Oathtaking in Middle-earth


Staff member
For Silm Film, it is important to consider plot elements across all the Ages of Arda when deciding how to portray individual elements of the story. And that is certainly true in the case of oaths - Tolkien had a lot to say on the topic!

So far in Silm Film, we've had about 4 elven oaths come into play:

  1. Fingolfin telling Fëanor 'you shall lead and I will follow' before the Valar, a statement which he considers himself to be bound by during the rebellion of the Noldor.
  2. The Oath of Fëanor, which 'none should take' sworn by him and his sons in Tirion, and by his surviving sons at his death.
  3. Díriel (wife of Curufin) swearing an oath of allegiance to Morgoth to avoid the destruction of the elven captives. (obviously, we've invented this one...)
  4. Finrod swearing an oath to Barahir in the Dagor Bragollach
So, as we discuss how these oaths will be portrayed, and what implications they have for the characters, I thought it might be a good idea to start gathering examples of oaths and oath-taking in Tolkien's work, and discuss how to incorporate his ideas into these portrayals consistently.

Let's start with Elrond's farewell to the Fellowship in Rivendell:

At that moment Elrond came out with Gandalf, and he called the Company to him. 'This is my last word,' he said in a low voice. 'The Ring-bearer is setting out on the Quest of Mount Doom. On him alone is any charge laid: neither to cast away the Ring, nor to deliver it to any servant of the Enemy nor indeed to let any handle it, save members of the Company and the Council, and only then in gravest need. The others go with him as free companions, to help him on his way. You may tarry, or come back, or turn aside into other paths, as chance allows. The further you go, the less easy will it be to withdraw; yet no oath or bond is laid on you to go further than you will. For you do no yet know the strength of your hearts, and you cannot foresee what each may meet upon the road.'​
'Faithless is he that says farewell when the road darkens,' said Gimli.​
'Maybe,' said Elrond, 'but let him not vow to walk in the dark, who has not seen the nightfall.'​
'Yet sworn word may strengthen quaking heart,' said Gimli.​
'Or break it,' said Elrond. 'Look not too far ahead! But go now with good hearts! Farewell, and may the blessing of Elves and Men and all Free Folk go with you. May the stars shine upon your faces!'​
'Good...good luck!' cried Bilbo, stuttering with the cold.​
I have long been fascinated by Gimli and Elrond's dueling proverbs concerning oathtaking. Elrond is a loremaster who is well acquainted with the stories of the First Age of Middle-earth. And, while his wisdom seems to be focused on leaving choices open on the road ahead, he is quite adamant that they will not be taking any oaths at the beginning of this venture. He knows how oaths can end.... He was, after all, raised by Maglor Son of Fëanor. And the proverb about not vowing to walk in the dark, if you have not seen the nightfall? Sure, it's a metaphor, but who has not seen a nightfall? Surely everyone older than a day has seen the nightfall...unless...you were an elf born in Valinor before the darkening of the Trees. This is clearly a Noldoran proverb, as it speaks to the experience of the Exiles having experienced their first Nightfall at the destruction of the Trees. [A story-external source of the proverb could be the story 'The Day Boy and the Night Girl' by George MacDonald.] Gimli's proverbs are presumably dwarvish, though I can not think of any particular dwarf stories to which they would apply....we shall have to make some for Silm Film!

I thought this thread would be a good place to collect instances where Tolkien wrote about oathtaking, and to discuss the implications for the denizens of Middle-earth in the stories we are telling in Silm Film.


Patrick Graham

New Member
Would a Vow be classed the same as an Oath? Quoted From The Silmarillion Chapter Of the fifth battle: Nirnaeth Arnoediad "Celegorm and Curufin vowed openly to slay Thingol and destroy his people, if they came victorious from war, and the jewel were not surrendered of free will."


Staff member
While people may view vows and oaths slightly differently (you take wedding vows, not wedding oaths...), I am certainly willing to discuss every aspect of 'my word is my bond' within the broader context of oath-taking. After all, Fingolfin's pledge to Fëanor was hardly any sort of oath. He didn't swear. He just said what he would do, and then considered himself bound to do that thing.

"... Fingolfin set at naught the unsheathing of the sword and held forth his hand saying, “Half-brother in blood, full brother in heart I will be. You shall lead and I will follow. May no new grief divide us.”​
“I hear you,” said Fëanor. “So be it.” But they did not know the meaning that their words would bear."​
I imagine Celegorm and Curufin's vows were similar - they simply said that they would do this, but with the clear meaning that they fully intended to follow through. So, yes, this would be an example from the Silmarillion that we will get to in later seasons.
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Well-Known Member
I think they're adjacent, but... let me put it this way: breaking a vow is bad luck; breaking an oath is magic. They're neighbors, I guess, but there's an order of magnitude of difference between breaking a vow and an oath in Middle-Earth.

That said, I don't necessarily know how easy it is to categorize words as a vow or an oath. I suppose "swearing" is part of it, but is shaking hands an act of swearing, or does speaking the swearing words make all the difference?