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Research Topic: Balrog Wings

By Ian Mander, 5 December 2005, updates 6 December 2005 and 3 May 2008, updated 14 October 2018.

Question: Do Balrogs have wings?

Answer: No.


What? Are you still here? Why? I thought I made it pretty clear – Balrogs do not have wings. End of research topic.

Huh. Alright then. I guess it's appropriate to have this article in Aqualab rather than The Tolkien Enthusiast, since it's going to put cold water on the stupid idea that Balrogs have wings.


"But It Says So" Objection

The first and last resort of the pro-wings camp is to point out the text says the Balrog has wings.

... its wings were spread from wall to wall; ...

Actually, no, it doesn't. What it does to is refer to "wings" which have already been introduced to the reader, either explicitly or implicitly. That's simply the way the sentence reads. So if the Balrog wings are literal, flappy, flying wings we have two possibilities. Either the reader has been told in the story already (ie, explicit knowledge), or they already know that Balrogs have wings (ie, implicit knowledge). I liken it to a person knowing that sheep have wool rather than coarse hair or fur like most animals. They cannot be expected to know such a thing unless they have been told or have met a sheep themselves. We'll explore these two options a little more:

1. Explicit knowledge. That is, the knowledge of the Balrog's wings as literal flying wings has already been introduced within The Lord of the Rings. This we know is not the case, as the sentence in question is the only example in the book which has been interpreted by some as being evidence that Balrogs have wings. Nowhere before this passage has the reader been treated to a description of the Balrog having flying wings, even when good opportunities arose for them to be described. Therefore explicit knowledge that the Balrog has literal wings can be ruled out – Professor Tolkien never previously mentioned them.

2. Implicit knowledge. That is, the knowledge that the Balrog has wings is something that the reader already "knows" and so reads the sentence accordingly. Let's get real. This is the first time the reader will have encountered a Balrog either in The Hobbit or The Lord of the Rings so cannot be expected to know it has wings.

Therefore from a literary point of view the belief Balrogs have wings depends on a preconception that Balrogs have wings. Such an understanding of the sentence cannot be justified from a literary viewpoint unless it is read with that preconception.

We do, however, have explicit knowledge of what the wings actually refer to: shadow, a major feature of the Balrog, both recently introduced and recently described. In the context Professor Tolkien is clearly elaborating on that, turning a simile into a metaphor.

But the question remains, why would people have a preconception that Balrogs have wings? The next section comes up with an answer.


Awkward Metaphor Objection

One objection by the pro-wings lobby (or at least by the anti-no-wings lobby – there are some who like to sit on the fence, for example by claiming the wings were real flappy wings, but made of shadow – ha!) is that Professor Tolkien would never have made it so ambiguous if he hadn't intended to make it clear that Balrogs have wings. For example, this quote from Wings of the Balrogs [broken link]:

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.

One word: Dwarves. Prof Tolkien was indeed a skilled writer – indeed, he helped write the Oxford English Dictionary – but he still made mistakes. Dwarves was one of them. He was quite embarrassed by that one, as the plural of dwarf is dwarfs. He figured he could get away with it though, since it refered to a particular race. And it was his story.

However we do not need to resort to the claim that he made a mistake here, though, because we know that since he was a skilled writer we can expect him to do skilled things with words. His clever use of a metaphor in this situation, expanding on an acknowledged simile on the same topic shortly before, is just such an instance.

Perhaps the biggest problem with the "awkward metaphor" argument is that while Tolkien was a skilled writer many of his audience are unfortunately not particularly skilled readers. (Sorry guys – some of you are just thick.) This is a problem exacerbated by a reader's first experience of Balrogs often coming at a young age, often before they know what a metaphor is, or how to recognise one. I first read the story when I was 14 – many are much younger when they first read it, so it's no surprise that so many misread it.

In other words, if there is a problem here it is not with the metaphor, but with those reading it.

Therefore people read the sentence with a preconception that Balrogs have wings because they (or others whom they respect) have simply misunderstood it.

Often the misunderstanding is deliberate, or at least indulged, since the people concerned think a Balrog with wings is "cooler" somehow. They're not happy with the way Tolkien wrote of it, without wings, so they create their own ideas. Good for them, I guess, as long as they don't try to claim that's the way they were written.


Shadow in Context

Not once in all the online discussion have I seen the infamous wings sentence quoted in its full context. Let's do that now (with emphasis added).

First impressions:

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; ...

It came to the edge of the fire and the light faded as if a cloud had bent over it. Then with a rush it leaped across the fissure. ... Its streaming mane kindled, and blazed behind it.

Not surprisingly, mention is made of what it does and what it looks like: It leapt (not flew) and had a streaming mane (not non-existant wings). Similies are clearly used throughout the description; clouds don't bend over things!

The Balrog gets closer:

The dark figure streaming with fire raced toward them. ... the fiery shadow halted.

Again, mention is made of what the Balrog does and what it looks like: It races, strongly implying moving quickly over the ground (still not using its non-existent wings) and is a shadow. Here the shadow appears to refer to the Balrog itself rather than specifically to the shadow surrounding the Balrog.

The most (in)famous section:

His enemy halted again, facing him, and the shadow about it reached out like two vast wings.

...

‘... Go back to the Shadow! ... ’

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; ... like a wizened tree before the onset of a storm.

Hey, that bit about the darkness (remember seeing that?) – that's important, that's relevant, as you could easily edit it thus: "But the darkness grew [and] spread from wall to wall." Such an edit would not change its meaning at all.

Important too is the bit about Gandalf still being visible even with the growing shadow. Somehow it manages to be lost in all the online arguments, but this is the actual context of the "wings" being spread from wall to wall. If they were actual flappy wings the line about Gandalf still being visible doesn't make sense if the wings were spread straight out to the sides. They would have to be wrapping around him to bother mentioning it. Once again, physical flappy wings simply doesn't make sense.

Moving on, the last relevant bits in this particular Balrog meeting:

With a bound the Balrog leaped full upon the bridge.

...

With a terrible cry the Balrog fell forward, and its shadow plunged down and vanished.

Obviously, creatures with wings don't leap and fall, and again we can infer its shadow is an integral part of it, not something it leaves behind it as it travels. Artistic depictions of smoke left behind by this (or any other) Balrog are incorrect (inless the smoke is from things the flaming Balrog has burnt).

To summarise the information in context we have on this beastie, with Shadow (capital S) referring to the darkness surrounding the Balrog:

    1. The Balrog itself is like a great shadow, with perhaps a man-shape at its centre. In other words, the Shadow is part of the Balrog.
    2. The Shadow around the Balrog dims firelight, so it's a palpable, tangible thing.
    3. Even on fire the Balrog is dark and is a shadow/surrounded by Shadow.
    4. The Shadow extends around the Balrog (a clear simile).
    5. The Shadow/darkness grows ...
    6. And the Shadow now reaches from wall to wall (an actual description, not just an elegant metaphor using wings – see below for more significance of this).
    7. Gandalf can still be seen through the Shadow ...
    8. And looks like he's about to be hit by something powerful (a clear simile).
    9. The Balrog couldn't fly when it really needed to.
    10. The Balrog's Shadow fell with it. In other words, the Shadow is part of the Balrog (which is where this list started).

Simple isn't it? Nowhere is there even any room allowed by the test for big flappy wings, but instead Professor Tolkien used multiple similes and a clever metaphor to increase the emotional and literary impact of his description.


Balrog 747

Durin's Bridge was 50 foot (~15 m) long, spanning a chasm. If the Balrog's wings were real flappy things and spread from wall to wall the Balrog would have a 100-200 foot (30-60 m) wingspan. But the Balrog was described as being (maybe) man-shaped. The man-shaped people I know don't have huge wings.

Why don't we put the necessarily huge wings in perspective? Imagine you (being man-shaped) were only the height of your head. Now stretch your arms out to each sides. That's the minimum length we're talking about the wings being. Here's a roughly 13 foot (4 m) high Balrog (apologies to Leonardo da Vinci) with 100 foot (30 m) wings:

And a more man-sized 6.5 foot (2 m) Balrog with 200 foot (60 m) wings, at half the above scale:

You know, that reminds me of some graffiti my brother saw in a gym; "When I stick out my lats I feel like a jumbo jet." Yep, the second winged Balrog pictured has the wingspan of a Boeing 747. I have to ask: Why wouldn't Professor Tolkien mention something like that if Balrogs really had wings? Of course! Everyone already knows Balrogs have wings and knew exactly what it was doing with its wings at every moment of the encounter, so there was no need to describe those stupidly enormous flappy things or what they were doing when the Balrog was doing all that leaping, jumping and falling and how they weren't getting in the Balrog's way at all.

Don't forget, this thing was supposed to have lived in an underground Dwarven city for over a thousand years. With all those Dwarf-sized corridors maybe the poor thing just wanted a chance to stretch its wings from wall to wall.

Ridiculous. We cannot possibly take the sentence as referring to actual flappy wings.


Unanswered problems with the Moria Balrog having wings and other idiocies

  1. Tolkien never once described the wings, apart from mentioning that its "wings" reached from wall to wall – a ridiculous size if they were physical wings, as the diagrams above show.

  2. The Balrog never once flew, especially when it would have been highly advantageous to do so.

  3. The Balrog fell at least twice when it would have been expected to fly to safety.

  4. Seemingly important reasons for it not flying to safety (eg, its wings got shredded by Gandalf's white flash, it was too tired to flap, etc) were not even hinted at, let alone described in detail.

  5. Gandalf told the rest of the Fellowship to fly (you fools!) when they didn't have wings. If metaphorical use of language is suddenly not allowed was it just his terror at getting pulled into a chasm by a winged, non-flying Balrog making him say stupid things?

There is, of course, an easy answer to the last problem listed. Gandalf, like the Balrog, was a Maia (angel). So he had wings just like the Balrog did. A few points directly related to the last list:

  1. Like the Balrog, Gandalf's wings were never described in any detail, or even mentioned because everyone knows that he had wings, so it was unnecessary to describe them. This is convincing proof in itself that Gandalf had wings.

  2. Gandalf, unlike the Balrog, flew several times by Eagle Air (one trip he was even described as being as light as a feather). He also was once considering leaping from the top of Orthanc – a feat which would obviously have required flight. Finally, he flew down some steps in Moria shortly before battling the Balrog, clearly showing he must have had wings.

  3. Like the Balrog, Gandalf didn't fly to safety when he needed to at the chasm, which proves beyond doubt that he had wings.

  4. Unfortunately the important reason for Gandalf not flying to safety was actually described in some detail in the book – the falling Balrog was too heavy and dragged him into the chasm. But more important was what wasn't described – that it was really because the Balrog was flying downwards and Gandalf was trying to fly upwards.

  5. Gandalf told the Fellowship to fly because they all had wings and the fools should have been using them to escape. Like the Balrog and Gandalf, they weren't using them when they should and had to be reminded to use them.

So in a nutshell it's all just a load of Red Bull. Balrogs do not have wings... but the Balrog's sword does have wings.

From out of the shadow a red sword leaped flaming.

Glamdring glittered white in answer.

There was a ringing clash and a stab of white fire. The Balrog fell back and its sword flew up in molten fragments.

End of research topic.


Further supporting evidence and conclusion

OK, a bit more. A good article on the topic can be found at theOneRing.net's GreenBooks, while an intelligently written Encyclopedia of Arda article on Balrogs points out that Professor Tolkien did indeed directly associate shadow with wings in at least one other instance – in the Return of the King (Book V, chapter 2), in Malbeth's prophecy about the Paths of the Dead:

Over the land there lies a long shadow,
westward reaching wings of darkness.

So Professor Tolkien's association of the two ideas was clearly not unique to the Balrog's shadow. This gives good weight to the idea that Tolkien was a skilled writer who used language creatively and figuratively, and it leaves us with the following conclusions:

  • There are no good reasons for believing that Balrogs have wings, apart from presupposition and a misguided infantile belief that it's "cooler".

  • There are some rather serious problems with believing Balrogs have wings, such as the complete lack of any mention of any Balrog ever flying*, the necessarily enormous size of the wings (and thereby Balrog) to comply with the misunderstood sentence from The Lord of the Rings, and the necessarily small size of the Balrog (and therefore its wings) to fit in the Chamber of Mazarbul (and through the doorway).

  • * Some claim that "the Hithlum passage" proves Balrogs did fly. The passage is a quote buried in Morgoth's Ring – the tenth of the twelve volumes of The History of Middle-earth, which contains incomplete fragments of stories which were still in the process of being rewritten. It's the only passage in the whole of published Middle-earth lore (outside of the Moria incident) which the Balrog wing supporters have found to prop up the idea of flying Balrogs. It's extremely weak evidence.

    The passage refers to Balrogs passing over the countryside of Hithlum "with winged speed" to rescue Morgoth from Ungoliant. The final version of the passage as it appears in The Silmarillion does not use that phrase, and Professor Tolkien also used the phrase to refer to an Elven horse galloping across a plain. Do I need to point out that Elven horses do not fly in Middle-earth? Do I need to point out again that Professor Tolkien knew what a metaphor is and (ahem) employed them often?

  • There are some very good reasons for believing Balrogs don't have wings, such as various Balrogs not flying when it was necessary to do so.

  • There are no good reasons for not believing Balrogs don't have wings (sorry for all the negatives there), since the only sentence in The Hobbit, The Lord of the Rings and The Silmarillion which might imply they do is very easily and sensibly readable as a metaphor.

And in support of that last point, I'll quote Christopher Tolkien.

I myself never thought that the second mention of the wings of the Balrog had any different signification from the first.

Balrogs don't have wings – it's honestly the simplest way to reconcile the evidence. Winged Balrogs are not cooler than non-winged Balrogs. It's time to grow up. End of research topic. Really.



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