III. B. Story Internal Questions: Creatures and Characters
- Did Balrogs have wings?
[Conrad Dunkerson has written a much more detailed essay on this question as part of his "The Truth About Balrogs" series, on the web at: http://tolkien.slimy.com/essays/TAB6.html. That page also includes links to other discussions of the issue.]
Debates on this topic have been frequent and intense, in part because people unknowingly interpret the question in very different ways. Most participants in these debates agree on the following:
- The Balrog in Moria had "wings" of some sort, or if you prefer, a "shadow" shaped like wings.
- Those "wings" were probably not made of flesh and blood, but rather of some sort of "dark emanation" or "palpable darkness".
Many of the most intense arguments seem to have resulted from different uses of the word "wing". In this consensus statement, the (quoted) word "wing" is used only as a convenient symbol for the feature of the Balrog under discussion, without reference to any standard definition. In particular, the statement does not specify whether the "palpable darkness" always had a winglike shape.
So what are the different definitions that people use? The Oxford English Dictionary divides its relevant definitions of the word "wing" into two groups. Group I includes definitions that for the most part refer to physical parts of a creature's body. For example, #1.a. is "Each of the organs of flight of any flying animal" (but broadened to include cases where similar organs are not used for flight, such as penguins' wings and even "the enlarged fins of flying fishes").
Group II includes definitions relating primarily to a thing's shape or position. For example, #5. is "An appliance or appendage resembling or analagous to a wing in form or function", including #5.a. "An artificial apparatus attached to the human arms or shoulders" and #5.d.(a) "one of the planes of an aeroplane". Even broader, #6 is "A lateral part or appendage: in various connexions."
With a "Group II" definition of "wing", the question "Do Balrogs have wings?" is more or less trivial: Tolkien's description clearly fits (at least at the time described in the quotes below), as does the consensus statement above. With a "Group I" definition of "wing", the question is more interesting and the answer less obvious: it depends on the specific definition, and even then not everyone will agree.
The consensus statement above was not reached quickly, and even with a "Group I" definition some newcomers believe that a simple "yes" or "no" is clear from the description of the Balrog in "The Bridge of Khazad-dum". The debates generally begin as follows:
- "Pro-wingers" point out that when the Balrog steps onto the Bridge, "its wings were spread from wall to wall".
- "No-wingers" point out that the word "wings" was first used in the phrase "the shadow about it reached out like two vast wings", and deduce that the word "wings" refers to the "shadow" itself rather than to a part of the Balrog's solid central body. (The "shadow" was seen when the Balrog first appeared: "it was like a great shadow, in the middle of which was a dark form", and it is likely the "cloud" in the phrase "It came to the edge of the fire and the light faded as if a cloud had bent over it".)
- "Pro-wingers" claim that as the Balrog came closer to the Fellowship its uncertain appearance became clearer, so what first looked like a "shadow" or "cloud" and later "like wings" was finally recognized as "wings" once the Balrog was nearby. "No-wingers" do not agree with this interpretation.
Progress beyond this point is difficult, but again, most of those on both sides of the debate agree with the consensus statement. One substantial remaining point of disagreement is whether the "wings" always had a winglike shape (supported in part by Tolkien's use of the direct phrase "its wings") or if their form was variable (supported in part by the "cloud" description), and there is no firm evidence known for either position.
- Could Balrogs fly?
[Conrad Dunkerson has written a much more detailed essay on this question as part of his "The Truth About Balrogs" series, on the web at: http://tolkien.slimy.com/essays/TAB6.html. That page also includes links to other discussions of the issue.]
There is considerable disagreement on this point. Most agree that the Moria passage does not provide convincing evidence for or against Balrogs' ability to fly. (For example, while the Balrog does not fly out of the chasm, it may not have had enough room to use its wings, or its highest priority may have been the destruction of a rival Maia in its domain.) Most also agree that as Maiar, Balrogs could conceivably be able to fly even if they had no wings, or that they could have had wings but remained flightless. Still, the two issues are certainly related to some degree.
A number of facts have been taken as indirect evidence that Balrogs could not fly (e.g. they never flew over the mountains to discover Gondolin; at least two died falling from cliffs), but counterarguments have always been found (the eagles defended Gondolin; the Balrogs fell only after great injuries). Clearer evidence comes from "Of Tuor and his Coming to Gondolin" in Unfinished Tales, when Voronwe says, "as yet no servant of the Enemy has dared to fly into the high airs". Even if Voronwe's information was complete, however, this still leaves room for Balrogs to be able to fly at low altitudes.
The only known place where Tolkien may have made a direct statement on Balrogs' ability to fly can be found in "The Later Quenta Silmarillion (II)" in Morgoth's Ring:
Far beneath the halls of Angband... the Balrogs lurked still.... Swiftly they arose, and they passed with winged speed over Hithlum, and they came to Lammoth as a tempest of fire.
Some believe that this passage clearly describes Balrogs flying, others believe it just uses imagery of flight to indicate speed, and still others believe it to be ambiguous.
- What was Tom Bombadil?
[I have written a much more detailed analysis of this question; it is on the web at: http://tolkien.slimy.com/essays/Bombadil.html]
Theories on Bombadil's nature abound. Many people believe that Tom was a Maia: if we assume he is one of the types of entities we know of from the Silmarillion, this seems to be the best fit. (A closely related suggestion is that Tom was an Ainu who never took a place in the usual hierarchy of Arda). Other popular views make Tom a nature spirit of a kind never explicitly described, either one of many, or the incarnation of Arda itself. These theories are inspired by comments at the Council of Elrond and in Letters.
Many other possibilities still arise regularly (for example, that he is some particular Vala or even Eru himself), but there are fairly strong arguments against them. (For example, Tolkien said in several Letters that Eru did not physically inhabit Middle-earth.) Some people argue that Tolkien intentionally left Bombadil an enigma even to himself, and that therefore any attempt to find out what he was is doomed to fail. A truly satisfying explanation of Bombadil's nature would explain Goldberry as well.
- Did Elves have pointed ears?
[Conrad Dunkerson has written a more detailed discussion of this question, on the web at: http://tolkien.slimy.com/essays/Ears.html.]
There is no known text in which Tolkien makes a final, unambiguous statement about the shape of Elvish ears. Those who argue in favor of pointed ears generally cite a remark which seems to support that position found in the "Etymologies" (part of The Lost Road). That document was written in the period immediately before the composition of LotR and revised sporadically while LotR was being written, so it is unclear to what extent it should be treated as a canonical source. Those who argue against pointed ears focus on Tolkien's statements that Elves and humans were sufficiently similar that they could be mistaken for each other. There is no consensus on this issue.
- Did Elves have beards?
Most of Tolkien's writings imply that Elves were generally beardless. This is stated clearly in a note written late in Tolkien's life which is summarized in the section "Amroth and Nimrodel" in "The History of Galadriel and Celeborn" in Unfinished Tales. In the note,
there is a discussion of the Elvish strain in Men, as to its being observable in the beardlessness of those who were so descended (it was a characteristic of all Elves to be beardless).
At first glance, this would seem to settle the issue.
However, this ignores a crucial exception. In "The Grey Havens", when Cirdan the Shipwright greets Frodo and the Elves, we read "Very tall he was, and his beard was long". This canonical evidence makes it clear that some Elves do have beards. A very incomplete explanation of this apparent discrepancy appears in a note associated with "The Shibboleth of Feanor" which was published in the journal Vinyar Tengwar #41, which reads
Elves did not have beards until they entered their third cycle of life. Nerdanel's father was exceptional, being only early in his second.
(Nerdanel was Feanor's wife.) No other mention of Elvish "cycles of life" is known. Even without a full understanding, however, this helps to reconcile these statements: Cirdan was one of the oldest Elves in Middle-earth and could easily be in his "third cycle of life", and humans descended from Elves might never live long enough to reach the bearded state.
- What happened to Elves after they died?
A great deal of information on this topic can be found in Morgoth's Ring (HoMe X). Tolkien's latest thoughts on the issue can be found in "Note 3" to the "Athrabeth Finrod ah Andreth" and in the Appendix to that text. In brief, when Elves died, they were summoned to Mandos. Once the Valar deemed them to be ready, they could (if they wished) be directly re-embodied (with the aid of the Valar) in a body identical to the one they had lost. Tolkien clearly abandoned the idea that the Elves could be re-born as children.
"Note 3" says that Elven spirits "could refuse the summons [to Mandos], but this would imply that they were in some way tainted". Details of such refusals are not given in the text above, but are discussed in an earlier essay: "Laws and Customs among the Eldar", part of "The Later Quenta Silmarillion (II)" in Morgoth's Ring. Those who refused "then had little power to resist the counter-summons of Morgoth." The reason for this "counter-summons" is not explained, nor is it clear what became of them after Morgoth's defeat, but the text mentions that some of the living sought to speak with the "Unbodied" or even to control them, and that "Such practices are of Morgoth; and the necromancers are of the host of Sauron his servant."
- Was Glorfindel of Rivendell the same as Glorfindel of Gondolin?
Yes. With the publication of The Peoples of Middle-earth, certainty has become possible: the first essays in the section "Last Writings" of that book discuss Glorfindel and his history. Those texts make it very clear that after his death in the flight from Gondolin, Glorfindel was re-embodied in Aman (see question III.B.6) and was later sent back to Middle-earth as an aid or an emissary. Tolkien seems to have been uncertain as to whether he returned in the Second Age by way of Numenor or in the Third Age as a companion of Gandalf.
- Who was Gil-galad's father?
The Silmarillion states many times that Gil-galad was the son of Fingon, son of Fingolfin. However, in The Peoples of Middle-earth (in comments on the essay "The Shibboleth of Feanor"), Christopher Tolkien explains that this was an editorial error due to the complexity of the source material: "Gil-galad as the son of Fingon... was an ephemeral idea."
Tolkien changed his mind about Gil-galad's ancestry several times, but it seems that his latest decision was to make Gil-galad the son of Orodreth, son of Angrod, son of Finarfin (making him the brother of Finduilas and nephew of Finrod). Christopher says that "There can be no doubt that this was my father's last word on the subject", but that because the change was never incorporated into other texts,
"it was obviously impossible to introduce it into the published Silmarillion. It would nonetheless have been very much better to have left Gil-galad's parentage obscure."
Whether one agrees with that assessment or not, it is at least clear that The Silmarillion is not entirely trustworthy here.
- Did Dwarf women have beards?
Yes. The most canonical evidence for this comes in Appendix A, where it is said of Dwarf women that
They are in voice and appearance, and in garb if they must go on a journey, so like to the dwarf-men that the eyes and ears of other peoples cannot tell them apart.
It seems that (male) Dwarves in Middle-earth all have beards: among other evidence, as Bilbo sets out on his adventure in The Hobbit, we read that "His only comfort was that he couldn't be mistaken for a dwarf, as he had no beard." Given that, the quote above must imply that Dwarf women were bearded as well.
However, we do not need to rely on such implications: Tolkien answered this question explicitly in other texts. In The War of the Jewels ("The Later Quenta Silmarillion: Of the Naugrim and the Edain", written ~1951), Tolkien wrote that
no Man nor Elf has ever seen a beardless Dwarf - unless he were shaven in mockery, and would then be more like to die of shame... For the Naugrim have beards from the beginning of their lives, male and female alike...
In The Peoples of Middle-earth, Christopher Tolkien says that a similar statement was present in an earlier draft of Appendix A as well. As these statements are entirely in agreement with the canonical evidence cited above, the conclusion that Dwarf women had beards seems inescapable.
- Was there "telepathy" in Middle-earth?
Although it is not emphasized in the books, direct communication of thought from mind to mind was certainly part of Middle-earth. This is stated directly in the chapter "Many Partings" of LotR, when Celeborn, Galadriel, Gandalf, and Elrond lingered before parting:
...they did not move or speak with mouth, looking from mind to mind; and only their shining eyes stirred and kindled as their thoughts went to and fro.
Another example is the voice Frodo hears in his mind on Amon Hen, saying, "Take off the Ring!", which was that of Gandalf as he "sat in a high place, and... strove with the Dark Tower" ("The White Rider"). ("The Black Gate is Closed" confirms that this was Gandalf, when it suggests that Frodo felt Gandalf's thought on him, "as he had upon Amon Hen".)
Tolkien discusses the details of this "telepathy" at length in the essay "Osanwe-kenta: Enquiry into the Communication of Thought", which was published in the journal Vinyar Tengwar #39 (available from http://www.elvish.org/). It seems that all minds had this ability, but that it was "dimmed" whenever it passed through a physical body. Elves could therefore use it more easily than humans, as their wills had greater control over their bodies. The essay contains many more fascinating details, but there is not space even to summarize them here.
- Did Sauron have a physical form during The Lord of the Rings?
There is strong evidence that Sauron did have a humanoid physical body at the time of LotR. In "The Black Gate is Closed" we read, "'He has only four [fingers] on the Black Hand, but they are enough', said Gollum shuddering." Gollum was tortured in Barad-dur, and this statement sounds as if it comes from personal experience. Some have objected that Gollum's memory of his torture might not be accurate for various reasons, but this is still the only fully "canonical" evidence on either side of the issue, so it should be taken seriously.
It need not be taken alone, however. Tolkien makes multiple unambiguous statements that Sauron did have a physical form during the LotR era in Letters. For example, he describes Sauron's use of a humanoid shape in Letter #200:
It is mythologically supposed that when this shape was 'real', that is a physical actuality in the physical world and not a vision transferred from mind to mind, it took some time to build up. It was then destructible like other physical organisms. ... After the battle with Gilgalad and Elendil, Sauron took a long while to re-build, longer than he had done after the Downfall of Numenor (I suppose because each building-up used up some of the inherent energy of the spirit...)
Because it took time for Sauron to "re-build" after his body was slain by Gil-galad and Elendil, it is clear that it was more than just a "vision". As there is no suggestion that Sauron was ever "slain" between that time and the destruction of the Ring (he was merely "driven out" of Dol Guldur), this re-built body presumably still existed during LotR. Another clear statement can be found near the end of Letter #246, where Tolkien discusses the possibility of a direct confrontation between Sauron and a Ring-wielder at the time of LotR (he considers both Aragorn and Gandalf). He says,
in a tale which allows the incarnation of great spirits in a physical and destructible form their power must be far greater when actually physically present. ... The form that he took was that of a man of more than human stature, but not gigantic.
No statements by Tolkien conflicting with these descriptions are known.
Some have objected that the many references to the "Eye" of Sauron must refer to his physical shape. However, Tolkien used that term even when referring to the period before the war of the Last Alliance, when it is well known that Sauron had a physical form: for example, the Akallabeth says that after Sauron "came back to Middle-earth and to Mordor... the Eye of Sauron the Terrible few could endure."
So what does "the Eye" refer to if not Sauron's physical form? Frodo's perception of it is described in "The Passage of the Marshes":
But far more he was troubled by the Eye: so he called it to himself. ... The Eye: that horrible growing sense of a hostile will that strove with great power to pierce all shadows of cloud, and earth, and flesh, and to see you: to pin you under its deadly gaze, naked, immovable.
A very similar comment about Morgoth appears in Text X of the "Myths Transformed" section of Morgoth's Ring:
...Morgoth held the Orcs in dire thraldom; for in their corruption they had lost almost all possibility of resisting the domination of his will. So great indeed did its pressure upon them become ere Angband fell that, if he turned his thought towards them, they were conscious of his 'eye' wherever they might be.
We know with absolute certainty that Morgoth had a huge but humanoid physical form during the First Age, so "eye" here obviously refers to his will. The similarity between this description and the many references to Sauron's "Eye" is striking, which seems to make the meaning of that term clear.
- What were the names of the Nazgul?
The only known text to name any of the Nazgul is "The Hunt for the Ring" in Unfinished Tales. It names "the second to the Chief, Khamul the Shadow of the East" as Sauron's lieutenant in Dol Guldur; in a previous draft, he was called "the Second Chief (the Black Easterling)". Some believe that Gothmog, the lieutenant of Morgul, was also a Nazgul; see question III.B.13 for further discussion.
Some people have used the name "Angmar" to refer to the Witch King. We know of no instance in which Tolkien used "Angmar" as a personal name; in his writings it always refers to the Witch King's country. Some still defend the use of "Angmar" as a convenient nickname, but as others find this irritating it is probably best avoided.
- What was Gothmog (the lieutenant of Morgul)?
Gothmog (who shares his name with the Lord of Balrogs in the First Age) took command of Sauron's forces after the Witch-king was destroyed. Some believe that like the Mouth of Sauron he was human, while others claim that so responsible a position in Minas Morgul would only be given to another Nazgul. Several other possibilities also arise repeatedly. There seems to be no explicit evidence for any particular answer.
- What was the origin of Orcs?
Tolkien never seems to have firmly resolved this question in his own mind, let alone on paper. While The Silmarillion as published states fairly clearly that Orcs were corrupted Elves, Unfinished Tales hints that some strains of Orcs may have been bred from the Druedain. Tolkien's latest writings on the issue (found in Texts VIII-X of the "Myths Transformed" section in Morgoth's Ring) show him considering many possible origins: corrupted Elves, corrupted Men, very minor Maiar (a small number of original Orcish leaders only), or even beasts given fragments of Morgoth's own will so they would have some measure of independence. Some combination of these origins seems most likely from the texts, though the last of them was probably rejected.
All of these suggested origins still support the notion that Orcs reproduced in the same manner as other races (and therefore that there were female Orcs). This is explicitly discussed in Text X of "Myths Transformed", which states that
Men could under the domination of Morgoth or his agents in a few generations be reduced almost to the Orc-level of mind and habits; and then they would or could be made to mate with Orcs, producing new breeds, often larger and more cunning.
The role of female Orcs in their society is not at all clear.
- Were Orcs immortal, and what happened to them after death?
Given that Tolkien never firmly decided on the origin of Orcs (as discussed in question III.B.14), it is unsurprising that little is known about their fate. It seems clear that creatures descended even in part from humans would be mortal (as the Princes of Dol Amroth were; Elrond and his kin were special exceptions). In one his many conflicting essays about Orcs (Text X of "Myths Transformed" in Morgoth's Ring), Tolkien does give a direct answer to these questions:
They could be slain, and they were subject to disease; but apart from these ills they died and were not immortal, even according to the manner of the Quendi; indeed they appear to have been by nature short-lived compared with the span of Men of higher race, such as the Edain.
The apparent clarity of this statement may be misleading, considering the frequency with which Tolkien made and contradicted assertions about Orcs in the "Myths Transformed" texts.
There are several reasons to believe that at least some Orcs had very long lives. One of the strongest is based on the death dates of the Orc Azog and his son Bolg. Azog was killed at the Battle of Azanulbizar in 2799, while Bolg was killed at the Battle of Five Armies in 2941. Thus, Bolg was still alive and strong over 140 years after his conception.
More circumstantial evidence can be found in "The Choices of Master Samwise", when Sam overhears Gorbag speaking to Shagrat:
'...if we get a chance, you and me'll slip off and set up somewhere on our own... somewhere where there's good loot nice and handy, and no big bosses.'
'Ah!' said Shagrat. 'Like old times.'
At this time, Sauron had been openly ruling Mordor for sixty-eight years, but Shagrat and Gorbag seem to recall a time when he wasn't in charge. This could mean that they were over seventy years old, that it took Sauron many years to establish firm control over his minions, or that they heard stories of "old times" from their elders.
Gorbag also makes reference to "the Great Siege", which might refer either to the siege of the Last Alliance on Mordor or to the siege of Angband in the First Age, but it is less clear that he actually remembers it. Similarly, the goblins who captured Bilbo and Thorin in The Hobbit had a surprisingly clear memory of the swords from Gondolin that they called "Beater and Biter", but there are explanations for that other than personal experience.
As for their fate after death, this would depend very much on their origins (again, refer to question III.B.14). Beasts would presumably not have a fate after death, and it seems likely that creatures descended even in part from Men would share their Gift and leave the world. Near the end of Text VIII of "Myths Transformed", Tolkien comments that if there were an Elvish strain among Orcs, "dying they would go to Mandos and be held in prison till the End." It also seems possible that Orcish spirits would refuse the summons to Mandos, as discussed in question III.B.6 of this FAQ; it is even conceivable that they could be reborn or re-embodied if they then returned to Morgoth or Sauron.
- What was the relationship between Orcs and Goblins?
The words "Orc" and "Goblin" are essentially identical in meaning, but Tolkien's inconsistent usage in The Hobbit has led to considerable confusion. Still, a clear answer comes from Tolkien's introductory note to later editions of that book, which explains that
Orc is not an English word. It occurs in one or two places but is usually translated goblin (or hobgoblin for the larger kinds). Orc is the hobbits' form of the name given at that time to these creatures.
Some have taken this and other comments in The Hobbit (such as the reference to "the big ones, the orcs of the mountains" near the end of "Riddles in the Dark") to mean that "Goblins" were smaller and "Orcs" larger. However, Tolkien did not generally make this distinction. For instance, the name Orcrist is translated "Goblin-cleaver" in all editions of The Hobbit. Another clear example comes from the chapter "The Riders of Rohan" in LotR, when the companions reach the edge of Fangorn:
Upon a stake in the middle was set a great goblin head; upon its shattered helm the white badge could still be seen.
The white badge makes it all but certain that this was one of the large Uruk-hai. In fact, it seems plausible that this was the head of Ugluk himself, slain after a climactic fight sword to sword with Eomer at the end of the battle. If one of the Uruk-hai could be called a goblin, any Orc could.
- What was the origin of Saruman's Uruk-hai?
Whatever the details of their origins, all evidence indicates that like all Orcs, Saruman's Uruk-hai were bred "naturally" by mating humanoid creatures who then bore live young. The real questions are whether it was Sauron or Saruman who planned that breeding, and what stock they were bred from.
It is important that the meaning of "Uruk-hai" be clear from the start. Appendix F says that "the word uruk of the Black Speech... was applied as a rule only to the great soldier-orcs that at this time issued from Mordor and Isengard." As for the plural, the index of Unfinished Tales says that "Uruks" is an "Anglicized form of Uruk-hai of the Black Speech". A similar translation is provided in Parma Eldalamberon 17 within Tolkien's explanatory note for the first appearance of the Ring verse:
The debased form of the B. S. which survived in the Third Age only in the Dark Tower is seen in a few names (as Uruk-hai 'Orc-folk')
In addition to the translation, this shows that the term "Uruk-hai" was used in both Isengard and Mordor. It is not clear whether, at the end of the Third Age, the term "Uruk" referred to all "great soldier-orcs" or to a specific breed of them.
According to Appendix A, the race of Uruks first appeared out of Mordor in the last years of Steward Denethor I, before TA 2475. If "Uruk" is the name of a specific Orc breed, then this proves that Saruman had no hand in their creation. However, by the time of LotR there is some evidence that several breeds had that name: the companies of Ugluk, Shagrat, and Gorbag were all Uruks, and they differed at least slightly in size and appearance (for example, Sam observed that Gorbag's troop's gear was "a better fit" than Shagrat's). Still, this evidence is not conclusive; it seems that we cannot determine the meaning of the word Uruk itself without answering the larger question.
As for Saruman, it is well established that he conducted a breeding program crossing Orcs (quite possibly Uruks) with humans. Immediately following the quotation from Morgoth's Ring cited in question III.B.14 (Text X of "Myths Transformed") which describes Morgoth's technique of mating Orcs with Men, Tolkien says that
There is no doubt that long afterwards, in the Third Age, Saruman rediscovered this, or learned of it in lore, and in his lust for mastery committed this, his wickedest deed: the interbreeding of Orcs and Men, producing both Men-orcs large and cunning, and Orc-men treacherous and vile.
While this is the only explicit statement of Saruman's deeds, there are numerous comments in LotR about Orclike Men and Manlike Orcs associated with Isengard. The most direct comments come from the chapter "Treebeard", where Treebeard ponders Saruman's Orcs:
For these Isengarders are more like wicked Men. It is a mark of evil things that came in the Great Darkness that they cannot abide the Sun, but Saruman's Orcs can endure it, even if they hate it. I wonder what he has done? Are they Men he has ruined, or has he blended the races of Orcs and Men? That would be a black evil!
The close agreement between Treebeard's thoughts here and the explicit statement in Morgoth's Ring makes it seem very likely that this was Tolkien's intent.
The remaining question is whether Saruman's Uruk-hai were the "Men-orcs" from his breeding program. This seems likely, but it is difficult to find solid proof. (Treebeard's comments about the Isengarders' tolerance of sunlight may support this view, but it is hard to prove that Uruks of Mordor lacked that tolerance.)
- What was the origin of Trolls?
It is not at all clear. One piece of information comes from Treebeard's statement (in the chapter "Treebeard") that Trolls were made "in mockery of Ents, as Orcs were of Elves". However, this probably only means that Ents gave Morgoth the idea for Trolls, not that the two races are actually related: the two races have almost nothing in common except great strength. Also, in Letter #153, Tolkien discusses this very quote and says that "Treebeard is a character in my story, not me... and there is quite a lot he does not know or understand."
One of Tolkien's more direct comments on the origin of Trolls comes a few lines later in that letter. He says of the Trolls in The Hobbit that
I am not sure about Trolls. I think they are mere 'counterfeits', and hence ... they return to mere stone images when not in the dark. But there are other sorts of Trolls, beside these rather ridiculous, if brutal, Stone-trolls, for which other origins are suggested.
At least when he wrote this in 1954, then, it seems that Tolkien believed that the Stone-trolls in particular were barely even independent beings, relying on some sort of "spell" or external will for their existence.
Another direct statement about Trolls can be found at the end of Text IX of the "Myths Transformed" section of Morgoth's Ring (probably written in the late 1950s):
The Elves would have classed the creatures called 'trolls' (in The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings) as Orcs - in character and origin - but they were larger and slower. It would seem evident that they were corruptions of primitive human types.
Christopher comments that "he seems to have been thinking... specifically of the Olog-hai, the great Trolls who appeared at the end of the Third Age (as stated in Appendix F)", quite likely in part on the basis of the comment in Appendix F that "Some held that [the Olog-hai] were not Trolls but giant Orcs".
However, Tolkien's mention of The Hobbit in this quote suggests that its "Stone-trolls" were meant to be included as well, and Appendix F goes on to say "but the Olog-hai were in fashion of body and mind quite unlike even the largest of Orc-kind... Trolls they were..." which suggests that all Trolls were fundamentally the same, and different than Orcs.
It is not clear how to reconcile these statements, though the evidence from LotR naturally carries the greatest weight. In any case, Tolkien's indecision about the origin of Orcs in Morgoth's Ring (as discussed in question III.B.14) almost certainly applies even more strongly to the passing comment regarding Trolls quoted above.
- What were the giants (seen by Bilbo in The Hobbit)?
Nobody knows. Among texts considered to be at all canonical (see question III.A.2), giants are mentioned directly only in The Hobbit. This has led some to doubt their literal existence entirely, but they do seem to have a firm place in that book: giants (and the destruction they caused) were seen and heard by everyone, and both Thorin and Gandalf were worried about them. Later, Gandalf says "I must see if I can't find a more or less decent giant" to block up the goblins' new gate (where the group was captured). He also mentions them to Beorn. It would be difficult to reject giants without rejecting The Hobbit as a canonical source entirely, which Tolkien clearly did not do. Some believe that the voices heard by the Fellowship on the Redhorn pass were giants, or even that Caradhras itself was a "giant" in some sense.
Three explanations for giants are relatively common. Perhaps the most natural is that they are an exceptionally large race of humans. Another is that they are a very large breed of troll, which could explain why they are not seen away from the mountains: they would need very large caves in which to hide from the sun. Finally, they could be "nature spirits" associated with mountains (and possibly with storms); this, too, would explain why they were only seen there. (Some discussion of this can be found in my essay on Tom Bombadil, mentioned in question III.B.3) There is no clear evidence for or against any of these possibilities.