Let’s Stir Some Evil – Tracing the Balrog Through Lord of the Rings

In continuing my delving inti how Balrogs evolved within Tolkien’s writings, I first looked into how they existed in his pre-LotR drafts of the Silmarillian material (Part 1 and Part 2). Now I’ll be taking a gander at his use of the Balrog within the drafts of Lord of the Rings. Since we know his thoughts of the Balrogs’ origin, purpose and fate, we can better see where he was coming from when he decided to include Durin’s Bane in Moria.

Originally, Tolkien wrote that all of the Balrogs were slain in the War of Wrath, but a few years before starting Lord of the Rings, he changed it: “The Balrogs were destroyed, save some few that fled and hid themselves in caverns inaccessible at the roots of the earth.” This, as I said in a previous post, now opened the door for Durin’s Bane, though he was not yet invented.

The first time Tolkien ever mentioned a Balrog in relation to Lord of the Rings is when he was writing the early notes for what would become the Bridge of Khazad-hum chapter. “They are pursued by goblins and a BR [Black Rider] after escaping Balin’s Tomb” he wrote, continuing, “…they cross the bridge but the BR leaps forward and wrestles with Gandalf. The bridge cracks under them and the last they see is Gandalf falling into the pit with the BR. There is a flash of fire and blue light up from the abyss.”

Apparently pausing long enough to wrote “a Balrog” over top of “BR” and suddenly things clicked. “Gandalf thrusts Balrog under him and so … …. and eventually following the subterranean stream in the gulf he found a way out….”

Now that Tolkien decided that there was a Balrog living in Moria, he had to go back to the Council of Elrond chapters to reinvent the early Moria story, which originally had the Orcs alone driving out the Dwarves.

Curiously, he stuck with this idea for a lot longer than you’d think. In an early draft of the Lothlorian story, which he wrote after the Moria bit, Celeborn was certain that the Balrog recently came to live under the mountain, rather than having lived there since the War of Wrath. This would cancel the name “Durin’s Bane,” as when Durin lived there, there was no Bane proper, just pissed off Orcs. It wasn’t until the fifth draft of the Council of Elrond chapter that “Durin’s Bane” finally comes to life as we know him.

The first draft of the fight between Gandalf and the Balrog was pretty close to the final draft. For about a second, Tolkien contemplated multiple Balrogs, but quickly reduced it to one, described as “a fiery figure.” Legolas shot an arrow at the Balrog, which struck, and somehow rendered Legolas’ bow useless. The Balrog jumped onto the bridge with a “spout of flame.”

When Gandalf told him that he could not pass, he added “Go back into the fiery depths. It is forbidden for any Balrog to come beneath the sky since Fionwe son of Manwe overthrew Thangorodrim. I am the master of the White Fire. The red flame cannot come this way.”

Let’s take a Silmarillion break for a quick moment. For decades, obviously including when he was writing Lord of the Rings, the Valar had wives and children. Manwe’s son was Fionwe. When Tolkien abandoned that idea, he changed the name to Eonwe. We’ll remember Eonwe as the Maia who welcomed (well, sort of) Earendil when he showed up in Valinor. That doesn’t matter so much either, since Tolkien crossed out the Fionwe/Manwe bits.

As the fight in the original draft continued, the Balrog was “standing up so tall that it loomed above the wizard it strode forward and smote him.” But Gandalf threw up a white light like a shield, “and the Balrog fell backward, its sword shivered into molten pieces and flew, but Gandalf’s staff snapped and fell from his hand. With a gasping hiss the Balrog sprang up; it seemed to be half blind, but it came on and grasped the wizard. Glamdring shore off its empty right hand, but in that instant as he delivered the stroke, the Balrog struck with its whip. The thongs lashed round the wizard’s knees and he staggered.”

The battle is much more confusing for the combatants than the published version. Gimli reached for Legolas’ bow and then a troll jumped on the bridge. “There was a terrible crack and the bridge broke. All the western end fell. With a terrible cry the troll fell after it, and the Balrog tumbled sideways with a yell and fell into the chasm. Before Trotter [Strider] could reach the wizard the bridge broke before his feet, and with a great cry Gandalf fell into the darkness.”

As he wrote and rewrote the drafts, he added and subtracted lines here and there, crafting it into the battle we know today. Incidentally, it wasn’t until the third draft where it was written: “the Balrog halted facing him, and the shadow about him reached out like great wings.”

From this point in the writing and on, we’re entering territory in the future of this project. Specifically, the Balrog is discussed at Lothlorien. As stated not long ago, Celeborn doubted “if this Balrog has laid hid in the Misty Mountains – and I fear rather than he was sent by Sauron from Orodruin, the Mountain of Fire.” This would mean that he wasn’t yet sassy with Gimli about the “Dwarves had stirred up this evil in Moria again,” as he was in the published version.

Though in the early draft, Galadriel hints that it might have been so: “None know what may lie hid at the roots of the ancient hills. The Dwarves had re-entered Moria and were searching again in dark places, and they may have stirred some evil.” The dialog spoken by both Celeborn and Galadriel swapped speakers through the revision process.

This, like Gandalf’s battle with the Balrog, evolved over time. In one of the later drafts, Celeborn said: “Not since the Days of Flight have I heard that one of those fell things was loose. That one slept beneath Caradras we feared. The Dwarves have never told me the tale of those days, yet we believe that it was a Balrog that they aroused long ago when they probed too deep beneath the mountains.” This brings the drafts in line with the published, final version, and includes Celeborn’s snark to Gimli about forbidding him to enter Lorien.

But this doesn’t meant that things couldn’t change concerning things he already wrote. For a time, Tolkien entertained the idea that the Balrog was actually Saruman. He seems to have quickly abandoned this idea, but what a strange turn things would have taken if he had pursued it.

The final mention of the Balrog in <em<Lord of the Rings comes after Gandalf returns and explains about his ordeal. In the published version, he goes into some detail of the fight itself, but in the early draft it was mostly just notes in comparison. But since neither really add any information about the Balrog, except for how he died, we’ll revisit this at a much later date.

It makes sense that Tolkien began writing about the Balrog based upon what he knew about them from his pre-Lord of the Rings writings. This certainly wasn’t the first time he wrote about a one-on-one encounter with a Balrog, but it was the first time he did so in such a narrative. Lord of the Rings changed everything concerning the writings of Middle-earth. It added characters like Galadriel and Sauron, but also evolved pre-existing creatures, such as the Balrog.

Just because he published Lord of the Rings in the mid 1950s, doesn’t mean that he stopped writing about this Third Age adventure or of the ages before it. He would continue to develop the land, culture, and characters through the next twenty years. Next (well, sometime soonish), we’ll take a look at how the Balrogs evolved over this span.

Camera: Bolsey Jubliee Film: ORWO UN54

Camera: Bolsey Jubliee
Film: ORWO UN54

A Few Notes

  • It’s interesting that the idea of the Balrog fleeing directly to Moria after the War of Wrath wasn’t the first thing considered, even though he had written something nearly identical to it before starting LotR.
  • I would have loved to have been in the room with him when he figured out that he could have a Balrog in Moria instead of a Black Rider. That must have been awesome.
  • Can you imagine if the fight had actually been between Gandalf and Saruman instead of Gandalf and the Balrog? It would have ended the same way, with Gandalf being killed and coming back. But it would have been Gandalf that slew Saruman. Thankfully, Tolkien decided not to do this, instead making the Saruman character something more than a cranky fallen wizard.

About the Photo
Hopefully I’ll have enough foggy shots of burned out trees from Mount St. Helens to complete my Balrog series! I think I do.

  • Day 178
  • Miles today: 5
  • Miles thus far: 879 (425 from Rivendell)
  • 13 miles to Lothlórien
  • 900 miles to Mt. Doom

Book II, Chapter 6, Lothlorien. Entering Lothlorien. January 16, 3019 TA. (map)


13 thoughts on “Let’s Stir Some Evil – Tracing the Balrog Through Lord of the Rings

    • Oh definitely! I loved the progression. I loved this whole series, really. Still one more to go. Then I’ll have to talk about Frodo or something. Ugh, Frodo! (Kidding, he’s swell enough.)

  1. It’s interesting to note that Tolkien seemed to have abandoned the idea of corruption always taking the same course (i.e. though Sauruman was originally (?) a Maia, when he is corrupted he does not become a Balrog like the original corrupted Maiar in the final version,) as his friend C.S. Lewis seemed to prefer in the Chronicles of Narnia. On the other hand, in his Space Trilogy, Lewis remarked that certain things have become evil or forbidden through the polarizing effect of time, as well as there being different commands on different worlds as well… Yoikes. Yet another thing Peter Jackson’s movies seem to slip away from the source material in. (I mean the bit of corruption not always taking the same paths, though leading to equal, if not identical, end results.) I’ll add that to the list (Glorfindel’s strange absence from the movie, Uruk-hai being hybrids of goblins and orcs, which are essentially the same thing, rather than being hybrids of orcs and men, etc. That last one is a continuous point of friction between me and my dad. I’m always like “No, dad! The Uruk-Hai are Orc/Men hybrids! Goblins and orcs are different races of the same creature, and if you crossed them you’d get basically the same thing! Uruk-hai are bigger, stronger, and don’t fear daylight!”)
    Also, Peter Jackson seems to have drawn on the earlier drafts for the movie fight between Gandalf and the Balrog, for some reason. I wonder why that is…
    Sorry about the long rambly comment, but I just finished “That Hideous Strength” and now I’m analyzing the heck out of everything. -_-

    • I guess the levels of corruption between the Maiar who became Balrogs (maybe?) and Sauruman was different? I’m not really sure.

      Both you and your dad will rejoice-ish to know that I will soon-ish be writing a history of Orcs/Goblins/Uruks! It’s been bugging me for a bit, but I’ll delve into it and suss out what which origin story was right and when (cause that stuff changed).

      I’m not sure if Jackson legally could draw on the earlier drafts. He only had rights to LotR and the Hobbit. Any similarities between Balrogs, living or dead, are purely coincidental. 🙂

      • It’s possible. Or the Balrogs were a shape of corruption that would never come again, being wholly linked to the overthrown Morgoth’s evil.
        Cool! Thanks! 😀
        I was referring to the bit in the Extended Editions where the Balrog swings down and Gandalf seems to be shielding himself with some sort of magical light.
        And that is such an awesome quote. X-D

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