When Shawn and I recorded our fifth episode of the podcast on the Ainulindalë, we couldn’t have predicted that we’d still be around over a year later — let alone that we’d have so many listeners enjoying our efforts.1 But there was something else we couldn’t predict then, either — that “The Sins of Melkor” that I talked about in that episode would end up being so universally applicable to other characters in the legendarium. It was only as we were preparing to put The Silmarillion on a boat in the Grey Havens and wave goodbye to it for our upcoming retrospective episode that I realized just how pervasive those errors are — not only for the genuinely evil characters, but also for the mostly-evil, the sometimes-a-jerk, and even the occasionally-foolish.
Before we continue, I should quickly address my choice of terminology. I may call them “The Sins of Melkor”, but I will freely admit that at no point (that I could find) does Tolkien himself use the word sin to describe the actions taken by any of the characters in his world. Why is that? For this answer, I want to look at a quote in Letter #131, the letter to a publisher that we constantly reference on the show and that is reproduced in most editions of The Silmarillion as “From a Letter by J.R.R. Tolkien to Milton Waldman, 1951”. In speaking of his being “grieved by the poverty of [his] own beloved country” as it regards myth and heroic story, he acknowledges the Arthurian world, but points out the following:
… it is involved in, and explicitly contains the Christian religion. For reasons which I will not elaborate, that seems to me fatal. Myth and fairy-story must, as all art, reflect and contain in solution elements of moral and religious truth (or error), but not explicit, not in the known form of the primary ‘real’ world.
So it is a ‘fatal error’ for a heroic mythology to explicitly contain elements of religion from the primary world. Yet, at the same time, that myth must still contain “elements of moral and religious truth”. That’s a fine line to walk: the truth must be present, but not the trappings — that’s an important distinction. And that’s why you won’t find Tolkien explicitly labeling these actions with a religiously-loaded word like ‘sin’.
The degree to which these same sins are seen
in the lives of characters like
Fëanor, Túrin and even Thingol
is a bit of a surprise.
As for me, “The Oopsies of Melkor” just didn’t have the same ring to it, so “Sins” it is.
Before we explore the mistakes of any other characters, let’s get a refresher on what I first described as “The Sins of Melkor” back in Episode 005 – The Music of the Ainur. To do that, let’s look at just one single paragraph in Ainulindalë that takes place shortly after the beginning of Ilúvatar’s first theme:
But now Ilúvatar sat and hearkened, and for a great while it seemed good to him, for in the music there were no flaws. But as the theme progressed, it came into the heart of Melkor to interweave matters of his own imagining that were not in accord with the theme of Ilúvatar; for he sought therein to increase the power and glory of the part assigned to himself. To Melkor among the Ainur had been given the greatest gifts of power and knowledge, and he had a share in all the gifts of his brethren. He had gone often alone into the void places seeking the Imperishable Flame; for desire grew hot within him to bring into Being things of his own, and it seemed to him that Ilúvatar took no thought for the Void, and he was impatient of its emptiness. Yet he found not the Fire, for it is with Ilúvatar. But being alone he had begun to conceive thoughts of his own unlike those of his brethren.
Let’s break these down one at a time, shall we?
First, we have rebellion, specifically rebellion against legitimate authority.2 “… [I]t came into the heart of Melkor to interweave matters of his own imagining that were not in accord with the theme of Ilúvatar…” Melkor’s task, and that of all the other Ainur, was to make the “Great Music” provided by their creator. The Ainur had been given the freedom to adorn the theme, to do a little improvisation if you will, “each with his own thoughts and devices”, but Melkor’s music was still supposed to accord with the theme of the Great Music given to the Ainur by Ilúvatar.
The second error — or, if you will, sin — is the most central one: pride. “… for he sought therein to increase the power and glory of the part assigned to himself.” One could easily argue that pride was indeed at the root of all “The Sins of Melkor”, but for the sake of this analysis, I wanted to identify it separately, along with the others that were identified in this single paragraph. Hubris, an inflated sense of self, a desire to be more important than your equals, the usurpation of authority — it’s all pride, and Melkor had it in spades. Here, we see it simply as the drive for power and glory, but we see it in other forms throughout the story.
Next up, we see possessiveness. “… [D]esire grew hot within him to bring into Being things of his own…” It’s that last phrase that is so incredibly telling — “things of his own”. He didn’t want to create for the sake of creation, and he certainly didn’t want to create for the sake of Ilúvatar’s glory — he wanted to create so that he could possess.
The fourth of “The Sins of Melkor” is explicitly named in the text itself: impatience. “… [Melkor] was impatient of [the Void’s] emptiness.” Here, he does not trust in Ilúvatar’s timing or plan and, as a result, he chose to attempt to usurp the role of Ilúvatar.
Finally, we have an error that is easy to miss on the first reading: isolation, or withdrawal from community. “But being alone he had begun to conceive thoughts of his own unlike those of his brethren.” I’m not saying that being alone is always bad — believe me, as the father of two small children, I’m grateful for a little alone time now and then! — but here we have to look at the reason for his isolation. He was alone because he was seeking the Imperishable Flame, trying to usurp Ilúvatar’s authority, because he wanted to make things to possess. He was alone because of the other four “Sins”: rebellion, pride, possessiveness and impatience. As a result, his isolation made things worse — he was now thinking thoughts that were discordant with the thoughts of his fellow Ainur. This sort of isolation is a vicious circle: sin leads to isolation, isolation leads to error, error leads to more sin.
In a later paragraph in Ainulindalë, we add two more to the list:
- Deception, including Self-deception: “And he feigned, even to himself at first, that he desired to go [into Arda and fix what he’d done].
- Domination of Others: “But he desired rather to subdue to his will both Elves and Men… wished himself to have subjects and servants, and to be called Lord, and to be a master over other wills.”
In reviewing the entirety of the book for our retrospective episode, I started to realize that these errors show up in the lives of many of Tolkien’s characters. A reader fully expects Sauron to follow in the footsteps of his evil Lord — and it’s not a surprise that Sauron’s puppet, Ar-Pharazôn, shows the same traits. But the degree to which these same sins are seen in the lives of characters like Fëanor, Túrin and even Thingol is a bit of a surprise. But let’s take a look at one…
I know I’ve been pretty harsh toward Fëanor on the podcast — that Fëanor-shaped piñata has taken a mighty beating and is nigh-unrecognizable now [Indeed it has fallen to ash, with only a few unwanted pieces of black licorice on the ground left to prove it was ever here. – Ed.] — but my treatment of him is well-deserved. Let’s take a look at how each of the “Sins of Melkor” can be seen in Melkor’s mini-me.
Pride: in fairness, this one is universally applicable to the Noldor as a whole, as “all the Noldor had become proud”, and that certainly includes Fëanor. More specifically, we learn that he and his half-brothers “grew proud and jealous each of his rights and his possessions.” But… mirror, mirror on the wall, who’s the proudest of them all? Well, the Valar judged that Fëanor himself was “eminent in self-will and arrogance”, so there’s your answer.
Possessiveness: “Fëanor began to love the Silmarils with a greedy love…” and Tolkien himself (in Letter #131, again) said that “The fall of the Elves comes about through the possessive attitude of Fëanor and his seven sons to [the Silmarils].” In the height of his possessiveness, he refused to grant Yavanna the Light of the Silmarils in order to restore the Trees.
Impatience: There is a strong implication of Fëanor’s impatience in this line about his wife: “Nerdanel was also firm of will, but more patient than Fëanor…” He was also impatient when it came to obtaining more lands: “Fiercest burned the new flame of desire for freedom and wider realms in the eager heart of Fëanor…” And, of course, his impatience played a role in his pursuit of Morgoth — he erroneously believed the Valar were sitting “idle in grief” while he “delays not to assail [Morgoth]”.
Isolation: We can’t truly count the banishment from Tirion that he brought upon himself with his actions, but there were other moments. We learn that “Fëanor and his sons abode seldom in one place for long, but travelled far and wide… even to the borders of the Dark…” After his father, Finwë, married Indis the Fair, we learn that Fëanor “lived apart from them”. We also learn that he worked “ever swiftly and alone” and, crucially, that he “sought the counsel of none” except, for a short time, Nerdanel.
Domination of Others: earlier, we learned that Nerdanel was patient, while Fëanor was not. That same sentence includes another powerful implication: “… [she desired] to understand minds rather than to master them…” In other words, Fëanor sought to master the minds of others and he was often persuasive enough to do just that. Years later, Angrod would tell Thingol that his people had “become as if besotted with wine” when they listened “to the words of fell Fëanor”. And when he couldn’t persuade with words, he would resort to violence in his attempts to dominate — from threatening his half-brother with a sword to the chest, to attacking the Teleri in order to steal their ships, or burning those same ships in order to prevent his kin from making the journey safely.
Deception, including Self-deception: One word here: thralls. In his attempt to justify rebellion (that’s next!), he kept insisting that the Noldor were thralls of the Valar — mere slaves — and that they were being kept captive so that Men would rule Middle-earth. And, in a way, the Oath was the ultimate in self-deception: the belief that he could overthrow Morgoth was arrogant and foolish at the same time… and though he would later know “with the foreknowledge of death that no power of the Noldor would ever overthrow” Thangorodrim, he still “laid it upon his sons to hold to their oath”. Gee… thanks, Dad.
Rebellion: In the case of Morgoth, rebellion was the first error: not making his music in accord with Ilúvatar. For Fëanor, rebellion is the end result of his sins — the inevitable consequence of the series of choices that he had made. I do not mean his decision to leave Aman, as the Valar made clear that “as ye came hither freely, freely shall ye depart”. No, I mean his choice to persuade the greater part of the Noldor to accompany him into self-imposed exile, and his decision to break the law of the Valar in coming to Tirion while still under banishment, and his breaking of the law in slaying the Teleri. These acts were directly in contradiction to the just and legitimate authority of the Valar, as given to them by Ilúvatar.
This essay is already long enough without me going into the same level of detail for other characters — but if you take a moment to look through the text, you’ll see that these same sins plague the lives of of people like Eöl and his son Maeglin, and — in the Third Age — Saruman. You’ll also notice some of these same errors committed by characters who weren’t necessarily evil, per se, but whose mistakes were driven by some of these same sins: in the First Age, Túrin and Thingol come to mind, while Denethor is a good example in the Third Age. When otherwise good, or at least decent, people ended up making bad choices, they’re often driven by pride — or one of the others of these “Sins of Melkor”.
On the flip side, look at the exact opposite of these seven traits, and what do you see?
- Submission to proper authority
- Seeking the good of others
The characters who make these choices end up being the genuine heroes of the legendarium. Look for these good traits — as well as the “sins” — as we move into The Hobbit and, in a year or so, The Lord of the Rings. I’m fairly sure you’ll see them again and again.
1 For which we are very thankful — but I didn’t want to distract from the flow of the essay, so I figured a footnote would be more appropriate.
2 Rebelling against unjust authority is no sin — after all, who doesn’t love the Rebel Alliance?