A Balrog (//) is a powerful fictional monster in J. R. R. Tolkien's Middle-earth. One first appeared in print in his high fantasy novel The Lord of the Rings, where the Fellowship of the Ring encounter one known as Durin's Bane in the Mines of Moria. Balrogs appear also in Tolkien's The Silmarillion and other posthumously published books. Balrogs are tall and menacing beings who can shroud themselves in fire, darkness, and shadow. They are armed with fiery whips "of many thongs", and occasionally used long swords.
In Tolkien's later conception, they could not be readily vanquished—a certain stature was required by the would-be hero. Only dragons rivalled their capacity for ferocity and destruction, and during the First Age of Middle-earth, they were among the most feared of Morgoth's forces. Their power came from their nature as Maiar, angelic beings like the Valar. Tolkien invented the name "Balrog", providing an in-universe etymology for it as a word in his invented Sindarin language. He may have gained the idea of a fire demon from his philological study of the Old English word Sigelwara, which he studied in detail in the 1930s. Balrogs appear in the film adaptations of The Lord of the Rings by Ralph Bakshi and Peter Jackson, and in computer and video games based on Middle-earth.
According to the fictional history in The Silmarillion, the evil Vala Melkor corrupted lesser Maiar (angelic beings) to his service, as Balrogs, in the days of his splendour before the making of Arda. Upon the awakening of the Elves, the Valar captured Melkor and destroyed his fortresses Utumno and Angband. But they overlooked the deepest pits, where, with many of Melkor's other allies, the Balrogs fled into hiding. When Melkor returned to Middle-earth from Valinor, now bearing the epithet Morgoth, he was attacked by the evil giant spider Ungoliant; his scream drew the Balrogs out of hiding to his rescue.
Tolkien's conception of Balrogs changed over time. In all his early writing, they are numerous. A host of a thousand is mentioned in the Quenta Silmarillion, while at the storming of Gondolin Balrogs in the hundreds ride on the backs of the Dragons. They are roughly of twice human size, and were occasionally killed in battle by Elves and Men. They were fierce demons, associated with fire, armed with fiery whips of many thongs and claws like steel, and Morgoth delighted in using them to torture his captives.
In the published version of The Lord of the Rings, however, Balrogs became altogether more sinister and more powerful. Christopher Tolkien notes the difference, saying that in earlier versions they were "less terrible and certainly more destructible". He quotes a very late marginal note that was not incorporated into the text saying "at most seven" ever existed; though in the Annals of Aman, written as late as 1958, Melkor still commands "a host of Balrogs". In later writings they ceased to be creatures, but are instead Maiar, lesser Ainur like Gandalf or Sauron, spirits of fire whom Melkor had corrupted before the creation of the World. Power of the order of Gandalf's was necessary to destroy them, as when Gandalf at the Bridge of Khazad-dûm tells the others "This is a foe beyond any of you."
As Maiar, only their physical forms could be destroyed. Tolkien says of the Valar (including the Maiar) that they can change their shape at will, and move unclad in the raiment of the world, meaning invisible and without form. But it seems that Morgoth, Sauron, and their associated Maiar could lose this ability: Morgoth, for example, was unable to heal his burns from the Silmarils or wounds from Fingolfin and the eagle Thorondor; and Sauron lost his ability to assume a fair-seeming form after his physical body was destroyed in the downfall of Númenor.
Tolkien does not address this specifically for Balrogs, though in his later conception, as at the Bridge of Khazad-dûm, the Balrog appears "like a great shadow, in the middle of which was a dark form, of man-shape maybe, yet greater". Though previously the Balrog had entered the "large square chamber" of Mazarbul, at the Bridge of Khazad-dûm it "drew itself to a great height, and its wings spread from wall to wall" in the vast hall. The Balrog's size and shape, therefore, are not given precisely. When Gandalf threw it from the peak of Zirakzigil, the Balrog "broke the mountain-side where he smote it in his ruin". Whether Balrogs had wings (and if so, whether they could fly) is unclear. This is due both to Tolkien's changing conception of Balrogs, and to the imprecise but suggestive and possibly figurative description of the Balrog that confronted Gandalf.
The Balrog of Moria used a flaming sword ("From out of the shadow a red sword leapt flaming") and a many-thonged whip that "whined and cracked" in its battle with Gandalf. In The Silmarillion, they also used black axes and maces. Earlier writings also speak of steel claws and iron mail.
In earlier drafts of The Lord of the Rings, some further indications of Tolkien's evolving conceptions appear, as when
At this writing Tolkien contemplated an edict of the Valar concerning Balrogs, having Gandalf challenge the Balrog by saying "It is forbidden for any Balrog to come beneath the sky since Fionwë son of Manwë overthrew Thangorodrim."
Gothmog is developed in successive versions of Silmarillion material. He is physically massive and strong, and in one version he is some 12 feet tall. He wields a black axe and whip of flame as his weapons. He holds the titles of the Lord of the Balrogs, the High Captain of Angband, and Marshal of the Hosts. In the Second Battle, Dagor-nuin-Giliath, he leads a force that ambushes Fëanor and wounds him mortally. He leads Balrogs, Orc-hosts, and Dragons as Morgoth's commander in the field in the Fifth Battle, Nírnaeth Arnoediad, and slays Fingon, High King of the Noldor. In that same battle, he captures Húrin of Dor-lómin, who had slain his personal guard of Battle-trolls, and brings him to Angband. As Marshal of the Hosts, he is in command of the Storming of Gondolin. He is about to kill Tuor when Ecthelion of the Fountain, a Noldorin Elf-lord, intervenes. Gothmog fights Ecthelion in single combat, and they kill each other.
In The Book of Lost Tales, Tolkien describes Kosomot, the original version of Gothmog, as a son of Morgoth and the ogress Fluithuin or Ulbandi. Gothmog is Sindarin for "Dread Oppressor". Kosomot is often considered Gothmog's Quenya name; however, in the Quenya name-list of The Fall of Gondolin another version appears, Kosomoko.
In Tolkien's early Lay of the Children of Húrin is "Lungorthin, Lord of Balrogs". This might be another name for Gothmog, though Christopher Tolkien thought it more likely that Lungorthin was simply "a Balrog lord".
This Balrog appears in The Lord of the Rings, encountered by the Fellowship of the Ring in the Mines of Moria. It survived the defeat of Morgoth in the War of Wrath, escaping to hide beneath the Misty Mountains. For more than five millennia, the Balrog remained in its deep hiding place at the roots of Caradhras, one of the Mountains of Moria, until in the Third Age, the mithril-miners of the Dwarf-kingdom of Khazad-dûm disturbed it. The Balrog killed Durin VI, the Dwarf-King of Khazad-dûm, whereafter it was called Durin's Bane by the Dwarves. Avarice, principally for mithril, drove the dwarves to go too deep and awaken the Balrog.
The Dwarves attempted to fight the Balrog, but its power was far too great for them. In their efforts to hold Khazad-dûm against it, many Dwarves were killed: Durin's successor Náin ruled for only a year. The survivors were forced to flee. This disaster reached the Silvan Elves of Lothlórien, many of whom fled the "Nameless Terror". From this time Khazad-dûm was known as Moria, Sindarin for "Black Pit" or "Black Chasm".
For another 500 years, Moria was left to the Balrog; though according to Unfinished Tales, Orcs crept in soon after the Dwarves were driven out, leading to Nimrodel's flight. Sauron began to put his plans for war into effect, and he sent Orcs and Trolls to the Misty Mountains to bar the passes.
During the reign of Thráin II, the Dwarves attempted to retake Moria in the War of the Dwarves and Orcs, culminating in the Battle of Azanulbizar before the eastern gate of Moria. This was a victory for the Dwarves, but the Balrog prevented them from reoccupying Moria. Dáin II Ironfoot, having slain the Orc Azog near the gate, perceived the terror of the Balrog within and warned Thráin that Moria was unachievable until some greater force could remove the Balrog. The Dwarves departed and resumed their exile. Despite Dáin's warning, Balin made another attempt to retake Moria. His party was initially successful in starting a colony, but was massacred a few years later.
The Fellowship of the Ring travelled through Moria on the quest to destroy the One Ring in Mount Doom. They were attacked in the Chamber of Mazarbul by Orcs. The Fellowship fled through a side door, but when the wizard Gandalf the Grey tried to place a "shutting spell" on the door to block the pursuit behind them, the Balrog entered the chamber on the other side and cast a "terrible" counterspell. Gandalf spoke a word of Command to stay the door, but the door shattered and the chamber collapsed. Gandalf was severely weakened by this encounter. The company fled with him, but the Orcs and the Balrog, taking a different route, caught up with them at the Bridge of Khazad-dûm. The Elf Legolas instantly recognized the Balrog and Gandalf tried to hold the bridge against it. As Gandalf faced the Balrog, he proclaimed, "You cannot pass, flame of Udûn!", and broke the bridge beneath the Balrog. As it fell, the Balrog wrapped its whip about Gandalf's knees, dragging him to the brink. As the Fellowship looked on in horror, Gandalf cried "Fly, you fools!" and plunged into the darkness below.
After a long fall, the two crashed into a deep subterranean lake, which extinguished the flames of the Balrog's body; however it remained "a thing of slime, stronger than a strangling snake". They fought in the water; the Balrog clutched at Gandalf to strangle him, and Gandalf hewed the Balrog with his sword, until finally the Balrog fled into the primordial tunnels of Moria's underworld. Gandalf pursued the monster for eight days, until they climbed to the peak of Zirakzigil, where the Balrog was forced to turn and fight, its body erupting into new flame. Here they fought for two days and nights. In the end, the Balrog was defeated and cast down, breaking the mountainside where it fell "in ruin". Gandalf himself died shortly afterwards, but he returned to Middle-earth with greater powers, as Gandalf the White, "until his task was finished". Critics such as Jerram Barrs have recognised this as a transfiguration similar to that of Jesus Christ, suggesting Gandalf's prophet-like status.
The critic Clive Tolley notes that the contest between Gandalf and the Balrog on Durin's bridge somewhat recalls a shamanistic contest, but that a far closer parallel is medieval vision literature, giving the example of St Patrick's Purgatory, and even Dante's Divine Comedy.
The name "Balrog", but not the meaning, emerges early in Tolkien's work: it appears in the Fall of Gondolin, one of the earliest texts Tolkien wrote, around 1918. Tolkien began a poem in alliterative verse about the battle of Glorfindel with the Balrog in that text, where both were killed by falling into the abyss, just like Gandalf and the Balrog in The Lord of the Rings.
An early list of names described Balrog as "an Orc-word with no pure equivalent in Tolkien's invented language of Quenya: 'borrowed Malaroko-' ". In Gnomish (another of Tolkien's invented languages), Balrog is parsed as balc 'cruel' + graug 'demon', with a Quenya equivalent Malkarauke. Variant forms of the latter include Nalkarauke and Valkarauke. By the 1940s, when Tolkien began writing The Lord of the Rings, he had come to think of Balrog as Noldorin balch 'cruel' + rhaug 'demon', with a Quenya equivalent Malarauko (from nwalya- 'to torture' + rauko 'demon'). The last etymology, appearing in the invented languages Quendi and Eldar, derives Balrog as the Sindarin translation of the Quenya form Valarauko (Demon of Might). This etymology was published in The Silmarillion. Gandalf on the bridge of Khazad-dûm calls the Balrog "flame of Udûn" (Udûn being the Sindarin name of Morgoth's fortress Utumno).
Tolkien was a professional philologist, a scholar of comparative and historical linguistics. The Balrog and other concepts in his writings derived from the Old English word Sigelwara, used in texts such as the Codex Junius to mean "Aethiopian". He wondered why the Anglo-Saxons would have had a word with this meaning, conjecturing that it had formerly had a different meaning. He emended the word to Sigelhearwan, and in his essay "Sigelwara Land", explored in detail the two parts of the word. He stated that Sigel meant "both sun and jewel", the former as it was the name of the Sun rune *sowilō (ᛋ), the latter connotation from Latin sigillum, a seal. He decided that Hearwa was related to Old English heorð, "hearth", and ultimately to Latin carbo, "soot". He suggested from all this that Sigelhearwan implied "rather the sons of Muspell than of Ham", a class of demons in Northern mythology "with red-hot eyes that emitted sparks and faces black as soot". The Tolkien scholar Tom Shippey states that this both "helped to naturalise the Balrog" and contributed to the Silmarils, which combined the nature of the sun and jewels. The Aethiopians suggested to Tolkien the Haradrim, a dark southern race of men.
Old Norse, Old English
Joe Abbott, writing in Mythlore, notes that the Old Norse Voluspa mentions that the fire-demon Surt carries both a sword and a sviga laevi, a deadly whipping-stick or switch; he suggests that it is "a short step" from that to the Balrog's flaming whip. Abbott makes a connection, too, with the Beowulf poet's account of the monster Grendel: he notes that Tolkien wrote that Grendel was "physical enough in form and power, but vaguely felt as belonging to a different order of being, one allied to the malevolent 'ghosts' of the dead", and compares this with Aragorn's description of the Balrog as "both a shadow and a flame, strong and terrible".
Moria and the Battle of Maldon
Tolkien felt acutely the error made by the Anglo-Saxon commander, the ealdorman Byrhtnoth, at the Battle of Maldon, allowing the Vikings to step ashore and win the battle. Alexander Bruce, in Mythlore, comments that Tolkien may have used the battle with the Balrog on the narrow bridge in Moria to "correct the behavior of the self-serving Byrhtnoth through the actions of the self-less Gandalf". Bruce notes that the Tolkien scholar Janet Brennan Croft also contrasts the two leaders.
The fall of Gondolin and the fall of Troy
There are multiple parallels between the Fall of Gondolin and the fall of Troy, as told in the Iliad, but again the tales differ. The Elf Ecthelion leads the charge against the Orcs, and fights Gothmog, the greatest Balrog; they wound each other and both fall into the king's fountain in Gondolin; both drown. Bruce compares this to how Aeneas rallies the Trojans, but fails, and sees king Priam perish.
The Balrog in Ralph Bakshi's 1978 animated version had large wings like those of a bat. Peter Jackson's 2001 and 2002 films The Fellowship of the Ring and The Two Towers had similar wings, expressing its "satanic, demonic nature". Earlier artists such as Ted Nasmith had depicted Balrogs without wings; Jackson's films used the design of Tolkien illustrator John Howe, making wings standard, in the same way that Jackson has made pointed ears standard for elves.
Balrogs appear in Middle-earth computer and video games and merchandise. In the real-time strategy game The Lord of the Rings: The Battle for Middle-earth, and its sequel, both based on Jackson's movies, the Balrog can use its wings, although only in short leaps. In the role-playing game The Lord of the Rings: The Third Age, also based on the Jackson movies, the Balrog uses its wings to fly into the air, and comes crashing down, sending a damaging shockwave of flames at the player. In another game based on Jackson's movies, The Lord of the Rings: Conquest, the Balrog is a playable hero.
A Balrog features in King Gizzard & the Lizard Wizard's 2017 album Murder of the Universe (2017) as a giant reanimated monster. Songwriter Stu Mackenzie explained: "It might not be the Balrog from Middle Earth, but he is a sort of fire demon."
Early Dungeons and Dragons books featured Balrogs among other Middle-earth characters like Hobbits and Ents; after a lawsuit brought by the Tolkien Estate, these Tolkien-specific names were changed, the Balrogs becoming Balor, after the one-eyed monster of Irish mythology.
In taxonomy, a new species of ant in 2017 was named Terataner balrog, for the animal's "dark" lifestyle as a predator, and for its robustly armoured and horned body. A large fossil crocodyliform, Anthracosuchus balrogus, the generic name meaning "coal crocodile", was so named for being found in a mine, like Durin's Bane.
- Eönwë in later versions
- This list identifies each item's location in Tolkien's writings.
- The Silmarillion and its early drafts speak frequently of the whips of fire. The Lays of Beleriand describe Morgoth's prisoners tortured by Balrogs with scourges; and the Balrog in Moria (The Fellowship of the Ring, "The Bridge of Khazad-dûm") is armed explicitly with a "whip of many thongs" or strands.
- The Book of Lost Tales, Part II, "Turambar and the Foalókë", p.85: "yet of all are they [dragons] the most powerful, save it be the Balrogs only."
- The Silmarillion, "Valaquenta"
- The Silmarillion, ch. 3 "Of the Coming of the Elves and the Captivity of Melkor"
- The Lost Road and Other Writings, p. 312, "there came Balrogs one thousand".
- The Book of Lost Tales, Part II, p. 170.
- The Book of Lost Tales, Part II, p. 194: "... it pierced the Balrog's belly nigh his own face (for that demon was double his stature) ...". For comparison, other Maiar are of human size: Olórin (Gandalf), Melian. In Morgoth's Ring p.69, a note by Tolkien states: "The Valar.... most often used shapes of 'human' form, though taller (not gigantic) and more magnificent."
- The Treason of Isengard, p. 197.
- The Book of Lost Tales Part II, p.179 "the number of Balrogs that perished was a marvel and a dread to the hosts of Melkor, for ere that day never had any of the Balrogs been slain by the hand of Elves or Men."
- The Book of Lost Tales, Part II, p. 169.
- Morgoth's Ring, p.80.
- The Book of Lost Tales, Part II, "The Fall of Gondolin", pp. 212–213.
- Morgoth's Ring, pp. 75, 79
- The Fellowship of the Ring, book 2, ch. 5 "The Bridge of Khazad-dûm"
- The Silmarillion, "Ainulindalë", p. 21.
- The Silmarillion ch. 18 "Of the Ruin of Beleriand and the Fall of Fingolfin"
- The Return of the King, Appendix A, Part I, Section (i).
- The Two Towers, book 3, ch. 5 "The White Rider"
- The Silmarillion, "Of the Fifth Battle", pp. 193-4.
- The Book of Lost Tales, Part II, pp. 169, 181, 194.
- The Treason of Isengard, "The Bridge", pp. 197-198
- The Book of Lost Tales, Part II, "The Fall of Gondolin": "… seven dragons of fire are come with Orcs about them and Balrogs upon them …"
- The Book of Lost Tales, Part II, p. 194: "... it pierced the Balrog's belly nigh his own face (for that demon was double his stature) ..."
- The Silmarillion, ch. 13 "Of the Return of the Noldor"
- The Silmarillion, ch. 20, "Of the Fifth Battle: Nirnaeth Arnoediad"
- The Silmarillion, ch. 23, "Of Tuor and the Fall of Gondolin"
- The Book of Lost Tales, Part I, p. 93.
- The Lost Road and Other Writings, "The Etymologies", p. 359, 372.
- The Book of Lost Tales, Part II, p. 216.
- The Lays of Beleriand, p. 102.
- The Return of the King, Appendix A (III).
- The Fellowship of the Ring, book 2, ch. 4 "A Journey in the Dark"
- The Return of the King, Appendix B, "The Tale of Years", "The Third Age" entry for 1980.
- The Fellowship of the Ring, book 2, ch. 3 "The Ring Goes South"
- The Return of the King, Appendix F, Part II
- Unfinished Tales, "The Tale of Galadriel and Celeborn", p. 241.
- The Lost Road and Other Writings, p. 404.
- The Book of Lost Tales, Part I, Appendix: Names in The Book of Lost Tales, p. 250.
- The Lost Road and Other Writings, "The Etymologies", entries for ÑGWAL (p. 377) and RUK (p. 384).
- The Silmarillion, Index, p. 353.
- Morgoth's Ring, "Annals of Aman", Section 2.
- J. R. R. Tolkien, "Sigelwara Land" Medium Aevum Vol. 1, No. 3. December 1932 and Medium Aevum Vol. 3, No. 2. June 1934.
- The Letters of J. R. R. Tolkien, #165 to Houghton Mifflin, 30 June 1955
- The Treason of Isengard, ch. 25, pp. 435, 439 note 4 (comments by Christopher Tolkien)
- Abbott, Joe (1989). "Tolkien's Monsters: Concept and Function in The Lord of the Rings (Part 1) The Balrog of Khazad-dum". Mythlore. 16 (1): 19–33.
- Parma Eldalamberon, No. 15, p.26, the 'Name List to The Fall of Gondolin'.
- Higham, Steve (2012). Ideology in The Lord of the Rings: a Marxist Analysis. University of Sunderland (doctoral thesis). p. 151.
- Barrs, Jerram (2013). Echoes of Eden: Reflections on Christianity, Literature, and the Arts. Crossway. p. 123. ISBN 978-1-4335-3600-7.
- Tolley, Clive. "Old English influence on The Lord of the Rings" (PDF). Pearson Education. p. 55. Retrieved 10 January 2020.
- Shippey 2005, pp. 48-49.
- "Junius 11 "Exodus" ll. 68-88". The Medieval & Classical Literature Library. Retrieved 1 February 2020.
- Shippey 2005, p. 54.
- Shippey 2005, pp. 49, 54, 63.
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- Grímnismál, stanzas 46-48
- Bruce, Alexander M. (2007). "Maldon and Moria: On Byrhtnoth, Gandalf, and Heroism in The Lord of the Rings". Mythlore. 26 (1). Article 11.
- Croft, Janet Brennan (2004). War and the Works of J.R.R. Tolkien. Praeger. pp. 93–94. ISBN 978-0313325922.
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- Tolkien, J. R. R. (1954), The Two Towers, The Lord of the Rings, Boston: Houghton Mifflin (published 1987), ISBN 0-395-08254-4
- Tolkien, J. R. R. (1955), The Return of the King, The Lord of the Rings, Boston: Houghton Mifflin (published 1987), ISBN 0-395-08256-0
- Tolkien, J. R. R. (1977), Christopher Tolkien (ed.), The Silmarillion, Boston: Houghton Mifflin, ISBN 0-395-25730-1
- Tolkien, J. R. R. (1984), Christopher Tolkien (ed.), The Book of Lost Tales, 1, Boston: Houghton Mifflin, ISBN 0-395-35439-0
- Tolkien, J. R. R. (1984), Christopher Tolkien (ed.), The Book of Lost Tales, 2, Boston: Houghton Mifflin, ISBN 0-395-36614-3
- Tolkien, J. R. R. (1985), Christopher Tolkien (ed.), The Lays of Beleriand, Boston: Houghton Mifflin, ISBN 0-395-39429-5
- Tolkien, J. R. R. (1987), Christopher Tolkien (ed.), The Lost Road and Other Writings, Boston: Houghton Mifflin, ISBN 0-395-45519-7
- Tolkien, J. R. R. (1989), Christopher Tolkien (ed.), The Treason of Isengard, Boston: Houghton Mifflin, ISBN 0-395-51562-9
- Tolkien, J. R. R. (1993), Christopher Tolkien (ed.), Morgoth's Ring, Boston: Houghton Mifflin, ISBN 0-395-68092-1