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.

(Fellowship of the Ring, p. 297)

In his writings Tolkien was careful in using very powerful characters for quests of utter importance. While we do see the great and the wise participate and lend counsel where necessary, their intervention does not often go further than that and the final outcome of vital quests is decided by other – very often unlikely – characters.

In the Third Age the Elves dwindle, and the Men – multiply. Thus the Firstborn Children of Ilúvatar are gradually playing an increasingly smaller part in the affairs of Middle-earth. They are more concerned with looking after their own kingdoms, which have become scant and small, as well as preserving the beauty that is yet left in Middle-earth. This, in a way, echoes a lesser degree of the Valar’s intervention in the life of the region. While in the First Age we see the Valar act subtly and indirectly, by the Third Age nothing suggests that the Powers take any notice of Middle-earth at all. Unless we look carefully.

As the power of the evil is growing, the Valar are choosing even subtler ways to keep their eyes and ears open to what is going on in Middle-earth: there are emissaries of various orders from the Blessed Realm who keep watch over Middle-earth in the face of the ever-growing Shadow. One of such emissaries is Glorfindel.

When we meet Glorfindel in The Lord of the Rings we perceive that he is not an ordinary Elf. First, Frodo sees the yet unnamed Glorfindel riding towards them and to him «it appeared that a white light was shining through the form and raiment of the rider, as if through a thin veil» (Fellowship of the Ring, p. 275). Being wounded by the Morgul-blade, Frodo can see more than his companions can. Thus Glorfindel’s nature is visible to him. Later from the other side of the Ford and mere paces away from the Black Riders the Hobbit sees «а shining figure of white light» (ibid., p. 282)  – that is Glorfindel – «an Elf-lord revealed in his wrath»  (ibid., p. 293): he is one of the very few who can withstand the Nine. When in Rivendell, Gandalf explains:

You saw him for a moment as he is upon the other side: one of the mighty of the Firstborn. He is an Elf-lord of a house of princes. 

(Fellowship of the Ring, p. 292)

In Rivendell Glorfindel occupies a seat of importance right next to Elrond and at the Council  he becomes the first one to suggest that the Ring should be destroyed. Thus we see him as very high-born, important and displaying not only courage, strength, selflessness and nobility while rescuing Frodo, but also wisdom, knowledge and insight at the hour of dire need. Even though his appearance in the tale is brief and he utters only a few sentences, it is all quite enough to conjure up an image of a mighty Elf-lord. Let’s have a look at the origins of such might.

In the Elder Days Glorfindel was among those who went to Middle-earth from Valinor following Fëanor’s rebellion. However, Glorfindel undertook the march due to his love of his kindred and allegiance to Turgon, the son of Fingolfin. These virtuous motives did not save him from becoming an exile, though. In the Middle-earth of the First Age Glorfindel was in the service of Turgon and became renowned as one of his most valiant captains. Together with Ecthelion he guarded the flanks of the Gondolindrim army during their retreat to Gondolin from the deadly battlefield of Nirnaeth Arnoediad. Near the end of the First Age he fought bravely during the Fall of Gondolin and when the fugitives from the ruined kingdom were flying from the imminent death, he valiantly faced a Balrog in a single combat and killed the demon at the price of his own life. This allowed the people of Gondolin, including Eärendil, who later became instrumental in bringing Morgoth down, escape.

Glorfindel’s further fate is explained by Tolkien in the essay written very late in Professor’s life. Having discovered that he had two Glorfindels – one in the published Lord of the Rings and another – in the unpublished Silmarillion, Tolkien decided that having two characters of such a distinct name was not credible as major characters in Elvish legends could never have the same names. Thus he took to explaining how Glorfindel of Gondolin became Glorfindel of Rivendell.

After perishing in the battle with the Balrog Glorfindel’s spirit went to Mandos and having spent the necessary time in the Halls of Awaiting, the Elf was incarnated again in his bodily form. He dwelt for a while in Valinor and spent a lot of time in the company of the Eldar, who had not rebelled, as well as the Maiar. In his power and nature Glorfindel became equal to the latter as after his rebirth «he had regained the primitive innocence and grace of the Eldar» (Peoples of Middle-earth, p. 381) and «his spiritual power had been greatly enhanced by his self-sacrifice» (ibid.). Thus he became of an almost angelic order. As Gandalf explains to Frodo in Rivendell, those who have dwelt in the Blessed Realm live in two worlds and have great power over the Seen and the Unseen.

In the Second Age Glorfindel was sent by the Valar to Middle-earth to aid in the fight against Sauron, who had unveiled himself as the new Dark Lord. Glorfindel contributed a lot to those wars: the army under his command helped to defeat the Witch-King’s army in the Battle of Fornost and the Witch-King himself, whose death Glorfindel prophesied, fled at the sight of the powerful Elf-lord.

In all ways Glorfindel is a mighty character. Still despite all his power he does not openly oppose Sauron in the War of the Ring. Gandalf gives a sufficient explanation enough:

Even if you chose for us an elf-lord, such as Glorfindel, he could not storm the Dark Tower, nor open the road to the Fire by the power that is in him. 

(Fellowship of the Ring, p. 362)

Besides, his power is too visible for the Enemy to march against him in the quest where secrecy is the key thing. In this Glorfindel is very different from Gandalf – a Maia in disguise – whose shape of an old man tones down his inner might, so that it is not known to the Enemy. In his deeds in aiding Frodo and his companions Glorfindel plays a vital albeit a small role indeed. In  his helping Frodo escape from the Black Riders on Asfaloth and providing valuable advice to the Council, his actions still seem like a piece of a bigger picture slowly coming together.

There are a lot of characters – and many of them are really mighty – who play important parts in the Fellowship’s quest, but their intervention is but a contribution to the outcome of the whole affair. In such a quest based on secrecy, unexpectedness and friendship, when wisdom and strength play a lesser role, very unlikely companions prove best. Or, like Elrond puts it:

Yet such is oft the course of deeds that move the wheels of the world: small hands do them because they must, while the eyes of the great are elsewhere. 

(Fellowship of the Ring, p. 353)

Further reading:

Glorfindel: the Power of White Light Part II


Works consulted:

  1. J. R. R. Tolkien, Christopher Tolkien – The Peoples of Middle-earth; HarperCollinsPublishers; London; 2015.
  2. J. R. R. Tolkien – The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring; HarperCollinsPublishers; London; 2001.

Featured image – Creative Common Licence found at Pixabay.

21 thoughts on “Glorfindel: the power of white light.

  1. I always loved how nonchalant Glorfindel is about the fact that the Ringwraiths run at the sight of him. “Three of the servants of Sauron were on the Bridge, but they withdrew and I pursued them westward. I came also upon two others, but they turned away southward.” All in a day’s work for an elf lord.

  2. Reawakening a thing that’s always bothered me. What’s the relationship between the terms “elf-lord” and “elven-king”?

    1. Well, the things that your question prompted in my head concern the differences in hierarchy, the way the title is given and the matters that concern ruling (or not ruling) a realm. Did I get your idea right?

      1. Yes. In The Silmarillion, the Elvish aristocracy works like real-world European ones. In LotR, human aristocracies work that way, but Elvish ones are muddled. Maybe it’s just because Sam and Frodo don’t get Elves right.

      2. It can have to do with the Hobbits’ perspective methinks. I wonder if it also might be the result of the state of the Elves as a people in LOTR. The Elves are leaving Middle-earth, the age of Men is coming, the Elves are few and scattered, they are dwindling. And it’s reflected in the aristocracy as well.

      3. Like the last days of the Holy Roman Empire, with an incoherent mishmash of Dukes, Kings, and Archbishops (well, maybe not that bad) — I like it!

  3. Thank you for this! Several weeks ago I read the recently released Fall of Gondolin and just noticed Glorfindel died (it’s been years since I read the Silmarillion, and I’ve only read it once!) and I’m been scratching my head about this since then. I kept meaning to look up whether this was supposed to be the same character or not, and you have answered my questions!

      1. That’s one of the reasons I was confused! I know Tolkien didn’t really finish writing/revising The Silmarillion, but how could he kill off a character who’s in The Lord of the Rings? :p

      2. I know how you must have felt 😀 Glorfindel is also unique because all the Elves remained in Aman after reincarnation, but Glorfindel was sent back to Middle-earth. Another notable example is Lúthien, but she returned back as a mortal.

      3. I think the Glorfindel issue is interesting because it suggests that Elves reincarnate and yet many Elves apparently don’t. Do they not want to? Are the Valar waiting for another time to send them back? The Elves do seem strongly affected when one of them dies–partially because, I assume, they don’t normally die except in war or something like that and so they don’t expect death to happen to them, really. But you’d also think that maybe, if reincarnation were really common, death wouldn’t be quite as devastating to them?

      4. Tolkien’s writings suggest that some Elves don’t reincarnate, indeed. Fëanor’s spirit, for example, wasn’t let out of the Halls of Mandos until the end of Arda because of the awful deeds during his life. Some fëar refused the summons and lingered bodiless in Middle-earth, which was a very bad thing.
        Death was unnatural for the Elves, hence the intensity of grief, I think, apart from losing their loved ones for an indeterminable period of time, especially if one Elf remained to live in Middle-earth not knowing when or whether they will be able to go to Aman.
        It seems that most Elves returned to life in the Blessed Realm, after some time in Mandos, but it also seems that a lot depended on how they behaved during their lives: some stayed there longer, others — less, while some didn’t leave at all.

      5. Very interesting! And, yeah… I can’t see Feanor being welcomed back by the other Elves with open arms. It’s probably also best for HIM if he isn’t let out right away!

  4. This is a really fine essay and, once again, I have learnt so much from you. What strikes me about Glorfindel in The Lord of the Rings is his humility. His superiority to the Nazgûl is not worthy of note. It is simply a fact. No wonder Elrond sent him to find the travellers. And he has no need to rule a kingdom. His lordship is within himself and he is content to serve in Rivendell.
    At some point I look forward to writing about him myself and you have helped me so much with my understanding of him.

    1. Thank you!
      Glorfindel is one of my most favourite characters in Arda. Your description of him is so spot on! This combination of humility and lordliness shows perfectly that arrogance and pride are not the necessary by-products of a mighty lord and that true might lies in humility.

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