The rider’s cloak streamed behind him, and his hood was thrown back; his golden hair flowed shimmering in the wind of his speed. To Frodo 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)
The Elf who meets Aragorn and the Hobbits on their way to Rivendell makes an impressive appearance. With his gleaming white horse – the steed’s peculiar shade of colour hinting at his own and his rider’s otherworldliness – the stranger looks striking and arrives just in time to lend aid to the weary company. Soon we learn that his name is Glorfindel and several days prior to their meeting on the Road he went forth from Rivendell to look for the travellers. While the Hobbits do not yet know anything else about him during their first encounter, Frodo sees a peculiarity about Glorfindel others fail to notice: he appears to be shining. What is the nature of this light visible to the Ring-bearer only?
We should start looking into the nature of Glorfindel’s radiance from the issue of the fëa and the hröa in Elves. It was very carefully examined by Tolkien in his essay The Laws and Customs of the Eldar. There we learn that Elvish spirits are much stronger than their bodies and thus Elves find it easier to heal themselves, even the injuries which can prove fatal to mortals, and are generally a more spiritual race than Men. In The Laws and Customs Tolkien mentions that if a fëa is particularly strong, one can even see it:
For though the fëa in itself is not visible to bodily eyes, it is in light that the Eldar find the most fitting symbol in bodily terms of the indwelling spirit, ‘the light of the house’ or cöacalina as they also name it. And those in whom the fëa is strong and untainted, they say, appear even to mortal eyes to shine at times translucent (albeit faintly), as though a lamp burned within.
(Morgoth’s Ring, p. 250)
This description of a shining strong and unsullied fëa fits Glorfindel’s spirit perfectly. Having faced a Balrog in a deadly combat, the Elf fell defending his people on the way from the ruined Gondolin at the end of the First Age and was afterwards restored to life in Aman. Glorfindel’s self-sacrifice enhanced his spiritual power manifold, while the abode among the untainted Elves – those who had not rebelled – and the Maiar of Valinor returned him to the “the primitive innocence and grace of the Eldar” (Peoples of Middle-earth, p. 381) raising the Elf to an almost angelic order, in many ways equal to the Maiar themselves.
In The Road Goes Ever On Tolkien makes a very interesting remark on the similar shining of the Valar. While commenting on Varda’s title Fanuilos, which is not entirely adequately interpreted as ‘Snow-white’, Tolkien mentions the Elvish element fana, meaning ‘veil’. It acquired a special significance in Quenya:
Owing to the close association of the High-Elves with the Valar, it [the word fana] was applied to the ‘veils’ or ‘raiment’ in which the Valar presented themselves to physical eyes. These were the bodies in which they were self-incarnated. …. The High-Elves said that these forms were always in some degree radiant, as if suffused with a light from within. In Quenya, fana thus came to signify the radiant and majestic figure of one of the great Valar.
(Road Goes Ever On, p. 66)
Being divine beings, the Valar have got such strong spirits that they radiate light. In both cases – of the Valar and the Elves – this light comes from within, pointing to the source of its origin – one’s spirit. A similar nature of the shining from the Valar and the Elves shows how close the untainted Elves are to the Valar in their spiritual level. Glorfindel in this case is one of prime examples: following his self-sacrifice, the Elf became a very enhanced being spiritually, and in this was close to the divine race of the Ainur. The latter fact also seems to be emphasised by the mention of a veil in both descriptions – of Glorfindel as Frodo first sees him on the Road and the Valar’s visible forms. While I cannot be sure if Tolkien intended any parallels here, but knowing how careful he was with choosing words, I found the similarity very intriguing.
However, though Glorfindel’s fëa is particularly strong and unsullied, nobody but Frodo notices the light coming from him. To understand this we should venture into the realm of the Unseen, where things occur at the same time as they do in the Seen world. There is only one difference, though: the world of the Unseen is not visible to common eyes.
Gandalf explains to Frodo in Rivendell that such Elves like Glorfindel “do not fear the Ringwraiths, for those who have dwelt in the Blessed Realm live at once in both worlds, and against both the Seen and the Unseen they have great power” (Fellowship of the Ring, p. 292). Wounded by the Morgul-blade, carrying evil enchantments, Frodo is gradually moving into the Unseen world and faces the danger of becoming a Wraith. Thus the Hobbit starts seeing things that are beyond the reach of common eyes. Being on the threshold of the Unseen world the Hobbit’s perception of the Seen is happening as if through a mist, while his sight in the Unseen realm has sharpened.
That is why Frodo is able to notice Glorfindel’s shining. The light surrounding the Elf is visible only in the world of the Unseen and is the manifestation of his immense spiritual power. Glorfindel is also able to read evil things written in the hilt of the Morgul-blade which are not discernible to others, but can be deciphered by the Elf who has power in the Unseen world. This realm is the permanent existence for the Nazgûl, who have long faded into the invisibility for the Seen world and appear as they really are only in the realm of the Unseen.
Being able to see Glorfindel in his spiritual might, the Ringwraiths are very much scared of the Elf. He is their complete opposite – light and spirituality versus darkness and nothingness. In the Battle of Fornost Glorfindel makes the Witch-king flee by merely appearing in front of the enemy on the battlefield:
Then the Witch-king laughed, and none that heard it ever forgot the horror of that cry. But Glorfindel rode up then on his white horse, and in the midst of his laughter the Witch-king turned to flight and passed into the shadows.
(Return of the King, p. 405)
While looking for Aragorn and the Hobbits Glorfindel pursues away the Black Riders, too. At a closer encounter neither the Nazgûl, nor their horses can stand the Elf-lord’s presence, and so the frightened steeds dash straight into the flooding river and carry their riders with them. Watching as the scene is unfolding from the other side of the Ford, Frodo is so close to the Wraith-world, that he clearly sees both – the Black Riders in their true forms and Glorfindel, shining brightly with white light, while other figures appear dimmed. Thus he again perceives the Elf as “he is upon the other side” and also “revealed in his wrath” (Fellowship of the Ring, pp. 292-293). This is too much to bear for the Nazgûl: dwelling in the Unseen world, they are especially sensitive to anyone with high spiritual powers, and so they flee from Glorfindel as their shadowy nothingness is no match for the untainted spiritual being.
I express my gratitude to Simon Cook, Tom Hillman, Luke Baugher,Shawn Marchese and Ross Nunamaker for their valuable comments which helped me improve this essay.
- J. R. R. Tolkien – The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring; HarperCollinsPublishers; London; 2001.
- J. R. R. Tolkien – The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King; HarperCollinsPublishers; London; 2001.
- J. R. R. Tolkien, Christopher Tolkien – Morgoth’s Ring; HarperCollinsPublishers; London; 2015.
- J. R. R. Tolkien, Christopher Tolkien – The Peoples of Middle-earth; HarperCollinsPublishers; London; 2015.
- J. R. R. Tolkien – The Road Goes Ever On.
Featured image – Creative Common Licence found at Pixabay.