Picture it: Fingolfin, high king of the Noldor, sharing a glass of wine with his esteemed colleague Thingol, high king of the Sindar. Suddenly a messenger bursts in.
“Sires! Everything is on fire!”
The kings exchange quizzical looks, and question the messenger. Surely everything isn’t on fire. Is Dor-lomin on fire?
Is Ard-galen on fire?
All of it? Ard-galen is a pretty big region.
“It was a pretty big region. Now it’s a pretty big ashpile.”
What about Lothlann? Himring? Dorthonion?
“Fire, fire, and fire.”
Well, surely Eastern Beleriand is all right. What of Thargelion? What of Lindon?
“They all burned. They all burned up.”
In the 455th year of the sun and moon, Morgoth unleashed Glaurung and a new generation of dragons upon Middle Earth. Behind them ran orcs, trolls, and balrogs, a massive host bred over centuries. All the lands of the Noldor collapsed almost overnight. As elves fled southwards the flames overtook many, and they fell and burned. They called it the Battle of Sudden Flame, but it wasn’t much of a battle. Mostly it was the first full-grown dragon in history and his legion of children, burninating across the landscape.
Finrod’s citadel Nargothrond and Turgon’s citadel Gondolin were both safe. Morgoth didn’t know where Gondolin and Nargothrond were located; they were secret cities. Menegroth, and in fact all of Doriath, were protected by the magic of Melian, Thingol’s Maia queen. Alas, Fingolfin, though the high king, lost his capital at Mithrim; Mithrim had been founded in the earliest years of the Noldor’s presence in Middle Earth and was thus less defensible. Many of the Noldor outposts, the picket line Fingolfin and the sons of Fëanor built to contain Morgoth, survived, but were besieged.
Fingolfin, overcome with rage and grief at his failure to protect his people, rode forth alone across the burning North to the gates of Angband, where Fëanor and Gothmog had fought four hundred years earlier. He shouted up at the gates that Morgoth was a coward and a piteous fool, that he had no right to call himself King of the World, that his crown of silmarils was ill-wrought, that Morgoth smelled bad and was ugly.
Thus goaded, Morgoth emerged from Angband for the first time since he’d arrived in Middle Earth with the silmarils. It would also be the last time he stood outside Angband. And there, on Morgoth’s front porch, the fallen Vala and the mightiest Calaquen alive at the time dueled.
It did not go well for Fingolfin. Morgoth wielded a massive hammer called Grond, a hammer so weighty and huge that thousands of years later when Sauron constructed a battering ram to knock down Minas Tirith, he named it Grond in its memory. Fingolfin wounded Morgoth, but against the mightiest of the Valar no mere elf could be victorious.
Morgoth flipped Fingolfin’s off switch, and then threw himself a congratulatory pancake breakfast. In a flash he’d broken the power of the Noldor, and reclaimed the Northlands.
The sons of Fëanor, Fingolfin, and Finarfin, plus Thingol and Cirdan, were the surviving leaders among the elves of Middle Earth. Maedhros, eldest son of Fëanor, and Fingon, eldest son of Fingolfin, agreed to set aside for the moment the question of which of them was the High King of the Noldor, at least until the current crisis was resolved.
The pair called together the Union of Maedhros (because, Maedhros argued I guess, the Union of Maedhros and Fingon would have just been confusing): an army of all the Noldor refugees, plus the Sindar and Cirdan’s elves, the Falathrim. They also assembled their human vassals into their armies, as well as dwarves. The only holdout was Turgon’s hidden city; Gondolin was so secret that they couldn’t get word to them.
This took quite a while, and in the interest of brevity, I’m going to skip over and summarize a bunch of stuff here. Most notably: the tale of Beren and Luthien. In terms of elvish history it’s a fairly significant event, so I make this quick list of high points:
- Beren, a human whose father was good buddies with Thingol, arrives in Menegroth.
- Beren meets Thingol’s daughter Luthien; it’s love at first sight.
- Beren asks Thingol for permission to marry Luthien. Thingol says no, because his daughter is precious to him.
- Beren and Luthien want to get married, though. So Thingol says they can, if they can fulfill an impossible requirement: give him something that is even more precious than his daughter Luthien, in exchange. Give him a silmaril.
- Beren and Luthien set out for Angband to steal a silmaril. Beren thinks Luthien should stay home, but she insists.
- They meet some of the Sons of Fëanor, who warn them that thanks to the Oath of Fëanor, they’re bound to pursue anyone with a silmaril. Granted, they aren’t actively working to take it them from Morgoth right then, but if Beren gets his hands on one, watch out.
- They have a series of adventures involving Sauron and werewolves and eventually reach Morgoth’s throne room.
- Luthien does some magic, which incidentally is something you hardly ever see in Tolkien, someone just doin’ magic. Everyone, Morgoth included, falls asleep.
- Beren cuts one of the silmarils out of Morgoth’s iron crown, but when he tries to cut a second one out, his knife breaks and he wakes Morgoth.
- They flee! But Morgoth’s werewolves give chase. One bites Beren’s silmaril-holding hand off. It’s badly burned by the holy light of the silmaril, because that’s still a thing, and flees off southward into Doriath, which is where Beren and Luthien were going anyway.
- Beren and Luthien return to Menegroth and tell Thingol all about their epic adventure.
- Beren and Luthien and Thingol and a bunch of other elves go werewolf-hunting. They kill the werewolf and pull the silmaril out of its gut.
- Beren and Luthien wed moments before Beren dies of werewolf-inflicted wounds.
- Luthien dies of grief. She goes to the Halls of Mandos and is heartbroken to find Beren isn’t there, on account of he’s a human. She sings again and moves the Valar with her grief.
- Mandos, Varda, and Eru Iluvatar conspire to break the rule against humans returning to life, and return Beren to life, in Valinor. They also give Luthien a new, mortal body, to match Beren’s.
- Beren and Luthien then return to Middle Earth together, and live quietly in a magic forest for the rest of their lives.
The story of Beren and Luthien could be like eight or nine chapters of this history all by itself, plainly, but it’s already after Christmas and I want to wrap this series up at some point. For elvish history purposes, the important result of the story is that Thingol obtained one of the three silmarils. You know, the ones the sons of Fëanor swore the worstest promise to recover, regardless of who had them?
You might assume that the Noldor and the Sindar went to war at this point, what with the armies assembled and the silmaril in the ‘wrong’ hands. But actually all that happened was Thingol declined to participate in the Union of Maedhros. Some of his followers did, but not he himself. Kind of an anticlimax? Enh, actually it was that Thingol took the silmaril and hid it and didn’t tell anyone Beren had given it to him, so as far as the sons of Fëanor knew, Morgoth still had all three.
Anyway. This was all prelude for the Union’s attack of Morgoth. Maedhros, Fingon, and the various other leaders (not Thingol) made all the preparations they could. Fifteen years after Fingolfin’s death, with the largest host yet assembled in Middle Earth, Maedhros and Fingon set out to attack Angband and break Morgoth’s power forever. Would it be another easy victory, like the Glorious Battle, or another terrible rout, like the Battle of Sudden Flame?
NEXT: THE BATTLE OF UNNUMBERED TEARS!