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  • Updated 11 May 2003
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Balrogs

Dread Servants of Melkor

Encyclopedia of Arda Timeline
Years of the Trees First Age Second Age Third Age Fourth Age and Beyond

The Balrogs originated as Maiar, beings of the same kind as Sauron himself. They were primordial spirits of fire that had allied themselves with Melkor in ancient times, and became the most feared of his servants, especially during the Wars of Beleriand in the First Age. Details of their numbers are hard to state with certainty, but there seem to have been relatively few of them - probably no more than seven.

In appearance, the Balrogs were man-like, but fire streamed from them, and they were swathed in dark shadows. They carried whips of flame and induced great terror in friends and foes alike. In the War of Wrath, Morgoth was assailed by the forces of the Valar. Most of the Balrogs were destroyed in that War, but some few escaped over the Blue Mountains and hid in Middle-earth. Durin's Bane, the creature that drove the Dwarves from Moria, was one of these.

The Balrogs Before the First Age

The Balrogs were in origin Maiar, of the same order as Sauron or Gandalf. Melkor corrupted them to his service in the distant past of the World, in the days of his splendour. They were originally gathered by him in his ancient fastness of Utumno during the time of the Lamps of the Valar. When this fortress was destroyed by the Valar, at least some fled and lurked in the pits of Angband (whether any of the original Balrogs were slain in the Valar's attack on Utumno is not known).

Balrogs in the First Age

When Melkor and Ungoliant escaped from Valinor three ages later with the Silmarils, the Balrogs were still to be found in the ruins of Angband. Ungoliant trapped Melkor in her webs, demanding the Silmarils for herself, but the Balrogs issued from their hiding-place and rescued their lord.

The Balrogs were apparently first encountered by the Elves during the Dagor-nuin-Giliath in the years before the first rising of the Sun. After the great victory of the Noldor over Morgoth's Orcs, Fëanor pressed on towards Angband, but the Balrogs came against him. He was mortally wounded by Gothmog, Lord of Balrogs. Though his sons beat off the demons of fire, Fëanor died of his wounds soon after, and his spirit departed for the Halls of Mandos.

The Appearance and Nature of Balrogs

Balrogs were spirits of fire - their hearts were of fire, we are told, and they carried whips of flame. They could, however, shroud themselves in darkness and shadow. The Balrog that Gandalf fought in Moria, for example, at first gave no hint of his fiery nature apart from the flames that issued from his nostrils.


‘...And Whether Balrogs Have Wings’

Do Balrogs have wings? It might seem a simple question, but (as so often with Tolkien's work) the more we examine it, the harder it is to answer. It's a question, too, that divides Tolkien's more avid readers into two distinct camps - those who believe in Balrog wings, and those who deny their existence.

It's also a question that generates a lot of interest: we get more e-mail on this single topic than from any other article on the site. Accordingly, we've revised and expanded this section to cover the vexed 'Balrog wing' question in a fair amount of detail. If you're a casual browser, or you're not particularly interested in Balrog wings, you'll probably find far more information here than you need! Feel free to 'bail out' whenever you feel like it - this article is really written for those with a determined interest in the debate.

This article does its best to take an objective view, but it does reach a fairly definite conclusion (at least, as definite as the evidence allows). If you're one of those with strongly-held views on this question, then, there's a fair chance that you'll disagree. That's fine, of course - we're not looking to 'convert' anyone! - but at least we hope you'll find something of interest here.

A Quick Digression: What is ‘Shadow’?

Before starting out, it will be helpful to clear up a common misconception. Within this debate, a number of references to 'shadow' crop up, and a lot of readers seem to take this in its modern sense - that is, a region of darkness caused by light being blocked. This isn't quite the sense Tolkien intends.

Where Balrogs are concerned, their 'shadow' isn't just a lack of light, but a region of darkness that they carry around with them. Exactly what its qualities are is a debatable point, but it can certainly flow into different shapes. These shadow-shapes, in fact, form the beginning of the whole debate.

The Nature of the Argument

The heart of the debate lies in The Fellowship of the Ring II 5, The Bridge of Khazad-dûm. This chapter is built around the Fellowship's disastrous encounter with the Balrog known only as Durin's Bane, the same creature that had driven the Dwarves from their ancient home centuries before. In particular, two references give rise to the discussion. The first describes the Balrog from Gandalf's point of view:

[1] 'His enemy halted again, facing him, and the shadow about it reached out like two vast wings.'
The Fellowship of the Ring II 5 The Bridge of Khazad-dûm

On its own, this isn't particularly contentious. The Balrog's dark 'shadow' has assumed a form that appears at least somewhat winglike. The fact that it is explicitly 'like wings' means that this can't literally describe real wings. The problems start, though, with another reference that appears two paragraphs later:

[2] '...suddenly it drew itself up to a great height, and its wings were spread from wall to wall...'
The Fellowship of the Ring II 5 The Bridge of Khazad-dûm

These are quite probably the most hotly debated words Tolkien ever wrote. This seems strange at first, because in fact most people agree that the meaning isn't particularly ambiguous, and that it's fairly obvious what the statement means. The dispute begins, though, with a curious fact: like an optical illusion, this quotation has two obvious interpretations. Whatever you think it means, and however sure you are, there are plenty of people who see it quite differently.

To one group of readers, 'its wings were spread from wall to wall' (2) relates to the immediately preceding 'the shadow about it reached out like two vast wings' (1). To them, it just reinforces the preceding statement, and says nothing about any other kind of wings. On the opposite side of the debate, 'its wings were spread' (2) is not related to the preceding statement at all. Instead, it's a definite reference to the Balrog's real, physical wings.

The debate normally focuses on arguments about which of these two obvious interpretations is the correct one. It's probable, though, that neither is explicitly correct: how you read the passage depends on what you already presume a Balrog to look like. We're not trying to draw any definite conclusions at this point, just to show that the structure of the sentence will bear either interpretation. One way of doing this is to replace the disputed 'wings' with terms that have a more certain status.

Let's start with 'arms'. There's absolutely no question that Balrogs had arms - it's so obvious that it seems odd to even mention it. Now, imagine that Tolkien had written 'the shadow about it reached out like two vast arms'. That's still obviously a simile, just like the real text (1). If that's followed shortly afterwards by 'its arms were spread', it seems natural to read this second reference as referring to its real arms, not its shadow-arms, even though we've just been told that it had 'arms' of shadow. This is how the pro-wings faction sees the text, because they assume that Balrogs have real wings, just as unquestionably as real arms.

We can simulate the alternative view with 'tentacles'. There's absolutely no evidence for Balrog tentacles, and its safe to presume that they didn't form any part of a Balrog's anatomy. Once again, 'the shadow about it reached out like two vast tentacles' reads without a problem as a simile. Now, though, when it's followed by 'its tentacles were spread', the natural interpretation is slightly different. We know for sure that there are no 'real' Balrog tentacles, so the statement reads much more easily as referring back to the preceding simile: it must mean 'tentacles of shadow'. This is the anti-wings position: because they assume that Balrogs have no real wings, they naturally see 'its wings' as an extension of the earlier passage.

You might not agree with both of these interpretations, but its fair bet that the one you do agree with is the one you already presume is correct. That's all we're arguing here - that the interpretation depends on an underlying presumption about Balrog wings, whether for or against.

Since there doesn't seem to be anything decisive in the sentence structure itself, it follows that arguments based on this passage alone must be circular. On the one side: 'Assuming Balrogs have real wings, then the passage must be meant literally, therefore Balrogs have real wings'. On the other: 'Assuming Balrogs have no real wings, then the passage must be meant figuratively, therefore Balrogs have no real wings'. As far as this passage is concerned, whatever you assume about Balrog wings inevitably turns out to be true.

This isn't much help, but fortunately 'its wings were spread from wall to wall' (2) isn't the only evidence to consider. Let's move on to look at the rest of the cases for, and against, real Balrog wings.

The Case For Balrog Wings

Having established that 'its wings were spread from wall to wall' (2) can't realistically be used as an argument for (or against) real wings, we can proceed to see what evidence actually can be produced.

Argument One: Its Wings Were Spread From Wall to Wall

It's a characteristic of the debate that this resilient passage reappears very regularly in pro-wing arguments, whatever counterarguments are put up against it. It's only fair, then, to allow it another quick airing before moving on. Those who propose it as proof consider that it is unambiguously literal, and cannot be interpreted otherwise.

This position doesn't seem to stand up to detailed scrutiny. It isn't clear, for example, how a passage that has been subject to years of debate can realistically be described as unambiguous. Much more interesting, though, is the claim that it must be intended literally. This presumably means that Tolkien would have written 'its wings of shadow were spread...', or something of the kind, if that is what he had meant. Consider the following, though:

[3] 'Gandalf came flying down the steps and fell to the ground in the midst of the Company'
The Fellowship of the Ring II 5 The Bridge of Khazad-dûm

This occurs just a few pages before Gandalf's encounter with the Balrog, and it describes what happens when Gandalf is thrown or driven down the steps by a force from above. This is a metaphor: nobody would claim that Gandalf literally 'flew'. The text, though, doesn't say 'Gandalf seemed to come flying', it says unequivocally that he 'came flying'. Those who insist on a literal reading of one passage, must logically insist on a literal reading of this passage too. The only consistent conclusion is that, if 'its wings were spread from wall to wall' (2) proves that Balrogs have real wings, then 'Gandalf came flying down the steps' (3) proves that Gandalf not only could fly, but chose that moment to show off his talent.

Addendum

Since this article was originally created, a reference has come to light that has very clear relevance to the discussion. The text in question appears in Malbeth's prophecy about the Paths of the Dead, in which he foresees the great darkness that Mount Doom spews across the western lands in the days before the Battle of the Pelennor.

'Over the land there lies a long shadow,
westward reaching wings of darkness.
'
The Return of the King V 2 The Passing of the Grey Company

Of course, there's no question of this being intended literally (if it were, we would have to imagine Mount Doom with gigantic wings hundreds of miles long!) We can see, then, that not only was Tolkien happy to use 'wings' in metaphorical way, but also that he expressly associated that metaphor with the idea of shadow. This establishes beyond doubt that the idea of 'wings of shadow' need not be taken literally.

Thanks are due to sharp-eyed reader R. Darren Brewer for pointing out this reference.

Argument Two: ‘With Winged Speed’

Given the depth of debate on the issue, it may come as a surprise that 'Its wings were spread...' (2) is the only definite canonical evidence for Balrog wings. There is, though, a passage in The History of Middle-earth that is often produced as supporting evidence. Here it is:

[4] 'Swiftly they arose, and they passed with winged speed over Hithlum, and they came to Lammoth as a tempest of fire.'
The History of Middle-earth Volume X (Morgoth's Ring), The Later Quenta Silmarillion: Of the Rape of the Silmarils

'They' are the Balrogs who rushed to save Melkor from Ungoliant immediately after his return to Middle-earth. This text does not appear in the published Silmarillion: it belongs to an unpublished variant, often claimed to have canonical priority over the published edition. To avoid unnecessary debate about canon and priority, we'll assume it does have priority for the purposes of this argument.

Regardless of its canonical status, though, it isn't certain how this represents 'proof' of any kind: 'with winged speed' is unavoidably just a metaphor for 'very quickly'. Actually, there does seem to be some disagreement about the metaphorical status of this phrase, so we'll take a moment to consult the dictionary:

[5] 'metaphor n. application of name or descriptive term or phrase to an object or action to which it is imaginatively but not literally applicable'
The Concise Oxford Dictionary of Current English

In other words, unless 'speed' can literally have wings (which it clearly can't), 'with winged speed' is a metaphor.

Just as before, we can clarify the structure of the sentence by extracting the Balrogs (whose nature is under question), and replacing them with more definite terms. First, imagine that the paragraph is about Eagles (which we know have wings and can fly), rather than Balrogs: there's no question that '[the Eagles] passed with winged speed over Hithlum' makes perfect sense. To try the opposite argument, we'll replace the Eagles with something that definitely doesn't have wings and can't fly: horsemen, say. This results in '[the horsemen] passed with winged speed over Hithlum'. Maybe it's a little more poetic, but it clearly isn't nonsense.

This is another case where the argument only serves to highlight the presumptions of its reader. If you already believe in Balrog wings, then 'with winged speed' might well seem to refer to them, but in fact there's nothing here that demands them.

Summing Up

The positive argument in favour of real Balrog wings at least has the merit of brevity. Essentially, it is that 'its wings were spread from wall to wall' (2) and 'with winged speed' (4) can only possibly be interpreted as literal references to actual wings. As we've tried to show, though, there's no objective reason for drawing this conclusion. The pro-wings interpretation works if, and only if, you already assume that Balrog wings exist.

The Case Against Balrog Wings

If there's no undeniable case for Balrog wings, it's important to realize that neither is there any undeniable evidence against them. Instead, the contrary argument is based on a range of objections: references that apparently contradict the idea of Balrog wings. Of these, there are two particularly strong examples.

Objection One: Balrogs Don't Fly

There is no point anywhere in Tolkien's work where he describes a Balrog as flying. Even in situations where it would be a huge advantage to take to the air, the Balrogs remain earthbound. To illustrate, consider Gandalf's encounter with Durin's Bane. This Balrog faces two obstacles, a fiery fissure, and then a chasm crossed by a narrow bridge. These should present no problem to a winged creature, but its reaction is instructive.

[6] 'Then with a rush it leaped across the fissure.'
The Fellowship of the Ring II 5 The Bridge of Khazad-dûm

...and then...

'It stepped forward slowly on to the bridge...'
The Fellowship of the Ring II 5 The Bridge of Khazad-dûm

Later, that same Balrog finds itself on a mountain-top, fighting for its life. According to Gandalf's report of the incident:

[7] 'I threw down my enemy, and he fell from the high place, and broke the mountain-side where he smote it in his ruin.'
The Two Towers III 5 The White Rider

If he could fly, the Balrog could easily have saved himself. Instead, he crashes through the air to his doom. Durin's Bane isn't the only non-flying Balrog, either:

[8] 'Many are the songs that have been sung of the duel of Glorfindel with the Balrog upon a pinnacle of rock in that high place; and both fell to ruin in the abyss.'
Quenta Silmarillion 23 Of Tuor and the Fall of Gondolin

The obvious question is: if Balrogs have real wings, why don't they use them?

There are two counterarguments. First, it is often suggested that 'with winged speed' (4) is a unique case where Balrogs are described as flying. We've already considered this point - it needn't detain us here.

The more common counterargument is that, in each case, the Balrogs were somehow prevented from using their wings. According to this position, Durin's Bane leaps the fissure and steps onto the bridge not because he has no wings, but because his wings were so vast that they were cramped and unusable. Against the two cases of Balrogs falling from mountains, it's suggested that they were exhausted from fighting, or their wings were somehow damaged. It's also sometimes put forward that Balrogs had real wings, but couldn't use them at all, or could only glide short distances rather than actually fly. This counterargument takes many forms, but all have one feature in common - once again, it presumes that the wings must exist.

There is, of course, a much simpler explanation for the Balrogs' apparent inability to fly. If we take the position that they just didn't have wings, the entire problem vanishes.

Objection Two: The Question of Scale

How big is a Balrog? If we follow the pro-wings side of the debate, and assume that it had real wings, it's possible to come up at least some minimum figures. This is because of the classic 'its wings were spread from wall to wall' (2), which means that its wingspan must be at least the width of the hall in which it was standing. What do we know about the hall itself?

[9] 'Before them was another cavernous hall. It was loftier and far longer than the one in which they had slept.'
[10] 'He turned left and sped across the smooth floor of the hall. The distance was greater than it had looked.'
[11] '...a slender bridge of stone, without kerb or rail, that spanned the chasm with one curving spring of fifty feet.'
All from The Fellowship of the Ring II 5 The Bridge of Khazad-dûm

The hall is gigantic. If the chasm is fifty feet wide (11), then the entire hall must be at least several hundred feet long. A 'chasm' is by definition longer than it is wide, and the chasm's length defines the width of the hall. So, we can derive a fairly reliable minimum width somewhere in the region of seventy-five to one hundred feet. This is supported by the text, which tells us that the hall was so wide that it needed pillars down the centre to support the roof:

[12] 'Down the centre stalked a double line of towering pillars. They were carved like boles of mighty trees whose boughs upheld the roof...'
The Fellowship of the Ring II 5 The Bridge of Khazad-dûm

If the Balrog's wings were real, and literally spread 'from wall to wall' (2), its minimum wingspan is also somewhere approaching one hundred feet. This gives us a Balrog the size of a house, and remember that these are minimum values - it might be even bigger. Many would accept this without a problem - the idea of a gigantic Balrog is quite common, and it's often depicted as being thirty feet high or more, which is consistent with these estimates.

This is an important point, so we'll emphasise it. If the Balrog's wings are real, it follows necessarily that it must have been a monstrous creature with the wingspan of a small airliner.

The objection this raises is quite significant: it's very hard to explain how this behemoth had lived for more than a thousand years in an underground city designed for Dwarves. As a specific example, consider the Chamber of Mazarbul, which appears just before the Company's encounter with the Balrog. There's plenty of textual evidence about the entrance to this room. For example:

[13] '...orcs one after another leaped into the chamber.'
The Fellowship of the Ring II 5 The Bridge of Khazad-dûm

...and, a moment later, they...

[14] '...clustered in the doorway.'
The Fellowship of the Ring II 5 The Bridge of Khazad-dûm

This is obviously a fairly narrow opening. Somehow, though, the Balrog manages to follow the orcs into the Chamber through this entrance. If a Balrog is built on the huge scale we've just discussed, it could not possibly have used this narrow entrance.

The logic of this seems inescapable: we have to scale down the Balrog to get him through the door. He can still be of 'a great height' (2) - say ten feet tall or so - but he can't realistically be much larger than this. This idea is supported to an extent by this description from the The History of Middle-earth:

[15] '[the Balrog] strode to the fissure, no more than man-high yet terror seemed to go before it.'
The History of Middle-earth Volume VII (The Treason of Isengard), X The Mines of Moria II: The Bridge
(our italics)

This is a rejected draft, so it can't be put forward as any kind of proof. It does give some insight, though, into the kind of scale that Tolkien had in mind for the Balrog. It's also borne out by the fact that he had to 'leap' (6) across the fissure, and that he stepped onto a bridge (7) so narrow that Dwarves could only cross it in single file. These are the actions of a more-or-less man-sized creature, not a giant.

The question of scale is a serious objection to real Balrog wings. If 'its wings were spread from wall to wall' (2) literally refers to real wings, then the Balrog must have been gigantic. For it to get into the Chamber of Mazarbul, though, it can't have been gigantic. If the Balrog isn't gigantic, then 'its wings were spread from wall to wall' (2) can't refer to real wings.

For the anti-wings faction, this is probably as close to a 'proof' as it's possible to get.

Summing Up

These are by no means the only objections to real Balrog wings, but they're probably the strongest. Most others are circumstantial in nature and don't really advance the argument far (for example, 'imagine a creature with huge wings, spread wide, trying to handle a whirling whip of flame').

The two major objections, though, are very significant. Why don't Balrogs use their wings, if they have them? How does a house-sized Balrog get through an orc-sized doorway? These awkward questions only arise if Balrogs have real wings - if we assume that they don't, it's easy to escape these inconsistencies.

It's probably fair to say that there is no incontrovertible evidence for real wings, and that there at least two strong objections to their existence. Given the current state of the argument, then, the weight of evidence seems to come down pretty heavily on the 'no wings' side of the debate. 'Weight of evidence', though, isn't proof: there's always room for research and reinterpretation.

Wherever the evidence lies, it's a fact that nobody knows for sure what the answer is. Only Tolkien himself could have told us, and he never made a definite statement on the topic. It seems appropriate, then, to finish with the most definite description of a Balrog he did provide:

[16] 'What it was could not be seen: it was like a great shadow, in the middle of which was a dark form, of man-shape, maybe, yet greater; and a power and terror seemed to be in it and to go before it.'
The Fellowship of the Ring II 5 The Bridge of Khazad-dûm

Further Reading

Notes

1

'Demon of might' or 'demon of power' is the interpretation of the word 'Balrog' given in later works, equivalent to Quenya Valarauko. The earlier Etymologies (in volume 5 of The History of Middle-earth) give a slightly different origin: ñgwalarauko, meaning 'demon of torment'.

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