One question that has plagued the Tolkien fandom longer than perhaps any other is this: do Balrogs have wings? This might seem to be a straightforward question but large piles of evidence have been amassed by both the “pro-winger” and “anti-winger” sides. This essay will attempt to answer the question by examining the mentions of “wings” in The Fellowship of the Ring, The Bridge of Khazad-dum.
Wings are mentioned twice in the chapter. The first time we are told that:
The Balrog reached the bridge. Gandalf stood in the middle of the span, leaning on the staff in his left hand, but in his other hand Glamdring gleamed, cold and white. His enemy halted again, facing him, and the shadow reached about it like two vast wings.
And shortly thereafter:
The Balrog made no answer. The fire in it seemed to die, but the darkness grew. It stepped forward slowly on to the bridge, and suddenly it drew itself up to a great height, and its wings were spread from wall to wall…
The classic anti-wing argument is that the mention of wings in the first quote is merely a simile by Tolkien, that the “shadow” surrounding the Balrog resembles (is like) “two vast wings”. They hold that the second quote is merely a furthering of the simile.
There is evidence to support this notion. First, Christopher Tolkien once said that “I myself never thought that the second mention of the wings of the Balrog had any different signification from the first” (quoted in Michael Martinez, Flying away on a wing and a hair…). Second, the elder Tolkien was known to further similes in this manner before with the cloud-eagles above Numenor in the Akallabeth:
And out of the west there would come at times a great cloud in the evening, shaped as if it were an eagle … And some of the eagles bore lightning beneath their wings…
The first mention of eagles establishes that it is a more or less eagle-shaped cloud, but the second makes explicit mention of wings. Clearly they are not real wings however, but merely clouds in the shape of wings. Thus the simile has been extended.
In the case of Balrogs it would thus seem that whether one believes they have wings or not would depend on one’s interpretation of the first quote from The Bridge of Khazad-dum. Given the rather clear use of the word “like” it is hard to imagine it being anything but a simile.
In summary, it seems clear from the evidence found in the only text concerning Balrogs published by Tolkien in his lifetime that Balrogs lacked wings, at least in the common conception of them. It could be valid to say that the Balrog’s shadowy aura had “wings” in a non-physical sense (much the same as an army can be said to have wings), but in the opinion of this fan that merely confuses the issue.