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Every Time A Bell Rings A Balrog Gets Its Wings?

An essay by William Roper

I. Introduction

All of us remember our first time. In popular culture, that statement might be mistaken for being lewd, but around Tolkien readers, it means that time you first opened The Lord of the Rings and found yourself a guest at Bilbo’s party. You became comfortable with hobbits, elves, wizards, and black riders. You threw in some dwarves and Gollum and were well of your way to speaking the language of Middle-earth. After all, you had the professor’s wonderful descriptions to aid you. But in walked a Balrog, and the professor left you to your own imagination. Without consciously willing it, you formed a mental picture of the Balrog, which is probably how you imagine it today. Did your Balrog have wings? Mine did. However, the answer is not cut and dry. This controversy has made a dichotomy of Tolkien readers. Many people choose a side of this argument and defend their position vehemently. If you’re looking for such a diatribe in this essay, then you will be disappointed. But being the physicist that I am, I have tried logically to piece through Tolkien’s words to make an educated guess about whether Balrogs have wings. I say "guess" because in the end that is what it will be. Those who tell you of their leak-proof argument have probably plugged the holes with assumptions. So let’s walk through the information together, and hopefully, you will find food for thought that may reinforce or amend your image of the Balrog.

II. "If we shadows have offended, think but this and all is mended…." A Midsummer Nights Dream

One source of confusion in the debate is what Tolkien meant by shadow. Shadows were not merely the absence of sunlight on the ground due to an obstruction; they were an "unlight." Remember Tolkien’s description of the unlight of Ungoliant that she used to cloak herself and Melkor. Such is the nature of the Balrogs’ shadow, for they were probably akin to Ungoliant, being Maiar. So when we picture the Balrog, we should picture an amorphous darkness surrounding and veiling it. This interpretation of "shadow" is fairly common and will not be defended here, but it is important that we begin with the same definitions in mind.

III. Yes, Virginia, there is an argument.

Let’s look at what Tolkien said in The Fellowship of the Rings and try to justify that there are two logical interpretations of the wing-passages. So put yourself on the bridge of Khazad-dum. [Enter the Balrog]

"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."

So, at this point, all we know is that the Balrog is surrounded by shadows, shadows such as those discussed in Section II. Next, we’ll see that these shadows can be made to take shape.

"His enemy halted again, facing him, and the shadow about it reached
out like two vast wings."

So the Balrog can make these shadows take shape, and in this case, the shape is that of wings. This does not say that the shadows were wings, nor does it say that the Balrog has no wings at all. It is simply a simile comparing two objects: the Balrog’s shadows and wings. At this point, we would assume that the Balrog does not have wings because we’ve been given no cause to believe they exist. Next, we’ll bring in a line that gives us a cause to believe, though it is not a line without an alternate interpretation.

"...suddenly it drew itself up to a great height, and its wings were spread
from wall to wall..."

So now we must make a choice and decide to what "wings" the previous passage refers. We may read the line in a literal fashion, deciding that the Balrog has actual wings that were spread from wall to wall. We may also read the line figuratively, deciding that "wings" refers to the shadows that were previously discussed. Some will scoff at the figurative interpretation, giving various arguments as to why it cannot be viable. I will try to show that it is viable with a demonstration. At face value, you might be willing to believe that writing "its wings were spread" and not "its wing-like shadows were spread" makes for easier reading, which might be reason enough for Tolkien to write the latter. If this is not satisfying, let’s equate the shadows to something else: say, webs. There is nowhere evidence to suggest that Balrogs were able to spin webs in the manner of Ungoliant, so let’s rewrite the previous passages using webs instead of wings.

His enemy halted again, facing him, and the shadow about it reached
out like two vast webs.

Here we see an obvious simile, comparing the Balrog’s shadow to webs, and if we write the last passage in a similar manner, we see that a figurative interpretation is not only logical but also natural.

...suddenly it drew itself up to a great height, and its webs were spread
from wall to wall...

Because a Balrog was no real webs, "webs" in the preceding passage refers to the webs of shadow and does so in a natural way. However, the preceding argument has not advanced the case that Balrogs have no wings, and neither has it hindered it. The reasoning is circular at this point. You choose to read the passages as literal because you have already assumed that Balrogs have wings, or you choose to read them as figurative because you have assumed they do not. The correct stance, at this point, is to say there is a case for both sides.

IV. Balrogs over Hithlum

There are several key passages that often surface in these arguments, and we would do ill to ignore them here. So let’s take them, one at a time, and consider them from both the wing side and the wingless side. Our first passage comes from the early years of Arda and the rape of the Silmarils. Morgoth has gotten away cleanly with the great jewels and some of the lesser gems of Feanor, but he still has yet to settle his bargain with Ungoliant. He refused her the Silmarils, and she entangled him in her webs of unlight. Morgoth screamed, and the Balrogs arose from their places of hiding to come to his aid. We find in The History of Middle Earth and in the later Quenta Silmarillion these words:

"Swiftly they arose, and they passed with winged speed over Hithlum, and
they came to
Lammoth as a tempest of fire."

Again, this passage lends itself to both interpretations. Nowhere in this sentence is there conclusive evidence of Balrogs in flight, but neither is there conclusive evidence of its exclusion. Your interpretation depends on your initial assumption as to whether or not Balrogs have wings. To demonstrate this, consider the following demonstration. Firstly, we’ll show that the previous passage could refer to flying Balrogs by replacing the word "they" with something that can fly, namely Smaug from The Hobbit.

Swiftly Smaug arose, and he passed with winged speed over Hithlum, and
he came to
Lammoth as a tempest of fire.

There’s nothing nefarious in the previous parody. Smaug flew up in the air and sped over Hithlum. He flew with winged speed because his rate of travel was great enough that only a winged beast could achieve it. So, if we assume that Balrogs can fly, the previous passage allows for that assumption. But what if we assume Balrogs cannot fly, what then? Does Tolkien ever use "arose" in connection with something that cannot fly? The answer is "yes."

"Arise, arise, Riders of Theoden!"

Does Tolkien ever use the term "passed over" in reference to something that was not in flight. The answer is "yes." Remember when Fingolfin rode his horse Rochallor to his duel with Morgoth. From The Silmarillion,

"He passed over Dor-nu-Fauglith like a wind amid the dust…."

Does Tolkien ever refer to ground-moving creatures as moving with the speed of winged ones? The answer is "yes." In a description of Luthien from the Lay of Leithian in The Lays of Beleriand, we find these words:

"Her feet were swift as bird on wing…."

And if you’re looking for the convergence of land-bound creatures being compared to a storm, remember Aragorn’s words in The Two Towers when the Rohirrim were fleeing to Helm’s Deep.

"…would that it were daylight, and we might ride down upon them like
a storm from the mountains."

So the terminology that Tolkien using in describing the Balrog’s aid of Morgoth is not terminology that he reserved exclusively for flying creatures. So it is completely viable that Tolkien may have been emphasizing the swiftness of the Balrogs, and to understand this better, let’s replace "they" in the Hithlum passage with "the Rohirrim," who moved swiftly over land.

Swiftly the Rohirrim arose, and they passed with winged speed over Hithlum….

The idea of horsemen moving as though they were in flight is not a new one in literature, and the metaphor demonstrates the zealous speeds with which the horsemen rode, as if some force was driving them. So one may interpret that Tolkien was showing us how the Balrogs sped to Morgoth’s aid with extra fervor, like a spurred horse. So here, again, the passage lends itself to two interpretations. If you assume that Balrogs have wings, then you will read the passage equating the phrases "arose," "passed over," "winged speed," and "tempest" with the Balrogs’ being in flight. If you assume that Balrogs do not have wings, you will equate them with the urgency and great speed with which they moved. There is nothing here that demands the existence of wings. However, each side of the argument is able to make a major point to aid their case, but these points have a net effect of cancellation, leaving no side with an advantage. The points are:

Wings: Tolkien has used several phrases that refer to things of the air. The only reason he would do such a thing is that Balrogs were things of the air as well.

Wingless: Tolkien would not be redundant in his terminology. One would not say, "The sprinter ran with footed speed." If you are running, then having footed speed is a direct consequence. Likewise, all things that fly do it with winged speed, so why reiterate the fact that the Balrogs are in flight if what you want is to emphasize is the speed of their movements? However, if the Balrogs don’t fly, then "winged speed" does emphasize the haste with which they came to Morgoth’s aid.

Again, it is the argument of literal verses figurative. But let me reiterate that no information has been given that demands that Balrogs have wings; neither has information been given that demands that they don’t. The question is still open-ended.

V. Balrogs: "Lost in the vast abysses of space and time" Loren Eiseley

Another issue that must be addressed is why Balrogs keep getting thrown to their deaths. There are several arguments of feasibility for why a flying creature would fall to its death such as its being wounded, its wings being damaged, and its entanglement in another body. There is only one argument for why a non-flying creature would fall to its death, but it’s a good one. Let’s see what Tolkien wrote about the behavior of Balrogs in situations where flying would be advantageous. From The Lord of the Rings, we find these words:

"Then with a rush it leaped across the fissure."

"It stepped forward slowly on to the bridge…."

"With a bound the Balrog leaped full upon the bridge."

"With a terrible cry the Balrog fell forward, and its shadow plunged down and vanished."

"I threw down my enemy, and he fell from the high place, and broke the mountain-side
where he smote it in his ruin."

From The Silmarillion, we find the following:

"Then suddenly Morgoth sent forth great rivers of flame that ran down swifter than
Balrogs from Thangorodrim, and poured over all the plain…. In the front of that fire
came Glaurung the golden, father of dragons, in his full might; and in his train were
Balrogs, and behind them came the black armies of the Orcs in multitudes such as the
Noldor had never seen or imagined

"Many are the songs that have been sung of the duel of Glorfindel with the Balrog
upon a pinnacle of rock in that high place; and both fell to ruin in the abyss."

And in The Book of Lost Tales, we find these words:

"That Balrog that was with the rearward foe leapt with great might on certain lofty
rocks that stood in the path on the left side upon the lip of the chasm…."

"Then Glorfindel leapt forward upon him ... he hewed at that demon that it leapt
again upon a great boulder and Glorfindel after."

"Then sprang the Balrog in the torment of his pain and fear full at Glorfindel, who
stabbed like a dart of a snake; but he found only a shoulder, and was grappled,
and they swayed to a fall upon the crag-top."

"…it shrieked, and fell backwards from the rock, and falling clutched Glorfindel's
yellow locks beneath his cap, and those twain fell into the abyss."

The first five passages surround Gandalf’s battle with Durin’s Bane. The fourth passage refers to the Dagor Bragollach. The last five passages detail the famed duel of Glorfindel with the Balrog at Cirith Thoronath. Each battle presents instances where flying would be highly advantageous, but nowhere does Tolkien give us an inkling of a Balrog doing so.

In the Durin’s Bane passages, Tolkien narrates the battle with phrases like "leaped across the fissure," "stepped onto the bridge," "with a bound the Balrog leaped," "the Balrog fell forward," "its shadow plunged down" and "fell from the high place" to describe the movements of the Balrog. Let’s look at the arguments that arise from the Durin’s Bane passages from both sides.

Wingless: The previous terms describe land-bound movements. A flying thing does not need to leap or bound, and neither does it fall from high places. Gandalf would not have thrown the Balrog from Zirakzigil if there were any possibility of its gliding to safety. If the Balrog had wings, he would not have had this surety. If one argues that Gandalf took a gamble in throwing the Balrog from the mountain, remember that he was sent back to Middle-earth with new power after his bodily death. He would not have been returned had he risked the safety of Middle-earth. Some argue that the Balrog was dead or either mortally wounded during the two-day fight on the mountaintop. If the Balrog were dead before he struck the mountain, Tolkien would not have written, "…he fell from the high place, and broke the mountain-side where he smote it in his ruin…" because he would have met his ruin already. If one opts for the wounded-Balrog scenario, then the argument returns to the beginning of this paragraph because some inherent risk would have been involved. No matter how bludgeoned the Balrog may have been, if it had wings, there’s some chance that it might have mustered the strength to halt its fall. However, Tolkien describes the Balrog as leaping and springing, which is characteristic of land-bound creatures.

Wings: Recall an earlier passage that stated, "…its wings were spread from wall to wall." That being the case, there was no room for the Balrog to maneuver its wings on the bridge of Khazad-dum, and so, it was forced to move as a land-bound creature. The Balrog fell when the bridge cracked under its feet because it was caught off-guard, just a bird will fall if its perch breaks, and it could not fly out of the chasm because a) its wings were too large and b) Gandalf continually hued at it as they fell. When the Balrog was thrown to its death from Zirakzigil, it fell because its wings were damaged or either it was dead or wounded. It is also possible that a Balrog’s wings were not sufficient to sustain flight, letting them glide for short spurts but proving useless to halt a major decent. Gandalf knew the Balrog would not glide to safety because a) he could clearly see that its wings were broken or b) he knew the wings were inadequate to allow it.

From the vantage point of this writer, the favor shifts ever so slightly in the previous argument because the wings side has to put forth arguments that are not substantiated by any Tolkien text. If Balrog wings were only useful for short gliding, there is not text to support that hypothesis; the reason we consider it at all is that we assume that Balrogs have wings. Tolkien also gives no indication that the Balrog was dead or wounded before it was hurled from the mountain; the reason that we consider it is that we assume that Balrogs have wings. If we rid ourselves of the assumption, the passages become clear to understand. However, though I deem that an advantage has been given the wingless side, I have, by no means, declared a winner. There are a few more points to consider, especially in the passage about the wings being spread from wall to wall. Therein will the strongest argument lie. Before we get that, though, let us quickly consider the other passages.

In the passage from the Dagor Bragollach, Tolkien says, "…rivers of flame ran down swifter than Balrogs…." Many have waved their flags and pointed to the word "ran," but as with the Hithlum passage, Tolkien is trying to emphasize the speed of the river, not the running nature. Rivers, in and of themselves, run. Consider the rewritten line where we replace "Balrogs" with "the wind":

…rivers of flame ran down swifter than the wind….

No one would argue that the preceding passage proves that the wind runs. So the fact that the speed of the rivers is compared to the speed of the Balrogs does not prove that Balrogs must run. It means that their speeds were equivalent. No side wins a victory here.

Others bring up the line, "Glaurung the golden, father of dragons, in his full might; and in his train were Balrogs…" saying that Glaurung was the first of the Uruloki, which did not fly, and because the Balrogs were in his train, they didn’t fly either. Here again, there is no conclusive evidence for either side. The Balrogs were on the ground during the battle, but that is a tactical move because Glaurung, now in his full might, was leading the way.

In the Glorfindel passages, we find phrases similar to those used in the Durin’s Bane passages, phrases such as, "fell to ruin," "leapt with great might," "it leapt again upon a great boulder," "then sprang the Balrog," "they swayed to a fall," and "…it shrieked, and fell backwards from the rock, and falling clutched Glorfindel's yellow locks beneath his cap, and those twain fell into the abyss." Here again, Tolkien provides a plethora of examples of Balrogs leaping and springing, which at face value does nothing to prove that Balrogs cannot fly, but I must take a one-step digression at this point. This is where I changed my view about the status of Balrog wings because if ever there were a cause for a Balrog to use its wings, it is here. If I were dueling with an elf-lord on a high precipice and were able to fly, I’d hover out of the elf’s range, lash out with my whip, and pull him off the cliff, just as Durin’s Bane did to Gandalf. Again, one may claim that the Balrog’s wings were too small or that it was too windy or that it considered Glorfindel to be of little threat, but one must bring up such arguments because one assumes that Balrogs have wings. But we have looked at eleven passages that give no hint of their existence. If one read these eleven passages first and then read of the encounter with Durin’s Bane, one would be surprised at the mention of wings because they are not aforementioned. It’s the Durin’s Bane passages that birth the pro-wing side of the argument, giving it its greatest stronghold in the line from The Fellowship of Ring:

"...suddenly it drew itself up to a great height, and its wings were spread
from wall to wall…."

We will finish the treatise by asking a very simple question of this line: "Okay, so Balrogs have wings; how big are they?"

VI. "It's going down the bottomless pit, down the chasm…" D.H. Lawrence

Before we embark on our final quest to obtain as estimate of a Balrog’s wingspan, we should begin with correct definitions. As the title of this section states, I would like to define "chasm," which is a key word in the Durin’s Bane passage. According to the Cambridge Dictionary of the English Language, a "chasm" is defined as:

"a very deep, narrow opening in rock, earth or ice."

I will not bore you by listing further definitions in other dictionaries but will summarize all of them for you. A chasm is a rift; by definition: its depth is great; its width is narrow; and its length is great. I will proceed with this definition in mind. To verify my paraphrasing, view Webster’s Unabridged Dictionary and The Unabridged Oxford English Dictionary.

VII. Wingspan: "If you are pained by external things, it is not they that disturb you, but your own judgment of them. And it is in your power to wipe out that judgment now." Marcus Aurelius

Let us return to the pro-wing side of debate and try to ascertain a rough estimate of the size of Balrog wings. The only reference that is available is the Durin’s Bane passage that is written above. Because the wings were spread from wall to wall, if we knew the width of the walls, we would know a Balrog’s wingspan. So let’s dig through what Tolkien wrote and see if we can obtain a rough estimate. In The Fellowship of the Rings, we find these words:

"...a slender bridge of stone, without kerb or rail, that spanned the chasm with
one curving spring of fifty feet."

So now you see why I wanted to get a founded definition of chasm because it will aid us here. Fifty feet cannot be the length of the chasm because its width would have to be orders of magnitude smaller in order for it to be narrow, and that scenario does not fit Tolkien’s description. He states:

"Down the centre stalked a double line of towering pillars. They were carved
like boles of mighty trees whose boughs upheld the roof..."

So the room is so wide that it needs two gargantuan rows of columns to support the roof. Therefore, the room’s width must correspond to the chasm’s length, meaning that the chasm is 50 feet wide. Tolkien provides no numerical data about the chasm’s length, so we must return to the definition of "chasm." Because a chasm is narrow, meaning it is much longer than it is wide, we know the room must have been more than 50 feet wide. If the room were exactly 50 feet wide that would not correspond to the definition either because the chasm’s cross section would be a square, and a square isn’t narrow. Minimally, for something to be called narrow its length must be at least twice its width, else the two sides are comparable in magnitude. So we may assume that the room was at least100 feet wide though it was probably much wider.

Because we are assuming that Balrogs have wings, we are reading the wings-from-wall-to-wall passage literally. Thus, if Balrogs do indeed have wings, they must be at least 100 feet in span. We also know that Balrogs were able to deftly use their whips, so the wings must have been able to fold behind them. Otherwise, it would not have been able to enter the chamber at all. The average body length to wingspan ratio for animals with wings that fold on their backs is 20/7, which tells us that the Balrog was at least 35 feet tall. However, many readers and many artists envision a gigantic Balrog anyway, so why is such a picture not feasible in the context of the passage? Again, it’s not an exact science, but there are some key points to be made.

  1. It’s not feasible for a 35-foot creature to live for millennia in a city that was built for dwarves.
  2. In the Chamber of Mazarbul when the Fellowship had barred the door to Balin’s tomb and was watching it slowly opened, Tolkien tells us that the

"...orcs one after another leaped into the chamber."

We are also told that they

"...clustered in the doorway."

This terminology seems to suggest that the door was not extremely large, and thus the orcs had to cluster to get through it. But it may be that Tolkien was saying that the gap in the door was just wide enough for the orcs to pass through one at a time. Can we learn anything about how wide the gap was? Before the orcs came through, Tolkien said that the door was open wide enough for an arm, shoulder, and foot to be thrust through. Remember Boromir notching his sword as he hewed at the greenish arm and Frodo stabbing at the foot. After the foot was withdrawn, the orcs and trolls regrouped and rammed the door, about which Tolkien wrote:

"It cracked and staggered back, and the opening grew suddenly wide."

So the opening grew wide compared to what it had been. It could be that it swung nearly open, but just as likely, it could be that it opened the width of one or two orcs. So this is not conclusive that the door was small, but one more piece of evidence that lends itself to the small door theory is that it could be wedged with broken blades and wood.

"Slam the doors and wedge them!'

"…then he wedged it with broken sword-blades and splinters of wood."

Such a tactic would be much less effective on a massive door, and one does not usually speak of slamming a very large door. Still, this evidence is not absolutely conclusive but tends to favor a smaller door scenario, one that is, say, 10 feet in height that would be massive enough to weather the ramming and hammering of the orcs yet small enough to be slammed and wedged. Let us continue for a moment with this assumption in mind. It is very unlikely that something 35 feet tall with a wingspan of 100 feet could fit through a door 10 feet in height or be able to lay hold of the iron ring on the door.

"Then something came into the chamber- I felt it through the door,
and the orcs themselves were afraid and fell silent. It laid hold
of the iron ring, and then it perceived me and my spell."

But the Balrog did come through the door after it countered Gandalf’s shutting spell, and the fact that it was able to able to grab the door’s iron ring suggests that the Balrog had hands that were appropriate for a much smaller creature. (If you happen to be six feet tall, imagine trying to go through a door about 1.7 feet high with 17-foot wings on your back. Sounds more like Through the Looking Glass to me.) There are two other facts that help suggest that a smaller Balrog, one of about 14 feet in height, is more consistent with Tolkien’s writings.

One is Glorfindel’s battle with the Balrog during the Fall of Gondolin. Tolkien writes in The Book of Lost Tales:

"Then Glorfindel's left hand sought a dirk, and this he thrust up that
it pierced the Balrog’s belly nigh his own face (for that demon
was double his stature)…."

So the Balrog was twice the height of Glorfindel. Estimating Glorfindel’s height takes a little bit of digging, but Tolkien does give a discussion of ‘Númenórean Linear Measures’ in The Unfinished Tales. In it Tolkien said that Galadriel was

"the tallest of all the women of the Eldar of whom tales tell"

and was said to be of man-height

"according to the measure of the Dúnedain and the men of old."

For the Dúnedain, man-height was a specific length equaling two rangar, units of measurement that equaled 38 inches. So Galadriel was 6 feet 4 inches tall, and from The Lord of the Rings, we also know that Celeborn was this tall as well. Elendil, of the race of men, was counted as being one of the tallest of the Númenóreans with a height of nearly 7 feet 11 inches. Glorfindel, though an elf-lord, was not a king, so the range for his height is probably between 6 and 8 feet. For the sake of continuing this argument, let’s place him as an even 7 feet in height, which is probably a generous assumption. A 7-foot Glorfindel gives us a 14-foot Balrog, which is much easier to digest when considering the confines of Moria. A 14-foot Balrog would be able to maneuver through dwarf-made cities, though doubtless he would still have some difficulties, and still adhere to lines like the following:

"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."

Tolkien wrote an earlier draft of the previous passage that is found in The History of Middle-earth, which provides further instruction.

"[the Balrog] strode to the fissure, no more than man-high yet terror
seemed to go before it."

This draft was rejected, but it shows that the Balrog was originally going to be man-high, which is, as previous discussed, six feet four inches tall. In is unlikely that Tolkien rejected this draft to make the Balrog fives times higher than he originally intended, and the fact that Tolkien wrote that the Balrog

"…leaped across the fissure"

suggests that the Balrog was large but not a mammoth 35-feet tall. In fact, there are numerous example of leaping Balrogs, especially in the passages on the duel with Glorfindel, which would be awkward for a giant Balrog to do. Also remember that in The Unfinished Tales, when Echthelion slew Gothmog in the battle by the fountain, that Ecthelion, who was wounded, leaped on Gothmog and drove his spiked helmet into the Balrog’s chest, a feat that would be impossible with a 35-foot monster.

"Then leapt Echthelion lord of the Fountain, fairest of the Noldoli,
full at Gothmog even as he raised his whip, and his helm that had a
spike upon it he drave into that evil breast, and he twined his legs
about his foeman's thighs; and the Balrog yelled and fell forward…."

So we have a 14-foot Balrog with 100-foot wings. To illustrate the enormity of these proportions, let’s go back to our 6-foot human example. If you were the Balrog, you’d now have to go through a 4.3-foot door, which you could do, except that you’d have wings 42.9 feet in span on your back! So stand up and put your arms out like wings. Now imagine that each of your arms is longer than two basketball goals put together. If someone were to describe you at this point, how likely is it that they’d leave off a description of your wings? It would be the most noticeable thing about you and probably the first thing they would mention. Yet Tolkien, a master of description, never gives us an explicit one: not in the Durin’s Bane, Dagor Bragollach, Glorfindel, or Echthelion passages. You could call this an oversight. You could call it added mystery, or you could call it reason to read that wings-from-wall-to-wall passage figuratively so that the meaning of all the other passages becomes clear. I choose to let the gist of 16 passages guide my interpretation of two rather than letting two guide my interpretation of 16.

I realize that, though there is supporting evidence for 10 to 14 foot Balrogs, there is no conclusive evidence, and so if I’ve done little to persuade you, I can offer no concrete evidence to back my claim. It is the plethora of implicit evidence that eventually convinced me to change my mind, and let me reiterate that "implicit" leaves room for an argument. As I stated in the introduction, I have put forth a guess because, in the end, all arguments in this debate involve assumption. Mine is no exception. Yet the argument that Balrogs are approximately 14 feet tall is compelling, and because I accept it, it is difficult for me to believe that Tolkien, a master of narrative, would not highlight the most salient feature of the Balrog: its disproportionate, airliner-sized wings.


  1. Conclusion

I would be foolish to claim that I have proved that Balrogs do not have wings. I have done no such thing. I would be foolish to claim there are no leaps of logic that aid the conclusions I have reached. There are many. What I have done here is take you through the evidence and thought process that caused me to change my mind so that you may weigh it against your own ideas. I originally wanted to see in which direction the clues pointed. Perhaps they pointed in both directions, leaving readers with a true choice, but after weighing the evidence, the only choice left to me was Hobson’s. I concluded that Balrogs do not have wings because one has to construct too many defenses to keep the wings in the story. Rid your mind of the wings and the stretches that one must make to keep the wings in the story disappear. But let me remind you that I have taken you through this essay in the manner of physicists, and accordingly, I have reached a physicist’s conclusion. That mindset includes the phrase made famous by William of Occam: "Non sunt multiplicanda entia praeter necessitatem." This is commonly called Occam’s razor. A way it is often paraphrased is that the simplest answer is also the best. Because we have to raise complicated theories to keep the wings in the story, we should simply dismiss the existence of the wings themselves since the absence of wings is viable as well. After all, if you were to describe a cow to someone, you might say, "It’s a large animal, usually some combination of black, brown, and white, that is prized for its milk and meat; it is exclusively herbivorous, grazing in large pastures." If someone who had never seen a cow read that description they wouldn’t assume that cows could fly because if one starts assuming that one must consider all things that one has not been told do not exist, then one must consider infinitely many things. In the case of the Balrog, we were given reason to believe that the wings might exist, but after digging through the other passages that Tolkien wrote, it becomes increasingly difficult to uphold this belief. It becomes difficult because in passages like Glorfindel’s duel where the Balrog is doing a lot of moving, the wings are never mentioned. Maybe Tolkien did this to add another enigma to his tales, just as he did with Tom Bombadil, but it seems strange that he would intentionally overlook describing the Balrogs’ 100-foot wings, when they would be the most noticeable feature of the Balrog. The likelihood of this being true is small. But nonetheless, likelihood is not proof, and so if you have chosen to leave the wings on your Balrog, so be it. The conflict will never be resolved, and perhaps this is the way it should be. It prompts people to read deeper, and this depth gives us a commonality as Tolkien readers. So may future generations find the books as I did. May they become comfortable with hobbits, elves, wizards, and black riders. May they first encounter the Balrog in Khazad-dum and decide for themselves, as I did, if every time a bell rings a Balrog gets its wings.

There are numerous internet sites and books that have aided this argument by providing ideas and references.

May the stars shine upon your faces.

William Roper

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