Discovering Balrogs

When the Fellowship of the ring stood before the tomb of Balin, Gimli overcome with grief at the death of his kin, the first cousin of his father, Gloin, Frodo thought back to Balin’s visit to the shire, which was the last scene in Tolkien’s The Hobbit. Balin had been a good friend to Bilbo, one of his chief advocates among the dwarves. Balin with other dwarves had attempted to take back Moria, and had succeeded, but their occupation lasted only five years, and seemed to have been tenuous at best. Balin is slain while gazing at the Mirrormere, a small lake just outside Moria’s east gate. All of this we learn from a book the company found at Balin’s tomb where the dwarves of Moria met their end. The last lines of the book, as Gandalf read them would be echoed by the company of the ring’s own experience: “We cannot get out. They are coming.” Fortunately for the company, unlike the dwarves who had made their last stand there, they were not attacked from both directions, and thus were able to make their escape through another passage. Gandalf lingered, trying to close with an enchantment the door leading from the chamber into the passage the company was fleeing down. There he met

something that I have not met before. I could think of nothing to do but to try and put a shutting-spell on the door . . . . Then something came into the chamber – I felt it through the door, and the orcs themselves were afraid and fell silent. It laid hold of the iron ring, and then it perceived me and my spell. What it was I cannot guess, but I have never felt such a challenge. The counter spell was terrible. It nearly broke me. For an instant the door left my control and began to open! I had to speak a word of command. That proved too great a strain. The door burst in pieces. Something dark as a cloud was blocking out all the light inside, and I was thrown backward down the stairs.

The something, of course, was a Balrog.

Balrog’s in Tolkien’s Legendarium first appear in The Silmarillion, and they were Maiar whom Morgoth had corrupted. For Tolkien, the highest created beings in his universe were the Valar, who exist at the top of existence, just below God. Tolkien is not precise here in lining up his legendarium with Christian theology and the ranking of the Angels. In Christian thought, the highest rank are those angels, the Seraphim, who uphold the throne of God, and remain continuously in His presence. Some of the Valar remained with Ilúvatar, but a number descended from his presence into the created world, with the most powerful being Manwe, Elbereth, Aule, Yvanna, Ulmo, and Melkor/Morgoth. Besides these, Tolkien notes that there were the Maiar who possessed various powers, and some of them were almost as strong as the Valar, but others were certainly lesser in power, and even had physical forms, such as Melian, the wife of Thingol and mother of Luthien. Gandalf, Saruman, Radagast, as well as Sauron, were all Maiar, though Sauron was clearly far more powerful than any of the former three. Thus the Balrogs were in ways analogous to Sauron, but clearly while not his equal, were powerful beings.

All that being said, the Balrogs, though Maiar, were not ipso facto more powerful than the elves, and in particular the Noldor, that is, one of the great clans among the elves who had left Middle Earth and lived in Valinor (the general term for those who left Middle Earth were the Calaquendi, and besides the Noldor were also the Teleri and the Vanyar), who had seen the light of the Valar, and had thus participated in their virtue. These elves, the “elves of the light”, were thus of greater power and dignity than their kin, the wood elves, such as Thranduil and Legolas, even though of the same blood. Tolkien notes this in the Hobbit that at the least the elves of Mirkwood were far less wise than their kin. But in The Silmarillion the high elves were actually able to hold their own against Balrogs. It took multiple Balrogs to kill the great Noldor elf Fëanor. In single combat in the mountains above Gondolin, as the elves were fleeing the fall of the city, the refugees were attacked by orcs and a Balrog, but the elf lord Glorfindel was able to match the Balrog, and they both fell to their deaths.

Most of the Balrogs had perished or been vanquished in the great War of Wrath at the end of the Silmarillion, but others fled and hid themselves in the deep places of the world, and it was this Balrog that had been the demise of the Dwarves, Durin’s bane, when they were originally driven from Moria. Long had the dwarves worked the mines, digging for mithril, but then dug too deep and came up against the Balrog. We are not told whether he joined with orcs against the dwarves, but this seems possible in that the orcs, though fearful of him, were aligned with him against the Fellowship, and the orcs, like the Balrogs, were twisted creations of Morgoth.

Gandalf had come to Middle Earth as a check upon Sauron, after the War of Wrath, and thus had never encountered a Balrog. Certainly this one caught him completely off guard, flummoxing him even as to what he was. Indeed, it is Legolas who identifies the creature as a Balrog. So powerful is this demon that he is able to shatter Gandalf’s ancient, elf-made blade, Glamdring, in their confrontation on the bridge of Khazad-dûm. Gandalf for all his powers (and he was eventually able to strike the Balrog down), did not discern what the creature was. This also tells us that Legolas had to be of great age to know what the creature was, Legolas probably being born then in the first age, and having taken part in the wars of the Silmarils, though we are never told this.

But why all this info about Balrogs? I obtained two days ago a wonderful book, the Letters of the Starets, John Krestiankin. I first came across Fr. John in Everyday Saints. He is a larger-than-life character in some ways, his piety, devotion, wisdom, and learning attracted thousands to come see him in the Pskov Caves monastery, and also many to write him seeking his direction. He plays a prominent role in the book. Since then I have found out he was adored and visited by thousands of Christians, Russian and otherwise. Vladimir Putin visited him. His spiritual councils revolve around discernment, frequently touching on the choices people must make between life in the world, or the life in the monastery. His thoughts on the demonic, however, generally don’t touch the everyday concerns of people (though there is that). He certainly felt the European Union was demonic, even seeing its secular culture as a great threat to Christianity, viewing it in apocalyptic terms. One of the most memorable passages in Everyday Saints was his recalling his life of prayer while in the Gulag, that there no one stopped him from prayer, and as there was nothing else one could do with his time, he could concentrate on it. He recorded how to him the heavens were opened, and he could hear the angels hymning God. He then confessed, now back in his monastery, “I can’t pray like that anymore.”

And what does this have to do with Balrogs? We are often deadened by sin, desensitized by the familiar distractions of life, so much so that we cannot see the demonic, let alone the angelic, all around us. The Imaginative Conservative had a test on whether one was a modern secular. When I took it, I failed wildly (and happily). I was so happy not because like Fr. John I have heard angels singing, or because I have faced the most fierce demons, though I have had priests tell me stories that had the hair on my neck stand on end (and pretty low-level ones like Wormwood give me enough problems, when I myself am not pulling me down), but because I thought this gave me a measure of inoculation against certain modern problems. The main point of the test was what do we believe, and do we act on it? The quiz became a topic of conversation at coffee hour. The question naturally comes to mind: in an emergency, do we first think 911, or do we call upon our guardian angel and patron saint to intercede for us and protect us. I have long believed in malevolent spirits, just as I have believed in benevolent ones, and some years ago I came up against evil, something I don’t talk about, at least as regards the particulars. Fr. Eugene Vansuch of blessed memory anointed me and prayed with me from The Great Book of Needs, and that was the end of it, but the experience has stayed with me. A sad consequence of the event was that for years I thought demons would always come like that: “Oh, I’ve face the demonic before and know what it is.” The problem is, I did not.

In the movie “The Usual Suspects”, the main character tells a cop “The greatest trick the devil ever pulled was convincing the world he doesn’t exist.” This wasn’t my problem, but thinking that demonic attacks would come in guises I knew. They didn’t. Consequently, when they did come, I frequently was not ready for their wiles. I didn’t recognize them, and these had become so familiar that I took them as normal life. Gandalf faced the inverse problem: in the mines of Moria he came up against something he wasn’t familiar with, something he wasn’t expecting, and thus it caught him off guard. Notice in the diction above how Tolkien has Gandalf speaking in short, chopped sentences. Something quite unGandalf. Gandalf had met something easily his match, and he didn’t realize it, and it left him broken. Yet when he faced the Balrog on the bridge, he was ready, even though he fell into the abyss with the Balrog.

We must remember that we have not only “He that is within us” to help fight the demonic hosts, but also the saints and our guardian angels. Similar to the high elves, the Noldor, the Elves of the Light, the Saints have seen the divine, they stand in the presence of God, and while separated (Our Lady excepted) from their bodies, they are still united in their humanity to God, a privilege no angel enjoys, and certainly no demon. But even with this virtue that can come to our aid, are we on our guard for the demonic; are we constantly aware of the angelic hosts that even if we cannot see them, are near at hand to come to our aid? We must be ever vigilant, ever humble (this as the fathers tell us crushes the demons), for it is pride (which Fr. John is very quick to call demonic), a sense of surety, that will lead us to sin, that will catch us at a time when we don’t expect it. The demonic does not want us to think they are at us, and we expect something different from them then often how they act, and this is a real danger.

We won’t always have Legolas around to tell us exactly what it is that we are up against, so we must develop our discernment faculties ourselves, we must be ever mindful also of the aid that is at our back and call. Oh holy father John Krestiankin, pray unto God for us!

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About Cyril Jenkins

Professor of History
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5 Responses to Discovering Balrogs

  1. Deacon Nicholas says:

    The test you mention was on The Imaginative Conservative blog, not The American Conservative. Different though related groups.

  2. William Tighe says:

    “Gandalf had come to Middle Earth as a check upon Sauron, after the War of Wrath ..”

    He came, with the other wizards, much later, I believe – a thousand years into the Third Age, and so after the War of the Last Alliance, and just as Sauron was beginnig to revive from his earlier discomfiture at the hand of Isildur.

  3. Cyril Jenkins says:

    Deacon Nicholas, Thanks. Will edit.

  4. TRF says:

    Thank you, Dr. Jenkins, for this wonderful post. As a conservative Lutheran (with Orthodox leanings) and a huge Tolkien fan and author (https://www.amazon.com/High-Towers-Strong-Places-Middle-earth/dp/1940992516 ), I loved it!

  5. Cyril Jenkins says:

    You’re most welcome. Thanks for visiting my blog.

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