“Glorfindel was tall and straight; his hair was of shining gold, his face fair and young and fearless and full of joy; his eyes were bright and keen, and his voice like music; on his brow sat wisdom, and in his hand was strength.”
― The Fellowship of the Ring, Many Meetings
Glorfindel (S 'golden haired', pron. [ɡlorˈfindel]) was one of the mightiest Elves of Middle-earth in the Third Age. He was distinctive because of his return to Middle-earth after death, acting as an emissary of the Valar, on a similar mission to the Istari who were to come several thousand years later.
Glorfindel was born in Valinor sometime during the Years of the Trees. He was of the host of Turgon. Glorfindel himself was reluctant; only for his allegiance and kinship with Turgon did he go, and had no part in the Kinslaying of Alqualondë.
After the Exile of the Noldor Glorfindel’s history is obscure. As a great follower of Turgon he was appointed chief of the House of the Golden Flower, one of the Twelve Houses of Gondolin. He was dearly loved by all the Gondolindrim, and went about in a mantle embroidered in threads of gold, diapered with celandine 'as a field in spring'. His vambraces were damascened with 'cunning gold'.
He followed Turgon who surprisingly came to fight in the Nirnaeth Arnoediad. When the war turned against the alliance, Turgon's and Fingon's forces retreated to the Pass of Sirion and Glorfindel with Ecthelion guarded their flanks.
He witnessed the coming of Tuor and later the Fall of Gondolin. During the ensuing battle in the streets, Glorfindel chose (or was ordered) to hold the Great Market from the advancing orcs. He attempted to flank them, taking the enemy by surprise, but was himself ambushed and surrounded. Cut off, the House of the Golden Flower fought on fiercely for hours, until a fire-breathing dragon came and leveled their ranks. Glorfindel, with some of the strongest of his followers, cut his way out, but the survivors of that battle were very few. Even then they were pursued and might have all been killed, but the House of the Harp arrived in time, after rebelling from their treacherous leader Salgant, ambushing their pursuers. The Golden Flower arrived at the Square of the King, one of the last of the Houses to be driven in.
As many of the lords had fallen, Ecthelion was wounded, Galdor was engaged, and Egalmoth had not yet arrived, Glorfindel joined Tuor in leading the defense of the King’s Square. When Egalmoth arrived, bringing with him many women and children, he took over Glorfindel’s job in going from place to place, strengthening the defenses. Glorfindel presumably threw himself once more into the thick of the fight. But even he could not prevent a dragon from coming down from the Alley of Roses, breaking through their lines. The dragon was accompanied by orcs and balrogs, among them Gothmog. Even Tuor was thrown down, but Ecthelion sacrificed himself to kill Gothmog and buy the Gondolindrim a little more time. When the Gondolindrim fled southward, and King Turgon was slain, Glorfindel held the rear manfully, losing many more of his House in the process. After they had escaped Gondolin via Idril's secret way, and passed through the Cirith Thoronath, Glorfindel again held the rear with the largest number of the unwounded.
It was at that time that a balrog and a contingent of orcs ambushed their company. Glorfindel there accomplished his greatest deed, for he saved the lives of Tuor, Idril, and all the company when he defied the balrog. They fought long. According to The Fall of Gondolin Glorfindel stabbed it in the belly, but as the balrog fell it reached out and grabbed his long golden hair, pulling him back down over the edge of the cliff. He perished in the fall, but his body was borne up by Thorondor, and buried him with a mound of stones in the pass. On that mound grew yellow flowers (possibly celandine), despite its remote location.
Re-embodiment and Return
Glorfindel’s spirit passed to the Halls of Mandos, where he waited with the spirits of the other Noldor who had died during their war against Morgoth. But because of Glorfindel’s noble actions in life, his reluctance at the Exile, and his furthering of the purposes of the Valar by saving Tuor and Idril, he was re-embodied after only a short time. He had redeemed himself, and was purged of any guilt. Not only did his sacrifice get him an early pardon, it earned him great powers, so that he was almost an equal to the Maiar.
Eventually, Manwë sent him across the sea to Middle-earth, possibly as early as Second Age 1200, but more likely in 1600 with the Blue Wizards. If the latter date, he arrived just after the One Ring had been forged, Barad-dûr built, and Celebrimbor dead or soon to be so. While the Blue Wizards were sent to the east, Glorfindel’s mission was to aid Gil-galad and Elrond in the struggle against Sauron. He played a prominent behind-the-scenes role in the war in Eriador and the other struggles of the Second Age and Third Age. His part, though great, was mostly overlooked by the histories, because his immense, angelic power was not usually displayed openly.
Glorfindel spent several hundred years in Valinor and for an unknown reason, near T.A. 1000, he landed with Olórin, who was on a similar mission of his own. Over time, as the few remaining great Elves of Middle-earth took ship to Aman or fell one by one, only Galadriel, Celeborn, Elrond, and Círdan were left of the Wise. Glorfindel took a more active role, leading the Elven forces in the Battle of Fornost. Upon the humiliation of Eärnur before the Witch-king, Glorfindel bade him not pursue, and prophesied that the wraith would not fall by the hand of man. Not much can be said about his deeds and role in the events and struggles of the Westlands before the War of the Ring.
During the War, he was one of the elves dispatched from Rivendell by Elrond to search for the Ring-bearer. Elrond had chosen him partially because Glorfindel did not fear the Ringwraiths, as he had great presence in both the Seen and Unseen worlds. While on his perilous mission the Ringwraiths avoided him; he met five of them, and they fled at his presence. It was Glorfindel indeed who accomplished his mission and found the Ringbearer, Frodo Baggins, and his friend Aragorn with him. Glorfindel put Frodo on his horse, Asfaloth, and upon the approach of the Ringwraiths ordered him to go on. The white horse bore Frodo to safety across the Ford of Bruinen, but Frodo, in a rash act of attempted heroism, turned around at the other side and defied the Nine. Glorfindel, expecting the flood that protected Rivendell to come down and smite the riders, revealed his power to the Riders, and drove them (willingly or not) into the River, where they were swept away by the ensuing waters.
After this adventure, he helped bear Frodo to Rivendell, where the wounded Ringbearer was tended to. Glorfindel attended the Council of Elrond, playing an active role in the conversation, speaking prophetically of Tom Bombadil and other matters with authority. Glorfindel stood beside Elrond and Gandalf as the backbone of the Council, laying out clearly their options. At first Glorfindel suggested that the Ring would be safe in the depths of the Sea, but the far-sighted Gandalf noted the change of landscapes, and the unforeseen possibilities that could bring the Ring forth once more in a hundred or even a thousand years in the future. He was briefly considered as a member of the Fellowship of the Ring, but as his friend Gandalf said, Glorfindel's power would be of little use against the might of Mordor, on a mission of secrecy.
During the War of the Ring nothing is said of Glorfindel. Whatever his role, he survived and joined Elrond's company to the Wedding of Elessar. After that no more is said of him. Like Olórin, his task in Middle-earth was done, and the age of the Elves was over. He probably passed West, perhaps with the bearers of the Three Rings and the One Ring. Or he may have remained for a time in Middle-earth to oversee the cleanup after the war.
Glorfindel was an elf of great beauty, power, wisdom, and moral courage. He was clearly loved by the people of Gondolin, who mourned his passing greatly. He acted most courageously during the Fall, his House being among those that suffered the greatest losses, and eventually giving his own life for the safety of Tuor and Idril, accomplishing the designs of the Valar, though it was said that he 'would have defended them even had they been fugitives of any rank'. He was repentant of the rebellion of the Noldor, and took no part in the Kinslaying. His acts in the Third Age also show great presence and authority, as does the very fact that he was sent as an emissary of the Valar.
Glorfindel means (S 'golden haired', pron. [ɡlorˈfindel]). It is the Sindarin calque of Laurefindil (Q: 'golden head of hair', pron. N [ˌlaʊreˈfindil], V [ˌlaʊreˈɸindil]), which is made up of two components; laure means 'golden color' and findil or findilë means 'head of hair'.
Some have questioned whether Glorfindel of Gondolin and Glorfindel of Rivendell were the same. While writing the Lord of the Rings Tolkien simply borrowed a name from his earlier legendarium, something he was known to do. The Peoples of Middle-earth, published posthumously, cast some light on this issue. Among the Last Writings published in that volume, there are two long essays, Glorfindel I and Glorfindel II. These were written later in life by Tolkien, and directly addressed whether the two Glorfindels were the same person. Both essays clearly indicated that they were the same person, and included a detailed discussion of 're-embodiment' in Tolkien's mythology.
“. . . At any rate what at first sight may seem the simplest solution must be abandoned: sc. that we have merely a reduplication of names, and that Glorfindel of Gondolin and Glorfindel of Rivendell were different persons. This repetition of so striking a name, though possible, would not be credible… Also it may be found that acceptance of the identity of Glorfindel of old and of the Third Age will actually explain what is said of him and improve the story. . .”
― Last Writings, Glorfindel II
“. . . After his purging of any guilt that he had incurred in the rebellion, he was released from Mandos, and Manwë restored him… We may then best suppose that Glorfindel returned during the Second Age, before the ‘shadow’ fell on Númenor. . .”
As Tolkien's legendarium was an evolving work that he constantly updated and revised, there will always be some question of 'final intent'. Some may note that the above-quoted essays were private and not ever published, and thus should not be taken as decisive. Nevertheless the editors of the Tolkien Gateway believe that these essays, combined with Tolkien's published novels, clearly establish that Glorfindel of Gondolin and Glorfindel of Rivendell were the same person.
The narrative doesn't mention Glorfindel's ancestry or parentage, and it is not known whether Tolkien wrote about the subject. Considering his apparent nobility, and his name Glorfindel ('Golden-haired') he could be a heritage of a possible Vanyarin intermarriage, as is the case of Finarfin, Finrod, Galadriel and Idril. Robert Foster suggests that he might belong to the House of Finarfin (although Turgon was of the House of Fingolfin).
Finwë’s daughters, Findis and Írimë, are two characters of the royal Noldorin-Vanyarin family tree about whom almost nothing is known, as well as whether they had descendants, leaving thus space for speculation about the ancestry of characters such as Glorfindel.
Earlier Versions of the Legendarium
In a hasty note about the Council of Elrond Tolkien suggested that Glorfindel could tell of his ancestry in Gondolin, but this idea was abandoned.
Glorfindel was originally planned to be part of the Fellowship of the Ring, in a way taking the place of Legolas. Tolkien proposed three dates as to his return to Middle-earth: T.A. 1000, with Gandalf, S.A. 1200 and the years following, or S.A. 1600. He dropped the first one after some thought, and though he declared the second possible, he favored the last as the most probable.