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What is a Balrog in Lord of the Rings? History & Powers Explained

What is a Balrog in Lord of the Rings? History & Powers Explained

Whether you read the books or watched the movies, Balrogs are some of the most fearsome and powerful creatures in Middle Earth.

Balrogs are among the first Maiar that Melkor corrupts, and they feature in many of the major events throughout Middle Earth’s history.

While Balrogs have mostly faded into history by the time of The Lord of the Rings, they once played a pivotal role as instruments of war.

Balrogs were responsible for many of the Dark Lord’s greatest victories and the deaths of many of Middle Earth’s most legendary heroes.

In The Fellowship of the Ring, The Fellowship encounters a Balrog as they attempt to flee the Mines of Moria. Gandalf defeats the Balrog after an epic ten-day battle, but himself succumbs to his wounds.

Although we never get a detailed description of Balrogs, there are plenty of small details and clues about them.

Below, we examine everything there is to know about Balrog, including the differences in how they are portrayed in the books and movies.

What is a Balrog?

Balrogs are a type of Maiar called Valaraukar that are corrupted and seduced into evil by Melkor. They are massive, dark beings that are wreathed in shadows and flames, emanating terror wherever they go.

Dreadful among these spirits were the Valaraukar, the scourges of fire that in Middle-earth were called the Balrogs, demons of terror.

The Silmarillion, “Of the Enemies”
Balrog in The Rings of Power
Balrog in The Rings of Power

In the Sindarin language, Balrog roughly translates to “Demon of Might.” The name Valaraukar has a similar meaning in Quenya.

Even in their Maiar form, the books describe them as “fiery” spirits. As Balrogs, they feature “streaming fiery manes,” flaming weapons, and imposing figures.

As possibly the most powerful beings under Melkor’s command, the Balrogs fulfill important roles in his armies. At various times, they act as personal bodyguards, shock troops, or commanders of Melkor’s forces.

History of Balrogs

Melkor recruited Balrogs as early in the history of Middle Earth as the Years of the Trees. They are one of the first kinds of spirits, or Maiar, to join the evil forces of Melkor.

And in Utumno he gathered his demons about him, those spirits who first adhered to him in the days of his splendour, and became most like him in his corruption: their hearts were of fire, but they were cloaked in darkness, and terror went before them; they had whips of flame. Balrogs they were named in Middle-earth in later days.

The Silmarillion, “Of the Coming of the Elves and the Captivity of Melkor”

In his later writings, Tolkien states that there could not have been more than seven Balrogs.

Morgoth and his Balrogs
Morgoth and his seven Balrogs. Image by Kwiatkowski

One of the first occasions that we hear of Balrogs is right after Melkor and Ungoliant destroyed the Two Trees of Valinor. Empowered by consuming the trees, Ungoliant attacks Melkor by wrapping him in her webs.

Melkor let out a terrible cry which alerted the Balrog, dwelling in Angband at the time, to come to his rescue:

…and now swiftly they arose, and passing over Hithlum they came to Lammoth as a tempest of fire. With their whips of flame they smote asunder the webs of Ungoliant, and she quailed, and turned to flight…

The Silmarillion, “Of the Flight of the Noldor.”

The Balrog was particularly active during the first age. They participated in many of the wars and battles waged between Melkor and the other inhabitants of Middle Earth, such as The War of the Jewels and the War of Wrath.

During this time, the most notable Balrog is Gothmog, also known as “Lord of the Balrogs.”

Balrogs were often deployed at pivotal moments in battle or to combat mighty heroes. For example, during the Battle Under the Stars, the Noldor elf hero Fëanor battles his way right to the doorsteps of Angband where the Balrogs ambush him.

Fëanor was surrounded, with few friends about him. Long he fought on, and undismayed, though he was wrapped in fire and wounded with many wounds; but at the last he was smitten to the ground by Gothmog, Lord of Balrogs.

The Silmarillion, “Of the Return of the Noldor.”

Ecthelion later sacrificed his own life to kill Gothmog at the Fall of Gondolin. The mighty elf-lord Glorfindel, also at the cost of his own life, slew another Balrog as his party attempted to escape the city.

Ecthelion of the Fountain vs Gothmog Lord of the Balrogs
Ecthelion of the Fountain vs Gothmog Lord of the Balrogs. Image by Agelink

By the end of the War of Wrath, most of the Balrogs are either slain or driven into hiding:

The Balrogs were destroyed, save some few that fled and hid themselves in caverns inaccessible at the roots of the earth.

The Silmarillion, “Of the Voyage of Eärendil and the War of Wrath”

It’s unclear exactly how many Balrogs remained in Middle Earth after this point.

By the Third Age, Balrogs have mostly faded into obscurity, and very few people in Middle Earth had any idea that they ever existed.

Most of those that knew about them thought that they had all died, or that they were simply a myth. This was until the Dwarves of Khazad-dûm delved too deeply.

Related: Morgoth vs Sauron: Who Was More Powerful?

Durin’s Bane Balrog in the Lord of the Rings

Durin’s Bane is the only Balrog that features in the Lord of the Rings. Gandalf faces Durin’s Bane on the Bridge of Khazad-dûm as the party attempts to flee the Mines of Moria.

Durin's Bane Balrog in The Lord of the Rings
Durin’s Bane in The Lord of the Rings movie

We can assume that Durin’s Bane is one of the last remaining Balrogs. After the War of Wrath, it must have fled East to hide in the subterranean tunnels under the Grey Mountains.

Here, Durin’s Bane lay dormant until the Dwarves of Moria awoke it by mining too deeply in search of Mithril. Durin’s Bane single-handedly drove the Dwarves from their heavily-fortified home of Khazad-dûm and slew King Durin VI.

A year later, Durin’s son, Nain I, attempts to kill Durin’s Bane but dies in the process.

By the time of The Fellowship of the Ring, few had concrete knowledge of Durin’s Bane. Even Gandalf was not exactly sure what it was or whether it was still in Moria.

However, Durin’s Bane is awoken once more when the Goblins discover The Fellowship inside of the Mines of Moria.

Gandalf attempted to delay the Balrog on the Bridge of Khazad-dûm to give the rest of the party a chance to escape.

The two fought for a total of ten days before Gandalf finally slew Durin’s Bane at the cost of his own life.

Also, read our full guide on Gandalf vs the Balrog in The Lord of the Rings.

Balrog Movie vs. Book Differences

Gandalf vs the Balrog on Celebdil
Depiction of how Balrogs are described in the books. Image by Ted Nasmith

In the books, we only get vague references of what the Balrogs looked like. For example, this is how the Balrog appeared when it beset The Fellowship within the Mines of Moria:

It was like a great shadow, in the middle of which was a dark form, of man-shape maybe, yet greater; and a power and terror seemed to be in it and to go before it.

The Lord of the Rings, “The Bridge of Khazad-dûm”

The movie and the books have in common that the Balrogs appear as frightful, dark, humanoid creatures surrounded by shadows and flames. However, the films take some creative liberty by portraying them as massive, hulking beasts with wings and demonic, horned heads.

Regardless, there’s no doubt that Balrogs are easily some of the most terrifying and awe-inspiring creatures in the Lord of the Rings lore.

It’s still up for debate whether Balrogs actually have wings, although the movies clearly portray Durin’s Bane with wings. The books describe Durin’s Bane as appearing to have wings, although it’s not clear whether it’s metaphorical:

..the shadow about it reached out like two vast wings…

and its wings were spread from wall to wall

The Fellowship of the Ring, “The Bridge of Khazad-dûm”

What Powers and Abilities do Balrogs Have?

Balrogs are mighty demons capable of overwhelming some of Middle Earth’s most powerful beings. Shadows and flames surround them and obscure their physical form, they radiate fear, and can mobilize quickly, like a “tempest of fire.”

It only took seven Balrogs to drive away Ungoliant. At the time, Ungoliant was capable of overpowering Melkor himself after devouring the light and life of the Two Trees.

With their whips of flame they smote asunder the webs of Ungoliant, and she quailed, and turned to flight.

The Silmarillion, “The Flight of the Noldor”
Balrogs and Morgoth fighting Ungoliant
Balrogs and Morgoth fighting Ungoliant. Image by Sheppi-ArtHouse

Balrogs have been quoted as wielding many weapons, most notably swords and whips, but also axes and maces. All of their weapons seem to be made of fire.

Regardless of whether Balrogs do or don’t have wings, they aren’t capable of flight. At least two Balrogs were defeated by falling from great heights. Additionally, there is a passage in The Simarillion where the Balrogs rode on dragons to attack Gondolin.

As Maiar, Balrogs should also be able to take any physical form. However, there are only a handful of occasions where books only vaguely hint at the ability to shapeshift.