Middle-earth Profiles: Maedhros
Maedhros was the eldest son of Feanor and Nerdanel and the grandson of High King Finwe of the Noldor Elves. He was heavily involved in the drama within the nobility between his father and uncles, Fingolfin and Finarfin. There was mutual hostility between the brothers and unfortunately it also extended to their children as well.
However, Maedhros differed from the rest of his family because he was close to his cousin and Fingolfin’s son, Fingon. As the disputes intensified and Feanor went into exile, their friendship came to an end. Maedhros followed his father during his exile from Tirion, his parents’ estrangement, and his father’s call back to the city of Tirion after Finwe’s murder and the theft of the Silmarils. There, new High King Feanor declared his intention to go back to Middle-earth, retrieve the Silmarils, and avenge Finwe’s murder. The Oath of Feanor is declared, decreeing that the these goals will be achieved at any and all costs, eliminating anyone who gets in their way: Elf, Human, or Valar. Maedhros is the first of the sons to swear fealty.
Maedhros later partakes in the Battle of Alqualonde where the first elf-on-elf killings take place. This doesn't sit well with many of the Noldor combatants: most joining the battle late without knowing that their king was it’s instigator. Furthermore, the Valar of judgment, Mandos, exposes Feanor’s role to the tribe and bans him and his family from ever returning to Valinor.
The Noldor split, with Finarfin breaking all ties with his brother and leading the repentant remnant back west where they are forgiven and allowed to remain. The rest of the tribe continue on, though with bitter resentment. Realizing this, Feanor decides to leave behind the doubters and sail to Middle-earth with his family and the faithful. Maedhros obeys, but asks to send some ships back to get the rest of the tribe. The High King however decides to literally burn his bridges, starting with the very ships they arrived on. Maedhros was the only one who did not participate.
He later fought in the Dagor Nuin Giliath and the Noldor’s first victory over Morgoth’s orcs. During the battle, a victorious Feanor rides too far ahead and is mortally wounded by a reinforcement of balrogs. Maedhros and his brothers arrive just in time to save him, but their father dies, binding them to the oath they swore in Tirion.
The oldest son now becomes the new High King and Morgoth sends word that he is willing to negotiate a surrender with the Noldor. Maedhros suspects treachery and goes with a larger force, and so does the Valar. Another battle erupts but this time, Maedhros is defeated and captured. Morgoth tries to ransom him, but the rest of the brothers don’t respond. It is then that the new sun arises for the first time as the rest of the tribe arrives after crossing the ice fields of the north with heavy loss, lead by Fingolfin.
Due to the bad blood, the two factions remain separate from each other while Maedhros remains pinned to a mountain side by Morgoth. Fingon goes off and rescues the High King, though at the cost of cutting off his pinned hand. This act brings the Noldor back to the table, but is still tense because of Feanor’s betrayal and that his bitter brother holds his nephews responsible. However Maedhros, humbled by his cousin’s actions and renewed friendship, decides to resolve the issue by surrendering his title to his uncle.
While most of the Noldor are content with this decision, Maedhros’ brothers, who by and large were unrepentant for their father’s actions, are not. Maedhros is still the eldest brother and they reluctantly follow his authority in the matter. After receiving word from High King Ellu Thingol of their allowance to stay in the northern lands of Beleriand, Maedhros decides to move his faction to northeastern region: in alliance with Fingolfin, but distant enough that there will not be civil war.
For his part though, Maedhros retained his relationship with his uncle and cousins, and shared intelligence on the enemy’s movements. He set up a powerful base on the Hill of Himring. From here, he contributes greatly to the wars against Morgoth.
In time, he hears about Beren and Luthien’s theft of a silmaril from Morgoth’s crown. He sends word to Thingol about the oath of his father and to give them the jewel. Thingol refuses outright because of brothers, Celegorm and Curufin’s actions against his daughter during her quest, but Maedhros doesn’t pursue the matter further. Rather, he is inspired by their actions and works with his cousin, the new Noldor High King Fingon, in the northwest, to launch one final war against Morgoth.
Maedhros not only recruits allies from new-come migrating Humans, but the Dwarves of the Blue Mountains as well. He begins by taking back territories the Noldor lost in the Dagor Bragollach War, and the plan was to combine forces with Fingon’s armies in the west and trap Morgoth’s armies from both sides. Yet the war becomes a disaster: Morgoth’s secret, Human agents among Maedhros’ command delay him with lies.
Yet the alliance rallies and the two groups eventually combine and hem Morgoth’s army and push forward. Even after Morgoth sends in his vast reserves, the alliance still holds and victory seems at hand. Then the agents among Maedhros’ forces flip sides, killing their Elven allies and causing chaos. Morgoth’s main forces succeed in breaking through the alliance forces and after killing the traitors, Maedhros and his brothers are forced to fall back, with the Dwarves covering their retreat.
The Nirnaeth Arnoediad War completely destroys the Noldor power to the north. High King Fingon is killed. The survivors flee south, are captured, or killed, and Maedhros is forced to abandon his fortress at Himring to go further south.
Decades pass and Maedhros eventually hears that Beren and Luthien’s son, Dior and Nimloth, his wife, have inherited both Doriath and the Silmaril successfully taken from Morgoth. His brothers are determined to obey their father’s will. Maedhros sends word to the new High King of Doriath to give up the family heirloom. Dior ignores it.
His hand now forced, Maedhros gathers the remaining Noldor faction under his command and attacks Menegroth, Doriath’s cave fortress and capital. The battle is fierce and bloody and three of Maedhros’ brothers are killed, but the remaining sons are victorious. The Silmaril however escapes with Dior's daughter Elwing.
Maedhros now has become sick of the oath. When Elwing is later tracked to the Havens of Sirion, he nearly decides not to go, but the oath drives him on. She again escapes. Finally, Morgoth is defeated by reinforcements coming out of Valinor and the Silmarils are recovered.
The remaining sons of Feanor again send word to the victorious army to surrender the recovered Silmarils. Eonwe, the Maiar in charge of the army refuses them, replying that the crimes committed by Feanor and his family have made the oath void.
Despite Maglor’s desire to just want to leave things alone finally, Maedhros now feels compelled by the oath to complete their promise, even though its suicide. Later, they kill the guards and seize the last two jewels, finally completing their father’s task that was made long ago in Tirion. The encampment is alerted and the thieves find themselves surrounded and about to be killed, but Eonwe forbids it and allows them to escape.
It seems that they are finally victorious, but then the jewels themselves began to burn the brothers’ hands, confirming Maiar's judgment. Driven to complete despair, the eldest son of Feanor finds a chasm of fire and throws himself into it, taking the jewel with him and leaving Maglor the sole remaining survivor of Feanor’s immediate family in Middle-earth.
"Ultimately, Maedhros’ is driven in life by duty and purpose because these have always surrounded and been placed on him."
First in Line
Maedhros’s most prominent feature is his position within the family as the eldest son. It feels implied that he feels an extra, heavy obligation to Feanor, even when he disagrees with his rash decisions. He followed Feanor into exile, and stood by him during the judgement of the Valar and his uncle Fingolfin. He for a time forsook his friendship with Fingon, his cousin when the family estrangement was at its highest, and when it finally broke after Alqualonde.
The first time Maedhros actively goes against Feanor’s will is ironically after his death and his rescue by Fingon, when his inherited title is given freely to his uncle. His brothers protested but Maedhros asserted his authority as the oldest son, forcing their obedience. He uses that authority again to bring his father’s faction into the east of Beleriand, putting distance between the kin and preventing civil war.
As the First Age continues, the younger brothers began to start bucking Maedhros’ authority. Celegorm and Curufin leave and temporarily take over Nargothrond in a bloodless coup, but are later evicted out of the kingdom and return. Later, he hears about High King Thingol’s possession of a Silmaril, and feeling obligated, send out warning to surrender it or be destroyed. Though Maedhros doesn't follow up on the promise when Thingol refuses, the Curufin and Celegorm still let Thingol know they intend to destroy Doriath when they return from their last war with Morgoth.
So his position as eldest son allows Maedhros to somewhat reign in his brothers’ violent impulses for a time. It also allows him to maintain a relationship with the other Noldor lords despite his immediate family estrangement. As time wore on though, that authority seems to loosen, not relinquishing it completely, but allow himself to be more easily influenced.
It is also because of this his family position that I feel that Maedhros would be the son who most keenly felt the call of the Oath of Feanor. He was the eldest and therefore was the one accountable, though all seven swore the promise. It’s reminiscent of a scene in 2004’s Spider-man 2 where Harry Osborne is confronted by his dead father’s spirit to avenge his death at Spider-man’s hands, despite being the hero being his best friend.
Ultimately, Maedhros’ is driven in life by duty and purpose because these have always surrounded and been placed on him. Beyond that and unlike some of his brothers, he is not motivated by, or has any personal ambitions. That part of Feanor he did not inherit.
The King Without a Crown
Maedhros’ next trait is his charisma and leadership. He clearly inherited this from his father, but was much more level-headed and until the end of his life, never losing sight of the bigger picture. When he was High King, Maedhros already knew Morgoth to be untrustworthy and came prepared for it, though it wasn’t enough.
While his brothers may have seen his voluntarily surrendering the crown to their uncle Fingolfin as a sign of weakness, Maedhros was quickly able to establish that he was no weak leader: with or without a crown.
He controls his brothers disapproval, prevented civil war within the Noldor, and works with Fingolfin and Fingon to remain allies. Maedhros was one of the few elf-lords not under a false sense of security to the northern threat. This came in very handy during the Dragor Algareb and Braggolach wars. If there was one thing he bettered his father at, it was his situational awareness, though still flawed.
To that end, the Nirneath Arnoediad War had been his idea to end the centuries long standoff. It is during this war that his major flaw in his leadership skills is revealed.
Part of Maedhros’ charisma is his impulsiveness. When he sees an opening, he’s almost unable to stop himself and his drive is infectious enough that it takes others in with it. When he begins the war, it had not occurred to him that freeing up the northern lands first before the main campaign would alert their enemy to their intentions.
Or perhaps Maedhros was aware of it and simply ignored it because unlike what happened before when he was captured, the elf-lord believed he was holding all the cards this time.
However, this is not his father’s mad rashness. Maedhros simply becomes so optimistic that he doesn't recognize or appreciate what could go wrong. There is no plan B. While this was also a trait of Feanor’s, his son didn’t act from an irrational mindset like Feanor. At least in this sense, Maedhros was not mad. He waited till he saw the opening and when strength was on his side.
Speaking of Feanor’s madness, while Maedhros didn’t display those traits while he was ruling Himring, he nonetheless still did inherit an aspect of it. Sudden, intense, and uncontrollable outbursts runs deep in Finwe’s family. With Maedhros, this inheritance only reveals itself at the end of his life.
Either way, optimism not only blinds Maedhros to the unseen damage undermining his alliance, but also to the delaying tactics that kept him from linking up with his western allies when the last war was in full swing. Actually, I find it amazing that the none of the Noldor ever caught on to how effective Morgoth’s intelligence had been at causing them grief and sabotaging their efforts at every turn.
As a warrior, Maedhros further cemented his reputation as a true leader, being even better with only one hand, than he was when he had both. His skill and tenacity were driven by that same focused optimism I spoke of before. And was also enough to hold the Hill of Himring against the enemy’s onslaughts when other northern territories were collapsing left and right. He survived the up-close-and-personal betrayal of their Human allies, to whom their backs were turned. And being in severe desperation and depression, was still able to fight against Eonwe’s guards fresh off their victory from the War of Wrath. Maedhros is nothing if not driven and as fiery with the sword as Feanor, but only as long as he has a purpose to fight for.
"For a long time, it seemed that eldest son of Feanor had escaped the father’s sins. Like Maedhros was trying to distance himself from Feanor’s legacy. "
The Nail That Sticks Out
Perhaps more interesting than his leadership and martial skill is Maedhros’s relationships. Its what sets him apart from his family and also what binds him to them. From the start, he stands apart because of his friendship with his cousin, Fingon, while he was living in Valinor. This is despite the fact that Feanor and as far as known, any other of his sons, were distant from their step-family. This proves to be a lifelong friendship, surviving even the Alqualonde slaughter, Mando’s judgement, and Feanor’s betrayal. It’s Fingon’s loyalty that inspires Maedhros to start to see the error of his father’s ways.
The relationship with his father is more complicated. Maedhros is clearly loyal to Feanor, obeying him at every turn until the Dagor Nuin Giliath, and being the first of his sons to swear to his oath. At the same time, he also clearly contrasts with him by continuing relations with his kin. I wonder if this was more of Nerdanel, his mother’s influence, but regardless it's highly unlikely this went over well with the rest of his immediate family.
For a long time, it seemed that eldest son of Feanor had escaped the father’s sins. Like Maedhros was trying to distance himself from Feanor’s legacy. If I had to guess, I would say that towards the end of his life, Maedhros’s view of Feanor was that he was more of a burden. The oath he had chosen to swear to him in Tirion for a time estranged him from Fingon, has led Maedhros to be just as red-handed as the rest of the family, and had sabotaged his efforts to retrieve the Silmarils: the whole point to the oath in the first place. Feanor became less of a father to Maedhros and more of a haunting curse: again, like Spider-man 2’s Harry and Norman Osborne.
Maedhros’ middle-of-the-road tactics was a major sore point between him and his brothers. While he maintained communications with his kin in the western Beleriand, the rest of Feanor’s sons never interacted with them unless driven by need. Even then, they were considered to be as treacherous and untrustworthy as their father. Perhaps in their eyes, having the head of their house making happy time with their father’s enemies didn’t inspire trust in Maedhros' leadership and smelled of disloyalty.
You could almost argue that they kept distance their distance from Maedhros as well. Two of them did try to take over another realm far away from Maedhros’s jurisdiction to create their own power base. However, Maedhros was the strongest of the seven, and his Himring stronghold was the only bastion of the sons’ not to fall to war. So one way or the other, they had to deal with him.
Perhaps the most interesting relationships is with Fingolfin, Elrond and Elros. Reason being that they never should have happened. Feanor and Fingolfin had a lifetime rivalry because of Finwe’s two marriages. Despite Fingolfin's efforts, the rift was never healed. However, Maedhros was not only quite willing to work with his uncle, but also highly respected him: perhaps more so than his own father given that he credits his uncle for being wiser. It's ironic that the connection that Fingolfin was looking for from Feanor, he instead found in his son, Maedhros.
The twins of Elwing and Earendil are notable because of the circumstances. Maedhros had just lead an assault on the Havens of Sirion. He was not only responsible for the children's’ plight, but also for the death of their grandparents, Dior and Nimloth, as well as many other Elves they knew at the Havens. That should’ve be more than enough for Elrond and Elros to not trust him.
However, Maedhros was always the son most reluctant to act on the Oath of Feanor and by this point he was sick of killing and the albatross it had become. Perhaps the boys sensed this, allowing a type of Middle-earth version of Stockholm Syndrome to kick in. Either way, Maedhros’ remorse results in him taking in the twins as his wards and remains so until he leaves to retrieve the Silmarils one final time.
The Life of the Curse
At this point I think it's worth talking about Feanor’s Oath. In many ways it is just as much a character in Middle-earth as the later One Ring of Sauron. Oaths in Middle-earth have as much weight as the concept of honor in Eastern societies: they transcend the words that are spoken and bind the fate of people who swear them and those around them. It becomes something of a quasi-spiritual deadline. An invisible chain that to complete the oath is to be released from it, where as to fail it becomes a crushing weight upon the soul: haunting them continuously.
Though it was made out legit desire to regain stolen items and avenge a murder, the Oath of Feanor is tainted by the lengths that Feanor himself attaches to it and gains a life of its own that outlasts his death. Like Sauron’s relationship to the One Ring, he seemingly binds a significant portion of his power and drive into it. And like with the One Ring, it's only a burden to those who try to resist it’s power.
And this was the case with Maedhros. After Dagor Nuin Giliath War, Maedhros tries hard to not be violently obsessive like his father. Though he wants to regain the Silmarils, he doesn't want to do it at the cost of everyone else around him. The first to bind himself to it, Maedhros now finds he cannot escape his choice and it eventually drives him to suicide because its the fulfillment of the oath that destroys him.
He was driven by his goal of retrieving the Silmarils and avenging his grandfather. Now both were done and yet the Silmarils reject him, making all his efforts, actions, and sacrifices pointless.
Sins of the Father
Maedhros, more than anyone in the First Age, best epitomizes the tragedy of Feanor’s legacy. He inherited all the best characteristics from his parents and was not easily susceptible to the negative ones he also got. He actively sought to be everything Feanor was not and for a time, seemed to have succeeded. Yet despite all this going for him, is still constantly sabotaged by his family’s malice, obligation to commit massacres, and even a defying Maiar's judgment. By the end, he effectively has no people as he ends up repeating his father’s actions. No one trusts him now or wants anything to do with him, even though of all of Feanor’s sons, Maedhros was the only one who consistently tried to do the right thing.
He tried to balance out family loyalty with his own moral code, perhaps redeem his faction’s reputation among the Elves. Maedhros was what Feanor’s family would look like if they were not impulsive, violent, and self-centered. Nerdanel would have been proud of him. Yet Maedhros could not overcome the power of the legacy, as it literally pushed him over the edge despite his efforts pushing back.
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
© 2019 Jamal Smith