blunt essays with sharp points

Wings of the Balrogs

by Scrvpvlvs
Feb 22, 2002 5:48 PM–
Of the Maiar many were drawn to his splendour in the days of his greatness, and remained in that allegiance down into his darkness; and others he corrupted afterwards to his service with lies and treacherous gifts. Dreadful among these spirits were the Valaraukar, the scourges of fire that in Middle-earth were called the Balrogs, demons of terror.
—J. R. R. Tolkien, The Silmarillion


This article answers The Encyclopedia of Arda: Balrogs. The cited entry presents two sides of a controversy as to whether the Balrog of Moria has wings (and, by extension, whether all Balrogs have wings), and offers an argument to the effect that both camps are right.

Though Balrogs makes many good points, the truth is that both camps, as presented in the entry, are wrong. Balrogs fails in its key argument: that either a literal reading or a figurative reading is equally supported by the passages describing the Balrog of Moria, and hence that the reading one chooses depends only on one’s preconceptions.


The passages in question are from The Fellowship of the Ring (FOtR):

the shadow about it reached out like two vast wings
suddenly it drew itself up to a great height, and its wings were spread from wall to wall

Balrogs suggests that anyone who finds it hard to see the its wings were spread passage as figurative should try substituting an un-Balroglike form for wings, so as to make the passage impossible to read literally. This exercise is proposed as evidence that the passage can be read equally either way. But the argument is hoist by its own petard when it tries tentacles. For we do not know until we read the passage itself that wings are Balroglike and tentacles are not. The passages themselves are the sources of the idea that the Balrog of Moria has wings (real or figurative). Hence there can be no preconceptions before reading the passage. If, instead of wings, Tolkien had written tentacles, this debate would have been about tentacles, and it would have been wings which were un-Balroglike! So substitution of one metaphor for another proves nothing. If the question of wings can be resolved at all, the passages themselves must be searched for clues to the incoherency of one or another interpretation. This search can be done without assuming a particular result: in fact, such a search presupposes that one does not know in advance what the result will be.

The Balrog’s wings dilemma is simple. If the wings are real, several events presented in The Lord of the Rings and Quenta Silmarillion are nonsense. As Balrogs asks, if Balrogs have real wings, why don’t they use them? The has-wings camp are reduced to absurd claims and out-and-out invention to explain this away. And the passage itself describes them as like wings: in other words, not real wings. But if the wings are a figure of speech, the second phrase is very poorly written metaphor; and yet we know that Tolkien was a skilled writer who turned many a poetic phrase.

The has-wings camp go wrong when they demand that the wings are working appendages of the Balrog. Then they must invent reasons why a winged creature did not fly in various situations where it would have been natural, such as falling from a great height. Balrogs seem fated to fall to their deaths! Balrogs concedes good evidence to the figurative camp that Balrogs have no actual ability to fly. This evidence I will not belabor here.

The figurative camp go wrong when they demand that the its wings were spread passage is metaphor: for by making it so, they implicitly ascribe two faults to the passage which are not adequately explained away by Balrogs. (i) The passage, if metaphor, is very awkwardly constructed: awkwardly enough to be misunderstood as plain descriptive text (or this debate would not exist). This is hard to swallow, because we know that Tolkien is a skilled writer who turns many a poetic phrase. It is too simple to construct a less awkward metaphor, as:

Suddenly it drew itself up to a great height, a smoldering vulture.

(ii) The passage, if metaphor, is mixed metaphor. Consider the context:

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. (FOtR)

The figurative camp would have Tolkien mix a wings metaphor and a storm metaphor for the Balrog’s shadow in the same sentence, again hard to swallow. This, then, is why the argument about preconceptions is a failure. The figurative reading tacitly assumes that Tolkien writes the passage badly, and the descriptive reading doesn’t. They are not equally plausible as Balrogs would have us believe.

But if a figurative reading is unsupportable, and a descriptive reading leads to absurdity, how, then, the dilemma to be resolved? By distinguishing, as Tolkien always does, the Balrog’s own form from the zone of shadow and terror it carries with it:

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. (FOtR)

The Balrog itself is never said to have wings or an actual ability to fly. It is the Balrog’s shadow which appears like wings. The figurative camp concede that the shadow of the Balrog is mutable: after all, the figure of speech only makes sense if the shadow actually reached out like wings and then spread from wall to wall. In this they are right. They go wrong only when they insist that the description refers to the size, general motion, and menacing terror of the shadow, but not to the particular form it took.

For why should we not conclude that the shadow, as plainly described, took the particular form of two vast wings, which the Balrog then spread menacingly from wall to wall? This is the solution to the dilemma. On one hand, it does not require us to believe that Balrogs have wings and yet regularly fall to their deaths. On the other hand, it does not require us to believe that Tolkien would write such a poor metaphor. And the plain meanings (whether descriptive or figurative) of all passages involving Balrogs are preserved: they need not be perverted or amended or explained away by well-meaning Tolkien fans.


Though the dilemma would seem to be solved, there is another point to consider, which seemingly unhinges not only anything Balrogs, the has-wings camp, or the figurative camp might say about the anatomy of Balrogs, but my own arguments also. This point must be raised and laid to rest before anything can be concluded definitely about the Balrog’s wings.

In Tolkien’s mythology, the Great Ones (Ainur) are the race of spirits created in the beginning, who sang the Great Song of the world, the pattern of its creation. Many then chose to enter into the new world and labor to bring it to life. The leaders of these are called the Powers (Valar), and the rest who aid them in labor are called the Hands (Maiar). Bodies are merely clothing to the Great Ones, to be put on or dissolved at their will. The Balrogs are of that race, as are the Wizards or Wise Ones (Istari), and Sauron, Ungoliant, and other powerful characters of Middle-Earth. This suggests that Balrogs have the power to clothe themselves at will in any body they choose, rendering moot all arguments about their supposed anatomy.

Of the Powers, Tolkien wrote that they took to themselves shape and hue, but may walk, if they will, unclad, and then even the Eldar [elves] cannot clearly perceive them. (Ainulindalë) Consider the greatest Great One, Melkor (Arises In Might), who rebelled and was named Morgoth (Black Enemy). He also took visible form, but because of his mood and the malice that burned in him that form was dark and terrible. And he descended upon Arda [Realm – that is, the Earth] in power and majesty greater than any other of the Valar, as a mountain that wades in the sea and has its head above the clouds and is clad in ice and crowned with smoke and fire; and the light of the eyes of Melkor was like a flame that withers with heat and pierces with a deadly cold. (Ainulindalë) The same power is given to the Hands. Arien (Sunmaid), the Hand which guides the vessel of the Sun, forsook the form and raiment which like the Valar she had worn there, and she was as a naked flame, terrible in the fullness of her spendour. (Quenta Silmarillion)

The bodies worn by the Great Ones are not merely reflections of their thought, but forms of their own choosing. Tolkien wrote that the shapes wherein the Great Ones array themselves are not at all times like to the shapes of the kings and queens of the Children of Ilúvatar; for at times they may clothe themselves in their own thought, made visible in forms of majesty and dread. (Ainulindalë) Melkor once hid himself and passed from place to place as a cloud in the hills. (Quenta Silmarillion) Melkor brought many of the Hands into his evil service, including Sauron (The Abhorred), his chief lieutenant. Sauron, in one battle, shifted shape, from wolf to serpent, and from monster to his own accustomed form, and afterward took the form of a vampire, great as a dark cloud across the moon; and, at another time in the Third Age, a mask he still could wear so that if he wished he might deceive the eyes of Men, seeming to them wise and fair. (Quenta Silmarillion)

The Balrogs (corruption of Valaraukar, Demons of Power) were those Hands who first adhered to [Melkor] in the days of his splendour, and became most like him in their corruption: their hearts were of fire, but they were cloaked in darkness, and terror went before them; they had whips of flame. (Quenta Silmarillion) Thus their accustomed form reflected that of Melkor, who began with the desire of Light, but when he could not possess it for himself alone, he descended through fire and wrath into a great burning, down into Darkness. And darkness he used most in his evil works upon Arda, and filled it with fear for all living things. (Valaquenta)

So why should the Balrogs be trapped in their accustomed form and not simply grow functioning wings when convenient? Because the creative power can go out of the Great Ones and into their forms, creations, and servants, leaving them too weak thereafter to take form as they choose.

Consider Melkor (Morgoth), once the greatest of the Powers, who became so weak that he completely lost his ability to change shape, and feared even the Hands. For he was yet as one of the Valar, and could change his form, or walk unclad, as could his brethren; though that power he was soon to lose for ever. [...] [A]nd he put on again the form that he had worn as the tyrant of Utumno: a dark Lord, tall and terrible. In that form he remained ever after. It was at that time that he gave so much power to Ungoliant (Gloom Weaver), one of the Great Ones in his service, that he became vulnerable to her and he had to be rescued from her webs by the Balrogs. (Quenta Silmarillion) And Tolkien writes that Arien [Sunmaid] Morgoth feared with a great fear, but but dared not come nigh her, having indeed no more the power; for as he grew in malice, and sent forth from himself the evil that he conceived in lies and creatures of wickedness, his might passed into them and was dispersed, and he himself became ever more bound to the earth […] . (Quenta Silmarillion)

Of Sauron Tolkien says his body was destroyed more than once, to be reformed each time at the expense of his own power. Notably, he brooded in the dark, until he had wrought for himself a new shape; and it was terrible, for his fair semblance had departed for ever when he was cast into the abyss at the drowning of Númenor. (Quenta Silmarillion) It is also said of Sauron that he sought to regain the One Ring for the reason that he had put much of his own power into it and was too weak without it to dominate Middle-Earth. (FOtR)

So it can be concluded that the Balrogs are never said to change shape because they, like their kin and masters Melkor and Sauron, committed so much of their power to their own terrible forms and weapons that they were unable to appear in any other guise thereafter.


I wrote to Mark Fisher, creator of the award-winning site, The Encyclopedia of Arda, praising his Balrogs entry and welcoming his comments on my article above. He responded, graciously offering to link his article to mine.

He said he intended to describe the controversy evenhandedly, not to take a forceful position. Still, Balrogs makes definite assertions. It argues that the Balrog’s wings can only be functional limbs or simile. The debate normally focuses on arguments about which of these two obvious interpretations is the correct one. (Balrogs) It leans heavily to the view that the Balrog’s wings cannot have been functional, leaving them to be a mere figure of speech.

Mark agreed it is hard to avoid my conclusion that the Balrog’s shadow took on the actual form of huge wings, but he also had an interesting new point to make in defense of the figurative camp: Tolkien frequently connects metaphorical wings to storms, and may have done so in the passages under study. I answered this argument in the letter excerpted below.

[…] I am intrigued by your idea that Tolkien links wings and storms throughout his work. I had never considered it. In light of the evidence you say is available, I am willing, provisionally, to accept it. From your examples, it seems he also links wings and battles, and battles and storms. I am sure that with this in mind my appreciation of his prose will be enhanced.

Based on your observation – you seem to suggest – Tolkien could have intended the wings of the Balrog to be figurative limbs of the figurative incipient storm. I still contend that the passages under study, if read as if the wings are figurative, are clumsy, containing a pair of incongruous metaphors. By contrast, your examples illustrate Tolkien’s masterful employment of coherent metaphor, including multiple metaphors within a passage.

Your first example gives a storm wings.

Of Númenor he spoke, its glory and its fall, and the return of the Kings of Men to Middle-earth out of the deeps of the Sea, borne upon the wings of storm. (FoR II 2)

This is no mixed metaphor, because the storm is devastatingly real. The nine ships of Elendil were blown helplessly eastward by the black gale which cast them away upon the shores of Middle-earth. (Akallabêth) Here, the wings stand for the powerful, rapid motility of a storm.

Similarly, your second example likens a storm to a battle on the wing. (I have extended the excerpt.)

The skirts of the storm were lifting, ragged and wet, and the main battle had passed to spread its great wings over the Emyn Muil; upon which the dark thought of Sauron brooded for a while. Thence it turned, smiting the Vale of Anduin with hail and lightning, and casting its shadow upon Minas Tirith with threat of war. Then, lowering in the mountains, and gathering its great spires, it rolled on slowly over Gondor and the skirts of Rohan, until far away the Riders on the plain saw its black towers moving behind the sun, as they rode into the West. (TT IV 1)

I do see two metaphors in this passage, but they are not incongruous. Tolkien creates an effective contrast between (i) the weak periphery of the storm, figured as ragged, wet skirts, and (ii) the powerful central thunderheads of the storm, figured as black battle towers on the wing. Again, the wings stand for the powerful, rapid motility of a storm.

Your third example likens the coming conflict to a storm on the wing.

“Now we know that the storm is indeed nigh!” “It is upon you,” said Gandalf. “I have ridden on its wings.” (RoK V 1)

Yet again, the wings stand for the powerful, rapid motility of a storm, this time a figurative storm of war.

These examples are very consistent in their metaphorical use of wings, which is very different from the use of wings in the passages under study. The wings are given to the Balrog, not to the storm. They are not limbs of the storm: they appear two paragraphs before any mention of a storm. The wings do not stand for the powerful, rapid motility of a storm: they expressly describe (or stand for) the reach of the Balrog’s shadow. In short, the wings and the storm are not linked in this case. Thus, if the wings are figurative, they and the storm clash, both incongruously standing for the Balrog’s shape. But, if the wings are descriptive, they can easily bear the metaphor of (i) Gandalf figured as wizened tree, bent before (ii) the Balrog’s shape figured as storm. […]

Mark generously responded again. He agreed my analysis of Tolkien’s use of the wing metaphor may well be right, though not unassailable. He observed that, in his third example, the spread of the wings of storm over the Emyn Muil is not so unlike the spread of the Balrog’s wings. This I conceded in my reply.

[…] A point well taken. As you soundly argued in your original article, if anything is proved by the years of debate on the question, it is that there’s no incontrovertible answer (unless perhaps if new facts come to light). […]

In the end, I remain confident that my reading is correct because (i) it is direct rather than counterintuitive, (ii) it requires no elaborate apologetics and inventions in its defense, and (iii) it does not lead to the sort of elementary inconsistencies that Tolkien took great pains to avoid in his writing. That is, it pretty well makes moot the objections in both camps.

Commentary is welcomed.

(go to complete article)





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