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Barry Livingston.

Tolkien’s Balrog, and Peter Jackson’s
Barry  Livingstone

A notable and praiseworthy feature of Peter Jackson’s trilogy is the respect – one might almost say the reverence – with which Tolkien’s concepts are re-created. Tolkien’s theory of literature as sub-creation has been exemplified in turn in all the rich diversity of sub-creation brought into play in the filming of his novel.  I stress that I am speaking here not of the content, which is a separate issue, but of the

visual representations.  In this respect, the films – treating them, like the book, as a single entity –  are a work of genius. Hobbiton, Rivendell, Weathertop, Lothlórien, Edoras, Minas Tirith; the Hobbits, the Black Riders, The Orcs, the Ents; even the distinctions between  the Elvish armour of the Second Age (Spring/Summer colours) and of the Third Age (Autumnal)… .  Like Bilbo’s road, the list of things for those with eyes to wonder or with tongues to praise goes ever on and on.

In the films, there are only three visual concepts for me, as a self-confessed Tolkien purist, that really do not work: the winged creatures, the wargs, and the Balrog.  True, Tolkien refers to the Witch King’s winged creature as “the great beast” (3, p.129), and as having no feathers (3, p.127)  – ie, it is not purely bird – but also specifically refers to “beak and claw” (3, p.130).  And it seems to me that by turning the concept into a flying whatever, rather than primarily a giant carrion bird – in an earlier passage, the new mounts are described as “birdlike forms, horrible as carrion-fowl yet greater than eagles” (3, p.86) – you lose the Nazgul’s visual link with death: although I suppose the creatures lifting up horses and men and dropping them – physical rather than psychological terror – would have its appeal for that section of the cinema audience that wanted an extension of Jurassic Park.  But why turn wargs into hyenas - introducing a quite unnecessary alien concept – given the connotations of wolvers in northern literature?  Neither of these matters too much in thematic terms; the one serious failure, in my view, is the depiction of the Balrog.

As Jackson himself said, Tolkien gives you the necessary details; the task of those making the films was to visualise them.   But with the winged creatures, Tolkien doesn’t describe  exactly; he simply suggests.  And with the depiction of the Balrog we are in real difficulty; for here, Tolkien is ambiguous.  

How big is it?   Within the shadow that surrounds it is a form “of man-shape, maybe, yet greater” (1, p.432).  How much greater?  By how much has it extended itself when it dwarfs Gandalf?   What is its substance?  How are we to visualize a “fiery shadow”? (1, p.433).  Above all, what about the wings?  We are told that  “the shadow about it reached out like two vast wings” (1, p. 433) and, later, that “its wings were spread from wall to wall”  (1, p.433).

This, apparently, has given trouble to artists.  Does it have wings or doesn’t it?   My own answer would be: both. Sometimes you see the wings themselves, and sometimes their shadows. With a novelist who was not a philologist, we might write this anomaly off as the confusion arising from clumsy expression.  But to one who pondered words, their sounds and their sequences the way Tolkien did, the duality of the Balrog is clearly deliberate; and it ties in with the novel’s concept of evil.

Balrog, Steve Walsh

Tolkien’s exploration of evil is complex, but one strain derives from St Augustine’s theory that evil is spoiled good: a thought that similarly lies behind Luther’s designation of The Devil as “God’s Ape”.  The clearest expression of this in The Lord of the Rings  – the concept reappears in The Silmarillion – is when Frodo talks to Sam about Orc food: “‘The Shadow that bred them can only mock, it cannot make: not real new things of its own.   I don’t think it gave life to the Orcs, it only ruined them and twisted them…’” (3, p. 223).

Treebeard says something very similar about the Trolls: “‘But Trolls are only counterfeits, made by the Enemy in the Great Darkness,  in mockery of Ents, as Orcs were of Elves.  We are stronger than Trolls’” (2, p. 101).

Within Tolkien’s system of mythology, the Balrog was once a Maiar: and, as such, on a par with Sauron, Saruman and Gandalf.   The Balrog, in fact, is a fallen angel; a sort of copy of Gandalf:  the flame of Udûn (1, p. 433) set against the flame of Anor:  the fires of hell against the flames around the Throne in the book of Revelation...  

‘Shadow’ in The Lord of the Rings is more than darkness; it is also a form of imitation: think of what your shadow is in relation to yourself; or how a shadow needs the existence of something else to be visible.  Hence a problem in the novel, as in life, is to determine the counterfeit from the real: Saruman changes his white robe for one of many colours that collectively give the illusion of white.   When Aragorn, Legolas and Gimli see an old man dressed in white in Fangorn Forest, who have they seen: Saruman, or the glorified Gandalf who has supplanted him?  “’Like, and yet unlike,’” (2, p.222) mutters Gimli to himself when Saruman and Gandalf are close enough to each other for a comparison to be made.    Denethor is driven to despair by being fed misleading images in the Palantir.  Mordor functions by a process of shifting half-truths: the Orcs cannot be trusted to be told what it is they are actually looking for, and orders keep changing; the will of Rohan and Gondor is sapped from within by the power of suggestion.

The Balrog – now flame, now smoke  – changes shape in the way a fire does – an image that is later used of Sauron himself:  “Then his wrath blazed in consuming flame, but his fear rose like a vast black smoke to choke him”  (3, p. 265).  Where does the Balrog’s substance end, and its shadow begin? Who can tell; it’s like having a conversation with a postmodernist.

Part of the terror the Balrog exudes is from its ability to change size.  It draws itself up to a great, and threatening, height.  Gandalf, by comparison, “seemed small, and altogether alone: grey and bent, like a wizened tree before the onset of a storm” (1, p. 433).  And this disparity in apparent size and power between good and evil runs all the way through the book.

That the difference is only apparent – good is not quite as helpless as it seems – is made clear when Gandalf is contrasted with Denethor: “Yet by a sense other than sight Pippin perceived that Gandalf had the greater power and the deeper wisdom, and a majesty that was veiled.  And he was older, far older”  (3, p. 18).

The Balrog is not as big as it seems; for the apparent invincibility of evil is itself part illusion.   In what looks to be the tower of strength of Cirith Ungol, the Orcs fight each other for Frodo’s mithril coat and produce a result that Sam would have been powerless to achieve on his own.   A house divided against itself cannot stand.

However, the threat represented by the Balrog is real;  “‘This is a foe beyond any of you’”  (1, p. 433).  I would not wish to  not to suggest for a moment that Tolkien subscribed to pantheistic concepts of evil as an illusion; or that the destruction of one version of evil won’t lead to a successor to be fought anew by the next generation.  Tolkien, after all, had been through the Battle of the Somme, and commented that to be young in 1939 was as hideous as to be young in 1914.  (‘Foreword to the Second Edition’, p. xviii). He knew about the Holocaust. The evil of Sauron can be ended, but not undone (2, p. 185).  Frodo’s wound will never really heal (3, p. 371). With Sauron’s downfall, comes the demise of the Elves: on the principle of a bee giving its life as the price of destroying the enemy.

Let us return to Gandalf and the Balrog, however.   In the novel, Gandalf’s shape remains constant: the Balrog’s doesn’t. This concept is lost in the film.   Despite the flames roaring round it, the actual fixed shape of the Balrog remains the same, and it is consistently huge; in denial of the nuances within the writing.    When  the Balrog falls in the opening of the The Two Towers,  I was reminded of nothing so much as the film Alien when the creature is finally ejected into space.  It is not as if the creative teams did not have the technology to turn the Balrog into shadow: the groping insubstantiality of the corpse that activates when Frodo falls into the Dead Marshes shows what could have been done had the element been fire instead of water. 

The Balrog has been given bull-like or buffalo-like horns.  Why?  The only suggestion of animality that Tolkien gives is that it has a streaming mane (1, p. 432); but whether this is to be understood in an animal or human sense is again left unclear: for the essence of the Balrog is that it cannot be readily defined.  If the horns were given to convey the sense that the Balrog is demonic, then these, surely, would be goat-like: following the pattern of medieval art in turning Greek/Roman satyrs and fauns into devils?  But although there are occasional references in the novel to devilry, devils, devilment, etc  (for example,  1, p. 430) these always relate to behaviour rather than appearance.  It is unlikely that Tolkien himself would have tolerated for a moment the intrusion of classical concepts into an Anglo-Saxon world: given that he specifically criticised the Narnia stories for their mixture of mythologies. Unfairly, in my view, since Lewis was deliberately expressing his Platonism by depicting this-world fantasies as possible other-world realities; but then Tolkien was never a Platonist in the way that Lewis was.

As it is, the designers have ignored any philosophical or theological implications and opted for a naturalistic explanation of the Balrog.   What is underground fire?    Something volcanic.  They have thus turned the Balrog into a sort of personified lava: you can see the magma oozing through the cracks in its skin. 

It is superbly done, and in a different kind of film – a straight horror film, say – it could have been a brilliant success.  In the event, a technical triumph is achieved at the expense of Tolkien’s spiritual and thematic subtlety.

In terms of the rich panorama spread before us across the three films, though, this is nothing more than a glitch.   Equivalent, one might say, to one of Frodo’s rare aberrations in a general record of unbroken fidelity to the immense task laid upon him.


References: J.R.R. Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings (3 Volumes), London, 1999

Biographical Note
Barry Livingstone grew up in Africa, before moving to Britain for postgraduate work as a Commonwealth Scholar.  At the time of his retirement from secondary teaching, he was Head of English at Bishop Ramsey Church of England School, Ruislip, England.  He now divides his time between Sussex, England, and Normandy in France.  

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