To explain what Fëanor and Fingolfin and Galadriel and all the other Noldor found, when they arrived in Middle Earth, we have to roll back the clock a ways, and tell the story of the Sindar. In the Years of the Trees, centuries earlier, Ingwë, Finwë, and Elwë, the three elven patriarchs and the first Calaquendi returned to Middle Earth from their initial scouting of Valinor.
“You guys are not going to believe how great these Trees are!” was the gist of their report.
Soon Ingwë’s people — the Vanyar — packed up and migrated westward. They rode a magic island, courtesy the Valar, and were the first elven nation to reach the Undying Lands. Right behind them were Finwë’s people, the Noldor; they took the magic island over on its second trip. Elwë led his people, the Teleri, westward too, but along the way he was distracted by the Valley of Stardusk, an especially magical forest located on the route to the west coast. While the rest of the Teleri camped outside and waited for stragglers to catch up, Elwë explored the forest.
There he met one of the Maiar, the demigod servants of the Valar. Her name was Melian, and while she wasn’t technically a servant of Yavanna (the gardening, plant-loving Vala responsible for Ents and also Radagast the Brown) they had a lot in common. During the Valar’s expedition to capture Morgoth back in part I of this history, she’d encountered the Valley of Stardusk and become enchanted by its old-growth beauty.
Long story short, Elwë was instantly smitten with Melian when he saw her and Melian, having never actually seen an elf before as far as I know, was flattered by the attention. Their mutual attraction blossomed into love, and they held one another for a timeless age, deep in the enchanted forest of stars and dusk and star-dusk.
This was great for Elwë and somewhat less great for all the other Teleri, because they didn’t know what the heck had happened to him. They searched high and low for their patriarch, but couldn’t find him, what with the forest being a magic forest and him being enmeshed in sexytimes. Olwë, Elwë’s brother, and their friend Cirdan led the searches, but their scouring of the land was in vain. When the magic island showed up to ferry the Teleri over to Valinor, as had been done for the Vanyar and the Noldor, Elwë was still in the forest. They weren’t about to leave without him, so, they missed the island.
Afterwards Elwë finally appeared, with Melian on his arm. They announced that they were married, which was great for them, and that they were going to be staying in Middle Earth after all. Any of the Teleri who wanted to stick around could, otherwise they could go on to Valinor, whatever. Elwë was fine with whatever they wanted to do.
Olwë and Cirdan exchanged nervous glances, because Elwë was one of the Calaquendi; he’d seen the light of the Trees. Therefore he was better than all the other elves, and was literally the boss of them. They were making this migration on his say-so; should they abandon it now, as he had? And if they didn’t abandon the trip, how were they going to reach Valinor? They’d missed the magic island, and it wasn’t coming back.
Fortunately Cirdan had a revelation. He was sitting on the shore, staring at swans, and it struck him: he could build giant artificial swans made of wood that the elves could ride to Valinor! And so he became Cirdan the Shipwright, and built the very first ship. (Ulmo, the Poseidon-type Vala, might have helped him.) Cirdan’s initial plan was to be on board the first ship west, but then he had a vision (perhaps courtesy Mandos, the oracular Vala) that whatever ship bore him westward from Middle Earth would be the very last ship ever to reach the Undying Lands. So instead he settled down on the west coast of Middle Earth, and spent the next several thousand years building ships and putting elves on them and sending them west. He was aboard the last ship, the one that took Frodo and Gandalf and Elrond and Galadriel all westward at the end of Return of the King. (Continuity error: decades later a very old Sam Gamgee took the very last ship West, so maybe Cirdan was on that ship and not the one with Gandalf? It’s unclear and not worth worrying about. Probably I’m misunderstanding something.)
So Cirdan settled down and built a shipyard and lots and lots of ships. Eventually he realized that he could make ships that didn’t look just like swans. Olwë led the Teleri westward aboard these ships, and Elwë stayed behind with a significant fraction of his people. Elwë and his remnant became known as the Sindar, the Gray Elves. As the centuries went on, the Sindar started drifting linguistically away from the Quenyan spoken by the Vanyar and Noldor and Teleri; Sindarin and Quenyan are closely related but distinct languages. Elwë found his name growing heavy on the tongue, and so changed it from the Quenyan-sounding Elwë to the more modern Elu Thingol.
Thingol called the nation he settled Doriath. For centuries, he was the only Calaquen outside the Undying Lands. Also he was married to a literal angel. Basically he was the king of all of Middle Earth. Everyone respected him greatly, including the dwarves, who popped up around this time and who aren’t important to the history of the elves so we’re moving on quickly. The Laiquendi elves, aka the Green Elves, also showed up around this time; they were descended from the Avari, the elves who said “no thank you” back when the three elven patriarchs evangelized about the light of the Trees. The Laiquendi founded Lindon, a nation neighboring Doriath, and for a while everything was cool.
This whole big region was called Beleriand, which probably means “country of seafoam” or something like that, on account of its most important feature was the fact that bordered the great sea separating Valinor from Middle Earth. Cirdan ruled a loose confederation of coastal settlements, called the Falathrim or Coastal Elves. Thingol ruled the Sindar in Doriath (just inland from the coast), and Denethor ruled Lindon further inland still. Denethor should not be confused with his millennia-later namesake Denethor the Steward of Gondor; this Denethor was just J. Random Green-Elf. He’s not important.
Things were good. Unfortunately it didn’t last forever. Back in Valinor, Morgoth stole the silmarils and fled to Middle Earth; there he riled up all the balrogs and orcs and so forth. When Morgoth found out there were elven nations in Middle Earth now, he wasted no time in launching an invasion. In his first strike Morgoth’s army of orcs penetrated deep into Lindon, conquering a big swathe of Beleriand and killing many Green Elves, including Denethor. I told you he wasn’t important. Frankly I’m pretty sure this nation of Lindon only existed so that Thingol would have something to avenge.
And avenge he did! Thingol led the Sindar and surviving Laiqunedi elves against Morgoth in a counter-invasion, which went pretty well all things considered. Meanwhile another force of orcs came down from the north and attacked Cirdan’s coastal settlements, looping around Doriath.
The Falathrim fought off the orcs as best they could, but they were mere Moriquendi; they hadn’t ever seen the light of the Trees! Their cities were soon besieged. Cirdan and the other Falathrim circled the wagons and mourned that there was only one Calaquendi in all of Middle Earth, and he was busy in the east rescuing Lindon. Who could rescue Cirdan and the Coastal Elves from the orc invaders?
If only there was a force of Calaquendi warriors led by the inventor of the alphabet and his 6’4″ niece with impossibly gorgeous hair! Perhaps they could have just sailed over on stolen swanboats constructed by Cirdan himself?
NEXT: THE BATTLE UNDER THE STARS!