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Apparently there is controversy over whether a Balrog has wings, either literal or figurative.

Do Balrogs have working, usable wings?

NOTE: I prefer an answer based on LOTR canon, meaning the books or information provided by J.R.R. Tolkien or Christopher Tolkien, etc. As you'll see below, I've already read both the regular Wiki and the LOTR Wikia entries on the Balrog, so I don't need that information repeated. As well, I've seen The Fellowship of the Rings movie, which clearly shows the Balrog with wings, but I don't consider movies of books to be canon proper. YMMV, of course.

Whether Balrogs have wings (and if so, whether they can fly) is unclear. This is due partly to Tolkien's changing conception of Balrogs, but mostly to his imprecise but suggestive and possibly figurative description of the Balrog that confronted Gandalf in Moria. The argument hinges on whether the "wings" are physical wings or simply figurative wings of shadow.

The two key quotations:

His enemy halted again, facing him, and the shadow about it reached out like two vast wings.

… suddenly it drew itself up to a great height, and its wings were spread from wall to wall …

Sources: Wikipedia - Balrog, LOTR Wikia - Balrog, J.R.R. Tolkien The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Rings. I'm sorry I can't cite the exact page numbers of the FOTR quotes; I'm not through FOTR yet and the eBook was $15 at iTunes and I'm not paying $15 for a book I already own just to search for page numbers!

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    You appear to know this is a controversial subject, which hasn't been settled by years of discussion. You can't possibly hope for a definitive answer, so this question is presumably intended to start more discussion. Discussion topics are unfortunately off-topic here. – DJClayworth Mar 17 '12 at 19:20
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    @DJClayworth -- You are incorrect. My extent of knowledge of LOTR is that I read the trilogy and The Hobbit in the early 80s when I was quite young. I've seen Jackson's movies a lot. I'm beginning a re-read of the four books and am about 1/4 - 1/3 of the way through FOTR. That's it. I was not aware it was a "controversial" topic, nor would I deliberately start a discussion-only question. I am aware of the expectations of this site. Personally, I prefer to extend the benefit of the doubt before making statements with a presumptuous tone. I certainly was not trying to create trouble. – Slytherincess Mar 17 '12 at 20:21
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    @DJClayworth - that is a very poor assumption on your part as far as ad hominem, AND a very poor assumption that just because there's no definitive yes/no answer, it makes for an offtopic question. A definitive SFF answer would illustrate both sides of the debate, as dlanod's did (or rather, the essay he linked to did - his answer lacks "pro" points of view to be fully complete). – DVK-on-Ahch-To Nov 19 '12 at 15:05
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    @jwenting: Do you count the Nazgul's fell beasts among the birds or the insects? And the bats present at the Battle of the Five Armies? – Junuxx May 15 '13 at 2:32
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    Dragons also had wings. – Shamshiel Dec 24 '13 at 4:12
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The best argument for a wingless Balrog does not depend on puzzling metaphors, poetic license or literary interpretation. Consider the two known examples of someone felling a Balrog.

Gandalf and a Balrog battle it out at Durin's tower, high atop Zirak-zigil:

I threw down my enemy, and he fell from the high place and broke the mountain-side where he smote it in his ruin.

And at the fall of Gondolin:

Many are the songs that have been sung of the duel of Glorfindel with the Balrog upon a pinnacle of rock in that high place; and both fell to ruin in the abyss.

Both battles end with the Balrog falling to its death. Now, if Balrogs had wings, don't you think one of them would have remembered and used them to avoid plummeting?

Secretly, whenever I read those passages... The Balrog has wings...

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    As @Izkata said, they could be damaged. Or, the Balrog didn't "remember" to use its wings, because it had the #### beaten out of it, and was only semi-conscious - or severely weakened and unable to muster up the energy needed to fly. – John C Mar 18 '12 at 10:58
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    Not to get into speculation on the mass or lift power of a Balrog, but when in a free fall that isn't a dive, it's very hard for a winged creature to right itself and set off flying. Wings are not jetpacks, they require a specific set of circumstances to work and generate enough lift to support the creature (and decelerate the fall). Of course, this is a creature of shadow and flame we're talking about, for all we know it has the lift of a 747 and the weight of a feather, but that's another discussion >_> – jono Jan 26 '13 at 12:24
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    "mass or lift power of a Balrog" - would that be an African or a European Balrog? – user8719 May 6 '13 at 22:57
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    @mh01 The important question is, is the Balrog carrying a coconut? – Andres F. May 14 '13 at 0:39
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    A coconut of shadow and flame. – PeterL May 14 '13 at 18:44
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This has been discussed many times on the old Tolkien newsgroups, and the conclusive write-up of both sides of the debate is available in this essay by Conrad Dunkerson. I think the essay will provide a more complete answer than any response to this question.

To summarise the essay for the TL;DR crowd the answer, as expected for something still not settled, is that it is ambiguous. Those who wish Balrogs to have wings (including myself) can read that into the passages describing Balrogs. As mentioned in the essay, there are numerous instances of Balrogs not flying but every instance of the Balrogs not flying can be explained away as one of:

  1. Insufficient room to fly
  2. Too injured to fly
  3. Had no reason to fly at that time
  4. Was an early period 'pre-flying' Balrog

So there is literally nothing conclusive either way. My personal recommendation is to choose which way works best in your visualization of the scene(s) and stick with that.

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    "3. Had no reason to fly at that time" — This is my favourite reason not to fly. Happens to me all the time. – Cerberus Aug 23 '12 at 23:47
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    Are there any instance of Balrogs yes flying? – DVK-on-Ahch-To Nov 19 '12 at 15:02
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    @DVK I don't think so. That essay dlanod linked to is very informative: almost all instances of Balrogs which might be flying can be also interpreted -- given Tolkien's writing style -- to mean "moving fast". Think Gandalf's "fly, you fools", where of course he meant "flee" and not actually "fly like birds" :) All occurrences of Balrogs "flying" are ambiguous like that. – Andres F. Dec 24 '12 at 5:21
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    The passage that most strongly supports Balrog flight is "Swiftly they arose, and they passed with winged speed over Hithlum, and they came to Lammoth as a tempest of fire." – Shamshiel Dec 24 '13 at 4:13
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Another discussion of this matter is available here:

What makes this one particularly interesting is that the author started in the "pro-wings" camp but ended up in the "anti-wings" camp, and this page supplies his reasoning for it.

The usual "literal vs figurative", analysis of "winged speed", etc serves as an opener, but - IMO - the most compelling part of his argument begins about two-thirds down the page, where he makes an attempt to calculate what the wingspan of a winged Balrog would be (based on the chasm being 50 feet across, a dictionary definition of the word "chasm", the hall being wide enough for two rows of pillars, and a - admittedly flawed because it depends on pre-LotR material - deduction of a Balrog's height).

While it does make for a compelling argument, there are - as I said - flaws in it (the example I gave isn't the only one) and as always we're left with the words of Tolkien himself:

Of this two things are said, though which is true only those Wise could say who now are gone.

Update:

It's probably worth chiming in with my own reasoning here. First of all, I'm going to assert that when many people mentally picture the Balrog, they picture something similar to an Ifrit/Efreet from Arabian mythology:

An ifrit is an enormous winged creature of fire, either male or female, who lives underground and frequents ruins.

It's necessary to dispel that image (and I'm going to repeatedly hammer this point home so forgive me if I seem to be overdoing it) because when the Balrog is first encountered it actually has no fire at all:

Something was coming up behind them. What it was could not be seen: it was like a great shadow, in the middle of which was a dark form, of man-shape maybe, yet greater; and a power and terror seemed to be in it and to go before it.

Aside from circumstantial reasoning, such as that Gandalf would have described fire and heat when the Balrog entered the Chamber of Mazarbul, this description makes it unassailable: the Ifrit mental picture is incorrect and the initial encounter with the Balrog is with a being of pure darkness and shadow (picture something like Radagast's encounter with the Necromancer in the first Hobbit movie here).

It's only when the Balrog leaps over the fiery fissure that it then becomes the famously-described creature of "shadow and flame":

It came to the edge of the fire and the light faded as if a cloud had bent over it. Then with a rush it leaped across the fissure. The flames roared up to greet it, and wreathed about it; and a black smoke swirled in the air. Its streaming mane kindled, and blazed behind it.

Even here we see that the shadow element was sufficient to douse much of the light from the fissure, so the Balrog's primary element is definitely shadow - fire is just secondary, and the "Ifrit image" must be discarded. This is also seen in Gandalf's description of after the Balrog fell into the abyss under the Bridge:

His fire was quenched, but now he was a thing of slime, stronger than a strangling snake.

So a Balrog's fire can be put out, further weakening (if it were even necessary to do so by now) the "Ifrit image".

Now for the "wings", and let's look at the first mention:

His enemy halted again, facing him, and the shadow about it reached out like two vast wings.

Again we're not talking about the fire element, we're talking about the shadow, and at this stage the shadow is starting to spread out and take the shape of wings. Now for the next bit, and here I'm going to quote a little extra (emphasised) than is usually done:

The fire in it seemed to die, but the darkness grew. It stepped forward slowly on to the bridge, and suddenly it drew itself up to a great height, and its wings were spread from wall to wall...

Again, Tolkien de-emphasises the fire and strengthens the shadow, and the wings described are clearly those that the shadow "reached out" into the form of (and remember that the shadow, when the Balrog was first described, was not something separate around it, but was described as part of it: "it was like a great shadow").

The evolution of the wings clearly takes the following stages:

  • When the Balrog is first encountered there is no description of "wings"; the Balrog is not an Ifrit, it's a creature of shadow and shadow only that subsequently catches fire.
  • The shadow form is initially smaller but spreads out like wings at the start of it's encounter with Gandalf: "the shadow about it reached out like two vast wings" - nothing about "fire" here.
  • Following Gandalf's challenge, the fire dies down ("the fire in it seemed to die") and the shadow form ("but the darkness grew") has by then become wings which "spread from wall to wall".

What we have here is - as I've said multiple times above - not a fiery winged demon like an Ifrit, but something quite different. Something that may have fire somewhere in it, but is primarily a being of darkness and shadow (see also Valaquenta: "their hearts were of fire, but they were cloaked in darkness"), and that darkness/shadow is mutable. In this encounter the shadow changed to take the form of wings, which seems to be what Tolkien is clearly describing.

  • I very like this analysis. – Mithoron Apr 29 '15 at 17:41
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    He sounds like he's made of a BBQ propane burner. Step in front of a spark or flame...WOOOOF! – iMerchant May 11 '16 at 11:34
  • That's a lot of effort downplaying the fire, which doesn't actually seem particularly relevant, but it seems to contain a pretty strong argument that it has wings, or at least that it can form wings from its mutable shadowy shape. – DCShannon Sep 27 '16 at 19:19
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That is THE Tolkien question (possibly only rivalled by the Bombadill matter). Tolkien called the balrogs 'a kind of primeval fire demon': a semi-corporeal spirit in its native form. Demons being fallen angels, and angels generally being depicted as having wings I suspect that Tolkien may have envisaged wings: possibly ruined and terrible as the rest of the balrogs' physical manifestation.

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    Thanks for the answer - +1. From what I've read, the Balrog in Tolkien lore is of fire and shadow, which of course brings the vision of an underworld (whatever one wants to call it - Hell, Hades, WalMart...) I wonder if part of the Balrogs' curse is to have accursed wings -- wings, but wings that won't work. If the Balrog had working wings in Fellowship of the Ring, it wouldn't have fallen all the way to the lake and the bottom of Moria. :) – Slytherincess Dec 22 '12 at 16:12
  • "That is THE Tolkien question (possibly only rivalled by the Bombadill matter)." Along with "Why didn't Frodo fly to Mordor on a giant eagle?" and "Do Tolkien's Elves have pointed ears?" – RobertF Oct 11 '17 at 18:18
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It is impossible to say with any certainty. If the Tolkien Society doesn't know, no one does. And the Tolkien Society doesn't know:

Although visual artists almost always depict Balrogs with wings, a reader of Tolkien is usually less convinced. In the ‘The Bridge of Khazad-dûm’ Tolkien says that “the shadow about it [the Balrog] reached out like two vast wings” (p. 330). This metaphoric reference to wings is shortly after followed with the description that the Balrog “stepped forward slowly on to the bridge, and suddenly it drew itself up to a great height, and its wings were spread from wall to wall” (p. 330). There is no further mention of the wings as it plunges down into the abyss, or later when Gandalf describes his long fight with the Balrog. Tolkien’s description may just be a way of saying that the Balrog’s shadow seemed to take the shape of wings, because if it did possess wings, you would expect it to flap them when plummeting down into Moria, or use them in its battle with Gandalf on the mountain top.

When drafts of The Silmarillion were published in Morgoth’s Ring it was discovered that Tolkien wrote of Balrogs: “swiftly they arose, and they passed with winged speed over Hithlum, and they came to Lammoth as a tempest of fire.” (p. 297). Again, at a first glance it may seem as if real wings are implied, but it’s also possible that “winged speed” is used in a metaphorical sense. Overall it is impossible to categorically say if Balrogs have wings or not, so it is up to each individual reader to decide.

[page references are to The Lord of the Rings: 50th Anniversary Edition, 2004; Morgoth’s Ring, 2002 UK paperback]

3

In The Lost Road and Other Writings, which contains a version of the Silmarillion post-Hobbit but pre-Lord of the Rings*, Winged Dragons are described as Morgoth's first airborne creations:

Then, seeing that his hosts were overthrown and his power dispersed, Morgoth quailed, and he dared not to come forth himself. But he loosed upon his foes the last desperate assault that he had prepared, and out of the pits of Angband there issued the winged dragons, that had not before been seen; for until that day no creatures of his cruel thought had yet assailed the air.

Balrogs certainly existed at this time in both Tolkien's imagination and in the story.

Couple this with the fact that the two specific instances we know of where a Balrog dies, both by falling, and it seems clear that Balrogs do not have wings. The passage in Lord of the Rings is an example of simile and metaphor that is often confused as physical description.

(*The Lost Road was written just as Tolkien was about to start writing The Lord of the Rings and represents quite a late version of the Silmarillion.)

  • Thanks for providing the quote Rand al'Thor. It goes further by suggesting that Balrogs didn't previously fly; winged or not. – Ralph Sep 27 '16 at 12:51
  • Were the Balrogs really created by Morgoth? – TGnat Sep 27 '16 at 16:52
  • No, my mistake. I didn't mean to imply that in my answer, and the quote doesn't suggest it. I would argue that they are creatures of his thought though. – Ralph Sep 28 '16 at 11:42
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I do not believe that the Balrogs have wings. This does not seem to be the case in any instance with their appearance in the 1st Age or with the Balrog of Moria. It is said that his shadow spread like wings, "the shadow about it reached out like two vast wings" [The Bridge of Khazad-dûm] which does not necessarily mean "his wings spread out". You might point out that shortly afterward it is stated "its wings were spread from wall to wall" so how can you say it does not have wings? I believe the wings being discussed are just shadows that appear to spread like wings "the shadow about it reached out" and as "the darkness grew... its wings were spread from wall to wall". The wings are just the shadows.

If the wings, which are shadows, are useable why make a drop into the freezing pool with Gandalf? When the Balrog does run from Gandalf in the pit why not take off and get out of his reach if he could fly rather than run with Gandalf at his heels? Why not take to the air in their attack on Gondolin in the First Age and shoot flaming missiles into the city out of the reach of the bows of the Elves?

The Balrog's have changed from demons to maiar, with a great increase in personal power. In The Book of Lost Tales many of them are killed by a single person, Tuor himself kills several. The later Balrogs Tuor would not have a chance to do such a thing. I do not think in any incarnation they were able to fly.

0

I never finished The Lord of the Rings, but I did read The Silmarillion (I wanted to read in chronological order). It makes it clear that Balrogs are Maiar, corrupted by Morgoth. The Maiar, like all of the Ainur, had no fixed form and could change there shape as freely as we could change clothes. It is my interpretation that the Balrogs could have wings if they chose to.

I did not yet reach the part of Lord of the Rings where The Fellowship passes through the Mines of Moria, but according to the wiki (and the non-canon Movie) that the Balrog falls into a fighting Gandalf and ends up fighting him on top of a mountain. I interpret this as him changing into a form with wings mid-fight.

But that's just what I got out of The Silmarillion and the wiki. I'll have a more informed opinion when I find time to continue reading Lord of the Rings.

  • Good point about changing form, but I wonder if they actually could. After all, the wizards were unable to change form, being more bound to a body than your usual Maia. I think... – Molag Bal May 11 '16 at 2:11
  • I just asked a question about which Maiar can change form at will. The Balrogs apparently can’t, but still, I don’t think there’s any real evidence that they can’t sprout wings. – Molag Bal May 11 '16 at 4:56

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