Was there one Glorfindel or two?
Basically, there was one. Tolkien explicitly said so, just a year before his own death, but only after many years of consideration after not realising he was making such a problem for himself when he accidentally used the same name twice.
Until the publication of “The Peoples of Middle-earth” (HoME XII), the question about the Glorfindels was more valid, with Tolkien’s views on the matter only recorded in one place, in “The Return of the Shadow”, HoME VII:
“… Very notable is “Glorfindel tells of his ancestry in Gondolin”. Years later, long after the publication of ‘The Lord of the Rings’, my father gave a great deal of thought to the matter of Glorfindel, and at that time he wrote: “[The use of Glorfindel] in LotR is one of the cases of the somewhat random use of the names found in the older legends, now referred to as The Silmarillion, which escaped reconsideration in the final published form of ‘The Lord of the Rings’.” He came to the conclusion that Glorfindel of Gondolin, who fell to his death in combat with a Balrog after the sack of the city (II. 192-4, IV.145), and Glorfindel of Rivendell were one and the same: he was released from Mandos and returned to Middle-earth in the Second Age.”
As is easy to deduce, this isn’t exactly the most convincing argument. Christopher Tolkien only discusses his father’s views, with no direct material to quote from. Do we believe this? That depends on how much one trusts Christopher Tolkien’s knowledge of his father’s beliefs, and whether he interpreted his father’s words correctly. Was it just a throw-away comment, or a firmly held view not et written down?
Luckily, however, we now have a much better source – two papers Tolkien wrote around 1970 – 1972, called in PoME, “Glorfindel I” and “Glorfindel II”. Here we have incontrovertible proof of Tolkien’s own views:
“An elf who had once known Middle-earth and had fought in the long wars against Melkor would be an eminently suitable companion for Gandalf. We could then reasonably suppose that Glorfindel (possibly as one of a small party, more probably as a sole companion) landed with Gandalf-Olórin about Third Age 1000. This supposition would indeed explain the air of special power and sanctity that surrounds Glorfindel
We can therefore reasonably assume that Glorfindel, after the purging or forgiveness of his part in the rebellion of the Noldor, was released from Mandos and became himself again, but remained in the Blessed Realm – for Gondolin was destroyed and all or most of his kin had perished.”
This is pretty certain. There was one Glorfindel.
From these papers, we can build up a pretty solid timeline for his life, from First Age and before, to the end of the Third.
– unknown. Either in Middle-earth or Valinor.
Life in Valinor:
– Glorfindel takes part in the Rebellion of the Noldor, following Turgon’s host more out of loyalty than any wish to go to Middle-earth. He does not take part in the Kinslaying.
There is nothing to say definitively that Glorfindel is of the Noldor, however, we can pretty easy suggest that he is. We know he came over to Middle-earth from the Blessed Realm from a line in “The Lord of the Rings” saying that he was one of the Eldar from beyond the furthest seas. Thus he must have come across with the Rebellion, and as most of the inhabitants of Gondolin were Turgon’s men, if seems likely that Glorfindel would be numbered among that branch (Finarfin’s house) of the Noldor.
Life in Middle-earth:
– Nothing is known until he turns up in Gondolin, head of the House of the Golden Flower.
– He took part in the defence of Gondolin against Morgoth’s hordes, leading the House of the Golden Flower in a battle in the Great Market and another – against Orcs and Balrogs – on the way down to the Gate. They fought bitterly for hours until a fire-drake overwhelmed them, and Glorfindel and the remaining of his men retreated to join Tuor’s men in the main Square.
– On the flight from Gondolin, he sacrificed his life defending the fugitives by battling with a Balrog. In the end, both Glorfindel and the Balrog plummeted to their deaths from the mountainside path.
Halls of Mandos followed by a second life in the Blessed Realm:
– After his death, Glorfindel travelled to the Halls of Mandos, and at some point, probably before the end of the First Age, he was released from the Halls and went to live in Aman. It is likely that his time in the Halls was not overlong, if he did not take part in the Kinslaying, and by his sacrifice, he saved the lives of Tuor, Idril and Eärendil – essential players in the designs of the Valar.
It could be expected that he would stay in Aman, after all Gondolin had been destroyed, along with his kin. It can also be imagined that Glorfindel staying in the Blessed Realm furthered the designs of Manwë.
When in the Blessed Realm, Tolkien considered that Glorfindel would be almost of similar “rank” to those of the Eldar who had not rebelled. He was incarnate, but had gained great spiritual power.
It is also likely that while in the Blessed Realm, he lived among the Vanyar and the Noldor, had the companionship of the Maiar, and became a friend and follower of Olórin.
He remained in the Blessed Realm until either near the end of the Second Age, or to the first century of the Third Age.
Return to Middle-earth:
– Tolkien wrote down several possibilities for Glorfindel’s return to Middle-earth. Of these, two seem most likely:
– Around Second Age 1600 (suggested in “Glorfindel II”). Barad-dûr was completed and the One Ring forged. War had become inevitable and the elves were preparing themselves to fight against Sauron. Prayers and messages must have been received from them in Númenor and Valinor. He then played a noble, heroic, and unrecorded part in the wars against Sauron.
– Around Third Age 1000 (suggested in “Glorfindel I”). Then he could have crossed the seas with Gandalf.
Which is more likely? Make your own mind up. I tend to prefer the idea of him crossing the seas with Gandalf, both because there is no record of such a strong and heroic figure in the battles of the Last Alliance and because I like the idea of two sent from the Valar arriving in Middle-earth together and going forth to aid Elves and Men.
Was there one or two Glorfindels? One. Definitely. He lived in Aman, came across to Middle-earth with the rebellion of the Noldor, died in the defence of Gondolin, spent time in the Halls of Mandos and then in Aman, and eventually came back to Middle-earth at the end of the Second Age or start of the Third Age.
– “The Peoples of Middle-earth”
– “The Return of the Shadow”
– “The Lord of the Rings”