“A Balrog,” muttered Gandalf. “Now I understand.” He faltered and leaned heavily on his staff. “What an evil fortune! And I am already weary.” (321) The Balrog’s abrupt appearance is the action-climax of The Fellowship of the Rings, and the confrontation with Gandalf may be one of the most memorable moments in all of fantasy literature. It is not just another terrifying monster, but it elicits a dread that is close to despair. Why? And what is it about the Balrog’s coming that makes Gandalf falter? To get at these questions we have to ponder the setting of this encounter, some of the overtones of the “Bridge of Khazad-dum” chapter, and why the encounter has to happen at this particular point in the book. The chapter is a rich and thrilling example of Tolkien’s narrative art at its best.
Our team of heroes has just attempted to go over the mountains: they are thwarted by height and snow, and forced to retreat and to go down and through. The attempted ascent is given somewhat desultory treatment in the “Journey in the Dark” chapter, which is thin in description, and with no characteristic building of tension, as if Tolkien is interested in it primarily as a means to get to get into the mines. The spiritual symbolic drift is almost a platitude: we generally try to go up and over, but life circumstances will obstruct that and force us to go down. The soul only makes progress not by ascent but through descent into the depths. It would have been a feasible narrative alternative, in a different book, if the heroes had attempted the short cut through the bowels of the mountain, found it obstructed, and then had to make the arduous journey through the blizzards of the summit. This would have played into the heroic mythos of conquest, surmounting, and transcending — and it would have felt psychologically, and spiritually, false. To enter both Lothlorien and the lands of Sauron, Frodo has to go down into the dark night, and he has to lose his guide. He can only go on when he is his own person, and being his own person means being able to be alone. The fight to get through the mines of Moria is for him both a rite of passage and a birth.
But what does this descent mean? In an alternative version of this story, the writer might not choose ancient mines, but rather vast natural caves menaced by their primal denizens. In that version, it would be a descent into a chthonic underworld that precedes civilization and even meaning. In the version that we have, the Mines of Moria are a made landscape, the vast artifact of a defeated civilization. The very entrance is a matter of words and knowledge, not effected by any kind of mute insensate power: “…these doors are probably governed by words.” (297) “From the outside nothing will move them save the spell of command. They cannot be forced inwards.” (299) This world responds to the right utterance. This is important, because these caverns embody a complex civilization that has chosen to go subterranean, to live where the minerals live. The dwarves are the technologists and industrialists of Middle Earth; and essentially, Moria is both mine and factory, bowels of production for the whole world. It is a factory that has been excavated even underneath what shouldn’t have an underneath — the mountains themselves — and there is a feeling of violation and desecration about these halls and tunnels, as of nature being dug to her limits.
The mines of Moria are an underworld, but they are not the Underworld. We are continually being reminded that there are spaces, holes, cracks in this artificial underworld, often by the sound of water somewhere:
There were not only many roads to choose from, there were also in many places holes and pitfalls, and dark wells beside the path in which their passing feet echoed. There were fissures and chasms in the walls and floor, and every now and then a crack would open right before their feet. The widest was more than seven feet across, and it was long before Pippin could summon enough courage to leap over the dreadful gap. The noise of churning water came up from far below, as if some great mill-wheel was turning in the depths. (303)
When they halted for a moment they heard nothing at all, unless it were occasionally a faint trickle and drip of unseen water. (304)
Suddenly Frodo saw before him a black chasm. At the end of the hall the floor vanished and fell to an unknown depth. (320)
The sense of unease at these moments comes from an intuition of circumambient hostility, an intensified version of the unfriendliness of the trees in Tom Bombadil’s land. We know that something has been disturbed, angered, and pushed back, pushed down, in all this excavation, and it lurks beneath the cracks, certain to emerge again. There may be many such things down there, but if the Balrog is one of them — and at this point we barely know anything about it — then it comes as the retaliation of nature. It is not evil, because it precedes the moral polarities of this cosmos; it is elemental, fiery, a mindless reaction, and as such cannot be tamed or spoken to. The Balrog represents the darkness in the earth that things came from, and that they will return to: perhaps it has become a darkness only because it has been repressed. Gandalf falters and is weary because he knows all this, and this is why the orcs are also scared of the Balrog: it obeys no one, it seeks no allies, it is dark beyond the dark of Sauron, which is a dark that defines itself by its opposition to goodness. There is something elemental about it, and its assault on Gandalf is like the assault of extreme weather on animate fragility: ...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. (322)
In this chapter, Tolkien evokes the atmospheres of two very different books: Dante’s Inferno, and Beowulf. The Mines of Moria, with their chasms, cliffs, and bridges, are reminiscent of Dante’s underworld, and Gandalf, who is to Frodo as Virgil is to Dante, sometimes even speaks like Dante’s Virgil:
“There is some new devilry here,” he said, “devised for our welcome, no doubt. But I know now where we are: we have reached the First Deep, the level immediately below the Gates. This is the Second Hall of Old Moria; and the Gates are near: away beyond the eastern end, on the left, not more than a quarter of a mile. Across the Bridge, up a broad stair, along a wide road, through the First Hall, and out!” (320)
Listen also to how Dante, in Longfellow’s translation, describes the arrival of a new and unknown danger:
And now there came across the turbid waves
The clangour of a sound with terror fraught,
Because of which both of the margins trembled;
Not otherwise it was than of a wind
Impetuous on account of adverse heats,
That smites the forest, and, without restraint,
The branches rends, beats down, and bears away;
Right onward, laden with dust, it goes superb,
And puts to flight the wild beasts and the shepherds.
Mine eyes he loosed, and said: “Direct the nerve
Of vision now along that ancient foam,
There yonder where that smoke is most intense.”
Even as the frogs before the hostile serpent
Across the water scatter all abroad,
Until each one is huddled in the earth.
More than a thousand ruined souls I saw,
Thus fleeing from before one who on foot
Was passing o’er the Styx with soles unwet. (Dante, tr.Longfellow, Inferno 9)
The feel of this is quite close to the way in which Tolkien builds up the approach of the Balrog, through hints and guesses, until it finally appears:
The ranks of the orcs had opened, and they crowded away, as if they themselves were afraid. Something was coming up behind them. What it was could not be seen: it was like a great shadow, in the middle of which was a dark form, of man-made shape maybe, yet greater; and a power and terror seemed to be in it and to go before it. (321)
The orcs behave something like a mob of infernal souls, or crowd of frogs in a pond, and Tolkien is adept at rendering how they gasp and scatter at the approach of one from another world who cannot be understood in this world.
In the Inferno there is also that other monster Geryon, a creature of puzzling ancestry, who also lives in a realm of darkness, waters, and abysses, like the beginning of the book of Genesis.. Just as the Balrog does, Geryon also seems to materialize out of his the darkness of his place:
I followed him, and little had we gone,
Before the sound of water was so near us,
That speaking we should hardly have been heard.
Even as that stream which holdeth its own course
The first from Monte Veso tow’rds the East,
Upon the left-hand slope of Apennine,
Which is above called Acquacheta, ere
It down descendeth into its low bed,
And at Forli is vacant of that name,
Reverberates there above San Benedetto
From Alps, by falling at a single leap,
Where for a thousand there were room enough;
Thus downward from a bank precipitate,
We found resounding that dark-tinted water,
So that it soon the ear would have offended.
I had a cord around about me girt,
And therewithal I whilom had designed
To take the panther with the painted skin.
After I this had all from me unloosed,
As my Conductor had commanded me,
I reached it to him, gathered up and coiled,
Whereat he turned himself to the right side,
And at a little distance from the verge,
He cast it down into that deep abyss.
“It must needs be some novelty respond,”
I said within myself, “to the new signal
The Master with his eye is following so.”
Ah me! how very cautious men should be
With those who not alone behold the act,
But with their wisdom look into the thoughts!
He said to me: “Soon there will upward come
What I await; and what thy thought is dreaming
Must soon reveal itself unto thy sight.”
Aye to that truth which has the face of falsehood,
A man should close his lips as far as may be,
Because without his fault it causes shame;
But here I cannot; and, Reader, by the notes
Of this my Comedy to thee I swear,
So may they not be void of lasting favour,
Athwart that dense and darksome atmosphere
I saw a figure swimming upward come,
Marvellous unto every steadfast heart,
Even as he returns who goeth down
Sometimes to clear an anchor, which has grappled
Reef, or aught else that in the sea is hidden,
Who upward stretches, and draws in his feet. (Dante, Longfellow, Inferno 16)
Geryon, like the Balrog, feels more ancient than the moral polarities that Dante lives in, and this is why it is not summoned with words, but with the seemingly nonsensical gesture of tossing a cord into the darkness. [Note Sam’s earlier statement in response to the chasms: “Rope!” muttered Sam. “I knew I’d want it, if I hadn’t got it!” (303)]
The atmosphere of Beowulf also hangs in the air in this chapter: a band of warriors on a search, cliffs and waters again, the sense of a nameless dread as of something not in nature but beneath or beyond the bounds of nature and impossible for us to comprehend or befriend:
The footprints led
along the woodland, widely seen,
a path o’er the plain, where she passed, and trod
the murky moor; of men-at-arms
she bore the bravest and best one, dead,
him who with Hrothgar the homestead ruled.
On then went the atheling-born
o’er stone-cliffs steep and strait defiles,
narrow passes and unknown ways,
headlands sheer, and the haunts of the Nicors.
Foremost he fared, a few at his side
of the wiser men, the ways to scan,
till he found in a flash the forested hill
hanging over the hoary rock,
a woful wood: the waves below
were dyed in blood. The Danish men
had sorrow of soul, and for Scyldings all,
for many a hero, ’twas hard to bear,
ill for earls, when Aeschere’s head
they found by the flood on the foreland there.
Waves were welling, the warriors saw,
hot with blood; but the horn sang oft
battle-song bold. The band sat down,
and watched on the water worm-like things,
sea-dragons strange that sounded the deep,
and nicors that lay on the ledge of the ness —
such as oft essay at hour of morn
on the road-of-sails their ruthless quest, —
and sea-snakes and monsters. (Beowulf, tr. Gummere, 21)
The sitting down is powerful: they cannot stand, their knees cannot support them, and the sitting down expresses dread and despair in the face of some dark, violent mystery: the brutality at the heart of the world itself, which cares nothing for goodness or nobility,and is capable of no response. Grendel’s mother, like the Balrog, is essentially alone — therefore incomprehensible. This act of sitting down is also something the heroes of Homer never do, and it may be an action more at home in northern dimness, twlights, and fogs; and there is a contemplative side to it, as these Anglo-Saxon warriors sit there beholding the strangeness of their world. In contrast, this is how Tolkien’s heroes react to Gandalf’s death when they have leisure to do so: Grief at last wholly overcame them, and they wept long: some standing and silent, some cast upon the ground. (323) The word “grief” seems inadequate to what they have just experienced, but it seems right to give them two different kinds of reaction — neither of them contemplative in the teeth of dread, one the appropriate gesture of a stoic warrior, the other that of a devoted friend and follower.
Gandalf has simply slid into the abyss (322); even strength and wisdom has succumbed, because in this underworld of pitch darkness and precipices it is possible to disappear suddenly, either by falling or by being taken. Here, no merit guarantees safety — and if Gandalf can be swallowed by the darkness, anybody can. The Balrog exposes the futility of martial heroism and wisdom; this is why Aragorn and Boromir, running to the bridge with their swords, seem just silly. A hobbit, if he is to succeed, needs something new.