Doom, doom, doom. Haunting booms rumble from below.
The fiery whip and fleeing Fellowship.
A resolute Wizard.
Alas, Gandalf slips into the abyss.
As readers encounter one of the most famous scenes in all of Tolkien’s legendarium, we are enveloped in awe. So deep and devilish, the Balrog’s behavior is terrifying. But what is this evil one’s origin and true nature? Are there deeper caverns of backstory in J.R.R.’s creation of this creature, and might there be any applicability for our own deep encounters?
From whence come the Fiery Ones?
Amid ancient scenes of Middle-earth, far back in the First Age, we meet such creatures. In Valenquenta “of the enemies,” we read about Melkor:
He began with the desire of Light, but when he could not possess it for himself alone, he descended through the fire and wrath into a great burning, down into Darkness . . . But he was not alone. For of the Maïar many were drawn to his splendour in the days of his greatness, and remained in that allegiance down into his darkness . . . Dreadful among these spirits were the Valaraukar, the scourges of fire that in Middle-earth were called the Balrogs, demons of terror (The Silmarillion, 23).
Thus, we discover the Balrogs’ origin is linked to none other than Melkor, or Morgoth as he was named by the Elves. He was dubbed the “Dark Enemy of the World.” Stunning indeed to realize that these demons were originally Maïar, those good helpers to the kingly, god-like Valar.
Ponder this: Balrogs were originally of the same ilk as Ilmarë, Ossë, Uinen, Melian, and even Olórin, who was Gandalf in his primal form. Balrogs were Maïar gone bad, agents of good who turned to Morgoth’s dark side.
Tolkien supplies further character insight regarding Melkor’s influence with these demonic ones:
And in Utumno he gathered his demons about him, those spirits who first adhered to him in the days of his splendour, and became most like him in his corruption: their hearts were of fire, but they were cloaked in darkness, and terror went before them; they had whips of flame. Balrogs they were named in Middle-earth in later days. And in that dark time Melkor bred many other monsters of divers shapes and kinds that long troubled the world; and his realm spread now ever southward over Middle-earth (The Silmarillion, 43-44).
Such explanation from early Tolkien pen-strokes reveals why readers and viewers end up terrified and mesmerized, indeed. From the beginning, emblazoned in these ancient formative scenes of Middle-earth, the darkness, flame, demons, and monsters were on display as despicable enemies of the Children of Ilúvatar.
Freeing Morgoth—Balrogs to the rescue!
The mammoth spider Ungoliant battled Morgoth for the Silmarils. Morgoth was ensnared in her web. Trapped, he cried out, and we read:
Deep in forgotten places that cry was heard. Far beneath the ruined halls of Angband, in vaults to which the Valar in the haste of their assault had not descended, Balrogs lurked still, awaiting ever the return of their Lord; and now swiftly they arose . . . With their whips of flame they smote asunder the webs of Ungoliant, and she quailed, and turned to flight . . . And he being freed gathered again all his servants that he could find, and came to the ruins of Angband. There he delved anew his vast vaults and dungeons . . . (The Silmarillion, 87).
In this twisted conflict, the Balrogs came to their Lord’s rescue. They were always ready to do his bidding with full demonic fervor.
In a future battle with Fëanor, Balrogs played a decisive role. Consumed with his own obsessive, fiery passion and not realizing the strength of troops at Angband, Fëanor plunged ahead. He was overwhelmed with a host of Balrogs. Finally, Fëanor was taken down by Gothmog, Lord of Balrogs (The Silmarillion, 121-22).
What’s extra-unique about these monsters, from the mind of Tolkien?
In the throngs of writing The Lord of the Rings, Tolkien received assistance in reading page-proofs from Mrs. Mitchison. Responding to her questions with a lengthy letter, he described the Balrog as “a survivor from the Silmarillion and the legends of the First Age . . . primeval spirits of destroying fire, chief servants of the primeval Dark Power of the First Age.” Then Tolkien adds this instructive note:
They were supposed to have been all destroyed in the overthrow of Thangorodrim, his fortress in the North. But it is here found (there is usually a hang-over especially of evil from one age to another) that one had escaped and taken refuge under the mountains of Hithaeglin (the Misty Mountains). (The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, 180)
Michael Stanton supplies intriguing commentary:
Tall, or rather huge, winged, dark or flame-wrapped, wielding a whip, mute, and terrible in its very silence, the Balrog embodies all that one would wish to see of Hell. If there can be majesty in evil, the Balrog possesses it . . . In the titanic confrontation that ensues, Gandalf eventually destroys the flame-shrouded monster (Hobbits, Elves, and Wizards, 143).
Thus, we discover the ancient and clandestine nature of perhaps the most famous Balrog. But we also discover something extra-unique.
In our own deep, dark, fiery moments
The entire scene in the depths of Khazad-dûm drips with fire. The story’s stage is a study in great irony. Haunting and harrowing darkness is flaming with the blaze of the Balrog. But the literary irony is even richer as we hear the Wizard make his famous declaration, ‘You cannot pass’ followed by ‘I am a servant of the Secret Fire, wielder of the flame of Anor. You cannot pass. The dark fire will not avail you, flame of Udûn. Go back to the Shadow! You cannot pass.’ Gandalf’s fiery courage is fueled by a primal, creative, holy flame, uniquely capable of ultimate triumph over the demonic, rival flame that originated in Melkor’s rebellion.
Perhaps our imaginations are arrested in this scene because we sense much more afoot in the depths with the Balrog. Yes, beyond the monster vs. wizard showdown, we see the famous Tolkien theme of good versus evil, a battle we encounter in our own lives every day. There is a sense in which we each stand in the depths on the bridge, facing off with the Balrog.
Demons of discouragement and despair. Demons of self-consumption, sensual indulgence, arrogance run amok, abuse of power, and gargantuan greed. Demons that might temporarily plunge us into the darkness. If we choose wisely, our own souls can blaze anew with a unique fire, the holy flame to stand against such raging demons.
Might we each pause on the bridge, prayerfully recall the Holy Flame, and stand our ground against the fiery ones. Let us courageously encounter the eventual, victorious outcome of holy sacrifice.