Just Keeping Going; or What Does the Balrog Do All Day?

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.


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.

18 thoughts on “Just Keeping Going; or What Does the Balrog Do All Day?

  1. Wow. That was a legit post. Very much legit.

    I haven’t ever really thought of why such characters/monsters were included in the story beyond the obvious reasons of moving the plot forward. The fact that they help make the fictional universe more complex and show the reader that Sauron isn’t the only “evil” that exists in the world is very true, and its an interesting way of looking at it. Great post!

  2. I think the notion of “a more complicated universe” serves another purpose: it suggests to the reader that there is a world beyond the four corners of the story. And that, for me, is a more convincing world.

    • I agree completely. I’ve always loved Tom Bombadil for exactly that reason. The fact that so many of the rules don’t apply to him seems to suggest the world is, in fact, much larger than any set of rules. Bombadil, in my mind, is the “good” counterweight to creatures like the Balrog(s) and Shelob…

  3. This is really a great reminder. After reading this post, I called my mom and told her (my parents had one of those “losing faith” moments last week, and so did I) and she was like, “I never thought of good and evil this way”. I guess, because it’s human nature to assume one day we’ll defeat evil and have nothing to worry about anymore. While that could happen, it’s better to think of it as a continual fight between good (our goals) and evil (our obstacles), a fight we would not back down from.

    So thanks for sharing!

    • I can’t help but think that after fighting in World War I, and then writing LOTR while World War II was unfolding, Tolkien developed a view of the tenacity of evil that is much bleaker than that of most fantasy writers. Not even a Great War or World War is enough to defeat it, although he never seems to have lost faith in the necessity of the fight…

      • He actually commented on this in an interview or letter at one point… the quote is that he views all of history as “a slow defeat, with occasional glimmers of the final victory”, so the ever-rising tide of evil isn’t surprising, and is a really clear pattern across the history of Middle-earth as a whole, particularly when LotR is viewed alongside the Silmarilion. I also seem to remember he rooted this in his Catholicism – the world is ultimately damned, but God will bring about the final victory despite it all.

  4. Really fine post! I haven’t really thought about this much, either (especially how Balrogs spend their day – though I assume it’s wishing they had wings).

    Things like Balrogs, Shelob, Bombadil, etc., existed long before Tolkien began writing LotR. They came to exist in the story because they already existed in the universe. They might not be essential to the plot, but they always teach us something about the main characters and give us a taste of the wider legendarium.

    • You make a great point about Tolkien, unlike many writers of fantasy, starting with his world rather than his story. The “messiness” that results is, at least to me, incredibly cool…

  5. This is a really cool post – very thought-provoking. I agree with a lot of it and do really feel that creatures like Shelob, the Balrog, and Tom Bombadil bring a lot of realism and the feeling that the world is larger than what we ever see in the narrative. It’s interesting, though, because I would argue that in fact Shelob and the Balrog aren’t necessarily evil. The text seems to imply that the Balrog is woken, which means that he potentially just slumbers all day, and even the goblins are scared of him. The case is even clearer for Shelob – she’s just a spider and no more evil (just bigger) than we would say spiders are in our world. I don’t think this takes away from your fascinating idea of “heroism of endurance.” Instead, I think it suggests a world that is slightly less teleological – that the world is a messy, dangerous place, where things can kill you and evil does exist, but not every creature is inherently evil. In some sense, it takes a lot of courage and heroism to persist in this equally brutal world where some evil can be defeated (Sauron, Sauruman) but it will never be all flowers and rainbows…

    • You bring up some interesting points, most pointedly the basic question, “What is evil?” Certainly, Tolkien paints Shelob in the most unflattering light. Her vomit is darkness, her webs are shadow, etc. But then, she’s definitely not out for the same kind of world dominion envisioned by Sauron. Reminds me a little of the D&D classifications: lawful versus chaotic evil…

      • Fun points! Shelob’s mother, Ungoliant, was definitely evil, maybe even neutral evil (she sided with Morgoth, though wasn’t really Morgoth’s servant). Shelob follows her example, so maybe she’s more neutral evil than chaotic (she strikes deals with Orcs and with Gollum). It’s not that she’s a spider with a bad attitude. She’s actually not even a spider, she’s an evil thing that took the shape of a spider. Balrogs are definitely evil though, and followers of Morgoth and Sauron.

        Rather than “evil vs. good” maybe we should look at it as “dark vs. light,” which is a little different as it allows for shades of gray (which is something Tolkien delved into much more than he’s given credit for doing).

        Things in Middle-earth can and will kill you because they’re dark, but Sauron doesn’t have a monopoly on darkness anymore than the Elves have a monopoly on light.

  6. Wow. Very insightful post. I like how you point out that the inclusion of Shelob and the Balrog make Tolkien’s writing and his world-building deeper and better. I also like your point that Middle Earth shows that all things are not black and white, which is how *our* world works, making us relate to Middle Earth more. You show the genius of Tolkien, and you show it in a topic that I haven’t seen explored before.

    Well-written post, too! I like the funny side comments, such as “hands of the Balrog (claws?)”

    Please check out my wordpress on writing. It’s new and sloppy, but it sometimes connects to epic fantasy. I’m writing an epic fantasy book right now, and that’s how I stumbled across your post here. Cheers!

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