The Time Has Come, the Walrus Said: Do Balrogs Have Wings?
With at least two-and-a-half further weeks of lockdown looming – and thank goodness for powdered milk – one finds one’s creativity taken in strange, and unexpected directions. Sure, there’s writing, and, you know, my reading pile to work on, but so far as blogging is concerned, there’s nothing wrong with squeezing in a Tolkien post or two as well.
So today, stuck as I am in splendid isolation, I thought I would tackle the most famous debate in the Tolkien fandom: Do Balrogs have wings?
(Seriously. It’s one of the Great Questions of Middle-earth. Up there with ‘Who is Tom Bombadil,’ ‘Do Elves Have Pointy Ears,’ and ‘What Colour is Legolas’ Hair.’ The Balrog Wing question is uniquely vicious, because everyone thinks they’re right and that the other side are idiots. It has also been running around for decades).
Note also that this is purely a book question, not a movie question. We’re only interested in the evidence provided by J.R.R. Tolkien himself, in The Lord of the Rings and elsewhere, not in the aesthetic choices of Ralph Bakshi and Peter Jackson.
(Both Bakshi and Jackson do give the Balrog of Moria wings, of course. The Finns in 1993 clearly decided that showing the Balrog – or Shelob – was beyond their budget).
I. Literalism versus Metaphor
For the uninitiated, the chief controversy surrounds the wording of two passages from the chapter, The Bridge of Khazad-dûm:
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. It raised the whip, and the thongs whined and cracked.
The Balrog made no answer. The fire in it seemed to die, but the darkness grew. 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; but still Gandalf could be seen, glimmering in the gloom; he seemed small, and altogether alone: grey and bent, like a wizened tree before the onset of a storm.
Those who favour Balrogs having wings argue for a literalist interpretation of the second passage: Tolkien says that the Balrog’s wings were spread from wall to wall, so it therefore follows that Balrogs have wings.
Those who argue that Balrogs do not have wings argue the second passage is metaphorical. The first passage uses a simile to compare the shadow of the Balrog to wings. The second passage refers back to the first, so “its wings were spread from wall to wall” really means “its shadow spread from wall to wall.”
This, then, is the root of the issue. For what it is worth, I myself subscribe to the anti-wing, metaphorical interpretation… and the remainder of this essay shall involve an attempt to establish that position.
(i) Other ‘Wing’ Metaphors
Obviously, the case for a metaphorical interpretation would be strengthened if one could find other examples of Tolkien using ‘wings’ in a non-literal interpretation. By good fortune, such examples exist:
‘Thus spoke a forgotten poet long ago in Rohan, recalling how tall and fair was Eorl, who rode down out of the North; and there were wings upon the feet of his steed, Felaróf, father of horses. So men still sing in the evening.’
(The Two Towers: The King of the Golden Hall)
In greater numbers they come then: two ships or more together, stuffed with men and not goods, and ever one of the accursed ships hath black wings. (The Peoples of Middle-earth: Tal-Elmar)
Over the land there lies a long shadow, westward reaching wings of darkness. (The Return of the King: The Passing of the Grey Company)
Behold! The darkness that is to come is filled with hatred for us, but it hates you no less. The Great Sea will not be too wide for its wings, if it is suffered to come to full growth. (Unfinished Tales: Aldarion and Erendis)
In all these cases, Tolkien uses ‘wings’ to represent something other than literal wings: the speed of a horse, the sails of ships, the volcanic shadow of Mount Doom, and the power of Sauron respectively. So having metaphorical wings of shadow around the Balrog would not be an outlandish notion.
Against this, pro-wingers may raise two objections:
(1) This just proves Tolkien uses metaphorical wings in other contexts. It does not imply that he was using metaphorical wings in this context. After all, the likes of Smaug, Ancalagon, and the Eagles all have literal wings… a situation unchanged by the usage of metaphorical wings elsewhere.
(2) These other examples are all unambiguous metaphors. The Balrog situation is a simile, followed by a questionable metaphor… something a bit different. It would be rather like saying “Mrs Smith had a face like a baboon,” then following it up with “the baboon stalked the classroom” – an ambiguous result. We would need to find a simile-metaphor combination elsewhere in Tolkien, rather than simply showing that metaphors exist.
I shall address the second point first. It turns out a simile-metaphor combination does indeed show up in Tolkien:
And out of the west there would come at times a great cloud in the evening, shaped as it were an eagle, with pinions spread to the north and the south; and slowly it would loom up, blotting out the sunset, and then uttermost night would fall upon Númenor. And some of the eagles bore lightning beneath their wings, and thunder echoed between sea and cloud. (The Akallabêth)
The passage compares a cloud to an eagle (simile), following it up with continued reference to eagles (metaphor). The lightning is not being carried by literal birds, but rather bird-shaped clouds. This fits the Balrog situation very well.
The first objection is a tougher nut to crack. Yes, there are literal wings in Tolkien, as well as metaphorical ones. On the other hand, we know about the literalness of those wings from the context of the scene… which means we need to look at the Bridge of Khazad-dûm scene for additional clues as to the literal or metaphorical nature of Balrog wings.
The biggest problem we face is that the Bridge of Khazad-dûm is the most detailed description Tolkien ever gives, so far as the appearance of Balrogs is concerned. We know that Eagles may be expected to have wings, but Balrogs are much more of an unknown proposition.
(ii) Additional Context and Addressing Vagueness to Clarity
One of the cleverer pro-wing interpretations of the Bridge of Khazad-dûm sequence is that it represents a shift from obscurity to clarity. Recall that there is some mystery built up, as to what exactly this foe is. We know from earlier that it can match Gandalf in spell-casting, and that the Orcs themselves are afraid of it… it is formidable, but robed (appropriately enough) in darkness:
What it was could not be seen: it was like a great shadow, in the middle of which was a dark form, of man-shape maybe; yet greater; and a power and terror seemed to be in it and to go before it.
Note such fuzzy words as ‘maybe’ and ‘seemed’. We do not even know that is a Balrog until Legolas tells us. Durin’s Bane is a creature of shadow, as much as flame.
A pro-winger would therefore interpret, via context, the “shadow about it reached out like two vast wings” as a vague statement. The narration, being unclear on the Balrog’s appearance, is using “like” as an expression of guesswork or uncertainty. Later, when the situation has clarified itself, the narrator gives the more confident statement that “its wings were spread from wall to wall.”
In short, the wings are literal, but it takes a little while to notice this, from the context.
If this is the case, it would not be the only example in Tolkien. Another example of this vagueness to clarity effect is found in the Fellowship of the Ring chapter, In the House of Tom Bombadil:
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.
A mysterious shadow, which looks like wings, turns out to be wings. It’s an Eagle not a Balrog, but the point still stands.
My objection to this argument is threefold.
Firstly, the House of Tom Bombadil passage is only unambiguous, because (1) we already know eagles have wings, and (2) we see the eagle in flight. The point is that we do not have the same familiarity with Balrogs, and Tolkien knew this. If we somehow did not know what eagles looked like, a ‘vagueness to clarity’ passage that does not show them actually flying would be a terrible introduction.
Secondly, by the time we hear about the supposedly unclear wings in the Bridge sequence, we have already heard about the Balrog’s “streaming mane,” and even the weapons it holds in its hands. That is a degree of precision that would imply clarity. Moreover, consider a sentence that immediately follows the ‘guesswork’ simile:
Fire came from its nostrils.
So, we have a narrator who is unclear about two giant wings… but is clear enough to comment on the Balrog’s hands and nostrils. I do not buy this.
Thirdly, in considering the wider context of the Bridge sequence, there are no further references to wings. Which, given the scale of them – wall-to-wall in an extremely large dwarven hall – ought to be worthy of note. Instead, we do find a subsequent reference to shadow:
With a terrible cry the Balrog fell forward, and its shadow plunged down and vanished.
Which would support the interpretation of the earlier “wings” as being metaphorical descriptions of shadow, rather than literal appendages.
II. The Drafts
For further insight as to Tolkien’s intentions in writing the Bridge of Khazad-dûm sequence, let us now consider the drafts of the chapter, as featured in The History of Middle-earth Volume VII: The Treason of Isengard.
Here is the draft description of the Balrog:
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…
X: The Mines of Moria 2: The Bridge
This Balrog is rather less shadowy than the final version. We know its eye-colour and its arm-length. It springs across fissures, and runs across floors. It is clearly an earth-bound creature… and there is not a single mention of wings.
Tolkien then added an additional note, in pencil, against the description of the Balrog:
Alter description of Balrog. It seemed to be of man shape, but its form could not be plainly discerned. It felt larger than it looked.
Accordingly, Tolkien then inserted:
Through the air it sprang over the fiery fissure… and a great shadow seemed to black out the light.
Thus the shadow appears. A great shadow that made the creature feel larger than it looked. But still no wings.
In the same chapter, Christopher Tolkien references two further drafts of this scene. The last draft in question is of interest, since it inserts this:
The Balrog halted facing him, and the shadow about him reached out like two great wings.
The shadow simile appears. The great shadow – inserted to give the Balrog a particular feel – is being compared to wings.
Had Tolkien stopped here, there would be no Balrog Wing debate: wings only appear as a simile, not as a later ‘wall-to-wall’ metaphor. No-one would consider such a sentence a literal reference to wings. Nor would they have considered it an instance of “vagueness to clarity” – there is no subsequent clarity.
But Tolkien did not stop there. Between this draft and the final published version, he also inserted an additional reference to the Balrog’s wings being spread from wall to wall. This implies one of two things:
(1) The pro-wing answer: Tolkien made a drastic change in the physical nature of Balrogs, as part of a late revision process, but left no notes to that effect. Bearing in mind that Balrogs had been a part of his mythos for over twenty years by this point.
(2) The anti-wing answer: Tolkien saw the simile referencing wings, and decided to build on it through including a further metaphor. Not a drastic change, and no need to overhaul the physical nature of Balrogs.
I think you can guess which scenario I consider more likely. The drafts provide strong evidence that at the time Tolkien started writing The Lord of the Rings, he thought of Balrogs as wingless. Durin’s Bane – and the Balrogs of The Silmarillion – being subsequently converted into winged creatures would have constituted a substantial overhaul. If such an overhaul was made… where is the evidence of its existence in the form of notes?
Admittedly, it is not impossible that such notes exist alongside the typed Rings manuscript Tolkien made in the late 1940s – the ‘finalised ‘ version. Christopher Tolkien also notes that he did not see many of the later typescripts sent to Marquette University. I would, however, suggest that the burden of proof rests with the pro-wingers at this point. To quote Christopher himself:
I myself never thought that the second mention of the ‘wings’ of the Balrog had any different signification from the first.
In short, the second mention of ‘wings’ is a metaphor, referring back to the earlier simile.
Addendum: In The History of Middle-earth Volume VI: The Return of the Shadow – Chapter XXV: the Mines of Moria, we encounter an earlier draft outline for the Fellowship’s adventures in Moria. Interestingly, Tolkien’s original conception was Gandalf falling into the abyss with a Black Rider, not a Balrog. Which means Gandalf and his foe were always going to fall… in which case, by inserting a Balrog, Tolkien was replacing one flightless enemy with another (inserting a flying enemy makes no sense, in context).
III. The Flight Debate: Circumstantial Evidence
(i) Falling into the Abyss
Let us suppose for a moment that the previous arguments are mistaken, and that Balrogs do actually have wings, at least from the final revision of The Lord of the Rings onwards. This rather begs the question: if the Balrog of Moria had wings, why did it not merely fly back out of the abyss when the bridge collapsed?
Beyond the obvious (Balrogs do not have wings!), and ignoring the Black Rider draft outline, there are three possible solutions:
(1) Its wings could not be used for flight.
(2) It was unable to use them, temporarily, due to stunning, surprise, or the width of the abyss (some fifty feet).
(3) It had the ability to fly, but chose not to.
The third option strikes me as highly unlikely. Sure, the Balrog may be so fixated on Gandalf that it is willing to let the rest of the Fellowship (including the Ringbearer) go free, but there would still be more logical tactics than falling voluntarily into an underground lake from a great height. Grabbing Gandalf, and carrying him back to the other side of the Bridge (to deal with him there, with Orkish help, or to take him as a prisoner), for example. And as we shall see, this possibility runs into additional circumstantial problems in other scenarios, where Balrog flight really, really would come in handy.
(This goes double for the notion that Balrogs, as Maiar, could potentially change their appearance to give themselves wings if they wanted. Leaving aside the issue of Ainur becoming ‘stuck’ in a particular form (and there is no evidence of any Balrog ever changing form, unlike Sauron), wings-on-demand is just too handy not to use. And yet, the Balrogs never use it, at least once they are incarnated as fire demons)
We will leave the second possibility for now. Suffice to say, the lack of evidence as to a Balrog flying at all makes this also rather a stretch – are Balrogs perpetually too stunned to fly, even in advantageous above-ground situations?
That leaves us with the first possibility – that the wings were non-functional, full-stop.
In one sense, it is a rather clever argument. After all, if you tossed a penguin into the abyss, it would fall too, even with wings. The difficulty is that there are evolutionary reasons why penguins are flightless… which do not apply to Balrogs.
Indeed, given the size of these supposed wings (wall-to-wall in a dwarven hall of considerable scale), one would have thought they would be profoundly awkward for the Balrog. Remember that the Balrog (in contrast to Peter Jackson’s portrayal) is not gigantic: we have seen the draft version as ‘man-high’, and even in the final version, it is capable of using a bridge built for dwarves moving single-file. If the Balrog does have wings, they are clearly oversized relative to the rest of it.
The benefits of flight would be the only compensation for carrying around such cumbersome appendages. Yet not only would this prove utterly useless in the underground environment of Moria (or Angband. Or Utumno), but in this scenario Balrogs are even denied flight above ground! Poor Durin’s Bane…
(ii) Falling from Zirak-Zigil
The Balrog of Moria falls a second time, of course. Recall Gandalf’s line, where he relates of his battle on the mountain-top to Aragorn, Legolas, and Gimli:
I threw down my enemy, and he fell from the high place and broke the mountain-side where he smote it in his ruin. (The Two Towers: The White Rider)
We have already discussed the possibility of non-functional wings. A situation where the Balrog chooses not to use its (functional) wings to escape feels ludicrous in the circumstances. After all, not only does Gandalf pose a grave threat to it – to the extent where it has previously fled up through the tunnels of Moria to escape him – but Gandalf does not have wings. The Balrog could have left its foe stranded on the mountain peak while it goes about its malign business.
That, again, leaves the second possibility – that the Balrog is temporarily not in a position to use its functional wings. This is a stretch. Since the Balrog is above ground, the constraints of the abyss no longer apply. Sure, it might have already been dead prior to hitting the mountainside… but it was very much alive when it started the fight. Which basically morphs the scenario into the Balrog choosing not to fly away (ludicrous), or else Gandalf damaging its wings before it could do so. The latter is starting to fall foul of Ockham’s Razor – rather than making excuses for the Balrog not using its supposed wings, would it not be easier to hypothesise that there were no wings?
(iii) Falling with Glorfindel
The Balrog of Moria is not the only Balrog in Tolkien’s mythos that falls to its doom. In the original Fall of Gondolin (1917), we see an account of a Balrog battling with Glorfindel:
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…
Then Glorfindel leapt forward upon him and his golden armour gleamed strangely in the moon, and he hewed at that demon that it leapt again upon a great boulder and Glorfindel after…
The ardour of Glorfindel drave that Balrog from point to point, and his mail fended him from its whip and claw. Now he had beaten a heavy swinge upon its iron helm, now hewn off the creature’s whip-arm at the elbow. Then sprang the Balrog in the torment of his pain and fear full at Glorfindel, who stabbed like a dart of a snake; but he found only a shoulder, and was grappled, and they swayed to a fall upon the crag top.
Then Glorfindel’s left hand sought a dirk, and this he thrust up that it pierced the Balrog’s belly nigh his own face (for that demon was double his stature); and it shrieked, and fell backwards from the rock, and falling clutched Glorfindel’s yellow locks beneath his cap, and those twain fell into the abyss.
There is a decent amount we can infer about the Balrog from this passage. Its size (twice the height of an Elf), its choice of weapon (a whip and claws), its armour (an iron helmet), and its basic form (humanoid, complete with shoulder, arm, elbow, and belly). This Balrog, much like the draft version of the Balrog of Moria, leaps and springs. And, eventually, it falls.
This is not the description of a battle with a flying creature, nor even a battle with a creature with non-functional wings. This is the description of a battle with an earthbound, basically humanoid creature. One that rather resembles Gandalf’s encounter with the Balrog at the Bridge.
Game over, surely?
Well, no. Tolkien wrote this scene in 1917, and never revisited it (the 1950 Fall of Gondolin manuscript does not get as far as Glorfindel’s death). Yes, Tolkien later decided that the Glorfindel of The Lord of the Rings was the same as this Glorfindel – via a return from Mandos – and so the initial story is still valid to some degree. But the details of the battle with the Balrog would have been rewritten, even if Tolkien had not later given Balrogs wings.
So while the general principle holds – for an allegedly winged creature, Balrogs certainly fall down a lot – and the circumstantial evidence is indeed starting to pile up, in a strict sense, this just confirms what the drafts have already told us. Namely that Balrogs up until the writing of The Bridge of Khazad-dûm around 1940 were obviously flightless and wingless. It is, however, the Balrogs from 1940 onwards that we are interested in. The ones that were significantly more powerful than Tolkien’s earlier version.
(On the other hand, as ever, this just puts the burden of proof further onto pro-wingers. We know that early Balrogs were wingless and flightless. Pro-wingers assert that they were winged from the 1940s onwards. This means that there was a clear change in Tolkien’s conception at some point… so where is the evidence for this change?).
(iv) Further Evidence of Early Flightless Balrogs
Reinforcing the idea that Balrogs prior to The Lord of the Rings were flightless, there exist further pieces of circumstantial evidence. While I feel the matter has been largely dealt with, I thought I would illustrate them, for the sake of completeness:
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.
This is another extract from the 1917 Fall of Gondolin: Melkor/Morgoth being earthbound, and frustrated at his inability to fight Manwe in the air rather suggests that the Balrogs too were earthbound.
The eagles dwell out of reach of Orc and Balrog, and are great foes of Morgoth and his people.
This is from the 1924 Sketch of the Mythology (found in The History of Middle-earth Volume IV: The Shaping of Middle-earth). Balrogs, like Orcs, are stuck on the ground, and cannot attack the eagles.
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.
This is from the 1937 Quenta Silmarillion (found in The History of Middle-earth Volume V: The Lost Road and Other Writings). Having flying Balrogs as cavalry – in the sense of riding mounts – feels supremely weird.
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.
Another quote from the 1937 Quenta Silmarillion. Glomund is, of course, an earlier name of Glaurung, and Glaurung could not fly. Balrogs being in his train seems to imply that they are following the dragon along the ground – not impossible, given that Balrogs can clearly walk, but a weird use for a flying creature.
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.
Another quote from the 1937 Quenta Silmarillion, this time explicitly saying that Morgoth’s forces had not yet been able to fly.
Note, however, that Thuringwethil – the vampire creature from the Tale of Beren and Lúthien – appears in the 1920s Lay, with wings, and the ability to fly. As such, even in 1937 this quote might be taken with a grain of salt as to its universal applicability. Still, the winged dragons would not have been such a surprise during the War of Wrath if Balrogs had already filled the niche.
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…
This is from the 1977 published Silmarillion. Gothmog, the Lord of Balrogs, is here noted to have a guard of trolls. Trolls obviously cannot fly, which suggests that Gothmog fought on the ground.
However, as Conrad Dunkerson notes, this passage is only found in the version of The Silmarillion as edited by Christopher Tolkien. It does not appear in the draft versions featured in The History of Middle-earth… so the textual source of Gothmog’s troll-guard seems a bit blurry.
IV. The Hithlum Passage
So much for the early Balrogs. But what of the Balrog scenes Tolkien wrote after The Lord of the Rings, when he was reworking The Silmarillion? If the Balrog of Moria were winged, then the post-Rings Balrogs must have been too.
And here we come to the Hithlum Passage. The scene where the loyal Balrogs of Morgoth come to the rescue of their master in his fight with Ungoliant.
As featured in the 1977 published Silmarillion, this reads as follows:
… and now swiftly they arose, and passing over Hithlum they came to Lammoth as a tempest of fire. (Of the Flight of the Noldor)
This in turn is Christopher Tolkien’s editing of a line from the Later Quenta Silmarillion (1951):
Swiftly they arose, and they passed with winged speed over Hithlum, and they came to Lammoth as a tempest of fire.
(The History of Middle-earth Volume X: Morgoth’s Ring – The Later Quenta Silmarillion: The Thieves’ Quarrel)
It is this unedited version that concerns us now, as it comes direct from the pen of J.R.R. Tolkien himself.
There are four components of the passage, and each have been used as evidence that Balrogs, following The Lord of the Rings, were winged and able to fly. Let us now consider each component in turn:
(i) Swiftly they arose…
The key word here is ‘arose’. In the sense that something ‘arises,’ it is ‘rising up’. There are multiple ways this can be read. A pro-winger can read this as the Balrogs swiftly rising into the air, that is taking flight. By contrast, an anti-winger can read this as the Balrogs being stirred into action by Morgoth’s cry.
Note, of course, that Tolkien uses the term a fair bit in the latter, non-flight, sense:
… and that night the Noldoli came to him, and he arose from sleep. (The Book of Lost Tales Volume II: The Fall of Gondolin)
And now they arose, and departing from Eithel Ivrin they journeyed southward along the banks of Narog. (The Children of Húrin: The Death of Beleg)
Arise, arise, Riders of Théoden! (The Two Towers: The King of the Golden Hall, and again in The Return of the King: The Ride of the Rohirrim)
In none of these scenarios are the characters rising into the air, and as a generalised call to action, ‘Arise, arise, Riders of Théoden,’ may be considered the best analogy to the Balrog situation, in the sense that it represents a stirring out of dormancy.
That is not to say, of course, that the Balrogs in the scene are definitively not rising into the air… but if they are, we have already seen how much of shift from previous ideas that would be.
(ii) Passed Over
This is another phrase that can be used in the sense of flight. For example, passing physically over a country in an aeroplane. As such a pro-winger would interpret this to mean that the Balrogs were literally flying “over” Hithlum.
Tolkien himself uses “pass over” in this sense at least once in The Lord of the Rings:
And hardly had they reached its shelter when the winged shadow had passed over once again, and men wilted with fear. (The Return of the King: Minas Tirith).
The winged shadow in question – a Ringwraith on a fell steed – is most certainly airborne.
An anti-winger would, however, point out that Tolkien also also uses the phrase to mean “travelling across” in the very same book:
A short way back the road had bent a little northward and the stretch that they had passed over was now screened from sight. (The Return of the King: The Land of Shadow)
Frodo and Sam are most certainly not airborne, of course.
Either interpretation is viable for the case of the Balrogs passing over Hithlum, though (naturally) I prefer the ‘travelled across’ interpretation. In the case of the winged shadow, it is passing physically over people, as distinct from passing over territory, whereas Frodo and Sam are literally passing over Mordor, but not any people. The Balrogs are crossing territory, not (so far as we know) flying over the heads of the inhabitants. But that is just my bias coming into play.
(On the other hand, the fact that this passage can be read either way is hardly evidence itself that Tolkien had changed his conception of Balrog from flightless in 1937 to flight-capable in 1951).
(iii) Winged Speed
Christopher Tolkien edited ‘with winged speed’ out of the published Silmarillion, but as we shall see, it actually makes little difference.
The pro-wing interpretation is naturally that the Balrogs – being winged – are moving with the speed that only wing creatures can muster.
The anti-wing interpretation is that this phrase simply means that the Balrogs are moving very, very fast. So fast, in fact, that they are (poetically) moving as though they were winged.
To illustrate this latter point, consider again this quote:
‘Thus spoke a forgotten poet long ago in Rohan, recalling how tall and fair was Eorl, who rode down out of the North; and there were wings upon the feet of his steed, Felaróf, father of horses. So men still sing in the evening.’
(The Two Towers: The King of the Golden Hall)
Felaróf runs so fast, he has (metaphorical, not literal) wings on his feet. In that sense, he is moving with “winged speed”. And also with Eomer’s designation of Aragorn as “Wingfoot” – Eomer is not suggesting that Aragorn has wings, or that he flew across Rohan, but rather that Aragorn had travelled with extreme swiftness.
By contrast, suggesting that eagles fly with winged speed may arguably be rather redundant, given that eagles (literally, not metaphorically) travel with winged speed in all circumstances. It is obviously not impossible that this phrase refers to airborne Balrogs over Hithlum, but, again, there is nothing here to make an anti-winger tremble.
(Conrad Dunkerson has an interesting list of non-Tolkien literary usages of ‘winged speed’. It turns out, with the exception of Milton, ‘winged speed’ is almost always used in the context of non-flying beings. Make of that what you will).
(iv) Tempest of Fire
At first sight, the notion that the Balrogs came to Lammoth as a “tempest of fire” ought to have very little bearing on the Balrog wing debate. It is, however, a key argument used by pro-winger Michael Martinez.
Specifically, there is only one other case of the phrase “tempest of fire” being used in Tolkien. Namely, in the 1937 account of the winged dragons at the War of Wrath:
… for the coming of the dragons was like a great roar of thunder, and a tempest of fire, and their wings were of steel. (The History of Middle-earth Volume V: The Lost Road and Other Writings – Quenta Silmarillion)
Martinez’ reasoning is that the winged dragons are airborne, a tempest is airborne, and so the Balrogs arriving at Lammoth in a tempest of fire must therefore be airborne.
I am sceptical. For a start, Conrad Dunkerson’s list finds several other ‘tempest’ metaphors in Tolkien, albeit none of them tempests of fire.
More broadly, however, I read ‘tempest of fire’ as a metaphor for a powerful destructive force. The winged dragons certainly are, as are the Lammoth Balrogs, but the fact that one of them is airborne is irrelevant. What matters is the image of fiery destruction, not whether it comes from the air or from an earthbound creature. In the context, ‘tempest of fire’ may be seen as a more poetic rendering of ‘raging inferno’… and an inferno need not be generated by a flying being.
(v) The Hithlum Passage Reconsidered
Having broken up the Hithlum Passage into its components, it is quite clear that the passage can be legitimately read from either a pro-wing or anti-wing perspective. One could construct the following hypothetical sentence:
Aragorn and his fellows swiftly arose, and passing with winged speed over Rohan, they came upon the Orcs like a tempest of steel.
A bit cheesy, perhaps, but a legitimate sentence, using each of the Hithlum components, and referring to explicitly earthbound creatures.
That said, there is again the caveat that none of this actually disproves a winged post-1940s Balrog. Rather, my point is the Hithlum Passage cannot be used as evidence for a shift in Tolkien’s conception of the creature, at least so far as flight is concerned. And it is clear evidence of change we need, if the pro-wing position is to fly.
As it is, the Hithlum Passage is an ambiguous one, which means we have to look at it in the context of other evidence… and as we have seen, that evidence strongly leans anti-wing. Pre-1940 Balrogs were wingless, the draft Balrog was wingless, and context and circumstance suggests that the Balrog of The Lord of the Rings was wingless. Now we have seen late Silmarillion Balrogs from 1951, and the textual evidence does nothing to alter that dynamic.
In rounding out this (lengthy) essay, I shall now look at a couple of minor points that are occasionally brought up in debate.
(i) Flying from Thangorodrim
The appendices of The Lord of the Rings give us the backstory of the Dwarves awakening Durin’s Bane:
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.
(Appendix A: Durin’s Folk)
The key word here is ‘fly’. Of course, if this literally means that the Balrog took flight one day, and travelled from Thangorodrim to Moria for a bit of a nap, then, obviously, the Balrog has wings.
However, the much more likely interpretation is that ‘flying’ in this context means ‘fleeing’. The Balrog was escaping the Host of the West, and the destruction of Morgoth’s power… therefore it was fleeing. And Tolkien uses ‘flying’ in the context of ‘fleeing’ multiple times, most notably in the last line ever uttered by Gandalf the Grey to the Fellowship:
‘Fly, you fools!’
Gandalf is telling the Fellowship to flee, not to sprout wings.
It also goes without saying that a fleeing Balrog need not have wings, any more than the fleeing Fellowship do.
(ii) The Winged Shadow
Our first look in The Lord of the Rings at Flying Nazgûl (that is, Nazgûl in flight, not fleeing Nazgûl) is in the chapter The Great River:
… a dark shape, like a cloud and yet not a cloud, for it moved far more swiftly, came out of the blackness in the South, and sped towards the Company, blotting out all light as it approached. Soon it appeared as a great winged creature, blacker than the pits in the night. (The Fellowship of the Ring: The Great River)
Legolas successfully shoots its mount out from under it, but for our purposes, the most interesting aspect is a follow-up comment from Gimli:
‘… 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.
The issue here is that Gimli sees a terrifying winged creature, and immediately thinks of the Balrog as a point of comparison. Does that not suggest that the Balrog is also winged?
Well, no. Gimli has never encountered a Nazgûl before. The Balrog of Moria is his reference point for scary monsters in the dark, so it makes sense for him to make such a comparison. It is not the form of the Winged Nazgûl that Gimli is comparing to the Balrog, but rather how it makes him feel. Specifically, that it terrifies him.
Of course, this is merely my interpretation of the scene – yours might differ – but, once again, I do not see this scene as any sort of evidence for the Balrog of Moria being winged.
That concludes my extremely long – at some 6,600 words, it is comfortably the longest individual post in the history of this blog – and extremely biased look at the Balrog Wing Question. For me, it was something of a throwback to an earlier era of Tolkien fandom, reminding myself of the arguments, and doing the research among the books and online. No doubt I have awoken old memories in others too, that like Durin’s Bane itself had lain sleeping for a very long time. For newer fans, maybe this is the first time you have heard of this dispute. If so, I hope you have appreciated this survey.
Yes, I realise I am a shameless anti-winger, but in terms of this essay’s wider argument, I think the point still stands. The evidence that Tolkien’s Balrogs were wingless up until The Lord of the Rings is overwhelming, and there is insufficient evidence, both in Rings itself, and in the Hithlum Passage, that Tolkien changed them to winged creatures later on. The metaphorical nature of the Bridge of Khazad-dûm’s description, for me, is only confirmed by the drafts, and by the circumstantial evidence as to Balrogs’ lack of flight. Certainly, others will disagree – but then no-one ever changes their mind on this subject. Essays like this can only ever be an attempt to organise one’s own mind, not to convince others. Well, that, and making one’s time in government-mandated lockdown as productive as possible.