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The final word on balrog “wings”

10.01.08 | Kunochan | 19 Comments

Gandalf the Grey faces off against Durin's Bane.

Apparently there has been a major debate within the Tolkien fan community for years now about whether or not balrogs have wings.

I haven’t heard anything this ridiculous since the so-called “debate” over whether the second millennium ended in 1999 or 2000. There was no debate to be had – the millennium ended in 2000. It’s called math. But most people insisted on defending their misapprehension that 1999 was the right year.

Likewise, we know for a fact that Tolkien’s balrogs did not have wings, for the same reason we know Ents did not have wings – because Tolkien never said that they did.

Let me repeat that – TOLKIEN NEVER SAID BALROGS HAD WINGS.

Now, you’re probably thinking, but Erik, I remember something about wings in the epic Gandalf versus Balrog battle in The Fellowship of the Ring.  But that’s based on a careless reading of the text. You see the word “wings,” and assume they must be the types of wings you’ll find on a bird or a bat.

They aren’t.

The Encyclopedia of Arda has an excellent synopsis of the debate, although they have been accused of having what wing proponents call an “anti-wing” bias. I call it a pro-fact bias.

The evidence

In The Lord of the Rings, there are seven references to balrogs; three in Fellowship, two in Towers, and two in the Appendices. There are 16 mentions in The Silmarillion, not counting the glossary. Gothmog, Lord of Balrogs, makes one appearance in Unfinished Tales. And in the twelve volumes of The History of Middle Earth, the word “balrog” is used 314 times. This suggests that HOME would be a great source of information about balrogs, but that’s not the case.

Despite all these references, there are only three places in the collected writings where “wings” are mentioned in connection with a balrog, and only one of those is canon. I speak of course of The Fellowship of the Ring, Book 2, Chapter 5, “The Bridge of Khazad-dûm.”

The Balrog reached the bridge. Gandalf stood in the middle of the span, leaning on the staff in his left hand, but in his other hand Glamdring gleamed, cold and white. His enemy halted again, facing him, and the shadow about it reached out like two vast wings. It raised the whip, and the thongs whined and cracked. Fire came from its nostrils. But Gandalf stood firm.

“You cannot pass,” he said. The orcs stood still, and a dead silence fell. “I am a servant of the Secret Fire, wielder of the flame of Anor. You cannot pass. The dark fire will not avail you, flame of Udûn. Go back to the Shadow! You cannot pass.”

The Balrog made no answer. The fire in it seemed to die, but the darkness grew. It stepped forward slowly on to the bridge, and suddenly it drew itself up to a great height, and its wings were spread from wall to wall; but still Gandalf could be seen, glimmering in the gloom; he seemed small, and altogether alone: grey and bent, like a wizened tree before the onset of a storm. [emphasis mine]

A balrog is a creature of fire and shadow, both of which are supernatural in origin. From Quenta Silmarillion, Chapter 3: “Of the Coming of the Elves and the Captivity of Melkor”:

…their hearts were of fire, but they were cloaked in darkness, and terror went before them..

The Encyclopedia of Arda says this about the shadow:

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.

Tolkien describes the shadow as being “like two vast wings.” Then the “darkness grew” and “its wings were spread from wall to wall.” Wings of darkness, not wings like a bat or a bird or a fairy.

This passage is the basis for the belief in winged balrogs. But there’s no ambiguity here. Only a child or an otherwise unsophisticated reader might interpret Tolkien to mean the balrog had bird or bat wings. This is especially true when we see that the Balrog does not, in fact, ever fly.

But before we move on to balrog flightlessness, let’s look at the other two references to balrogs and wings.

This is from HOME volume 7: The Treason of Isengard. Christopher Tolkien is comparing two early drafts of Fellowship.

In B it is said only that the Balrog ‘stood facing him’: in C ‘the Balrog halted facing him, and the shadow about him reached out like great wings‘.(17) Immediately afterwards, where in FR the Balrog drew itself up to a great height, and its wings were spread from wall to wall‘, neither B nor C has the words ‘to a great height’ nor speaks of the ‘wings’.

This is almost identical to the published version. The spread “wings” are in fact just two great areas of darkness that spread out from the sides of the balrog.

This final reference is one of the favorites of the pro-wing crowd. It’s from HOME volume 10: Morgoth’s Ring.

Far beneath the halls of Angband, in vaults to which the Valar in the haste of their assault had not descended, the Balrogs lurked still, awaiting ever the return of their lord. Swiftly they arose, and they passed with winged speed over Hithlum, and they came to Lammoth as a tempest of fire.

This could go either way. “Winged speed” could mean speeding through the air with one’s wings; or it could mean speeding along the ground at a tremendous speed, as if one had wings. Taken out of context, it could mean either thing.

But let’s take it in context, shall we?

Balrogs never fly

By the end of his life, as Tolkien was struggling to finish a version of The Silmarillion fit for publication, the Professor had decided that balrogs were corrupt Maiar in the service of Morgoth. This implies that, like Morgoth and Sauron and the Valar, balrogs were essentially spiritual beings that could change shape at will and fly if they so wished.

But we know that when certain Valar and Maiar assumed physical form, they became trapped in those forms. This happened to both Melkor and Sauron, who over time lost the ability to take any form they wished. We know that creatures like Ents and Eagles were “spirits” placed in material bodies, and these spirits may have been Maiar. Gandalf is without a doubt a Maia, and he could neither change form nor fly.

Nowhere in the attested writings do balrogs change shape, except to manipulate their cloak or “wings” of darkness. In fact, Tolkien does describe the physical form of the balrog after its fire is quenched by the waters deep beneath Moria. “His fire was quenched, but now he was a thing of slime, stronger than a strangling snake,” Gandalf tells us in Book 3, Chapter 5 of The Two Towers.

Now, I can’t prove a negative. But in this case, absence of evidence is evidence of absence. There is never a mention of balrog shapeshifting anywhere in the legendarium.

And ABSOLUTELY NOWHERE, except for the ambiguous reference to “winged speed,”  do balrogs ever fly, even when it would be of great benefit to them to do so.  Dragons fly, Morgoth flies, even Lúthien Tinúviel flies. Yet balrogs never do. This would be very odd behavior for a winged creature.

In fact, when they hide, balrogs always do so underground, a strange habit for an aerial creature. Durin’s Bane hides deep beneath the Misty Mountains, as we know. And in Quenta chapter 24, “Of the Voyage of Eárendil and the War of Wrath”:

The Balrogs were destroyed, save some few that fled and hid themselves in caverns inaccessible at the roots of the earth; and the uncounted legions of the Orcs perished like straw in a great fire, or were swept like shrivelled leaves before a burning wind.

Some have suggested that balrogs are some kind of flightless bird, like a penguin. This is so dumb, I don’t even know how to respond. We’ll ignore the evolutionary argument against this, since balrogs did not evolve, but were created by Morgoth out of rebel Maiar. (Tolkien was not a creationist, and despite being devoutly Catholic, he accepted evolution as a fact.) But if anyone, anywhere can give any type of explanation why Tolkien, or his proxy Morgoth Bauglir, would create flightless winged balrogs, please let me know.

Pro-wing apologists have decidedly unsatisfactory answers to these colossal gaping holes in their argument. This guy says the balrog could change shape, but chose not to do so; that it could have flown across the chasm in Moria, but chose to fall instead.  Sure.

The author even goes on to call the information in The Silmarillion “useless,” since it doesn’t back up his theory. Well, if we’re going to throw out the published canon, let’s just ditch everything Tolkien ever wrote. The (very cool, if inaccurate) Jackson balrog has flaming bat wings, and the Bakshi version looks like Ron Perlman from “Beauty and the Beast” with ridiculous wings like a steampunk ornithopter. Let’s consider these “canon,” so the pro-wing loonies can finally have their way.

Or not.

The question here is, what did Tolkien intend? Flying balrogs or terrestrial ones? All we have to work from is his writings, and those are unambiguous. Balrogs don’t have wings.

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