October is the best month to celebrate the glory of Glorfindel! It's on October the 18th that Frodo first meets this figure who may well be the most aweing elf encountered in The Lord of the Rings. He is so pivotal to J.R.R. Tolkien's Legendarium that it's astounding that multiple adaptations have pruned him from the great tree of story that could not have grown the same way without him. Glorfindel is, in fact, so majestic a being that Professor Tolkien once wrote of him as being "almost angelic". Today let's rejoice over this powerful exemplar of self-sacrifice and rescue, think a little about angels, and give Glorfindel the centrality he deserves in our storyline.
Without Glorfindel? Perish the thought!
Glorfindel is one of the First Age Noldorin elves who rebel against the Valar and depart Valinor for Middle-earth, and though he takes no part in the horror of the Kinslaying at Alqualondë, he is banished from the Blessed Realm along with his companions. Glorfindel is a reluctant participant in these woeful events, and only goes along with the others out of loyalty to and kinship with Turgon. Perhaps the best excuse for him doing what he knows to be wrong is that he is, as yet, young in elf-years.
In Middle-earth, Turgon makes him a chief of the House of the Golden Flower in the hidden elvish stronghold of Gondolin, but when that city is destroyed by the servants of Morgoth, Glorfindel's moment of redemption arises. As his companions are fleeing the sack of Gondolin, they are set upon by orcs, and Glorfindel ensures the escape of his comrades by fighting a balrog alone on a pinnacle of rock. He is victorious, but is also slain. His body is retrieved from a pit by the eagle Thorondor, and golden flowers cover the cairn in which his remains are laid. And while we sorrow over his supreme sacrifice and imagine his spirit drifting off to the Halls of Waiting, we catch our breath at the realization of what might have happened, if Tolkien (like some of his later adapters) had summarily written out Glorfindel.
Without Glorfindel, Tuor and Idril would not have escaped alive from the fall of Gondolin with their son Eärendil. Without Eärendil, no voyage would have been made back to Valinor to beg the mercy and forgiveness of the Valar for the elves' rebellion:
Without Eärendil's petition moving the Valar to take thought again for Middle-earth, Morgoth would not have been overthrown and captured in the War of Wrath. The importance of this cannot be overstated. It is bad enough to endure Sauron's attempts to rule over Third Age Middle-earth, but almost too dreadful to think of the little hobbits having to face his leader, Morgoth, if he had still been in power. Not only does Glorfindel's self-sacrifice lead to the downfall of Morgoth, but also to the reshaping of Beleriand as a result of the war. These are both epic and geological proportions of importance that will eventually underpin both the story and setting of The Lord of the Rings.
Because of his selflessness amid the ruin of Gondolin, Glorfindel is permitted to be re-embodied, and spends long years in Valinor in the company of the Maiar — beings who may best be imagined as the helping angels to the archangelic Valar. It is said that Glorfindel becomes closely associated with the Maia, Olórin, whom we will later come to know and love as Gandalf. In fact, Glorfindel becomes so restored in the eyes of the Valar, that Manwë Súlimo sends him back to Middle-earth in the Second Age, around the time of Sauron's forging of the One Ring.
Like Gandalf, Glorfindel is one of the few figures who are apparently so critical to the sub-created history that he must be re-incarnated to fulfill the purposes of Eru. These are not characters we can simply dispense with, and Tolkien's own words in The Peoples of Middle-earth best describe just how special Glorfindel becomes:
"We can thus understand why he [Glorfindel] seems so powerful a figure and almost 'angelic'. For he had returned to the primitive innocence of the First-born, and had then lived among those Elves who had never rebelled, and in the companionship of the Maiar for ages: from the last years of the First Age, through the Second Age, to the end of the first millennium of the Third Age: before he returned to Middle Earth.”
Though he may be ignored by filmmakers, everyone in Middle-earth subsequently comes to a standstill when they encounter the spectacular and angelic presence of this utterly unique elf. He is so full of shining goodness that evil literally flees before his face, as when we glimpse him at the Battle of Fornost with Sauron's servant, the Witch-king of Angmar:
"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."
Glorfindel's prescience is seen in him then predicting that this foe will not be slain "by the hand of man" and he will eventually be proven right by Éowyn near the end of Third Age. We are again witness to his ability to repel evil in Flight to the Ford in The Fellowship of the Ring, when he recounts his encounter with the Black Riders:
"It was my lot to take the Road, and I came to the Bridge of Mitheithel, and left a token there nigh on seven days ago. Three of the servants of Sauron were upon the Bridge but they withdrew and I pursued them westward."
With so many characters doing all they can to run away from the Black Riders, it is quite astonishing to realize that these evil beings run away from Glorfindel. And he chases after them. He's that powerful! We also see in the above passage the "almost angelic" nature of this re-embodied elf in his act of dropping the green elf-stone on the Last Bridge as a token of hope and help to Strider and the hobbits who are being pursued by their enemies and are in desperate need of good news.
Just as he was sent back by the Valar, Glorfindel is sent out by Elrond from Rivendell to be a helper in time of need. Frodo is fading fast from the wound given him by the Black Riders when we hear the bells ringing on Glorfindel's steed and greet his coming with utter joy.
Imagine being so sick that that the world is going dim all about you, and the mere touch of this elf's hand on your shoulder not only eases your pain but clears your sight. Imagine seeing this wise, ancient and almost-angelic being appearing to you in the wilderness and bending down to help you. It is one of the supreme moments of rescue in The Lord of the Rings, but many movie-goers have been left in a long state of limbo still waiting for Glorfindel to arrive on screen. Some of us find ourselves still longing for that intercession, that relief, that eucatastrophe because it cannot be replaced by any substitute. There simply isn't another elf like Glorfindel in the Third Age.
Glorfindel is not omnipotent, of course, and he readily admits that he is not the healer that Elrond is. Soon Frodo is set upon the great steed, Asfaloth - a horse so full of valour that it runs right through the Black Riders while the little hobbit closes his eyes on his last dash to Rivendell. With eyes open again on the far shore, Frodo sees what may best be described as an angelic vision:
"With his last failing sense Frodo heard cries, and it seemed to him that he saw, beyond the Riders that hesitated on the shore, a shining figure of white light..."
Gandalf later explains this dazzling vision of Glorfindel to Frodo,
"Yes, you saw him for a moment as he is upon the other side: one of the mighty of the Firstborn."
Thus, just when it was most needed, Frodo is strengthened by a glimpse of the celestial beauty and light of Valinor, and the Black Riders are so repelled by this goodness that they are driven into the river and quelled for a time. Without Glorfindel, these enemies might have captured Frodo and the Ring, ending our tale at Chapter 12.
Finally, we get a sort of closure of the Glorfindel circle by realizing that, without him, there would have been no Rivendell and no Council of Elrond to determine to destroy the One Ring in the fires of Mount Doom.
When Tuor and Idril escaped the fall of Gondolin with their son Eärendil, he is able to grow up and wed Elwing, and they are then able to bring their sons, Elrond and Elros, into the world. Without Glorfindel, the Last Homely House would not have existed to provide moon-letter translation services for Bilbo in The Hobbit, putting him at the right door of Erebor on the right day. If it had gone any other way, might Smaug or some other enemy have gotten ahold of the Ring, rather than Bilbo taking it back to Bag End with him? Thus, though Frodo may be astounded at the Council of Elrond to realize his host is old enough to have taken part in the Last Alliance, Glorfindel, seated beside him, has a memory even older than this. He would, in fact, be right to believe that none of this might have happened without him. Far from being replaceable, it's doubtful that Middle-earth would have been saved in quite the same way in his absence.
Be not afraid: the intercession of angels
As a contributor to The Jerusalem Bible and a devout Catholic, J.R.R. Tolkien would have been deeply familiar with the many times that angels appear in both the Old and New Testaments. They are mysterious beings, sometimes besetting good folk (like the fallen Maia, Saruman does), but more often, appearing to announce good news (like Glorfindel appearing in the wilderness to tell the company that powerful elves have been sent forth from Rivendell to find and help them on their way.)
"Almost angelic" is not a phrase Tolkien would have used lightly, in my opinion. He was a reverent man, and in conferring this special honor on Glorfindel, I think he may be giving a message of hope to readers as well as to the fellowship. In Tolkien's sub-created world, Eru is always at work, employing messengers and workers of every kind to his good purposes. In the primary world, Catholics believe the same thing - that archangels, angels and the Communion of Saints are here to intercede for us with God the Father and to gift us with good tidings like the announcement of the birth of Jesus as well as His Resurrection.
This is the great hope that Tolkien lived inside of, and, from my own childhood, I have noticed that Biblical angels often begin their news with some variant of the message "be not afraid." Christians are taught that perfect love casts out fear, and Tolkien gives a wonderful sub-creative experience to all readers who find their fears soothed by the arrival of Glorfindel in the wilderness beyond Rivendell. It's an unforgettable moment of consolation which facilitates escape and recovery.
Tolkien's peerless storytelling powers make it possible for almost any reader to imagine what it might be like to be rescued by someone like an angel. That could be a worthwhile matter for contemplation, if we consider that figures like Gandalf and Glorfindel are emissaries sent for the good of sub-creation, and that many folk in our own primary-creation derive a sense of being loved and cared from similar Biblical accounts and real-life experiences with the Divine. Love is inspirational, however we understand it, and when paired with a willingness to help our fellow beings, it can be a Glorfindel-like force for good in our own Middle-earth. Accept no substitutes. We just can't do well here without it.