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Ecthelion fights and kills one by drowning it and Glorfindel stabs one in the chest and makes it fall off a cliff killing it.

They were both killed in the process of defeating their Balrogs but killed them nonetheless.

Balrogs are supposedly Ainur and are beyond the power of either Man or Elves, Gandalf had to use magic to kill one. So how could an Elf subdue one?

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    I don't think it is true that Elves and Men do not have the power to kill Maiar. Saruman was a Maia, but Wormtongue was able to kill him by cutting his throat with a knife.
    – Blackwood
    Sep 19, 2016 at 15:20
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    @Blackwood Saruman was not at his full power though and was bound to a physical form making him vulnerable to injuries hence why grima was able to kill him
    – Fingolfin
    Sep 21, 2016 at 15:40

3 Answers 3

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Tolkien answered this in Ósanwe-kenta, a manuscript related to the "Quendi and Eldar" essay:

"Here Pengolodh adds a long note on the use of hröar by the Valar. In brief he says that though in origin a 'self-arraying', it may tend to approach the state of 'incarnation', especially with the lesser members of that order (the Maiar). 'It is said that the longer and the more the same hröa is used, the greater is the bond of habit, and the less do the 'self-arrayed' desire to leave it.'

[...]

[Melkor's greatest servants] became wedded to the forms of their evil deeds, and if these bodies were taken from them or destroyed, they were nullified, until they had rebuilt a semblance of their former habitations, with which they could continue the evil courses in which they had become fixed.

Basically, because the balrogs had been using the same form for so long, they became "bound" to it in a very literal sense. Although they couldn't be utterly destroyed, the destruction of their bodies was a greater inconvenience to them than it would have been to a Valar, or to a Maiar with less of a connection to their hröa. Although it certainly wouldn't have been easy to destroy a balrog's hröa (as evidenced by the fact that few people actually survived doing it), but it's certainly a more achievable prospect than totally destroying a fully-powered Maiar.

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  • I think one of the parts of the question of the OP is also how they even managed to do their deeds because of the vast power difference between elves and balrogs (thus one was drowned....is there anything how it was even accomplished without dying WAY before that as example)
    – Thomas
    Sep 17, 2016 at 5:26
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    Technical quibble : Use "Vala" and "Maia" for the singular of "Valar" and "Maiar".
    – Spencer
    Sep 17, 2016 at 14:20
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Glorfindel and Ecthelion were able to do it through sheer valour. Also, in Tolkien's writings Balrogs were only about twice the size of a man, and not those gigantic fiery monsters like the one in LoTR movie. In Tolkien's early writings (such as The Book of Lost Tales) they also numbered in hundreds, and basically served as lieutenants of Morgoth's armies. As Christopher Tolkien comments:

The early conception of the Balrogs makes them less terrible, and certainly more destructible, than they afterwards became.

During the Fall of Gondolin, as originally envisioned, a battalion of elves killed many Balrogs through sheer and valorous onslaught:

Agreat deed was that sally, as the Noldoli sing yet, and many of the Orcs were borne backward into the fires below; but the men of Rog leapt even upon the coils of the serpents and came at those Balrogs and smote them grievously, for all they had whips of flame and claws of steel, and were in stature very great. They battered them into nought, or catching at their whips wielded these against them, that they tore them even as they had aforetime torn the Gnomes; and the number of Balrogs that perished was a marvel and dread to the hosts of Melko, for ere that day never had any of the Balrogs been slain by the hand of Elves or Men.

- The Fall of Gondolin, The Book of Lost Tales pt1

In his later writings, Tolkien greatly diminished the number of Balrogs who had ever existed (at most seven), and perhaps made them more monstrous and terrible, but the stories of the defeat of those two Balrogs in Gondolin remained.

Don't forget that Fingolfin stood toe to toe with Morgoth himself, wounding him seven times before being overcome after a long while. So Elves can indeed achieve incredible might and valour in the face of certain death.

At the bottom of it all, as Jason Baker pointed out, spirits that have bound themselves to a physical form and live in that form for very long become weaker and vulnerable to physical harm.

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A common theme in Tokien's work is the fading of the Eldar over time. I think it is safe to say that the Noldor of the First Age (being younger and, probably more importantly, freshly arrived from Aman) were far stronger than their Third-Age counterparts. It is probably fair to say that they even surpassed the Istari, who were significantly constrained by their incarnate bodies.

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