Many things that Tolkien included in Lord of the Rings had their origins in his early writings for the Silmarillion. However, that posthumously-published work went through decades of changes before his son, Christopher, finally published it in 1977. The idea of the Balrogs, as well as their story, went through several important changes after being invented in some of his earliest drafts. That’s hardly surprising, really. What’s most remarkable is just how much they didn’t change.
The first mention of Balrogs came when he was writing the latter bits of the Book of Lost Tales, a sort of precursor to the Silmarillion. It was during the Fall of Gondolin when they were first mentioned. Tolkien referred to this story as the first that he wrote. That’s only technically true. He started writing the Cottage of Lost Play earlier, but for some reason didn’t see it as a story. At any rate, Balrogs popped up early, in the first months of 1917 – thirty-seven years before the publication of Lord of the Rings.
This passage is wonderful, describing the many different creatures created by Melko’s (Melkor’s/Morgoths) “most cunning smiths and sorcerers.” Some were made of iron, others were Orcs, some were given “hearts and spirits of blazing fire.” But concerning the Balrogs:
“[Y]et others were creatures of pure flame that writhed like ropes of molten metal, and they brought to ruin whatever fabric they came nigh, and iron and stone melted before them and became as water, and upon them rode the Balrogs in hundreds….”
This first mention of Balrogs tells us almost nothing about them, except that they were hearty enough to ride whatever these things were. But soon enough, he would describe them.
“Now these were demons with whips of flame and claws of steel by whom he tormented those of the Noldoli who durst withstand him [Melko] in anything….”
While the Orcs were soldiers, the Balrogs were basically tanks. Not only did they have whips and steel claws, but they were also archers who shot arrows of flame into the city. Prior to the battle at Gondolin, no Man nor Elf had ever killed one. They were twice as tall as a Man and much more powerful. They were apparently intelligent, too, being captains of Melko’s forces.
We learn that some of the Balrogs came to battle on a snake of fire – “Flames gust from the jaws of that worm and folk wither before it.” Also: “Ecthelion’s left arm got a sore rent from a whip of the Balrog’s.” They were, in Tolkien’s words, “demons,” though he seemed more like he was picking a word to describe them, rather than insinuating that they actually came from the Christian concept of Hell.
However, they were not invincible. During the battle for Gondolin, scores of Balrogs were killed. In one instance, Glorfindel cut off a Balrog’s whip-arm at the elbow. “Then sprang the Balrog in the torment of his pain and fear full at Glorfindel, who stabbed like a dart of a snake.” As in the Silmarillion version, both Glorfindel and the Balrog die. Curiously, the Balrog fell down into a chasm, but before completely disappearing, it grabbed Glorfindel’s yellow locks “and those twain fell into the abyss.”
While in the later “canon” anyone who killed a Balrog also died, this was not necessarily the case in the early writings. Many on both sides died, so it’s possible that whomever killed a Balrog shared its fate, but it’s not said explicitly.
In the published Silmarillion, the Balrog that killed Feanor is named Gothmog. That name also comes from this 1917 writing. He was “a son of Melko and the ogress Fluithuin and his name is Strife-and-hatred, and he was Captain of the Balrogs and the lord of Melko’s host ere fair Ecthelion slew him at the taking of Gondolin.”
The whole “son of Melkor and Fluithuin” thing went along with the Valar having spouses and children – an idea that Tolkien thankfully abandoned after “finishing” the Book of Lost Tales writings.
Around 1920, Tolkien decided to tell his stories in poetry rather than prose. Across much of the decade, he wrote the Lay of the Children of Hurin and the Lay of Leithian, and Balrogs appeared in both (which makes sense, since this was more or less a retelling/re-examing of his Book of Lost Tales ideas).
Here, we learn quite a bit more about the Balrogs. In the story of Hurin, he is captured by Morgoth and tortured by Lungorthin, “Lord of Balrogs,” and others, who used their whips of fire.
Then the Lord of Hell lying-hearted
to where Hurin hung hastened swiftly,
and the Balrogs about him brazen-handed
with flails of flame and forged iron
there laughed as they looked on his lonely woe
The early Balrogs weren’t just more human, they also laughed – something that Tolkien would nix later in his life.
And then, in the Lay of Leithian, which is a retelling of the Beren and Luthien story, they are mentioned, though pretty much in passing:
They woke, and felt the trembling sound,
the beating echo far underground
shake beneath them, the rumour vast
of Morgoth’s forges; and agast
they heard the tramp of stony feet
that shod with iron went down that street:
the Orcs went forth to rape and war,
and Balrog captains marched before.
When Beren and Luthien enter Morgoth’s layer, it’s described in some fairly nasty ways (and really worth the reading). Here’s a bit of it:
About him sat his awful thanes,
the Balrog-lords with fiery manes,
redhanded, mouthed with fangs of steel;
devouring wolves were crouched at heel.
Through both poems, Orcs and Balrogs pop up everywhere. Still, we see that they hadn’t changed at all from their earlier incarnation. And though a figure isn’t given for their number, we have no reason to think that they’ve decreased from the “hundreds” as written before.
Tolkien took a break from all of that poetry to begin writing The Hobbit, which he started in 1927ish. This work was devoid of such things as Balrogs. Presumably, it’s because he thought by the time of the Hobbit, Balrogs no longer existed. With the Book of Lost Tales, he had the sliver of an idea that Morgoth would be defeated, his Balrogs killed, but never wrote it out.
It was around this time that Tolkien became a bit sidetracked (though much less than we’d think). One day in 1929 or 1930, while grading papers, he came across a sheet of blank paper submitted by a student. “… and on it I wrote: ‘In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit.'”
And with that, we’ll pick up again in a couple of days…
A Few Notes
- I’ll be covering the Balrogs in two sections. The first, which deals with Balrogs from before the LotR will be in two parts. The second will cover their evolution through the writing of LotR and his later essays and drafts of the Silmarillion. That will come in time. No rush, really.
- When trying to suss out whether Tolkien based the Balrogs on something from ancient lore, I came up empty. Some scholars suggest Tisiphone from Virgil’s Aeneid, but I really don’t think so. The only resemblence is that she uses a whip (and it’s not even a whip of fire): In a moment, Tisiphone the torturer, with uplifted scourge, lashes from side to side the spurned and guilty soul: and brandishing in her left hand knots of serpents, summons her unpitying sisterhood.
- If you want an incredibly different take on the Fall of Gondolin, read the version from Book of Lost Tales, Vol. 2. There’s some crazy dark stuff in there. Here’s a quick glimpse: “Then on a time Melko assembled all his most cunning smiths and sorcerers, and of iron and flame they wrought a host of monsters such as have only at that time been seen and shall not again be till the Great End. Some were all of iron so cunningly linked that they might flow like slow rivers of metal or coil themselves around and above all obstacles before them, and these were filled in their innermost depths with the grimmest of the Orcs with scimitars and spears; others of bronze and copper were given hearts and spirits of blazing fire, and they blasted all that stood before them with the terror of their snorting or trampled whatso escaped the ardour of their breath; yet others were creatures of pure flame that writhed like ropes of molten metal, and they brought to ruin whatever fabric they cam nigh, and iron and stone melted before them and became as water, and upon them rode the Balrogs in hundreds; and these were the most dire of all those monsters which Melko devised against Gondolin.”
About the Photo
This was a really fun post for me to write, and since the Balrogs were so evil, I wanted an appropriately evil photo. I took this near Mount St. Helens a few weeks ago. I was bummed because of the fog, but I think it really worked out.
- Day 174
- Miles today: 5
- Miles thus far: 859 (405 from Rivendell)
- 32 miles to Lothlórien
- 920 miles to Mt. Doom
Book II, Chapter 6, Lothlorien. Entering Lothlorien. January 16, 3019 TA. (map)