Balrogs are the fiery demons that appear in Tolkien’s Middle-earth books, namely the Silmarillion and the Lord of the Rings. Since the Lord of the Rings appeared in print in the mid-1950s, artists have drawn pictures of the Balrog of Moria, and subsequently the other Balrogs that appeared in the Silmarillion when it was finally published in the late 1970s. One thing that is noticeable, that many artists have chosen to draw wings on them, and even in the film versions the Balrogs have wings. Yet Tolkien doesn’t really state they do have wings and I will discuss how I don’t think Tolkien had winged Balrogs in mind when he wrote about them. So firstly I will look at what Balrogs actually are, secondly I will discuss several notable battles between Balrogs and various characters from Tolkien’s works, and lastly I will argue why Balrogs don’t actually in fact have wings and that whoever adds wings to them are in error, in my opinion.
The term “Balrog” is Sindarin meaning “Demon of Might”. In Quenya they are called Valarauka (singular: Valarauko). Balrogs were Maiar. Maiar were servants of the Valar (the Guardians of the World); spirits of lesser power who helped them. The Maiar themselves are of varying power, along with the Balrogs, other notable figures that were Maiar included Sauron who was initially a servant of Morgoth but became the second Dark Lord after the fall of his master, and the Istari, a group of wizards who were sent to Middle-earth to unite the free peoples against Sauron, which included Gandalf and Saruman. The Balrogs were spirits of fire that were eventually corrupted by Morgoth and subsequently appeared to Elves and Men as giant fiery demonic beings who were often armed with whips of flame, swords, and other weapons. Aside from dragons, they were the most feared and dangerous beings in Morgoth’s army.
In the First Age of Middle-earth any sizable force sent by Morgoth would include legions of Orcs (Morgoth’s foot-soldiers) and several Balrogs. This would lead to notable confrontations between the Balrogs and some Elf Lords. The first one that is mentioned is between Gothmog, who was the Lord of the Balrogs and the high-captain of the armies of Angband (Morgoth’s stronghold), and Feanor, joint High King of the rebelling Noldor, inventor of the Tengwar, and creator of the Silmarils. Feanor and the other Noldor had just won the Second Battle in the Wars for Beleriand, also called Dagor-nuin-Giliath or the Battle-under-Stars as Morgoth’s forces had assailed them unawares in the darkness. However Feanor, in his wrath, pursued the fleeing Orcs and found himself surrounded by Balrogs that had come from Angband to aid the Orcs. They fought Feanor and it was Gothmog who mortally wounded him. He died shortly afterwards in the company of his sons. During the Fifth Battle in the Wars for Beleriand, also called Nirnaeth Arnoediad or Unnumbered Tears, Fingon, the High-King stood alone, his guard lay dead about him as he faced Gothmog. Another Balrog then came behind him and “cast a thong of fire about him. Then Gothmog hewed him with his black axe, and a white flame sprang up from the helm of Fingon as it was cloven.” (The Silmarillion, p.193). Gothmog was again present during the Fall of Gondolin. He fought Ecthelion of the Fountain in the Square of the King. In The Silmarillion it just mentions each slew the other, but in the Book of Lost Tales 2 it goes into greater detail: Ecthelion leapt at Gothmog, his helm having a spike that got driven into Gothmog’s breast, and he then twined his leg around Gothmog’s thighs and they both fell forward into the basin of the king’s fountain which was very deep and they both drowned (The Book of Lost Tales 2, p.183-4). Also during the Fall of Gondolin there was another incident: Tuor and Idril Celebrindal, along with others fled out of Gondolin by a secret way and they came to a pass called Cirith Thoronath, or Eagles’ Cleft, and they were ambushed there by some Orcs and a Balrog. Glorfindel, chief of the House of the Golden Flower of Gondolin, and the Balrog fought upon a pinnacle of rock, and both fell to their deaths. Thorondor, King of the Eagles, retrieved Glorfindel’s body out of the abyss and he was buried in a mound of stones. After the fall of Angband in the War of Wrath most of the Balrogs were destroyed. A few surviving Balrogs fled and hid themselves in the roots of the earth. The last known encounter with a Balrog was near the end of the Third Age when the Fellowship of the Ring passed through Moria and disturbed him. The Balrog appeared before them at the Bridge of Khazad-dum and Gandalf the Grey stood in the way of his advance over the bridge. After an initial clash with swords which drove the Balrog back, the Balrog then leapt onto the bridge with his whip at which point Gandalf smote the bridge before him with his staff which caused the bridge to crack under the feet of the Balrog and he plunged down into the abyss, but not before using his whip to curl about the Wizard’s knees and make him fall into the abyss as well. In the words of Gandalf from The Two Towers he says what happened next: “Long I fell, and he fell with me. His fire was about me. I was burned. Then we plunged into the deep water and all was dark… Thither I came at last, to the uttermost foundations of stone. He was with me still. His fire was quenched, but now he was a thing of slime, stronger than a strangling snake. We fought far under the living earth, where time is not counted. Ever he clutched me, and ever I hewed him, till at last he fled into dark tunnels… In that despair my enemy was my only hope, and I pursued him, clutching at his heel… Ever up now we went, until we came to the Endless Stair… From the lowest dungeon to the highest peak it climbed… until it issued at last in Durin’s Tower carved in the living rock of Zirakzigil, the pinnacle of the Silvertine… Out he sprang, and even as I came behind, he burst into new flame… 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…” (The Two Towers, p.523-4). It is unknown whether any other Balrogs had survived.
Now why don’t I think Balrogs have wings? In the First Age accounts Tolkien never explicitly mentions they have wings or that they can fly. The fact that the Balrog fighting Glorfindel plummets to his doom along with Glorfindel suggests if it has wings, it certainly doesn’t know how to use them. The same thing happens with the Balrog in Moria who also falls down a deep abyss. If the wings were there they could at least help prevent the fall from happening. Maybe some people think they have wings due to the encounter in Moria, but what does Tolkien actually say? “His enemy halted again, facing him, and the shadow about it reached out like two vast wings.” (Fellowship of the Ring, p.348). Tolkien here is saying the Balrog’s shadow is like “two vast wings”, not that the Balrog has them, it’s quite obviously a simile. On the next page it says: “It stepped forward slowly onto the bridge, and suddenly it drew itself up to a great height, and its wings were spread from wall to wall…” (Fellowship of the Ring, p.349). Okay here Tolkien seems to be explicitly saying the Balrog has wings, and this is probably why many people think that Balrogs are winged, but does he really? You can argue that Tolkien here is continuing with the figure of speech, that what is spread from wall to wall is actually in reality the Balrog’s shadow, not wings. In all of his writings this is the only time there is possibly any mention of a Balrog having wings at all, and I’m not convinced. That said, most artists seem to draw them with wings, and especially since the film versions by Peter Jackson came out. As a side note, while I was searching for artwork for this article I felt quite saddened by the sheer amount of artwork that was based on the films. Nearly all the pictures of Balrogs I could find were all heavily inspired by the one in the film, and yet I seem to remember before the films Balrogs could look quite diverse. I want to see artists original visions of them, not some copy from the film version, ditto all the other characters and locations in the Lord of the Rings.
So this is my thoughts on the matter of Balrogs and wings. It is not really an important matter, as to be honest there are some really good and interesting pictures of Balrogs with wings, such as the ones I’ve used in this article. It’s just that they don’t have to be drawn with wings, though pictures of wingless Balrogs are not that easy to find, at least not anymore. Arguing whether they have wings or not was a good angle to begin a discussion with regardless. I love Tolkien’s writings and it’s been a great pleasure just to be able to write an article on some specific Tolkien-related matter. If you agree or disagree with this article feel free to make a comment, as I am keen to hear your thoughts. The next time I write an article on Middle-earth it might be on the Istari.
Foster, Robert, The Complete Guide to Middle-Earth, (Unwin Paperbacks, London, 1978)
Tolkien, J.R.R., The Book of Lost Tales 2, (Unwin Paperbacks, London, 1986)
Tolkien, J.R.R., The Fellowship of the Ring, (HarperCollins Publishers, London, 1992)
Tolkien, J.R.R., The Silmarillion, (George Allen & Unwin, London, 1977)
Tolkien, J.R.R., The Two Towers, (HarperCollins Publishers, London, 1992)
Tyler, J.E.A., The New Tolkien Companion, (MacMillan London Limited, London, 1979)