In Tolkien’s writing, the Valar have an infuriating habit of giving the corrupted members of their order like Sauron and Morgoth a wide breadth, protecting only certain parts of the world and those who choose to live there rather than confronting the dark lord du jour directly, leaving it to men and elves to manage the situation. And Olwe and Fingolfin have more cause to resent this tendency than most people do. A meditation on courage, tragedy, and divine inaction.
(Be forewarned, this story involves canonical character death and battle violence. Also, the Kinslaying and the Akallabeth.)
Lords of the West
Fingolfin stood on the field of battle and looked out across it, and he nearly wept at the sight. Even Maglor’s Gap was abandoned. And Angrod and Aegnor – his chest tightened at the thought – his nephews lay dead and buried.
But Turgon was still safe in Gondolin, and Aredhel with him. And Fingon was safe in Hithlum, though that fortress had become a lone isle in a sea of enemies. How long could it stand? The plains before Angband were teeming with orcs, and balrogs flew overhead, grabbing up elves and dwarves and men and letting only ash fall in their place. How much longer could Gondolin and Nargothrond stand against Morgoth, if all the warriors who might help them died here today? Fingolfin knew Morgoth would never let him escape, with honor or without it, but the others might yet live to fight another day. His sons would have need of them.
That thought set a fire in Fingolfin’s heart. He told his guard, quickly and quietly, to fall back to whatever safe places they could find, and then pulled himself atop Rochallor, his great horse. Sounding a mighty call on his war-horn, he rode forth alone, making as quick a line for Angband’s gates as he could manage. The balrogs flew before him, gathering at the fortress and leaving his armies in peace. Behind him, he heard other horn calls from his generals, ordering the archers and spearmen to give cover while they arranged their retreat.
When at last he reached the gate he sheathed his sword and called out to Morgoth, taunting him until at last the Dark Lord himself came out. As the gates opened he quickly dismounted and unsheathed his sword, slapping Rochallor on his flanks so he might find what safety he could.
He set his foot back and bent his sword arm, almost without realizing what he did. In his head he heard a child’s voice cry “First!” and he smiled at the absurdity. He and his brothers had taught their sons this stance and others besides when they tutored them all in swordsmanship, the children’s grandfather looking on and scoring points. Other visions struck Fingolfin, then. His father’s body, pale and bloodied, lying dead in Formenos. The Trees drained of their lifeblood and the darkness that had thrust his world into shadows. The carnage of Alqualondë. Aracano, his beloved son, lost forever beneath the Grinding Ice. If Morgoth wanted a fight, he would have it.
Fingolfin lunged forward, his sword glancing off Morgoth’s wrist-guard. That would hardly count as a point, but it did mark him as a bold adversary. Morgoth swung his hammer to the side, overbalancing, and Fingolfin stepped to the side just in time. The elf brought his blade around and attacked once more, this time nicking Morgoth’s forearm. Morgoth gasped in pain, and Fingolfin gave a great laugh, hoping he sounded as fearless as Tulkas had in those great wars before Yavanna ever sang the Trees into being.
Morgoth gave a great bellow and pulled his hammer out from the ground. Fingolfin chose that moment to kick at his ankles so Morgoth, dark lord though he was, fell back against the hard earth, and blood flowed down Morgoth’s palm where the skin had broken. All around them, the orcs shuffled back – had it ever occurred to them their master could suffer injury? – but before Fingolfin could cry victory, to taunt the orcs or perhaps even unnerve Morgoth, the dark lord regained his footing. Morgoth pulled his shield in a great arc, catching Fingolfin’s shield arm under the elbow and throwing it far over his head. Fingolfin heard a loud crack and he knew at once the shoulder was dislocated and would be near useless. That could hardly be helped, though. Letting his shield fall, he brought his sword arm across his chest and prepared to deflect Morgoth’s next attack.
Lunge, parry, back-step, attack: the dark lord and the high king moved back and forth. Fingolfin counted off the points in his head: a cut calf, a forearm that must be bruised under all that armor, a grunt when Morgoth put too much weight on his right ankle. Morgoth towered above him and had a girth no elf could hope to match, but how long had it been since he had fought in battle himself? He brought his hammer down too slowly, set his feet almost clumsily when he tried to step aside. Perhaps Fingolfin could even win –
Almost before he saw it, the broad side of Morgoth’s shield came up under Fingolfin’s chin, snapping his head back and knocking him to the ground. And again: Morgoth brought its sharp point across Fingolfin’s face using it as a knife to cut him from temple to chin. The shield descended once more, this time slicing deep into his calf so he could not move. Finally Morgoth took up his hammer once more and brought it down squarely on Fingolfin’s chest. Fingolfin struggled for breath and swallowed against the blood welling in his throat, struggling to sit up. Grimacing in pain, he took up his sword once more and reached once more for his enemy, plunging it into Morgoth’s foot.
The dark lord jumped back, and Fingolfin tried to give a final defiant smile. Something. Anything. But no: he gave one last cough, spitting blood against the collar of his kingly tunic, and fell back into darkness.
For a long moment Fingolfin teetered on the brink of death, surrounded in darkness. He heard the impact of Morgoth’s hammer beside him, thrown down in victory and felt the orc’s glove around his ankle as he was dragged off to Angband. Then he heard the eagle’s caw and the hiss of the orcs, and he felt his leg drop to the ground once more. Talons dug into him, and he would have called out in pain if he could have spared the breath. He imagined himself laughing bitterly. Had Manwë’s servants been so nearby that they could rescue his body but not stand against Morgoth in his stead? They were at least on par with the dark lord’s might. Then the darkness took him, and for a long while he knew no more.
Fingolfin vaguely remembered waking in a well-lit chamber, a bed full of soft pillows and his father gently holding his hand between his own. Then there was a voice he had heard once before in another life, and Vairë’s voice – he’d met her once at festival, as a child – lulling him to sleep with the songs his mother had sung when he’d been sick as a child. And then a gull call, and a more natural light and, far away, the roll of the tide. His father was gone but in his place sat Olwë, holding a cup of water to his lips and encouraging him to drink. Had he died? And was he now alive?
He drained the cup and sat up, surprised that he managed it so easily. Raising his hand to his cheek, he traced his finger along the scar Morgoth had given him. It was there, certainly, but did not feel the least bit tender. Rolling his shoulder he found it healed as well.
Olwë clapped him on the back and gave him his arm to grasp as Fingolfin swung his legs out of the bed and stood up a little unsteadily. “Valinor gives thee welcome, Fingolfin,” he said congenially. Then, more congenially, like the uncle he had become after their families were bound by marriage, he pulled Fingolfin into an embrace. “Welcome home.”
Much to his surprise, Fingolfin felt tears welling up in his eyes. “You hardly owe me this greeting,” he said. “After Alqualondë.”
Olwë looked away and walked over to a dresser across the room, retrieving underclothes and linen breeches and tunics. “Think not on that,” Olwë said, and if his voice was a little more strained than normal, he was not as rueful as Fingolfin would have expected. “No one leaves Mandos’s halls until the living will accept them freely and in peace, and you would not be here if the Teleri still held that dark day against you. And you have paid a high enough price since then without me heaping more pain on you for that madness.”
He handed Fingolfin the clothes and stared at them pointedly. “You are healed now, in body at least, and no hale son of my house will lie about in bed. We have something of a surplus of elven-kings at the moment, but I’ll find something for you to do. Get you dressed and come down to eat when you are ready.” He walked over toward the door and, just as he was leading, called over his shoulder, “And do not linger. Lunch is nearly ready, and if Eärillë must come after you, she won’t be half as pleasant.”
Olwë’s idea of appropriate work, as it turned out, was quite different than Finwë’s had ever been. He guessed the Teleri must have a royal court like the Noldor had, but Olwë would let him nowhere near it. That seemed a wise move, once he thought about it. Instead, Olwë had declared that what Fingolfin needed most was warm sun and busy hands. He’d set Fingolfin up with a chair in the orchard and a small mountain of cotton that needed carding.
His second afternoon at this task, a great carriage rode up to Olwë’s house and Anairë came tearing through the trees, pulling him into a warm kiss that spoke only of the years that she had missed him and nothing of what had kept them apart. Much later, when at last she let him return to his appointed work, she fetched a chair from the house and sat by his side, helpfully pointing out to him how he might do the work better. Somehow, Fingolfin couldn’t make himself mind.
Eventually, when he’d carded all the cotton his uncle had on hand, and shelled enough peas to see a city through a siege and drilled Olwë’s young granddaughter at Vanyarin declensions until even Eärnis, that mule-headed excuse for a pupil, had gotten them right more often than not, Olwë suggested he might like a career of sorts. Diplomatic work was hardly an option if he wanted to remain in Alqualondë, for the obvious reason that forgiveness was one thing but the full trust required for politics quite another, but Olwë guessed the Noldorin gift for building things might yet lie in his hands.
Fingolfin had started off whittling wooden animals, carefully cutting the marlin’s snout until it was nearly razor sharp, then mastering the oliphaunt’s gently curving tusk until Eärnis had a menagerie that any child might have envied, before Olwë promoted him to wheels and carts and, finally, toy boats. Then he’d worked with manuals and planning notebooks for months in his s study, developing more efficient sails and a curved barge that might slip through the water more easily. Some days he walked down to the docks with Olwë to investigate how their work was taking shape in practice, or to correct some flaw that only became apparent when some innovation was tried out at sea.
Fingolfin guessed that mariners with thousands of years to perfect their trade must surely have already worked out solutions for any problems he could hope to address, being so new to the work, but in his heart he knew his uncle had been right about busy hands. If the final product had already been devised an age ago, well, that did not seem such a waste to him.
One day, as Olwë and Fingolfin made their way along the docks, Olwë stopped him in front of the skeleton of a small ship. “What do you make of it?” he asked.
Fingolfin walked around the structure, taking in the angles of its crossbeams and the height of its mast. “There’s not much to see,” he said honestly, “and it seems just a small ship.” They had been developing a better way to map the stars than the ones Fingolfin had learned so far, and he couldn’t imagine this ship going far enough out to sea to need such developments, even when completed. “Is this ship special somehow?” he asked.
“Only in that you will build it,” Olwë said. “And I will help you. I haven’t built a sloop since I was Eärnis’ age. It will do me good.”
“But surely Alqualondë – ”
“Shall get along well enough with only a few hours of my time. I have a grown son and a small army of councilors who can run many things well enough in my stead.”
Fingolfin had never worked so long in the sun, and though Olwë had given him a salve to guard against the sun, by the third day he took it for granted and, when he forgot to apply it one morning, he didn’t think a single day would do him any serious harm. By mid-afternoon his back had been as red as a lobster, and he’d spent the next three days abed, moaning with the slightest movement. He’d also earned other scars – a black thumb from where he’d missed a nail and caught his finger instead, a cut above his eye where he’d lost hold on a plank he was carrying – and by the end of the month Anairë had laughed that she thought she’d married a son of the king, not a tradesman. Then she had kissed him on the cut and on the scar along his cheek and sent him off to bathe. Somehow he doubted she minded his new work overmuch.
Slipped in between advice on how to hold the nail and companionable silence, Olwë began to tell him of the goings-on in Valmar and Middle-earth and especially Númenor. In years past his folk had sailed to Rómenna and traded with the men there. They hadn’t sailed back openly for long years now because the kings were hostile to Elves and Olwë had no desire to make life more precarious for the Elf-friends than it was already, but he had kept up an interest in that people’s welfare, and he was none too pleased with the way things were going for them.
“It is hardly their fault,” Olwë said one in exasperation, “or at least not solely their doing. Truly, the Valar have bungled things with Númenor since they first raised that island out of the sea.”
Fingolfin had cocked an eyebrow at that. “And here I thought criticizing the Valar was a Noldorin vice. Take care with your words, or they’re like to exile you to Formenos.”
“Your charming brother pulled a sword on you at court, without the slightest provocation, if memory serves,” Olwë answered. “But even there, they managed that whole affair quite badly.” He took on a more serious tone. “You are correct on one point: this talk is not meant for all ears.”
Fingolfin nodded his understanding. “We are both kings, by blood if not by current title. I know the value of discretion.”
Olwë told him, then, of how badly things were transpiring in Númenor those days, and how to his thinking most of it could be traced back to a fundamental misunderstanding of mannish nature on the part of the Valar. Firstly, they had taken one group of men and separated them off from all the rest, giving them peace while abandoning the others to Morgoth’s old allies and underlings. Then they had set a Ban, prohibiting the Númenóreans from sailing west, and then in their unbounded wisdom had sent Ingwë of all the fools to allay the Númenóreans concern about mortal deaths.
“Ingwë!” Fingolfin laughed. “That pompous fool! Why didn’t they send you, if you know them so well?”
“He is king of the Vanyar, and you know better than most how they will play their favorites. But Ingwë was the worst representative they could have chosen. The Númenóreans’ fears were reasonable enough, truly, and made the worst because they are forbidden from sailing west so they never see the pain of overlong life. And Ingwë would not answer them honestly, nor admit that their fears were ever well-placed. He told them to accept their proper place almost as a matter of faith, and would then say no more.”
Fingolfin groaned. “I knew little enough about Men, but I can well imagine how the few I knew in Middle-earth would accept that advice. Or how I would, if I’d been in their place.”
“They will turn east,” Olwë said sadly, “for Manwë has forbidden them any other option. And there they will find the forsaken lands, the men left to Sauron’s tender mercies when the Valar let the evil things flourish, when they overthrew Morgoth at last.”
Fingolfin felt his heart sink within his chest. This story was simply too familiar. Without even realizing that he did so, he lifted his hand to his cheek and traced the old scar. “I am familiar with Morgoth’s tender mercies,” he said after a moment. “I cannot imagine men would bear up much better under Sauron. Why do the Powers not intervene? Do they even say?”
“They would say it is for our sake,” Olwë answered. “Or for theirs, now, I suppose.” He sighed. “With Morgoth they had an excuse. Perhaps. He at least had like power to their own. But with Sauron they do not have even that excuse.” He considered Fingolfin, as if judging just how freely he should speak with him. At last Fingolfin put words to the thought he guessed he shared with Olwë:
“They want their pets, and the rest of us can go hang.”
Olwë quirked a half-smile. “None too eloquent, that, but I think you have it. I don’t doubt they mean well, and perhaps they began wishing to save what they could. But they should not have left the men to handle Sauron on their own.” He looked pointedly at Fingolfin’s scar, and Fingolfin guessed the words he left unsaid as easily as if he’d given voice to them: that Manwë should not have had Thorondor hang back as he did, any more than he should leave Sauron to the strength of men. He had chosen to go back to Middle-earth, and he’d chosen once more to challenge Morgoth the way he had. Let that fall on his shoulders. But let the choices he’d been offered fall on Manwë’s as well. What right did he have, truly, to leave his brother unchecked so smaller hands must manage him as well they could? Even when that meant not at all?
Not long after, the two men stopped work for the morning and went back to Alqualondë. Olwë, he assumed, lost himself in the business of the court, but for his part Fingolfin could not stop thinking about the way Thorondor had reached him so quickly when Morgoth threatened to desecrate his body. He thought, too, of other things that had never crossed his mind before. How when the Valar had banished Fëanor to Formenos, they might as well have banished his father as well. How they had promised the Elves safety and all the while let Ungoliant slink around their back doorstep. How Námo had cursed the Noldor for pursuing the one who had killed their king – his father – and trying to take back what was rightfully theirs. How they had been happy to sit by while Elu Thingol and so many others were consumed by the darkness overwhelming the world they had made.
Olwë had declared him hale in body, and for a long while Fingolfin had believed it. Then why did his scar ache so? And why did his heart feel near to breaking?
Fingolfin and Olwë finished the sloop not long after that, and Olwë took up the task of ruling Alqualondë more fully, leaving Fingolfin to his own devices. He found a sailor willing to teach him how to manage his ship, and he would take it for long sails around the harbor. He would drag a net behind him and deposit whatever fish he caught at the market just off the wharf, but for the most part this was just an excuse to take the world in. He found it peaceful, somehow, to drift on the water and peer through his spy glass at the horizon, trying to make out where Númenor lay. How did those folk fare, he wondered?
He had reason to be concerned. Gil-Galad had sent word of a great battle to the south of Middle-earth where the Númenórean king had sailed on Sauron’s dominion with a great fleet, and all his allies and slaves had fled at the site of Ar-Pharazôn. Sauron had made himself a prisoner, Gil-galad said, but he was not at all convinced the new dark lord didn’t have some larger plan at work. Fingolfin quite agreed, and that news sat poorly with him.
All things considered, he was hardly surprised when he spied a black cloud rising above Númenor. The sun gleamed off a great gold dome – new, so far as he could tell – and the smoke was more a whisper than a conflagration. Still, he knew in his bones this was no chimney at work. Just as he knew, when the great black clouds passed out from Valmar and traveled in a straight line for Númenor, he knew it was no weather of the world.
And just as he knew, when the earth shook and when the rains pelted against his window like orc-arrows, a rain that did not let up for three days, that this had gone further than even the Valar had intended.
By the time the rain had stopped, Fingolfin felt a great drive to get out of the house. He really wanted to put some distance between him and Aman, but he guessed the bay would still be too choppy for a boat ride. He could at least check on his sloop, though. His feet almost itched to feel the sand between his toes. More than that, he hoped to convince himself that his fears about the storm (he refused to call them conviction, now that the almost preternaturally foul storm had passed) were misplaced.
Pulling his boots and cloak on, he hurried out of the house and rode down to the docks. This section was strangely deserted, although he saw a great swarm of men some ways down the beach. He started walking toward them, to see what had drawn them there. Before he could even reach the end of the dock, however, he saw Olwë leaning against a piling, the blood drained from his face and his eyes red from tears. Pale and bloodied, he realized with a shock, but not yet dead. “What is it?” he asked.
Olwë shook his head as if lost in thought. “The beach. It is like the Kinslaying, come back to life.”
Fingolfin took out his spyglass and peered further down the beach, taking several steps along the docks to get a better view. He saw his sloop caught against its dock, its mast broken in half and a gaping hole in its side. His boat! It would take weeks to repair all that, even if he could be spared. He saw another boat, a rowboat turned hull-up, and – was that a boy caught under it? No, two boys, their hands clasped tightly together, not much older than Eärnis. What had he been doing out on the sea in this storm, alone? Then he saw the rounded ear peeking out from beneath his hair and realized he was mannish. That made no sense, unless –
Slowly the full horror of the scene laid out before him began to sink in. The great warships, capsized and with the sails of scarlet and gold. The lines of bodies laid out along the beach. The spots of scarlet here and there against Alqualondë’s white sands. The black clouds sent to Númenor, and the quakes, and the storms that seemed more like an enemy assault than foul weather. And his king – this man who was the nearest he had to a father, who had seen two sons laid out in just a line such as this, so long ago.
Running back to Olwë, he embraced his uncle and laid a strong hand on his shoulder. “It is not the Kinslaying,” he reminded him. “Your people are well. But these strangers have need of your kingship.”
Olwë closed his eyes and breathed deeply, trying to steady himself. There was no ash in the air, no burnt flesh. Less blood. Would that help, perhaps? At last the king opened his eyes and laid his own hand on Fingolfin’s arm. “It is too much. I would hold our people together, but who can bear up under this, after all our eyes have seen? My hands are too small.”
Fingolfin held out his own hands. “Then trust mine. These hands struck Morgoth seven times, and they drew blood. And they are now calloused through good, hard work. Worked hard by you, no less. And your hands are stronger than you think. They embraced a kinslayer and made him kin once more.” Somehow he found the strength to smile, and he gave his voice what he hoped was a conspiratorial tone. “Besides, in moments like this, the Valar stand back and act not. We are braver than that.” And steeling himself, he walked Olwë down the dock.