Balrogs – flying high?

Whether Balrogs had wings is maybe the most contentious issue Tolkien left behind him. It is the one thing on which every Tolkien fan has an opinion – and usually a die-hard opinion which is *right* whatever others may think.

So why is this such a huge issue? Why is the winged or wingless state of a big demon killed by Gandalf such a huge problem?

Firstly, I would suspect, because everyone likes Balrogs. Big demons. Fiery whips. Pointy teeth. Secondly, because while there truly is no right answer – Tolkien left enough clues for people to speculate and form opinions. And thirdly, because Tolkien himself changed his mind about Balrogs so much. The opinion one would form about them can change drastically from “The Silmarillion” to “The Lord of the Rings”, and then beyond into Tolkien’s writings in “The History of Middle-earth”.

We already have an article about Balrogs, their numbers, their weapons etc. A link is here.

So this article will consider solely the arguments concerning wings.

The evidence

So here is the evidence we have.

From “The Silmarillion”:

“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.” p94

“Long he fought on, and undismayed, though he was wrapped in fire and wounded with many wounds; but at last he was smitten to the ground by Gothmog, Lord of Balrogs,” p126

“great rivers of flame that ran down swifter than Balrogs from Thangorodrim,… came Glaurung the golden, father of dragons, in his full might; and in his train was Balrogs,” p181

“The Balrogs were destroyed, save some few that fled and hid themselves in caverns inaccessable at the roots of the earth;” p303

“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 before seen or imagined.”

“[…] 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” (“Of Tuor and the Fall of Gondolin”)

From “The Fellowship of the Ring”:

“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…”
FotR, The Bridge of Khazad-Dum

“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.”
FotR, The Bridge of Khazad-dûm

From “The Two Towers”:

“A great smoke rose about us, vapour and steam. Ice fell like rain. I threw down my enemy, and he fell from the high place and broke the mountain-side where he smote it in his ruin. Then darkness took me; and I strayed out of thought and time, and I wandered far on roads that I will not tell.” (“The White Rider”)

From LotR Appendices:

“Thus they roused from sleep a thing of terror that, flying from Thangorodrim, had lain hidden at the foundations of the earth since the coming of the Host of the West: a Balrog of Morgoth.”
RotK, Appendix A.III – Durin’s Folk

From HoME:

“But he loosed upon his foes the last desperate assault that he had prepared, and out of the pits of Angband there issued the winged dragons, that had not before been seen; for until that day no creatures of his cruel thought had yet assailed the air.”
LROW, Quenta Silmarillion

“Then suddenly Morgoth sent forth great rivers of flame that poured, swifter than the cavalry of the Balrogs, over all the plain; and the Mountains of Iron belched forth fires of many colours, and the fume stank upon the air and was deadly.
LROW, Quenta Silmarillion – Of the Ruin of Beleriand

“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.”
MR, The Later Quenta Silmarillion II

“The eagles dwell out of reach of Orc and Balrog, and are great foes of Morgoth and his people.”
SoME, The Earliest ‘Silmarillion

“Then arose Thorndor, King of Eagles, and he loved not Melko, for Melko had caught many of his kindred and chained them against sharp rocks to squeeze from them the magic words whereby he might learn to fly (for he dreamed of contending even against Manwe in the air); and when they would not tell he cut off their wings and sought to fashion therefrom a mighty pair for his use, but it availed not.”
BoLT2, The Fall of Gondolin

“A figure strode to the fissure, no more than man-high yet terror seemed to go before it. They could see the furnace-fire of its yellow eyes from afar; its arms were very long; it had a red [?tongue]. Through the air it sprang over the fiery fissure. The flames leaped up to greet it and wreathed about it. Its streaming hair seemed to catch fire, and the sword that it held turned to flame. In its other hand it held a whip of many thongs.

The fiery figure ran across the floor.”
ToI, The Bridge

The interpretations

Now the evidence has been displayed, what can be made of it all?

1) Wings from wall to wall

Let’s start from what most people consider the two most important of the quotes:

“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…”
FotR, The Bridge of Khazad-dûm

Pro-wings people often consider that the debate starts and ends with just that quote. Tolkien says wings! What else is there to worry about?

But it’s not so easy. Consider the second of these quotes, from just before the first one:

“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.”
FotR, The Bridge of Khazad-dûm

Huh. Here Tolkien says *like* two vast wings. Doesn’t that mean they weren’t wings? Just *like* wings? How do we reconcile those two quotes? Well – we don’t. We can’t. And there lies the crux of the difficulty. It’s impossible for us to second-guess what Tolkien truly meant.

Pro-wings – The pro-wing case is quite easy to put forward here. Balrogs had wings. Tolkien said so. And the shadow was like two vast wings because there actually were two large wings!

Anti-wings – Tolkien said the shadow were *like* wings. Not wings. And he said that the shadow was *like* wings first, so that that interpretation should be continued on to the succeeding paragraph. Thus, the wings spread from wall to wall should be considered a metaphor in terms of that previous simile.

Let’s consider this position some more. The use of a simile / metaphor pairing is common literary device used through LotR, as shown in these examples:

“There the green floor ran on into the wood, and formed a wide space like a hall, roofed by the boughs of trees. Their great trunks ran like pillars down each side. In the middle there was a wood-fire blazing, and upon the tree-pillars torches with lights of gold and silver were burning steadily.”
FotR, Three is Company

In this, the phrase “great trunks ran like pillars” is a simile that compares the tree trunks to the pillars supporting a more conventional hall. Then later the tree-pillars are a metaphor referring back to these trunks. The anti-wing view is that the “shadow like wings” and “wings from wall to wall” are a simile and metaphor in this same relation.

However … as always, there is another way to look at this idea of simile and metaphor, and that supports the pro-wings faction.

“Suddenly a shadow, like the shape of great wings, passed across the moon. The figure lifted his arms and a light flashed from the staff that he wielded. A mighty eagle swept down and bore him away.”
FotR, In the House of Tom Bombadil

Here we have a shadow, shaped like wings, that is resolved to be the wings of an eagle as the subject approaches. Could this argument work for the Balrog as well? Perhaps the wings are shown initially as shadows because of the distance of the Fellowship from the creature, but as he moves closer, the shadows are revealed as wings.

A compromise – For once, with these two quotes it is possible to suggest a compromise position. Perhaps the Balrog did have wings – but wings of shadow. So, it would have wings, just not wings of flesh and blood. Wings formed rather of shadow and darkness.

2) Swiftly they arose

Another set of quotes concerns not wings directly, but more about whether the Balrogs could fly. Presumably, then, if the Balrogs could fly, then they must have had wings.

But again, this isn’t as easy to prove as one might imagine. The main quote concerning this comes from “The Silmarillion”:

“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.”

They “arose” and “passed over” Hithlum. That isn’t exactly clear, is it? While both “arose” and “passed over” *could* imply flight, both could easily imply something different – as we can see from other instances of their use:

“Now the Lady [Galadriel] arose, and Celeborn led them back to the hythe.”
FotR, Farewell to Lórien”

“Then Fingolfin beheld (as it seemed to him) the utter ruin of the Noldor, and the defeat beyond redress of all their houses; and filled with wrath and despair he mounted upon Rochallor his great horse and rode forth alone, and none might restrain him. He passed over Dor-nu-Fauglith like a wind amid the dust, and all that beheld his onset fled in amaze, thinking that Orome himself was come…”
Silm, Of the Ruin of Beleriand

No-one would suggest that Galadriel flew up into the air, just they she simply arose from her seat. Sitting to standing. And Fingolfin – he might have been like the wind, but I think Rochallor remained a normal horse, not a pegasus.

However – didn’t you just know there would be a ‘however’? If the same passage is studied in “Morgoth’s Ring”, the following is seen:

“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.”
MR, The Later Quenta Silmarillion II

This was likely the full text of that bit that was published in “The Silmarillion”. So what can be made of this? Here the Balrogs pass with “winged speed” over Hithlum. Can this mean anything else by travelling by flight?

Unfortunately, yes it can. As Conrad Dunkerson points out, the phrase “winged speed” is used for other purposes in classical literature of the type Tolkien took inspiration from. For example:

“The king is on the waves!
The storm he boldly braves.
His ocean-steed,
With winged speed,
O’er the white-flashing surges,
To England’s coast he urges…”
Einar Skulason, translation of the Saga of Sigurd the Crusader

“Like as a ship, that through the Ocean wyde
Directs her course unto one certaine cost,
Is met of many a counter winde and tyde,
With which her winged speed is let and crost,
And she her selfe in stormie surges tost;
Yet making many a borde, and many a bay,
Still winneth way, ne hath her compasse lost…”
Spencer, The Faerie Queen

Tolkien also uses the word “winged” in a figurative sense elsewhere, e.g.:

Wind-ripples on the water flashed,
and trembling leaf and flower were plashed
with diamond-dews, as ever fleet
and fleeter went her winged feet.”
LoB, The Lay of Leithian Recommenced – Canto III continued, 75

Dunkerson also notes that the phrase “winged speed” is found as unequivocally involving flight in very few places in classical literature.

Evolution of the winged speed

It is interesting here to study the way that particular passage from Morgoth’s Ring was formed through Tolkien’s mythology. We have:

“She enmeshes him in a black web, but he is rescued by the Balrogs with whips of flame, and a host of the Orcs; and Ungoliant goes away into the uttermost South.”
SoME, The Earliest ‘Silmarillion’

“…and his awful cry echoed through the shuddering world. To his aid came the Orcs and Balrogs that lived yet in the lowest places of Angband. With their whips of flame the Balrogs smote the webs asunder…”
SoME, The Quenta

“…and his awful cry echoed through the shuddering world. To his aid there came the Balrogs that lived yet in the deepest places of his ancient fortress, Utumno in the North. With their whips of flame the Balrogs smote the webs asunder…”
LROW, Quenta Silmarillion

“…and his dreadful cry echoed through the world. Then there came to his aid the Balrogs, who endured still in deep places in the North where the Valar had not discovered them. With their whips of flame they smote her webs asunder…”
MR, The Annals of Aman (section 5)

“…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 swiftly they rose, and passing over Hithlum they came to Lammoth as a tempest of fire…”
Silm, Of the Flight of the Noldor

And none of these, in can be seen, involve any notions of flight. It seems that only in the latest draft did Tolkien put even anything ambiguous in involving the Balrogs having wings. Did he suddenly decide that he wished Balrogs to be winged? Did he simply decide he liked using more ambiguous phrases to give the Balrogs ideas of speed and urgency?

3) Fly you fools!

There is also a quote about Balrogs that specifically mentions flying:

“Thus they roused from sleep a thing of terror that, flying from Thangorodrim, had lain hidden at the foundations of the earth since the coming of the Host of the West: a Balrog of Morgoth.”
RotK, Appendix A.III – Durin’s Folk

Pro-wings – Again the argument is clear. Tolkien says “flying”. They flew, dammit! They had wings and used them.

Anti-wings – This quote may seem to invalidate this argument rather easily. But that is not the case. The word “fly” can also be used to mean “flee”, and Tolkien does use this in a good number of places.

flee
v : run away quickly; “He threw down his gun and fled” [syn: fly, take flight]
Source: WordNet ® 2.0, © 2003 Princeton University

Tolkien examples include:

“There were lots of dragons in the North in those days, and gold was probably getting scarce up there, with the dwarves flying south or getting killed, and all the general waste and destruction that dragons make going from bad to worse.”
TH, An Unexpected Party

“‘It can’t be helped, Sam,’ said Frodo sadly. He had suddenly realized that flying from the Shire would mean more painful partings than merely saying farewell to the familiar comforts of Bag End.”
FotR, The Shadow of the Past

“He staggered and fell, grasped vainly at the stone, and slid into the abyss. ‘Fly, you fools! ‘ he cried, and was gone.”
FotR, The Bridge of Khazad-Dum

I think we can safely say that Dwarves, Hobbits and the Fellowship were not expected to physically unfurl wings in these situations and fly. Especially the Dwarves. And the Hobbits after second breakfast. In a similar vein, calling Balrogs winged creatures because of one mention of “flying” is maybe a little overenthusiastic.

4) Of Balrogs and Dragons

In “The Silmarillion”, Balrogs were often associated with Dragons, and there are a number of quotes about Dragons that can be used to infer the qualities of Balrogs.

“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 before seen or imagined.”
Silm, Of the Ruin of Beleriand

As Glaurung was flightless, this quote would seem to suggest that the Balrogs in his train were also grounded.

“But he loosed upon his foes the last desperate assault that he had prepared, and out of the pits of Angband there issued the winged dragons, that had not before been seen; for until that day no creatures of his cruel thought had yet assailed the air.”
LROW, Quenta Silmarillion

Now, this second quote shows the only conclusive evidence we have on Balrogs ability to fly. When Tolkien wrote that, Balrogs did not fly. Dragons were the only creatures of Morgoth to fly.

However – that quote is from an early stage in Tolkien’s writings. Can we accept this as the correct status for Balrogs, as there is no later absolute statement to the contrary? Or should we discount this one quote as simply an early idea that could easily later have been changed.

5) Negative evidence

An equally powerful case can be argued from negative evidence. There are many, many passages and sentences in which Balrogs are not mentioned to have wings, or be able to fly.

One of note through its various stages of the mythology is the following (here in one of the latest evolutions):

“A figure strode to the fissure, no more than man-high yet terror seemed to go before it. They could see the furnace-fire of its yellow eyes from afar; its arms were very long; it had a red [?tongue]. Through the air it sprang over the fiery fissure. The flames leaped up to greet it and wreathed about it. Its streaming hair seemed to catch fire, and the sword that it held turned to flame. In its other hand it held a whip of many thongs.

The fiery figure ran across the floor.”
ToI, The Bridge

Let us examine the Balrog’s movements more closely.

– A figure *strode*
– Through the air it *sprang*

Does that sound as if the creature is flying? Or walking / jumping? Furthermore, a number of mentions of Balrogs in “The Silmarillion” contain ground-based movements:

‘the Orcs went forth to rape and war and Balrog captains marched before.’ (HoME III: The Lays of Beleriand, The Lay of Leithian)

‘Along that narrow way their march was strung, when it was ambushed by an outpost of Morgoth’s power; and a Balrog was their leader.’ (HoME IV: The Shaping of Middle-earth, The Quenta)

5) Big creatures, small cave systems

Balrogs seem to live in subterranean environments – Utumno, Angband and Moria. These do not seem the most sensible places for a being to have good-sized wings.

Size

Give me a bit of time here to build up some arguments. It’ll make sense in the end, I promise.

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

“Before them was another cavernous hall. It was loftier and far longer than the one in which they had slept.”

“He turned left and sped across the smooth floor of the hall. The distance was greater than it had looked.”

“…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 big.

If the chasm is fifty feet wide, 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, its possible to derive a minimum width of the hall somewhere in the region of 75 to 100 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:

“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

(And no, the pillars didn’t literally stalk).

If the Balrog’s wings were real, and spread ‘from wall to wall’, its minimum wingspan must also be somewhere approaching 100 feet – the size of the wings of a small airliner. Really. The C-130 Hercules transport place we see on the news dropping off soldiers around the world has a wingspan of 120 feet.

Wait a moment, hundred feet long wings. On a roughly 7 foot tall creature … Right. Of course, if the wings are just a metaphor referring to the Balrog’s shadow, that would possibly make more sense.

There is another examples of this kind of reasoning, the Chamber of Mazarbul. There’s plenty of textual evidence about the entrance to this room. For example:

“…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…

“…clustered in the doorway.”
The Fellowship of the Ring II 5 The Bridge of Khazad-dûm

This doorway seems to be a fairly narrow opening. But the Balrog manages to follow the orcs into the Chamber through this entrance. If a Balrog is built on aeroplane scale, it could not possibly have used this narrow entrance.

The logic of this seems inescapable – the Balrog needs to be scaled down a bit to get it through the door without a very bad back. He could still be of ‘a great height’, but not that great.

This problem is also shown by the fact that he had to leap across the fissure, and that he stepped onto a bridge 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 behemoth.

So … what? Isn’t this all a bit pedantic? Well, yes. But this question of scale is a real problem for Balrog wings. If the wings that spread from wall to wall were real wings, and the wings were in proportion to the body, 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’ can’t refer to real wings.

Furthermore, even if we scaled these wings down a bit, don’t you think that they would affect the Balrog’s ability to move quickly? Granted, they are Maiar, which must give them powers beyond anything a human could manage, but still, we see a good number of quotes showing the Balrogs’ abilities:

“Already the half had passed the perilous way and the falls of Thorn Sir, when that Balrog that was with the rearward foe leapt with great might on certain lofty rocks that stood into the path on the left side upon the lip of the chasm, and thence with a leap of fury he was past Glorfindel’s men and among the women and the sick in front, lashing with his whip of flame.” (the Book of Lost Tales 2, The Fall of Gondolin)

“Then with a rush it leaped across the fissure.” (The Fellowship of the Ring, The Bridge of Khazad-dûm)

“The dark figure streaming with fire raced towards them.” (ibid)

However, to put the other side of the argument forward, it is also possible to interpret this as a large number of orcs all rushing to pass through a larger passageway, through which a Balrog could also fit.

Furthermore, it’s possible that Balrogs kept some of their Maiar abilities to change shape. They were called ‘spirits of fire’, they were ‘swathed in shadows’. Couldn’t a being partially made of spirit pass through any doorway he wished?

So … what’s the answer, huh?

Good question.

We don’t know. Its as simple as that. It’s up to you to look at the evidence and decide. It’s up to you to look at the chronology of how Balrogs appear in “The Silmarillion” and in “The Lord of the Rings”. To try and get into Tolkien’s head and see whether you think his words were metaphorical or literal.

So I’ll just leave you with a quote from Christopher Tolkien

“I was as a rule not sent the later material from Markette (sic) – the typescripts made by my father – and have never seen them in many cases… Thus the final typescript (following the fair copy manuscript ‘C’, (The Treason of Isengard pp 202-33) of ‘The Bridge of Khazad-dûm’ (Markette no. 3/3/25) I never saw. I presume that it was there that the mention of the Balrog’s wings being spread from wall to wall entered. You could ask Chuck Elston, the infinitely helpful archivist at Markette, to look up 3/3/25 for you. But then it probably wouldn’t be very helpful to you, without any precise knowledge of when my father typed it: although in a letter of 28 February 1949 he wrote that ‘I am finding the labour of typing a fair copy of the “Lord of the Rings” v. great.’ I myself never thought that the second mention of the ‘wings’ of the Balrog had any different signification from the first.”

(report of personal communication with CJRT, http://www.merp.com/essays/MichaelMartinez/flyingaway)

References

– The Lord of the Rings
– The Hobbit
– The Silmarillion
– History of Middle Earth, all volumes

– Skulason, E, “Saga of Sigurd the Crusader”
– Spenser, E, “The Faerie Queen”

Written by Atalante