Tolkien Tuesday #33

~ 13 September 2022 ~

The Reading, and Ensuing Thoughts

This week we finished Book 2, Chapter 5: The Bridge of Khazad-dum.

As the company flee down the staircase in the pitch dark, Gandalf remains to try and seal the door behind them. Not long after, a flash of white, and Gandalf comes flying down the stairs claiming he has met his match. They continue on in the darkness.

After an hour, Gandalf must rest. While seated he explained what happened. He had faced something he had not met before, something that terrified the orcs, something that possessed its own magic. In the ensuing battle of wills, the door broke into pieces and the roof collapsed sealing their exit.

Briefly rested, they go on; they can see light ahead of them and it’s red. The passage ends at an archway into another hall from where the red glow is coming. They believe the cause to be fire. Gandalf alone steps through and on his return announces, “There is some new devilry here…”. But he knows where they are and explains it’s not far to the outside.

The drums, horns and orc cries sound again. Now they must run the length of the hall, the distance being greater than they first thought. They are spotted and pursued. Arrows are flying everywhere. At the end of the hall, the floor falls away and a gaping chasm is suddenly before them. It can only be crossed by a very narrow bridge. They must cross it in single file, and Gandalf explains the way out is just a little further beyond it.

Behind them there is a whole host of orcs, and those with bows are using them. Legolas goes to return fire when he spots a shadow coming up behind the orcs and is filled with terror. It was wreathed in flame and trailing black smoke. It’s a balrog.

A random photo of a bridge πŸ˜‰
Photo by Jacob Colvin on Pexels.com

Gandalf, already tired, insists the others must cross the bridge whilst he holds it. Once they are all in relative safety on the other side, Gandalf stands in the middle of the bridge. The balrog steps on to the bridge and begins to battle the wizard. Aragorn and Boromir return with the aim of helping him, but Gandalf, using his staff breaks the stone of the bridge. It collapses beneath the balrog, but its whip ensnares Gandalf and pulls him into the chasm too.

Aragorn leads the company out of the mountains, into the Dimrill Dale. It is the middle of the day, the sunlight bright, but in the shadow of the mountains they can still hear the distant drumbeat. Safe, they grieve for Gandalf.

Next week we will begin Book 2, Chapter 6: Lothlorien.

Middle Earth Musings and Meditations

Although they have already faced danger on this journey, this is the first time they have been faced with grief. And this week, I have a few reminiscences to share…

I remember the first time I read this passage (I was about 11 years old). To say I was stunned would be an understatement. I recall getting to the end of the chapter and just slowly closing the book. It wasn’t so much that I thought I couldn’t go on reading it (I knew I would), but I did feel like I needed a little time to get to grips with this. I hadn’t expected it at all.

Gandalf was a wizard. Wizards had spells and magic. That surely meant Gandalf couldn’t die, didn’t it? If one of the others had been pulled into the chasm with the balrog, it would have been sad, of course, but I think it would have been less shocking to the eleven year old me.

I also remember thinking that without a wizard, who was going to protect the company if they reached another point where, “Swords are no more use here,”? I was more than a little concerned for the Fellowship, I can tell you. Yet, that’s the very reason that spurred me on to carry on with the story. How were they going to get over this? I knew they had to because the book was very big, and we weren’t halfway through it. The reasoning of an 11 year old still makes much sense today. πŸ™‚

Elsewhere

As we met our first balrog in this half a chapter, I thought it would be well to suggest a reading of the FAQs page on The Tolkien Society website, especially the FAQ which discusses that favourite Middle Earth question: “Do balrogs have wings? Can they fly?”

This also ties in to this week’s question of the week…

The Lord of the Rings Question of the Week:

Let’s talk balrogs this week. I want to know your thoughts about them, your reaction to them and what you think of Tolkien’s descriptions of them.

To me, balrogs have always come across with a terrifying majesty about them. They are ancient. They are powerful. And though the descriptions we have of the balrog in this chapter are truly magnificent in telling us how it looks, it is how others react to it that I find the most interesting. Legolas is filled with terror and wails. Gimli drops his axe. Gandalf falters and leans heavily on his staff. And as for the orcs, although they are on the same side, they are clearly afraid of it too. It’s these descriptions that really show us how terrible it is to face a balrog.

What would the hobbits have thought on seeing it? We aren’t told in this chapter. When all other members of the company have done their fair share of fighting already, the hobbits have seen very little and done even less. Coming from such a sheltered background, they have only recently seen ringwraiths, barrow- wights, orcs and wargs, and only hours before participated in their first proper fight. Balrogs must be beyond their imagining.

What I’ve always found interesting is the question: do balrogs have wings. In one passage Tolkien writes: “…and the shadow about it reached out like two vast wings”, yet two paragraphs later he wrote, “…and its wings were spread from wall to wall”. I’ve always taken these statements to mean, balrogs do have wings (though I don’t think of them as wings fit for flying). In the first quote, these wings are hinted at, ill-defined, suggested but not conclusively there, and it’s not until the second quote when the balrog draws itself up to its full height that the wings are very much there and on display, the revealing of which is used to terrible effect. I’m not sure everyone would agree with my reasoning though…

8 thoughts on “Tolkien Tuesday #33

  1. Like Gandalf, Balrogs are Maia, thus they are powerful. The Valarauka, spirits of fire that were corrupted by Morgoth in the early days of Arda. I tend to believe they don’t have wings, in fact there is an article on WordPress I wrote about it. β€œβ€¦and the shadow about it reached out like two vast wings” to me is a metaphor which Tolkien then extends with the passage β€œβ€¦and its wings were spread from wall to wall” to infer the Balrogs is extremely large and menacing as its shadow now spreads from wall to wall. There are some who will disagree with me… In the Silmarillion they are mentioned many times and one time they issue out of Angband (Morgoth’s fortress) and surround Feanor and mortally wound him (Feanor created the Silmarils, and the palantirs). Another time Glorfindel and a Balrog plunge to their death during the fall of Gondolin. It is never mentioned in any of these instances that Balrogs have wings. All that said, in the film and most of the Tolkien-inspired art I’ve seen Balrogs are depicted with wings. The only art without winged Balrogs that comes to mind is Angus MacBride’s depiction of the Bridge of Khazad-dum.

    Liked by 1 person

    • That’s very true that there is no mention elsewhere of balrog’s having wings, given they do turn up numerous times in the other stories / accounts, so it does seem to come across as metaphor in this instance…and yet, I can’t quite unsee them having wings. I did read the book before I saw the films, and I’m pretty sure that even then I imagined them with wings. I find it interesting that Tolkien left no categorically clear statement on balrogs and their wings or lack thereof, yet he made a point of categorically stating they did not roar (I can’t quite remember the reference for that though). πŸ™‚

      The passage in The Silmarillion of Glorfindel at the fall of Gondolin is, I think one of the most beautifully written passages in the whole book. πŸ™‚

      Liked by 2 people

  2. It was an exciting – as in heart-stopping – half-chapter. To have Gandalf pulled down by that beast was shocking and elicited a “nooooooooo!” (you know, as a pretend first-time reader).

    As for the Balrog and wings – if you read it as it is, you assume there really are wings but after reading you two ladies, I now see it is more metaphoric – shadows stretched like wings, showing just how huge these beasties are.

    Liked by 2 people

  3. 2 answers: 1) I think the Hobbits would merely add balrog to the increasing list of horrors & danger. Just one more thing. Until, of course, it takes Gandalf. 2) It is unfortunate that the word is so similar to an Indian name (a character in Bride & Prejudice), it kinda like takes the scariness away for me.
    But I was horrified that Gandalf was gone.

    Liked by 3 people

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