Tolkienian Speculative Guessing IV: YOU… SHALL… PASS!

Time for some more Tolkienian alternate history. Today’s topic is one that has bothered me ever since I stumbled across this at the Tolkien Sarcasm Page – yes, it’s a Balrog question. But not THAT Balrog question. Another one:

What if the Balrog of Moria got its paws on the One Ring?


It is not difficult to imagine how this scenario comes to be – the Balrog knocks Gandalf into the chasm before our wizard can break the bridge, and then hunts down the remaining Fellowship with ease. Much as the Watcher in the Water seems able to sense the Ring (and hence attacks Frodo), it is entirely possible that Durin’s Bane would be similarly triggered by Frodo’s presence, so inspects the charred and mutilated corpse of Mr Baggins, and finds a certain precious piece of jewellery…

What happens then?

Well, there are four possible outcomes, and we shall get to them shortly. The issue is that this question throws up a couple of subsidiary questions:

(i) How intelligent are Balrogs?

In short, we don’t know. They are unquestionably powerful – and get significantly more powerful as Tolkien’s writings go on, until Tolkien envisaged there only being seven of the creatures, but whether they are intelligent or more agents of raw destructive force, is unclear. While the latter view has been popularised by the Jackson movies (try finding an image of the Balrog that was not influenced by those), my own view is that the Balrogs, as Maiar, are intelligent. These are demons of creepy shadow as much as they are demons of destructive fire. Consider Gandalf’s account of the Chamber of Mazarbul:

Then something came into the chamber — I felt it through the door, and the orcs themselves were afraid and fell silent. It laid hold of the iron ring, and then it perceived me and my spell.

‘What it was I cannot guess, but I have never felt such a challenge. The counter-spell was terrible. It nearly broke me. For an instant the door left my control and began to open! I had to speak a word of Command. 

In light of later events, this “something” is the Balrog, and much like the other known Maiar of Middle-earth, Sauron, the Istari, and Melian, it has a brain. It can detect magic, and perform its own terrible counter-spell, to the point where it nearly breaks Gandalf himself – and Gandalf is no slouch at magic. If Durin’s Bane can do this, I think it has sufficient intelligence to use the One Ring, if it chose – we are not talking a more fiery Shelob.

Also, while Letter 210 points out that the Balrog doesn’t speak, I think there is enough evidence over the course of the mythos that Balrogs are capable of speech if they desire (see here for a compendium of evidence).

(ii) Was the Balrog of Moria on Team Sauron?

Again, the answer to this is unclear. On one hand, we have this quote, from Of the Rings of Power and the Third Age:

“And [Sauron] gathered again under his government all the evil things of the days of Morgoth that remained on earth or beneath it.”

Durin’s Bane is an evil thing from the days of Morgoth. It is beneath the earth. A literal interpretation of the quote says that, yes, the Balrog is one of Sauron’s servants. After all, the Balrogs are used to taking orders from Morgoth – so why not Morgoth’s second-in-command?

This degree of literalism is not something I am happy with, however. In my opinion, the quote could just as easily refer to the fact that the Orcs tend to live underground too. After all, where does this leave the mysterious Nameless Things, assuming one can call them evil, since “even Sauron knows them not”? Sauron can hardly command something he does not know about. Moreover, the text of The Lord of the Rings refers to the Ringwraiths as Sauron’s most terrible servants – the Balrog is a far more terrible entity than any mere Ringwraith, secondary in power to only Sauron himself (and maybe Smaug). Which means the Balrog is not a servant, but a free agent.

My biggest objection to applying “on earth or beneath it” literally, however, is that the behaviour of the Balrog is inconsistent with it being Sauron’s agent in Moria. As mentioned, Durin’s Bane is a monstrously powerful being – able to kill the bodily form of one of the Istari, and adept at magic – so if Sauron had control of it, why waste it on a backwater like Moria? Why not summon it to Mordor, and put it in command of the army? As it is, the Balrog behaves like a mysterious side-line figure to the late Third Age, playing no part in the Orc-Dwarf battles, even though its intervention would have been decisive. It is something that the Orcs themselves avoid…


Related image

But back to the question of what would happen if Durin’s Bane found the Ring. As mentioned, I think there are four possibilities:

(1) It ignores it. The least-likely option – I do think that the Balrog, as a magical Maia, would have some appreciation for what the Ring is, but it is possible (after the intruders have been dealt with) that it returns to slumber on the lower levels of Moria. This possibility would be most consistent with Balrogs being unintelligent, or at least having no interest in what the Ring offers, and would likely lead to the Ring falling into the hands of Orcs – whereupon a short-lived Orkish kingdom in the Misty Mountains gets stomped on by a (conventionally) victorious Sauron.

(2) It sits on it, Gollum-style. This would actually be consistent with the Balrog’s behaviour thus far – for a creature of such immense power, it does not seem particularly ambitious, and what could the Ring promise the Balrog? It is corrupted already! Sauron would defeat the West conventionally under this scenario, but actually getting the Ring off an (intelligent) Balrog would be tricky, assuming that the Balrog is a free agent – Sauron might not want to provoke it, which would render his victory amusingly incomplete.

(3) It returns the Ring to Sauron. If you believe the Balrog is under Sauron’s governance, then this is the most likely possibility, though it is also a potentially headache-inducing one. Would the Ring tempt the Balrog into betraying Sauron, or would it, like the Ringwraiths, simply follow orders? Part of the difficulty with this question is that we never actually see how a truly evil creature would react to the Ring’s lure, but assuming the Ring does end up with Sauron, then we all know the result for Middle-earth.

(4) It chooses to use it. The most likely option, I think, and easily the most fun. This requires an intelligent Balrog, and one that is either a free agent or else a servant that has been corrupted into rebelling against its master. Since Gandalf could have used the Ring against Sauron (Letter 246), the Balrog certainly could, which turns the War of the Ring into a deliciously complicated four way struggle – Sauron vs the West vs Saruman vs the Balrog. One could imagine Denethor and Saruman trying to prolong the Sauron/Balrog evil civil war as long as possible, though the Elves might find themselves in a tricky situation, especially since Galadriel lives not too far from Moria.

In summation, scenarios (1) and (3) result in a complete Mordorian victory, (2) an incomplete one, and (4) absolute chaos. (4) may be the only conceivable situation where a (temporary) Gondor-Mordor Pact becomes non-ludicrous, depending on what the Balrog actually wants to do with Middle-earth. Sauron wants to enslave the world, not destroy it, but the Balrog might be more Morgothian there… in which case, yes, Sauron becomes the lesser evil. The actual mechanics of how such a War might play out are otherwise impossible to tell without knowing more about Balrog psychology – the extent to which it can be negotiated with, and how it would go about its conquest.


Other Tolkienian alternate histories:

  • Part I – The Ringwraiths don’t run at Weathertop.
  • Part II – Galadriel acquires the Ring.
  • Part III – Fingolfin lives.

One thought on “Tolkienian Speculative Guessing IV: YOU… SHALL… PASS!

  1. The possibility the Balrog would choose depends on what one thinks the Ring does. If you agree with me that it works like a hierarchical command-and-control organization, the Balrog would probably give it up. It has no use for it.

    Sauron learned in the First Age that chaos doesn’t win; he’s found a better way than the wholesale destruction Balrogs are so good at. Third-Age Sauron is all about personnel management, crushing souls under the weight of bureaucracy. The Balrog probably doesn’t have to be very smart to realize that it can have a much more fulfilling career as a weapon of mass destruction in Sauron’s army than it would if it tried to administer the whole thing itself.


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