I wrote this story for my friend Pandemonium, who is one of the few people that I do not hesitate to name as more of a heretic than me. Pandemonium's work (which is excellent--read it here) is largely concerned with bringing the myths of Tolkien's world in line with what we know of the realities of that world, or science. In this story, I have tried to take a similar angle, considering at once the prevalent idea of light and the theft of light, as well as the shortcomings of The Silmarillion when considered as a historical account.
This story was also nominated in 2008 for the Middle-earth Fanfiction Awards in the category Times: First Age and Prior: General.
Stars of the Lesser
It was a cold and blustery day as Pengolodh picked his way down the rocks to the sea. Even over the whipping wind, he could hear himself breathing. Setting a foot upon the rounded top of a rock, his thoughts intoned, Careful. Don't fall. Will it bear your weight? Will you slip, in the transference of weight from one foot to the other? Do you know where you will next step? Careful, now. Careful. With a hissing intake of breath, he stepped onto the rounded rock, tottered for a moment, and then stood tall, arms stretched and wavering to both sides of him and a wide grin splitting his face. He'd done it. Scanning the rocks around him, he planned his next step.
If his parents knew that he was here, they would be angry, but Lord Turgon had called an emergency council and required no less than five scribes. Both of Pengolodh's parents had been whisked away by messengers that morning, tea left to go cold and lessons left unfinished. Granted implicit freedom and uncertain how he should spend it, Pengolodh had worked at his books for a while, then had gone to curl in his father's favorite chair with a history tome he'd been sneaking time with--it had been pronounced "too mature" to form a part of his lessons yet--but the wind screaming around the eaves and the constant growling of the sea had awakened a primitive lust in him: the urge to run through open spaces, to test his body against rocks and trees, to return with his fingers numb and his cheeks wind-lashed, and aching with bruises.
Before his foolish courage faded, he strode forth with one foot to the next rock. Then the next. Water wrapped tight into fists smashed against the rocks and exploded into spray, but Pengolodh's destination was a small protected cove; in the summers, the older children liked to climb down the rocks, shrieking and scrabbling, to play here. Their voices carried louder than the wind, louder than the sea, up to the cottage where Pengolodh lived and studied with his parents. Their voices injected kaleidoscope dreams into the tedium of his days, and the words upon the page arranged themselves into tales of valor and exultation that couldn't be confined within reality or the tight black Tengwar describing it.
The rocks were slick. Treacherous. Barefoot, Pengolodh might have found more secure footing, but it was too cold to remove the solid shoes that his parents had made for him at the start of each winter, and so Pengolodh stepped carefully, arms outstretched, breathing through his mouth and trying to keep trepidation from touching his heart into a frenzy. If Atar and Amil were to see me here …
But there was no fear of that. For Pengolodh had been on his way back from the privy when Lord Turgon's guests had arrived, and he hadn't needed to guess at their heraldry. The same was inlaid in gold upon the cover of the forbidden history tomes that Pengolodh's father kept locked in the study (one of which Pengolodh had filched and read when his parents were otherwise involved): an eight-point star a lot like a compass rose. One of the riders had been slim and black-haired--in every way a typical Noldo, viewed from afar--but the other possessed splendid scarlet hair that tumbled almost to his waist, and he'd been very tall. Their retinue wore red and carried huge banners that cracked in the wind.
The Fëanorians! Pengolodh thought, but he didn't dare pause to watch their procession move toward Lord Turgon's house at the center of the city, for his parents didn't even suspect that he knew who the Fëanorians were, much less their significance to Lord Turgon's people. Excitement and dread commingled, Pengolodh was fortunately not required to concentrate for much longer, but the sight alone of those gold and scarlet banners
bearing the star-sign of treachery and betrayal
had stoked his restlessness as one might embers into flames, and he'd made the impetuous choice to leave his books for the day and climb down to the cove.
And here he was. With one final lurching leap, he was on the brink of the sea. Although the cove was protected from the waves, still the water churned and frothed white, and the spray left him shivering in the wind. He hadn't thought to bring a cloak. If the sea contains the voice of Ulmo, as all the books say, then Ulmo is angry, thought Pengolodh. Kneeling upon the slick black rock, he peered into the water, tipped his head a little to listen to the voices muttering beneath the roar of the surf. Perhaps Ulmo would speak to him and give him some purpose in this land, as the lore told had happened before. Pengolodh loved working on his books, but there was something missing, to learn the words of others without ever devising words of his own.
Perhaps I will write new lore, on something never written-on before, he thought. But what?--and a thrilling thought came to him then. The Fëanorians!
I will write a tale about the Fëanorians!
Had that thought come from Ulmo? It had arrived in his brain without much deliberation, and Pengolodh was used to careful deliberation. His parents made him work carefully through to a solution to any problem and relying on instinct earned him reproach. He leaned forward toward the sea, his fingers clenching upon the surface of the rock like that might keep him from tumbling into the water if his balance became upset. Or if Ulmo leapt from the water and dragged him down with arms around his neck. (But Ulmo didn't do such things; what a terrible thought! He was ashamed of himself!) The water didn't sparkle like it did on sunny summer days but glistened, black and deep. Pengolodh squinted. He could barely see his reflection writhing inside of the water. Something glinted in the depths like the wink of a star. He leaned closer and one of his braids dropped over his shoulder and dipped into the sea. His reflection was clearer now: black hair, pale flesh, gray eyes wide and staring, his face made a broken mosaic by the churning water and, still, that light in the depths! What was it?
And his reflection broke through the surface of the water with a shrieking gasp.
Pengolodh yelled and flailed backward. One of his feet skidded out from under him on the slick rock, and his elbows met stone with sharp crack. Arrows of pain shot up his arms, and he felt the skin ruffle away and blood well in its place.
The "reflection" was another Elf, clinging now to the rock with one hand and panting. He had a long straight nose and ears that stuck out slightly and hair that spilled over his shoulders like Pengolodh's mother's blackest ink. His naked shoulders were slender, belying a quiet strength. He turned to look at Pengolodh. His eyes were bright with silver light, like stars. "Who are you? How did you know?" he asked breathlessly.
"H-how did--what?" Pengolodh stammered. His heart beat like an impertinent fist inside of his chest and would not be settled. His eyes! The light in them … he is of Aman! "Know what?"
"How did you know that I would be here? Did my father send you?"
The Elf was no child but still young, perhaps just of age or nearly so. His chin trembled with the cold. His face was hard with determination, but in his eyes--those star-bright silver eyes--was the barest glimmer of fear.
"I-I don't know your father. I had just come to look at the water and you--" Pengolodh scrambled from his prone position to crouch on the rocks. He offered a hand to the Elf in the water and hoped that it didn't tremble too much. "Why are you in the water? It must be freezing!"
The Elf accepted his hand. His grip was strong--and cold. "Not quite freezing … but very cold, yes. But we live inland, and there was something that I needed from the sea. I do not know if I will be able to return in the summer, and I cannot stall my studies for another year." Without much effort, the Elf pulled himself from the water; it was all the Pengolodh could do to keep from toppling into the sea beside him, but he braced his feet against the rocks and tried to imagine his skinny arms as made of steel wires and not gossamer, as they felt. His shoulder--jarred by his fall--twinged in protest.
The Elf held something soft and dripping in his opposite hand. It glowed faintly, but before Pengolodh could get a good look at it, he realized that the other Elf was completely naked. He felt his wind-numbed cheeks burn to life again, and quickly, he dropped his eyes to study a cluster of barnacles on the side of the rock. "Would you keep this for me?" the Elf asked, and Pengolodh felt something wet and spongy dumped into his hand. "I already cannot feel my fingertips or toes, so I need to hurry and dress."
Pengolodh peeked up from the barnacles long enough to see the Elf's pale form leaping with ease across the rocks. His legs were very long and coltish. Pengolodh's gaze whipped back to the barnacles. There was something recognizable in the other Elf's stance. He peeked again. The Elf had drawn a roll of clothing from between two rocks; he was dropping a silver chain over his neck and shoving rings onto his fingers. I would have put my underpants on before my jewelry, Pengolodh thought. To keep from looking at the naked Elf, he turned instead to the wet thing shivering in his hand.
And almost dropped it.
It was a wad of translucent flesh run through with thick blue cables that--Pengolodh blinked hard three times--were glowing. Yes, they were glowing with a cold, clean light like the stones that the Noldor of Nevrast hung in small wire bags to give light in dark places. It quivered and quavered and wobbled and looked like something that should be alive, but if it was, then it was making no attempt to escape from Pengolodh's hand.
"I am Celebrimbor, by the way." Pengolodh looked back at the Elf--Celebrimbor--who had fortunately stepped into his breeches and was tying tall boots onto his feet. "I apologize for not introducing myself sooner, but the cold had my tongue. You still have not told me your name."
"I am Pengolodh." Pengolodh heard his voice reply, but his mind was quickly working the Sindarin into Quenya. Celebrimbor … silver fist … Tyelperinquar--
Despite the heavy boots on his feet, Celebrimbor danced back across the rocks and took the thing from Pengolodh's hand. "My gratitude," he said. He turned it in the meager light of the cloud-strewn afternoon. The light seemed to surge brighter at his touch.
"It is a Ctenophore," Celebrimbor offered without being asked. "You are the son of loremasters. You have heard of them?" His star-bright eyes were turned again on Pengolodh. The pendant he'd put first around his neck (before even his underpants) winked despite the lack of light: an eight-point star. A Star of Fëanor.
How did he-- "My p-parents read in historical and linguistic lore," he said. "I have never heard of--" That quickly, the word was gone from his brain. He wiggled his fingers in the air as though he could conjure it, and his mouth flapped open and shut again.
"Ctenophore," Celebrimbor offered. "Nor had I, but I remember being a small boy and just come to this land, and I remember my uncle taking me to the beach one night, and though Tilion rested that night, the waves were crested in light, and I could not look away. It has taken all of these years to find in my grandfather's lorebooks the answer to that mystery. Ctenophore. The Valar claim that Varda granted some of the light of Silindrin to Ulmo to make stars of the sea, and so Ctenophore were created."
Indeed, the thing pulsing in Celebrimbor's hand might have been a star, meant to comfort and guide, but fallen from the firmament. Pengolodh watched his long, pale fingers steal out to touch it again. He imagined the sparkling stars as quivering forms suspended high in the sky. "That's lovely," he started to say, but Celebrimbor snorted.
"Of course, we know differently now. The Ctenophora--like all else living upon Arda--is made of the same stuff and come from the same place as we. Light is not the province of solely the Valar, as they would have us believe." Almost lovingly, Celebrimbor stroked the Ctenophore in his hand. The light followed his touch, as though he had coaxed. "My grandfather proved that to all." His eyes met Pengolodh's, their brightness as beautiful and terrible as light on diamonds. "They hated him for it."
Pengolodh's mouth fell open. The tome with the gold star on the cover told a different tale of the Fëanorians: a tale of grief and betrayal and blood. And light, yes, but the light--it had come from the Valar, had it not? It was taken and used and horded by Fëanáro, having been granted to the Valar by Eru himself, having been intended for all the world and not one man alone.
Pengolodh heard himself saying these things. He saw Tengwar laced across the pages of books, and he read it aloud from memory, his voice small and weak against the screaming wind and roaring sea. His heart pounded with conviction, that this beautiful world could not be the product of happenstance but rather a gift granted by Eru to the Valar, and the Valar to the Eldar. Celebrimbor's mouth twisted into a lopsided smile, and his eyes flashed, but he did not look surprised. He laughed. "You are of Turgon's people of Nevrast! Of course you would say that! What you tell me of light and how it was meant to be endowed is itself contradictory. Think on that. And light reveals differently depending how it is cast. Think on that too. You are a historian. You should give heed to that every day."
Far off, from the city of Nevrast, came the faint warble of trumpets, borne upon the wind. Celebrimbor flew to his feet. There was a small leather pouch at his waist, and he tucked the sodden Ctenophore into it with hands that quavered slightly, despite the boldness of his voice. "My father rides this way, so I must get back before he discovers my absence. I was not to leave the camp," said Celebrimbor, and Pengolodh felt his numbed lips smiling to consider that in the midst of such divisive dispute, he felt a pang of empathy for Celebrimbor facing a parent displeased. "I beg you to consider what I have said, and if you do, to remember me well in your histories." As Celebrimbor's long legs scissored across the slippery black rocks, Pengolodh wondered, Maybe we are not so different, the Fëanorians and we of Nevrast?
Behind him, the sea seethed and hissed--and might that have been Ulmo's whisper? Pengolodh knew not, and even if it had been, it had given him not the wisdom he desired of it.
He parents would be longer in returning from service to Lord Turgon than would be Celebrimbor's father. Pengolodh had time to carefully wobble back across the rocks to solid land, and from there, to return to the cottage and poke the fire back to life so that it might dry his sea-dampened skin and clothes. He spread a book open on his lap, written in his father's familiar hand, so that it might diminish his doubts.
Notes for the Curious
There is some obscurity in this story that deserves comment for the curious.
Ctenophora is a common type of jellyfish that cannot sting and often displays bioluminescence, or a chemical reaction in a living organism that creates light.
The idea of Pengolodh--who would come to write most of The Silmarillion--as an Elf born in Nevrast comes from the essay Quendi and Eldar in HoMe volume 11.
Silindrin is the vat that contains the silver light of Telperion in The Book of Lost Tales 1. While the story of the creation of the Two Trees was radically revised in the published Silmarilion, collection of the dew of the Trees is still mentioned, so I assume that Silindrin can continue to exist in some fashion. In BoLT1 as well ("The Coming of the Elves"), Varda is said to have made the stars with the light from Silindrin.
When Celebrimbor says, "What you tell me of light and how it was meant to be endowed is itself contradictory," this also refers to the early idea from the Lost Tales that the Valar gathered light that "flowed and quivered in uneven streams about the airs" throughout Arda, thus denying light to all the world in favor of concentrating it in the Lamps, and later the Two Trees. While not as explicit in the published Silmarillion, this idea of light as liquid is nonetheless present ("Of the Beginning of Days"), and the idea that it was initially collected as described in the Lost Tales, so far as I know, is never refuted in the texts. When Pengolodh accuses Fëanor of having horded the light in the Silmarils and taking it from its intended use for all of the world, Celebrimbor notes the contradiction in Pengolodh looking favorably upon the Valar--the first "thieves of light"--while condemning Fëanor for a lesser version of the same action.
Finally, when Celebrimbor cautions that "… light reveals differently depending how it is cast … You are a historian. You should give heed to that every day," he is talking about historical bias and how there is always a second side to every story. I'll admit, this was a little personal dig on my part: I often remind "canatics" that when considering the truth of the canon that they so strictly uphold, they should also heed who wrote the canon and why s/he might have seen it in that particular way. Just because we have Pengolodh's version tidily translated into English for us doesn't mean that it was the only way of looking at the same events.