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This article answers The Encyclopedia of Arda: Balrogs. The cited entry presents two sides of a controversy as to whether the Balrog of Moria has wings (and, by extension, whether all Balrogs have wings), and offers an argument to the effect that both camps are right.
Though Balrogs makes many good points, the truth is that both camps, as presented in the entry, are wrong. Balrogs fails in its key argument: that either a literal reading or a figurative reading is equally supported by the passages describing the Balrog of Moria, and hence that the reading one chooses depends only on one's preconceptions.
The passages in question are from The Fellowship of the Ring (FOtR):
the shadow about it reached out like two vast wings
suddenly it drew itself up to a great height, and its wings were spread
from wall to wall
suggests that anyone who finds it hard to see the
its wings were spread
passage as figurative should try substituting an un-Balroglike form for
wings, so as to make the passage impossible to read literally. This
exercise is proposed as evidence that the passage can be read equally either
way. But the argument is hoist by its own petard when it tries
tentacles. For we do not know until we read the passage itself that
wings are Balroglike and tentacles are not. The passages themselves are the
sources of the idea that the Balrog of Moria has wings (real or figurative).
Hence there can be no preconceptions before reading the passage. If, instead
wings, Tolkien had written
tentacles, this debate would
have been about
tentacles, and it would have been
were un-Balroglike! So substitution of one metaphor for another proves nothing.
If the question of wings can be resolved at all, the passages themselves
must be searched for clues to the incoherency of one or another interpretation.
This search can be done without assuming a particular result: in fact, such
a search presupposes that one does not know in advance what the result will
The Balrog's wings dilemma is simple. If the wings are real, several events
presented in The Lord of the Rings and The Silmarillion are nonsense. As
if Balrogs have real wings, why don't they use them? The "has
wings" camp are reduced to absurd claims and out-and-out invention to explain
this away. And the passage itself describes them as
like wings: in
other words, not real wings. But if the wings are a figure of speech, the
second phrase is very poorly written metaphor; and yet we know that Tolkien
was a skilled writer who turned many a poetic phrase.
The "has wings" camp go wrong when they demand that the wings are working appendages of the Balrog. Then they must invent reasons why a winged creature did not fly in various situations where it would have been natural, such as falling from a great height. Balrogs seem fated to fall to their deaths! Balrogs concedes good evidence to the "figurative" camp that Balrogs have no actual ability to fly. This evidence I will not belabor here.
The "figurative" camp go wrong when they demand that the
its wings were
spread passage is metaphor: for by making it so, they implicitly ascribe
two faults to the passage which are not adequately explained away by
(i) The passage, if metaphor, is very awkwardly constructed: awkwardly enough
to be misunderstood as plain descriptive text (or this debate would not exist).
This is hard to swallow, because we know that Tolkien is a skilled writer
who turns many a poetic phrase. It is too simple to construct a less awkward
Suddenly it drew itself up to a great height, a smoldering
vulture. (ii) The passage, if metaphor, is mixed metaphor. Consider the
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. (FOtR) The "figurative"
camp would have Tolkien mix a
wings metaphor and a
for the Balrog's shadow in the same sentence, again hard to swallow. This,
then, is why the argument about preconceptions is a failure. The figurative
reading tacitly assumes that Tolkien writes the passage badly, and the
descriptive reading doesn't. They are not equally plausible as
would have us believe.
But if a figurative reading is unsupportable, and a descriptive reading leads
to absurdity, how, then, the dilemma to be resolved? By distinguishing, as
Tolkien always does, the Balrog's own form from the zone of shadow and terror
it carries with it:
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.
(FOtR) The Balrog itself is never said to have wings or an actual
ability to fly. It is the Balrog's shadow which appears
The "figurative" camp concede that the shadow of the Balrog is mutable: after
all, the figure of speech only makes sense if the shadow actually reached
like wings and then
spread from wall to wall. In this they
are right. They go wrong only when they insist that the description refers
to the size, general motion, and menacing terror of the shadow, but not to
the particular form it took.
For why should we not conclude that the shadow, as plainly described, took the particular form of two vast wings, which the Balrog then spread menacingly from wall to wall? This is the solution to the dilemma. On one hand, it does not require us to believe that Balrogs have wings and yet regularly fall to their deaths. On the other hand, it does not require us to believe that Tolkien would write such a poor metaphor. And the plain meanings (whether descriptive or figurative) of all passages involving Balrogs are preserved: they need not be perverted or amended or explained away by well-meaning Tolkien fans.
Though the dilemma would seem to be solved, there is another point to consider, which seemingly unhinges not only anything Balrogs, the "has wings" camp, or the "figurative" camp might say about the anatomy of Balrogs, but my own arguments also. This point must be raised and laid to rest before anything can be concluded definitely about the Balrog's wings.
In Tolkien's mythology, the Great Ones (
Ainur) are the race of spirits
created in the beginning, who sang the Great Song of the world, the pattern
of its creation. Many then chose to enter into the new world and labor to
bring it to life. The leaders of these are called the Powers (
and the rest who aid them in labor are called the Hands (
are merely clothing to the Great Ones, to be put on or dissolved at their
will. The Balrogs are of that race, as are the Wizards or Wise Ones
Istari), and Sauron, Ungoliant, and other powerful characters of
Middle-Earth. This suggests that Balrogs have the power to clothe themselves
at will in any body they choose, rendering moot all arguments about their
Of the Powers, Tolkien wrote that they
took to themselves shape and hue,
may walk, if they will, unclad, and then even the Eldar [elves] cannot
clearly perceive them. (Ainulindalë) Consider the greatest
Great One, Melkor ("Arises In Might"), who rebelled and was named Morgoth
He also took visible form, but because of his mood and
the malice that burned in him that form was dark and terrible. And he descended
upon Arda ["Realm"that is, the Earth] in power and majesty greater
than any other of the Valar, as a mountain that wades in the sea and has
its head above the clouds and is clad in ice and crowned with smoke and fire;
and the light of the eyes of Melkor was like a flame that withers with heat
and pierces with a deadly cold. (Ainulindalë) The same
power is given to the Hands. Arien ("Sunmaid"), the Hand which guides the
vessel of the Sun,
forsook the form and raiment which like the Valar she
had worn there, and she was as a naked flame, terrible in the fullness of
her spendour. (Quenta Silmarillion)
The bodies worn by the Great Ones are not merely reflections of their thought,
but forms of their own choosing. Tolkien wrote that
the shapes wherein
the Great Ones array themselves are not at all times like to the shapes of
the kings and queens of the Children of Ilúvatar; for at times they
may clothe themselves in their own thought, made visible in forms of majesty
and dread. (Ainulindalë) Melkor once
and passed from place to place as a cloud in the hills. (Quenta
Silmarillion) Melkor brought many of the Hands into his evil service,
including Sauron ("The Abhorred"), his chief lieutenant. Sauron, in one battle,
shifted shape, from wolf to serpent, and from monster to his own accustomed
form, and afterward took
the form of a vampire, great as a dark cloud
across the moon; and, at another time in the Third Age,
a mask he
still could wear so that if he wished he might deceive the eyes of Men, seeming
to them wise and fair. (Quenta Silmarillion)
The Balrogs (corruption of
Valaraukar, "Demons of Power") were those
who first adhered to [Melkor] in the days of his splendour, and
became most like him in their corruption: their hearts were of fire, but
they were cloaked in darkness, and terror went before them; they had whips
of flame. (Quenta Silmarillion) Thus their
form reflected that of Melkor, who
began with the desire of Light,
but when he could not possess it for himself alone, he descended through
fire and wrath into a great burning, down into Darkness. And darkness he
used most in his evil works upon Arda, and filled it with fear for all living
So why should the Balrogs be trapped in their
accustomed form and
not simply grow functioning wings when convenient? Because the creative power
can go out of the Great Ones and into their forms, creations, and servants,
leaving them too weak thereafter to take form as they choose.
Consider Melkor (Morgoth), once the greatest of the Powers, who became so
weak that he completely lost his ability to change shape, and feared even
For he was yet as one of the Valar, and could change his form,
or walk unclad, as could his brethren; though that power he was soon to lose
for ever. [...] [A]nd he put on again the form that he had worn as the tyrant
of Utumno: a dark Lord, tall and terrible. In that form he remained ever
after. It was at that time that he gave so much power to Ungoliant ("Gloom
Weaver"), one of the Great Ones in his service, that he became vulnerable
to her and he had to be rescued from her webs by the Balrogs. (Quenta
Silmarillion) And Tolkien writes that
Arien ["Sunmaid"] Morgoth
feared with a great fear, but but dared not come nigh her, having indeed
no more the power; for as he grew in malice, and sent forth from himself
the evil that he conceived in lies and creatures of wickedness, his might
passed into them and was dispersed, and he himself became ever more bound
to the earth [...] (Quenta Silmarillion)
Of Sauron Tolkien says his body was destroyed more than once, to be reformed
each time at the expense of his own power. Notably,
he brooded in the
dark, until he had wrought for himself a new shape; and it was terrible,
for his fair semblance had departed for ever when he was cast into the abyss
at the drowning of Númenor. (Quenta Silmarillion)
It is also said of Sauron that he sought to regain the One Ring for the reason
that he had put much of his own power into it and was too weak without it
to dominate Middle-Earth. (FOtR)
So it can be concluded that the Balrogs are never said to change shape because they, like their kin and masters Melkor and Sauron, committed so much of their power to their own terrible forms and weapons that they were unable to appear in any other guise thereafter.
I wrote to Mark Fisher, creator of the award-winning site, The Encyclopedia of Arda, praising his Balrogs entry and welcoming his comments on my article above. He responded, graciously offering to link his article to mine.
He said he intended to describe the controversy evenhandedly, not to take
a forceful position. Still,
makes definite assertions. It argues that the Balrog's wings can only be
functional limbs or simile.
The debate normally focuses on arguments about
which of these two obvious interpretations is the correct one.
It leans heavily to the view that the Balrog's wings cannot have been functional,
leaving them to be a mere figure of speech.
Mark agreed it is hard to avoid my conclusion that the Balrog's shadow took on the actual form of huge wings, but he also had an interesting new point to make in defense of the "figurative" camp: Tolkien frequently connects metaphorical wings to storms, and may have done so in the passages under study. I answered this argument in the letter excerpted below.
Mark generously responded again. He agreed my analysis of Tolkien's use of the wing metaphor may well be right, though not unassailable. He observed that, in his third example, the spread of the wings of storm over the Emyn Muil is not so unlike the spread of the Balrog's wings. This I conceded in my reply.
In the end, I remain confident that my reading is correct because (i) it is direct rather than counterintuitive, (ii) it requires no elaborate apologetics and inventions in its defense, and (iii) it does not lead to the sort of elementary inconsistencies that Tolkien took great pains to avoid in his writing. That is, it pretty well makes moot the objections in both camps.
Commentary is welcomed.