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I often read so, but couldn't find a specific quote. So did Tolkien say that or is this a generalization or assumption I am making?

I know that Ingwë, the King of the Vanyar, is at the same time High King of all the Elves, and the Vanyar are also the closest in friendship to the Valar.

But it is said that Fëanor, Lúthien, and in later writings, also Galadriel (all of then NOT being Vanyar, except Galadriel who has a little bit of their blood) are the greatest of their race.

These two kinsfolk (Fëanor and Galadriel), the greatest of the Eldar in Valinor, were unfriends for ever."

Who together with the greatest of all the Eldar, Lúthien Tinuviel, daughter of Elu Thingol, are the chief matter of the legends and histories of the Elves.

Unfinished Tales

How does that fit? Shouldn't Ingwë, the High King, be considered to be the greatest of the Aman elves?

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    Depends on how you define "great". Ingwe is no doubt greater in rank - he's probably the most senior of all the elves. But Feanor and Galadriel may easily have been the most physically and psychically powerful. – Matt Gutting Jun 12 '15 at 18:05
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    I read a quote in the Silmarillion I believe where Tolkien talks about great deeds and days of peace, but conflict is what makes an interesting story. Hence we only really focus on the Noldor. – user46509 Jun 12 '15 at 18:12
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    Chapter 10? "But of bliss and glad life there is little to be said, before it ends; as works fair and wonderful, while still they endure for eyes to see, are their own record, and only when they are in peril or broken for ever do they pass into song." – Matt Gutting Jun 12 '15 at 18:27
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    Or The Hobbit Chapter 3: "things that are good to have and days that are good to spend are soon told about, and not much to listen to; while things that are uncomfortable, palpitating, and even gruesome, may make a good tale, and take a deal of telling anyway." – Matt Gutting Jun 12 '15 at 18:28
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    I think each group probably considers itself to be the greatest, but I don't think that we can make an objective decision on which is the greatest. The Noldor are wise (although the index to The Silmarillion specifies that this is only in terms of knowledge, not in the sense of sound judgment), and the Vanyar are more "fair" than the other elves. I think it all depends on how you define "greatness". – Wad Cheber stands with Monica Jun 12 '15 at 21:55
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+50

Which is the greatest of the Three Kindreds?

It depends on what you mean by "greatest". All of the Three Kindreds had their own special talents, and to argue that one is inherently better than the other is simply wrong. Just, so wrong.

  • The Noldor were unquestionably better at making things with their hands; from The Silmarillion, for instance:

    Aulë it is who is named the Friend of the Noldor, for of him they learned much in after days, and they are the most skilled of the Elves; and in their own fashion, according to the gifts which Ilúvatar gave to them, they added much to his teaching, delighting to tongues and in scripts, and in the figures of broidery, of drawing, and of carving. The Noldor also it was who first achieved the making of gems; and the fairest of an gems were the Silmarils, and they are lost.

    The Silmarillion III Quenta Silmarilion Chapter 1: "Of the Beginning of Days"

    History of Middle-earth takes this a little farther. I hesitate to say that it calls the Noldor the "Smartest" of the Elves but, well. See for yourselves:

    [Noldor] meant 'the Wise', that is those who have great knowledge and understanding. The Noldor indeed early showed the greatest talents of all the Elves both for intellectual pursuits and technical skills.

    History of Middle-earth XI The War of the Jewels "Part 4. Quendi and Eldar" Part C: The Clan-names "Noldor"

  • The Teleri were greater mariners. The Silmarillion tells us that they learned much from Ossë, a Maia of Ulmo:

    [M]any of the Teleri pressed on to the shores of Beleriand, and dwelt thereafter near the Mouths of Sirion, in longing for their friends that had departed; and they took Olwë, Elwë’s brother, to be their king. Long they remained by the coasts of the western sea, and Ossë and Uinen came to them and befriended them; and Ossë instructed them, sitting upon a rock near to the margin of the land, and of him they learned all manner of sea-lore and sea-music. Thus it came to be that the Teleri, who were from the beginning lovers of water, and the fairest singers of all the Elves, were after enamoured of the seas, and their songs were filled with the sound of waves upon the shore.

    The Silmarillion III Quenta Silmarillion Chapter 5: "Of Eldamar and the Princes of the Eldalië"

    There's a consistent link between the Teleri and water throughout the Legendarium, and examples are too numerous to cite. It becomes particularly plot-important when the Noldor are fleeing Aman, and they need the ships of the Teleri to bear them back to Middle-earth because nobody else knows how to make ships:

    Now Fëanor led the Noldor northward, because his first purpose was to follow Morgoth. Moreover Túna beneath Taniquetil was set nigh to the girdle of Arda, and there the Great Sea was immeasurably wide, whereas ever northward the sundering seas grew narrower, as the wasteland of Araman and the coasts of Middle-earth drew together. But as the mind of Fëanor cooled and took counsel he perceived overlate that all these great companies would never overcome the long leagues to the north, nor cross the seas at the last, save with the aid of ships; yet it would need long time and toil to build so great a fleet, even were there any among the Noldor skilled in that craft. He resolved now therefore to persuade the Teleri, ever friends to the Noldor, to join with them; and in his rebellion he thought that thus the bliss of Valinor might be further diminished and his power for war upon Morgoth be increased. He hastened then to Alqualondë, and spoke to the Teleri as he had spoken before in Tirion.

    The Silmarillion III Quenta Silmarillion Chapter 9: "Of the Flight of the Noldor"

  • We don't know a ton about the Vanyar. However, they were definitely greater politically; their king, Ingwë, is considered the King of All Elves:

    Finwë was king in Tirion and Olwë in Alqualondë; but Ingwë was ever held the High King of all the Elves. He abode thereafter at the feet of Manwë upon Taniquetil.

    The Silmarillion III Quenta Silmarillion Chapter 5: "Of Eldamar and the Princes of the Eldalië"

    And this perception isn't limited to Ingwë alone; the Vanyar generally are taken to be leaders of the Eldar:

    [T]he Vanyar were regarded, and regarded themselves, as the leaders and principal kindred of the Eldar, as they were the eldest; and they called themselves the Ingwer [inga means "top" in Quenya] - in fact their king's proper title was Ingwë Ingweron 'chief of the chieftains'.

    History of Middle-earth XII The Peoples of Middle-earth Chapter 11: "The Shibboleth of Fëanor"

    Part of the reason for this, as mentioned in the above quote, is "older brother syndrome": the Vanyar were the First Clan and also the only one of the initial three clans that wasn't split over the decision to go to Aman, and none of them became Avari.

    However, they were also special favourites of Manwë, and it's always good to have friends in high places:

    Manwë has no thought for his own honour, and is not jealous of his power, but rules all to peace. The Vanyar he loved best of all the Elves, and of him they received song and poetry; for poetry is the delight of Manwë, and the song of words is his music.

    The Silmarillion III Quenta Silmarillion Chapter 1: "Of the Beginning of Days"

What about those individuals?

  • Fëanor was far and away the most skilled of the Noldor, and invented a great many things that would become very significant to the Elves of Middle-earth:

    Fëanor grew swiftly, as if a secret fire were kindled within him. He was tall, and fair of face, and masterful, his eyes piercingly bright and his hair raven-dark; in the pursuit of all his purposes eager and steadfast. Few ever changed his courses by counsel, none by force. He became of all the Noldor, then or after, the most subtle in mind and the most skilled in hand. In his youth, bettering the work of Rúmil, he devised those letters which bear his name, and which the Eldar used ever after; and he it was who, first of the Noldor, discovered how gems greater and brighter than those of the earth might be made with skill. The first gems that Fëanor made were white and colourless, but being set under starlight they would blaze with blue and silver fires brighter than Helluin [the star we know as Sirius]; and other crystals he made also, wherein things far away could be seen small but clear, as with the eyes of the eagles of Manwë. Seldom were the hands and mind of Fëanor at rest.

    The Silmarillion III Quenta Silmarillion Chapter 6: "Of Fëanor and the Unchaining of Melkor"

    So just in that short paragraph we know that Fëanor invented:

    • The Fëanorian letters or, to give them their Quenya name, Tengwar, the predominant script of the Noldor ever since
    • Manufactured gems that glow with starlight; it's been speculated on this site that the Arkenstone was one such gem
    • Something that sounds a lot like a magnifying lens (whether for eyeglasses or telescopes), but might also be the Palantíri, which were also made by Fëanor.

    And that's not even including his most famous creations: the Silmarils, the gems which contain the last light of the Two Trees of Valinor and whose theft kicks off the millennia-long war that is the principal conflict of The Silmarillion

  • Galadriel's chief power seems to be wisdom and insight; Unfinished Tales tells us:

    Galadriel was the greatest of the Noldor, except Fëanor maybe, though she was wiser than he, and her wisdom increased with the long years.

    [...]

    [D]eeper still there dwelt in her the noble and generous spirit of the Vanyar, and a reverence for the Valar that she could not forget. From her earliest years she had a marvellous gift of insight into the minds of others, but judged them with mercy and understanding, and she withheld her goodwill from none save only Fëanor. In him she perceived a darkness that she hated and feared, though she did not perceive that the shadow of the same evil had fallen upon the minds of all the Noldor, and upon her own.

    Unfinished Tales Part 2: The Second Age Chapter 4: "The History of Galadriel and Celeborn"

    A very late note of Tolkien's has a little more on the subject, suggesting that Galadriel was, aside from being wise, one of the more clever Elves in Valinor (emphasis mine):

    A wholly different story, adumbrated but never told, of Galadriel's conduct at the time of the rebellion of the Noldor appears in a very late and partly illegible note: the last writing of my father's on the subject of Galadriel and Celeborn, and probably the last on Middle-earth and Valinor, set down in the last month of his life. In this he emphasized the commanding stature of Galadriel already in Valinor, the equal if unlike endowments of Fëanor; and it is said here that so far from joining in Fëanor's revolt she was in every way opposed to him. She did indeed wish to depart from Valinor and to go into the wide world of Middle-earth for the exercise of her talents; for "being brilliant in mind and swift in action she had early absorbed all of what she was capable of the teaching which the Valar thought fit to give the Eldar," and she felt confined in the tutelage of Aman.

    Unfinished Tales Part 2: The Second Age Chapter 4: "The History of Galadriel and Celeborn"

  • Lúthien is literally described as "the most beautiful of all the Children of Ilúvatar." I would also submit that she had more magical power than any other Elf; she certainly uses it more often. When she's first encountered by Beren, singing in the woods of Neldoreth, she's described this way (emphasis mine):

    Lúthien was the most beautiful of all the Children of Ilúvatar. Blue was her raiment as the unclouded heaven, but her eyes were grey as the starlit evening; her mantle was sewn with golden flowers, but her hair was dark as the shadows of twilight. As the light upon the leaves of trees, as the voice of clear waters, as the stars above the mists of the world, such was her glory and her loveliness; and in her face was a shining light.

    [...]

    There came a time near dawn on the eve of spring, and Lúthien danced upon a green hill; and suddenly she began to sing. Keen, heart-piercing was her song as the song of the lark that rises from the gates of night and pours its voice among the dying stars, seeing the sun behind the walls of the world; and the song of Lúthien released the bonds of winter, and the frozen waters spoke, and flowers sprang from the cold earth where her feet had passed.

    The Silmarillion III Quenta Silmarillion Chapter 19: "Of Beren and Lúthien"

    More examples of Lúthien's magical gifts are peppered throughout the tale; among other things, she:

    • Defeated Sauron and destroyed his lair on Tol-in-Gaurhoth, Island of Werewolves
    • Put Carcharoth, Morgoth's pet wolf who was raised on a diet of living flesh and guarded the gates of Angband, to sleep
    • Sang a song that blinded Morgoth and put him and his entire court to sleep
    • Sang a song that so moved Mandos (for the first and only time) that he petitioned for Beren to be restored to life

    Along with Beren, she was the only person to successfully retrieve a Silmaril from Morgoth before his defeat in the War of Wrath; the two of them (and honestly it was mostly Lúthien doing the work) accomplished what all the Eldar on Middle-earth could not.

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    Very interestng, so the Vanyar are considered to be the greatest race overall but maybe Luthien, Feanor (those two are explicitly stated to be the greatest and of Feanor it is said that never again his likeness will appear on Arda agai) and Galadriel are regarded to be the greatest individuals, considering their specific gifts and deeds? It has nothing to do with the subject but I think this racial disparity is uncomfortable. – user22121 Jun 13 '15 at 16:17
  • "T]he Vanyar were regarded, and regarded themselves, as the leaders and principal kindred of the Eldar,..." Not only the king, all of the Vanyar? So any Vanyar is higher in status than members of the royal family both the Noldor and Teleri? – user22121 Jun 13 '15 at 16:27
  • @user22121 Unfortunately we just don't have enough information to say anything intelligent about the day-to-day social hierarchy of Aman. I will say that Tolkien would have been familiar with class hierarchies, and used them in other places in the Legendarium, so it's possible that's what he means. It seems uncomfortable to us now, but it was the social reality in England when Tolkien was writing – Jason Baker Jun 13 '15 at 22:28
  • @user22121 We hear about Fëanor, Galadriel, and Lúthien more because they lived in or came to Middle-earth an took a greater part in the stories. Ingwë, by contrast, is the aptly-named Sir-Not-Appearing-In-This-Film. – Spencer May 12 '17 at 10:23
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It is quite possible that Tolkien considered the Vanyar in general and Ingwe in particular as being better in many ways than the Noldor in general and Feanor in particular.

And Tolkien probably considered Ingwe to be greater in political and social status than any Noldor because he was king of the senior tribe of the Eldar and high king of all the Eldar and maybe of all elves, and he held his kingship longer than any Noldorin king.

But Tolkien probably considered the Noldor in general and Feanor in particular to be greater in power, knowledge, and skill and other abilities, and to have used their abilities for greater (though not ethically superior) purposes, and their lives made greater (if not always more edifying) stories.

I hope that clarifies my opinion about Tolkien's opinion about their relative merits.

Remember that a person's opinion about other persons are not based on how they rank in one particular quality, but how they rank in many, many qualities, and any one person being judged may have much more of some desirable qualities than of others.

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As a kindred, the Vanyar were the greatest among other elven kindreds. As certain individuals among the elven kindred, such personas as Feanor or Galadriel could be considered the greatest Elves that ever lived.

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