The Silmarillion Writers' Guild :: Seven in '07, A Tribute to the Creativity Inspired by the House of Fëanor

Nerdanel by Breogán
"Nerdanel" by Breogán.

Nerdanel is the least discussed of the characters we've featured this month both in The Silmarillion and its accompanying volumes, and as the only Seven in '07 character not to follow Fëanor to Middle-earth, perhaps it seems odd that we've decided to devote a day to her at all. On the surface, to first-time readers of The Silmarillion and casual Tolkien fans, Nerdanel is easy to overlook. She is the wife of Fëanor and the mother of his seven sons, and rarely does she emerge as a character beyond these capacities.

Findekáno: “Uncle Fëanaro wore a simple black tunic, trimmed in silver, his only jewelry a simple mithril diadem and the Star of the House of Fëanaro glittering at his throat. No excessive finery there, yet he looked every bit the ‘greatest of the Noldor’ that he is reputed to be and the acknowledged heir to Grandfather Finwë. Aunt Nerdanel's hair gleamed golden red that night in contrast to her dark wine-colored gown. He held her close to him by her upper arm, as though to reassure her. But I sensed she also soothed him amidst the throng that contained so many he would rather avoid.”

Maitimo: “A stir behind me caused me to turn and see that Amil and Atar made their way to toward the front as well. My Amil holds her place at Atar's side with dignity--more striking of features than conventionally pretty. Both project a unique intensity; yet Atar's is brilliant and volatile, while Amil's is solidly strong and wise. I could not imagine Atar with a willowy, fine-boned woman of the cool perfection of my Aunt Anairë or the blond elegance and pale skin of my Grandmother Indis.”
~~~
Parallel descriptions of Nerdanel from Maitimo and Findekáno by Oshun.

But we do know a bit more about her. She was the daughter of Mahtan, a metalsmith with tremendous loyalty to Aulë. In this detail arises one of the key conflicts deduced by fans of the House of Fëanor: that Nerdanel, from a family traditionally servile to one of the Valar, should marry Fëanor, who later rebels against them. While Nerdanel's particular affiliations are never made explicit, her later estrangement from Fëanor and her reasons for it make it very likely that she shared her father's loyalty, at least to a degree.

Like her father and her husband, Nerdanel was gifted as an artist and craftsperson. According to "Of Fëanor and the Unchaining of Melkor" in HoMe 10, while it was uncommon for Noldorin women to work with metal and stone, Nerdanel did not shy from the challenge, and her statues were said to be so realistic that people would approach them and speak to them before realizing that they were not alive. In addition to such realistic pieces, Nerdanel crafted "… many things she wrought also of her own thought in shapes strong and strange but beautiful."

It almost feels like flying.

Nerdanel closes her eyes as the wind gently tugs her hair from its loose ties and water droplets splash onto her face.

"Fëanáro, it's-"

"Like flying?"

She tilts back her head as she swings forward so that Fëanáro's grinning face behind her appears upside down.

"No, it's raining." Her laugh carries through the rain between them as she swings back before a hand is suddenly pushing her. The laugh turns into a gasp as she goes forward with a lot more force and her hands tighten upon the ropes twined with flowers.

“Fëanáro!”

“Yes?” Another push.

“It will hold, won’t it?” Nerdanel asks anxiously as the swing goes higher and higher.

“Of course it will!” is the indignant reply followed by, “You are enjoying yourself?” Her feet tingle as she sees the ground falling back and a swooping feeling enters her stomach. It was almost like flying…

“Immensely,” she calls back as he pushes her hard with both hands. Her eyes close instinctively as she lets go of the ropes.

“Nerdanel!”

The grass is wet. She can hear the frantic note in Fëanáro’s voice as he flings himself on the ground beside her. His face is white and streaked with rain, inches from her own, eyes dark with a panic that melts into relief as Nerdanel lets out a shaky, breathless laugh.

That was like flying.”
~~~
"The Swing" by Noliel.

Perhaps it was these talents that made her so attractive to Fëanor. In the same passage from HoMe 10, it is said that Nerdanel was not particularly beautiful, and people wondered why he chose to marry her. Little about their marriage is made explicit in The Silmarillion or its accompanying works, but readers often interpret their marriage as one of great passion, in part due to the startling number of children they had together, more than any other couple among the Eldar on record. In the additions made to "Of Fëanor and the Unchaining of Melkor" in HoMe 10, it is said that in her youth, Nerdanel loved to wander in solitude, and there she met Fëanor, and they were afterwards traveling companions. While Nerdanel's age at marriage is not explicitly stated, it is said that Fëanor married in his "early youth," and many readers assume the same of Nerdanel.

Nerdanel, Fëanor Is Looking by Marja Kettner
"Nerdanel, Fëanor Is Looking" by Marja Kettner.
© Marja Kettner

Despite the misgivings of his people due to her lack of overwhelming beauty, Nerdanel was in many ways the perfect wife for Fëanor. Strong, independent, and creative, it is said in The Silmarillion that she could restrain the worst of his temper. Alone of all of the Noldor, Fëanor sought her counsel. But where Fëanor desired control and mastery over others, Nerdanel sought understanding, and she had greater patience and restraint. Perhaps for this reason, she is given the epithet "the Wise." In fact, until late versions of his drafts of The Silmarillion that appear in HoMe 10, J.R.R. Tolkien used the name Istarnië for Nerdanel, a name etymologically derived from words mean wise and wisdom according to The Etymologies in HoMe 5.

Nerdanel is the mother of seven sons, including a set of twins, both rarities among the Eldar. While Fëanor persuaded all of his children in the end to follow him into exile, Nerdanel's influence is nonetheless present. It is said that some of her sons inherited her mood more so than their father's. It is never said which of her children were so fortunate, but fan favorites for this honor are Maedhros and, particularly, Maglor.

Nerdanel slept.

Her body still posed, hair and sheets carefully arranged to hide pale skin beneath, the picture she made would meet only the barest definition of decency in Tirion. A green dress lay crumpled at her feet and one hand rested on her belly to caress the unborn children.

The room was silent save for the scratch-scratch of charcoal, harsh breaths indrawn whenever a stroke went awry. Smudged fingers tangled in his hair, tugged, left prints in red and black on his forehead. A rip, a rustle. A ball of paper hit the floor, rolled, stilled.

Scratch-scratch. Anew and hastier. Almost desperate. Rip. Rustle.

Were she awake, Nerdanel would have coaxed her husband into smiles and kisses by now, and whispered (even now never without a blush to her already reddened cheeks) a better use for passion than to spend it in anger. The imperfect sketch would be flung aside, for her to find, afterwards.

But now Nerdanel slept, and upon waking would find, in the empty room, only wisps of burnt paper that a breeze had swept from the fireplace. She wept to see herself so charred by the flames... and knew what time would tell.
~~~
"Untitled" by Elleth.

But it is the story of the twins presented in The Shibboleth of Fëanor in HoMe 12 that provides perhaps the most insight into Nerdanel's relationship with her children and also her husband. According to this late addition to the story, Nerdanel gave the twins the same mother-name Ambarussa at birth. At Fëanor's request that they be named differently, she changed the name of one to Umbarto, meaning "fated," though she said time would choose which son would properly deserve it. Fëanor was displeased by the ominous name and changed it to Ambarto. Nerdanel worried little over this; the child's name may have changed, she said, but his fate had not.

He watched her working diligently in his forge. Her hair was damp with sweat, falling in loose tendrils about her face. Fëanor knew his wife would work feverishly until the piece of iron she hammered at became something useful. Nerdanel rarely made anything that was not practical. But as he watched, he noticed what she was creating: a shield with their family’s crest on the front. Seeing her work so hard, for a cause she hated, sent a thrill down his spine: it was infectious. Grabbing his leather apron, he went to her side, startling her.

“Two birds told me you were in here,” he murmured, taking the tools out of her hands.

“The twins talk too much,” she muttered, swearing under her breath, which no longer surprised him. He also noticed her face, which was sooty, yet streaked with tears. “It was meant to be a surprise,” she said, indicating the shield.

“It is. I thought you were against us leaving?”

“I am. I don’t want you to go. Since I cannot change your mind, I want you to at least be well-protected.”

“So, you do not hate me, then?”

“I love you! I will never stop loving you.”
~~~
"The Gift" by Isil Elensar.

As Fëanor prepared to leave with his sons for Middle-earth, Nerdanel intercepted them and asked him to leave the twins with her, or one of the twins at least. Fëanor retorted that if she wished to keep her family, she would have to act as a proper wife and accompany them. Angered, Nerdanel retorted that one of the children would never set foot in Middle-earth. Fëanor refused to believe her misgivings and left without her, taking all of the children.

True to Nerdanel's prophecies, one of the twins did not survive to stand upon Middle-earth. After arriving in Losgar, he remained on board his ship, supposedly to sleep in comfort. However, it was believed that he'd been upset by his father's deeds and sought to sail his ship back to Valinor to return to his mother. When Fëanor burned the ships, he did not know that his youngest son was still on board, and the aptly named Umbarto perished in the blaze.

Nerdanel by Oloriel
"Nerdanel" by Oloriel.

He doesn't look back.

I am standing upon the stairs of our old home, arms folded as if I were cold – and I am, although the morning is warm, the breeze gentle.
He doesn't look back.

Our sons, oh, they do, and I can see in their eyes that they don't understand. I doubt he understands: He'll feel betrayed.
He doesn't understand that if I do not betray him now I will betray both of us. I cannot do that. But how I long to cry, "Wait!", to run after them!

I watch them leave.
I do not look away.
~~~
"The Parting" by Oloriel.

The story presents the lengthiest scene involving Nerdanel that we are given in all of Tolkien's works, and it not surprisingly reveals much about her character. Her courage in standing up to Fëanor at the peak of his madness reveals her personal strength, and we see also that Fëanor's hold on his sons is not as invulnerable as their later unflagging loyalty to him and his oath appears to be. At least one of the seven considered returning to her, going so far as to take action to do so … and losing his life for it.

It was most generous of Indis to let her live here, but to Nerdanel it was too close to the Vanyar who simply made her feel insignificant and ugly with their beauty. Yet, Indis accepted her as a long lost daughter now that Fëanor left Valinor months ago. Did it hurt to be parted from him? Nerdanel buried the answer deep inside her and refused to speak about it while she played with her wedding band which reminded her of those who left her here.

She felt empty. Empty of love, empty of emotion, but other needs gnawed inside her. Sometimes in the deep of the night Nerdanel sought some relief, but not that which she craved for. Her hands and memories were all that were left to her now and she tried to douse those thoughts in craft as she worked on her art.

Little she knew that he observed her. Nerdanel had the habit to start early and sit down late in the evening on her stool to mould another stature to her muse that ruled her actions. As she sat there, Tilion watched her movements and beheld her rough beauty while reckless thoughts bubbled up in his mind.
~~~
Excerpt from "Healing of Moonlight" by Rhapsody the Bard.

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Horseback Riding by Noliel
"Horseback Riding" by Noliel.

This scene also reveals the reason--or part of the reason--why Nerdanel probably left Fëanor in the first place. While The Silmarillion explains it as "his later deeds grieved her," little detail about which of his many darker deeds inspired such action, or even at what point in their history the estrangement occurred. In "Of the Silmarils and the Unrest of the Noldor" in HoMe 10 comes the surprising note that, after Fëanor's banishment to Formenos, Nerdanel would not go with him and asked leave to abide with Indis, setting the time of her estrangement from Fëanor more precisely to some time before he left for Formenos.

However, the exact reason is still unknown, though their conversation in the passage about the twins in Shibboleth begins to shed some light on it. Here, Fëanor calls her "cozened by Aulë," and it is revealed that her father Mahtan had been warned by Aulë not to participate in the rebellion as "[i]t will in the end only lead Fëanor and all your children to death." Fëanor's reply to her fears that one of their children will not reach Middle-earth is to "[t]ake your evil omens to the Valar who will delight in them," leading to the conclusion that he knew about Aulë's warning and the continued influence of the Valar on his wife. Was it a matter of ideological differences, her loyalty in light of his rebellion--and his perception that the Valar had directly caused his father's death and the theft of the Silmarils--that led to their estrangement? Or was it, as other researcher's and authors have proposed, his poor treatment of Fingolfin and the increasing sway of the Silmarils on his affections and sanity?

Suddenly, Nerdanel awoke, and a terrible agony exploded in her fëa. Tears coursed down her cheeks unchecked as awareness dawned on her. Feeling Tyelkormo's powerful spirit leaving his ruined hröa astounded her in anguish. Fair as the stars, yet fierce tempered, Celegorm was gone, cursed and never to return from Namo.

Then, another sharp pain flooded her senses and she knew that her dark one had departed as well. In her mind, the crimson currents, his final resting place surfaced. 'Caranthir, my dear son, I will never hear your deep laughter again.'

Then, the final blow tore her fëa asunder: her mournful cries filled the air when she felt Atarinkë slip away. So like Fëanor, Curufin was full of unquenchable fire, yet, he squandered his staggering skill to fight a war not of his making.

'Oh Fëanor, how could you bring such splendor to life and to ruin? Could you not see that your most remarkable creations were the ones we created together? Seven unique, flawed, yet luminescent beings, once pure before the merciless whores of your handiwork robbed them of their senses, driven mad by your cursed oath. Left behind, I mourn three eternal flames that have been extinguished.'
~~~
Excerpt from Fëanorian Fates Series by Alassante.

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I do not know why I remain: ages have passed, but none of my sons or my love has returned to me. I do not understand this longing and the not knowing lies heavily upon my fëa. Was Fëanor right, and is that why my son’s wives shun me? Did I misjudge my actions; did they all think I would forsake them? I gave life to seven children, each so unique, and determined. Should I have hushed my angry voice, suppressing my fear, uncertainty of the future? This house shattered upon an Oath: a hush that now defines our lives.
~~~
"Hush--Nerdanel" from The Voices of Silence by Rhapsody the Bard.

Regardless, Nerdanel ended up first alone and then a widow while her children perished one by one in a foreign land. Yet her influence extends beyond that of the mere mother of rebels and kinslayers. While Tolkien had done considerable writings on Nerdanel, all but a few lines about her were cut from the published Silmarillion. One of those lines that remained gave her credit for restraining Fëanor and also for providing temperance in the moods of her sons.

Nerdanel in Halle by Marja Kettner
"Nerdanel in Halle" by Marja Kettner
© Marja Kettner.

Fëanor's rebellion could have come sooner and with less legitimacy had he not been influenced by his wife. As it was, his rebellion occurred with just cause, even if the deeds that followed were not always done with goodness and fairness in mind: after the betrayal of Melkor, the murder of Fëanor's father, and the theft of what had, by then, become important symbols of strength and accomplishment. And despite the predominant awfulness of their deeds following the rebellion, the sons of Fëanor did show the occasional kindness, and one can easily imagine that this was inspired by their mother Nerdanel. These deeds, however small, would resound through the ages and help to lead Middle-earth out from thralldom first under Morgoth, then Sauron, until it was indeed as Fëanor had predicted at the gates of Tirion:

Is sorrow foreboded to you? But in Aman we have seen it. In Aman we have come through bliss to woe. The other now we will try: through sorrow to find joy; or freedom, at the least.

And so Nerdanel is a wife and mother, yes, and by some accounts, partly to blame for the mess her husband and sons made in Middle-earth. But beyond that, she is a peacemaker and a voice of reason in a family overwhelmed by paranoia and grief. Though she never set foot in Middle-earth, never hefted a sword in war or rebellion, and often easier overlooked and even more quickly forgotten, Nerdanel's role in establishing peace in Middle-earth is nonetheless present for those--like her--apt to understand and appreciate subtleties.