Even with boats, traveling from Valinor to Middle Earth was fraught with peril. This was not an era of regular transoceanic crossings; the Teleri made the trip exactly once. It’s not 100% clear why they even kept the boats, although given that each swanboat was an art object, maybe it was just on account of prettiness.
So while Fëanor would have liked to have just sailed due east, the reverse course of the magic island his parents had ridden to Valinor centuries earlier, that wasn’t an option. Instead, the Noldor hugged the coast, sailing northward on a sea route that paralleled the way Morgoth and Ungoliant had gone on foot.
There were Teleri in Valinor besides the population of Alqualondë; the Noldor skirted their coastal settlements as they proceeded. While the kings of the Vanyar and the Noldor were Ingwë and Finwë, respectively, that is, two of the three eleven patriarchs who were the first Calaquendi, the king of the Teleri was Olwë. Olwë was not the third patriarch; that was Olwë’s brother Elwë. Why Olwë and not Elwë was king in Valinor is a story for another time. At the moment, just be aware that Olwë and Finarfin were related by marriage, and that Olwë was super bitter about the whole massacre-of-the-elves and theft-of-swan-boats thing. He petitioned his good buddy Ossë to smash the ships, but Ossë refused to intervene, on account of the Valar had decided to just left Fëanor do whatever and not try to stop him by force.
Ossë was not, as you might have assumed, the Poseidon-analog Vala, but rather an Aquaman-like Maia whom Olwë happened to be friends with. The Poseidon analog among the Valar was named Ulmo. Incidentally, the list of elves now includes not only Finwë, Fëanor, Fingolfin, Finarfin, and Fingon, but also Elwë and Olwë. I’m not even mentioning Elwë and Olwë’s third brother, whose name (not making this up) is Elmo. It’s a lot to keep track of, I realize. We’re moving quickly here.
Despite Ossë’s refusal to miraculously destroy the Noldor flotilla, a whole series of storms rose from nowhere and nearly destroyed the Noldor flotilla. As near as I can tell, this happened because the ocean itself was angry with Fëanor and the Noldor who followed him. Many of the swan-boats were lost, and many of the Noldor had to march up the coast on foot. This was precisely what Fëanor had wanted to avoid in the first place, you remember, because he was worried about desertion if the trip took too long.
And sure enough, desertion happened. As the Noldor reached the mountainous terrain in the far north of Valinor, Mandos (the oracular prophet-type Vala) appeared before them. Mandos uttered a massive prophecy, warning that the House of Fëanor was on the road to ruin, that the terrible Oath of Fëanor would destroy them, that the kinslaying at Alqualondë was but a sign of the awful things to come if the Noldor kept down this path. Turn back, suggested Mandos, and be forgiven, and dwell in peace in Tirion once more. Those who insisted on this irrational course, the Dispossessed, would be doomed to epochs of tragedy and grim memory in Middle Earth, in this Age and in the Ages to come.
Some, like Fëanor and Galadriel, sneered at Mandos’s warning. But Finarfin and significant percentage of the Noldor took the deal. They apologized to the Teleri, returned to Tirion, and lived happily ever after. Fingolfin would have liked to have gone back, too, but he saw his sons and followers were still all fired up by Fëanor’s charisma. Fingolfin wasn’t willing to abandon his people to Fëanor’s mad whims, so he stayed, too.
The Noldor host pushed on, until they reached the glacier that connected the Undying Lands to Middle Earth. And there they stopped. I don’t know if you’ve ever seen a glacier. I walked around on one, when I was in New Zealand on my honeymoon. It was a tiny, tame glacier, and we were part of a big tour group, and it nevertheless felt quite powerful; the bigness of nature against just me and some shoes with spikes on them and a bunch of other tourists mostly from Australia. I can’t imagine what the Helcaraxë (that was the name of this glacier) must have been like, but I can tell you that when Fëanor, Fingolfin, and Galadriel saw it, they immediately abandoned their plan of walking across it. Morgoth had walked across it, but he was literally Satan. Ungoliant likewise, but she was literally Shub-Nigurath.
On the one hand, they were so close to Middle Earth that they could literally see it! Elves had crazy-good telescopic vision, you may recall from the Two Towers. Fingolfin could peer hundreds of miles across the sea and eye the rocky shore of Middle Earth. Don’t complain about this; there was no curvature of the Earth to deal with, because the planet was flat at the time. But on the other hand, in terms of marching there, they were further from Middle Earth than ever.
Instead, they decided, they would take the boats across. Unfortunately after the last of the storms, only a handful of swanboats remained; not enough to transport the entire Noldor host, even after all the desertion. So they planned multiple trips, ferrying the elves across.
Fëanor and Galadriel and all Fëanor’s most fervent followers were in the first group.
“This is stupidly frustrating,” Galadriel complained to Fëanor as they sailed east. “I want to be a queen! I want it so bad I can taste it. I want to get to Middle Earth and make my own gardens, with no Valar to answer to. And I shall not be dark, but beautiful and terrible as the Morning and the Night! Fair as the Sea and the Sun and the Snow upon the Mountain! Dreadful as the Storm and the Lightning! Stronger than the foundations of the earth. All shall love me and despair!”
“I totally feel you!” Fëanor shouted back. “Although morning and sun are both anachronistic concepts!”
The day that Fëanor, his sons, Galadriel, and all their followers arrived in Middle Earth was a momentous one. Several things happened, which I’m going to relate with a series of slides, as is my wont. Bear in mind this was not a literal twenty-four hour day, on account of the sun and moon still hadn’t been finished.
Image: Fëanor counting noses as the Noldor sailors ask him who they should bring over next — Fingolfin, his followers, who?
Image: Fëanor tapping his foot impatiently, then declaring that Fingolfin was a useless fool and his followers were total loads.
Image: Fëanor ordering the swan boats brought out of the water, and ashore. Confused Noldor forming teams and hauling with ropes.
Image: Fëanor literally cackling with insane glee as he burns the swanboats, declaring that none of his people should ever return to Valinor, not even to pick up Fingolfin.
Image: Galadriel eyeing Fëanor as he rants in the light of the burning ships, realizing that maybe, just maybe, she’s backed the wrong horse.
Image: Fingolfin, back in Valinor, peering with elf-eyes and seeing this happen. He isn’t even surprised; this is classic Fëanor.
Image: Fingolfin’s followers debating whether to try the Helcaraxë Alpine Crossing, or to turn around and slink back to the Valar and apologize, or just to march into the sea and drown. Each option seems to have a roughly equal chance of ending well.
Image: Fingolfin leading his people across the incredibly difficult Helcaraxë glacier into Middle Earth. They don’t all make it.
Image: the first human men and women, who had been sleeping on riverbanks in Middle Earth since the creation of the world, awake at last.
Image: the sun finally rising for the first time. The Years of the Trees are well and truly over; this is the dawning of the First Age of Beleriand.
NEXT: WAIT, BELERIAND? WHAT? Or WHAT ELWË WAS DOING INSTEAD OF RULING IN VALINOR
(Interpolation watch: there are several extant versions of Galadriel’s crossing from Valinor into Middle Earth in the huge mass of scribbled notebook pages that are JRR Tolkien’s unfinished works. The story I just related corresponds to precisely none of them. Maybe that’s a strike against it, but on the other hand, this version of the story underlines what exactly Galadriel was talking about when she told Frodo she had passed the test and would be allowed back into Valinor, in Fellowship.)