In the final published Silmarillion, the Silmarils are central to the events of the First Age, and one could argue, central to the unfolding history of Arda through every age. In the Quenta, the Silmarils are not just gems or diamonds of the utmost craft and beauty, they are holy relics, honored and admired by all. They are made by Fëanor, “who, first of the Noldor, discovered how gems greater and brighter than those of the Earth might be made with skill.” (Silmarillion p.64) He developed his craft, and filled with the desire to make gems to surpass all that came before:
“…he pondered how the light of the Trees, the glory of the Blessed Realm, might be preserved imperishable. Then he began a long and secret labor, and he summoned all his lore, and his power, and his subtle skill; and at the end of all he made the Silmarils.
All who dwelt in Aman were filled with wonder and delight at the work of Fëanor. And Varda hallowed the Silmarils, so that thereafter no mortal flesh, nor hands unclean, nor anything of evil will might touch them, but it was scorched and withered; and Mandos foretold that the fates of Arda, earth, sea, and air, lay locked within them.” (Silmarillion 67)
Not only are the Silmarils of the Quenta depositories of the holy light of the Trees, they are made holy in their own right through the power and blessings of Varda, maker of stars. Melkor’s lust for the Silmarils in the Quenta, and Fëanor’s protective ownership of them are the primary movers of subsequent events.
After Melkor and Ungoliant kill the Trees, the Valar and the Eldar gather to discuss the fate of the Trees, and find the one possible cure in the Silmarils; so says Yavanna:
“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 confounded.” (Silmarillion 78)
“For the less even as for the greater there is some deed that he may accomplish but once only; and in that deed his heart shall rest. It may be that I can unlock my jewels, but never again shall I make their like; and if I must break them, I shall break my heart, and I shall be slain…This thing I will not do of free will. But if the Valar will constrain me, then shall I know indeed that Melkor is of their Kindred.” (Silmarillion 78-79)
Soon after, a messenger arrives from Formenos with news of the death of Fëanor’s father and the rape of the Silmarils. This leads directly into Fëanor’s declaration of Melkor as Morgoth (Black Foe of the World) and subsequently his final push for the departure of the Noldor from Valinor and the taking of the Oath. Each of these events are caused, in one way or another, by the existence of the Silmarils.
And yet this is not so in the Tale. In the Tale, Fëanor
“…fared to the Solosimpi (Teleri) and begged a great pearl, and he got moreover an urn full of the most luminous phosphor-light gathered of foam in dark places, and with these he came home, and he took all the other gems and did gather their glint by the light of white lamps and silver candles, and he took the sheen of pearls and the faint half-colours of opals, and he [?bathed] them in phosphorescence and the radiant dew of Silpion, and but a tiny drop of the light of Laurelin did he let fall therein, and giving all those magic lights a body to dwell in of such perfect glass as he alone could make…he made a jewel—and it shone of its one…..radiance in the uttermost dark; and he set it therein and sat a very long while gazing at its beauty. Then he made two more, and had no more stuffs; and he fetched others to behold his handiwork, and they were amazed, and those jewels he called Silmarilli…all held who ever saw them that the Silmarils of Fëanor were the most beautiful jewels that ever shone or [?glowed].” (BoLT I p139)
Though the light of the Tale’s Silmarils also comes in part of the Trees, the sense of their purity and sanctity, so emphasized in the Quenta , is largely absent. Also of note is the fact that the practice of using light in the creation of gems is not unique to the Silmarils in the Tale, or to Fëanor. It is a widely used practice at which the Noldoli excelled, using all things “fair and radiant” in the creation of great gems. (BolT I p137)
What is interesting at this juncture are the motives of Melko in the Tale. Following his imprisonment in Mandos, Melko is “a servant in the house of Tulkas “…there did he nurse his hatred of the Gods (Valar), and his consuming jealousy of the Eldar, but it was his lust for the beauty of the gems for all his feigned indifference that in the end overbore his patience and caused him to design deep and evilly.” (BoLT I 154) So here, in the Tale, Melko is driven to act out of greed, desiring the gems of the Noldoli. The Noldoli made and gave many gems to the other Valar, but always when Melko begged “gifts of jewels” from them or knowledge of their making, he is refused. And this refusal is what drives him to initiate the discord between the Gnomes (Noldoli) and the Valar.
Melko in his cunning, reveals the discontent and murmurings of the Noldoli to Manwë, who subsequently banished them all from Kôr (Tirion). This is not done so much as a punishment, but in hopes that the Noldoli will calm and change their mind; and also to keep their vile accusations against the Valar from spreading to the others of the Eldar. Unlike the Quenta, here the entirety of the Noldoli goes. And due to this exile, it is easier to see the developing strife and understand why the Gnomes would leave enmasse for “The Great Lands” (Middle Earth/Beleriand).
Again, as in the Quenta, the Noldoli are permitted to return for a festival. And while they are away, Melko kills Fëanor’s father and steals the Silmarils along with the treasury of the Gnomes. He then flees the wrath of the Gods (Valar), first north, then south to avoid the servants of Mandos.
Learning of the theft and murder, the Noldoli cry out the Manwë for justice:
“There lies Bruithir sire of Fëanor dead and many of the Noldoli beside, and all our treasury of gems and fair things and the loving travail of our hands and hearts through many years is stolen away….[and Manwë answers them]…Behold O Children of the Noldoli…the poison of Melko has already changed you, and covetice has entered your hearts. Lo! Had ye not thought your gems and fabrics of better worth than the festival of the folk or the ordinances of Manwë your lord, this had not been, and Bruithir go-Maidros and those other hapless ones still had lived, and your jewels been in no greater peril…depart now in penitence knowing full well that Melko has wrought this evil against you, and that your secret trafficking with him has brought you all this loss and sorrow.” (TBoLT I 161-2)
Here we find the sins of the Noldoli are more clearly expressed than in the Silmarillion. They are not only rebelling against the Valar, they are also enslaved by materialism. They are so enthralled by the work of their hands and the wealth they have built that it is their downfall. This is clearly stated in the Quenta, though not for the whole of the Noldor but for Fëanor in his refusal to relinquish the Silmarils.
And yet here, the Trees still live. There is no hint of the link between the Silmarils and the Trees at this point in the development of the narrative. Indeed, when Melko flees south, he sends an embassy to the Valar demanding the a place of honor in Valinor, a palace and the Noldoli as his thralls. His herald is killed by Tulkas, and the news brought to Melko by way of Sorontur king of the eagles.
Taking the news of the death of his herald and the refusal of his just (to him) requests as the ultimate insult, and believing himself the wronged party, Melko hatches the ultimate plan to destroy the bliss of Valinor. The killing of the Tress is not, as in the Quenta, a means of persuading Ungoliant, or even as a diversion on the way to the Silmarils. It is both a method of escape through the north of Valinor and ultimately to Beleriand, as well as pure revenge and spite. Though these motives are also present in the final telling, here they are much more pronounced due to their separation from the ultimate goal of the Silmarils in the Quenta.
The division between the Valar and Noldoli is a much more convoluted process in the Tales. It is first initiated by Melko; then exacerbated by Manwë’s decision to exile them, then further worsened by the theft of the Silmarils and the Valar’s apparent lack of response, and culminates in Manwë’s revelation of the coming of the Children of Men to the Eldar. Manwë explains one aspect of the Valar’s reasoning in bringing the Elves to Valinor:
“…it is of the unalterable Music of the Ainur that the world come in the end for a great while under the sway of Men; yet whether it shall be for happiness or sorrow Ilúvatar has not revealed, and I would not have strife or fear or anger come ever between the different Children of Ilúvatar, and fain would I for many an age yet leave the world empty of beings who might strive against the new-come Men and do hurt to them ere their clans be grown to strength, while the nations and peoples of the Earth are yet infants.” (TBoLT I 166)
Obviously, in the current climate, the Noldoli take this as confirmation of all that Melko had told them and the reason for their removal from Middle Earth: the theft of their “inheritance” to a “race unborn.” And in the midst of this strife, Melko and Ungoliont attack the Trees. At this moment, when the Trees are dead, Fëanor rouses the Noldoli and convinces them to leave Valinor in search of their lost gems and new adventures, and to escape the thralldom of the Gods (Valar).
Looking at the Tale, though the Silmarils were greatly desired by Melko, they are but three of a vast hoard of gems which he desires. They may be greatest, but they are not yet the primary focus of his lust. Even still there are hints of the future form, as in Melko’s deal with Ungoliont he promises her all the gems, keeping only the Silmarils for himself.
But what is greatly interesting here is how the decreased stature of the Silmarils greatly changes the dynamic of the Tale. For one, the role of Fëanor is greatly reduced. Though still functioning as the leader of the Noldoli and the firebrand who will lead them out of Valinor; here the decisions, pride and arrogance are largely assigned to the whole Noldoli race, and there is less evidence of strenuous persuasion on the part of Fëanor.
Also of interest, are the actions of Manwë, which often do little more than make matters worse. With both of these changes, they ultimately increase the apparent power and manipulation of Melko. He primes the Noldoli and plants the seeds of doubt. He also plays to Manwë’s concerns and best intentions, which lead to the banishment of the Noldoli. In all actions, in the Tale, Melko’s influence is apparent, and therefore his strength and cunning are also seemingly greater.
By changing the nature of the Silmarils, Tolkien is able to tie the motivations of all into a cohesive story line. When the Silmarils are no longer mundane, but sacred they become important to all. As holy objects, and relics of the Trees’ light, the lust of Morgoth, the fury of Noldor and their passion in pursuit all fall into place neatly like the pieces in a puzzle.
The closest correlation I can think of in history is the Crusades. Though the Crusades’ purpose was primarily to regain the Holy Land and protect the ways for pilgrims, its secondary and just as important purpose was the gathering of relics; and one could argue Jerusalem was the greatest relic of them all. Seen as a holy crusade, the Flight of the Noldor, and their subsequent wars with Morgoth can be seen in a wholly different manner than the jealous and furious vendetta of the Tale.
In the Tale, the primary reasons for the flight of the Noldoli are their misguided belief that they are somehow enslaved by the Valar; held in thrall to allow for the glorification of Men. The wish for vengeance against Melko for the death of Fëanor’s father and the theft of the Silmarils, though strong, is ultimately secondary. While the first motivation is also present in the Quenta, the final straw is the theft of the Silmarils. They are given pride of place as the last and greatest reason to leave. There too, Fëanor is given pride of place as the bearer of the brunt of the “injustices” (so he thinks) of the Valar, as well as the primary architect of the Flight.
I realize I probably seem to be rambling quite a bit at this point, but there is something to be seen in comparing the first surviving tale and the final published. Though the Tales all occur in Middle Earth as a semi-continuous narrative, they were each written separately and often nowhere near sequentially. Though diffuse, almost all the final elements of the Quenta are present in the Tale. In reviewing the two side by side, what I have found fascinating is how by the simple sanctification of the Silmarils, Tolkien was able to create a cohesive world and a cohesive history out of so many disparate tales. This simple change is the glue, to my mind, that holds the final legendarium together.