Sep 4, 2017

Let's Read Tolkien 36: The Bridge of Khazad-dûm

The Company of the Ring stood silent beside the tomb of Balin.

After a moment of silence for Balin, the Fellowship start trying to figure out what happened to him. By both doors of his burial chamber are a pile of bones, weapons and other detritus of battle, and next to a plundered chest lies the remains of a book. Gandalf, together with Frodo and Gimli, starts figuring out the book, which turns out to be an account of Balin's Khazad-dûm reclamation project. Balin set up his throne in the Chamber of Records, which is where Gimli reckons the Fellowship is now. In the fifth year of the colony, Ori begins keeping record, and relates Balin's death, shot by an orc. From then on, the chronicle is a tale of defeats at the hands of the orcs and drums in the deep, ending in a dramatic scrawl: "they are coming".

Right on cue as they finish reading, a massive drumbeat booms through the room and horns sound in the hall: the orcs are coming. The Fellowship makes a stand in the Chamber of Records: Frodo stabs a troll in the foot with Sting, Sam gets a cut in his forehead but kills the orc, and the rest of the company accounts for a dozen more. As the survivors of the first wave retreat, the Fellowship make a break for the other door. As they do so, an orc-chief bursts in and stabs Frodo with a spear. Aragorn kills the orc and grabs Frodo, and the Fellowship runs for it.

Boromir shuts the door, but it can't be locked or jammed. As Gandalf stays behind to seal the door, Frodo shocks everyone by protesting that he's all right and can walk. Led by Aragorn, the Company makes their way down a long staircase. Soon, a flash of light and a sound of collapsing stone heralds the return of Gandalf, who resumes the lead.

They keep going for an hour, with no sound of pursuit except distant, muffled drum-beats. As they pause for rest, Gandalf explains that he had tried to put a shutting-spell on the door, but something came into the chamber and cast a counterspell that nearly killed him. Gandalf then spoke "a word of Command", and the strain blew up the door and collapsed the chamber. Frodo's health is queried and he again insists he's fine.

As the Fellowship gets going again, they soon spot red light in the distance. They come to another broad hall: to the left is the Bridge and beyond it the East-gate, to the right a deep crack in the floor with fire and smoke coming out of it. The fire is between the Fellowship and their pursuers, so they run for it. Soon they're at the Bridge: it's a desperately narrow stone bridge over a massively deep chasm, without rails or anything to stop an unwary walker from falling to their death. It's explained in the text as "an ancient defence of the Dwarves". The Company hasten to cross in single file.

As they're beginning to make their way across, the orcs catch up with the Fellowship. Two trolls throw down stone slabs across the fiery crack, but what terrifies Gimli and Legolas is the dark, man-shaped creature shrouded in shadow that leaps the fissure and bursts into flame: a Balrog, Durin's Bane; the evil the dwarves awakened and that nearly destroyed Gandalf with a spell. The Fellowship flees across the Bridge, where Gandalf confronts the Balrog. They exchange blows with their swords, and Gandalf strikes the bridge with his staff. The staff breaks, the bridge collapses, and the falling Balrog yanks the wizars down with it. To the sound of mournful drum-beats, Aragorn leads a weeping Company of the Ring charging out of Moria - without Gandalf.


This is a fairly short, action-packed chapter, with a very dramatic finish. The tragedy of Balin is revealed, along with the broader tragedy of Moria, the Fellowship meets a memorable monster, and Gandalf is lost.

I can hardly write about this chapter without tackling the great debate: does the Balrog have wings or not? The answer is easy: yes. Here are the pertinent bits of text:

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

The most natural reading here is that the "wings" aren't really wings, but some kind of semicorporeal shadow, which the Balrog is described as being surrounded by. However, two paragraphs later:

The Balrog made no answer. The fire in it seemed to die, but the darkness grew. It stepped forward slowly onto the bridge, and suddenly it drew itself up to a great height, and its wings were spread from wall to wall; but still Gandalf could be seen, glimmering in the gloom; he seemed small, and altogether alone: grey and bent, like a wizened tree before the onset of a storm.

Here the case is reversed: reading this whopper of a sentence, it takes extraordinary effort to not come away with the impression that the Balrog has wings - whatever it is that they actually are! The argument has been made that the first instance of "wings" is a simile - it describes a shadow like wings - and the second instance takes up that simile as a metaphor. In this reading, we are to assume that it is the shadow of the Balrog that stretches from wall to wall.

To me, this is a strange reading. Tolkien doesn't use similes directly as metaphors like this anywhere else, and it's a strange linguistic device anyway, especially in a text that, archaisms apart, doesn't really use very complicated metaphor structures. Consider the following invented passage:

Miss Donahue entered the study, carrying a golf club on her shoulder as if it were a rifle. She sat down, and looked over the papers on the desk. She then carefully laid the rifle down on top of them.

Are you really willing to accept that the object Miss Donahue laid down on the desk is the golf club she walked in with? Or would you not rather suspect that either the author has become terribly confused, or that what was initially described as a golf club was, in fact, a rifle all along? I find the idea that the kind of simile-metaphor transition where what she laid down was, in fact, a golf club, is a perfectly normal and straightforward thing to be preposterous.

The way I understand the passage is that the Balrog's appearance is malleable. There are several examples in the Lord of the Rings of characters who seem to change appearance, to the extent that it almost qualifies as a Tolkien trope. The first instance is in the opening chapter, where Bilbo threatens Gandalf:

Gandalf's eyes flashed. "It will be my turn to get angry soon," he said. "If you do that again, I shall. Then you will see Gandalf the Grey uncloaked." He took a step towards the hobbit, and he seemed to grow tall and menacing; his shadow filled the little room.

At the Prancing Pony, Aragorn "stood up, and seemed suddenly to grow taller". The Nazgûl and their horses are terrified by Glorfindel "revealed in his wrath". In the previous chapter, as Gandalf defended the Company from wolves:

In the wavering firelight Gandalf seemed suddenly to grow: he rose up, a great menacing shape like the monument of some ancient king of stone set upon a hill.

During the encounter at the bridge, the Balrog's appearance similarly changes several times. At first, it is a shadowy form, which then bursts into flames. Its shadow grows, then its fire "seemed to die, but the darkness grew". It then draws itself up, and its wings are spread. The way I read this is that the Balrog is surrounded by some kind of shadow which it can to some extent control, or which changes shape by some other logic. This shadow includes two distinct appendages which stretch out behind it, and which Tolkien calls wings. Therefore, the Balrog has wings. What they are is never specified.

Whether the Balrog can fly or not never really comes up, because it doesn't seem to have occasion to. When Gandalf destroys the bridge, the Balrog's main interest seems to be to fight Gandalf, so it falls and drags Gandalf down with it. For that matter, we also don't know if it can speak, or indeed a whole lot else at all. We know that it's a shadowy and fiery big bad guy left over from Morgoth's ancient wars, and it really wants to fight Gandalf. Especially since it's presented in a dwarven context, the Balrog strongly recalls the fire-giants of Norse myth.

It's tough to figure out just how big the Balrog actually is. It's first described as "of man-shape maybe, yet greater", and after all, it managed to fit into the Chamber of Mazarbul. However, when it draws itself "up to a great height" and spreads its wings, it seems to dwarf Gandalf. I'm not sure if, say, Gandalf actually ever grew or shrunk in size, or if it was an illusion. Similarly, maybe the Balrog is the same size all along, and the apparent changes are more to do with how scary it is. But in my opinion, the text clearly describes the Balrog as having some kind of shadow-wings.


In the previous chapter, the Watcher in the Water grabbed Frodo, and in this one, an orc-chief stabs him. In both cases, it's at least suggested that they might have been deliberately going after the Ring-bearer. By contrast, the Balrog completely ignores Frodo, and seems fixated on fighting Gandalf. Likely it either wasn't aware of the Ring or didn't care about it. It's interesting to consider what might have happened if the Fellowship had fallen in Moria and the Ring had ended up with the Balrog. This isn't explained in the Lord of the Rings, but the Balrogs belonged to the Maiar: the same order of beings as Gandalf and Sauron. Both Sauron and Durin's Bane were ancient followers of Morgoth. Would the Balrog have returned the Ring to Sauron? Or would it have claimed it for its own, to further whatever designs it had nurtured over the millenia in the deeps of Moria? I think the latter. At least it's make for a much more interesting story.


Next time: elves, trees and poetry.


Leon said...

Obviously the Balrog recognized he'd get more XP for killing Gandalf than a level 2 fighter (or whatever Frodo is classed as).

Michael Halila said...

I'm informed that in the Middle-earth Roleplaying game, which is the first tabletop RPG I ever played or ran, Frodo was a level 12 Scout, while Gandalf the Grey was level 40, so an easy choice there.