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                    The word ofermod which appears in "Maldon" (describing Beortnoth's state of mind when allowing the Vikings free passage) has, since Tolkien, become open to interpretation. The Old English noun 'mod' is usually translated 'spirit' and, when unqualified, is usually read as a positive trait. Tolkien's interpretation of the qualifying 'ofer-' is central, however. He argues that the word in fact suggests excess, and thus presents a serious indictment of Beortnoth's character. Apparently, Tolkien was preoccupied also with defining the limitations of heroism. His translation of ofermod clearly implies a distinction between the bold and the foolhardy, high spirit and excessive spirit.
                    If Tolkien is right, this single word strongly indicates disapproval and condemnation of Beortnoth's "overbold" action - a detail with which the entire interpretation of the poem must stand or fall. Some critics hold that ofermod was indeed a praiseworthy trait in the Middle-Ages - not, as Tolkien translates it, "overmastering pride" but rather an expression of supreme martial honour; boldness in the highest form. This is obviously not the place to settle that linguistic difference of opinion. However, the gist of Tolkien's view on this question allows us to add another perspective to his  theory of courage. Indeed, the medieval concept of ofermod provides a framework by which many characters in Middle-earth can be read with more nuance. The following will seek to connect Tolkien's linguistic interpretation with his fictional deployment of the motif.
                    Tolkien's two strongest (negative) examples of ofermod are Fëanor and Túrin, both from Sil. Since the latter has been expertly described by Richard C. West in his article "Túrin's ofermod – An Old English Theme in the Development of the Story of Túrin"38 , this discussion will trace the theme mainly in Fëanor's character. Though of different races (Fëanor elf, Túrin man) and different times, the two characters share many similarities. Both are warriors, leaders of Elves and Men, of great heroic stature. Both are (potentially) formidable forces for the power of good, and both find themselves directly enmeshed in conflict with the one foe, the fallen Vala Morgoth himself, against whom there is no victory - save for the combined might of the Valar, his own angelic order. Both heroes are, in a sense, actors in the larger drama of Fate; Fëanor bound by the intricate workings of his ill-fated oath of vengeance, Túrin by Morgoth's powerful curse weighing on all his family and by the (lesser) evil of his enchanted weapon, Anglachel. Both are central characters in deeply tragic tales, developing the leitmotif of long decline as it plays out in Sil. What gives these characters their special poignancy, however, is the clear indication that (at least part of the tragedy) is a result of their own actions. Neither of them are fighting for evil causes, yet what ultimately drives these events to their tragic ends are Turin's and especially Fëanor's own proud and vengeful ways, the fire burning hot in their restless hearts: their ofermod. This motif places them in a long, generic pattern of tragically flawed characters from Oedipous and Odysseus to Kullervo and King Lear.
                    Apparently, a number of forces are at play here, including the tension arising from Tolkien's use of 'Fate' and 'free will'. Middle-earth is not a wholly deterministic universe, indeed far from it, yet prophecy and Fate are continously interwoven with the notion of free will. In Tolkien, placing ofermod above temperance and humility is an act of dire consequences. Fëanor's possessive disposition and great pride find their object in the Silmarils. These were the unique jewels crafted by his own skill which had captured the holy Light of the Two Trees - and which alone held it after the fallen Vala Melkor's quenching of the original Light. Melkor's subsequent theft of the Silmarils and murder of Fëanor's father set in motion his hunt for retrieval and revenge across the world. Claiming the kingship of his father, his vengeance becomes the vengeance of an entire people. Thus he led the exodus of the elves from paradisian Valinor, at the same time turning their backs on the Valar. Yet all these later events stem from one pivotal moment: a moment given to free will. In the darkness after Melkor's flight, he is told by the Valar that the holy light of the Trees can never be revived, except by the essence of the Silmarils. Yavanna's exact words are:

'The Light of the Trees has passed away, and lives now only in the
Silmarils of Fëanor … Even for those who are mightiest under Ilúvatar
there is some work that they may accomplish once, and once only. The
Light of the Trees I brought into being, and within Eä I can do so never
again. Yet had I but a little of that light I could recall life to the Trees,
ere their roots decay; and then our hurt should be healed, and the malice
of Melkor be confounded.'39  

                    If Fëanor will sacrifice his work for the light of the world, then and only then can Melkor's evil deed be undone. Ironically, the silmarils have already been stolen at this time, but Fëanor's refusal proves (essential and fateful) just the same. Finally, the loss of the Silmarils and of his father reveals the true extent of Fëanor's ofermod as he opposes the most powerful of the Valar, Melkor, single-handedly. He and his sons reject the rule and aid of the Valar and swear their terrible and everlasting oath "to pursue with vengeance and hatred to the ends of the World Vala, Demon, Elf or Man as yet unborn … whoso should hold or take or keep a Silmaril from their possession." 40
                    Inflamed by his rhetoric and compelled by his leadership, the Noldorin Elves depart, ignoring the warnings of the Valar, and slay their sea-faring kin for their great ships which alone would bear them across the ocean in pursuit of Melkor/Morgoth. This atrocity, forever etched in elvish history as the Kinslaying at Alqualondë, continues to haunt the exiled elves in years to come. At the centre of it all looms Fëanor's unbreakable Oath: it establishes a motif which guides and goads all their subsequent actions - and seals the "Doom of the Noldor". Stripped of all rhetoric and all the heroic splendour of Fëanor's fiery spirit, only a tragic story remains. Banned from Valinor and from the aid of Melkor's peers, the elves under Fëanor embark on a futile struggle which lasts hundreds of years, costs countless lives and ends, in spite of heroic deeds and glorious resistance, in ruin, death and defeat, as told in Sil. Courage or foolhardiness? Tolkien's intent, at least, is clear: the very name Fëanor is elvish for "Spirit of Fire" – a virtual echo of Old English ofermod in his controversial interpretation: "excessive spirit".
                    Whether by design or not, the theft of the Silmarils turns out to be the great test of Fëanor's moral fabric, and ultimately his refusal to forego his claim of possession proves disastrous. The Oath manifests his moral lapse and forever governs his actions. The unconditional pursuit of the Silmarils entails future abuse of free will. It comes close to the moral degeneration of Saruman in later days, namely that the end justifies the means, whatever these may be. Thus, while resistance to Morgoth is certainly legitimate, Fëanor's motivations for doing so cease to be governed by morality, by the will to do good and protect the world from Melkor's undeniable evil. Noble principles are replaced by "vengeance and hatred" and personal gain. As with Beortnoth's overmastering pride and recklessness, Fëanor's monomaniacal vendetta is revealed by Tolkien as poetically attractive, but morally flawed. Throughout his fiction, as later analysis of Frodo will show, Tolkien clearly found this particular aspect of Anglo-Saxon heroism inadequate. What he did use and admire was the indomitable will, the ancient Northern spirit, sharpened by the chill air of slow defeat that permeates his works.
                    These examples, and others left unstated, lead to the following conclusions. The dichotomy between Good and Evil is more complicated than some critics have claimed and certainly more nuanced. No race or person, however noble or powerful is above the perils and blessings and most of all the responsibility that comes with free will. The Dark Lord truly represents Evil incarnate in Middle-earth, yet everyone retains the power of choice: anyone may stray, succumb to temptation, or abuse their free will for the domination of others. Anyone may, even unconsciously at first, choose to step onto a path, much like Fëanor's, where the end overshadows all else and justifies the means. Indeed, this idea is not at all antiquarian or mythical. It is an existential idea which modern readers find so natural and believable that few even take note of its implications. When drawn from familiarity into focus, however, this particular Tolkienism stands out as an anomaly: outside the pre-Christian realm of myth and saga, but deeply related to contemporary existentialism and Christian thought. On the surface, the mighty agents of good, the immortal elves, may appear like a Christian author's ideal image of "Man Incorruptible". However, this claim (akin to critic Edwin Muir's which is discussed below) would fundamentally contradict and distort the governing vision behind all of Tolkien's works. In fact, a close reading reveals corruptibility as an essential premise, a central pillar of LotR - for with anything less, the One Ring is rendered harmless and the entire plot crumbles. Corruptibility expressed through various races and characters of the Secondary World is a cogent theme, used by Tolkien as a prism to refract the many hues of human morality. Thus, Tolkien's delicate balance between hope and fallibility is universally relevant as a statement on the human condition. In Middle-earth, this point is never sharper or more urgent than in his portrayal of the heroic ethos.

  38In Flieger, Verlyn & Hostetter, Carl F., ed., Tolkien's Legendarium - Essays on The History of Middle-earth, Greenwood Press, Westport Connecticut, 2000, p. 234-45  back
  39Tolkien, Sil, p. 78  back
  40Ibid., p. 83  back

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