke… the mightiest of the Noldor, of whose deeds came both their greatest renown and their most grievous woe” (Sil p. 107).
Fëanor’s unpredictable rashness and his ability to convince those over whom he wishes to rule are not as insidious as Sauron’s consistent and intentional deception of those he wants to rule because of his deep hatred for and envy of the Children of Ilúvatar: “The Eye of Sauron is an eye of envy, for Sauron not only desires to dominate but to destroy what is good simply because it is good” (Head, 2007, p. 145).
One of the main differences between Sauron and Fëanor is the reason each creates his jewelry. On the one hand, the creative Valar “never lose sight of the fact that their Making is not an end but a means to the fulfillment of a greater purpose outside themselves;” however,
Although Fëanor starts out in this frame of mind, pride, greed, and anger destroy him. In the beginning the gems he creates are freely given away for the beautification of Arda. With the Silmarils, however, Fëanor begins to value the thing made more than the greater purpose. (Crowe, 2001, pp. 64-65)
Fëanor forgets the purpose for which he made the Silmarils, and in his increasing pride hoards the Silmarils, preventing others from even looking upon them (Sil pp. 69, 75).
“Sauron’s ultimate aim is the increase of his own power, which he eventually accomplishes through the One Ring” (Alberto, 2017, p. 73). The Maia is self-serving before, during, and after his creation of the Ring (LR pp. 50-52, Sil pp. 286-294/etc), whereas Fëanor begins selflessly and wisely, but then later falls into selfishness and violence: “Fëanor… was filled with a new thought, or it may be that some shadow of foreknowledge came to him of the doom that drew near; and he pondered how the light of the Trees, the glory of the Blessed Realm, might be preserved imperishable” (Sil p. 67). Part of Fëanor’s fall is the dreadful oath he and his sons take after Morgoth steals the Silmarils: to “pursue with vengeance… to the ends of the World… any creature… who so should hold or take or keep a Silmaril from their possession” (Sil p. 83). This oath drives most of the major events in The Silmarillion, though Fëanor himself is killed by a balrog not long after his disastrous rebellion (Sil p. 107). In similar fashion, Sauron’s dispossession and search for the One Ring set in motion the main plot of The Lord of the Rings. Sauron falls before creating the Ring, and Fëanor after creating the Silmarils; both their creations are central to their respective book’s narrative.
Of the Jewels
The most substantial difference between the Silmarils and the One Ring is the reason for which each is made, between sub-creating and distorting creation.
The making of the Silmarils has become an archetypal illustration of sub-creation… [Tolkien] is also at pains to highlight the distinction between… Elvish art and the evil operations of Sauron and Morgoth, with the former aiming at ‘sub-creation’ and the latter at ‘domination and tyrannous reforming of Creation’ (Letters 146). (Cook, 2016, pp. 4-5)
Sauron makes the Ring “to impose [himself] on creation, to bring it under [his] control and possess it” (Cook, 2016, p. 5). Sauron’s work can also be seen as an imitation of sub-creation (Cook, 2016, p. 5). He cannot truly sub-create because everything he does and makes is inherently infused with his insatiable desire for power, especially over others’ wills.
The holy jewels are made to preserve the beauty of the light of Arda for posterity. However, the Ring is made to twist and take control of Arda and the free peoples within it; it preserves the wearer’s life, but eventually distorts and completely dominates the wearer’s will (LR pp. 51, 55). Conversely, the Silmarils preserve the world’s original source of light: “these living jewels are inherently good in their perfection and beauty, and they were consecrated to burn any of ill-will who touched them” (Moriarty, 2015, p. 5). While the basic physical substance of the Ring is not inherently bad, Sauron distorts the band of gold and twists it to his own domination-driven purposes, infusing it with his malicious spirit. Just as the Ring has a will of its own (LR pp. 55-56), the Silmarils, too, are “indeed living things… they rejoiced in light and received it and gave it back in hues more marvellous than before” (Sil p. 67).
The sources of power of these jewels also differ. The Silmarils are powerful because of the intense, pure light they house (Kane, 2008, p. 9); they are dangerous insofar as “people’s lust for them and unending desire to possess them” (Moriarty, 2015, p. 5) causes strife. The One Ring, however, is “the embodiment of the power of Sauron” (Koubenec, 2011, p. 127). Sauron “incarnate[s]” his “own spirit into… the Ring” (Cook, 2016, p. 6). The ring’s Its power comes solely from Sauron’s malign spirit, whichand it corrupts all. The Silmarils preserve the light of Valinor; the Ring preserves one’s life unnaturally (Koubenec, 2011, p. 122). Koubenec’s comparison of the One Ring with one of Tolkien’s favorite poems, “The Pearl,” can also apply to the Silmarils: “what is signified by precious in [Tolkien’s] writing is… an object, in both cases an item of jewelry, with significance far beyond its material form and power over its owners in the form of obsession” (p. 125). Koubenec further says that they,He continues by saying they “are alike in the very form they take, as both are pieces of jewelry, beautiful to behold… Both [bearers] are struck by the beauty of their respective burdens” (p. 127). In other words, the Silmarils and the One Ring are similar in their physical form, their remarkable importance to their respective narratives, their ability to represent and channel other power, and creatures’ tendency to obsess over them.
Koubenec also speaks to the disastrous effects of the Ring: “the word ‘precious’ “is intricately connected with [Gollum’s] personality” (p. 129). The Ring integrates itself into the will of the one who carries it, to the point of utter enslavement: the wills of the Nazgûl are “completely destroyed… The most significant consequence of their status as ring-bearers… was the extension of their lives, which resulted in their eventual succumbing to darkness… In the Dark Riders, Tolkien created his projection of the consequences of unchecked obsession” (Koubenec, pp. 129-130). By exerting its influence over a long period of time (via the lengthening of life), the Ring eventually supplants the will of its bearer, thus becoming a part of the ring-bearer. In other words, it lessens and finally eliminates the free will of its possessor(s). But who is possessing whom?
At the Cracks of Doom, when Frodo makes his decision to claim the Ring for his own, he puts it on his finger, physically erasing the separation of subject and object… ‘The Ring is mine!’ (Lotr VI.3.945) he declares… But is he not as much the Ring’s?… Frodo and the Ring are merging into one thing. (Croft, 2017, p. 91)
While the Silmarils had not been made to corrupt and enslave like the One Ring was, they nonetheless are closely connected to obsession, as seen in Fëanor, Morgoth, Fëanor’s sons, Thingol, and the Dwarves of Nogrod. Thingol, a great king of the Elves, receives a Silmaril, and “as the years passed Thingol’s thought turned unceasingly to the jewel of Fëanor, and became bound to it… and he was minded now to bear it with him always” (Sil p. 232, emphasis added). Here one can see the Silmaril’s power over the will of Thingol; this is akin to the Ring’s power over the will of its bearers. Soon after Thingol’s acquisition of a Silmaril, a quarrel with the dwarves, whose “lust… was kindled to rage by the words of the king” (Sil p. 233), results in the slaying of Thingol and of many Elves and Dwarves. The intensely pure beauty of the Silmarils even causes direct decay for the famous Beren and Lúthien: “the Silmaril hastened their end; for the flame of the beauty of Lúthien as she wore it was too bright for mortal lands” (Sil p. 236). The Silmaril causes destruction, but not as maliciously, intentionally or directly as does the Ring.
This significant difference in nature is the reason for the way each finds their end. While the Ring is so evil that it must be destroyed, the Silmarils are simply lost forever, leading up to and amidst the great destruction of the Great Battle against Morgoth (Sil pp. 251-255). Elrond Half-elven says, “The very desire of [the Ring] corrupts the heart… the Ring should be destroyed [because] as long as it is in the world it will be a danger even to the wise” (LR p. 267). One who possesses the Ring inevitably becomes possessed by it; with the Silmarils it is not so, or at the least, not to thein the same degree.
This great elf-lord touches upon this nature-based distinction when he speaks of the Three Elven Rings: “they were not made as weapons of war or conquest: that is not their power. Those who made them did not desire strength or domination or hoarded wealth, but understanding, making, and healing, to preserve all things unstained” (LR p. 268). The Elven Rings, like the Silmarils, wereare not created for evil and thus do not need to be utterly destroyed. These rings prevail and maintain peace for so long primarily because of their benevolent nature and because their locations are kept secret until the last: “The Three were not made [or touched] by Sauron… But of them it is not permitted to speak… They are not idle” (LR p. 268). In a similar fashion, the Silmarils cause less trouble the longer their locations are unknown to the sons of Fëanor and those others who desire them. After a “rumour… that… ‘A Silmaril of Fëanor burns again in the woods of Doriath’… the oath of the sons of Fëanor was waked again from sleep… [they] prepare[d] an assault upon Doriath… so befell the second slaying of Elf by Elf” (Sil p. 236).
Towards the end of the “Quenta Silmarillion,” the section of The Silmarillion primarily concerned with the Silmarils and the First Age, the first Silmaril that is lost (to the inhabitants of Arda) is that which Eärendil bears. It is set in the sky as a star, “the Star of High Hope” (Sil p. 250), which serves as a sign of the destruction of “Morgoth, the Black Foe of the World” (Sil p. 79), so named by Fëanor. This Silmaril makes an appearance in The Lord of the Rings: Galadriel “caught the light of Eärendil’s star” (LR p. 376) in a phial she gives to Frodo.
Galadriel is worth pondering because of her connection to Fëanor and her status as a powerful Elven-queen who bears one of the sacred, Silmaril-like Elven Rings of Power. She is Fëanor’s half-niece, and actually joins the company of Fëanor in his rebellion against the Valar:
Galadriel… was eager to be gone. No oaths she swore, but the words of Fëanor concerning Middle-earth had kindled in her heart, for she yearned to see the wide unguarded lands and to rule there a realm at her own will. (Sil 84).
In that moment, the youthful Galadriel, like Fëanor and Sauron, desires domination over others. However, she repents, and is pardoned by the Valar “for her services against Sauron, and above all for her rejection of the temptation to take the Ring when offered to her” (Letters #297, p. 386). Her rejection of the power of Sauron’s Ring is a conscious rejection of her pride in her younger days, of her desire to rule over others–of that desire which is characteristic of the two great jewel-creators of the Legendarium. Tolkien himself describes her as “a penitent” (Letters 407).
Instead of searching for more power, Galadriel simply preserves her kingdom and its memories, via her Elven Ring, until the One Ring is destroyed and the power of her Ring wanes, along with her and her people: “I will diminish, and go into the West, and remain Galadriel” (LR 366). Galadriel, through her experiences and through the phial she creates, serves as one of the primary links between The Silmarillion and The Lord of the Rings:
The phial… serves to represent a character who herself has lived through sacred, ancient time into the present of LotR… Galadriel is herself a symbol of the conduit between times, places, and worlds, and her gift, as well as her song, reflects such a convergence. (Agan, 2008, 60).
Galadriel recognizes that she must decrease, especially if the Ring is destroyed, but she aids Frodo nonetheless and gives him the precious phial, allowing him to resist the will of the Ring and (with Sam) to survive the terrors of Cirith Ungol and pass into Mordor to destroy the One Ring (Agan, 2008, pp. 59-60).
Of the Defeat of Evil
Through the valor of Eärendil, the main hero of The Silmarillion, and through the villainy of Maedhros and Maglor, two of Fëanor’s sons, “the Silmarils found their long homes: one in the airs of heaven, and one in the fires of the heart of the world, and one in the deep waters” (Sil p. 254). The other two Silmarils burn and “torment” the two remaining sons of Fëanor (because of their void oath (Sil p. 254)); out of utter desperation and desolation, each casts his precious jewel into the earth and the sea, respectively. In a similar manner, the Ring, as it grows closer to Mordor, becomes for Frodo “a burden on the body and a torment to his mind” (LR p. 935). The pain of the burning Silmaril is akin to “the wheel of fire” (LR p. 938) that Frodo sees as the power of the Ring grows. Frodo, the hero of The Lord of the Rings, with the help of Gollum, who is usually categorized as a villain, casts the “Precious” into the Crack of Doom, into the fire, where it is unmade forever.
The Silmarils find their homes in air, earth, and water; the Ring is destroyed in its birthplace amongst the fires of Orodruin, the “Mountain of Blazing Fire” (Sil p. 345). And so these four jewels are lost in air, water, earth, and fire–reminiscent of Aristotle’s four elements. One may see in this categorical completion of elements, as well as in the use of the phial of Galadriel, that the story began by the Silmarils finds its fulfillment, or its end, in the destruction of the Ring. The end of The Lord of the Rings finally witnesses the destruction of Morgoth’s greatest vassal, Sauron, by the destruction of his jewel with the help of the star of Eärendil, Savior of the free peoples of Arda from the thraldom of Morgoth and bearer of one of the great jewels of Fëanor. That Silmaril, once worn by the famous ancestors of Elrond, Arwen, and Aragorn (three figures necessary for the success of Frodo’s Quest), once sat within Morgoth’s crown; its light contributes directly to the destruction of Sauron the deceiver.
The Silmarils are lost around the same time as Morgoth is defeated; in a similar fashion, the One Ring and Sauron are defeated simultaneously. Both triumphs over evil cause a great destruction of landscapes. Beleriand, where most of the action within The Silmarillion takes place, sinks under the sea forever; Mordor crumbles (LR p. 949), and many other places in Middle-earth are damaged, such as the beloved Shire. The first age ends with Morgoth’s defeat, and the third with Sauron’s. In these grand events, jewels take center stage, one set providing light, and the other, darkness. One brings hope to the Children of Ilúvatar; the other attempts to destroy them. The resolution of these fantastic stories is at the last a triumph of heroism and self-sacrifice, particularly that of Eärendil and Frodo–a defeat of villainy and of a desire for dominance, a defeat of the evil lords Morgoth and Sauron.
At the end of The Lord of the Rings, Fëanor’s rebellion comes to its end as the Elves diminish and return to Valinor; Sauron’s rebellion ends with his ultimate defeat. Both creators have left their mark on Arda, but out of their failure Ilúvatar brings about good, especially through the heroism of Beren, Lúthien, Eärendil, Aragorn, Frodo, Sam, Gandalf, and countless others. The Silmarils, which cause both pain and joy, help bring about the fall of Morgoth and of Sauron, who “was only less evil than his master in that for long he served another and not himself” (Sil p. 32). The Ring, evil as its beginning is, indirectly initiates heroism within the humble hearts of the hobbits Frodo and Sam (and Bilbo), the Halfling Ring-bearers.
Small in stature and in ambition, these heroes are a stark contrast to Fëanor and Sauron: their little sub-creations are simply gardens and stories. They and their origins are nowhere near as lofty as that of the creators of the great jewels of Arda, but their lowly beginnings and their acts of humility serve as the perfect foilcounterpoint to the hubris of Fëanor and Sauron. Their pure intentions, devoid of any will to dominate, make them the perfect Ring-bearers. Bilbo and Sam both give up the Ring of Power, and Frodo carries it even to the Crack of Doom. Even Frodo’s weakness is turned to strength; his mercy towards Gollum, which may seem to be weakness, makes up for his failure of will at the Crack of Doom and brings about the final destruction of the Ring. In this, one sees the fulfillment of the words of Ilúvatar, the creator of all things that be: “no theme may be played that hath not its uttermost source in me, nor can any alter the music [of the world] in my despite. For he that attempteth this shall prove but mine instrument in the devising of things more wonderful, which he himself hath not imagined” (Sil p. 17).
Elrond says, and rightly so, that Frodo’s “seat should be among” “all the mighty Elf-friends of old, Hador, and Húrin, and Túrin, and Beren himself” (LR p. 271). Hador and Húrin fight in the wars against Morgoth, and perform great deeds of valor; Túrin fells the great dragon Glaurung and becomes a great warrior ere his demise; Beren steals a Silmaril from the crown of Morgoth himself, resurrects by the will of the Valar, and bears great descendants (Eärendil, Elrond, Elendil, and Aragorn being some of them). Frodo truly belongs among these heroes: he defeats Sauron in an act of valor by destroying the Dark Lord’s jewel.
Frodo and Sam’s persistent rejection of the influence of the Ring, paired with their use of the benevolent light of the Silmaril of Eärendil, allow them to triumph over Sauron. They do this to preserve their beautiful home, for “beauty is associated with truth-speaking and good will, while its opposite is not so much ugliness and deceit and the embodiment of a will to dominate” (Cook, 2016, p. 10). The hobbits utilize and preserve beauty and defeat Sauron the Deceiver, not with jewels and lofty battles, but with self-sacrifice, their large hobbit feet, honesty, perseverance, “plain hobbit-sense” (LR p. 901), and an enduring humility.
However, all three heroes are forever damaged by the corrupting power of Ring, and Frodo most of all. The wounds of Sauron and Morgoth do not disappear, but require further healing. This the hobbits find in Valinor, the blessed birthplace of the Silmarils. In saving the beautiful place they love, Frodo and Sam must give it up, thus with their humility and self-sacrifice countering the domination-desire of Fëanor and Sauron. Frodo describes this in his last line in The Lord of the Rings:
It must often be so, Sam, when things are in danger: some one has to give them up, lose them, so that others may keep them… you will read things out of the Red Book, and keep alive the memory of the age that is gone, so that people will remember the Great Danger and so love their beloved land all the more. And that will keep you as busy and as happy as anyone can be, as your part of the Story goes on. Come now, ride with me!” (LR 1029).
From comfort and security to pain and danger;, plains of grass to desolate wastelands;, blissful nature walks to excruciating treks through unforgiving terrain;, six meals a day to six crumbs of lembas bread in two days: these two hobbits give everything they are and have towards saving their homes, families, and friends–towards saving the Shire.
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