Right near the beginning Of the Flight of the Noldor:

Yavanna spoke before the Valar, saying: "The Light of the Trees has passed away, and lives now only in the Silmarils of Fëanor. Foresighted was he! 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.'

Yavanna needed "but a little of that light" to revive Telperion and Laurelin, yet Fëanor refused to give the Silmarils up:

Then Manwë spoke and said: 'Hearest thou, Fëanor son of Finwë, the words of Yavanna? Wilt thou grant what she would ask?' There was long silence, but Fëanor answered no word. Then Tulkas cried: 'Speak, O Noldo, yea or nay! But who shall deny Yavanna? And did not the light of the Silmarils come from her work in the beginning?' But Aulë the Maker said: 'Be not hasty! We ask a greater thing than thou knowest. Let him have peace yet awhile.' But Fëanor spoke then, and cried bitterly: '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; first of all the Eldar in Aman.' 'Not the first,' said Mandos, but they did not understand his word; and again there was silence, while Fëanor brooded in the dark. It seemed to him that he was beset in a ring of enemies, and the words of Melkor returned to him, saying that the Silmarils were not safe, if the Valar would possess them. 'And is he not Vala as are they,' said his thought, 'and does he not understand their hearts? Yea, a thief shall reveal thieves!' Then he cried aloud: '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.' Then Mandos said: 'Thou hast spoken.'

Fëanor had three Silmarils. Why wouldn't he give just one?

  • Was the real reason the mistrust Melkor helped engender?
  • Was each one so dear that he was not willing to give any of them up?
  • Was there too little light in just one? (But how would Fëanor know that?)
  • Were the three (thought to be) linked?
  • Does the original source say that one would be sufficient? IIRC Yavanna wanted all three. And if light is what she needed, why not just use the light the Silmarils emitted?? – Oldcat Jul 24 '14 at 19:05
  • @Oldcat I am listening to an audiobook, so it is hard for me to check. I thought she just wanted a little of the original light, not specifically the silmarils. To answer your excellent question about the emitted light, i would suggest that she required a physical manifestation of the light, such as that used in the silmarils. That is, light passes by, physical manifestations give off their own light. But golly, that answer is not nearly as good as the question. :) – please delete me Jul 24 '14 at 19:27
  • The original light was captured in the Silmarils, so there's no other place to get it from. Thus the confict with Feanor that he could never replicate them again. – Oldcat Jul 24 '14 at 20:43
  • A little of that light does not necessarily mean "fewer than 3 Silmarils full" – Oldcat Jul 25 '14 at 0:51
  • @Oldcat That's option 3, above. :) – please delete me Jul 25 '14 at 0:51

The most likely reason, according to the Silmarillion, is reason 2:

Was each one so dear that he was not willing to give any of them up?

Chapter 7, Of the Silmarils and the Unrest of the Noldor, notes that:

The heart of Fëanor was fast bound to these things that he himself had made.

The Annals of Aman, published in Morgoth's Ring, support this with the full text of the oath of the Fëanorians, which was (regrettably, IMO) omitted from the published Silmarillion. This opens with:

Be he foe or friend, be he foul or clean,
brood of Morgoth or bright Vala,
Elda or Maia or Aftercomer,
Man yet unborn upon Middle-earth,
neither law, nor love, nor league of swords,
dread nor danger, not Doom itself,
shall defend him from Fëanor, and Fëanor's kin,
whoso hideth or hoardeth, or in hand taketh,
finding keepeth or afar casteth
a Silmaril.....

What's notable here is the closing line, where it's explicitly "a Silmaril", i.e even taking a single Silmaril is sufficient to bring the wrath of the Fëanorians down on you. Of course this was after the slaying of Finwë, but it remains notable that recovery of the Silmarils, and vengeance and wrath against anyone who takes even one, is a primary motive over and above seeking redress for Finwë's death.

  • I like the idea, but "fast bound to these things" doesn't necessarily mean each one. Many people care about things they would not part with in the whole but would be willing to give up part for great need. Fëanor recognized the great need saying it was heartbreak that would kill him, which seems like he would have otherwise been willing to give one up. Also, great catch on the singular form and thank you for bringing it up! But, that was after the treachery of Morgoth, as you pointed out. To me, the singular form was more from anger and to strengthen his words than anything else. – please delete me Jul 25 '14 at 11:20
  • At the end, certainly, the house of Feanor ran a vendetta against anyone having a Silmaril, even the Valar. But at the start, the situation is less clear. And that poem has some issues - at the time, Men had not even been discovered, had they? So how could they so swear? – Oldcat Jul 25 '14 at 17:10
  • @Oldcat - the coming of men had been revealed to the Noldor by Melkor. Hence "Man yet unborn upon Middle-earth". – user8719 Jul 25 '14 at 19:06
  • According to the Encyclopedia of Arda, men were born after the Sun appeared, which is after Feanor went after the Silmarils. – Oldcat Jul 25 '14 at 23:36
  • @Oldcat - there must be a misunderstanding here because I'm not disputing that. The Feanorians were aware that Men hadn't appeared yet, and the line, paraphrased, means: "when Men eventually do appear, we'll go after them too". – user8719 Jul 25 '14 at 23:39

In the beginning of Of the Fifth Battle: Nirnaeth Arnoediad, it says of Thingol:

And every day that he looked upon the Silmaril the more he desired to keep it forever; for such was its power.

Perhaps the Silmarils themselves caused Fëanor to not want to give up any of them.

  • I hesitated before answering my own question, but found it is “explicitly encouraged": blog.stackoverflow.com/2011/07/… Background: I waited before even asking the question, but finally posted it today. Soon after i was in the car and heard this chapter. I had no idea. Anyway, the votes and comments will decide. – please delete me Jul 24 '14 at 20:40
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    I think it would be valuable to confirm or refute the "why not just one" option. In the end, Feanor might have refused to even give up one, but I think his actual option was to lose them all to restore the trees. – Oldcat Jul 24 '14 at 20:54
  • 2
    Yavanna was a Valar, and probably knew that she needed the light of all three to revive the trees. the three jewels represented the three times of each "day" where the trees light was different. Symbolically the jewels represented those three times, and in order to recreate the original "day" she needed all three kinds of light. – SteveED Jul 24 '14 at 21:04
  • @SteveED That's an excellent point. Though, being she didn't say that, how was Feanor to know? – please delete me Jul 25 '14 at 1:13
  • This is speculation on my part. Elves of Feanor's time were more in touch with the Valar, and certainly more powerful and knowledgeable. It's possible that he did understand (see the wiki for some hints at this) – SteveED Jul 25 '14 at 2:02

From Lord of the Rings WIKI

Theft of the Silmarils

Melkor stole away to Avathar in the south of Aman to seek out the evil, spider-like creature Ungoliant and secured her as an ally. During the festivities where Fëanor and Fingolfin reconciled, Ungoliant helped Morgoth destroy the Two Trees, bringing darkness to Valinor. Morgoth and Ungoliant then went to Formenos. Melkor, surrounded by an impenetrable black fog, went to Fëanor's vault in Formenos. Finwë, the High-King, fought and lost against Melkor, and was the first Elf to be slain in Valinor. Melkor ransacked the vault, taking many valuable jewels, including the Silmarils. They escaped by crossing the Helcaraxë, or Grinding Ice, in the north to Beleriand in Middle-earth.

The Valar knew that now the light of the Trees survived only in the Silmarils and Yavanna asked Fëanor to give them up so that they could restore the Trees. Fëanor emphatically stated that he would not give up his Silmarils of his own free will; if the Valar forced him, he said, they would be no better than Melkor. A messenger from Formenos then arrived to deliver the news of Finwë's death and the loss of the jewels.

From this, it seems that the raid on the trees and the theft of the Silmarils and murder of Feanor's father were more or less simultaneous. So his refusal is more of a heat of the moment reaction, and it seems that the request was to destroy all three for the restoration.

Feanor was a hothead, and devoted to the Silmarils as their creator, so he might have ended up refusing in the end, but the theft made this a moot point. To me, the actions he takes later in the long fight to recover the gems is what tips he and his sons along the path to evil and ends with them not able to hold the jewels they fought so many years for.

  • 1
    I've always wondered if this was a kind of choice between going back to the old days where the Valar ran everything, or the passion and creativity of the new world. If Feanor had given them up, then Arda would not have advanced or followed the plan of Iluvatar. This is pure speculation on my part. – SteveED Jul 25 '14 at 2:07
  • There are other places where JRRT implies that fate has a stronger hold on the destiny of Elves than Men. I just don't see Feanor and his kin's path to evil as simple as turning a switch - not evil today, evil the next. And he surely was not evil when he had them in his posession, as they would have burned him, so there had to be a change somewhere. – Oldcat Jul 25 '14 at 17:15
  • I agree that they weren't evil by choice or through any single event. I do notice that the stubbornness and passion of the first elves was their undoing at several points in history. Perhaps that was their fate? again this is pure speculation – SteveED Jul 25 '14 at 18:09
  • But it wasn't moot. The Silmarillion makes that explicit. Part of why he left Valinor was that he was wrongly lumping in the Valar with Melkor as all wanting to take stuff that rightfully belonged to him and his people. If he had agreed that the Valar's request was proper, he might not have left on his own to try and get them back, and he might not have argued "Let's get what's ours, gems and kingdoms" to the rest of the Noldor. – swbarnes2 Jul 25 '14 at 23:10
  • Since the Valar had been guest-hosting Melkor right up until he killed the trees and then Feanor's father when stealing the Silmarils, I can understand his resentment of the Valar. Sure this was wrong, but the true descent of Feanor and kin was a bit later, in the kinslaying, and the abandoning of the other Noldor in the crossing, and the subsequent wars with Melkor. – Oldcat Jul 25 '14 at 23:15

Other answers have focused on Fëanor’s attachment to the Silmarils, which, while significant, were not his primary concerns in this specific matter. There other several other preeminent factors here.

Firstly, Fëanor was arrogant and pragmatic. The light from the trees was precious, but lamps of gold lit the most important places of Valinor (Bk of Lost Tales I, Chapter VII). He may not have considered the trees' light necessary. Additionally, the trees were a container of the light of the Valar within them, not the light themselves. After their murder, Yavanna says that their light “live[d] only in the Silmarils of Fëanor” (Sillmarillion, Chapter IX). He would prefer these, as they are still containers for the magic, but made by him and in his own image.

Secondly, and more importantly, it was politically shrewd for Fëanor to allow the trees to perish. In order to win the hearts of the Noldor, and make him their ultimate lord, Fëanor had to discredit the Valar. The death of the two trees was a perfect opportunity for him to supplant them.

He says in chapter nine,

“Why, O people of the Noldor, should we longer serve the jealous Valar, who cannot keep us nor even their own realm secure from their Enemy?”

In other words, it was a smear campaign against the gods, and a successful one at that.

  • This might be an unfortunate construction by Feanor, but it was hardly a smear as it is 100 percent accurate. The Valar did not keep their realm, and Feanor's home safe from Melkor. Thus his father's life was lost and the Silmarils as well. – Oldcat Jun 19 '15 at 22:06

In Tolkien's mythology, there is always a moral danger in being a craftsperson, that you might be too attached to the things you create. That's what happened to Feanor. It's a kind of blasphemy, to act like his sub-creations are his to control, rather than recognizing that everything originates from Iluvatar, and ought to be shared with others.

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