Do Balrogs Have Wings?

March 5, 2011

General, Tolkien's Lore

Introduction

clip_image001I have written some fun Lore posts the last few months. This is the Big One. No more serious topic of discussion can be found in all of Tolkiendom than Balrog wings. After listening to many of the Tolkien Professor’s podcasts, and reading others thoughts, I was inspired to wade into this inflammatory topic with my own ruminations.

Unlike almost every other fictional work, we have access to many of the permutations the grand arc of the history of this fictional world took as Tolkien constructed it over his lifetime. This puts us in an awkward position as we try to decide what is “cannon” or “lore”. In truth, a final version of the Silmarillion was never released by Tolkien. And Christopher himself said that it would be impossible to force consistency across all the works of his father.

In his earliest versions of the stories, which would become part of Middle-earths Legendarium, Tolkien viewed the balrogs as large evil horsemen, a creation of Morgoth as a kind of shock troop. It appears he reused the name, but redesigned them to create a supreme antagonist for Gandalf in the Lord of the Rings. He continued to edit the background material, some of which became the Silmarillion, till his death.

The Books

I will focus primarily on the sequence in the Simarillion where the Balrogs come to Morgoth’s aid against Ungoliant, and also the passages from the Fellowship of the Ring, where Gandalf faces the Balrog, Durin’s Bane. One version of the Silmarillion passage from the Histories is also interesting to study, and since the final edited version was not actually released by Tolkien, I think it is fair to look at this to see what he might have been envisioning.

“Deep in forgotten places that cry was heard. Far beneath the ruined halls of Angband, in vaults to which the Valar in the haste of their assault had not descended, Balrogs lurked still, awaiting ever the return of their Lord; and now swiftly they arose, and passing over Hithlum they came to Lammoth as a tempest of fire.

With their whips of flame they smote asunder the webs of Ungoliant, and she quailed, and turned to flight…”

-The Silmarillion

And here is one of the other versions of the sentence:

“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)

“Then suddenly Morgoth sent forth great rivers of flame that ran down swifter than Balrogs from Thangorodrim, and poured over all the plain…In the front of that fire came Glaurung the golden, father of dragons, in his full might; and in his train were Balrogs, and behind them came the black armies of the Orcs in multitudes such as the Noldor had never seen or imagined.”

-The Silmarillion

Now we move the Fellowship of the ring. This describes the fellowship leaving the 21st hall heading to the Chamber of Mazarbul:

“Following his lead the company passed under the northern arch. They found themselves in a wide corridor. As they went along it the glimmer grew stronger, and they saw that it had come through a doorway on their right. It was high and flat-topped, and the stone door was still upon its hinges, standing half open. Beyond it was a large square chamber.”

-The Fellowship of the Ring

They leave through the eastern door when they are cut off from getting back to the 21st hall. Gandalf describes what happened an hour later:

“Gimli took his arm and helped him down to a seat on the step. ‘What happened away up there at the door”’ he asked. ‘Did you meet the beater of the drums?’

‘I do not know’, answered Gandalf. ‘But I found myself suddenly faced by something that I have not met before. I could think of nothing but to try and put a shutting-spell on the door. I know many; but to do things of that kind rightly requires time, and even then the door can be broken by strength.

‘As I stood there I could hear orc-voices on the other side: at any moment I thought they would burst it open. I could not hear what was said; they seemed to be talking in their own hideous language. All I caught was ghash; that is ‘fire’. Then something came into the chamber – I felt it through the door, and the orcs themselves were afraid and fell silent. It laid hold of the iron ring, and then it perceived me and my spell.”

-The Fellowship of the Ring

The fellowship then comes out into the northern end of the 2nd Hall:

“They peered out. Before them was another cavernous hall. It was loftier and far longer than the one in which they had slept. They were near tits eastern end; westward it ran away into the darkness. Down the centre stalked a double line of towering pillars.”

-The Fellowship of the Ring

The Bridge of Khazad-dum is to their left and a flaming fissure is to their right separating them from the orc host which has gone back around through the 21st Hall to cut them off:

”Two great trolls appeared; they bore great slabs of stone, and flung them down to serve as gangways over the fire. But it was not the trolls that had filled the Elf with terror. The ranks of the orcs had opened, and they crowded away, as if they themselves were afraid. Something was coming up behind them. 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.

It came to the edge of the fire and the light faded as if a cloud had bent over it. Then with a rush it leaped across the fissure. The flames roared up to greet it, and wreathed about it; and a black smoke swirled in the air. It’s streaming mane kindled, and blazed behind it. In its right hand was a blade like a stabbing tongue of fire; in its left it held a whip of many thongs.”

-The Fellowship of the Ring

“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.”

-The Fellowship of the Ring

“At that moment Gandalf lifted his staff, and crying aloud he smote the bridge before him. The staff broke asunder and fell from his hand. A blinding sheet of white flame sprang up. The bridge cracked. Right at the Balrog’s feet it broke, and the stone upon which it stood crashed into the gulf, while the rest remained, poised, quivering like a tongue of rock thrust out into emptiness.

With a terrible cry the Balrog fell forward, and its shadow plunged down and vanished. But even as it fell it swung its whip, and the thongs lashed and curled about the wizard’s knees, dragging him to the brink. He staggered and fell, grasped vainly at the stone, and slid into the abyss. ‘Fly, you fools! ‘ he cried, and was gone.”

-The Fellowship of the Ring

“Thither I came at last, to the uttermost foundations of stone. He was with me still. His fire was quenched, but now he was a thing of slime, stronger than a strangling snake.”

-The Two Towers

“There upon Celebdil was a lonely window in the snow, and before it lay a narrow space, a dizzy eyrie above the mists of the world. The sun shone fiercely there, but all below was wrapped in cloud. Out he sprang, and even as I came behind, he burst into new flame.”

-The Two Towers

Analysis

So from these passages a few things can be noted:

  • Balrogs can move extremely fast in the open. To rescue Morgoth from Ungoliant they move at astounding speed. The Elves must have seen this occur in order to report it in the Silmarillion. This combined with the description of “winged speed” in the alternate version and passing over Hithlum, seems to indicate that the Balrogs were at least airborne some of the way.
  • Glaurung was a great worm and could not fly (unlike Ancalagon and Smaug). It seems odd to describe the Balrogs in his train (with the orcs behind them) if the Balrogs are flying, but Glaurung and the orcs are not. Of course it might not be tactically wise to fly in this circumstance, that doesn’t mean they could not fly.
  • clip_image003The Pyroclastic flow runs down the slopes of Thangorodrim faster than Balrogs. This phrase seems odd if Balrogs could fly. It does indicate approximately how fast they can run. Pyroclastic flows have been clocked up to 450 MPH. It is conceivable that Balrogs could run in the range of 400 MPH in the open.
  • The Balrog does not seem to have a fixed size. When we first encounter it in Moria, it is approximately the size of a man, fitting through the door in the Chamber of Mazarbul. The door is described as tall, I assume maybe 10-15 feet tall. This means the Balrog must have been on the order of 10 feet tall. This fits the description when we first see him: of man-shape maybe, yet greater. But later before the bridge he draws himself up to a great height, growing to fill the entire 2nd hall. The 2nd hall was even loftier than the 21st Hall and that was described as cavernous with a roof far above their heads. I take that to mean something like 30-50 feet high. Recall there were two rows of tree shaped pillars down the center of the hall. The Bridge is described as 50 feet long, setting the width of the chasm. A chasm is generally longer than it is wide, so it is conceivable the 2nd hall was at least 100 feet wide. That is a large wingspan. So the Balrog appears to grow from 10 feet tall to perhaps 40 feet tall with a wingspan of perhaps 100 feet.
  • The Balrog does not seem to have any discernable form. He was a great shadow, at the center of which was a dark form, maybe man-shaped. He can change form however as witnessed by Gandalf in the foundations of stone.
  • The Balrog is able to turn his aura into a flaming mane. It appeared he used the fire in the fissure the first time, but then does it at will upon Zirak-zigil, or perhaps by making use of the sunlight.
  • The Balrog appears to be able to manipulate the shadow aura. He forms it into wings as he approaches the Bridge.
  • He does not appear to be able to fly. He can jump quite far, clearing the first chasm, which the fellowship thought had cut off the orcs. But when the bridge collapses he screams and tumbles to the lower deeps. If he could fly at will it seems he would have here.

So my own opinion is that Balrogs are shadowy Ainur, able to alter their size and form. Keep in mind that all Ainur were spiritual beings. They only took on a physical form at their choice. Some have been locked into a form, it appears this Balrog may be locked into his shadowy appearance, but has some latitude over his presentation on the physical plane. He can also manipulate his shadow aura to change its shape or make it flame. In this fashion, Balrogs can choose to have wings. But it seems they cannot fly, per se.

They can move very fast and jump quite far. In the open, without the constraints present in Moria, it appears they could move at great speed, making very large leaps and perhaps gliding on these shadow wings some distance. But, it appears that they cannot use those wings to actually hover in one place or launch straight upwards, since Durin’s Bane would likely have done so rather than plummet into the abyss.

The Movies

clip_image005In this matter I believe Peter Jackson did a pretty good job. This Video shows the whole fight sequence between Gandalf and Durin’s Bane. The Balrog had more of a recognizable form than I think the books indicate, but it would be hard to pass up the chance to have a more well-defined form. He leaps over the chasm just as described in the book, and does not appear to have the wings at that time. He definitely appears to put on his fiery mane after leaping over the fissure.

clip_image007It is not until he approaches the bridge that you even see the wings, again just as the book describes. But the “wings” were especially well done. They are hard to even see, appearing to be made out of shadow and flame, but did not look like proper wings which would allow the Balrog to actually fly. Here is the best screen capture I was able to get, I have indicated where the wing is. It is very shadowy and difficult to discern through the whole sequence.

clip_image009As Gandalf and the Balrog fall into the abyss, the Balrog appears to be burning hotter, like a cinder being blown on. His wings seem to have more definition during the fall, but he was unable to use them to halt his fall. They do appear sort of in tatters in this screen capture.

 

 

Conclusion

I think it is a mistake to ask if Balrogs have something. They were fire spirits who had fallen through fire to shadow, spiritual beings who have a shadowy shape-changing essence. So it seems silly to ask if they have something. Do they have flame manes? Do they have slime skin? They can have all these things, but don’t always use them. I think wings fall under the same category.

In the Fellowship, the description is such that the shadow became like wings, or took on the shape of wings. But then they are just called wings thereafter. I think this is a way of describing that the shadow aura was formed into wings, which were just as real, yet transitory, as his slimy skin or his fiery mane.

So in the end, I split the middle between the two sides of this argument. I think Balrogs can have wings and run and glide at great speed, but cannot fly.

What do you think? Answer this week’s poll on Balrogs and wings!

Sorry, there are no polls available at the moment.

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Avatar of Haakon Stormbrow

32 Responses to “Do Balrogs Have Wings?”

  1. Osiran Says:

    It takes serious cajones to tackle Tolkien lore. Good job and a nice read!

    Reply

  2. Eodrid of Crickhollow Says:

    Nice job, very informative! I never realized there was such a debate! Personally, it sounds like they have wings and can fly! If they shape change, then they can probably fly too :D

    Reply

  3. Kiarane Says:

    Great read! More, more, more!

    Reply

  4. Gilganith Says:

    I picked No, but i’d like to sort of clarify. Its actually more of a “yes, but they can’t fly, sort of”

    To me, the initial line is the telling one “and the shadow about it reached out like two vast wings.” In this sense, its the “like” the does it for me. It would be the same as saying “and the shadow about it reached out as if two vast wings”. “like” and “as if”

    Another example could be like this “The figure stalked forward, his dark cloak billowing and fluttering in his wake him like the beating of dark wings”

    In this case, the shadow is just the cloak, it has the appearance of wings in an abstract way. You could think of it as the balrog reaching out his presence like a cobra flares its hood, or a frill-neck lizard stretches out its frill, or a dog raises its hackles. Its an intimidation play “look at how big i am”

    As much as i LIKED the visual of wings in the movies, i never really thought of them as actual articulated wings per se, i always considered them to have the EFFECT, a huge, stretched sheet, filling the area around the balrog and looming over its prey.

    I always attributed the Balrogs speed and leaping abilities to its size, its strength and its otherworldly nature.

    Does this mean that balrogs couldn’t have wings? No, but i think they aren’t WINGS per se, they don’t look like huge stretched bat-wings, they are just masses of shadow, stretched out to the side like that of a large predatory bird, without defined shape or structure, just shadow and smoke and a deep presence of evil that darkens the soul as it darkens the land around it.

    But thats just my take!

    Reply

    • Avatar of Haakon Stormbrow
      Haakon Stormbrow Says:

      I agree.. Except that a little later on they are then called wings.

      “it drew itself up to a great height, and its wings were spread from wall to wall”

      Seems like everyone now agrees the shadow which was “like” wings, or began to resemble wing, or was becoming wings, has now become wings.

      or not…

      Reply

  5. Jim Says:

    The deep lore you do on this sight is some of my absolute favorite stuff…This piece actually has me wanting to re-visit Moria, a major accomplishment :)

    Reply

  6. Steffen Says:

    I liked the analysis, although your poll left something out:
    since they are spiritual being, they can change form, so they don’t strictly have wings in reality.
    And I think no elf saw how Morgoth was rescued by Balrogs. Not because I doubt of eyewitnesses, but becuase of the nature of de Silmarillion: it is a book of legends that (I think) Frodo compiled from what he herad of the elves. I suppose some elf told him maybe that was what happened.
    To be honest, I don’t know, but I still think Balrogs do not have wings (not at least as we imagine them).

    Reply

    • Adstan Says:

      It was actually Bilbo that compiled the Silmarillion. It was a bunch of written history that the elfs had in Rivendell. And in many cases, were eyewitness accounts of elves, or of the Valar telling the elves.

      Reply

      • Avatar of Haakon Stormbrow
        Haakon Stormbrow Says:

        Yeah how could anyone have known about this happeneing if nobody saw it. It is obvious no Maiar or Valar saw it (or they would have gotten the simarils, or at least reported it to the Valinor) so it must have been elves.

        Reply

  7. Tellen Says:

    I would like another poll option that satisfies all sides of the argument and all parts of the lore:

    Some Balrogs have wings and some Balrogs do not.

    There are instances in the books in which it is explicitly stated that *a Balrog or a few Balrogs* have wings. It is implied a few times that some of those can fly. However, there are an equal number of instances in which it is implied they do not have wings or cannot fly (both with and without wings).

    The logical conclusions, given that they are a mythical creature of a quasi-magical origin is that it is possible for Balrogs to have wings and to not have wings. It is also possible for those Balrogs with wings to be both unable and able to fly (some wings are functionary, other wings are aesthetic).

    P.S. I wouldn’t use the movie as any indication of a lore precedent for anything. They took far too many liberties in order to give certain actors more screen time (Arwen), changed certain things to be more dramatic (Faramir), or simply cut out entire portions of the story to save time (Tom Bombadil).

    Reply

  8. Adstan Says:

    What doesnt make sence, is the option that Balrogs have wings but cant use them. I would ask then, Whats the point? why would a creature have a feature like wings that are completely useless? I think the confusion comes from many analogies that Tolkien makes between, the Balrogs shroud of darkness and wings.Its not saying that balrogs have wings, its a comparison.

    Reply

    • Gilganith Says:

      Tolkien always takes in metaphors and the abstract, its something you have to watch for.

      While i don’t think they have wings (WINGS wings that is) BUT.. i just thought i’d point out something.

      “Why would a creature have a feature like wings that are completely useless?”

      While i don’t think they DO have wings, i just thought i’d point something out. Lots of birds have wings, but can’t fly. To name just a few.. Ostrich, Emu, Cassowaries, Kiwis, Penguins, Turkeys…

      Reply

  9. Mithralmistress Says:

    I agree with Gilganith and Adstan and always have. If I say “My dog runs like a gazelle” I don’t expect people to think it IS a gazelle.

    “…and the shadow about it reached out like two vast wings” seems pretty clearly intended as a simile. Then Tolkien takes the simile a step further when he says the shadowy wings grew to spread from wall to wall. It’s

    Reply

  10. Mithralmistress Says:

    … a fun debate, though. (Sorry, this part got cut off somehow.)

    Reply

    • Adstan Says:

      First, Mithralmistress i think its awesome that you have a gazelle for a dog.

      Second, i recall my statement about wings being useless.

      Reply

  11. Roger Edwards Says:

    There needs to be a fourth option on the poll. IE Insufficient data to make a definitive conclusion.

    Nice article and I admire the effort you’ve put into the research.

    This is the great thing about Tolkien’s work. Some things are clearly and unequivocally described. Others are deliberately ambiguous so that the reader may draw their own conclusion.

    Reply

  12. Rhen Merchant Says:

    Some of your comments are a bit misleading. Balrogs are of the same order as Gandalf, Saruman and Sauron. They are Maiar and as such did have physical form. When you say they are “shadowy Ainur” that could be many types of beings. And actually the Maiar (and Balrogs) are lesser Ainur. Balrogs were Maiar twisted and corrupted by Melkor.

    They could weave about them a shadow which is what would have “filled the hall” in Moria, not his physical form. There is no actual statement in Lotr which says “he draws himself up to a great height, growing to fill the entire 2nd hall” that is an assumption you made. The quote from the book is “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;” The “wings” are its shadow not physical bird or bat like wings.

    While this is a passionate debate the fact is John never intended for Balrogs to have actual flying wings and no serious scholars of his works assume they do. Too many people have twisted John’s words to fit their notion of a “classic demon”. Its nice to try and be neutral so you don’t anger people on the other side, but Balrogs did not have physical wings, period.

    Reply

    • Avatar of Haakon Stormbrow
      Haakon Stormbrow Says:

      No Ainur (VAlar and Maiar) had any physical form before they entered arda. After wentering they take up form sometimes so they can intereatc with it. This is quite plain int he Silmarillion. After time, some of them Become “stuck” in a physical form.

      The Valaraukar or fire spirits seem to have fallen to shadow.

      Reply

    • Dreadhed Says:

      @Rhen,

      Your awfully confident and your reference of Tolkien in the familiar is almost offensive.

      “Ignorance more frequently begets confidence than does knowledge” –Charles Darwin

      “In the modern world the stupid are cocksure while the intelligent are full of doubt. ” — Bertrand Russell

      Reply

  13. Tori Says:

    Nice post! I agree with your conclusion :)

    Reply

  14. Grimbran Says:

    Hakkoon, your topics rock, as usual. And I find this one exceptionally well presented!

    I chose “yes has wings, but cannot fly”, But I compromised in this choice because the “wings” were not physical wings to me, but a manifestation of his shadow form/presence, a display of his power to inspire fear. To me, being basically a shapeshifter to a degree didn’t make the wings less real because they were formed of shadow versus flesh and bone. But I certainly don’t see them as wings in the traditional sense. The argument that it was actually a cloak of shadow makes a lot less sense, as the reader can’t easily picture a shadow-cloak growing and extending to fill a hall. So a better descriptor was chosen with undefined shadow-wings.(something much more easily pictured to have the balrog flex/extend across the entire hall to demonstrate his power to gandalf) So for me, yes, he did have wings composed of shadow, part of his self-manipulated form, but not really wing-wings. And since if he could have flown, he would have in that situation, he definitely couldn’t fly.

    Reply

  15. Zach Estel Says:

    Consider: 2 of the 3 attempts we see at killing balrogs (Gandalf and Glorfindel), the strategy is to send them falling from a very high place (The Bridge of Khazad-Dum, the mountains surrounding Gondolin). I highly doubt that a Noldo and a Maia would use this strategy, if they thought the balrogs could fly; and I highly doubt the balrogs would’ve died if they could fly.

    So . . . . regardless of whether or not they have wings, they cannot fly.

    Reply

  16. Dreahed Says:

    They have wings and they can fly. Just because it fell from the bridge of Khazad Dum does not mean they don’t work. Have you ever seen an albatross take to the air? They need a running start. How long had the balgrog been underground? My impression from nature is that flying takes practice… maybe its not like riding a bike.

    They must have wings as in one of Tolkeins FINISHED works, as you quote above it states “and its wings were spread from wall to wall”, my oppinion anything from the works that Tolkien finished must take priority over those finsished by others. So it must have wings.

    Why would an animal of any creation be given wings, but not use them?

    “now swiftly they arose, and passing over Hithlum they came to Lammoth as a tempest of fire.” – Now my impression here is that they arose over the land, they did not pass through it, there is an impression of being airborne,or in flight.

    “Swiftly they arose, and they passed with winged speed over Hithlum, and they came to Lammoth as a tempest of fire.”
    -what were they arising from? Slumber/hibernation or the state of being grounded?
    - here again how better to travel with with ‘winged’ speed ‘over’ Hithlum than with wings?

    Just from your quotes it seems straight forward to me that they have wings and can use them, but then from those same quotes you came to an entirely different conclusion. One of the greatest things about literature over film, is that so much is still left to the reader to fill in the blanks.

    Fun topic, thanks.

    Reply

    • Dreadhed Says:

      A really nice discussion on this webpage if anyone is interested in reading more.

      http://www.glyphweb.com/ARDA/b/balrogs.html

      after reading more, I have to move my position to one of undecieded, as I now think balrogs could have actual wings, but like much of the balrog itself its form is more of shadow than of hardened physical structure. I don’t know, and never until today thought much about the topic. But to reiterate from above, one of the great things about literature is that that each reader can have their own mental image of what is being described in the story and each readers mental creation is a valid construction.

      @goldenstar, sorry if I came off personal above, but ever since I was a little kiddo, I have rebelled against those who claim certainty in knowledge about uncertain subjects. I will try to bite my tongue more when I have nothing positive to say.

      Reply

  17. Ar-Pharazon Says:

    No

    They do not have wings.

    If I had written “the wasp stung my hand which swelled up to the size of a baseball mitt” and later wrote “I fanned my face with the baseball mitt”.

    Does this mean my hand is now a baseball mitt?

    It does not. It is a metaphor I am referring back to.

    So, the crucial passage is “the shadow about it reached out like two vast wings”.

    Like. Not were, like. So the wings refered to later are merely the vast areas of extended shadow.

    Did the Balrog fly over the rift that the trolls were bridging, no it took a running jump, why, again, no wings.

    Balrogs, bereft of wings, except in a metaphorical sense

    Reply

  18. Avatar of knowfere
    knowfere Says:

    Wow, I am of a mind that believes not all balrogs must look the same. We see several kinds of orcs and goblins and trolls and dragons, both with and without wings, so why should we assume ALL balrogs would have been created exactly the same?

    Reply

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