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Shortly after Gandalf first sees the balrog, he orders Aragorn to lead the fellowship to the bridge. Aragorn hesitates, fearing to leave Gandalf alone against such a fearsome enemy, until Gandalf tells him,

Swords are no more use here!

Moments later when Gandalf and the balrog are falling into the abyss, Gandalf repeatedly stabs his foe with a sword. We don't see him use any magic against the balrog. Maybe he did use magic, but we didn't see it. His staff is either lost or destroyed by then.

As best we can tell, Gandalf defeats the balrog with a sword.

Obviously I am quoting from the movies and showing scenes from the movies, but I want an answer from the books.

Did Gandalf defeat the balrog with only a sword?

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    All he had was a sword when he fell? "When the only tool you have is a hammer, every problem looks like a nail." – RichS Aug 10 at 3:53
  • @user119489 If you just made that up you shouldn't post it. If you have references, you should post it as an answer. – pipe Aug 10 at 15:09
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    I think Gandalf is referring to the swords of the Fellowship: Those are useless, and they should run. His own, Glamdring, is not indicted by that statement. – ako Aug 12 at 10:16
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    I always heard this as more of a metaphorical statement than a literal one. I figured that he was essentially telling Aragorn "you can't add anything to this fight, if you stay here with me you'll just be in the way". – Mike.C.Ford Aug 13 at 11:15
  • Because he forgot to prepare daylight that day. Which is a mistake he didn't make again, because he made sure to use it later. – PlutoThePlanet Aug 13 at 21:15
83

Because using a sword was effective.

(Keep in mind that Balrogs envisioned by Tolkien were not as big as what Peter Jackson depicts in the movies.)


'Do as I say!' said Gandalf fiercely. 'Swords are no more use here. Go!'

The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring, The Bridge of Khazad-dûm

In the books, Gandalf says that particular line before he is even aware that Durin's Bane is a Balrog. With hordes of Orcs and something bigger on the other side of the door, it would seem pointless for the Fellowship to not run away. Gandalf knew that only he could hold the door, with his magic, against those orcs. Not the Fellowship.

The passage was lit by no shaft and was utterly dark. They groped their way down a long flight of steps, and then looked back; but they could see nothing, except high above them the faint glimmer of the wizard's staff. He seemed to be still standing on guard by the closed door. Frodo breathed heavily and leaned against Sam, who put his arms about him. They stood peering up the stairs into the darkness. Frodo thought he could hear the voice of Gandalf above, muttering words that ran down the sloping roof with a sighing echo. He could not catch what was said. The walls seemed to be trembling. Every now and again the drum-beats throbbed and rolled: doom, doom.

The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring, The Bridge of Khazad-dûm

Gandalf had no idea that there was a Balrog until he was confronted by it.

Gandalf's sword: Glamdring

Also note that Glamdring was a legendary sword made in the First Age for King Turgon. It's easily the most ancient sword which still existed at the time of the Fellowship (since Narsil was made for King Elendil sometime in the Second Age). That doesn't necessarily mean it's the most "powerful", but the fact that it was made for the then High King of the Noldor means it could, at least, hold its own against a creature of Morgoth.

"This, Gandalf, was Glamdring, Foe-hammer that the king of Gondolin once wore."

The Hobbit

Durin's Bane vs Gandalf

It's also explicitly mentioned that Gandalf did use Glamdring against the Balrog.

'We fought far under the living earth, where time is not counted. Ever he clutched me, and ever I hewed him, till at last he fled into dark tunnels. They were not made by Durin's folk, Gimli son of Gloin. Far, far below the deepest delving of the Dwarves, the world is gnawed by nameless things. Even Sauron knows them not. They are older than he. Now I have walked there, but I will bring no report to darken the light of day.

The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers, The White Rider

It did seem like it hurt the Balrog. And finally we have the 2 of them fighting it out at Zirakzigil.

A great smoke rose about us, vapour and steam. Ice fell like rain. I threw down my enemy, and he fell from the high place and broke the mountain-side where he smote it in his ruin. Then darkness took me; and I strayed out of thought and time, and I wandered far on roads that I will not tell.

The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers, The White Rider

It's fairly unclear what Tolkien meant by "threw him down", whether by magic or a physical shove, but I see it as Gandalf, with Glamdring, pushing the Balrog back onto the edge of the peak that ultimately caused the Balrog to fall down.

Gandalf's use of magic

The strain of keeping the Balrog behind the door took its toll on Gandalf, as he explicitly states:

'A Balrog,' muttered Gandalf. 'Now I understand.' He faltered and leaned heavily on his staff. 'What an evil fortune! And I am already weary.'

The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring, The Bridge of Khazad-dûm

We do see him using his magic to stop the Balrog from crossing the bridge, but not any more after that. That doesn't mean he didn't use his magic, but I feel that he found his sword to be of more use against the Balrog than perhaps any spells he could cast. Remember, the Balrogs were once Maia as well, but corrupted. Gandalf too is a Maia, albeit clothed in human flesh that gave them restrictions on the power they could use in Middle-earth.

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    Telchar was around and making stuff in the middle of the First Age, so it seems more likely that Narsil was made around the same time, but certainly a few thousand years before Elendil's time. – Paul Griffiths Aug 11 at 3:39
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    @PaulGriffiths That does seem possible. Unfortunately I don't think Tolkien ever shed light on the exact time of Narsil's forging. Tolkien's Gateway isn't helpful either without a citation. – Mat Cauthon Aug 11 at 6:31
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    Gandalf made a sincere effort not to confront power with power. First he tried to run, then he tried breaking the bridge. At that point he's got to deal with another Maia that doesn't follow those rules, so of course he uses magic. After all, without magic how did he survive the fall? – Gaius Aug 11 at 16:16
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We know for a fact that swords are effective, though perhaps not ordinary swords. During the battle of Gondolin, one of the more epic battles of the First Age, many balrogs were slain with weapons, wielded by various high elf heroes who used no magic of any kind.

We don't know in great detail how the battle between Gandalf and the balrog went on; the book is vague. But it ends with Gandalf forcing the balrog to fall down the side of a mountain. The fall supposedly killed it.

(This is very similar to how Glorfindel kills a balrog during the battle of Gondolin - in fact, Tolkien probably borrowed bits from that story to LotR, since he didn't initially think to intergrate it with Silmarillion)

We don't know if swords made in Gondolin have any special abilities beyond sensing when orcs are near, but they could evidently wound and kill balrogs. Ecthelion, a hero of Gondolin, slays several balrogs before he faces the balrog Captain Gothmog and they kill each other.

Glamdring belonged to the King of Gondolin. If there is something special with those swords, it is safe to believe that other swords made by Noldor smiths had the same abilities, since for example the smiths from the house of Feanor were even more skilled. It seems likely that balrogs would have been killed by other Noldor in the many battles of the First Age, and perhaps also by dwarves and Men.

If ordinary weapons could wound balrogs, we don't know. But as it happens, every death of a balrog that's explicitly described in the books is carried out by someone wielding a sword from Gondolin: Ecthelion, Glorfindel and Gandalf.

But there is not really anything indicating that balrogs couldn't be wounded by ordinary weapons, except for the quote by Gandalf saying "swords are no more use here". But that might as well refer to the balrog being too powerful for the other members of the Fellowship to face, not without taking losses - "this foe is beyond any of you". And Gandalf doesn't want to endanger the One Ring - he wants it to be taken away from the balrog.

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    Elves are intrinsically magical – Gaius Aug 11 at 16:16
  • "During the battle of Gondolin, one of the more epic battles of the First Age, many balrogs were slain…" Were there? I don't have Silmarillion next to me but as far as I remember only a handful of Balrogs have been slain in combat like that and every time their opponent died - although Glorfindel and Gandalf were allowed to come back. – Johan Aug 13 at 9:04
  • @Johan This is mostly from Lost Tales, where the original story The Fall of Gondolin is described in more detail than in Silmarillion. – Amarth Aug 19 at 16:35
  • @amarth, have read Lost Tales but that is literally in the fogs of pre-history. So in that version of The Fall of Gondolin, many balrogs were slain? Interesting. Need to re-read that book. However, I think it was the Tolkien professor who in one of his podcasts went through balrogs killed in action, who killed them and what happened to them. Maybe he was going strictly according to the Silmarillion. Thanks anyway for your answer! – Johan Aug 21 at 11:26
  • @Johan Checking it again now. During the Fall of Gondolin, some elven hero called Rog leads an attack against the balrogs and killed many balrogs by using their own whips against them, which was the first time balrogs died in combat. So there goes my theory of other Noldor, dwarves or humans killing them earlier in the big wars. Ecthelion later kills 3 balrogs while defending the breach into Gondolin's walls. He is fighting together with Tuor and the book says the balrogs also weared Tuor's axe Dramborleg, of which we don't know much. -> – Amarth 2 days ago
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Just to add something from the possible intention of the writer of this part: The whole scene has many similar symbols to Jesus' death on the cross. This makes sense because Tolkien was a Christian.

When Jesus was arrested (to get executed) one of his Disciples draws his sword and wants to attack the guards but Jesus stops him, knowing that only he can win the battle (Matthew 26, 50-51):

Then the men stepped forward, seized Jesus and arrested him. With that, one of Jesus’ companions reached for his sword, drew it out and struck the servant of the high priest, cutting off his ear. “Put your sword back in its place,” Jesus said to him [..]

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    Yeah, and of course (spoiler alert!) the whole subsequent death and rebirth thing. Tolkien insists it's not an allegory, but that doesn't mean elements, themes, motifs aren't there. – mattdm Aug 12 at 9:12
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    n.b. both spoiler alert for LotR and the Bible. – mattdm Aug 12 at 9:12
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    This add nothing to the existing answer, and even the link to the question is speculative – DrakaSAN Aug 12 at 12:43
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    Gandalf battled the balrog, while Jesus despised the above-mentioned action and even healed Malchus ear. I don't think the fight with the balrog was intended to have any relation with this passage. – Ángel Aug 12 at 22:11
  • For the literal love of god, can we stop the Christian conspiracy theories on every single Tolkien post made on this site? This is all just subjective nonsense with no substance. Have you any proof of Tolkien ever mentioning this part of the Bible, or any part of the Bible, for inspiration to his works? – Amarth 2 days ago
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We know that the mortal form of a Maia has been killed by an ordinary mortal wielding a dagger, and we are given no reason to believe that the dagger was in any way special. Specifically, that's how Wormtongue killed Saruman.

The problem with using an ordinary blade against a Balrog is not that the Balrog can't be harmed by ordinary weapons, but rather that a Balrog is such a dangerous opponent that he[1] can probably take you out before you get a good swing at him.

[1] Yes, I did assume the Balrog's gender.

  • We also have no reason to believe the dagger was not special. Also, Saruman had been cast out of the order at this point and his staff was broken; as such his Maia powers may have been reduced. – Martin Bonner Aug 13 at 11:12
  • Re assuming the Balrog's gender: Since Balrogs are fallen/corrupted Maiar, I'd guess they can have either gender. I do vaguely recall, however, to see artworks of that particular Balrog where the appearance is quite male. Actually, either I'm messing things up or that's been in concept arts made by Tolkien himself. – Egor Hans Aug 15 at 13:42

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