Shadow and Flame/Desire and Release – A Tale of Glorfindel’s Unrequited Love

by Feb 7, 2003Stories

Disclaimer: You know it – it’s all JRRT’s

Explanation: This is set in Valinor, long after `Counsels in Rivendell’. Glorfindel has passed into the West and now dwells in the House of Gil-galad. This is told from his POV and represents his side of a conversation. I do not mention the name of the person to whom he is speaking, but I have dropped extremely heavy hints! I refer to events in `Counsels’ from time to time, so some knowledge of that story would probably help. I wrote this as because I was requested to, (thanks for the suggestion, Anneri) but it also ties in with my planned sequel (if it ever materialises!) Some inspiration came from one of William Shakespeare’s sonnets. I have quoted from it at the end of the story. i know he didn’t have the immortality of Elves in mind – but I think it is apt!

Part 1: Shadow and Flame

What can I know about love? You do well to ask, little one. I may be a strong and valiant warrior-lord, but even I have been pierced by the love’s bittersweet dart. It has brought me to my knees and so nearly defeated me.

Yes, I know love but it does not know me. I have lived long in the shadows cast by its fire.

Shadow and flame. It seems that my heart is ever doomed to be consumed by fire.

Ah, I can hear your unasked questions, little one. They are written clearly on your face. Your expressions are like your father’s; easy to read. You wish to know why I have not spoken of this before.

Ones heart is fragile, ones pride even more so.

I have not spoken because I swore I never would. But I know your pain, little one, so for your sake I will tell you what I know of love. I did not ask for it; it found me. I resisted for years; it nearly broke me.

Never surrender your heart to one who cannot keep it.

Do not yearn for a heart that has been bestowed unto another.

Make yourself comfortable, little one, and I will tell you everything, how it began and how it will never end.

I arrived in Rivendell in darkness, my hood covering my face. Two stern guards escorted me down the steep valley path; their confusion was evident but they were too well-trained to ask questions. I had asked to be brought before the Lord of the House. By demanding such an audience before being compelled, I made it clear that I was a visitor of importance. Wordlessly, my companions brought me into the entrance hall of Rivendell. I looked around casually, seemingly intrigued by my surroundings. While my eyes rested on ornate carvings and delicate architectural details, my ears absorbed hurried snatches of whispered conversation from the shadowy corners. Apparently my arrival had created something of a stir among the Elves of Rivendell. It seemed that it was still too soon after the Last Alliance for a lone traveller to be greeted without suspicion. The whispers became louder and more frenetic. At last, I could no longer feign ignorance; they were blatantly discussing me.

“Can the Lord Elrond not receive me?” I enquired. A hush fell in the entrance hall. Evidently, amidst all their frantic exchanges, they had forgotten that I stood mere feet away. Finally, a voice spoke out. The accent was strange to me; but then many years had passed since I had last conversed with an Elf of Middle Earth.

“He is occupied at present, tending the Lady Nîndorien.”

“Is she the Lady of the House?” I asked. Another brief pause followed.

“No, she is a friend of Lord Elrond and greatly esteemed among the Elves of this household. He labours long at her bedside.”

“Take me to him.” My tone was peremptory, giving the impression that I was used to giving orders. This was true, I reminded myself. Although millennia had passed, I had been a captain of Elves, a leader in life and in death. I could not prevent an unpleasant tingle running down my spine before wrenching my thoughts back to my immediate task To my satisfaction, an Elf stepped forward to lead me to the Houses of Healing, although not until a few more sharp words had been exchanged.

The buildings of Rivendell sprawled over a large area; clearly additions and extensions had been made over the years. I was lead along countless passages and climbed many staircases before we arrived at a remote wing of the house. My companion seemed to know the very room in which the lady was kept but when we reached a solid-looking oaken door, inlaid with engravings of leaves and flowers, he hesitated. I waited for a moment and was on the verge of speaking when the door was opened slightly. My companion motioned for me to remain in the corridor and he stepped inside. The soft murmur of voices carried through the door. Through the narrow opening, I saw a bed on which lay a black-haired Elf-lady. Her eyes were open, yet oddly unfocussed. My breath caught in my throat as faint memories scratched at the surface of my mind. Those eyes… like her mother’s… like her uncle’s. Ai, her uncle, my trusted comrade and dear friend; I could see his face so clearly, laughing, smiling… and dying. “Muinalot,” I murmured. The image of a small child appeared before my eyes; a pretty little Elfling, giggling and reaching out towards me with her plump arms.

Suddenly the door swung open, and the Lord of Rivendell himself stood before me, his expression one of suspicious surprise.

“What name did you just utter?” he demanded. I could scarcely refrain from stepping backwards. It seemed that all the ghosts of my past were appearing before me. A shadow of Eärendil stood in the doorway; the Blessed Mariner, another I had held in my arms before he decided, at the age of six, that he was too old for such attentions. Ai, I could hear his sweet voice asking that I fashion him a whistle that he might play music for his mother. I must have become pale and my senses threatened to utterly desert me, for hands reached out and drew me into the room. I was shepherded towards the fireplace. The Lord of the House moved his hand in front of my eyes and he seemed satisfied when I followed the movement with my eyes.

“Forgive my bluntness, sir, but I must request that you remove your hood and state your name. It is obvious that you know the Lady Nîndorien, yet you are a stranger to me.”

“I quite understand.” I lowered my hood and revealed my golden hair. I marvelled at the surprise on the face of the Elves in the room. Perhaps blonde-haired Elves were not common in these parts. Indeed, the Elves of Middle Earth I had met on my journey had been either silver-haired Teleri or the black-haired descendents of the Exiles. “My name is Glorfindel, Captain of the House of the Golden Flower.”

My words were met with a mixture of disbelief and astonishment. I reached into the folds of my cloak and produced two letters. “Perhaps these will prove my claim, Lord Elrond.” The Half-Elf reached for the letters and glanced at the seals on both. Círdan’s crest was familiar to him but his eyes widened when he saw the emblem of Finarfin, High King of the Noldor in Valinor.

“But you…” He stopped, embarrassed, unsure of how to continue.

“Died?” I finished for him. I tried to raise a smile, but unwelcome memories of bright flames and burning flesh raced through my brain. My smile faltered at the recollection and Elrond politely averted his gaze, turning his attention instead to the perusal of the letters. After a few deep breaths to reconfirm my existence, I began to relax and successfully pushed away the searing visions as I had been taught.

The lady on the bed stirred slightly and a handmaiden stepped forward with a goblet of some healing potion. While Elrond was puzzling over the meaning of my arrival, I looked as the sick Elf managed to swallow some of the potion. At length, Elrond seemed satisfied as to my identity and he turned to me with a speculative look; a look I later came to recognise as the precursor to intensive interrogation. Ah, many times have I seen that expression on his face when questioning certain young Elflings about some act of mischief. From personal experience, I know that one cannot long hold out against the determination of the Lord of Rivendell. His voice was kind, but his questions relentless.

“Why have you come to Rivendell?”

“To seek you out.” I could see that this response surprised him, so I explained. “You are the last remaining descendent of Turgon, my liege-lord. To you alone on Middle Earth can my allegiance be given.”

“What of Círdan?”

“The Shipwright neither demands nor expects my loyalty. He was my guide and told me where I might find you.”

“Why have you been sent?”

“I do not think I have been sent.” Again, my honest reply threw him slightly. “I believe that I was called hither.”

“By whom?” His eyebrows knitted together; another of his expressions I have come to recognise with the passage of years. He did not understand and he hated not understanding; he still hates it.

“I do not know. Perhaps I have been summoned by Middle Earth herself.”

“Humph. Her voice must be loud if it can carry across the Sundering Sea.”

“It carries even into the Halls of Mandos.” It is true. All those who have lived and died in Middle Earth can hear her call, mourning the Immortals who anointed her ground with their lifeblood; the Immortals who are not born to fade but have been cruelly slain. As Nienna’s tears wash clean our hurts, so Middle Earth’s cries remind us of every stinging cut we have suffered for the sake of our pride. I shook my head. “In any case, I have not been sent by the Valar; I have been permitted to return but I foresee that messengers will follow my path, even across the sea.”

Elrond’s eyes were wide. “Glorfindel the Beloved of Gondolin. Songs have been sung about you and your great deeds.”

I shrugged, although not out of modesty. Gondolin’s fall had been grievous indeed; it was only right that it was remembered in song. The Half-Elf spoke in a whisper. “I remember the Lady Nîndorien singing the song to me in the haven of Sirion. She said that her mother used to sing it to her.”

Her mother. The beautiful Olorwen. Dream-maiden.

I breathed in slowly as I remembered her. The light of her eyes lifted the spirits of all around her. The love between her and the Lord Elemmakil was great, and the daughter born of that love lay gravely ill in the very room in which I found myself. Something was out of joint so I decided that it was my turn to ask questions.

“How did the Lady Muinalot, or rather, Nîndorien, come to be at Rivendell?”

“She has dwelled here since the day the great host of the Last Alliance marched into the east. This valley was known as Imladris then, a refuge and a haven.”

“By all accounts, it still serves as a refuge for the weary,” I commented. “Tell me, what ails the Lady that she lies so unmoving? She does not appear to be injured in body.”

Elrond smiled sadly. “She is injured in spirit; her star has fallen into darkness.”

I spoke crisply, “Pray, do not speak so cryptically. She yearns for something. What is it? Or who?”

“Her beloved, our High King; he fell in the Last Alliance.” The Half-Elf’s anguish was apparent and now it was my turn to look confused. My knowledge of love has widened somewhat since then and I have come to learn something of its relentless timeless power.

“But that was nigh on sixty years ago! Surely she has not lain like this since then!”

“No, indeed not. It is approaching the anniversary of his fall. For many years, she showed no ill-effects at this time of year except for a slight tendency to withdraw into herself. It seems that she suffers profoundly again; it is almost as though she has suffered the loss anew.” Elrond distractedly ran his hand through his black hair. “She has lain like this for a month now. Occasionally she can be roused, and she eats and speaks a little.”

I moved towards the bed, struck again by the likeness between the Lady Nîndorien and her mother. “Muinalot,” I called softly. To my lasting wonder, she blinked slightly and some light returned to her eyes. The Lord Elrond gasped and moved to the other side of the bed, and gently took hold of her hand.

“Call her name again,” he urged.

I did as he requested, and the lady stirred again. I could see confusion on her face but I was greatly encouraged to see that her eyes fixed upon me, not through me as before. Her forehead creased slightly, and her eyes seemed to glow with vague recognition. With great determination, she spoke; carefully and slowly.

“You came. I pleaded for the return of another but you came.” There was no reprobation or disappointment in her voice, though at that moment I doubted that she fully understood who I was. She closed her eyes for a time and re-opened them with effort. Was she surprised to find that I still stood before her? I never found out. Weakly she reached for my hand. “Lord Protector of the Gondolindrim. The Beloved has returned.” She turned her head to face Elrond and smiled for the first time. She removed her hand from his gentle grasp and trembling, she touched his cheek. “Do not weep, dear one. I shall not leave you.” He smiled through his tears and I moved away slowly as they embraced one another. If truth be told, I felt rather awkward but both Elrond and Nîndorien have repeatedly told me since then that it was I who brought her back. I cannot accept the praise for reviving Gondolin’s hidden flower, I simply maintain that my arrival fortuitously coincided with her recovery. A coincidence; nothing more.

It was later that night, as I lay in the chambers that would be my own for the duration of my residence in Rivendell, when I thought over her words.

You came. I pleaded for the return of another but you came.

I can freely admit that I wondered for a while whether I heard her voice carry across the sea. It matters not; I did not return for one person. I returned for the sake of many.

As I stared at the shadowy vaulted ceiling, her face appeared before me.

Ever since then, I have not slept easily. She haunts my dreams, you see.

Ever since then, I have preferred to walk alone in dreams of my own making.

Dreams of shadow and flame.


Part 2: Desire and Release

You cannot sleep, little one?

No, neither can I.

Does it hurt being near her again?

Yes and no. I speak to you as one Elf to another, with all our contradictions and ambiguities. I am not well-versed in the language of love, whatever you may think. It hurts being near her but being apart from her is a greater agony. She cares so deeply for my welfare. I think it would destroy her to know what I have felt. She guessed, of course. She stumbled over my heart on one snowy day in Rivendell. I was careless; I did not conceal the fire I felt when I was near her. She knew that I loved her but not even she could perceive the depth of my feelings.

We stood looking out over the grounds of Rivendell. We observed your return, little one. When we greeted you in the entrance hall, you did not sense my turmoil. Ai, I was more upset at having exposed her to hurt than I was about my own welfare. I spent a few days apart from her, only speaking to her if we passed in the passageways. I know she felt pain at the distance between us. I certainly felt it to the core.

It is strange, sitting here in the house of one I should resent yet I cannot dislike him. He is worthy of her, more worthy than I. I think I learned that on the night we heard of the downfall of Sauron.

I was asked to play in the Hall of Fire. Don’t look so surprised, little one. Do not think that you and your brother are the only ones who can persuade me to pick up a harp. Well, I played a tune such as I have never played before. Every emotion I felt poured from the strings of the harp. Sorrow, despair, longing and victory; all flowed from my heart. It was strange, every Elf in the room was uplifted by that song, for it ended on a note of pure joy, pure release. Every Elf, that is, except one. Nîndorien fled from the hall. Once I had extricated myself from the Elves who clustered around me, I went after her.

I found her on a large balcony. She sat on a stone seat, sobbing. The sound tore at my heart. At that moment, I longed to hold her in my arms, to comfort her and to placate my own traitorous heart. It took every ounce of strength I possessed not to gather her to me and kiss her. The last time I required such strength… well, little one, it cost me my life.

We spoke a little. She accused me of betraying her confidence for my song had reflected her life. I told her that the song had come from my own heart, weak and weary though it was. Her song was not complete; that is why she suffered so. She had not yet reached the final notes of triumph.

“You miss him, don’t you?” I asked. My heart rose up within me, ***ing me for being such a fool. She nodded and apologised. Her heart was sick with weariness, for she had given so much of herself to our beloved Undómiel, yet her heart’s desire remained unfulfilled. I told her she had to pass West. Perhaps it was wrong of me, but my pain eased a little when I told her that I would remain in Middle Earth for a time. She looked at me with sorrow, she didn’t want to lose me, she said.

Of course she would never lose me. She is the keeper of my heart. I cannot survive indefinitely without her. She does not know it and I would not burden her with the knowledge that she gives me hope and life.

I took her in my arms then, not as the lover I longed to be, but as a comforter. I soothed her as though she were an Elfling again. She drifted into an uneasy sleep and I sang to her a lullaby of Gondolin. I do not know what dreams troubled her but I feared that she might slip again into despair. I held her close to my heart, in the hope that she might hear its beat and remain. When the lullaby was over, I carried her to her bed. The corridors of Rivendell were strangely deserted. We passed no one. I laid her down on the bed and covered her with a blanket. Still she dreamed and her forehead was creased with anguish. Before I realised what I was doing, I bent over and kissed her, softly.

Did I bring her back? I cannot say. I doubt she had travelled far into the darkness but as I watched, she smiled in her sleep.

Once the night had passed, I felt a sense of release. Perhaps I had shared some of my burden with her, perhaps some of her burden had passed to me; I do not know. She tried in vain to persuade me to travel into the west with the rest of the household whenever the time came, but I refused. I do not think I would have been strong enough to witness her reunion with her heart’s keeper.

Ay, even as she became whole I would have shattered. I needed to draw my strength from my beloved Middle Earth. Woe that we lived to see it fading, you and I.

Where were we? Ah yes, we travelled together to Gondor.

I see that expression, little one. I am aware that she disowned me and the Lord Erestor after Lothlórien to seek merrier travelling companions. Yes, I know we brought it on ourselves by turning the conversation to politics. I do wish you would learn to smile with a little less self-satisfaction, little one. It cannot be held against me that the Lady Nîndorien sought more light-hearted cloth-headed companions. I learned early on that no one can usurp your position in the lady’s affections and I rather suspect that her husband will soon learn the same!

I think the greatest pain was reserved for the nights we spent at Edoras. We spoke with the white lady of the Rohirrim on the evening before our departure. The Lady Nîndorien and I engaged in a rather frivolous conversation and Lady Éowyn misunderstood our level of intimacy. Neither Nîndorien nor I were willing to correct her. Ah, she clasped my hand and her touch was like flame. I could only respond with a sad smile. Once again, my emotions were less well-concealed than I would have liked but in that moment I could hide nothing from her. I walked her to her accommodation and she apologised again.

Ai! That hurt me. Not her apology, but rather that I had made her feel it was necessary. Because of a need to comfort me, she had apologised for love.

Let that be a lesson to you, little one! Never apologise for the direction your heart takes. Love cannot be forced but when it is granted, it is irrevocable, for better, for worse. Now that I have seen her with her beloved, I would not wish to change it. Some things are meant to be, I am certain.

How can I be so sure? Listen to me: suppose I had not fallen? Suppose by some miracle, I had escaped the fall of Gondolin? I would have witnessed her growing up, changing from Elfling to Elf-maiden to the beautiful lady you know now. What would I have been to her? An uncle perhaps, like the Lord Ecthelion. Or even like a father. I believe that I was always meant to love her yet she was always meant to fall in love with another.

That night in Edoras, my mind was filled with conflicting emotions that conspired to tear me apart. I walked under the stars for the whole night and by the time the sun rose I had bullied my thoughts into order. Oh, I was trained well after my rebirth to quell unwelcome emotions from my first life. I simply adapted the technique to encompass feelings from my second life. We rode to Gondor and I focused on the steady beat of Asfaloth’s hooves.

Our entry into Minas Tirith stung me back into reality. Do you remember, little one? Those days spent in the City of Men were joyous, the pinnacle of joy coming when Nîndorien and I sang together. Do not try to claim the credit, little one! You may have pushed us, but the song was ours; our moment of tranquillity and unity. Ah, the sound of her voice made me forget my woes. It is somewhat paradoxical is it not, that she made me forget her own existence? I was content at that moment, content to live from breath to breath, from heartbeat to heartbeat. Even the unnerving emptiness between heartbeats did not distress me. When we finished, our eyes met and I knew. I yielded then. No, do not misunderstand me. I did not yield to my feelings but I gave up the faithless hope I had unwisely cherished.

I still love her as though her lifeblood was mine. She still gives me hope, not that I might find release from this tortuous love, but rather that I might draw strength from it. We are in the Blessed Realm, after all, where even a love that is to be forever denied is holy.

These are my last words to you, little one: treasure love above all things. If you know your love to be returned, act upon it. If you know it to be genuine, seize it with both hands.

Do not grieve for me. My spirit is strong; it burns with a white light. The slain who live again know the cost of life; we will not hurl it aside.

Do not follow my path, for it is lonely and it is dark.

My desire drives me on and gives me strength.


From Sonnet no. 116, by William Shakespeare

Let me not to the marriage of true minds
Admit impediments. Love is not love
Which alters when it alteration finds,
Or bends with the remover to remove.
O no! it is an ever-fixed mark,
That looks on tempests and is never shaken;
It is the star to every wandering bark,
Whose worth’s unknown, although his height be taken.


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Found in Home 5 Reading Room 5 Stories 5 Shadow and Flame/Desire and Release – A Tale of Glorfindel’s Unrequited Love

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