Do Balrogs have wings?

One question that has plagued the Tolkien fandom longer than perhaps any other is this: do Balrogs have wings? This might seem to be a straightforward question but large piles of evidence have been amassed by both the “pro-winger” and “anti-winger” sides. This essay will attempt to answer the question by examining the mentions of “wings” in The Fellowship of the Ring, The Bridge of Khazad-dum.

Wings are mentioned twice in the chapter.  The first time we are told that:

The Balrog reached the bridge. Gandalf stood in the middle of the span, leaning on the staff in his left hand, but in his other hand Glamdring gleamed, cold and white. His enemy halted again, facing him, and the shadow reached about it like two vast wings.

And shortly thereafter:

The Balrog made no answer. The fire in it seemed to die, but the darkness grew. It stepped forward slowly on to the bridge, and suddenly it drew itself up to a great height, and its wings were spread from wall to wall…

The classic anti-wing argument is that the mention of wings in the first quote is merely a simile by Tolkien, that the “shadow” surrounding the Balrog resembles (is like) “two vast wings”. They hold that the second quote is merely a furthering of the simile.

There is evidence to support this notion.  First, Christopher Tolkien once said that “I myself never thought that the second mention of the wings of the Balrog had any different signification from the first” (quoted in Michael Martinez, Flying away on a wing and a hair…). Second, the elder Tolkien was known to further similes in this manner before with the cloud-eagles above Numenor in the Akallabeth:

And out of the west there would come at times a great cloud in the evening, shaped as if it were an eagle … And some of the eagles bore lightning beneath their wings…

The first mention of eagles establishes that it is a more or less eagle-shaped cloud, but the second makes explicit mention of wings. Clearly they are not real wings however, but merely clouds in the shape of wings. Thus the simile has been extended.

In the case of Balrogs it would thus seem that whether one believes they have wings or not would depend on one’s interpretation of the first quote from The Bridge of Khazad-dum. Given the rather clear use of the word “like” it is hard to imagine it being anything but a simile.

In summary, it seems clear from the evidence found in the only text concerning Balrogs published by Tolkien in his lifetime that Balrogs lacked wings, at least in the common conception of them.  It could be valid to say that the Balrog’s shadowy aura had “wings” in a non-physical sense (much the same as an army can be said to have wings), but in the opinion of this fan that merely confuses the issue.

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6 Responses to Do Balrogs have wings?

  1. Tintalle says:

    Since Balrogs are nothing more than corrupted Maiar, I would assume that they, like all the other Ainur, could choose whatever shape they wished. In that way I think Tolkien left it open to the reader to picture them however they wished.

  2. Eldorion says:

    I don’t believe it’s clear if Balrogs could, at least those who survived the Third Age, still change their forum. At least some Ainu (notably Morgoth and Sauron) lost this ability by expending too much of their “spiritual” energy (for lack of a better term).

    Even assuming that they could though, I don’t think that they would change their shape all the time. Therefore, since Tolkien did give us visual descriptions of Balrogs (particularly Durin’s Bane), I have to disagree and say that it’s a possible to have debate on it.

    I must thank you for reading and commenting however, even though – or rather, especially – since I disagree with you. 🙂

  3. anairen says:

    i was under the impression that of all evil creatures in middle earth on dragons of ancalagon’s line actually had wings/could fly, and that other instances, such as the crebain (from dunland? damned movie lines supplanting canon in my memory lol) were more or less a case of “good” or at least technically nuetral animals being duped into the service of evil.

    would this be a fair assumption eldo?

  4. First of all how can ANYBODY not see the different passage of time in the two passages of the Balrog? You’d have to be either drunk/on drugs or a liar to say the two passages contradict each other.

    It seems different because the passage of time is different and being taken out of context. Just like with the bible most Atheist think they are so smart on but take things out of context and say “Here is where you idiots are wrong!: only to make a fool out of themselves.

    Here is passage 1:

    Quote: The Balrog reached the bridge. Gandalf stood in the middle of the span, leaning on the staff in his left hand, but in his other hand Glamdring gleamed, cold and white. His enemy halted again, facing him, and the shadow reached about it like two vast wings. End quote:

    Passage 2:
    Quote
    “The Balrog made no answer. The fire in it seemed to die, but the darkness grew. It stepped forward slowly on to the bridge, and suddenly it drew itself up to a great height, and its wings were spread from wall to wall…” End quote.

    The first passage is BEFORE the fire in it totally died so when flames were around the creature it only looked like wings d8ue to all that smoke. Now that the flames have died off Gandalf can see the wings stretching from wall to wall.

    That also gives the impressing that he does not use his wings very ofte3n due to such narrow chambers not providing enough decent lift. Just like all creatures his wings are shaped for air to lift under to give support.

    Gandalfs magic must’ve stunned the creature enough to not be able to fly which is likely the purpose of Gandalfs spell he casted?

    One thing I WILL fault Gandalf on and I don’t care if I am flammed for it is that he should NOT have turned his back on the creature. Never EVER turn you’re back on the enemy until you know for sure the creature is dead and not just *hoping* it is.

    I have noticed Gandalf made many mistakes during the first half of the film while during the second half he was a LOT more strategic. This is just a small sample of them but I believe it was all the pot he was smoking idling his brain which is why he couldn’t remember the passages in Moria and why he gave his cloak and staff to Pippin instead of to Frodo who shows a lot more responsibility with handling items.

    Gandalf The White in the Mines Of Moria would’ve given his staff and cloak to Frodo Baggins and would’ve sternly warned Pippin not to make any noise by the well seeing Pippin so close to the skeleton creature.

    That would be actually cool a version of LOTR where it’s Gandalf The White all the way thru to see both the negative and positive effects it would have.

    • anairien says:

      …or you can leave off the ad hominem attacks, if you want to be taken seriously. the latter quote is, to myself and a great many others, fairly clearly an extension of the metaphor in the first. therefor, the balrog does not have wings, it merely seems to as a result of the shadows it evidently has control over. note that the metaphorical “wings” of shadow get bigger as it increases the presence of the shadow…this is clearly an intimidation tactic, making itself appear greater and more threatening through controlling the shadows about it to appear more demonic.

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