Middle-earth Profiles: Caranthir
There is little said about the son of Feanor known as Caranthir. What is said doesn't put him in a positive light, as one might expect from that family. However, there was enough given and implied from other characters in the Silmarillion that I could work with to form some aspect of his personality type and it was surprisingly very interesting.
The Spitfire Elf-Lord
Caranthir shares the same early history as the rest of the clan up until the Noldor’s arrival in Middle-earth from Valinor. He shared in the same family oath, was involved in the same family drama, and had participated in the Battle of Alqualonde and the following burning of the Teleri ships once Feanor’s faction had arrived in Beleriand.
It is when the two Noldor factions meet up again and Maedhros, the new High King is returned from captivity by their cousin, Fingon, that Caranthir’s specific personality begins to be revealed. Like all Noldor, and Feanor’s sons in particular, he is proud of his heritage being one of the High Elves of Valinor. More so being in the eldest line of his grandfather and the first Noldor High King, Finwe. So when his brother, Maedhros, upon returning decides to surrender the kingship over to their unce, Fingolfin, he was probably one of the brothers who was not pleased with this. All of them had sided with their father during the fallout in Valinor. But Caranthir is not recorded as saying anything until sometime later when Angrod, their cousin from their uncle Finarfin’s side, goes to visit the Sindarin High King, Thingol at Menegroth. Thingol had inquired about their arrival and intentions in his realm, given the timing of it when the Sindarin Elves were under siege by Morgoth’s Orcs from the north. And Angrod was related to Thingol via his mother, who had chosen to remain in the West with her Teleri kin.
The Noldor had kept quiet about the events at Alqualonde and Angord had not divulge that information. Unaware of these facts, Thingol grants them lands to the northeast and west to act as buffer states against Morgoth. However, many of the High Elves seem unimpressed and not a little insulted by the High King’s permission, given that he was huddled up in Doriath and barely surviving when they arrived.
While Maedhros makes light of the gesture and is content to agree to the terms, Caranthir is genuinely pissed by it and chastises Angrod for being so peaceable with his Sindarin relative. Caranthir bluntly calls him out to remember that while Thingol is a relative, that Angrod is also and more importantly, a Noldor High Elf. The words almost start a fight between the leaders of both factions before Maedhros quickly quashes it, rebuking the brothers for their rashness.
By Maedhros suggestion, the clan divides the areas given, with his clan claiming the lands in the east and Fingolfin’s in the west and south. Caranthir is given the region of Thargelion, which is next to the Blue Mountains and does well for himself. He works out a sweet deal the Dwarves who travel through there and becomes the most wealthy of the princes from it. Sometime later, the first tribes of Humanity arrive in Beleriand and almost immediately High King Fingolfin and the Elf-lords of the western Beleriand begin interacting with them and taking them into their service to reinforce their defences. But by all indications, none of the other Eastern Elf-lords except Maedhros, follow suit.
That is until one tribe, the Haladin come under assault by Orcs near Thargelion. They hold out for days with heavy loss and are about to be overrun until Caranthir rescues them. Amazingly, the Elf-lord is impressed by how hard the Humans defended themselves, even to the point of near-annihilation. He offers their leader, Haleth, safe lands under his protection. But the woman refuses, though she thanks Caranthir and goes on their way.
During the Dagor Bragollach war, Caranthir’s forces are driven out from Thargelion. Not much is heard of him after that until centuries later when Maedhros calls the brothers, all the Noldor, and their allies together for one final war against Morgoth. With the largest army ever seen yet in Beleriand, the combined armies take back most of the northern territories lost decades before.
The tides of war shift several times, with the Elves almost achieving victory before they are betrayed by Humans called Easterlings that Maedhros had allied with. Some of them being agents of Morgoth, they literally stab the eastern forces in the back, causing that side of the front to collapse. Caranthir is almost killed along with his brothers, but the Dwarves put up a rear guard defense. The seven sons of Feanor retreat and not long after, the western Noldor are also defeated and the war is lost with all the Noldor realms to the north now gone.
Taking refuge with the Green Elves to the south, the sons are not heard from again until much later, when Doriath comes under the rule of Dior, grandson of the now-deceased High King Thingol. Menegroth had fallen earlier to a Dwarven army that had been mislead by traitors from their people that had murdered Thingol. Melian departs back to Valinor soon afterwards in grief, right before that battle started. Now Dior plans to restore the kingdom back to its former glory.
Celegorm gets word of these developments, and calls together the Noldor of his faction to attack Menegroth and take back the Silmaril that the new High King has in his possession. The battle becomes the Second Kinslaying, motivated by the ancient Oath of Feanor that binds the brothers, as well as Celegorm’s personal grudge against the House of Thingol. Caranthir is killed over the course of the fight.
"Then Caranthir looked kindly upon Men and did Haleth great honour; and he offered her recompense for her father and brother. And seeing, over late, what valour there was in the Edain, he said to her:'If you will remove and dwell further north, there you shall have the friendship and protection of the Eldar, and free lands of your own.’— - The Silmarillion
The most noteworthy characteristic of Caranthir is his disposition. He is often referred to as ‘Dark Caranthir’ because he is the most bad-tempered and outspoken of the brothers. This may be surprising when compared with Celegorm and Curufin’s vindictiveness and how those two are considered the most treacherous of the seven. The difference lies in the brothers’ nature. Caranthir is the most proud of his family lineage as the elder line of Finwe. He is proud of being among the High Elves of Valinor, raised in its light, bliss, and living with the divine guardians of Arda.
This does not make him evil though, especially given the pride of other, more benevolent characters like Beren, Hurin, and Fingolfin. He judges people on that basis, rather than from spite and malice. His other two brothers however not only looked down on others, but sought to rule them by force, even their own family. Their malice had nothing to do with their heritage and everything to do with what they wanted and the lengths they were willing to go through to get it. Caranthir on the other hand may not like you, but short of the Oath of Feanor, he's won’t stab you in the back.
No doubt the prince was educated in their races’ history regarding the great journey to Valinor led by his grandfather, as well as the Elves who remained in the east. I believe there’s enough of a basis to say that none of the Eldar clans looked favorably on the Moriquendi’s choice, even the most noble of the three, the Vanyar. With Noldor being proud as they are, I believe that Caranthir’s haughtiness came from that sense of entitlement. Elves who didn’t have enough sense to come into the blessed realm did not have the right to question those that did.
I would also speculate that Thingol would especially come under fire from this harsh judgement, since he in fact had been to Valinor, but for some ‘unfathomable’ reason to Caranthir, chose not to return. Being younger than he, this was beyond Caranthir’s understanding. As prejudiced as he is against the Sindar, the prince has even less love for those who betray their Eldar caste to identify with the caste of lower Elves. There was already a lack of love for his cousins on the basis of their fathers’ feud. So that Angrod seemed to be identifying more with his Teleri/Sindarin heritage more than his Noldor/Eldar one was something Caranthir couldn’t let stand.
This also would imply something else about this Elf’s dark nature. Given that he managed to hold his tongue when the kingship went from his father’s to his uncle’s line, but sharply not so regarding Thingol and Angrod, it would seem that Caranthir valued identity more than who ruled the Noldor. There may be further proof of this given that despite being the most volatile, Caranthir was not the most violent. Nor did he have any of the grand ambitions for power that Celegorm later developed.
Still, the Elf-lord has nothing to do with either the local elves or his Eldar kin in western Beleriand while he was in a comfortable seat of power.
Potential for Enlightenment
I also think that there is more than meets the eye to Caranthir’s prejudice. Like most of the Noldor of East Beleriand, he looks down on the Sindar. He also holds that judgment against the Dwarves as well, finding them repulsive. No doubt the feeling was mutual. However something else also occurs here. Both the Noldor and the Dwarves share a love of making things and have a common ground in the worship of the Valar, Aule, who is responsible for the earth and metal work.
Also, the Dwarves’ ability at forging weapons rivals that of the Noldor, being the only reason why Thingol was able to defeat the Orc invasion during the first war of Beleriand, since the Dwarves armed his army. The Falmari and Green elves were pushed back. Caranthir maybe hot-tempered, prejudiced and blunt about his feelings towards the race, but he was also no fool and respected the Dwarves. Other than his brother, Maedhros, he is the only one of Feanor’s sons whose view of others outside of his family softens or begins to change.
The biggest evidence of this is obviously his rescue of the Haladin and negotiation with Haleth. The tribe was on the brink of total destruction when the Elves arrived, yet something about the Humans earned his respect: even more so than the Dwarves. And I think Haleth made a strong impression on him, who was just as proud of her own culture as Caranthir was of his and took no offense at her rejecting his offer. There is an implied hint of mutual respect and perhaps similar dispositions as Haleth herself was reputed to be just as stubborn as Caranthir. What does that say about Caranthir?
That he was still proud of who and what he was, but that he also felt that others who were not Eldar could be seen as equal to or something close to it, if they showed they were worthy of that respect. The skill of the Dwarves and the determination of the Haladin won Caranthir’s respect and overcame his prejudice. Whereas the Sindar's introversion and their leader’s haughty demands of respect where it was not earned, did not.
Whether or not that respect for Humans remained after the betrayal at Nirnaeth Arnoediad is another question, and if he had lost it, it was certainly understandable. The point remains however that his narrow point of view was not as obstinate as his reputation suggests.
More Than Just an Angry Face
‘Dark’ Caranthir is not as simple as he appears and is more nuanced than others give him credit for. By no means is he a nice guy and his sour attitude towards outsiders makes even bothering to try to gain his favor a questionable endeavor at best. Yet, there are dimensions to him and like Maedhros, there was definite room for improvement that could have been explored had the Oath of their father not constrained and sabotaged him.
Caranthir was ill-tempered, judgmental, and had committed acts of barbarity against his own kind on two occasions. Yet, I don’t think he was evil at heart, or at least, not on the level of Celegorm and Curufin. Had he survived, maybe he too would have come to regret those actions like Maedhros and Maglor did. Those are possibilities though we’ll never know.
© 2019 Jamal Smith