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Lord Of The Rings: Glorfindel's Backstory Explained

Fans of Peter Jackson's "Lord of the Rings" trilogy are well acquainted with the heroic way that Arwen saves Frodo and escapes the clutches of the Black Riders. The fearless She-Elf outrides and then stares down all nine riders before burying them in a torrent as they try to cross the Ford of Rivendell.

But fans of the original books know that, as awesome as Arwen is as a character, she's out of place in that scene. That's right. Originally, Arwen had nothing to do with the flight to the ford. Instead, a random Elf-dude named Glorfindel — which means "golden-haired" — shows up and helps get Frodo and his companions safely to Rivendell.

Who's Glorfindel, you ask? In the scope of the LOTR story, he's just a minor character. After saving Frodo, he helps out with the Council of Elrond and then just kind of fades out of the picture. But if you do a little digging, it actually turns out that Glorfindel is a really powerful Elf with a deep past that stretches clear back through Middle-earth history.

It also turns out that Glorfindel could very easily fit into Amazon's prequel series — and even have a pretty major role throughout the show. We decided to give this previously cut character some justice by digging back into his story and figuring out just who he is and why he's such a popular figure for fans of the books. And it turns out that there's a lot to like about this guy — like, a lot.

From dueling balrogs to facing down the Witch-king and plenty of other heroics, here is the backstory of Glorfindel in all its splendiferous glory.

Glorfindel's First Age resume

Glorfindel's story has a vague beginning. As far as we can tell, it starts at some point way back during a time called the Years of the Trees. This is a golden age of Middle-earth history that eventually comes to an end when Morgoth, Sauron's original master, stirs up trouble and kicks off a series of wars between himself and a group of exiled elves called the Noldor.

Glorfindel is amongst this group of exiles, but not due to his own faults. He simply follows his exiled king into banishment, where he finds himself mixed up with the running wars between his people and Morgoth. For most of the First Age that follows, Glorfindel is a minor character. He plays an important role in guarding a retreat during the tragic Battle of Unnumbered Tears, but otherwise, he spends most of his days in the hidden Elven stronghold of Gondolin.

It isn't until this fortress is finally discovered at the end of the age that Glorfindel first really comes into the spotlight. The Elf-lord is an important person in Gondolin, where he holds the title of the chief of the "House of the Golden Flower." When the city is finally discovered and attacked, Glorfindel fights heroically in its defense.

When the Gondolin falls, though, the Elven warrior shifts his attention to helping fugitives escape through a nearby mountain pass. There, the refugees are attacked by a Balrog, and Glorfindel notches his spot in the history books by taking on the demon high up in a mountain pass. The book "The Fall of Gondolin" explains that the hero stabs the Balrog, but as it careens off the cliff, the monster grabs his golden hair and pulls him over as well, with both characters tumbling to their death.

Glorfindel makes a comeback

Falling off of a cliff in combat with a Balrog seems like a pretty permanent way to go, but those who know the LOTR story already are aware that Tolkien has an affinity for bringing back Balrog-duelers. He does it with Gandalf in "The Two Towers," and sure enough, he does it with Glorfindel, as well.

After falling to his death in the First Age, Glorfindel's spirit does what Elvish spirits always do. It goes to the Halls of Waiting away in the West where he waits to be judged and, if his deeds were pure, hopefully, get a new corporeal body. In the encyclopedic book "The Peoples of Middle-earth," Tolkien says that "Elves were destined to be 'immortal', that is not to die within the unknown limits decreed by the One," while adding, "Their death...and the disembodiment of their spirits was an 'unnatural' and grievous matter. It was therefore the duty o the Valar...to restore them to incarnate life, if they desired it."

In other words, Elvish spirits continued to live beyond their mortal bodies. What's more, the angelic guardians of the world called the Valar could restore physical bodies to them if they had lived good lives. Killing a Balrog to save the lives of refugees is a pretty good rap sheet to have, and sure enough, Glorfindel is given a new body. After that, he spends some time recuperating in the Blessed Realm in the West (the same area that Frodo sails to at the end of "The Return of the King.")

At this point, Glorfindel has also taken on a new level of power. In "The Peoples of Middle-earth," he's described as having an "air of special power and sanctity" and being "almost 'angelic'." Glorfindel is a special case when it comes to reincarnated Elves, though. He's so powerful and important that, after a while, he's called back to duty in Middle-earth.

Glorfindel resists Sauron

The second half of Glorfindel's career is much busier than the first half. At an undisclosed point — Tolkien gives different numbers (see further down) but it's probably halfway through the Second Age — Glorfindel is selected to return to Middle-earth and help in the growing fight against the new Dark Lord, Sauron. In "The Peoples of Middle-earth" it says that "His return must have been for the purpose of strengthening Gil-galad and Elrond." This pair of Elves are two of the most important leaders to spearhead the fight against Sauron when he first arises in power.

Whatever the specifics, once he's back in Middle-earth, we once again don't hear much about Glorfindel's specific deeds or whereabouts for a long while. Then, halfway through the Third Age, the hero turns up again when he leads an army out of Rivendell and helps to defeat Sauron's loyal servant, the Witch-king of Angmar. Glorfindel is so powerful, that when he approaches the Witch-king on the battlefield, the fearsome leader of the Nazgûl — who himself regularly petrifies everyone around him — gets a dose of his own medicine and flees in terror. It's also our very own Glorfindel who utters the prophecy that the villain won't fall "by the hand of man," teeing up Éowyn's heroic duel more than 1500 years later.

After that, we don't hear about Glorfindel until he saves Frodo in "The Fellowship of the Ring." Once in Rivendell, Glorfindel attends the Council of Elrond, where he advises the group about Tom Bombadil and the decision to destroy the One Ring. Glorfindel is also considered to be one of the members of the Fellowship of the Ring, as well, but ultimately spends the rest of the story out of the spotlight. We see him pop up one more time, though, as a wedding guest at the marriage of Aragorn and Arwen. After that, his recorded story just peters out.

A Tale of Two Glorfindels

It's no secret that Glorfindel's time in Middle-earth is split in two. There's a five-thousand-year gap between his fight with the Balrog in the First Age and his reappearance in the wars with the Witch-king in the Third Age in the appendix of "The Return of the King." This gives the feel of two different characters, the one a mighty First Age hero, the other a trusty Third Age councilor and general.

The discrepancy and disconnect between the two halves of Glorfindel's career is a fact that even Tolkien was aware of — and not because he did it on purpose, either. When you dig into the background of Glorfindel, it becomes clear that Tolkien didn't originally plan Glorfindel's two-part story arc. He accidentally gave two characters the same name and then tried to rectify the issue after the fact.

Tolkien explains that the names are too odd to be a coincidence. In "The Peoples of Middle-earth," the author candidly discusses the disconnect between the two Glorfindels, saying that, "At any rate, what at first sight may seem the simplest solution must be abandoned...that we have merely a reduplication of names..." The master of languages could never let such a unique name randomly show up in multiple eras and belong to different languages because ...of course, he couldn't.

Realizing that he had to fix the situation, Tolkien worked hard to backfill Glorfindel's story and make it fit with a single character living "two lives," so to speak. While the Elf-lord may have begun as a two-part story, though, as with all things Tolkien, the end product is very believable and makes for a kick-ass character, to boot.

Could Glorfindel appear in Amazon's show?

One fascinating question with all of this is if Glorfindel will show up in Amazon's show. The answer is "it's definitely possible." Amazon's series takes place in the Second Age, which would fit nicely with Glorfindel's return from death. But this wasn't always the case.

See, originally, Tolkien placed Glorfindel's return in the Third Age, not the Second Age. In "The Peoples of Middle-earth," he initially surmises that "We could then reasonably suppose that Glorfindel...landed with Gandalf-Olorin about Third Age 1000." However, in a later note, he changes his mind and states that "it seems far more likely that he was sent in the crisis of the Second Age, when Sauron invaded Eriador, to assist Elrond," adding that "he played a notable and heroic part in the war." This time he puts the most likely return at 1600 years into the Second Age, which happens to be the year that the One Ring is forged. Coincidence? We think not.

There's also a scrap note referenced in the book that talks about a Númenórean ship, implying that the Elf may have found his way back to Middle-earth on a ship from the island kingdom of Men called Númenor. Númenor is supposed to play a big part in Amazon's show, as are the "crisis" years of the Second Age. And hey, if the shoe fits, right? Some have even surmised that the mysterious character in Amazon's first series image could be Glorfindel, although we have some other guesses on that front, too.

Whatever his role, if Glorfindel shows up in the series, he's bound to come with some great storylines. And for those who are still rankled at the character's snubbing in "The Fellowship of the Ring" film, it'll also offer some long-overdue justice for a character that is certainly worth his weight in gold.