The story of Fingon the Valiant epitomizes the fate of the exiled Noldor. The elements of extraordinary personal heroism combined with a foreordained doom come together to form the gripping foundation for the principle story, which makes The Silmarillion an example of epic storytelling at its best.
One may argue whether Fingon is a hero in a tragedy, or a tragic hero. The second would imply one who failed because of his faults. Yet, Tolkien’s characterization of Fingon contains none of the shades of overweening pride or fey compulsion that exists in the tales of Fëanor or his sons, nor any of the near saintliness that seeps into the biography of Finrod. Neither does the history of Fingon contain any explicit statement of regret on his part similar to that which one encounters, for example, in relation to Maedhros, Maglor, or even Galadriel.
Additionally, Fingon leaps out at the reader as a flesh-and-blood hero, with virtues and flaws. The poignancy of his tale is enhanced by the reader’s foreknowledge of the necessarily tragic outcome of the Doom of the Noldor.
Fingon was born in Valinor during the Years of the Trees, the eldest son of Fingolfin and Anairë, brother of Turgon and Aredhel. (Mention is made of a third son and last child of Fingolfin, Arakáno (1), who is not included in The Silmarillion.) Since Fingolfin was the eldest son of Finwë through Finwë’s union with his second Vanyarin wife, Indis (2), Fingon is three-quarters Noldor and one–quarter Vanyar. Fingon’s name in Quenya is Findekáno. (See discussion on the root of his name further down in this article.)
Fingon is perhaps best known for the description in The Silmarillion of his longstanding friendship with Maedhros (3). When he is spoken of in The Silmarillion, however, he is counted in his own right among “the great lords of the Noldor, Fingolfin, Fingon, and Maedhros, and Finrod Felagund” (4). There is no discussion in the texts of how Fingon received the appellation of “the Valiant” which is first used by Maedhros in the account of the burning of the ships by Fëanor (5).
It is interesting to speculate how Maedhros and Fingon acquired such affinity in Valinor, before the fracture within the ranks of the Noldor that was based upon loyalty to Fëanor or Fingolfin. There is no canon explanation for their closeness. (There is your hole, fanfiction writers, for inventing all manner of different circumstances under which they might have become friends and how that could have been affected by the tensions in Valinor between Fëanor and Fingolfin.)
One thing about Fingon that is made clear in The Silmarillion is his thirst for adventure, his ambition, and his desire to leave Valinor. The published version of The Silmarillion describes Fingon, along with Galadriel, as being among those who were anxious to leave the halcyon lands of Aman:
Galadriel, the only woman of the Noldor to stand that day tall and valiant among the contending princes, was eager to be gone . . . 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. Of like mind with Galadriel was Fingon Fingolfin's son, being moved also by Fëanor’s words, though he loved him little . . . . (6)
The tone of the above-cited paragraph might be found, interestingly enough, not to be disparaging of those among Noldor who sought to leave the tender mercies of the Valar, but rather to portray them as courageous and inspired.
The vast majority of the Noldor followed Fëanor out of Valinor and approached the port city of Alqualondë. Fingolfin’s supporters, led by Fingon, came after those of Fëanor in a separate body. Before the arrival of the remainder of the Noldor, Fëanor already had tried to persuade Olwe, King of the Teleri, to give the Noldor the ships needed to sail to Middle-earth and the Teleri refused to help.
When he [Fëanor] judged that his strength was enough, he went to the Haven of the Swans and began to man the ships that were anchored there and to take them away by force. But the Teleri withstood him, and cast many of the Noldor into the sea. Then swords were drawn, and a bitter fight was fought upon the ships, and about the lamplit quays and piers of the Haven, and even upon the great arch of its gate. Thrice the people of Fëanor were driven back, and many were slain upon either side; but the vanguard of the Noldor were succoured by Fingon with the foremost of the host of Fingolfin, who coming up found a battle joined and their own kin falling, and rushed in before they knew rightly the cause of the quarrel; some thought indeed that the Teleri had sought to waylay the march of the Noldor at the bidding of the Valar. (7)
It is unclear from the wording of the above paragraph whether Fingon believed that the Teleri had attempted to stop them on the orders of Valar or not. It is, however, clear that he and those in the vanguard, which he led, jumped into the fray and participated in what came to be called the First Kinslaying.
Wary of Fingolfin and his followers, Fëanor slipped away secretly with those he trusted and crossed the sea to Middle-earth. The Noldor hand-selected by Fëanor disembarked at Losgar at the outlet of the Firth of Drengist, leaving the followers of Fingolfin on the other side.
. . . Maedhros the eldest of his sons, and on a time the friend of Fingon ere Morgoth's lies came between, spoke to Fëanor, saying: 'Now what ships and rowers will you spare to return, and whom shall they bear hither first? Fingon the valiant? (8)
The above passage is significant because it refers to the longstanding friendship between Fingon and Maedhros and also is the first use of the name “Fingon the valiant” in The Silmarillion. When Fëanor refused to return for any of Fingolfin’s followers, “Maedhros alone stood aside, but Fëanor caused fire to be set to the white ships of the Teleri” (9).
When Fingolfin and his host discovered that they had been left without transport by Fëanor, rather than becoming discouraged, their determination to continue to Middle-earth only increased.
The fire of their hearts was young, and led by Fingolfin and his sons, and by Finrod and Galadriel, they dared to pass into the bitterest North; and finding no other way they endured at last the terror of the Helcaraxë and the cruel hills of ice. Few of the deeds of the Noldor thereafter surpassed that desperate crossing in hardihood or woe. (10)
The words of Fëanor in response to the pronouncement of the Doom of the Noldor by the spokesman of the Valar could aptly be used to describe the actions of Fingon for the remainder of his life in Middle-earth: “the deeds that we shall do shall be the matter of song until the last days of Arda” (11). His deeds and the events in which he participated rival the songs of courage, honor and loyalty, and the great battles recounted by the minstrels of the Middle Ages. The first and most spectacular of those is his rescue of Maedhros from the cliffs of Thangorodrim.
Upon his arrival in Hithlum, where Fingolfin’s company met up with the sons of Fëanor on the shores of Lake Mithrim, Fingon discovered that Morgoth had captured Maedhros.
Then Fingon the valiant, son of Fingolfin, resolved to heal the feud that divided the Noldor, before their Enemy should be ready for war . . . . Long before, in the bliss of Valinor, before Melkor was unchained, or lies came between them, Fingon had been close in friendship with Maedhros; and though he knew not yet that Maedhros had not forgotten him at the burning of the ships, the thought of their ancient friendship stung his heart. Therefore he dared a deed which is justly renowned among the feats of the princes of the Noldor: alone, and without the counsel of any, he set forth in search of Maedhros. (12)
It is important to note here that the text makes clear that it is at the initiative of Fingon that the plans were set in motion to resolve, or at very least mitigate, the worst of the division among the Noldor, which could have made their survival in Middle-earth problematic. The abdication by Maedhros of his right to the High Kingship of the Noldor followed Fingon’s initial design.
High upon the shoulders of Thangorodrim he [Fingon] climbed, and looked in despair upon the desolation of the land; but no passage or crevice could he find through which he might come within Morgoth's stronghold. Then in defiance of the Orcs, who cowered still in the dark vaults beneath the earth, he took his harp and sang a song of Valinor that the Noldor made of old, before strife was born among the sons of Finwë . . . . (13)
Maedhros answered his song and Fingon
. . . climbed to the foot of the precipice where his kinsman hung, and then could go no further; and he wept when he saw the cruel device of Morgoth. Maedhros therefore, being in anguish without hope, begged Fingon to shoot him with his bow; and Fingon strung an arrow, and bent his bow. (14)
Fingon called upon Manwë, saying: “O King to whom all birds are dear, speed now this feathered shaft, and recall some pity for the Noldor in their need!” (15)
At that point “Thorondor, King of Eagles, mightiest of all birds” and a messenger of Manwë stayed Fingon’s hand and bore him up to the precipice where Maedhros hung. Unable to unfasten Morgoth’s device, Fingon severed Maedhros’s hand and Thorondor carried them both back to Mithrim.
One of Tolkien’s earliest textual references to the character of Fingon, in The Lay of Leithian, is his own rendition of part of a song that might have been sung of that rescue:
Fingon daring alone went forth
and sought for Maidros where he hung;
in torment terrible he swung,
his wrist in band of forged steel,
from a sheer precipice where reel
the dizzy senses staring down
from Thangorodrim's stony crown. (16)
This verse, written decades earlier, is the echo of the statement in the published Silmarillion that “By this deed Fingon won great renown, and all the Noldor praised him . . . ” (17). Such praise, of course, would have taken the form of song.
With Fingon's rescue of Maedhros, the stage had been set for the reconciliation of the chief factions among the Noldor. Maedhros expressed regret for the desertion of the larger part of their people at Araman. The attention of the Noldor could then be turned to the solidification of their presence in Middle-earth and the formation of a strong defense against Morgoth.
After Fingolfin assumed the High Kingship of the Noldor, the lands of North Beleriand were divided among the princes of the Noldor as their own independent territories and for defensive purposes. Maedhros and his brothers took the northernmost areas, closest to Angband. While The Silmarillion says that the plan to block Morgoth’s forces at the north of the territories held by the Noldor was devised by Maedhros, the details emphasize that this was done in “common counsel” with the houses of Fingolfin and Finarfin.
Fingon became King of Dor-Lómin, in the west of Hithlum. However, it appears that Fingon continued to live in Eithel Sirion with Fingolfin even though he had his own realm to the west of mountains. In any case, he is in Eithel Sirion for some of the Siege of Angband and the Bragollach.
Fingolfin and Fingon his son held Hithlum, and the most part of Fingolfin's folk dwelt in Mithrim about the shores of the great lake; to Fingon was assigned Dor-lómin, that lay to the west of the Mountains of Mithrim. But their chief fortress was at Eithel Sirion in the east of Ered Wethrin, whence they kept watch upon Ard-galen; and their cavalry rode upon that plain even to the shadow of Thangorodrim … .
* * * *
But Fingolfin was held overlord of all the Noldor, and Fingon after him, though their own realm was but the northern land of Hithlum; yet their people were the most hardy and valiant, most feared by the Orcs and most hated by Morgoth. (18)
In the years following the victory of the Elves in the Dagor Aglareb, which began the period called the watchful peace of the Siege of Angband, Morgoth made at least one attempt to surprise Fingolfin, sending army into Hithlum from the west.
Fingon fell upon them among the hills at the head of the Firth, and most of the Orcs were driven into the sea. This was not reckoned among the great battles, for the Orcs were not in great number, and only a part of the people of Hithlum fought there. But thereafter there was peace for many years, and no open assault from Angband, for Morgoth perceived now that the Orcs unaided were no match for the Noldor. . . . (19)
One of the colorful and song-worthy feats of Fingon, in the great tradition of bardic tales, was his encounter with the dragon Glaurung, “the first of the Urulóki, the fire-drakes of the North” (20). Glaurung had come out of Angband and been harassing Elves and causing them to flee in terror before him.
Then Fingon prince of Hithlum rode against him with archers on horseback, and hemmed him round with a ring of swift riders; and Glaurung could not endure their darts, being not yet come to his full armoury, and he fled back to Angband, and came not forth again for many years. Fingon won great praise, and the Noldor rejoiced; for few foresaw the full meaning and threat of this new thing. (21)
The Siege of Angband, set in place by the victory of Dagor Aglareb, the Glorious Battle, was finally broken after a period of approximately 400 years of relative peace for the Noldor. Morgoth attacked in what came to be called the Battle of Sudden Flame or Dagor Bragollach. The offensive was characterized by terrifying eruptions of the volcanoes of Thangorodrim, which sent out rivers of flame, noxious fumes and clouds of smoke. Other fires, caused by Glaurung the Dragon, who had survived Fingon’s initial repulsion of him only to grow stronger, covered the grassy plains of Ard-galen.
The use of Balrogs and other hideous minions, along with tactical advantages, allowed Morgoth to accomplish his principal aims of scattering the sons of Fëanor and taking over parts of Finrod's kingdom. Fingolfin and Fingon were cut off in Hithlum and Orcs once again roamed free throughout the north. Due to severe losses, Morgoth had called back his hosts.
Fingolfin, however, devastated and enraged by the terrible losses inflicted upon the Noldor and their defensive alliance, made a suicidal, solitary assault upon the Gates of Angband, demanding single combat with Morgoth. Although he inflicted permanent injuries upon Morgoth, he was, not surprisingly, killed (22).
Fingon became the High King of the Noldor, inheriting a numerically weakened, physically fragmented, and, for the time being at least, demoralized alliance.
Fingon’s last valiant endeavor was to be his leadership of the western wing of the armies against Morgoth in the Nirnaeth Arnoediad (the Battle of Unnumbered Tears). There is no more heart-wrenching story in all of Tolkien’s work. Its tragedy is compounded by the optimism with which the armies of Maedhros and those of Fingon approached this battle, the enormity of its scope, and the totality of the defeat.
When Maedhros heard of the success of Beren and Lúthien in confronting Morgoth and gaining a Silmaril, he again took hope that they could defeat Morgoth. More importantly, he believed that if the Eldar and any allies they could recruit did not unite again to fight Morgoth then he would destroy them one by one. In light of his temperament, history, and hatred for Morgoth, it is virtually inconceivable that Fingon would not have shared Maedhros’s enthusiasm.
The Oath of Fëanor and the words and deeds of Fëanor’s sons, hindered the organizational efforts. Yet, the combined efforts of Maedhros, with his Union of Maedhros, and Fingon’s reputation and authority, enabled them to bring together a massive force. The armies gathered to fight Morgoth included Noldor, Sindar, Elves of Ossiriand, and Men of the Houses of the Edain and Easterlings, along with a significant participation Dwarves, both in the form of Dwarven warriors and their contributions of armament. Unbeknownst to the organizers, Turgon in Gondolin was secretly preparing to send troops.
Significant in their absence were the Elves of Nargothrond or any troops from Thingol in Doriath. Only “a small company, following Gwindor son of Guilin, a very valiant prince; and against the will of Orodreth” came from Nargothrond and Mablung and Beleg alone came from Doriath (23).
The proposed battle plan was that the armies of Maedhros would assault Angband from the east, marching “with banners displayed in open force over Anfauglith.” Maedhros would draw out Morgoth’s armies into the open and Fingon’s hidden forces would suddenly appear from the west and they would crush Morgoth’s troops between them (24).
On the appointed day, on the morning of Midsummer, the trumpets of the Eldar greeted the rising of the sun; and in the east was raised the standard of the sons of Fëanor, and in the west the standard of Fingon, High King of the Noldor. (25)
Anxiously awaiting the signal from Maedhros, Fingon did not realize that he had been delayed by false reports of a traitor in his ranks.
But now a cry went up, passing up the wind from the south from vale to vale, and Elves and Men lifted their voices in wonder and joy. For unsummoned and unlooked for Turgon had opened the leaguer of Gondolin, and was come with an army ten thousand strong, with bright mail and long swords and spears like a forest. Then when Fingon heard afar the great trumpet of Turgon his brother, the shadow passed and his heart was uplifted, and he shouted aloud: 'Utúlie'n aurë! Aiya Eldalië ar Atanatári, utúlie'n aurë! The day has come! Behold, people of the Eldar and Fathers of Men, the day has come!' And all those who heard his great voice echo in the hills answered crying: 'Auta i lómë! The night is passing!' (26)
The assembled armies were anxious to move, but Fingon held them back in adherence to the plan. Then the captain of Morgoth's forces had been instructed to draw them out by any means. He brought a prisoner onto the field, who had been held in Angband since the Battle of Sudden Flame, the brother of Gwindor; “they hewed off Gelmir's hands and feet, and his head last, within sight of the Elves, and left him” (27). This drove Gwindor, at the head of the troops from Nargothrond, into a frenzy and he charged forward and many others followed behind him.
And seeing this all the host of the Noldor was set on fire, and Fingon put on his white helm and sounded his trumpets, and all the host of Hithlum leapt forth from the hills in sudden onslaught. The light of the drawing of the swords of the Noldor was like a fire in a field of reeds; and so fell and swift was their onset that almost the designs of Morgoth went astray. Before the army that he sent westward could be strengthened it was swept away, and the banners of Fingon passed over Anfauglith and were raised before the walls of Angband. Ever in the forefront of that battle went Gwindor and the Elves of Nargothrond, and even now they could not be restrained; and they burst through the Gate and slew the guards upon the very stairs of Angband, and Morgoth trembled upon his deep throne, hearing them beat upon his doors. But they were trapped there, and all were slain save Gwindor only, whom they took alive; for Fingon could not come to their aid. (28)
Turgon had held his army back from that first preemptory onslaught, but managed to fight his way to Fingon’s side.
Then hope was renewed in the hearts of the Elves; and in that very time, at the third hour of morning, the trumpets of Maedhros were heard at last coming up from the east, and the banners of the sons of Fëanor assailed the enemy in the rear. Some have said that even then the Eldar might have won the day, had all their hosts proved faithful. (29)
The Orcs had been held back and some had begun to flee, when Morgoth sent forth his last onslaught of wolves, wolfriders, Balrogs, and dragons, including Glaurung, the dragon Fingon had wounded so many years before and not killed. The ranks of Maedhros and Fingon were swept apart.
Gothmog, Lord of Balrogs, high-captain of Angband, was come; and he drove a dark wedge between the Elvenhosts, surrounding King Fingon, and thrusting Turgon and Húrin aside towards the Fen of Serech. Then he turned upon Fingon. That was a grim meeting. At last Fingon stood alone with his guard dead about him; and he fought with Gothmog, until another Balrog came behind and cast a thong of fire about him. Then Gothmog hewed him with his black axe, and a white flame sprang up from the helm of Fingon as it was cloven. Thus fell the High King of the Noldor; and they beat him into the dust with their maces, and his banner, blue and silver, they trod into the mire of his blood. (30)
Thus, Fingon died as he had lived, his last actions to be lauded in song, his body destroyed in battle, but not his infatigable spirit.
The Silmarillion states that Fingon was the father of Gil-galad, the last High King of the Noldor.
Great was the lamentation in Hithlum when the fall of Fingolfin became known, and Fingon in sorrow took the lordship of the house of Fingolfin and the kingdom of the Noldor; but his young son Ereinion (who was after named Gil-galad) he sent to the Havens. (31)
This assertion is repeated later throughout the text, for example, in a section relating to the aftermath of the Nirnaeth Arnoediad:
But some went aboard ship and escaped by sea; and among them was Ereinion Gil-galad, the son of Fingon, whom his father had sent to the Havens after the Dagor Bragollach. (32)
In The Shibboleth of Fëanor Orodreth is named as Ereinion Gil-galad’s father. Christopher Tolkien has commented upon the various changes relating to his father’s thoughts on who might have been the father of Gil-galad, as well as how he himself came to make the choices he made when preparing the text for The Silmarillion. Principally, choosing a different father for Gil-galad would have caused a whole series of additional and related discrepancies in The Silmarillion. Among Tolkien scholars and readers differences of opinion abound on the question and a complete discussion of all of the candidates for father of Gil-galad is beyond the scope of this article.
The thing that readers should consider when taking hard positions on Tolkien’s notes in order to determine what ought to be considered the definitive and final canon is that he was prone to extensive re-thinking and re-writing. Are proposed wives or children canon when the facts have never been incorporated into any narrative? Relating to Fingon alone, Gil-galad was not the only proposed child or children inserted and removed from notes. In The Shibboleth of Fëanor, Christopher Tolkien notes that:
In all the genealogical tables Fingon's Quenya name is Finicáno except in the last, in which it is Findicáno (altered to Findecáno). In all the tables he is marked as having a wife, though she is not named; in the first, two children are named, Ernis and Finbor, Ernis subsequently becoming Erien, but in the final table they were struck out, with the note that Fingon 'had no child or wife'. (33)
Fingon is first referred to as Finweg, son of Fingolfin, in The Lay of the Children of Húrin, then later his name is changed to Fingon in The Lay of Leithian. Christopher Tolkien also notes that the name Finweg for Fingon survived into the 1938 version of The Silmarillionwhen it was emended to Fingon (34). In The Shibboleth of Feanor,
With regard to Findekáno/Fingon it may be noted that the first element was certainly Quenya findë 'hair' - a tress or plait of hair (cf. findessë a head of hair, a person's hair as a whole), but this is not conclusive proof that the name Finwë was or was thought to be derived from this stem. It would have been sufficient for Fingolfin to give to his eldest son a name beginning with fin- as an 'echo' of the ancestral name, and if this was also specially applicable it would have been approved as a good invention. In the case of Fingon it was suitable; he wore his long dark hair in great plaits braided with gold. (35)
In past period I have encountered some interesting discussions relating to the oft-repeated etymology of the names Findekáno or Fingon. (Could Tolkien really have been inspired to call one of his principal heroes Hair-shout?) Those who are interested in these details should read the article Linguistic Foolery by Darth Fingon, linked here, which addresses this question.
The outstanding personal characteristics of Fingon included his impetuousness and his capacity as one of the impressive warriors of literature. He was the one who, at the time Fëanor and his sons swore their Oath in Tirion, urged his father and others to join in the trek to Middle-earth. He led the first contingent of Fingolfin’s people to leap in to join the fight to secure the ships at Alqualondë. He ordered his troops into battle in what some have called an untimely manner, despite the provocation, in the Nirnaeth Arnoediad. Tolkien describes him as “bold and fiery of heart, and loath to abandon any task” (36).
The details of Fingon’s life and deeds were added to and edited over the decades that Tolkien worked on his history of the Noldor. However, his basic character and personality and the broad outline of his accomplishments remain the same. The following lines from The Lay of Leithian are reminiscent of the panegyric to Gil-galad as recited by Sam Gamgee in The Lord of the Rings (37).
The song of Fingon Elves yet sing,
captain of armies, Gnomish king,
who fell at last in flame of swords
with his white banners and his lords. (38)
The early version of the Quenta Silmarilliondescribes Fingon thusly:
His valour was as a fire and yet steadfast as the hills of stone; wise he was and skilled in voice and hand; troth and justice he loved and bore good will to all, both Elves and Men, hating Morgoth only; he sought not his own, neither power nor glory, and death was his reward. (39)
The Fellowship of the Ring
The Book of Lost Tales 2
The Lays of Beleriand
The Lost Road and Other Writings
The Peoples of Middle-earth
The War of the Jewels
Oshun's Silmarillion-based stories may be found on the SWG archive.
Character Biography: Fingon