Note: this was an academic paper that my friend and beta reader Martha and I submitted for consideration to an academic book about the Tolkien Legendarium, but didn’t make the cut. So we thought in sharing it here for you to read.
Celebrimbor: a cautionary tale
Martha Elba González-Alcaraz
Fairy tales were meant to be cautionary tales to teach children about the dangers of the world. Like the legends and fairy tales that inspired it, the Tolkien Legendarium contains several lessons, including but not limited, to important ecological messages or how easy it is to fall prey of evil even with the best intentions. In particular, this last lesson derives from being responsible of our actions and considering their impact on the wider world, best exemplified by the tale of Celebrimbor.
Celebrimbor is possibly one of the most tragic characters of the Tolkien Legendarium. Previously only known by being the creator of the rings of power, fooled and later betrayed by Sauron, his life ended in a gruesome, sad way. His use in the videogames of Shadow of Mordor and Shadow of War brought him wider recognition to the casual fans, speaking of how interesting this character is. In Celebrimbor’s character arc, it’s possible to see the practical application of the old saying ‘the road to hell is paved with good intentions’. As the last surviving member of the House of Feanor entering the Second Age, Celebrimbor sought to redeem the evil deeds of his ancestors –especially those of his father Curufin, of whom he renounced- by creating works that helped others, by fostering friendly relationships with the dwarfs and by trying to be a good person. But it was in this quest that he fell prey of deception because he never stopped to consider one of the fatal flaws of his kin: it is not a question of whether you can do something, it’s a question of whether it is a good idea to do so. In a way, Celebrimbor is like modern creators that conceive objects at fast pace, rarely taking the time to consider the impact that their actions and designs have in the world around them. This paper aims to explore the character of Celebrimbor and how it became a cautionary tale.
A brief review of Celebrimbor’s life and times
Celebrimbor was the son of Curufin, fifth son of Fëanor and Nerdanel, which meant that he was somewhat akin to a Noldorin prince by bloodline. During the First Age, when his grandfather dragged the Noldor back to Beleriand to recover the Silmarills from Morgoth –and in turn was included in the Doom of Mandos-, Celebrimbor fought alongside his family in the battles of Dagor-nuin-Giliath, Dagor Aglareb, and Dagor Bragollach. After that last battle, he moved alongside his father to Nargothrond, where he remained in good standing after repudiating his own father due to the later’s evil deeds and eventual banishment from the realm of Finrod Felagund. He later fought at the Nirnaeth Arnoediad and in the Sack of Nargothrond. After the fall of Nargothrond due to the ill thought advise of Turin Turámbar, Celebrimbor moved to Gondolin where he integrated into the life of the city until its fall. Unlike the rest of his family, he survived the War of Wrath and decided to stay in Middle Earth.
During the Second Age, Celebrimbor established in Eregion, at the time ruled by Galadriel and her husband Celeborn. It is interesting to note a couple of things here, as Celebrimbor becomes a more present character during the Second Age than during the First (where he admittedly was somewhat of a background character). To begin with, his relationship with Galadriel. It is well known that Galadriel had no love for Fëanor or his house, as she didn’t return to Beleriand to follow him in his foolish quest for the Simarils, but rather so she could rule a kingdom on her own, and she even fought on the side of the Teleri during the Kinslaying at Alqualondë. She also had a marked animosity towards Fëanor, who requested at least three times one of her golden hairs, request that she rejected every time (unlike with Gimli, who only asked once and received three hairs in a crystal locket). However, it seemed that Galadriel and Celebrimbor were in good, or at least decent terms, as she allowed him to enter Eregion and even counseled him later on. Here is where things become a tad muddied as there are two versions of what happened next: in one version, Galadriel and Celeborn left of their own accord, moving to Lothlórien and eventually becoming its rulers after the last Sindar King, Amroth, was lost at sea, leaving Eregion under the rule of Celebrimbor. In other version, Celebrimbor staged some sort of soft coup d’état or peaceful takeover of Eregion from Galadriel, after which she and her husband left to Lothlórien (Voices of Geekdom, 2021). Regardless of which version happened, the relationships between both kingdoms and their rulers remained friendly.
It was as leader of Eregion, when Celebrimbor made the two biggest changes on elven culture at the time: The first was the friendship with the dwarves of Moria and the elves of Eregion. Of note was the creation of the West Gate alongside his friend Narvi, a renowned dwarven craftsman. It was this friendship that allowed to have peace and stability in the region for a time.
The second one was trying to recover, or at least preserve, what was left of the essence of the land where the elves had been living for millennia and that had been in decline since Morgoth arrived to Beleriand during the First Age. What jumpstarted the project was the arrival of Annatar, Lord of Gifts and supposedly a representative of Aüle, the Valar of craftsmanship. Under his guidance, and against advice from Galadriel, who didn’t trust Annatar, Celebrimbor and his Elven smiths forged minor magic rings and later on the Rings of Power. Unbeknownst to them, the technique taught to them by Annatar, incorporated secret binding spells. Said spells had a resemblance to what Morgoth did during the Song of the Ainur, pouring his very essence, and thus creating evil upon the land, on Arda. The rings just did it in a smaller scale. At some point Celebrimbor must have suspected something, for he crafted the Three Eleven Rings on his own and in secret. By the time Annatar revealed himself as Sauron, forging and putting on his finger the One Ring, Celebrimbor had sensed the treason and sent away the Rings to Galadriel for safekeeping and distribution among those elves she considered worthy. This ignited a war in which Eregion was devastated, the elves fled the region, the dwarves closed Moria (Scott, 1972) and Celebrimbor –after a valiant effort to defend his people– was captured and tortured, dying at the hands of Sauron. His body was later used by the orcs as a ‘banner’ of sorts as they attacked the elves. This ended the lineage of Fëanor and the Doom of Mandos was fulfilled, as Sauron casted a shadow over Middle Earth for millennia to come, until his final defeat during the War of the Ring.
Overcorrection, overconfidence, or gullibility?
It is interesting to examine Celebrimbor’s personality. Of the House of Feänor, he is the closest to his forebear in skill at creating things. One could say that the rings of power have as much weight historically wise as the Silmarils. However, Celebrimbor is for the most part described as the further opposite to Feänor and to his father Curufin. While Fëanor was selfish and hotheaded, and Curufin, for lack of a better term, was devious and evil, Celebrimbor is portrayed in the stories as someone selfless, kind and who easily shared his creations with others. Even heroic in the defense of others, as his actions during the First Age wars and the defense of Eregion during the Second Age demonstrate. It was argued that he wasn’t prideful, but it is the belief of the authors that Celebrimbor was full of pride, although unlike his forefathers, he usually kept said pride in check, and channeled it by taking bigger challenges instead of doing boastful remarks about his skills. His character became taciturn and anxious once he sensed what Sauron was doing with the Ring of Power, but by then it was too late.
Going back to the point of pride, it could be argued that like Fëanor, Celebrimbor sought to transcend the limits of what was possible to do, of his own existence (Ellison, 1990). While Fëanor managed to capture the light of the Two Trees and transform something that belonged to all into a possession coveted by him and later both his sons and Melkor himself, Celebrimbor worked to create the Three Rings trying to capture something elusive: the atemporal beauty of a land that was no more. Both were overconfident in their skills because they were that good. But whereas Fëanor became overly possessive of the Silmarils and went to war against Melkor for them, Celebrimbor went the other way and parted with them to keep them from Sauron. Fëanor never allowed to let go of the Silmarils voluntarily –in fact, he refused to hand them over to heal the Trees after Ungoliant drained and poisoned them. Celebrimbor decided to send away the rings before they were captured by Sauron, thus leaving them open to the Dark Lord.
Another aspect worth noticing of Celebrimbor and how he differentiates for his forebears are his relationships with others, especially with the Dwarfs and Galadriel, as noted in the previous section. He sought friendship where Fëanor only sought adulation and domination, and where Curufin only saw either pawns or obstacles for his ambition.
This leads to ponder whether Celebrimbor was like that by nature: less selfish and more cautious; or whether he made a conscious effort to distance himself from the worst aspects of his family and kept the family pride in check. Some children develop the opposite personalities to their parents, and it is more marked when said children are immortal elves that have had millennia to develop their own personalities. In either case, this led him to ignore other flaws he had: his gullibility, or naivety.
Why did he trust Annatar? It is clear that Sauron, as a former Maia of Aüle, did know enough craftsmanship to teach things that Celebrimbor and his elven smiths ignored or weren’t capable of discovering on their own. It has to be noted as well, that in “The Lost Tales” it’s mentioned that on those times, Sauron still possessed part of his original Maia beauty and shapeshifting powers, and remained a powerful sorcerer, which certainly helped to keep his true identity hidden, with only the most insightful elves, such as Galadriel, suspicious of the real menace beneath. Added to an evil insight which clearly Celebrimbor didn’t have, the task of creating rings that could preserve things was an attractive proposition to the elf. Celebrimbor was eager to achieve the maximum expression of his craft, thus when a stranger came with teachings that allowed him to do that, he jumped at the opportunity. It was this flaw that Sauron exploited, as he was more devious than his own former master in that regard. Whereas Morgoth was evil like a hammer, Sauron was a scalpel, and thus perhaps more dangerous to the people of Middle Earth.
Even after Galadriel warned Celebrimbor against working with Annatar, the former kept doing it. Why? It could be argued that a combination of pride, naiveté and overconfidence led Celebrimbor to think that he could overcome any danger. After all, he had survived the War of Wrath and the previous battles. It was only when Sauron revealed his hand that Celebrimbor realized the ruse. In his search to create a magical device that would preserve the elven lands as timeless regions, he had helped the Dark Lord to create the most powerful weapon Middle Earth had seen till then. It does sound familiar to what has happened in the real world with our technology and its impact.
The impact of our actions on the wider world
Although Tolkien was adamant to refute any suggestion that elements from his legendarium were inspired by events of the real world –and for this, we must take the intention of the author at face value- it’s hard to not draw certain parallelism with Celebrimbor’s actions and those from the developer of the first chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs). Without trying to fall into an argument by hindsight, the story of Celebrimbor and the Rings of power certainly draws parallels with the development and application of the chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs), or with Oppenheimer’s development of the atomic bomb. While he lamented that the bomb killed thousands, he kept still looking for ways to make them more effective and never regretted having created it. It seems that he was actually proud of how well it worked. We are enamored with our technological development but barely consider the unintended consequences of their creation. But first, it is necessary to understand why the Rings, and in particular the Elven Rings were created.
In the elven rings, the elves projected their need to attempt preserving the world into which they were born at first and that had been severely scarred and in decline due to the wars against Morgoth. Decline that while initiated by Morgoth, the elves were complicit in accelerating, in particular thanks to Feänor and his sons. The Three Rings symbolize the fear that the elves had of fading away in a world increasingly dominated by Men –and not even the Edain-. It is in this bout of nostalgia and yearning for a past long gone, that Sauron wedges his influence under the guise of Annatar, Lord of Gifts, directing these desires into the crafting of the first sixteen rings, with the willing participation of Celebrimbor, who no doubt, thought this would be an undertaking that would rival the Silmarils or at the very least would be recognized as one of the finest and wondrous in all elven history.
Celebrimbor had been around since the First Age. Had witnessed the best of elven creation and the horrors of the wars against Morgoth. It is a normal motivation to want to improve things, or to return them to a time where they were ‘better’ from certain point of view. Although warned by Galadriel, who suspected of Annatar’s identity and intentions (Voice of Geekdom, 2021), Celebrimbor continued. The fact that he forged the Three Elven Rings on his own and in secret could point to the assumption that at the end he was somewhat suspicious of Annatar, but not enough to cut all ties with him. He has just suspicious enough to try and use the magic techniques taught to him by Annatar on his own (Voice of Geekdom, 2021) to pour this ‘elven’ essence into the rings. In a crude modern analogy, it can be argued that all the Rings of Power, if they were software, share the same source code, although the Three Elven Rings work inside a walled environment that kept them somewhat freed from the One Ring’s corruption, but still open to Sauron’s influence if not used carefully.
This is where parallels can be drawn to modern technology. Isaac Asimov (1982) in his essay “Ring of Evil”, offers the argument that the Ring of Power, and by extension the other rings, works as an analogy of our dependence on technology and how it is causing severe damage to the world. We are reluctant of letting go technology that while highly polluting, it’s easier to use, cheaper. We are so bewitched by our creations that we prefer to remain in our zone of comfort rather than look for better options because they are unknown to us. The Three Elven Rings represent a similar desire to keep things within the familiar, the comfortable. Afterall, we now have the power to shape our own world at an unprecedented scale. Victor Papanek (1985), one of the first designers to speak about sustainable design once famously wrote that “Designers, have become a dangerous race”, for their ability to churn out products of little real value, to create needs people didn’t have before and making them more and more attached to their own possessions and technology (which on itself has an interesting parallel to the effect that the Rings of Power have on the Dwarfs).
Using the example about the development of the CFCs, these chemicals were developed to solve an increasing human need: to prolong food storage by keeping it cold for longer periods without using ice. At the time these chemicals were developed, it was unknown that they would create the ozone-depleting and greenhouse gas effects on the atmosphere, for these effects started being detected after 30 years of use. In both cases we can see that, by trying to make life more comfortable, the creations had bigger impact on the world than what was originally intended.
Fate or Freedom of choice?
Was Celebrimbor doomed from the start? It depends on which perspective it’s seen from. Let’s review first the basics of the Doom of Mandos, which comprised eight conditions (Tolkien, 1977):
1. No one who follows Fëanor or his followers will be able to return to Valinor.
2. Anyone under the Doom will suffer greatly.
3. Fëanor’s oath to recover the silmarils will drive their lives, but it will also betray them and cause them to lose the treasures they pursue.
4. Anything they start will end badly, even if it started well.
5. Those from the house of Fëanor and his followers will always be dispossessed.
6. They will have gruesome deaths. Either murdered, tormented or in pain.
7. Their spirits will not be able to return to life for a very long time and they will find little pity around them.
8. Those who don’t die will grow weary of the world and become as shadows of regret before the humans appear on the world.
There are a couple caveats to this Doom that have to be mentioned. While it was aimed mainly to Fëanor family’s, it also applied to any Noldor that decided to follow Fëanor’s lead into Beleriand. However, Galadriel, her siblings and family barely escaped it because while they went there, it wasn’t because they liked or followed Fëanor, rather they had other ideas in mind, mostly protect their people from his madness or in the case of Galadriel, forge a kingdom of her own. Thus, they stayed out of the House of Fëanor misadventures, except when they involved in their schemes, as was the case with Turgon (founder of Gondolin) and with Finrod Felagund (founder of Nargothrond); or like Thingol, king of Doriath, who tied his kingdom’s destiny to that of the House of Fëanor by requesting Beren to go and find a Silmaril in order to allow him to marry Lúthien.
Although Celebrimbor didn’t join in the evil deeds of his father (even getting him expelled from Nargothrond) and grandfather, he was still of the House of Fëanor and left Valinor, and thus, the Doom followed him. The interesting thing with prophecies, -which is what the Doom ultimately is- is that they can be interpreted in all different ways, in order to fit the agenda or the historical perspective of those that follow it. The very same text of Lord of the Rings provides what is perhaps the best example of this via the ‘No living man being able to kill’ prophecy of the Witch King, which got upended by Eowyn cleverly pointing out that she was no man. Some prophecies, both in real life and in fantasy, on the other hand have the tendency to become self-fulfilling, as with Turin, which draws parallels to Oedipus’ own tragedy. Lastly, prophecies in literature are as much a study and a commentary on human nature as a fantasy element to guide the plot. Thus, it could be argued that the Doom Mandos casted upon the House of Feänor was a self-fulfilling prophecy because Mandos knew very well the kind of psyche Feänor had and had instilled in his own family. In a way, the Doom was as much a prophecy as it was a warning about how the flaws of the family would spell problems for them if left unchecked, which is what happened at the end.
From a meta level, of course, he was doomed because the story required him to be. Regardless of how Tolkien merged his initial legendarium with the later works of the Hobbit and Lord of the Rings, by the time the reader gets to know about Celebrimbor, his doom is a done deal, a necessity to explain the backstory of the Rings of Power. In the same meta level, the writer is the creator god of the story, manipulating the events to fit the narrative they wish to tell. Thus, the characters fit what a growing number of philosophers and even scientist argue, which is that free will does not exist and everything is preordained (Burkeman, 2021). This would absolve Celebrimbor of any misgivings because he wasn’t responsible for them. However, aside the fact that taking that perspective would open a can a of worms outside the scope of this paper, it would be better to keep an in-story perspective.After all, this paper is about the character as it exists within the story and not about the intention of the author when creating it.
Then, from an in-story point of view, like all the other Noldorin elves that followed Fëanor, was followed by the Doom. He showed again and again that he was willing to go against the tide that was the House of Feänor if their course of actions contradicted his own beliefs. The problem was, as mentioned above, and Mandos knew that very well, that the whole house shared some inherent traits and flaws, be it that they were inherited or instilled, and the biggest flaw of the house was pride. They were a prideful people, well acquainted with their own unparalleled skill that thought that any challenge thrown their way would be easily conquerable. In that regard, while Celebrimbor was described as having ‘an almost “dwarvish” obsession with crafts’ (Tolkien, 1980), he was also a more thoughtful, conscientious elf than his forebears, and yet, he still went willingly and helped forge the rings without asking himself not whether he could, but whether he should create them. An elf his age knew very well, or at least should have heard of the kind of trickery that Morgoth first, and Sauron later, were capable of. But he found very tempting the challenge to help Sauron as Annatar, to create the rings.
In Celebrimbor two major flaws collide, pride, like Feänor, and gullibility (Voice of Geekdom, 2021), which certainly is a curious contrast to his grandfather’s paranoia. The extremes touch at some point. Celebrimbor dedicated most of his time to his craft, which yielded tangible results. It could be argued that once he saw the development of the Rings of Power and decided to create his own improved version to prove himself the superior craftsman. Or craftselve in this case. Fisher (2008) considers that the creation of the Three Rings and their destinies, echo the work of Feänor and the Silmarils. Following this path, Celebrimbor, like Feänor before him, had at every moment an opportunity to back off, to change of idea, and in the case of former to investigate his new associate, of listening to Galadriel’s warning. But the pride and the allure of seeing himself as a legendary craftsman blinded him until it was too late, and the changes he did to the Elven rings were too little. However, in his defense, and unlike Feänor who coveted the Silmarils over anything else, Celebrimbor gave away the Three Rings to keep them away from Sauron and thus they remained somewhat unspoiled by the corruption. This proves that he had choices, that he could have changed paths if he so desired. It was just too late to change paths by the time things came to a head. Many of us tend to act the same way, forced to change our patterns or habits only when things have reached an extreme that puts at risk something we care –health, family, the planet-, not always managing to solve the problem.
Celebrimbor had the opportunity to change that fate by returning to Valinor instead of remaining in the Middle Earth after the Downfall of Melkor, but he didn’t. He fell prey of his own flaws because he never stopped to consider them, to reflect upon the failings of his predecessors and how they formed his own choices. Being member of an immortal race, one may have expected that his apparent superiority and long life should have made him more reflective, and yet, his pride over his craftsmanship won over. The pride that resulted from such action called forth the Doom and dragged him, the remaining elves in Middle Earth and pretty much the whole world into a conflict that would turn into the land a lesser version of what it used to be, the very opposite effect of what the elves wanted to achieve.
Celebrimbor serves as a cautionary tale in many levels: the need to be socially responsible of our actions and choices, the need to keep in check our own pride, to be aware of our own flaws, of the use of our technological prowess without carefully examining possible consequences. Celebrimbor is in a way, one of the best examples that the road to Hell, or in this case Mordor, is paved with good intentions.
Celebrimbor fell prey to Sauron’s tricks and although Galadriel warned him about it, he didn’t listen because he was busy trying to achieve the next level of craftmanship, which may or may not have equivalent to his grandfather’s Silmarils. Good intentions alone are not enough, we need to make a conscious effort to keep out worst instincts at bay and ponder the effects that our decisions have in the world at large.
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Voice of Geekdom, 2021. Celebrimbor – Forger of the Rings of Power | DISCUSSION. Available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=d1mGQhhZt_g&ab_channel=VoiceofGeekdom [Accessed 27 May 2021].