Today's Date in the Shire
T.A. 3018 - Gandalf meets Radagast.
Fun and Games
Walk to Rivendell
Malbeth the Seer
Did Balrogs Have Wings?
Maybe, but they didn't fly.
Balrogs occur many times in The Silmarillion but the only appearance of one in The Lord of the Rings gives the best Balrog description. Unforunately, this description also creates one of the longest-lasting debates among Tolkiens enthusiasts: Did Balrogs have wings?
The idea that they have wings comes from one line in the Fellowship of the Ring.:
"The fire in it seemed to die, but the darkness grew. It stepped forward slowly on the bridge, and suddenly it drew itself up to a great height, and its wings were spread from wall to wall;."
To a literalist this makes the case. No questions. Balrogs had wings.
But not everyone reads Tolkien word-for-word. Many readers point to other passages that imply Balrogs were wingless.
To investigate this point of view let's look at how the Balrog is first described:
"... 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."
"The flames roared up to greet it, and wreathed about it; and a black smoke swirled in the air."
"Its streaming mane kindled, and blazed behind it. In its right hand was a blade like a stabbing tongue of fire; in its left it held a whip of many thongs."
"The dark figure streaming with fire raced towards them."
"... and the shadow about it reached out like two vast wings. It raised the whip, and the thongs whined and cracked. Fire came from its nostrils.."
Here the shadow about the Balrog reaches out like two vast wings.
Only after Gandalf bars it's way, calling it 'Flame of Udun', does the wings line appear (repeated here for continuity)
"The fire in it seemed to die, but the darkness grew. It stepped forward slowly on the bridge, and suddenly it drew itself up to a great height, and its wings were spread from wall to wall;..."
This seems to imply that the shadow that reached out like two vast wings spread from wall to wall as the Balrog drew itself up to a great height.
Wings or Shadows? Or Shadow Wings?
Next, Gandalf and the Balrog battle on the bridge of Khazad-dum until at last:
" The bridge cracked. Right at the Balrog's feet it broke..." "With a terrible cry the Balrog fell forward , and its shadow plunged down and vanished. But even as it fell it swung its whip, and the thongs lashed and curled about the wizard's knees, dragging him to the brink."
When Gandalf returns in The Two Towers he tells what happened next.
"...Long I fell, and he fell with me. His fire was about me. I was burned. Then we plunged into the deep water and all was dark."
To guess why a winged Balrog would fall from the broken bridge I will have to read into the story a little. Possible reasons are:
(1) The 'shadow plunged down and vanished' is actually the huge wings knocked useless by Gandalfs blow. The weight of them drags the Balrog down.
(2) Knowing it had met a deadly match it decided to kill Gandalf with the fall rather than continue the battle;
(3) It's wings were so huge that it could not fly within the confine of the Hall or the chasm;
(4) It's wings were merely an affectation to intimidate
At the bottom of the long fall:
"...His fire was quenched, but now he was a thing of slime , stronger than a strangling snake." "Ever he clutched me, and ever I hewed him, till at last he fled into dark tunnels."
And at the top of Durin's Stair at Durin's Tower:
"There upon Celebdil... Out he sprang, and even as I came behind he burst into new flame... I threw down my enemy, and he fell from the high place and broke the mountainsaide where he smote it in his ruin."
Why would a winged Balrog fall from the mountaintop? :
(1) It was already dead;
(2) It's wings were broken by the fight;
(3) It's wings were only decoration
None of these points prove that the Balrog had wings or not. They do suggest that it was incapable of flight.
Let's investigate the history of Arda to see what other information we can find out about Balrogs.
Many of the Maiar that came to Arda with the Valar were aligned with Melkor. Others were later corrupted to his service. The Valaraukar, called Balrogs in Middle-Earth, were among those Maiar that chose to follow Melkor. Being Maiar the Balrogs could have assumed whatever shape they preferred - including winged.
Described as scourges of fire and demons of terror, Balrogs lurked beneath the ruined halls of Angband during Melkor's long captivity and later residence in Aman. When Melkor returned to Middle-Earth the Balrogs issued from the dungeons to save him from Ungoliant. This rescue was decribed :
"... and now swiftly they arose, and passing over Hithlum they came to Lammoth as a tempest of fire. With their whips of flame they smote asunder the webs of Ungoliant..."
The phrases 'swiftly they arose' and 'passing over Hithlum' define movement but don't really convey the medium of travel, air or land.
When Feanor arrived in Middle-Earth at Lammoth he passed into Hithlum and was assaulted by the forces of Morgoth (as Melkor was now called by the Elves). The elves fought victoriously for ten days, but Feanor continued to advance ahead of his army. Balrogs came forth from Angband to aid the Orcs that Feanor was pursuing. They assaulted him and he was '... wrapped in fire ...' and '... at the last was smitten to the ground by Gothmog, Lord of Balrogs...' His sons arrived in force, and the Balrogs returned to Angband.
Again, the mode of travel is not defined.
Glaurung the golden, father of dragons, preceded the rivers of flame that ran down from Thangorodrim at the onset of the Battle of Sudden Flame. Balrogs followed.
Ancalgon the Black was the first of the flying dragons so Glaurung was on the ground. The following Balrogs could have flown or walked.
Gothmog who mortally wounded Feanor was also present at the Battle of Unnumbered Tears. He came between the armies of Maedhros and Fingon, and he turned west to fight Fingon. "...Fingon....fought with Gothmog, until another Balrog came behind and cast a thong of fire about him. Then Gothmog hewed him with his black axe, and a white flame sprang up from the helm of Fingon as it was cloven ... and they beat him into the dust with their maces ..."
Gothmog later fought Hurin in the same Battle. Hurin's '... axe smoked in the black blood of the troll-guard of Gothmog'. He was finally overcome and bound by the Balrog and dragged to Angband.
Once more there is no discussion to the mode of travel but there is an even clue about Balrogs. Gothmog had a 'troll-guard'. Trolls don't fly and never did. A guard of land-bound trolls would make a poor choice for the protection of a flying creature. If Gothmog did fly , perhaps the trolls surrounded him whenever he landed onm a battlefield.
Gothmog made his final appearance at the Fall of Gondolin. He and Ecthelion slew each other as they fought in the Square of the King.
At least one other Balrog was present when Gondolin fell. It accompanied an army of Orcs that watched the pass of Cirith Thoronath. Glorfindel was with the elves. And he fought the Balrog upon a pinnacle of rock in that high place, 'and both fell to ruin in the abyss.'
Another Balrog falls to it's death from a mountainside. See the discussion above describing Gandalf's battle with Durin's Bane atop Celebdil.
The War of Wrath ended the terror of the Balrogs except for "... some few that fled and hid themselves in caverns innaccesable at the roots of the earth ..."
Throughtout the history of Middle-Earth Balrogs are never seen flying. Not even to rescue themselves from potentially fatal falls from mountainsides and down deep chasms. Only one is ever described physically in any detail. It is described on the same page as having a shadow shaped like wings and having wings that were spread from wall to wall.
So, the question is : Did Balrogs have wings?
And the answer is: Maybe, but they didn't fly.