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?
What? Are you still here? Why? I thought I made it pretty clear – Balrogs do not have wings. End of research topic.
"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.
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:
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]:
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).
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:
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:
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:
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:
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.
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
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:
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.
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:
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:
And in support of that last point, I'll quote Christopher Tolkien.
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.