Balrogs are fictional demonic beings who appear in J. R. R. Tolkien's Middle-earth legendarium. Such creatures first appeared in print in his novel The Lord of the Rings, though they figured in earlier writings that posthumously appeared in The Silmarillion and other books.
Balrogs are described as tall and menacing with the ability to shroud themselves in fire, darkness, and shadow. They frequently appeared armed with fiery whips "of many thongs", and occasionally used long swords. In Tolkien's later conception, they could not be casually destroyed; significant power was required. 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.
According to The Silmarillion, the Valaraukar (which were called Balrogs in Middle-Earth) were a type of Maiar that were "scourges of fire". They were seduced by the evil Vala Melkor, who corrupted them to his service in the days of his splendour before the making of Arda.
Upon the waking 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 Ungoliant, a spider-like creature; and his piercing scream drew the Balrogs out of hiding to his rescue.
When the Noldor arrived in Beleriand in pursuit of Morgoth, they won a swift victory over his Orcs in the Dagor-nuin-Giliath. Fëanor pressed on towards Angband; but the Balrogs came against him, and Fëanor was mortally wounded by Gothmog, Lord of Balrogs. Fëanor's sons fought off the Balrogs, but Fëanor died of his wounds shortly afterward.
In The Lays of Beleriand, The Lay of Leithian mentions Balrog captains leading Orcs: "the Orcs went forth to rape and war, and Balrog captains marched before".
Tolkien tells of two Balrogs slain by Elves in the fall of Gondolin. During the assault on the city, Ecthelion of the Fountain fought Gothmog, and "each slew the other." Glorfindel fought a Balrog who waylaid an escape party from the fallen city; both fell from the mountainside in the struggle and perished.
In the War of Wrath that ended the First Age, most of the Balrogs were destroyed, although at least one, the Balrog known as Durin's Bane, managed to escape and hide in "caverns at the roots of the earth".
In The Fellowship of the Ring, the Fellowship of the Ring ventured through Moria and were attacked in the Chamber of Mazarbul by Orcs and the Balrog. Gandalf faced the Balrog at the Bridge of Khazad-dûm. He slew the Balrog but perished himself at the same time — to be sent back as the more powerful Gandalf the White.
Tolkien's conception of Balrogs changed over time. In all his early writing, they are numerous. A host of a thousand of them 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. They were loyal to Morgoth, and once came out of hiding to save him from capture.
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 margin 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, after the publication of The Lord of the Rings, 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, and 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 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. In "the Bridge of Khazad-dûm" in The Fellowship of the Ring, 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 what was a 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 have wings (and if so, whether they can fly) is unclear. This is due partly to Tolkien's changing conception of Balrogs, but mostly to his imprecise but suggestive and possibly figurative description of the Balrog that confronted Gandalf in Moria.
The two key quotations:
His enemy halted again, facing him, and 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 …
The argument hinges on whether the "wings" are physical wings or simply figurative wings of shadow. Many additional facts are adduced to the argument, but there is not enough firm description in Tolkien's writing to settle the argument definitively.
The Balrog of Moria used a flaming sword ("From out of the shadow a red sword leapt flaming") and the characteristic many-thonged whip of flame 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 Christopher Tolkien's study of his father's earlier Lord of the Rings drafts, some further indications of Tolkien's evolving conceptions appear. Notably,
A figure strode to the fissure, no more than man-high yet terror seemed to go before it. They could see the furnace-fire of its eyes from afar; its arms were very long; it had a red [?tongue].
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 Fionwe son of Manwe overthrew Thangorodrim.
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 (ca. 1918). An early list of names describedBalrog as "an Orc-word with no pure Quenya equivalent: 'borrowed Malaroko-' ".
In Gnomish 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 Quendi and Eldar, derives Balrog as the Sindarin translation of the Quenya form Valarauko (Demon of Might). This etymology was published in The Silmarillion.
The Sindarin plural for Balrog is not known. Tolkien consistently used Balrogs, but this is generally considered an anglicization because Sindarin does not form plurals that way. In one case Tolkien used Balrogath, similar to Periannath 'Halflings' and Dagorath 'battles'. However, the -ath suffix was often used as a 'class plural' (cf. giliath 'all stars of the firmament'), and thus Balrogath might mean 'Balrogkind' rather than simply 'Balrogs'. Linguists disagree about how a simple Sindarin plural would be formed, but most often suggest either *Balroeg or *Belryg.
The plural of Quenya Valarauko is attested as Valaraukar.
Gandalf on the bridge of Khazad-dûm calls the Balrog "flame of Udûn" (Udûn being the Sindarin name of Morgoth's fortress Utumno).
Gothmog is called a "son of Melko", though creatures that appear as offspring of the Valar in early recensions of the stories instead become Maiar in later versions.
Gothmog at the Storming of Gondolin
illustration by Tom Loback
Gothmog appears in various 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 (but see Lungorthin below), 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 Húrinof 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 ofGondolin. 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 and means '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 The Lord of the Rings, a different character bears the name "Gothmog"; see Gothmog (Third Age).
Lungorthin appears in Tolkien's early Lay of the Children of Húrin as "Lungorthin, Lord of Balrogs". This might be another name for Gothmog (above), though Christopher Tolkien thought it more likely that Lungorthin was simply "a Balrog lord".
The Balrog that was found in Moria, as interpreted in a painting by Markus Röncke
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 and escaped to hide beneath the Misty Mountains. For more than five millennia, the Balrog remained in its deep hiding place at the roots of the mountains in Khazad-dûm, until in the Third Age the mithril-miners of Dwarf-King Durin VI disturbed it (or released it from its prison) in T.A. 1980. Durin was killed by the Balrog, whence it was called Durin's Bane by the Dwarves.
The Dwarves attempted to fight the Balrog, but its power was far too great. Despite their efforts to hold Khazad-dûm against it, King Náin and many other Dwarves were killed and the survivors were forced to flee. This disaster also reached the Silvan Elves of Lórien, many of whom also fled the "Nameless Terror" (it was not recognized as a Balrog at the time). The Elves called the place Moria, the "Black Pit" or "Black Chasm"(though the name Moria also appears on the West Gate of Moria, constructed thousands of years earlier in the Second Age).
For another 500 years, Moria was left to the Balrog; though according to Unfinished Tales, Orcs crept in almost immediately after the Dwarves were driven out, leading to Nimrodel's flight. Around T.A. 2480 Sauron began to put his plans for war into effect, and he sent Orcs and Trolls to the Misty Mountains to bar all of the passes: Some of these creatures came to Moria, and the Balrog allowed them to remain.
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 in T.A. 2799. This was a victory for the Dwarves, but the presence of the Balrog prevented their occupying Moria. Dáin 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 force could change the world and remove the Balrog. The Dwarves thus departed and resumed their exile. Despite Dáin's warning, Balin attempted to recolonize Moria in T.A. 2989, but his party was destroyed.
In January T.A. 3019, the Fellowship of the Ring travelled through Moria on the way to 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 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 said, "You cannot pass!", 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 fell.
After the long fall, the two landed in a 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, with the Balrog clutching at Gandalf to strangle him, and Gandalf hewing the Balrog with his sword, until finally the Balrog fled into ancient tunnels of unknown origin. Gandalf pursued the creature for eight days, until they climbed to the peak of Zirakzigil, where the Balrog was forced to turn and fight once again, 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 following this ordeal, but he was later sent back to Middle-earth with even greater powers, as Gandalf the White, "until his task was finished".
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