The Balrog(s); Origins and Influences?

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scirocco
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The Balrog(s); Origins and Influences?

Post by scirocco »

I was thinking about the Balrog at the Bridge of Khazad-dûm the other day (as you do) and it occurred to me that I've never seen or heard anything about any influences or sources that might have led to JRRT's creation of the character.

So many of Tolkien's characters have mythological or folk tale roots, but did the Balrog have any such, or is it a purely original Tolkien-esque creation, like Shelob?

Leaving aside Tolkien's own self-borrowing (from the world of the Silmarillion to that of the hobbits) what if any origins in mythology, religion or folk-tale can be seen in the Balrog? Where did the flames, whip and wings (I can't believe I said that :) ) come from?
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Re: The Balrog(s); Origins and Influences?

Post by Jude »

According to this article,, the Balrog derives from the Norse fire-giant "Surtr":
But the Balrog has a clear predecessor in Norse literature in the form of fire-giant Surtr, which means “the black one” or “the swarthy one”. The giant is the master of fire and guardian of Muspelheim, a burning realm of fire, closely linked to the volcanic underworld. In 1963, a new island formed off Iceland following a volcanic eruption. It was named Surtsey meaning Surtr’s island. In Völuspá, we are told that Surtr is an evil creature. He comes from the south and is connected to fire. In VafϷrúðnismál (saga), it says that Surtr has to fight the gods and that Surtr uses fire as a weapon. At Ragnarok, Surtr will be surrounded by burning fire, and his sword will shine brighter than the sun. 

The Balrog is quite simply the fire giant Surtr. Both are creatures of the underworld and the dark, and at the same time fire monsters. They both carry fiery weapons – a fiery whip and a flaming sword respectively. Both will fight powerful people – Surtr, the gods and the Balrog, Gandalf the Grey.
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Re: The Balrog(s); Origins and Influences?

Post by Voronwë the Faithful »

That's a really interesting question. I haven't been able to find anything in HoMe or elsewhere beyond what you posted. I'll keep looking.
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scirocco
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Re: The Balrog(s); Origins and Influences?

Post by scirocco »

I have to say that the fire-giant Surtr mentioned by Jude makes a lot of sense given Tolkien's own interests and studies, but the Balrog has always felt to me like some sort of demon that would have appeared in the Old Testament.

I don't have any evidence for this, but the fiery whip struck me as the sort of thing that would be part of what you could have expected in the Christian Hell.

I haven't searched HoME either, but I don't recall anything from there more than what we already know. I'm sure I would have remembered if something had been mentioned there.
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Re: The Balrog(s); Origins and Influences?

Post by Alatar »

I would agree. The Balrog always felt like a Demon in the old Biblical style.
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Re: The Balrog(s); Origins and Influences?

Post by Voronwë the Faithful »

scirocco!

I agree with both speculations. As I wrote in my paper on Tolkien and the sanctification of suffering,
The legendarium reflects Tolkien’s effort to assimilate his own Judeo-Christian monotheism with the multi-deity pagan mythologies of Northern Europe and elsewhere that so fascinated him. This resulted in a hybrid mythology that contains both a pantheon of gods (the Valar) and one true God, Eru Ilúvatar
I think the Balrogs are good representatives of this hybrid mythology.
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Re: The Balrog(s); Origins and Influences?

Post by Frelga »

Can I just please make a plug for eliminating the term Judeo-Christian from academic writing?
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Re: The Balrog(s); Origins and Influences?

Post by Voronwë the Faithful »

[OT]I agree that the term is often used in a less than helpful manner, but in this case, where I was primarily discussing the influence of the book of Job on Tolkien, I think it was perfectly appropriate. Obviously, your mileage may vary.[/OT]
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Re: The Balrog(s); Origins and Influences?

Post by Frelga »

I really don't want to sidetrack this thread, so I'm just going to register my disagreement until I can find the appropriate place and energy for an actual write up (didn't we already have a thread on the Book of Job?).

More on topic, Disney seems to agree with Jude, given their interpretation of Surtr as Surtur in Thor: The Ragnarok. The character design isn't close enough to cause a lawsuit, but they seem to be working from the same concept.
Surtur_dragging_his_sword.PNG.png
Surtur_dragging_his_sword.PNG.png (910.79 KiB) Viewed 10962 times
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Re: The Balrog(s); Origins and Influences?

Post by RoseMorninStar »

As someone who was schooled in religious tradition as Tolkien was, I would think Balrogs may have a connection to fallen angels although intentionally not a one-to-one correlation but as a melding of other traditions (such as Surtr).

Jude 1:6 And the angels who did not stay within their own position of authority, but left their proper dwelling, he has kept in eternal chains under gloomy darkness until the judgement of the great day-

Revelation 12:9 And the great dragon was thrown down, that ancient serpet, who is called the devil and Satan, and the deceiver of the whole world-he was thrown down to the earth, and his angels were thrown down with him.

Revelation 20:2-3 And he seized the dragon, that ancient serpent, who is the devil and Satan, and bound him for a thousand years and threw him into the pit, and shut it and sealed it over him, so that he might not deceive the nations any longer, until the thousand years were ended. After that he must be released for a little while. Then I saw thrones, and seated upon them were those to whom authority to judge was committed.
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Re: The Balrog(s); Origins and Influences?

Post by Aravar »

If they are based on Surtr then we have a defintive answer: fire giants don't have wings.

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Re: The Balrog(s); Origins and Influences?

Post by Jude »

Next major debate: Did Surtr have wings?

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Re: The Balrog(s); Origins and Influences?

Post by RoseMorninStar »

:rofl:
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Re: The Balrog(s); Origins and Influences?

Post by N.E. Brigand »

Tom Shippey suggested somewhere (can't remember if it was The Road to Middle-earth (1982) or J.R.R. Tolkien: Author of the Century (2001)) that one inspiration for the Balrog might be the Old English word sigelwara found in the Old English Exodus, about which Tolkien wrote a two-part paper in 1932-34.
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Re: The Balrog(s); Origins and Influences?

Post by Voronwë the Faithful »

I just checked Author and sure enough it is there.
Just like Woses, Balrogs owe a part of their existence, at least, to an editorial problem. There is an Old English poem called Exodus, like several Old English poems a paraphrase of a part of the Bible. Tolkien’s edition of it did not appear during his lifetime, but it came out posthumously, appropriately enough ‘reconstructed’ from his lecture notes. Since it is both a paraphrase and a fragment, the poem has never managed to gain a central position in literary courses, but Tolkien was interested in it: for one thing, he thought on linguistic grounds that it was older than Beowulf, and he thought that like the Beowulf-poet, the Exodus-poet had known a good deal about the native pre-Christian mythology, which could with care be retrieved from his copyists’ ignorant errors. In particular, the poet at several points mentions the Sigelwara land, the ‘land of the Sigelware’. In modern dictionaries and editions, these ‘Sigelware’ are invariably translated as ‘Ethiopians’. Tolkien thought, as often, that that was a mistake. He thought that the name was another compound, exactly like *wudu-wása and *hol-bytla, and that it should have been written *sigel-hearwa. Furthermore, he suggested (in two long articles written early on in his career, and now ignored by scholarship) that a *sigel-hearwa was a kind of fire-giant.
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Re: The Balrog(s); Origins and Influences?

Post by Inanna »

So interesting!
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