In the chapter four of The Hobbit, the Goblins appear to instantaneously recognize Glamdring and Orcist from the battle of Gondolin.

The Great Goblin gave a truly awful howl of rage when he looked at it, and all his soldiers gnashed their teeth, clashed their shields, and stamped. They knew the sword at once. It had killed hundreds of goblins in its time, when the fair elves of Gondolin hunted them in the hills or did battle before their walls. They had called it Orcrist, Goblin-cleaver, but the goblins called it simply Biter. They hated it and hated worse any one that carried it.


This sword's name was Glamdring the Foe-hammer, if you remember. The goblins just called it Beater, and hated it worse than Biter if possible.

Is this some type of genetic memory or something? Gondolin was destroyed in the First Age, several thousand years before the Hobbit.

How did the Great Goblin recognize Glamdring and Orcrist?

  • 1
    I've read The Hobbit several times, and I'd always understood the description of the swords to refer to some kind of goblin legend regarding the Fall of Gondolin. Heavy losses were sustained on both sides in the battle when the Hidden City fell. Jan 21, 2016 at 5:28
  • @maguirenumber6 Legend or not how did they recognize the swords? Are the swords really that distinctive?
    – ibid
    Jan 21, 2016 at 5:31
  • 3
    @ibid Well, they glow. Most swords don't.
    – user867
    Jan 21, 2016 at 5:36
  • @user867 I thought all elven swords did.
    – ibid
    Jan 21, 2016 at 5:38
  • 2
    IIRC, Gandalf identified the swords by reading the runes etched into the blades. If any of the goblins were able to read elf-runes, they could have done the same. Jan 21, 2016 at 14:40

5 Answers 5


This is never explained in any writings.

If I had to speculate, there are a few possible reasons I could think of:

  • The Great Goblin is a maiar spirit. In a late essay, Tolkien discussed the possibility that some of Morgoth's Orcish lieutenants were maiar in the forms of Orcs. If this was the case, the Great Goblin could have seen the swords personally.

    This seems unlikely, however, for a few reasons:

    • We would expect the Great Goblin to be rather more impressive if he were a maiar spirit (though, after so long in a single form, perhaps not)
    • The quote suggests that all of the goblins recognized the blades, and they can't all have been maiar
  • Some kind of passed-down history. Glamdring and Orcrist are clearly central to the goblin's history, so it's not beyond imagining that stories about them, or depictions of them, would have been passed down.

On his blog, Michael Martinez presents a possible out-of-universe explanation:

[I]t could be that this part of the story represents an unedited holdover from the original placement of the tale in the “Elder Days”. The goblins would not have to have been quite so ancient in order to be familiar with Biter and Beater

The claim that The Hobbit was originally set in the Elder Days is supported by referencing John Ratleiff's The History of the Hobbit, and I cannot personally confirm it; but Martinez is pretty trustworthy, so I'm inclined to take him at his word.


These swords were likely central in the battle of the Fall of Gondolin, in the first age. Gondolin was the largest and most powerful of the Noldor elves' cities, and its fall was possibly one of the most important victories for the orcs during the first age. Which in turn would make it one of the greatest victories in the history of orcs. Surely the orcs would have legends just like the elves, so the names of their foes and their weapons would be passed down through the ages.

Glamdring belonged to Turgon, the King of Gondolin - who is actually Elrond's great-grandfather - so it would be reputed by that alone.

But also, the Fall of Gondolin was truly an epic battle, with numerous dragons and balrogs facing various Noldor elven heroes. Mere orcs must have been complete cannon fodder in this monumental battle, meaning that the swords could have gotten their reputation and their orcish epithets there.

Another possibility, and this is speculation, the swords could have been forged for the Nírnaeth Arnoediad (Battle of the Unnumbered Tears), a battle during a war that happened earlier, when the elves were on the offensive. Turgon had time to prepare for this war in advance and knew they would be facing orcs. It would be possible that Glamdring and Orcrist where forged for this war and made their reputation there.

We don't know who wielded Orcrist, but Turgon could potentially have wielded Glamdring during Nírnaeth Arnoediad. The forces of Gondolin turned the tide in the battle, so it seems fitting that these swords were prominent there. Whereas during the Fall of Gondolin, Turgon died.

The city of Gondolin was built in a secret location and nobody left it or entered it, until Turgon marched his armies out in the open during Nírnaeth Arnoediad. Therefore, the swords could only have earned their reputation during these great wars and not elsewhere, due to the secrecy around Gondolin.

It wouldn't have been possible to earn a reputation over time, like for example Beleg's/Turin's black sword Anglachel, which earned its reputation over time in many smaller border skirmishes, rather than in big battles. If Glamdring/Orcrist were ever used by rangers to defend Gondolin against scouting orcs, no orc obviously lived to tell the tale, or the location of Gondolin would have been revealed.

So the orc legends must originate from either or both of the mentioned battles.

Stepping out of the lore, among Tolkien's earliest works was the story of the Fall of Gondolin, a stand-alone story for a long time. It was only woven in with the rest of the Tolkien stories much later. When Tolkien wrote The Hobbit, he borrowed bits and pieces from the Fall of Gondolin, likely without the intention to ever bring the stories together, at that point.

He later does the same when writing Lord of the Rings, making the Noldor hero Glorfindel appear in the book, although he actually died back in the first age, fighting a balrog during the Fall of Gondolin. Tolkien admitted himself that this was an inconsistency in his lore, and came up with some 'patch' about Glorfindel getting resurrected.

So Glamdring and Orchrist (and Sting) are kind of anachronisms, much like Glorfindel.

  • 1
    You appear to have a good knowledge of the lore for Tolkien’s works. It would make for a better answer, however, if you could edit in quotes and evidence to back up your claims.
    – TheLethalCarrot
    Nov 2, 2018 at 21:01
  • @TheLethalCarrot Indeed, though I don't have all the books in the original English, but in translations. Most of the above comes from Silmarillion, where a summary of the Fall of Gondolin is included. A more detailed Fall of Gondolin was published separately in "Lost Tales", which is the original story before all the other publications. The Glorfindel anachronism I believe is found in Carpenter's Tolkien biography, among other sources.
    – Amarth
    Nov 2, 2018 at 21:09
  • A good in-universe explanation. It is worth noting that Thranduil also recognized the swords. Granted, he's an immortal but I doubt he lived in the First Age.
    – Verdan
    Nov 2, 2018 at 21:58
  • @Verdan He descends from Doriath or the elves of Ossiriand, I believe. If I remember correctly, Doriath sent no armies to the Battle of the Unnumbered Tears, because of the conflict between Thingol and the sons of Feanor regarding the silmaril. So the swords might have become famous not only among orcs, but also among elves, even those who weren't taking part in the war.
    – Amarth
    Nov 2, 2018 at 22:07

I believe someone else may have already pointed this out but both Glamdring and Orcrist were incredibly feared blades in their time and were supposed to have slain thousands of goblins. This would most likely lead to a rather memorable description amongst the goblins. Another possible reason is that as supported in the here orcs and goblins are the same thing, and as many fans of Tolkien's work know, Orcs actually were made from elves that were tortured until they were horribly disfigured and essentially went insane. And also as we may know Elves cannot die of old age. So considering this information it is possible that these Goblins/Orcs had seen Glamdring and Orcrist before.

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    Yes, Orcs and Goblins are clearly the same, I don't think that anyone really doubts that. Orcs originating from Elves, however is a lot less clear. Tolkien had several conflicting viewpoints on the origin of Orcs.
    – ibid
    May 31, 2016 at 12:14

It's because the orcs/goblins are immortal. They are elves... and as such have memories that span from before the 1st Age. Despite what many would have you believe, if you go by the published works of Tolkien and disregard his notes in Morgoth's Ring (you sort of have to else the Silmarillion doesn't hold), there is simply no other explanation that makes sense.

I really don't get why people are so resistant to the idea that the orc-kind are elves.


How do you think those swords ended up in the trolls' hoard (to be picked up by Gandalf and THorin)? The region where those swords were found is where the Dunedain fought Sauron's forces in the Second Age. I'd imagine those swords were gifted to the Dunedain (who are descendants of the faithful Numenorians) by the elves. If those swords were used by them in fights against orcs, those swords would have gained a feared and legendary status amongs the orcs.

Or, as http://tolkiengateway.net/wiki/Glamdring theorises, Glamdring was Turgon's sword, and got carried off as loot, eventually ending up in the trolls' cave.

  • 2
    I beleive The Hobbit outright stated that Glamdring was Turgon's sword, wouldn't call that a theory. The question was how were the goblins able to recognize swords that were famous several thousand years ago, and then completely vanished from sight. (hidden away in some Troll's cave). This fails to answer the question.
    – ibid
    Jan 27, 2016 at 0:59

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