[Webmaster's note: this essay is intended to be an unbiased presentation of all sides of the question, and it is my opinion that it does an admirable job of it. However, a perfectly unbiased treatment is impossible, so because of the contentious nature of this question it is worth reading the Appendix to make yourself aware of the author's potential prejudices.

Moreover, it may be worth reading some other discussions of the topic for balance. My Tolkien Newsgroups FAQ includes a consensus statement and a short summary of the debate. Michael Martinez has written a firmly pro-wing essay. And the Encyclopedia of Arda includes a balanced but somewhat anti-wing discussion. Finally, it may be interesting to visit the Google Groups archive to read the discussion that this essay inspired.]


So you think you have the answer? It is all so clear to you? There is a passage in the books which clearly proves once and for all that Balrogs did/did not have wings? Could or could not fly?

Chances are it has been brought up before and the debate still rages. Before jumping in and 'proclaiming the obvious' you might want to check the list of arguments below. I've attempted to capture as many of the common ideas as possible, and yet I've surely still missed many. However, this material should serve as a strong foundation in just why these questions remain matters of debate.

To facilitate in the use of this text as a reference (and also keep it all straight in my head) I have grouped the arguments around particular quotations that they relate to and listed these quotations at the start of each section.

  1. Its wings were spread from wall to wall
  2. They passed with winged speed
  3. Flying from Thangorodrim
  4. The shadow of the Balrog
  5. The troll-guard of Gothmog
  6. In his train were Balrogs
  7. Ran down swifter than Balrogs
  8. Out of reach of Orc and Balrog
  9. Had yet assailed the air
  10. Whereby he might learn to fly
  11. They could see the furnace-fire of its yellow eyes
  12. Nor speaks of the 'wings'

Individual sections

  1. Its wings were spread from wall to wall (aka The Bridge of Khazad-dum)

    It all begins with a single passage in LotR;

    "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

    Those who believe that Balrogs have wings often argue that the debate should begin and end with this passage, but there is another just before it which is the source of the opposing view;

    "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-Dum

    The argument here is that as this text states that the 'shadow' about the Balrog reached out LIKE two vast wings it must be a simile and thus not ACTUAL wings. As these 'wings' are thus taken for a simile referring to the shadow the later reference to the Balrog's wings being spread from wall to wall is considered a metaphor referring back to this 'shadow which is like wings but is not wings'.

    An example of this 'simile to metaphor' progression can be seen in;

    "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

    The passage 'great trunks ran like pillars' is a simile comparing the tree-trunks to pillars of a hall ('roofed by the boughs'). Then later the 'tree-pillars' are a metaphor referring back to these trunks. The 'non-wings' view is that the 'shadow like wings' and 'wings from wall to wall' are a simile and metaphor in the same relation.

    Another example of this which is often cited comes from two lines in RotK - Battle of the Pelennor Fields;

    "...Easterlings with axes, and Variags of Khand, Southrons in scarlet, and out of Far Harad black men like half-trolls with white eyes and red tongues."

    This shows a simile describing the "men" of Far Harad as being "like half-trolls".

    "East rode the knights of Dol Amroth driving the enemy before them: troll-men and Variags and orcs that hated the sunlight."

    Now these same beings are referred to metaphorically as "troll-men" because of the earlier simile referring to their appearance. It is sometimes argued that these might be two different groups; men of Far Harad who were LIKE half-trolls and some other group of ACTUAL troll-men. Likewise, a similar argument is sometimes put forward for the wings; that the shadow was LIKE wings but that the Balrog also had actual wings which were revealed later.

    A variation of this later argument is sometimes called the 'vagueness to clarity' view. Effectively, it suggests that Tolkien is saying 'the shadow was like wings' because it was dark and obscured and the fellowship could not make it out. Then, when the Balrog came closer Tolkien says simply 'wings' because they could now see it clearly. An example of this sort of presentation is;

    "Before his feet they saw a large round hole like the mouth of a well. Broken and rusty chains lay at the edge and trailed down into the black pit. Fragments of stone lay near.

    'One of you might have fallen in and still be wondering when you were going to strike the bottom,' said Aragorn to Merry. 'Let the guide go first while you have one.'

    'This seems to have been a guardroom, made for the watching of the three passages,' said Gimli. `That hole was plainly a well for the guards' use, covered with a stone lid."
    FotR, A Journey in the Dark

    Here the fellowship sees a 'hole like the mouth of a well'. Under the 'simile > metaphor' view this would indicate that the hole was NOT actually the mouth of a well... yet Gimli thereafter states that it was. The purpose of the hole was originally vague, but then made clear as they got closer and Gimli's experience was brought to bear. There is a similar passage referring to wings and shadows;

    "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

    This differs slightly in that the shadow is stated definitively, but its SHAPE is described as being 'like wings'. The shape is unclear and hence 'vagueness'. Then, when the eagle swoops down it is clear that the shadow was indeed cast by wings though they are not explicitly mentioned in this case.

    These passages show that Tolkien used BOTH the 'simile > metaphor' and 'vagueness > clarity' constructions, and thus the Balrog passages could well have been either.

    A final variation of the 'pro wings' explanation for the two passages considered together is that the Balrog might have been changing shape... at first it had no wings, but it began to form them in the first passage and they were fully present in the second. The issue of whether Balrogs COULD change their shape in this fashion was dealt with separately in Volume Five.

    It is sometimes possible to reach a certain degree of consensus on the 'wings' question by agreeing that any shadow which was present looked like 'wings' and any wings which were present were formed of some sort of 'shadow'. A 'palpable darkness' which took the form of wings either temporarily or always. Still, some believe that the wings should be leathery flesh and blood rather than 'shadow-stuff', and thus it does not work for everyone.

    Note: I have left out the details of a common counter-argument which says that the 'simile to metaphor' interpretation is self-defeating, as every time I have seen it the argument has been based on an incorrect application of the logic. The Balrog is said to be 'like a great shadow', which would mean that 'the Balrog is not a shadow' under the simile > metaphor reasoning just as this leads to 'the shadow is not wings'. It does NOT mean that there is nothing LIKE a shadow present any more than the shadow not being wings means that there is nothing LIKE wings present.

    Moving on to what this section says about the ability of Balrogs to fly we find the usual evidence on either side of this point... that is, not much of anything at all.

    That the Balrog didn't fly is often suggested as evidence that it couldn't fly. However, there are numerous objections presented to this interpretation which will be detailed later in this document.

  2. They passed with winged speed (aka The Hithlum Passage)

    "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

    Once again the argument is simply that this passage should be read to say that the Balrogs flew with wings. While this is certainly a reasonable interpretation it is by no means a certain one. In the absence of outside confirmation the opposing view (that this passage indicates that the Balrogs 'arose' from their long wait or the 'vaults far beneath Angband', traveled very quickly through Hithlum and arrived in Lammoth wrapped in their flames) is equally reasonable.

    The key terms suggesting flight are 'arose', 'passed over', 'winged speed' and 'tempest'... each of which CAN be taken as indicative of flight, but each of which is also used in other ways;

    "Now the Lady [Galadriel] arose, and Celeborn led them back to the hythe."
    FotR, Farewell to Lorien
    "At length they [Aragorn and company] arose, and took their leave of the Lady, and thanked her for her care, and went to their rest."
    RotK, The Passing of the Grey Company
    "Of their [Isildur and company] journey nothing is told until they had passed over the Dagorlad, and on northward into the wide and empty lands south of Greenwood the Great."
    UT, The Disaster of the Gladden Fields
    "A short way back the road had bent a little northward and the stretch that they [Frodo and Sam] had passed over was now screened from sight."
    RotK, The Land of Shadow
    "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
    "Then the Orcs screamed, waving spear and sword, and shooting a cloud of arrows at any that stood revealed upon the battlements; and the men of the Mark amazed looked out, as it seemed to them, upon a great dark field of corn, tossed by a tempest of war, and every ear glinted with barbed light."
    TT, Helm's Deep
    "Like a crash of tempest the guard of the Wing were amid the men of the Mole, and these were stricken asunder."
    BoLT2, The Fall of Gondolin
    "Then tumult awoke, a tempest wild
    in rage roaring that rocked the walls;
    consuming madness seized on Morgoth"
    LoB, Second Version of the Children of Hurin ~216

    There are several other examples of battles and troops being described as 'storms' or 'winds' (as Fingolfin was in the Silmarillion quotation above) in Tolkien's writings. In all these cases (unless we are to assume that the Balrogs actually transformed into a meteorological event) the term is being used as a metaphor, and the degree of comparison is between the actual and metaphorical is impossible to determine. A tempest of fire could be anything from a literal firestorm (and NOT a metaphor) to several flames moving quickly... a host of Balrogs charging into battle certainly qualifies, with no need that they be airborne or in the form of clouds.

    As for 'winged speed', I have been unable to find any other case in which Tolkien used this phrase, but there are several examples of its non flight related use in other sources;

    "O! what excuse will my poor beast then find,
    When swift extremity can seem but slow?
    Then should I spur, though mounted on the wind,
    In winged speed no motion shall I know,
    Then can no horse with my desire keep pace..."
    William Shakespeare, Sonnet 51

    "My beautiful! my beautiful! that standest meekly by.
    With thy proudly-arched and glossy neck, and dark and fiery eye!
    Fret not to roam the desert now with all thy winged speed:
    I may not mount on thee again - thou'rt sold, my Arab steed!"
    Caroline Norton, The Arab's Farewell to his Steed

    "But when he fell, with winged speed,
    His champions, on a milk-white steed,
    From the battle's hurricane,
    Bore him to Joseph's towered fane,
    In the fair vale of Avalon"
    Thomas Warton, The Grave of King Arthur

    "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

    "It was too late; he [a human] left street after street behind him with his almost winged speed, as he sought the fields, where he might give way unobserved to all the deep despair he felt."
    Elizabeth Gaskell, 'Mary Barton'

    Tolkien himself does use just 'winged' in a figurative sense;

    "There now she stepped with elven pace,
    bending and swaying in her grace,
    as half-reluctant; then began
    to dance, to dance: in mazes ran
    bewildering, and a mist of white
    was wreathed about her whirling flight.
    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

    Tolkien also used each of these terms, except 'winged speed', in passages clearly referring to flying creatures. I have not included these here as I have never seen anyone argue that they COULDN'T refer to flight. Still, one particular case is noteworthy as it uses the same 'tempest of fire' phrase in reference to winged dragons;

    "So sudden and ruinous was the onset of that dreadful fleet that Fionwe was driven back; for the coming of the dragons was like a great roar of thunder, and a tempest of fire, and their wings were of steel."
    LROW, Quenta Silmarillion - Conclusion ~17

    The only passage I have been able to find (anywhere) where 'winged speed' is clearly used of creatures which actually have wings is;

    "So spake the Son; but Satan, with his Powers,
    Far was advanced on winged speed; an host
    Innumerable as the stars of night..."
    Milton, Paradise Lost

    Once it has been thoroughly demonstrated that none of the terms in the so called 'Hithlum passage' speaks unambiguously of flight it is sometimes suggested that the particular combination of them all together in one sentence indicates that flight was the intent. The equally valid counter-argument is that Tolkien was using these terms as imagery to poetically describe the swiftness of the Balrogs' travel. Either interpretation is possible. There is also one external passage which contains 'arose' and 'passed over' in the same relation Tolkien used them, but in reference to a human;

    "And David arose, and he passed over with the six hundred men that were with him unto Achish, the son of Maoch, king of Gath"
    Samuel 27.2

    As a side note, Tolkien wrote several versions of the Hithlum passage. These are of some relevance as they describe the matter in somewhat different terms;

    "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

    In most of these there is nothing to suggest flight. Only in the final forms of the scene, dating to the mid through late 1950s, do the 'pro-flight' terms (arose, passed over, winged speed, and tempest) appear. This could indicate that Tolkien decided to grant Balrogs flight in later years, or only that he used the terms figuratively. The presence of the land-bound Orcs in earlier versions is sometimes used to offset claims that only flying creatures could have gotten to Morgoth in time. The passage in The Silmarillion was apparently edited from the original text given in Morgoth's Ring, though it is possible that there was another closely related version of the passage used in The Silmarillion.

  3. Flying from Thangorodrim

    "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

    As with the first passage the argument is that this should be read to say that the Balrog flew away from Thangorodrim and leave it at that. Placed against this is the fact that 'flying' can mean 'fleeing', and that the term was frequently used in that manner by Tolkien;

    "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

    "Out of the gloom came suddenly the shape of a flying deer."
    TH, Flies and Spiders

    "Already many of the goblins were flying back down the river to escape from the trap; and many of their own wolves were turning upon them and rending the dead and the wounded."
    TH, The Clouds Burst

    "'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

    "'There is no sound outside here yet,' said Aragorn, who was standing by the eastern door listening. 'The passage on this side plunges straight down a stair: it plainly does not lead back towards the hall. But it is no good flying blindly this way with the pursuit just behind."
    FotR, The Bridge of Khazad-Dum

    "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

    It seems clear that Tolkien did not intend movement through the air in any of these latter quotations, and thus that the Balrog 'flying from Thangorodrim' might well have referred to the fact of it's escape rather than the mode.

  4. The shadow of the Balrog

    "Soon it appeared as a great winged creature, blacker than the pits in the night. Fierce voices rose up to greet it from across the water. Frodo felt a sudden chill running through him and clutching at his heart; there was a deadly cold, like the memory of an old wound, in his shoulder.

    . . .

    'But who can say what it hit?' said Legolas.

    'I cannot,' said Gimli. `But I am glad that the shadow came no nearer. I liked it not at all. Too much it reminded me of the shadow in Moria - the shadow of the Balrog,' he ended in a whisper.

    'It was not a Balrog,' said Frodo, still shivering with the chill that had come upon him. 'It was something colder. I think it was -' Then he paused and fell silent."

    The argument here is that Gimli's comparison of the 'Winged Nazgul' to a Balrog and Frodo's denial suggest that the Balrog must also have been winged, and possibly capable of flight. However, what Gimli actually says is that it reminded him of the shadow of the Balrog... which would not require the Balrog to have been winged at all - the two creatures could have similarly imposing 'shadows' without being the same shape. At that, Frodo seems clearly to guess that it was a Nazgul, noting that his old wound acted up, despite knowing full well that the Nazgul were not winged. If Frodo could come to such a conclusion based upon his impressions of the 'shadow' despite the inappropriate shape then it stands to reason that Gimli could as well... to him the shadow seemed most similar to the Balrog, and we can't really read anything more into that with any degree of certainty.

  5. The troll-guard of Gothmog

    "Then he cast aside his shield, and wielded an axe two-handed; and it is sung that the axe smoked in the black blood of the troll-guard of Gothmog until it withered..."
    Silm, Of the Fifth Battle

    The argument put forward here is that if Gothmog was guarded by land-bound trolls he must also have been land-bound. This seems a strong argument unless he was capable of flight, but rarely did so. However, this text appears only in the published Silmarillion, which was edited by Christopher Tolkien to 'line up' the various drafts and LotR. The VERY few references to 'trolls' in the draft materials for The Silmarillion might be taken as figurative descriptions (Morgoth calls Turgon a 'troll' for instance') as the creatures themselves are never seen, and it is thus entirely possible that Christopher inserted this bit himself to introduce LotR's trolls into the earlier stories. In several earlier variants of this passage Hurin is pulled down by Orcs. Still, it is also possible that JRRT made this change himself on a late manuscript which was used for the published version.

  6. In his train were 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 wingless and flightless it is suggested that Balrogs being 'in his train' implies that they were the same. However, they might only have been remaining on the ground to stay near the dragon.

    Unlike the previous passage this does have a variant outside of The Silmarillion to confirm that the wording originated with JRRT;

    "In the front of that fire came Glomund the golden, the father of dragons, and in his train were Balrogs, and behind them came the black armies of the Orcs in multitudes such as the Gnomes had never before seen or imagined."
    LROW, Quenta Silmarillion - Of the Ruin of Beleriand ~135

  7. Ran down swifter than Balrogs

    "Then suddenly Morgoth sent forth great rivers of flame that ran down swifter than Balrogs from Thangorodrim..."
    Silm, Of the Ruin of Beleriand

    This is taken to suggest that the Balrogs could run very quickly and thus again implying that they were flightless. However, this passage was apparently derived by Christopher from a similar early text;

    "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

    The reference to 'cavalry' is due to early accounts where the Balrogs rode into battle on dragons. This would again put them on the ground, but does not suggest that 'running' was their usual method of travel and does not preclude them having wings or being able to fly.

  8. Out of reach of Orc and Balrog

    "The eagles dwell out of reach of Orc and Balrog, and are great foes of Morgoth and his people."
    SoME, The Earliest 'Silmarillion' ~8

    While this seems a strong argument against Balrogs flying it might be argued that they could only fly short distances, and thus not reach the heights of the Eagles' eyries. It is more commonly suggested that this was an 'outdated' idea, though there is no account of the Eagles ever being opposed in the air until the coming of the winged dragons.

  9. Had yet assailed the air

    "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 - Conclusion ~17

    Here the Balrogs were clearly unable to fly... they were at that time still considered creations of Morgoth's and thus 'creatures of his cruel thought'. Yet that very age is again the basis for the argument against this passage; that it speaks of an earlier form of Balrogs.

    Still, we have here the only unambiguous passage on this subject. At one point the Balrogs could not fly. It is entirely possible that Tolkien later changed his mind about this, but the earlier situation seems clear. These earlier Balrogs might still have had wings, though as they could not fly and there are no contemporary texts describing them with such it seems unlikely. This text was written in 1937 and actually submitted to the publishers, but while not rejecting it out of hand A&U asked for 'more about hobbits'... and Tolkien began work on what would become LotR immediately thereafter.

  10. Whereby he might learn to fly

    "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

    This passage from an early stage of the mythology indicates that Melkor could not fly and thus perhaps that other Ainur like the Balrogs could not, but might also be taken to imply that Manwe could (though that portion could also refer to Manwe's Eagles themselves). It might also be seen as further support for Melkor's lack of any flying troops, but as usual the possibility remains that this was changed later.

    Note that while it is sometimes suggested that Ainur might be able to fly without wings this passage is the only one I know of which can be read to suggest that they did so... and then only for Manwe and specifically NOT for Melko.

  11. They could see the furnace-fire of its yellow eyes

    There are so many passages regarding Balrogs which do NOT mention wings or flight in any way that this document would more than double in length to list them all. Instead, I will start with one that is possibly the most detailed description and one of the chronologically latest in origin;

    "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

    This is the first detailed draft of the Balrog scene from FotR. There are several items of note here;

    1. There is no mention of a shadow
    2. The Balrog is seen clearly and details are described
    3. There is no mention of wings
    4. It is no more than man-high
    5. It runs and jumps rather than flying

    While it is often argued that the Balrog in FotR did not fly because it did not have sufficient room this earlier version makes the Balrog comparatively small. Also, that the Balrog was able to enter the Chamber of Mazarbul suggests either that it was not gigantic or that it was able to change its size (again, see Volume Five for the pros and cons of that issue). The description of its size and shape went through several changes;

    "The Balrog when first seen beyond the fiery fissure is described as 'of man-shape maybe, and not much larger' (cf. pp. 197, 199). The fair copy C has here likewise 'and not much greater' (FR: 'of man-shape maybe, yet greater')"

    Only in the final form, which is also when 'the wings spread from wall to wall' was added, is it stated to be unambiguously larger than human - though not how much so.

    Further, against the description cited above Tolkien included a note to himself;

    "Alter description of Balrog. It seemed to be of man's shape, but its form could not be plainly discerned. It felt larger than it looked."
    ToI, The Bridge

    This would suggest that even the Balrog of the final version might not have been as large as it seemed, but Tolkien could also have abandoned the idea entirely. Ultimately, we don't know and thus the 'not enough room' argument remains a possibility for the final form of this scene.

    In any case it is also argued that even if it had room to do so perhaps the Balrog did not want to fly, that it did not fear falling into the chasm. However, in the earliest outline (after Tolkien decides that it should be a Balrog rather than a Nazgul in Moria) it seems to be implied that the fall would be fatal and that Gandalf survives by thrusting the Balrog beneath him;

    "They are pursued by goblins and a B[lack] R[ider] [written above: a Balrog] after escaping from Balin's Tomb - they come to a bridge of slender stone over a gulf. Gandalf turns back and holds off [?enemy], they cross the bridge but the B[lack] R[ider] leaps forward and wrestles with Gandalf. The bridge cracks under them and the last they see is Gandalf falling into the pit with the B[lack] R[ider]. There is a flash of fire and blue light up from abyss. Their grief. Trotter now guides party. (Of course Gandalf must reappear later - probably fall is not as deep as it seemed. Gandalf thrusts Balrog under him and so....... and eventually following the subterranean stream in the gulf he found a way out."
    RotS, The Mines of Moria

    Further, in all versions, the Balrog cries out when the bridge breaks;

    "With a terrible cry the Balrog fell forward, and its shadow plunged down and vanished."
    FotR, The Bridge of Khazad-dum

    "With a terrible cry the troll fell after it, and the Balrog [?tumbled] sideways with a yell and fell into the chasm."
    ToI, The Bridge

    As the Balrog is not yet injured (another common reason given for why the Moria Balrog or Glorfindel's did not fly away when the fight went against them) these passages would seem to suggest that if it could have flown, it would have. Likewise, other Balrogs in earlier tales did not fly in circumstances where they ought to have if they could;

    "Then the Balrogs continued to shoot darts of fire and flaming arrows like small snakes into the sky, and these fell upon the roofs and gardens of Gondolin till all the trees were scorched, and the flowers and grass burned up, and the whiteness of those walls and colonnades was blackened and seared: yet a worse matter was it that a company of those demons climbed upon the coils of the serpents of iron and thence loosed unceasingly from their bows and slings till a fire began to burn in the city to the back of the main army of the defenders.
    A great deed was that sally, as the Noldoli sing yet, and many of the Orcs were borne backward into the fires below; but the men of Rog leapt even upon the coils of the serpents and came at those Balrogs and smote them grievously... and the number of Balrogs that perished was a marvel and dread to the hosts of Melko..."
    BoLT2, The Fall of Gondolin

    Here, the Balrogs must climb up onto dragons to shoot over the walls of Gondolin, and indeed much of the battle was a struggle to breach the walls - suggesting that these thousands of Balrogs were incapable of simply flying over them. Further, when the Elves charged down onto them the Balrogs did not fly away to escape, but were actually killed. They were not injured, there was plenty of air room, they had every reason to fly... but of couse, these were Balrogs in the early stories and the argument that Tolkien might have changed their nature later still applies.

    In the final analysis at least one of the four common explanations for Balrogs NOT flying is possible for every situation in which they do not;

    1. Insufficient room to fly
    2. Too injured to fly
    3. Had no reason to fly at that time
    4. Was an early period 'pre-flying' Balrog

    Still, there is a tremendous amount of 'not flying' material throughout Tolkien's many versions of the mythologies, accompanied by an equal amount of text where there is no mention of wings. Even if Tolkien DID decide to make Balrogs winged in later years there would have been alot of material to rework to account for this change.

  12. Nor speaks of the 'wings'

    One last issue seldom explored is the way that Christopher Tolkien treats the issue of Balrog wings;

    "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 itelf 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'"
    ToI, The Bridge

    There are two items of particular note here;

    1. Christopher refers to the "'wings'"
    2. The 'shadow like wings' were around GANDALF

    The use of single quotations (' ') to set off a word is a common method, used elsewhere by both JRRT and Christopher, to suggest that the term is in some way invalid or uncertain. That Christopher uses it of the 'wings' might thus be taken to suggest that he considers them a figurative feature. However, that is by no means a certainty though the purpose of the ' ' separation is not otherwise apparent.

    Along these lines it is also noted that IF the various Silmarillion passages quoted earlier (The troll-guard of Gothmog, In his train were Balrogs, Ran down swifter than Balrogs and even the Silmarillion variant of 'They passed with winged speed') were edited by Christopher then he seems to have consistently made alterations that would favor wingless and/or non-flying Balrogs. If these weren't so edited then they came in that form from JRRT and would be even more supportive of that view.

    As to the second point, as Christopher describes it;

    "The second him is Gandalf, not only from the syntax, but also because the Balrog is always referred to as it. FR has 'the shadow about it'."
    ToI, The Bridge - Note 17

    While there are a few stray references in later books where the Balrog is referred to as 'he' (by Gandalf rather than the narrator) Christopher is essentially correct that 'it' is the usual pronoun and grammatically 'he' should refer to Gandalf. That the 'shadow like wings' originally appeared as the darkness split around Gandalf's light shows clearly that this phrase cannot ONLY be read as a 'vague' pre-description of the wings, it was originally used to describe a shadow effect around Gandalf and not the Balrog at all. Nor did the 'wings spread from wall to wall' appear in that version where the 'shadow wings' were around Gandalf.

    Likewise, the 'shadow' itself was originally much more limited in scope, introduced as an aside during the Moria drafts, and then expanded to an inherent characteristic of the Balrogs;

    "After the words 'Through the air it sprang over the fiery fissure' my father added: 'and a great shadow seemed to black out the light.'"
    ToI, The Bridge

    This is the first reference to 'shadow' in relation to Balrogs, none had ever been mentioned in any of the descriptions before this. So, the Balrog's description in the LotR drafts proceeded from;

    1. No shadow and no wings like all Balrogs before this
    2. As above but casting a shadow that blocked out light
    3. Wrapped in shadow that split about Gandalf like wings
    4. Wrapped in shadow that seemed to look like wings

    It might be supposed that in writing of the 'shadow wings' Tolkien was struck by the idea and decided to make it a feature of the Balrog. However, if so it must have occurred to him that he had a great deal of material already written which could not support the idea of winged or flying Balrogs. While entirely speculative (though consistent with the evolution of the passage) this might explain the inconclusive wording he used in both this and the Hithlum passage. It is possible that Tolkien liked the idea of winged (and flying) Balrogs, but never specifically made them so because he had not worked out how or whether he could revise all the older texts to conform to this idea... Or perhaps he just liked the imagery for the scene and had no intention of making a permanent change... Or he intended the change, but did not state it distinctly enough to convince all his readers that it was what he meant to do. We really don't know.


Ultimately the texts are ambiguous, and no amount of proclaiming that they must be read a certain way is going to change anyone's mind or alter the fact that many examples can be found of the same phrases and linguistic structures being used in other ways. As such, the best course might well be to respect the possibility of the opposing views and strive to gather as much evidence as possible on every side of the discussion.

This essay copyright © by Conrad Dunkerson.
<conrad.dunkerson -aaaatt- worldnet -daht- att -daht- net>
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