In the fiction of J. R. R. Tolkien, Glorfindel appears twice as a name of an Elf who appears in the tales of Middle-earth. The first appears in various material relating to the First Age of Middle-earth, including The Silmarillion. The second appears in The Lord of the Rings, which takes place in Middle-earth's Third Age. In later writings, Tolkien states they were one and the same, though this is not evident from The Silmarillion and The Lord of the Rings.
The character and his name (meaning "blonde, golden-haired") were among the first created, when Tolkien first conceived of what would become his Middle-earth legendarium in 1916–17.
From the beginning, Glorfindel appears as a noble lord, known as one of King Turgon's chief lieutenants. In the original Fall of Gondolin, he is called the chief of the House of the Golden Flower. After fighting in the city's defence, Glorfindel escapes together with Tuor, Idril, Eärendil and many others. The survivors pass through the Encircling Mountains above Gondolin. However, they are ambushed by enemies, including a Balrog demon. Glorfindel duels and kills the Balrog, but is himself killed. His body is buried under a mound of stones. The Fall of Gondolin relates that "Glorfindel and the Balrog" became an Elven proverb to describe great skill and courage in battle.
In The Fall of Gondolin Tolkien writes that his name "meaneth Goldtress for his hair was golden". Editor Christopher Tolkien comments that "this was from the beginning the meaning of his name", as the character is called "yellow-haired Glorfindel" in The Silmarillion.
In The Silmarillion Glorfindel appears as one of Turgon's captains who oversaw his retreat during the Battle of Unnumbered Tears.
One of the Appendices usually published with the third volume, The Return of the King, relates that during the Third Age, Glorfindel leads the Elvish forces of Rivendell, the Grey Havens, and Lothlórien against Angmar in the Battle of Fornost. There he fights alongside Eärnur, the future king of Gondor, along with the remnants of Gondor's sister kingdom Arnor. When the Witch-king of Angmar, Lord of the Ringwraiths (Nazgûl) and chief servant of Sauron, rides out to defend his ruling seat at the captured Fornost, his presence spooks Eärnur's horse and sends the prince backwards, and the Witch-king mocks him for this. Glorfindel confronts the Witch-king, who flees into the night. Eärnur wishes to pursue him, but Glorfindel bids him not to and prophesies the Witch-king will fall in the far future, but not by "the hand of man". Many years later, Éowyn (a woman) kills the Witch-king during the Battle of Pelennor Fields, assisted by Meriadoc Brandybuck (a hobbit). Prior to this event, the prophecy had been interpreted to mean mankind in general, not a man in the sense of gender.
As told in the first volume, The Fellowship of the Ring, Glorfindel is sent by Elrond of Rivendell many years later to help the hobbit Frodo reach Rivendell as he is pursued by the Nazgûl. He sets Frodo on his horse, Asfaloth, and Frodo rides ahead to the other side of the Ford of Bruinen, where he defies his pursuers. He is nearly captured, but Glorfindel, Strider and Frodo's hobbit companions come from behind and drive the Nazgûl into the water, where they are swept away by a wave of water resembling charging horses (an enchantment of Elrond and Gandalf's). Strider and the hobbits bear torches, but Glorfindel reveals himself as a mighty Elf-lord terrible in his wrath; Frodo sees him as a shining figure.
Later, when Frodo asks about the safety of Imladris from Sauron's forces, Gandalf explains:
In Rivendell there live still some of his 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 once in both worlds, and against both the Seen and the Unseen they have great power.
Gandalf points to Glorfindel as one of these, saying he is "one of the mighty of the Firstborn," "an Elf-lord of a house of princes." While enjoying the hospitality of the Elves, Frodo finds that his Wizard friend spoke true:
Frodo looked at them in wonder, for he had never before seen Elrond, of whom so many tales spoke; and as they sat upon his right hand and his left, Glorfindel, and even Gandalf, whom he thought he knew so well, were revealed as lords of dignity and power... Glorfindel was tall and straight; his hair was of shining gold, his face fair and young and fearless and full of joy; his eyes were bright and keen, and his voice like music; on his brow sat wisdom, and in his hand was strength.
In the very first draft of the Council of Elrond of what was to become The Fellowship of the Ring, there was a crucial difference in the members of the Fellowship. The Nine Walkers were to comprise Frodo, Gandalf, Trotter (later Strider/Aragorn), Glorfindel, Durin son of Balin (who became Gimli son of Glóin), Sam, Merry, and earlier versions of Pippin and Fatty. Boromir and Legolas did not come in til much later.
Legolas replaced Glorfindel as the representation of the Elven people in later drafts, but this did not take away from the power that Tolkien attributed to Glorfindel. He sits in honour next to Elrond and Gandalf in the Hall of Fire in Rivendell, and is one of the few Elves of Imladris who was known to be strong enough to stand against the Ringwraiths and be sent out to guide Frodo to safety from them. Glorfindel is the strongest of these few, as he is sent in the direction that the Nazgûl are most likely to come from, and even holds the Bridge of Mitheithel against some of the Nazgûl single-handedly. Glorfindel is noted for his great power and strength, so much so that Gandalf refers to him in relation to the difficulty of the task of destroying the Ring, though in a rather unusual way. When Elrond seeks to fill the last two spots in the Fellowship with folk of his own house, Gandalf supports Merry Brandybuck and Pippin Took by saying:
"I think, Elrond, that in this matter it would be well to trust rather to their friendship than to great wisdom. Even if you chose for us an elf-lord, such as Glorfindel, he could not storm the Dark Tower, nor open the road to the Fire by the power that is in him."
In The Return of the Shadow, Christopher Tolkien states that some time after the publication of The Lord of the Rings, his father "gave a great deal of thought to the matter of Glorfindel" in the book, and decided that it was a "somewhat random use" of a name from The Silmarillion that would probably have been changed, had it been noticed sooner.
The problem lay in Tolkien's conception of the spirits of dead Elves being re-embodied in their old bodies after a Purgatory-like period in the Halls of Mandos in Valinor, the home of Tolkien's "gods", the Valar and Maiar (more akin to angels, though rulers and overseers), where Elves previously lived before (re)migrating to Middle-earth. After being re-embodied, previously dead Elves stayed in Valinor. Tolkien decided that each Elf's name should be unique, and therefore the two Glorfindels should be one and the same.
Tolkien had a well-documented (and confusing) habit of inventing and changing character names while writing drafts, so this is not too surprising. On the other hand, early notes for the Council of Elrond state "Glorfindel tells of his ancestry in Gondolin", indicating that the character was early on already intended to be the same Elf. This may be reconciled by the fact that Tolkien was known for being disorganized, misplacing his notes and having to work from memory alone on several occasions. Nevertheless, seeing that the reintroduction of the name had been made, and that it would require some explanation, Tolkien devised a solution. He would, at the end of his life, devote his last writings to the issue of Glorfindel and some related topics, as detailed in The Peoples of Middle-earth.
Tolkien wrote that Glorfindel is sent back to Middle-earth by the Valar during the Second Age circa 1600, when Barad-dûr was completed and Sauron forged the One Ring, and while Númenor was still friendly with the Elves under Tar-Minastir. He is sent as a kind of predecessor to the Istari (Wizards), or in a different version, together with the Blue Wizards. At one point he was even considered as a possibility for the identity of one of them, though this was immediately rejected since the Eldar were not initially conceived as possibilities for the Wizards, and he had come to the conclusion that they were only Maiar.
Conceivably the problem of Glorfindel's resurrection could easily have been resolved by changing the name of Glorfindel of Gondolin to another name, but Tolkien was unwilling to do this, as he now associated the name with the character.
In Peter Jackson's live-action The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring (2001), his role is given to Arwen, who even takes Frodo to the Ford herself and summons the horses of water through an incantation, which is not present in the book. However, in The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King (2003), there are some blond Elves background extras present at Aragorn's coronation at Minas Tirith. One of them is identified in promotional material as Glorfindel; he is played by Jarl Benzon.
Glorfindel is also playable in the older Middle-earth Collectible Card Game. Here is one of the most powerful characters outside the circle of the Wizards and Haven-elves (Elrond, Galadriel and Círdan).
He also is a playable hero unit in the real-time strategy game, The Lord of the Rings: The Battle for Middle-earth II, also based on the Jackson films, where his hair is silver-blond (as opposed to his eponymous colour golden-blond) (see BfmeIIbox.jpg). There he is depicted as one of the heroes available on the Elvish faction and is able to mount his steed Asfaloth.
The good campaign of the game begins shortly after the Council of Elrond and has Glorfindel and Glóin fight their way west, slaying Gorkil the Goblin king and Drogoth the Dragon Lord (two invented villains) and saving the Grey Havens from a naval assault. Then, they travel east in time to break the siege of Erebor and participate in the destruction of Dol Guldur.
In the popular mod The Last Days for the independent game Mount&Blade, Glorfindel is the most powerful recruitable hero from Lothlórien, who is available to the player only after having accumulated a great amount of influence.
Glorfindel was one of the Calaquendi (High Elves) and one of the Noldor, one of the three groups of the Eldar. As his very name indicates, he was blond. The Noldor were dark-haired, so this must mean he was related somehow to the Vanyar, Eldar who were blond. His blond hair is considered a mark of his distinction.
Blond hair was also found in the Noldor royal family (House of Finwë), among the descendants of Indis of the Vanyar, second wife of their High King Finwë — namely in the Golden House of Finarfin, his third son, which included Galadriel, who appears in The Lord of the Rings. Both the Vanyar and the Noldor kindreds lived in the fair city of Tirion upon the hill of Túna in Valinor for a time, and in other parts of the royal family tree it has been shown that other Vanyar married in, so it is conceivable that the two groups mingled in more than just the royal line.
We know that he cannot be fully Vanyar for it is stated in The Silmarillion that 'no full Vanyar left Aman'.