Several weeks ago, I got irritated at a piece about The Silmarillion in a well-known blog that cast Fëanor in the role of the unmitigated villain. It was a rare show of negativity for me, and I almost didn’t post it because of that. But I did, and I’ve been thinking about why this particular interpretation of Fëanor as some evil entity irritates me to the point of uncharacteristic venom (especially since I’ve been known to roll my eyes at people who can’t be arsed to go out to vote because it’s raining but will tip over cars because of a football game or encourage teenagers to self-harm because they don’t like their fan fiction).
But, on this issue, I rather feel like I’ve come full circle. I’ve now been participating in the Silmarillion fandom for ten years, and what caused me to take the plunge and start working in earnest on the series of character studies that would become my novel Another Man’s Cage was irritation with an opinion expressed on FanFiction.net about Maedhros’s villainy.
I feel like to reduce Fëanor (or his sons) to villains flattens one of the most interesting questions posed in The Silmarillion to where it isn’t even worth asking: What causes a person to “fall”? In his letter to Milton Waldman (#131), Tolkien wrote, “There cannot be any ‘story’ without a fall – all stories are ultimately about the fall – at least not for human minds as we know them and have them.” Tolkien had his own idea about what caused a person to fall, and in the case of the Fëanorians, he was explicitly concise, writing (again to Waldman) that “[t]he fall of the Elves comes about through the possessive attitude of Fëanor and his seven sons to these gems [the Silmarils].”
My own interest in the question goes deeper than that: What caused that “possessive attitude”? What causes any of us to develop the traits that define us as individuals and cause us to do what we do? In psychology, there is the truism about nature and nurture. This is not an either/or matter, and to put the full weight of analysis of a character’s motivations in the “nature” camp–as presenting him as a pure villain, corrupted from the moment of birth, does–takes all the fun from the story for me. It’s the same as stripping a character of free will. People do actions because they must, because they lack choice. Where is the conflict in that? Where is our ability to connect to them as fellow humans, likewise conflicted and saddled with choices that we do have to make without recourse to “nature” as an excuse when we fail?
But to acknowledge that a character like Fëanor is capable of villainous actions without existing purely as a villain is a scary proposition for a lot of people, I think. We like to imagine people like Fëanor as somehow different from us in their capacity for evil deeds. We–those of us who are good by nature–would never rob, murder, and betray our fellow humans like that. There is something extraordinary and wrong in the nature of Fëanor that he can and does.
In my non-fannish life, I teach English at a special-ed high school that serves boys with emotional disabilities. “Emotional disability” is a term from U.S. special-ed law, an umbrella vast enough that it is essentially meaningless as a label beyond its legal uses in ensuring special-ed services are provided for kids that public schools would otherwise rather not have to deal with. Some of my students have severe psychiatric illnesses: bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, depression. Others are aggressive and disruptive (“conduct disorder” is the label they’re given). Others have already, in their short lives, tangled with the criminal justice system to such an extent that their home schools regard them as too dangerous to be trusted alongside “normal” kids. No one holds 5K fun runs for my students, no one puts “Schizophrenia Speaks” magnets on their cars, and there is a dearth of celebrity spokespeople trying to rouse sympathy for the 15-year-old kid who carjacks someone at gunpoint. Honestly, most people view my students as a blight, as simply biding their time before going to jail or getting killed themselves.
A few weeks ago, I found out that one of my former students had been arrested on murder charges. I only taught this kid for about six months in the ninth grade (age 14) before his mother advocated for him to return to his home school so that he could play sports. He was a bright kid, energetic, at that stage of growth where he was all coltish legs and oversized feet, and constantly smiling. He gave me a nickname that, to this day, sticks among the students who attended the school when he did. Like all of my students, he had his days. He’d sometimes come to class with his face a blank mask and refuse to speak to anyone, the anger beneath that mask like a storm cloud covering the sun. He sometimes fought with his peers.
He also allegedly shot and killed a drug dealer, point blank, while that drug dealer sat in his car. He is 17 now and is being charged as an adult, so I was able to Google his name and read the article in the Baltimore Sun. The article was basic enough–another African American boy from Baltimore whose life is probably over–but the comments chilled me.
People called him a monster. I remember someone labeling him a “soulless kid.” More than one person demanded his death: an eye for an eye. Someone with the capacity to kill didn’t deserve to live. Spare us the risk and expense of a person who isn’t even really a person but a blight upon humankind. People looked at him and didn’t see a child or a flawed human: They saw his actions. They looked at him and saw a villain, someone different from them in his capacity for something they couldn’t fathom doing. I saw his actions too, of course, but I also remembered the smiling kid who would bound into my room, calling me the nickname he gave me, who once signed a thank-you card to my mom–who’d sent a tray of homemade cookies to my students–with “love” and hearts. How could the two coexist?
They can, and that’s the frightening part. That’s the power of words like “villain” and “evil”: They make atrocity the other. They hold at bay the awful reality that any one of us could become my student, could become Fëanor, given the right set of circumstances. Any one of us could be a person whose on-the-whole-good life is obliterated by a single act, in a single instant, that comes to define us. As the old saying goes, “But for the grace of God I go.”
The fascinating question for me becomes: What must happen to bring a person to that instant?
This is the point of Fëanor’s story for me. Tolkien is explicit in identifying Fëanor as the “mightiest of the Noldor, of whose deeds came both their greatest renown and their most grievous woe” (The Silmarillion, “Of the Return of the Noldor”). How can the two coexist? Based on the letter to Waldman, Tolkien saw the matter of Fëanor’s fall thematically or symbolically: “By the making of gems the sub-creative function of the Elves is chiefly symbolized, but the Silmarilli were more than just beautiful things as such. There was Light. … A marked difference here between these legends and most others is that the Sun is not a divine symbol, but a second-best thing, and the ‘light of the Sun’ (the world under the sun) become terms for a fallen world, and a dislocated imperfect vision.” The Silmarils, then, represent perfection; their theft and eventual loss represents a marring of that perfection that is coincident with the fall of Fëanor and meant to symbolize the same thing: “And [the Valar] mourned not more for the death of the Trees than for the marring of Fëanor: of the works of Melkor one of the most evil” (“Of the Return of the Noldor”).
I, however, see the matter of Fëanor’s fall psychologically, as something that must have been generated through the interaction of nature and nuture/environment. If the greatest of the Noldor could fall so far, what does that say of the capacity of those of us lesser–of you, of me–to do the same? What does it say about us as humans that the atrocious and the sublime can so comfortably inhabit the same mind? That who we are is so malleable that the greatest among us can be molded into monsters? This is scary stuff.
To me, this isn’t just a jumping-off point for meta and head canons and fanworks about the Fëanorians. It is a question with very real-world implications, as the anecdote about my former student shows. Our species has always produced its Fëanors. We can label them and other them and exile them from the human family, or we can understand what pushes someone toward one outcome or another. And once we understand, perhaps we could keep smiling 14-year-olds from becoming cold-blooded killers. This isn’t an easy issue to grapple with, but the very complexity of it–and its importance–is what makes it interesting to me.
The idea that fanworks allow us, as creators, a way to interpret the texts through the lens of our own experiences and use our fanworks to bring to the forefront what is important to us (versus what was important to the author) is nothing new. Henry Jenkins’ 1992 Textual Poachers popularized the idea of fanworks as a means to read and interpret texts through the fan’s experiences versus the author’s authority. This is exactly what I find myself doing with the story of Fëanor. Like many nerdy kids, I was cruelly treated as a child, by both my peers and some of the adults who should have protected me. As an adult, I am a teacher of young people who have likewise been cruelly treated in many cases and explicitly sidelined as too disturbed to benefit from the same educational setting as the majority of their peers. Perhaps because of this, I have always been almost obsessed by cruelty, particularly what in us as humans allows it. When I first read the story of the Fëanorians, I was shocked by their acts, as most people would be. But I also couldn’t get out of my mind this respected and beloved family as they existed in Valinor and what happened between their early existences as husbands, fathers, and beloved friends and their later existences as kinslayers. So when I started writing stories about the Fëanorians, this was my focus: to show them not as villains, nor as victims maligned and forced into their fates, but as humans whose flaws and circumstances and choices all interacted to produce the people they were and the people they became.
This is why I find myself so uncharacteristically reactive to the “Fëanor is evil” trope that has clung with all the tenacity and irritation of a cockleburr through my decade in the Tolkien fandom. It feels like a cop-out to see the label and not the person behind it. It seems counterproductive to see an action while ignoring what produced that action. And it seems dishonest to pretend that people who commit atrocities are always wholly different from the rest of us. I look back at my life and can infer the experiences and circumstances that produced the person that I am, but I also know that I feel pride and jealousy and antagonism at times, and if the experiences and circumstances of my life had been different, perhaps those would have been the traits that were nurtured and I would be a wholly different person. The story of Fëanor speaks to that. If he could fall, any of us could fall. “But for the grace of God I go”–or we could any one of us become a Fëanor. That is scary, yes. And so I write, to understand that it may not come to pass.