A Tolkien Bestiary, Balrog, Book Review, David Day, deep time, Durin's Bane, Evil, Evil is abscence, fantasy, Fire Demons, Gandalf, Good and Evil, J.R.R. Tolkien, light, Light vs Dark, Literature, Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Rings, Maiar, Melkor, Morgoth, Moria, mythology, Novel, Philosophy, Sean Bean is a Fucking BadAss, The Fellowship of the Ring, The Lord of the Rings, The Nature of Evil, Valaraukar
Sean Bean once sewed a hole in his flesh with his bare hands after a female friend of his was harassed by some random douche in a dive bar where they were drinking. Bean apparently didn’t like it, told the man to shut the fuck up, and a fight ensued in which he was stabbed in the chest. After the police arrived, and the man who had started the fight was taken away, Bean asked the bartender if he had a needle and thread, and apparently he sewed up his chest wound right then and there before returning to drinking. For obvious reasons then, I consider this story Sean Bean’s contribution to the zeitgeist greater than his “One does not simply…” meme. It’s also for this reason that I decided to go against my original impulse when approaching my review of Book II of The Lord of the Rings.
The Council of Elrond is a fascinating chapter in the entire saga of the Lord of the Rings, simply for the fact that, while it is diplomacy, the language of each party reveals a wonderful deliberation on Tolkien’s part. Each character manages to enhance the history of the world of Middle Earth, and each character manages to reveal something about the complicated diplomacy that exists within this fantasy realm. Tolkien also manages to further explore his idea of the ring, and the terrible influence it has upon the people of his universe.
The only problem I really had with writing about the Council of Elrond was that my heart wasn’t in it. My heart was in the Balrog because, ever since I was a teenager sitting in the movie theater watching Gandalf fall through Khazad Dum and fighting the Balrog I’ve been obsessed with the creature and it’s role in the Tolkien Universe. It also doesn’t exactly help that my best friend Kevin and I spent literally an entire year arguing with a friend of ours about the proper way to pronounce Balrog (he was obsessed with calling it Balronko). Now obviously the fight scene I’m describing was in the second film The Two Towers, but even when I had watched The Fellowship of the Ring with my Dad on that rented VHS tape I had never seen anything like the Balrog in any movie. It was a creature that seemed like it should have been in a medieval passion play rather than a feature film, but I became enthralled.
My obsession with the Balrog was probably because I was a teenager. Young men typically, if I can quote a friend, gravitate towards power icons when they’re younger because they tend to live a life where most of their decisions are not entirely their own. Because they aren’t in control in their life, and because testosterone tends to leave one aggressive, it’s common for boys to gravitate to, or if you were like me, draw images such as guns, planes, swords, and of course monsters.
I anticipate an early reaction from my reader. In the entire second half of The Fellowship of the Ring, the Balrog is the only thing you can focus on? Why not tackle the realm of Lothlorien? Why not analyze the behavior of Boromir? Why not even try to tackle the early instances of Gollum and see how his character is beginning to manifest? There’s so many deep and inspiring elements to The Fellowship, the Balrog is just a monster and its appearance is so brief.
As usual my reader has great points, and also as usual I completely agree with several of them. There is so much to The Fellowship that I could tackle in these pages. However looking at the appearance of the Balrog in Book II, I nevertheless am still fascinated because, much like Gandalf’s brief supernatural reveal in the first book, the existence of the Balrog is a chance to see how Tolkien is building the history and mythos of Middle Earth, and always creating this feeling in the text that something more is ever-present in this universe than what the reader is allowed, or even able to see.
Before I go to the passage in the Fellowship however, it’s important to understand what a Balrog actually is because, if the reader only has the films to base their judgement on, they’re sure to be confused or else ill-informed of the actual content of the monster. When I was checking out every book by or about Tolkien from the library, I managed to find one large tome by David Day entitled A Tolkien Bestiary. The book is nothing but an encyclopedia about every beast, race, creature, and organism that appears in the Lord of the Rings, and taking up two pages along with a hauntingly epic illustration, Day provides the reader with an explanation:
Balrogs, the most terrible if the Maiar spirits who became the servants of Melkor, the Dark Enemy, were those who were transformed into demons. In the High Elven Tongue they were named the Valaraukar, but in Middle-Earth were called Balrogs, the “demons of might.”
Of all Melkor’s creatures, only Dragons were greater in power. Huge and hulking, the Balrogs were Man-like demons with streaming manes of fire and nostrils that breathed flame. They seemed to move within the clouds of black shadows and their limbs had the coiling powers of serpents. The chief weapon of the Balrog was the many-thronged whip of fire, and, though as well they carried the mace, the axe and the flaming sword, it was the whip of fire that their enemies feared most. This weapon was so terrible that the vast evil of Ungoliant, the Great Spider that even the Valar could not destroy, was driven from Melkor’s realm by the fiery lashes of the Balrog demons.
In each of Melkor’s risings and in each of his battles, the Balrogs were among his foremost champions, and so, when the holocaust of the War of Wrath ended Melkor’s reign for ever, it largely ended the Balrogs as a race.
It is said that some fled that last battle and buried themselves deep in the roots of the mountains, but after many thousands of years nothing more was heard of these evil beings and most people believed the demons had gone from the Earth for ever. (26-7)
I’m tempted by the teenager in my brain, to add a “Cool Whip” reference here, but for once I’ll defer and keep to the topic on hand.
A Balrog then is more-or-less a giant demon that at one time constituted a supreme race of beings that pre-dated mankind and possessed powers and abilities that border on a Lovecraftian tentacle monster level. This kind of power would at first not seem to have much literary relevance since most literary scholars or even common people don’t give a shit about fictional monsters. And in fact if the Balrog were nothing but a monster in a fantasy universe there really wouldn’t be much point in taking time to write about it, but as I’ve noted Tolkien’s ability as a writer is to create a wondrous sense of place and time that has yet to be replicated or matched. It’s his ability to write a moment into existence when people who are living in their present time become caught up in the supernatural events of an incredible past that they cannot possibly comprehend that leaves the reader spellbound, or else that they are witnessing something incredible.
The entrance of the Balrog is something incredible because of it’s subtlety.
[Legolas] gave a cry of dismay and fear. Two great tools appeared; they bore great slabs of of stone, and flung them down the serve as gangways over the fire. But it was not the trolls which had filled the Elf with terror. The ranks of the orcs had opened, and they crowded away, as if they themselves were afraid. Something was coming behind them. 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; and a power and terror seemed to be in it and to go before it.
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. The flames roared up to greet it, and wreathed about it; and black smoke smirked in the air. Its steaming man kindled, and blazed behind it. In its right hand was a blade like a stabbing tongue of fire; in its left hand it held a whip of many thongs.
‘Ai! Ai!’ Wailed Legolas. ‘A Balrog! A Balrog has come!’
Gimli stared with wide eyes. ‘Durin’s Bane! He cried, and letting his axe fall he covered his face.
‘A Balrog,’ muttered Gandalf. ‘Now I understand.” He faltered and leaned heavily on his staff. ‘What an evil fortune! And I am already weary.’ (321).
I will admit that I find the reactions to the Balrog a little corny. Throughout my reading of The Lord of the Rings I find myself regularly twisting a little in discomfort because Tolkien’s dialogue can, to a postmodern reader’s sensibilities, come across as a little drama-qeenesque. Or else it feels like the bad ad-libbing of half-assed LARPing. It’s not that it doesn’t feel real to the characters, but the language of the characters can at times feel like something that should have been left in the attic. It feels like it’s of a different time, which is not a weakness persay, but it can get a little tiring.
Yet despite this initial reaction to the dialogue, the words of each character are important because the appearance of this creature has it’s own implications for each character. For Legolas, being an Elf, the appearance of the Balrog would something of a nightmare because the elves would surely remember through records and oral tradition what kind of a monster the Balrog would be. Gimli being a dwarf who has just observed the desecration of his race’s hall and temple by orcs is already emotional, but the appearance of the Balrog is proof that his people’s greed brought about the reawakening of this creature. If the dwarves had not been greedy and dug so deep into the earth his cousin Balin might still be alive along with the rest of the people of Moria. Gandalf’s reaction is unique because it has been steadily established that Gandalf’s role in Middle Earth is something beyond most people’s comprehension and that he is being guided by some supernatural entity, order, or compulsion.
Reading over this passage again I was struck by these reactions to this monster, not just because of what it’s appearance meant for the plot, but because this reaction showed that these characters are participating with a history and a culture. And this reaction reveals a depth in the universe.
It’s common in fantasy for characters to encounter a creature of incredible power and to experience fear, rage, confusion, or terror. And while there are surely some notable examples where these emotions feel real and powerful and relevant to the reader, The Lord of the Rings being the text that it is it the reactions of Gimli, Legolas, and Gandalf isn’t just an empty reaction that precede a passage in which the heroes are able to overcome. The appearance of the Balrog is the sign of a real defeat because this is a being which is beyond them, something Gandalf remarks immediately as Aragorn and Boromir try to stand their ground.
Even after Gandfal makes his stand the reader is left with a sense of the impending power of the Balrog, and just how old its power derives. After Gandalf makes his now iconic “You cannot pass!” Tolkien manages to convey the power of the creature and the seaming futility of Gandalf:
The Balrog made no answer. 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; but still Gandalf could be seen, glimmering in the gloom; he seemed small, and altogether alone: grey and bent, like a wizened tree before the onset of a storm. (322).
It’s not unfair to note that Tolkien tends to gravitate to trees as the predominant aesthetic of The Lord of the Rings, but in it’s own way this passage seems one of the most powerful moments in the entire trilogy not simply because Gandalf is a powerful wizard and the Balrog is a just fire monster. There’s something lasting in this image, and it has to do with negative versus positive power.
A previous quote reveals something important, not only about the Balrog, but also about the way that Tolkien is creating his ideas about evil and good. Darkness in The Lord of the Rings is not just a physical attribute of wickedness and wicked creatures, in fact it is their defining quality. This actually has some relevance when one considers the actual color spectrum because black is not in fact a color; black is the absence of color. Virtually every character in The Lord of the Rings which embodies wickedness or evil is often defined by their darkness, either physical or symbolic, and this darkness ultimately becomes an indication of absence. If a being or character in Middle Earth is wicked it is because there is something empty or absent in them, and I’ll hopefully get into this more when I get to the character Gollum, but for now it’s important to observe Gandalf standing against the Balrog because it becomes more than just a wizard fighting a fire-demon. For Tolkien this small moment is a summation of his entire creative philosophy about the nature of good and evil.
Evil is absence incarnate and will always try to destroy the light because the light stands opposed to darkness. Light will always try to fill up the darkness with creation, with living things that create more, and so the only thing darkness can do to survive is to destroy. To burn and kill and erase what is alive in the light.
Tolkien provides on clear demonstration of this after the monster appears:
The dark figure streaming with fire raced towards them. The orcs yelled and poured over the stone gangway. Then Boromir raised his horn and blew. Loud the challenge rang and bellowed, like the shout of many throats under the cavernous roof. For a moment the orcs quailed and the fiery shadow halted. Then the echoes died as suddenly as a flame blown out by a dark wind, and the enemy advanced again. (321).
This passage seems to be everything then in further demonstrating the idea that Tolkien is using the Balrog to really hone his idea of evil. Throughout the Lord of the Rings Tolkien equates evil with an absence of self, will, power, or personal agency. When Boromir blows his horn it is n essence a strong demonstration of the self. Music is one of the purest means of expressing the self, and the Balrog being a creature who’s very existence is based upon destruction is actually taken aback by it. It may not be a Sonata by Beethoven or Shostakovich, but the horn is a form of creation and therefore a form of light, and therefore a form of goodness.
The Balrog remains my favorite element of the Lord of the Rings, largely because its a big awesome fire monster that uses a whip as a primary weapon and it provided me plenty of chances in high school to draw something cool instead of paying attention in Algebra. But my adolescence aside, the Balrog remains truly fascinating to be because it affords Tolkien to create a figure that has entered the popular consciousness, and beneath all of the fire and horns and weapons there is a real meditation about what evil actually is.
The true monsters in this life are not the colorful characters that are crafted in television shows and gritty thrillers; they’re real people who have a severe absence of something. Whether it’s an absence of love, personal ambition, or even something as real as chemical imbalance, it’s these weakness of absence that eventually contribute to the evil that exists in this world.
A terrorist or a serial murderer might not have horns or a mane made of fire, but much like the Balrog, his existence is almost certainly founded on some kind of emptiness.
All quotes taken from Book II of the Lord of the Rings, found within the Mariner paperback edition of The Fellowship of the Ring.
Allright fine, I just have to. Please forgive me:
While I was writing this essay I managed to find an actual video of the fight scene between Gandalf and the Balrog in The Fellowship of the Ring. There’s been plenty of films which have come out since then which have utilized Computer Graphic Imaging however this scene, unlike many of these latter instances, still manages to have a power I haven’t completely forgotten. It might just be nostalgia on my part, but I also think it has as much to do with the fact that Peter Jackson directed (in the original trilogy) a damn fine film, and managed to just capture Middle Earth. Please enjoy what is still one of the most epic fantasy moments of all time.
I’ve included below several links to websites which provide overviews of the Balrog, what they are, what are their powers, whether a Balrog would win in a fight against Smaug (I think it would personally but I’m biased), and then just some general Lord of the Rings facts and information. Hope this helps.
Stephen Colbert discussing Lord of the Rings…nuff said.