In this biweekly series, we’re exploring the evolution of both major and minor figures in Tolkien’s legendarium, tracing the transformations of these characters through drafts and early manuscripts through to the finished work. This week’s installment focuses on Glorfindel, an Elf-lord with only a few appearances, who channels the divine power of the Other-world and whose presence in Middle-earth twice assures the survival of—well, basically everything.
Glorfindel has the double distinction of being, first of all, an elf whose name was so unique that Tolkien felt like it couldn’t be used again for anyone else; and second of all, an elf whose power was so great that he was specifically sent back to Middle-earth by the Valar to aid Elrond and Gandalf in the fight against Sauron. But his fame doesn’t end there: the tale of this particular character is also what drove Tolkien to almost tirelessly revise his theory of elvish reincarnation.
His textual history, while not as complex as some of the others’ we’ve looked at so far in this series, is particularly fascinating because he appeared in a relatively stable form so early in Tolkien’s drafts. In fact, the Glorfindel who appears in the 1916 or 1917 version of The Fall of Gondolin is not all that different from the Glorfindel of the final version of The Lord of the Rings—and indeed, the latter depends entirely on the former for its coherence.
The earliest drafts of The Fall of Gondolin were written during and around Tolkien’s time in the trenches of WWI, though as Christopher Tolkien notes, it’s difficult to date them exactly since Tolkien himself offered several different origins stories for the (The Fall of Gondolin, hereafter FoG, 21-22). Whatever the exact date of the story’s birth, it is at least clear that Tolkien was approximately 24 years old when he began to pen these drafts, and that they represented, significantly, the first forays into the great mythos growing in his mind.
However much one loves Tolkien and admires his work, it must be admitted that these early drafts are difficult to read. Here’s the sentence that introduces the star of today’s column: “There stood the house of the Golden Flower who bare a rayed sun upon their shield, and their chief Glorfindel bare a mantel so broidered in threads of gold that it was diapered with celandine as a field in spring; and his arms were damascened with cunning gold” (Book of Lost Tales II, hereafter BLT II, 174-5). The vocabulary is rich and beautiful, to be sure, but it leaves us with a text that is difficult to navigate, especially if you aren’t used to language of that sort.
The important thing to note is that even here in the early stages, we have Glorfindel, Lord of the House of the Golden Flower of Gondolin, as powerful and high-hearted as he is beautiful. When Gondolin is sacked by the armies of Morgoth and overrun with Balrogs (seriously—Our Heroes kill them by the dozen in the early days), Glorfindel and his company act as rear-guard for the fleeing refugees, and it’s the selfless sacrifice of Glorfindel that allows them to escape when a Balrog comes roaring into their midst. Without the scene of the Battle of the Cleft of Eagles, in fact, Glorfindel as he is known in The Lord of the Rings could not exist.
The point is that in The Lord of the Rings, Glorfindel acts as a shaman, which essentially means that he is a sort of in-between figure who has direct access to both the spiritual and physical worlds, and that his purpose on Middle-earth is to protect “souls” who are threatened by the powers of the Shadow. He couldn’t do this if it weren’t for his previous battle with the Balrog. Why? Because that battle is his initiation.
There are a number of elements that seem to be ubiquitous in a shamanic initiation experience: a dangerous or narrow passage, a dizzying climb, the clash of opposites, an encounter with fire, the experience of radical paradoxes, a struggle with a demonic force, and the ascent of the soul, often symbolized by the appearance of eagles. All of these things are present even in the earliest versions of Glorfindel’s battle with the Balrog. Let’s take a closer look.
First of all, the fact that the battle takes place above the “Cleft of Eagles” already signals that we’re going to be dealing with some kind of ecstasy or spiritual transfiguration. Eagles, in many mythologies and in Tolkien’s stories, metaphorically represent the moment when the struggling soul is transformed and raised up by some great act of courage, sacrifice, or heroism. (This is, incidentally, why the Fellowship couldn’t possibly just fly the eagles to Mordor. The eagles only ever appear when the soul has extended itself to the utmost, poured itself out, or reached the point at which there is no more physical escape: suddenly, in agony and ecstasy, the soul is transfigured and raised beyond the heights of the material world. So no, just sitting around waiting on the eagles to function as literal transportation across Middle-earth doesn’t work, won’t ever work. Go ahead. Look at all the scenes with eagles. I’ll wait.) So, when the refugees of Gondolin enter the Cleft of Eagles, with enemies on their heels and a Balrog leaping down among them, we should be prepared for an encounter that will try the soul.
And it does. The path the company travels is one that hems them in: the Cleft of Eagles, or Cirith Thoronath—
…is an ill place by reason of its height, for this is so great that spring nor summer come ever there, and it is very cold. […] The path is narrow, and of the right or westerly hand a sheer wall rises nigh seven chains from the way, ere it bursts atop into jagged pinnacles where are many eyries. […] But of the other hand is a fall not right sheer yet dreadly steep, and it has long teeth of rock up-pointing so that one may climb down—or fall maybe—but by no means up. And from that deep is no escape at either end any more than by the sides. (FoG 104)
In this description we see some of the important markers for a shamanic initiation. The way is dangerous and narrow, there are great opposites existing simultaneously (on the one hand is a great height and on the other a great depth), and it’s terribly cold, which will be important later because the Balrog comes as a demon of fire (heat).
Then the Balrog itself arrives. We read then that “Glorfindel leapt forward upon him and his golden armour gleamed strangely in the moon, and he hewed at that demon […]. Now there was a deadly combat upon that high rock above the folk” (FoG 107). They climb higher and higher locked in combat—another important marker of shamanic initiation. Glorfindel deals a mortal blow to his demonic enemy, but as the Balrog falls, he clutches Glorfindel’s hair beneath his helm and together they fall to their deaths (FoG 108). Later, in the published Silmarillion, we’re just told that “both fell to ruin in the abyss” (243), which foreshadows Gandalf’s later encounter with a Balrog. Personally, I prefer the version in The Silmarillion, because it seems too cruel that the feature for which Glorfindel received his unique name—his golden hair—should be his downfall.
Regardless of how he dies, Glorfindel’s body is retrieved by the Lord of the Eagles, Thorondor, from the depths of the abyss: metaphorically speaking, Glorfindel’s spiritual battle against a demon leads to the transfiguration of his soul. Thorondor also buries the body in a high grave, “and a green turf came there, and yellow flowers bloomed upon it amid the barrenness of stone, until the world was changed” (Sil 243). (In the early draft of The Fall of Gondolin, Tuor has Glorfindel buried in a cairn, but Thorondor protects it ever after.)
What happened to Glorfindel, and how did he return? In a very late essay, presented roughly in two parts (as a sort of note, and then as a more complete, though still unfinished draft), Tolkien expounds upon Glorfindel’s role in the text. An “air of special power and sanctity […] surrounds” him in The Lord of the Rings because of his death and reincarnation, Tolkien explains. In fact, through his sojourn in Valinor, between death and “resurrection,” the elf lord actually “regained the primitive innocence and grace of the Eldar,” such that he had become “almost an equal” of the Maiar and a particular friend of Olórin, a.k.a. pre-Middle-earth Gandalf (Peoples of Middle-earth, hereafter PM, 381).
This claim is particularly significant because Glorfindel, as a follower of Turgon and a lord of Gondolin, was a leading participant in the rebellion of the Noldor against the Valar; his return to “primitive innocence and grace” is a therefore return to a sort of pre-fall state, a hallmark of the shamanic initiation. His rise to a level of power that rivaled that of a Maia (Gandalf, Sauron, and Balrogs are all Maiar) emphasizes the fact that Glorfindel is very much of two worlds at once. Within his person the spiritual and the material take up residence. He straddles the divisions between worlds: between Valinor and Middle-earth, the seen and the unseen. And, as a spiritual warrior and shaman he is particularly selected to return to Middle-earth to aid Elrond in the war against the growing Shadow (PM 384).
Now, what does his early experience with the Balrog have to do with his appearance in The Lord of the Rings? As I said before, the latter cannot exist without the former. In The Lord of the Rings, Glorfindel specifically plays the role of spiritual guide and protector against the demonic power of the Nazgûl. In “The Flight to the Ford,” Glorfindel is situated in three places in particular: the Road, the Bridge, and the Ford, all three of which are important because they represent spaces that are in between the spiritual and the material (and they often show up as symbols in shamanic rituals). The Elf-lord acts as a protector on the Road, but he also leaves his token on the Bridge which signals to Aragorn that it’s safe for them to cross (I, xii, 210). His white horse, Asfaloth (another marker of the shaman), escorts Frodo across the dangerous passage of the Ford. Without that initial encounter with the Balrog, his subsequent transfiguration, and his recovery in Valinor, Glorfindel would be entirely incapable of helping Frodo and facing the Nazgûl, the evil shamans.
Gandalf explains all this to Frodo as he lies in Rivendell, recovering. “‘I thought I saw a white figure that shone and did not grow dim like the others,’” Frodo says. “‘Was that Glorfindel then?’” (II, i, 223). Gandalf’s answer comes in two parts, one before Frodo even asks the question. First, he explains that “‘here in Rivendell there live still some of [Sauron’s] chief foes: the Elven-wise, lords of the Eldar from beyond the furthest seas. They do not fear the Ringwraiths, for those who have dwelt in the Blessed Realm live at one in both worlds, and against both the Seen and the Unseen they have great power’” (I, i, 222-223). Valinor is situated in relation to Middle-earth as a version of Elven paradise, and therefore Gandalf’s comment emphasizes the spiritual divide that these figures, the Elven-wise, bridge; they have a foot in both worlds, as it were, and thus they are able to channel their divine power to bring endangered souls to safety; i.e., to act as shamans.
The second part of Gandalf’s answer focuses more specifically on Glorfindel. “‘Yes,’” he reassures Frodo, “‘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. Indeed there is a power in Rivendell to withstand the might of Mordor, for a while’” (II, i, 223). With these comments Gandalf confirms Frodo’s suspicions, that the “shining figure of white light” was indeed Glorfindel unveiling himself against those evil shamans, the Nazgûl: and “caught between fire and water, and seeing an Elf-lord revealed in his wrath, they were dismayed, and their horses were stricken with madness” (II, i, 224). Again, elements are put in opposition: fire and water, much like the fierce cold and fire of the battle above the Cleft of Eagles. That it is Glorfindel who initiates this dichotomic situation is reflective of the elf’s status as shaman and spiritual intercessor, “for [he] knew that a flood would come down, if the Riders tried to cross, and then he would have to deal with any that were left on his side of the river” (II, i, 224). Glorfindel thus overcomes the Nazgûl by forcing them into the liminal space between opposites; unlike the Elf-lord, the Nazgûl are not able to transcend the difference, are stripped of their corporeality, and left to return “unhorsed” to Sauron—and given the extent to which shamans depend on their equine partners, the defeat is a great one indeed despite the fact that “the Ringwraiths themselves cannot be so easily destroyed” (II, i, 224).
Glorfindel is thus a key figure in the tales of Middle-earth despite the relatively limited role he at first appears to play. First, his sacrifice in the Cirith Thoronath makes it possible for the refugees of Gondolin to escape, thereby ensuring the survival of the young Eärendil (who later also becomes a shamanic intercessor) and, by extension, Elrond and Elros. Thus, because of Glorfindel we have one of the last strongholds in the war against Sauron (Elrond’s Imladris) and the line which produced Aragorn (Elros’s Númenoreans), the returning king of Gondor and Arnor. Then, in The Lord of the Rings, Glorfindel reprises his role as a shamanic intercessor and protector, one of the few who, because of his spiritual transfiguration, was able both to ride openly against the Nine and to provide Frodo with safe-passage over the Ford and into the safe haven of Rivendell. Without Glorfindel, the Ring never would have made it as far as Rivendell.
Glorfindel fascinates me because he represents one of those figures that so captured Tolkien’s imagination, a person Tolkien saw with such clarity that he was allowed to exist in nearly the same form from the earliest days to the latest. And not only that, but the whole trajectory of his character leads up to that miraculous encounter at the Ford of Bruinen. Glorfindel is a particularly significant character because his appearance in The Lord of the Rings proves that the spiritual world is not removed from the material: we just have to know how and where to look for it. Glorfindel’s miraculous appearance on the Road at just the right moment, his past which perfectly prepared him for the flight to the Ford, his nearly instinctive self-sacrifice—all these point to the fact that the Powers have not abandoned Middle-earth, nor are they as far away as they might at times seem. Glorfindel, along with Gandalf and others, reveal to readers, as well as to the characters around them, that the Valar (and by extension, Ilúvatar) are working for the good always, even when they themselves appear to be absent or deaf to the world’s groaning.
Top image: Glorfindel, by SaMo-art.
Megan N. Fontenot is a hopelessly infatuated Tolkien fan and scholar who is very happy that this week’s star didn’t have a special character in his name. Catch her on Twitter @MeganNFontenot1 for scholarly and unscholarly news and other sometimes-tragic tales.