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This article deals with J.R.R. Tolkien's Balrogs. For more Balrogs see Balrog (disambiguation)
A Balrog (Sindarin for "Demon of Might"; the Quenya form is Valarauko) was a tall, menacing creature made equally of fire and shadow and with a fiery whip of many thongs. They induced great terror in friends and foes alike and could shroud themselves in darkness and shadow. Gandalf defeated a Balrog while the Fellowship of the Ring escaped Moria in The Lord of the Rings (specifically, in Book II, the second half of The Fellowship of the Ring).
The Balrogs were originally Maiar, of the same order as Sauron and Gandalf, but they became seduced by Morgoth, who corrupted them to his service in the days of his splendour before the coming of the Elves. During the First Age, they were among the most feared of Morgoth's forces. When his fortress of Utumno was destroyed by the Valar, many were destroyed, but some fled and lurked in the pits of Angband or escaped across the Blue mountains to eastern Middle-earth. In the third age the Dwarves of Khazad-dûm awakened a Balrog while mining for Mithril and were cast out.
The Balrogs were first encountered by the Elves during the Dagor-nuin-Giliath in the First Age. After the great victory of the Ñoldor over Morgoth's Orcs, Fëanor pressed on towards Angband, but the Balrogs came against him. He was mortally wounded by Gothmog, Lord of Balrogs (the only Balrog known by his name). Though his sons fought off the demons of fire, Fëanor died of his wounds soon after, and his spirit departed for the Halls of Mandos.
Balrogs have been very elusive since the First Age; if Sauron had any in his service during the Second Age or the War of the Ring, they were never revealed. Tolkien described only one Balrog after the War of Wrath: Durin's Bane. It is believed to have been the last Balrog in Middle-earth and is certainly the best-documented.
Do Balrogs have wings?
Much discussion has occurred as to whether the Balrogs had wings. Nothing has been decided conclusively, although the Balrog in the Peter Jackson film version of The Fellowship of the Ring, released in 2001, was clearly winged, albeit with 'wings of shadow', and certainly could not fly. That, however, proves nothing about the Balrogs Tolkien wrote about.
"His enemy halted again, facing him, and the shadow about it reached out like two vast wings." The Lord of the Rings II 5 "The Bridge of Khazad-dûm"
There is nothing special in this on its own. The Balrog carried with itself a shadow that assumed a winglike form. The next reference is what forms the debate.
"...suddenly it drew itself up to a great height, and its wings were spread from wall to wall..." The Lord of the Rings II 5 "The Bridge of Khazad-dûm"
Readers usually make their own interpretations about this and feel it to be quite obvious. However, this can be seen in two possible ways. For some, the Balrog has a shadow that assumes a winglike form. Later, this shadow is spread from wall to wall.
Others, however, think that the Balrog has actual wings that are spread from wall to wall. There is no real conclusion to the debate and it will probably continue as long as Tolkien has readers.
Arguments for Balrog wings
The most common argument for those supporting Balrog wings is the second reference in The Bridge of Khazad-dûm. The people supporting Balrog wings believe the sentence to mean that the Balrog had literal wings spreading from wall to wall. There are also other references that may be taken as evidence of Balrog wings.
The common counterargument to this is the earlier reference - that the Balrog has no real wings, but wings of shadow. Also, Gandalf "flies" a few lines earlier:
"Gandalf came flying down the steps and fell to the ground in the midst of the Company"
However, nobody would believe that Gandalf literally flew. Therefore, people against wings say that the people who read the spreading wings reference literally must read this line literally as well. There are other arguments for Balrog wings, though.
"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
Here, the Balrogs are said to move "with winged speed". Again, the counterargument is that the line must not be read literally, or else Gandalf knows how to fly. Here "winged speed" is usually taken as a metaphor for moving very quickly, and as such is mostly not taken as a valid argument. There are people, however, who believe this is a strong argument for Balrog wings.
Arguments against Balrog wings
The first reference to the Balrog is one of the main arguments - again, wings of shadow. Other common argument is that Balrogs are never exactly described as flying, unless one assumes "winged speed" means flying. There are also numerous situations where a Balrog could have either saved or helped itself by flying but didn't do so.
"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"
"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 Lord of the Rings III 5 "The White Rider"
Glorfindel's duel with the Balrog is one of them - after the refugees escaped from Gondolin, they were ambushed by a host of Orcs and a Balrog. Glorfindel dueled with the Balrog and they both fell, yet the Balrog did not use its wings and save itself by flying. Gandalf also dueled with the Balrog on a mountaintop and threw it down, yet it didn't fly up. A counterargument is that the Balrog couldn't use its wings for flying, perhaps due to its large size (which sort of conflicts with "winged speed" and the size may be debated as well), could only fly, or glide, small distances, or that they were too exhausted from fighting to actually fly. It is also possible that both Balrogs were almost slain by the time they fell, so that they couldn't fly.
The sizes of Balrogs also form part of an argument. Tolkien gives a few statements of the Balrog's size.
"[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
This does not appear in the published version of The Lord of the Rings, so it may or may not be taken as a proof. Also, when the Balrog engages the Fellowship, it passes through an entrance. The entrance is sized so that "...orcs one after another leaped into the chamber." The Lord of the Rings II 5 "The Bridge of Khazad-dûm"
"...clustered in the doorway." The Lord of the Rings II 5 "The Bridge of Khazad-dûm"
Balrogs cannot be very large (clearly not as large as it is in Peter Jackson's movie) to fit through an entrance that Orcs have to pass through one after another. The reason that the Balrog's size matters is that the room in which it encounters Gandalf is described.
"...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
So the chasm in the hall is fifty feet wide. A chasm's length is always longer than its width, so the hall has to be at least fifty, most likely hundred or more feet wide. Now, if the Balrog's wings were spread from wall to wall, it means that a creature at most two or three times as tall as a man had wings of over fifty feet. In order to have such wings, the Balrog must be a lot bigger, which conflicts with the fact that it fit through a small entrance. This is possible, however, if the Balrog's wings were actually shadowy. This is probably the strongest objection to Balrog wings.
As a counter-argument to Gandalf "flying down the steps", the term "flying" can be used to refer to actual flight, or rapid movement/escape.
In one of Tolkien's early Middle-earth writings, Lay of the Children of Húrin, "Lungothrin, Lord of Balrogs" is mentioned. It is not, however, certain if it was another name for Gothmog, or it simply meant "a Balrog lord". According to Christopher Tolkien, the latter is more probable, as the name Gothmog was mentioned in the earliest Middle-earth writings, as well as the final version of Tolkien's mythology.
The Balrogs were originally envisioned as being immense in number:
"The early conception of Balrogs makes them less terrible, and certainly more destructible, than they afterwards became: they existed in 'hundreds' (p. 170), and were slain by Tuor and the Gondothlim in large numbers: "thus five fell before Tuor's great axe Dramborleg, three before Ecthelion's sword, and two score were slain by the warrior's of the king's house." The Book of Lost Tales 2, commentary by Christopher Tolkien on The Fall of Gondolin.
"There came wolves and serpents and there came Balrogs one thousand, and there came Glomund the Father of Dragons." The Lost Road, Quenta Silmarillion chapter 16, §15.
As the legendarium became more formidable and internally consistent, and the Balrogs more terrible, this number was much reduced. In the end Tolkien stated that there were probably "at most" seven Balrogs:
"In the margin my father wrote: 'There should not be supposed more than say 3 or at most 7 ever existed.'" Morgoth's Ring, Section 2 (AAm*): note 50 (just before section 3).
It should however be noted that these texts postdate the published The Lord of the Rings, but predate the materials from which the published The Silmarillion was drawn. The exact number of Balrogs is therefore very uncertain, but Tolkien's note above seems to have been his final word. However, the number of 3 would require the rewriting of much of the Silmarillion, and even the number of 7 causes conflicts. At least two Balrogs were killed at Gondolin, part of a group of more. All others save one were destroyed during the War of Wrath, and yet there were still enough there to allow Durin's Bane to flee from the battle unnoticed. While "thousands" clearly is not according to author intent a more probable number, taking into account the writings, is that there were at least a dozen.
- The Truth About Balrogs essay series by Conrad Dunkerson.
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