After getting off to a great start, Glorfindel's Middle-earth career stumbles when the fella kind of falls off a cliff and dies... Not one to let a little hiccup like violent mortality get in his way, in this episode, we watch Glorfindel rise like a phoenix to even greater heights.
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Hi. Welcome to The Halfling. I’m your host, Jaron Pak, and you’re listening to Episode 2: Glorfindel Makes a Comeback.
Last time, we left off on a bit of a cliff-hanger — pun intended. We opened up our series on Glorfindel by talking about the Elven hero’s beginnings during the Years of the Trees. From there, we traced his path as he follows his king into exile and holes up with him in the hidden city of Gondolin. When that city is destroyed toward the end of the First Age, Glorfindel plays a huge part in its defense. During that epic last stand, he goes down in a fight with a Balrog while he tries to protect refugees from the city as they escape through a mountain pass.
At this point, Glorfindel’s resume is already resplendent with glory. He’s a cool character with a noble heart, a fearless disposition, and a knack for hitting Balrogs right where it counts. But he’s also dead. And that’s not a mislead, either. His Elven body is broken as he topples over the cliff with the Balrog, and while it’s recovered by the Lord of the Eagles, it’s just for the sake of giving it a burial.
So where does the story go from here? That’s what we’re going to find out today. Let’s get started, shall we?
To properly understand what happens to Glorfindel, we need to do another little information dump in an area of Tolkien’s lore that is pretty light on, well, coherent information. I’m talking about Elvish immortality. Buckle in. The next few minutes are going to get a little confusing. See, in the realm of Middle-earth, Tolkien left a lot of things pretty vague. Men, for instance, are given the gift of death. And I’m not being cheeky, either. Tolkien goes to great lengths in The Silmarillion and elsewhere to explain that Men are given the ability to die and leave the circles of the world as a gift. It’s a clear, differentiating factor that sets them apart from the Elves, Dwarves, and other Middle-earth-bound creatures. In The Silmarillion, it says that “the hearts of Men should seek beyond the world and should find no rest therein.” It also adds that “It is one with this gift of freedom that the children of Men dwell only a short space in the world alive, and are not bound to it, and depart soon wither the Elves know not.”
While the fate of Men is worthy of its own podcast episode, though, today we’re interested in the Elvish side of the equation. The Silmarillion also addresses this, saying that compared to Men, “the Elves remain until the end of days.” A little later, the book also says that “the Elves die not till the world dies, unless they are slain or waste in grief,” it also says — sorry, one more quote here — that “dying they are gathered to the halls of Mandos in Valinor, whence they may in time return.”
Valinor is the area in the Blessed Realm to the west of Middle-earth where the Valar, the angelic guardians of the world, rule. It’s an immortal chunk of land that is generally filled with life-giving things, like the Two Trees that we talked about in the last episode. But it also has one special area dedicated to a powerful yet morbid fellow named Námo.
Námo is one of the Valar and is commonly referred to as the Doomsman of the Valar. The name Námo means “Judge,” which tells you a bit about his moody, brooding personality, but if you read The Silmarillion, you won’t find that name mentioned much. That’s because he typically goes by the name of his dwelling, Mandos. The Halls of Mandos, also known as the Halls of Awaiting and the Houses of the Dead, is the official holding chamber for the spirits of Elves whose corporeal bodies have perished. That’s basically a fancy way of saying when Elvish bodies die, their spirits go to Mandos, where they recuperate and wait, hopefully to be given new physical forms at some point along the way.
In the book “The Peoples of Middle-earth,” Tolkien breaks down how this affects Glorfindel after he dies in the duel with the Balrog. The Professor explains that after his death, Glorfindel’s spirit would have gone straight to the Halls of Mandos to wait for his judgment. After that, he would continue to wait there until Mandos released him, adding that Elves were destined to be immortal and that “Their death — by injury to their bodies so severe that it could not be healed — and the disembodiment of their spirits was an ‘unnatural’ and grievous matter. It was, therefore, the duty of the Valar, by command of the One, to restore them to incarnate life, if they desired it.”
To be fair, Tolkien also adds the caveat that this process could be delayed by Mandos if an Elf had acted evilly and refused to repent and change their ways. However, if you ask me, if there was ever an Elf that could get out of the Halls of Mandos based on good previous behavior, it has to be Glorfindel. I can’t imagine too many Elves showed up and were able to say that they saved a bunch of refugees by single-handedly taking down a Balrog at their own expense.
The one other little hangup to Glorfindel’s bodily return was the fact that the Noldor Elves who had rebelled were not allowed to return in bodily form to the Blessed Realm. But Tolkien points out that the Valar could make exceptions to their own rules, and Glorfindel’s deeds were so admirable, that he becomes a singular case by being allowed to resume an earthly form.
Anyway, Tolkien’s official account suggests that Glorfindel was likely purged of any guilt in relation to the rebellion of the Noldor and then released and restored into an incarnate person once again. After this very unique event, Glorfindel likely spends a good chunk of time hanging out in the Blessed Realm, resting away from the troubles of Middle-earth. But eventually, his doom comes a-knockin’. See, in his resurrected form, Tolkien makes it clear that Glorfindel takes on a new level of spiritual power and authority. This makes him such an important individual, that he’s eventually called back into action to resist an evil that has crept into the picture when no one was looking — the new Dark Lord, Sauron.
Tolkien goes back and forth about when Glorfindel must have returned to Middle-earth. At first, he places this event 1000 years into the Third Age. In this initial narrative, he arrives with Gandalf as a helper to the wizard. Glorfindel’s connection to the mission of the wizard remains, but, eventually, the author dials back the Elf’s arrival to around the middle of the Second Age. Interestingly, he says the most likely time is around 1600 years into that age — which also happens to coincide with the time when the One Ring is first forged. Talk about a welcoming way to arrive back on the continent.
Once he gets back on the mainland, Glorfindel gets to work right away. At this point, we’re in some of the haziest portions of Tolkien’s writings — the stuff that his son, Christopher Tolkien, recorded in scraps and various drafts. Based on the little pieces of information that we have to go on, it seems that Tolkien meant to have Glorfindel arrive during the Second Age as a support for the Elvish leaders Gil-galad and Elrond — yes, that Elrond. There’s also a note that Christopher found where his father mentions that, “though not mentioned in the annals recording Sauron’s defeat he played a notable and heroic part in the war.” So, while Tolkien never got around to filling in Glorfindel’s activity during the Second Age, it would appear that the Elf was meant to have yet another essential role in the proceedings.
This is great news for Amazon’s upcoming show, which is going to focus on the events of the Second Age. Not only is Glorfindel a popular character that Tolkien meant to have heavily involved in the Second Age. This is also a chunk of his story that is virtually unwritten, leaving the door open to plenty of artistic license if they decide to work him into the plot. In fact, when the studio released its first series image in early August, many fans thought the unidentified character in the foreground of the shot might actually be Glorfindel in the Blessed Realm during the Years of the Trees. We won’t know if that’s true for quite a while now, but it’s that very speculation that has us digging so far into the Elf’s history now. So, nice job with the marketing on that one, Amazon.
Alright. At this point, we’ve covered a lot of pretty vague ground when it comes to Glorfindel’s reincarnation. But I felt it was important since this isn’t the kind of thing that you see happening in Middle-earth on a regular basis. Sure, some Elves are seen dying and then taking new forms from time to time. But you never see a hero go down in flames like Glorfindel does, only to see him reincarnated stronger than ever ...and then sent back into the thick of things.
The Elf-lord’s trajectory is unique in the history of Middle-earth. And the thing is, the entire event is something that was partly done on purpose and partly by accident — at least as far as Tolkien was concerned. See, the author was a master of connecting the dots within his world. He would spell something one way and then change the spelling later and then defend the two versions as both correct because of some linguistic difference within his universe. The man was adept at making things flow together — and Glorfindel is no exception.
The truth is, if you read between the lines a bit, it really does appear that the Balrog-dueling Glorfindel from the First Age and the reincarnated version that we meet in The Lord of the Rings weren’t originally supposed to be the same character. On the contrary, in “The Peoples of Middle-earth” book, it clearly indicates that Tolkien himself grappled with how to make the two character arcs make sense. He explains that Glorfindel was around in his writing from the beginning. However, when he went to write The Lord of the Rings, the author randomly used the same name, adding that it “escaped reconsideration in the final published form of The Lord of the Rings.” In other words, it would appear that he used the name as a placeholder and then forgot to swap it out in the final version. Whoops. He adds that it’s an unfortunate occurrence since the name doesn’t line up with the Elven languages spoken at that time. So, it would appear that this tale of two Glorfindels crept up on Tolkien and left him scrambling to connect them years later. Rather than simply writing it off as an oversight, though, the author found a way to connect them through the reincarnation and resending of the character during the Second Age that we just talked about.
This fascinating connection is part of what I love about Tolkien. No matter how much he wrote, the man always found a way to get everything to flow together into a single narrative. And the thing is, Glorfindel’s story doesn’t even stop here. Heck, we’re barely halfway through it. After writing the character into The Fellowship of the Ring, Tolkien charged right ahead and added him into the appendix material that he includes at the end of The Return of the King, as well. This fills in a bit more information regarding the hero’s activities during the earlier half of the Third Age, which is where we’ll pick up with things next week. From there, we’ll run through Glorfindel’s role in The Lord of The Rings story and where we leave the hero the last time we see him.
That’s it for now. Until next time, friends.