Abstract Chondrules and isolated forsterites in five low-subtype ordinary chondrites [NWA 3127 (LL3.1), Sahara 97210 (LL3.2), Wells (LL3.3), Chainpur (LL3.4), and Sahara 98175 (LL3.5)] were studied using petrographic, EMPA, and SIMS techniques to better constrain the origin of chondrules and the olivine grains within them. Our results imply that igneous crystallization, vapor fractionation, redox effects, and open-system behavior were important processes. All olivine grains, including normal, relict, and isolated forsterite grains, show evidence for igneous fractionation under disequilibrium conditions, with olivine crystallizing during rapid cooling (closer to 2000 °C/h than to 100 °C/h). Vapor fractionation is manifested by anti-correlated abundances between refractory elements (Al, Sc, Y, Ti, Ca, V) and volatile elements (Cr, Mn, P, Rb, Fe) in olivine. Redox effects are evidenced in various ways, and imply that Fe, Co, Ni, and P were partitioned more into metal, and V was partitioned more into olivine, under reducing conditions in the most FeO-poor melts. There is no obvious evidence for systematic variations in olivine composition according to meteorite subtype, but shock melting in Sahara 97210 resulted in the injection of glass-derived melt into olivine, resulting in artificially high abundances of Ba, Sr, Na, Ti, and some other incompatible elements in olivine. Terrestrial weathering in a hot desert environment may have mobilized Ba and Sr in some glasses. Our data suggest that chondrules in ordinary chondrites experienced repeated thermal, chemical, and mechanical processing during a “recycling” process over an extended time period, which involved multiple episodes of melting under fluctuating redox and heating conditions, and multiple episodes of chondrule break-up in some cases. Forsterite grains, including normal grains in forsterite-bearing type I chondrules, the cores of isolated forsterites, and relict forsterite in type II chondrules, all crystallized from similar, refractory melts under reducing conditions; relict Mg-olivine and isolated forsterite grains were thus derived from type I chondrules. Olivine in type II chondrules, including normal grains and ferroan overgrowths on relict Mg-olivine, crystallized from more volatile-rich, oxidized, and relatively unfractionated melts. Relict dusty olivine grains in type I chondrules were derived from type II chondrules during incomplete melting episodes involving reduction and some vaporization, with clear (non-dusty) grains in dusty olivine-bearing chondrules crystallizing from the reduced and partly vaporized melts. Melt compositions parental to normal olivine grains in type I and II chondrules are systematically enriched in refractory elements compared to bulk chondrule compositions, implying that chondrules often experienced open-system exchange with more volatile-rich surroundings after some olivine had crystallized, possibly while the chondrules were still partly molten. Type II chondrules could have been derived from type I chondrules by the addition of relatively volatile-rich material, followed by re-melting and little evaporation under oxidizing conditions. In contrast, type I chondrules could have been derived from type II chondrules by re-melting involving more-or-less evaporation under reducing conditions. Chemical, oxygen isotope, and petrographic data are best accommodated by a model in which there were several (>2–3, sometimes ⩾4–5) melting episodes for most chondrules in ordinary chondrites.