Let the Houseless be Re-housed! (Part I) – Tolkien Deals with Glorfindel’s Reincarnation

Since Strider and the hobbits are in a bit of a rushy montage, let’s see what Tolkien had to say about whether the Glorfindel of the Silmarillion was the same Glorfindel from the Lord of the Rings.

As I’ve covered before, Glorfindel the Elf-lord played a prominent roll in the Fall of Gondolin story, which was written a few decades prior to Lord of the Rings. In it, Glorfindel dies. Yet, without explanation, here he is again in our narrative. But is this the same guy?

Something that’s incredibly important to keep in mind is the fact that though Tolkien wrote much of the Silmarillion martial early on, it was never finished. His son, Christopher, published it several years after his death. This means that when Fellowship of the Ring was first published in 1954, it was also the first time the character of Glorfindel was published.

It should also be remembered that Tolkien swapped names like bubble gum cards. So isn’t it possible that these are two different guys with the same name? Is it beyond the realm of reason that Tolkien simply plucked a name and a few attributes from his early drafts? Wouldn’t that be easier to believe than having to create a whole new mythology that somehow included reincarnation? Absolutely yes. It would have been so much more simple. But also keep in mind that Tolkien rarely took the easy way out.

Our first clue in this matter actually comes from a note that Tolkien jotted down in the margins of the first draft of his Council of Elrond Chapter. He was then considering sending Glorfindel with the Fellowship, and wrote: “Glorfindel tells of his ancestry in Gondolin.” This should seal it, though it really somehow doesn’t.

While it appears to have been clear to him from the start that both Glorfindels were actually the same fellow, what is less clear is how he planned on making that work. This margin note was written in 1938, before Gandalf’s fight with the Balrog and subsequent reincarnation. So was Tolkien willing to make that jump at so early a stage?

He was, it seems, but wasn’t (at least at first) very comfortable with the idea. In the situation with Gandalf and the Balrog, Tolkien admitted in a 1954 letter that it was “cheating” to have him return from the dead. Nevertheless, it allowed him to think more on the subject of Gandalf reappearance – something he could avoid in the case of Glorfindel.

Tolkien explained that Gandalf actually had a physical body in both incarnations, “capable of pain, and weariness, and of afflicting the spirit with physical fear, and of being ‘killed’, though supported by the angelic spirit they might endure long, and only show slowly the wearing of care and labour.” This is great for Gandalf, but it doesn’t really explain Glorfindel, an Elf.

Fortunately for Tolkien, he didn’t have to explain it. Nobody knew anything about the Silmarillion‘s Glorfindel because the Silmarillion didn’t exist in a published or even final form. Hell, if Tolkien had wanted to, he could have changed the ending of the Fall of Gondolin so that Glorfindel survived the bout with the Balrog. And though it might have been the easiest way, it ultimately was not the path he chose.

After he finished writing Lord of the Rings, Tolkien returned almost immediately to his beloved Silmarillion stories. In 1950, for example, he began rewriting the Lay of Lathien. A year later, he wrote portions of the Tale of Tuor and the Ainulindale. He would continue such writings until the time of his death in 1973.

But he didn’t just add to and change the stories. He also wrote essays and fictional conversations in attempts to suss out the details of his legendarium. In 1959, four years after the publication of Return of the King, Tolkien wrote Athrabeth Finrod ah Andreth, “The Debate of Finrod and Andreth.” As conceived, this was a conversation between Finrod the Elf-king and a mortal woman named Andreth. It’s pretty mind-blowing. In it, they talk about the differences between Elves and Men, especially focusing upon death, immortality, and spiritual matters. (This appears in Morgoth’s Ring.)

In this writing, Glorfindel is not mentioned, but the concept of Elvish reincarnation is. In “Note 3” Tolkien writes: “In Elvish tradition their re-incarnation was a special permission granted by Eru to Manwë….” And then, in “The Converse of Manwë and Eru,” which was a somewhat separate writing that appears to have been a note about Note 3 (goodness, Tollers!), he goes into still more detail.

Manwë was the King of the Valar and Eru was Illuvatar (“God”). Manwë complained that many of the souls (called fëar [soul, plural]) of the Elves were “houseless,” meaning without bodies (called hröar). “Is there no means by which their lives may be renewed, to follow the courses which Thou hast designed [meaning immortal]?” asked Manwë.

Eru answered: ‘Let the houseless be re-housed!’
Manwë asked: ‘How shall this be done?’
Eru answered: ‘Let the body that was destroyed be re-made. Or let the naked fëa [soul, singular] be re-born as a child.’

Manwë was a bit hesitant to dabble in such things, but Eru assured him it would be fine, but gave a stipulation. The Valar (like Manwë) could remake the body, but it had to be exactly like the old one. However,if the soul wished to be reborn, they would have to see Eru about that personally and he would deal with them on a case-by-case basis.

Tune in tomorrow for Part Two and see how this all pertains to Glorfindel!

A Few Notes

  • Much of Tolkien’s writings about reincarnation within Middle-earth were spurred on by the story of Miriel, which I didn’t really mention since her story was conceived after both versions of Glorfiendel were in existence. Since both Miriel and Glorfindel were Elves, it should all fit.
  • Tolkien took great pains to make sure readers understood that Gandalf’s reincarnation was not at all the same thing as the Christian resurrection. Middle-earth ≠ Bible.
  • With that, I really don’t like to refer to Gandalf as an angel or even say that Illuvatar is God. Tolkien seemed careful enough to avoid such references, and I go even further. But I’m super seriously not going to argue about this.
  • In the 1954 letter where Tolkien calls Gandalf “angelic,” he explains: “that he was an incarnate ‘angel’ – strictly an ἄγγελος: that is, with the other Istari, wizards, ‘those who know,’ an emissary from the Lords of the West, sent to Middle-earth as the great crisis of Sauron loomed on the horizon.” So, you know, an “angel” in that sense. I will also not be arguing about this.
Camera: Polaroid Automatic 100  Film: Fuji FP-100C (reclaimed negative)

Camera: Polaroid Automatic 100
Film: Fuji FP-100C (reclaimed negative)

About the Photo
Why did I pick the “Who stuffed that white owl” photo? I’m pretty sure that’s obvious. The answer is, of course Manwë and Eru. Or just Eru if it’s a baby white owl.

  • Day 87
  • Miles today: 5
  • Miles thus far: 431
  • 28 miles to Rivendell
  • 1,348 miles to Mt. Doom

Today’s stopping place: Book I, Chapter 12. Still cruising the East Road with Glorfindel. (map)


16 thoughts on “Let the Houseless be Re-housed! (Part I) – Tolkien Deals with Glorfindel’s Reincarnation

  1. I always took the maiar, of which Gandalf was one, to be angels of sorts–apprentice gods, maybe–but not in a Christian way. (JRR did a good job of keeping his Catholicism out of his legendarium.) But I won’t be arguing about it. 😉

  2. Fascinating! (I say that word a lot, but it fits perfectly)

    If the only reference to Glorfindel’s back-story was the note in the margin that said “Glorfindel tells of his ancestry in Gondolin.” I might have made the assumption that Glorfindel of LoTR might have been a descendant of (i.e. traces ancestry back to) Glorfindel of Gondolin (or if not back to Glorfindel specifically then at least to Gondolin). Sort of like how Kili and Fili of the Hobbit could claim ancestry in Erebor.

    Like you said, Tolkien could have easily made a reasonable way out without going into reincarnation details. (Two different guys with the same name could have worked just as well).

    So I find it fascinating that he took the trouble to define and “logically” reason reincarnation into his world. Thanks for tracing the threads and making sense of all this!

    • Thanks!

      You’re right about the throw away ancestry comment. There’s no way to tell what it means, especially since he seems to have abandoned the idea for LotR.

      But I absolutely love how he returned to it later, which is what I’ll talk about tomorrow.

  3. Maybe it’s just my inner Gygax coming out, but I (not to argue) always thought of Eru, the Valar and Maiar as Deities and Demigods.

    • That’s really understandable. I guess it’s probably because of my upbringing that I don’t really want to compare them to anything. Tolkien didn’t even go that far with it, so yeah, I totally get why people make those associations. They’re not wrong – well, you’re not wrong, you don’t take it to ridiculous extremes.

  4. Makes sense. The Elves were, in their immortality, effectively bound to Arda. And Men, in their mortality, their gift and their doom, were able to leave it. It was only cowardice, the fear of the unknown, that made them rebel against their mortality. Why do Men fear what they do not know… oh, wait. Sauron. Right.
    But anyway, since the Elves could not die and go beyond the world (unless they were given the choice, as Luthien, Elrond, his brother Elros, and Elrond’s children Arwen, Elladan, and Elrohir were), it makes sense that those who died in battle might be sent back to Middle- Earth.

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