It’s not at all clear how Durin’s Bane, the Balrog from The Lord of the Rings, spends his days. Lurking, evidently. Possibly gnashing his teeth, if he has teeth. Maybe playing Skyrim on a console he’s got stashed way down deep beneath the Misty Mountains. Certainly the dwarves provide periodic entertainment, and once the orcs arrive, he has someone to hang out with. Lively conversation seems unlikely, but one can imagine some really epic drum circles. Whatever the case, he’s clearly pretty excited for the change of pace when Gandalf and company show up.
The interesting thing about the Balrog, however, is that he is only incidental to the central story. It’s slightly surprising that in a tale about the struggle to defeat Sauron, one of the most badass characters we encounter has almost nothing to do with Sauron… and he’s not alone.
Two of the other most memorable creatures – the Watcher in the Waters and Shelob – are also autonomous evils. About Shelob, for instance, the massive spider encountered by Sam and Frodo, we’re told, “But still she was there, who was there before Sauron […] and she served none but herself, drinking the blood of Elves and Men, bloated and grown fat with endless brooding on her feasts, weaving webs of shadow; for all living things were her food, and her vomit darkness.” She’s not even an independent contractor in the misery business. She’s a total loose canon.
This is not a complaint. I don’t think these monsters are a flaw in the book, but it’s worth asking why they’re there, worth considering what a fantasy novel (or any novel) gains from the inclusion of malevolent creatures and forces beyond the scope of the central conflict. After all, it would be a trivial edit to loop them into Sauron’s ambit of evil, a matter of few tweaked sentences, a couple of paragraphs at most.
It’s tempting to suggest that the ancillary monsters are there just to keep things exciting. Strolling the Mines of Moria without the Balrog would be comparable to visiting the great pyramids or the Mayan ziggurats; the place is gorgeous, certainly, and possessed of a certain archaeological and architectural interest, but tromping around in the dark for days isn’t the sort of thing to make your blood pound in your ears.
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Or we could point out that, though not allied with Sauron, Shelob and the Balrog do help to move the plot forward. It’s hardly possible to have Gandalf the Gray return as Gandalf the White without his trial and death at the hands (claws?) of the Balrog. But then, Gandalf’s transformation could be accomplished just as readily if Durin’s Bane were, in fact, one of Sauron’s henchmen.
So what’s with the random monsters? What’s to be gained from the splintered nature of evil in The Lord of the Rings? Well, everything actually.
The fact that there are foes and forces beyond Sauron himself suggests something crucial about the nature of Middle Earth and the struggle of the main characters. If everything centered on Sauron and his funky jewelry, any victory for good would constitute absolute victory. The inclusion of Shelob and the Balrog, however, suggest a more complicated universe, one that is more inimical to goodness than we might at first suspect.
Even the defeat of Sauron, we realize, will not purge Middle Earth of darkness, horror, or evil; Shelob, though injured and dripping ichor, is not dead at the story’s end. What’s more, our encounter with these few horrors intimates still other malevolent forces waiting undiscovered in forests and caves, mountains and rivers. Evil is not the creation of Sauron, nor will it be defeated with him.
It is the enduring nature of this evil, in part, that makes the ending of The Lord of the Rings so bittersweet. Victory can only ever be temporary, contingent. Somewhere unseen the universe is birthing something awful. Good can never ultimately prevail; the best it can hope is to endure.
This fact, of course, has ramifications for the characters and their struggles. Frodo and Sam succeed, in large part, because their heroism is the heroism of endurance. Boromir, on the other hand, is chock-full of the heroism of battle, but he lacks the ability to keep going, to keep faith and hope in a world brimming with horror. He would be well suited to a high-stakes, winner-takes-all battle, but there is no such battle, no such conclusive victory possible. Boromir is capable of dying in a bright blaze of glory, but he’s not up to the task of living, of persevering, in a world that seems beyond the reach of absolute redemption.
Our world, like Tolkien’s, is filled with Balrogs and Shelobs, and in our world, as in Tolkien’s, the pursuit of the good is often just that: a pursuit, not an end. Heroism doesn’t lie in victory – there is always another dragon or spider lurking – but in just keeping going.