Balrogs a Thousand (Or Maybe Just Three) – Tolkien’s Later Writings on the Big Bads

If we wanted to know how Tolkien’s thoughts about the Balrogs changed after writing Lord of the Rings, some might say “just look at the published Silmarillion.” And while ultimately that is (sort of) true, it doesn’t really tell us much about how he arrived at what has become their position in the canon.

From the start, Tolkien had wished to publish the Silmarillion along side Lord of the Rings as a companion volume. In preparation, he rewrote the Ainulindale before finishing Return of the King. After the final revisions of Lord of the Rings were finished, Tolkien returned to revising the Lay of Leithian as well as the Quenta Silmarillion. This would take much of 1950-1, and he worked steadily, hoping that it would soon be published.

When Tolkien turned once more to the Silmarillian (in 1950-1), he went back to the Annals of Valinor, which he was now calling the Annals of Aman. This was a chronology of the Quenta, reading similarly to the Timeline in the Appendecies of Lord of the Rings, though much more fleshed out. It’s given in “sections” and eventually loses the chronology in favor of a narrative very similar to that of the published Silmarillion.

Overall, much was understandably changed. As far as Balrogs were concerned, the changes were there, though more subtle. Here it’s explained that Melkor lived in Utumno, and while most of his minions had been “perverted” from being created by Illuvatar, Balrogs were an exception: “And in Utumno he wrought the race of demons whom the Elves after named the Balrogs.”

Previously, Tolkien was less clear about this, stating once that Melkor “devised” both the Balrogs and Orcs, and in other places that “they originated (if Balrogs were not already in existence) in the ancient darkness after the overthrow of the lamps….” But now, we know when and where (and that) Melkor made the Balrogs.

Shortly after, Tolkien changed his mind completely. He even changed the names of the Balrogs: “And in Utumno he multiplied the race of the evil spirits that following him, the Umair, of whom the chief were those demons whom the Elves afterwards named the Balrogath.”

During these years, Tolkien wrote out the Quenta Silmarillion twice. In the second version, he drastically changed the origin of the Balrogs. There were ‘evil spirits’ that followed Melkor, and he multiplied them, “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 by the Noldor in later days.” Soon, he gave both Balrogs and Orcs the power to reproduce themselves.

This is pretty much as far as he got before the Lord of the Rings was fully published. And so we can see that even before the book hit the store, Tolkien had drastically changed his thoughts about the Balrogs.

During this time, a copy editor wrote him a few questions. In reply, he went on for pages about various subjects, including the Balrog. Explaining that the Balrog was a “survivor from the Silmarillion and the legends of the First Age,” Tolkien then said this:

“The Balrog, of whom the whips were the chief weapons, were primeval spirits of destroying fire, chief servants of the primeval Dark Power of the First Age. They were supposed to have all been 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 Hithaegir (the Misty Mountains). It is observable that only the Elf knows what the thing is – and doubtless Gandalf.”

It’s interesting to note that in Tolkien’s 1954 mind, Gandalf obviously knew it was a Balrog, even though in the actual published text of Lord of the Rings it seems not to be so, at least at first.

By this time, Tolkien had learned that his Silmarillion would not be published alongside the Lord of the Rings, and perhaps not ever – and it pretty well broke his heart. In fact, he did not return to writing about the Silmarillion subjects until the late 50s – after about seven years of nothing.

Well, almost nothing. He, of course, took notes, including a mini-essay about the Orcs. In this, he firmly stated that “Orcs are beasts and Balrogs corrupted Maiar.” Melkor, now for certain, could not create anything – he could only corrupt. He also took the time to return to what he was now calling a sort of Orc/Balrog hybrid called Boldog, though he pretty well went no where with that (possibly because Boldog is an embarrassingly horrible word).

Around 1958, Tolkien set to work again on the Silmarillion material, sticking closely to the aforementioned changes. There was, however, still another change to be made.

In this draft, he wrote: “There came wolves, and wolfriders, and there came Balrogs a thousand….” At some point, he decided to drastically change the number of Balrogs. In previous drafts dating from the early 1920s up until this very draft from 1958ish, Tolkien always had Melkor unleashing a “host of Balrogs.” Often, the number of Balrogs was given as several hundred to even 1,000. Now however, he wrote a note explaining: “There should not be supposed more than say 3 or at most 7 evere existed.”

On the surface, this really doesn’t seem to matter. Did a host of Balrogs drive off Ungoliante? Or was it seven? How can it possibly matter?

I suppose in one way that it could matter is that the strength of a single Balrog was now much greater. Instead of taking hundreds of Balrogs to accomplish a certain evil task, it now took only a handful.

This was the final change that Tolkien made to the Balrogs. Though curiously, in his very last writings from the late 1972 or early 1973 – the year of his death – Tolkien purposely dropped the use of the word Balrog. This happened in only one writing, but it was an important one. He wrote about Glorfindel at the Council of Elrond, “who in the pass of Cristorn (‘Eagle-cleft’) fought with a Balrog, whom he slew at the cost of his own life.”

He quickly went back, crossed out the word “Balrog” and replaced it with “Demon,” giving no explanation. Not much can really be made of this, and why he consciously decided to change it is lost to history, if it was ever known at all (even by Tolkien). Still, this was the last he ever wrote about the Balrogs. And so that’s where we’ll call this an end.

Camera: Bolsey Jubliee Film: ORWO UN54

Camera: Bolsey Jubliee
Film: ORWO UN54

A Few Notes

  • In 1958, around the time when he began to write about the Silmarillion matrial once more (after a break of seven or so years), he wrote a letter about a filmmaker who was attempting to bring Lord of the Rings to life as a cartoon. Concerning Balrogs, he wrote: “The Balrog never speaks or makes any vocal sound at all. Above all he does not laugh or sneer.”

    In the published version of The Bridge of Khazad-dum chapter, Tolkien clearly has the Balrog fall forward “with a terrible cry.” So already, the Balrog is changing so much so that he took issue with someone portraying the Balrog as being able to vocalize. And though he had abandoned the idea of Balrogs laughing, in the early drafts of the Silmarillion material, Balrogs did indeed laugh.

  • When Tolkien changed the origin of the Balrogs, he also made it so that the Orcs were perversions of the Elves. He later changed this. Someday, I’ll do the same for Orcs as I did for the Balrogs. You know, probably.
  • I know that I chucked a lot of names and titles at you. If you have any questions, please feel free to ask.

About the Photo
This is the fourth photo I took of Mount St. Helens in the fog. They all look pretty evil, but this is the least so. It’s why I saved it for last. The film used is actually motion picture film. I’m pretty well in love with it.

  • Day 179
  • Miles today: 5
  • Miles thus far: 884 (430 from Rivendell)
  • 8 miles to Lothlórien
  • 895 miles to Mt. Doom

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


7 thoughts on “Balrogs a Thousand (Or Maybe Just Three) – Tolkien’s Later Writings on the Big Bads

  1. Am I right that Tolkien used Estonian (among other languages) to base Elvish on? Hungarian is in the same language family as Estonian, alhough I don’t think the word “boldog” has anything to do with it… but I can’t help it. In Hungarian boldog means “happy”. Funny name for such an evil creature 🙂

    • He mostly based it upon a lot of contemplation upon Old English and Old Norse.

      Balrog means “demon of might” in Sindarin. Bal means might or power (which is also true in Sanskrit, oddly enough) and rog means demon. It probably comes from the Old English word for evil: bealu as in Bealubroga.

      Boldogs were something sort of different that he batted around late in his life. He thought that maybe Gothmog was actually a Boldog anod not a Balrog.

      The difference was that Boldogs were made by Maiar and were slightly less powerful than Balrogs (which doesn’t really explain how Gothmog could be one).

      Tolkien wrote some pretty nutty stuff in his last days. I think he just tinkered too much with everything and got lost in the details of some of the bigger picture stuff.

  2. It’s interesting to see how the Balrogs evolved in Tolkien’s mind. At some point they were created by Morgoth, then he changed it so that (seemingly) Morgoth can not create, only corrupt Illuvatar’s prior creations.

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