One of the most frequently referenced ‘shocks’ I’ve seen amongst fantasy readers is Gandalf’s fall in Moria to the Balrog. In many ways it's easy to understand why: Gandalf is the most powerful figure we have consistently seen in Fellowship of the Ring, with the second chapter of the book ‘A Shadow to the Past’ informing the reader that the quirky wizard introduced in The Hobbit is a more ancient and potent being than we realised: he is deeply knowledgeable about the history and lore of Middle-Earth and has been involved in the moving of many important events. There is far more to be discovered about the old wizard than meets the eye regarding his power and his insight. I believe Tolkien’s effective narrative set-up and tonal choices in the relevant chapter are an important factor in why the fall works. The world-building itself, the depiction and exploration of the Mines of Moria, are also essential elements in building a surrounding sense of foreboding and dread, culminating in an intense chase and memorable death.
Of course, when regarding the effectiveness of Gandalf’s fall, the obvious element is the established emotional connection readers have with the character. Tolkien has been setting up and revealing the character as one of higher power; even while Gandalf is absent for much of book one (The Lord of the Rings being split into six parts) the danger of his absence as the hobbits embark on their journey is effectively stressed to build tension and suspense; Gandalf becomes associated with ‘safety’. Next is establishing the Balrog, in the limited context of its appearance, as a tangible threat. The final element is the very compelling way the stand-off between these two figures is depicted.
I. Establishing Gandalf
Gandalf is associated with safety. His non-appearance when Frodo Baggins begins his journey is used to develop tension and worry, exacerbated with the arrival of the Nazgul in the Shire. Aragorn, when he meets the hobbits at the Prancing Pony Inn, is dismayed at Gandalf’s delay and posits the Nazgul may have hindered him, as a unit of nine together:
‘ ‘I do not know of anything else that could have hindered him, except the Enemy himself,’ said Strider. But do not give up hope! Gandalf is greater than you Shire-folk know — as a rule you can only see his jokes and toys. But this business of ours will be his greatest task.’
Even still, there is hope: Gandalf is reinforced as a figure of power. His disappearance is a cause of fear and concern, yet Strider reassures the hobbits that he is mightier than they know: the Nazgul together might have a chance, but they also might not. Tolkien answers this with the revelation that Gandalf did face the Nazgul at Weathertop, hinting at some of his magical power to escape them and flee to Rivendell. The hobbits themselves catch a glimpse of this magic on the way to Weathertop:
As Frodo lay, tired but unable to close his eyes, it seemed to him that far away there came a light in the eastern sky: it flashed and faded many times. It was not the dawn, for that was still some hours off.
From afar the party can see the effects of his battle with the Nazgul. When Frodo comes there he finds that the walls of the ancient watchtower have been charred as if by fire. This is confirmed by Gandalf himself at Rivendell: he did face five of the nine, and won an escape through sorcery. Gandalf has power beyond the other characters in the world we have been introduced to. In fact, at this point, it seems safe to say that only a confrontation with Saruman or Sauron directly might stop him. Further on, we get more glimpses of Gandalf’s magic: when he ignites the wood during the storm on Caradhras, which also introduces the reader to the limits imposed upon his use of magic:
‘If Gandalf would go before us with a bright flame, he might melt a path for you,’ said Legolas. The storm had troubled him little, and he alone of the Company remained still light of heart. ‘If Elves could fly over mountains, they might fetch the Sun to save us,’ answered Gandalf. ‘But I must have something to work on. I cannot burn snow.’
Narratively this is an appropriate choice. Gandalf, whilst given the aura of power, should not be invincible; it would be ill-fitting and tiresome (not to mention narratively weak) to have him simply “magic” the characters out of unfortunate situations. He served, to some degree, this role in The Hobbit, as Tolkien plays around with the eccentric wizard whose magic aid can often go amiss. But “play” is the appropriate word here. The Hobbit serves as a whimsical adventure text, notably lighter in tone and content. Rings aspires to mythic grandeur and the situations therefore must have graver narrative impact. Without the limitation, the magic becomes less an organic and mystical aspect of the myth and instead a storytelling contrivance, akin to Harry Potter where J.K Rowling can simply invent some new magical means to free characters from tricky situations. As established, Gandalf’s powers are within the bounds of the elements of the world: he can ignite fire from wood but not its adversaries rain and snow.
Furthering the building-up of Gandalf’s power, Tolkien finally reveals to us how deadly an opponent Gandalf can be. As the party, tired and in debate, find themselves surrounded by werewolves, Gandalf strides forward,and commands them to flee. When they return a second time, Gandalf the Grey uncloaks his abilities:
In the wavering firelight Gandalf seemed suddenly to grow: he rose up, a great menacing shape like the monument of some ancient king of stone set upon a hill. Stooping like a cloud, he lifted a burning branch and strode to meet the wolves. They gave back before him. High in the air he tossed the blazing brand. It flared with a sudden white radiance like lightning; and his voice rolled like thunder.
As I mentioned the ‘elemental’ limitations set upon him, it’s interesting to observe Tolkien also uses ‘thunder’ to describe the power in his voice connecting his voice to the elements as well. Gandalf appears a ‘menacing’ figure when in anger, wreathed in ancient power and stoicism. An “ancient king of stone” suggests something both regal and immovable. The magic here connects back to the previous encounter on Weathertop, of those lightning-esque flashes in the night. Gandalf is finally revealed as the figure of might he has been hinted to be. His fire-spell (and this no mere trick for warmth) quells the attack, forcing the wolves back for a time. It’s an impressive spectacle and the readers surrogates — the hobbits — summarise our likely reaction. “That was an eye-opener and no mistake!” Sam Gamgee tells Pippin; who feels shaken after his first taste of battle. This exchange also underlines the safety the reader feels with the presence of the Grey wizard: it’s no wolf’s belly for him, of course, and it is hard to imagine anything but Sauron himself throwing the Grey Pilgrim down now. Gandalf has rescued himself out of the perils of Saruman, survived the Nazgul in combat, found through tireless effort the history of the Ring, and has now roasted several hungry wolves in a display of impressive magic.
The key element focused on this section is Tolkien’s success in building up Gandalf as a figure of might, transforming into a figure of safety for the journey. Tolkien has established the magical potency of his central Wizard: we are shown, initially, the fun and fantastical fireworks he produced; informed of his greater might by Strider; further shown glimpses of it at Weathertop and Caradhras, and then fully revealed in the confrontation with the Werewolves. Thus far, Gandalf is the most powerful figure the reader has seen appear on page. The greater ones — Saruman, higher in the order of the Istari (wizards), and Sauron the Great Evil — remain threatening figures in the background still. The Balrog crosses over this line. It is the first equally-matched being that appears in direct context and conflict in narrative.
II. The Building Tension: The Long Dark of Moria
Tonally, one element Tolkien consistently develops very well is a sense of building dread. A Knife in the Dark is rife with it; a feeling of unnerving exposure, the fear of discovery from the Nazgul at any point. Such a feeling originally begins to weave its way through Three Is Company back in the Shire: the black riders are established as an immediate thing to fear, growing eerier with each encounter. The thrill and terror of the flight from Moria brings Tolkien’s sense of rising tension to new heights; it feels more grandly intense than anything that has come before.
The uncertainty of Moria, and its eeriness, as a path is established by the company’s split reactions to it. Even to hobbits — our untravelled surrogates almost as new to Middle-Earth as we are — it is a place of vague evil. Boromir and Legolas, two heroic figures, are cowed and set against it. Aragorn himself offers perhaps the most startling objection, loyalty to Gandalf will compel him to follow but he has some dark foreboding about the place:
“It is not of the Ring, nor of us others that I am thinking of now, but of you Gandalf. And I say to you: if you pass the doors of Moria, beware!”
It is a curious statement: Strider appears to have some insight into the doom of the Moria path. These objections work to offer an unnerving quality to the entry of the ancient kingdom. Still, if one worries for Gandalf, they can be partially stifled by his inspiring defeat of the werewolves. Moria is steeped in lore, as all places of Middle-Earth are, yet compared to the previous settings lost to time it is not simply a crumbling relic of the past world; there is an active disturbance to it. Its once flowing river and falls have become barren. A dark, reeking pool has flooded the once open gates. At Amon-Sul, Tolkien explored a sorrowful and empty land; Moria is sinister as well as sad.
Behind them the sinking Sun filled the cool western sky with glimmering gold. Before them stretched a dark still lake. Neither sky nor sunset was reflected on its sullen surface. The Sirannon had been dammed and had filled all the valley. Beyond the ominous water were reared vast cliffs, their stern faces pallid in the fading light: final and impassable.
‘Final and impassable’:even upon its entry Moria appears defeating. The lake is thick and grotesque, and as will be revealed, harbours an ancient menace. Furthering emphasising the tonality of Moria is the tragedy of its history. The doors now shut once remained open, and their simple — albeit long-forgotten — password underlies the ravages of war and time on Middle-Earth: “Quite simple. Too simple for learned lore-masters in these suspicious days. Those were happier times!” Gandalf exclaims when the doors are opened. The impression of Moria is not simply that it has been lost to time, but actively rotted and corrupted by evils in the world. Once an open road to the friendships of Elves and Dwarves, now emptied and closed-off, a relic of happier times is now a black myth that seasoned warriors dare to enter.
Throughout the ‘Journey in the Dark’ chapter Tolkien has played with the anticipation of dread. The Fellowship, having failed to cross Caradhras, is assailed by pack of werewolves forcing them to Moria whether the company likes it or not. Having established in ‘The Council of Elrond’ that Balin attempted a reclamation of the lost kingdom, it raises some questions as to what or who they might encounter beyond the doors. The attack from the Watcher — an eldritch-flavoured horror that even Gandalf knows not- further traps the company on the dark journey through the mines. The question of ‘what happened’ here is toyed with. Moria is a vast and blackly-dark space full of perils in the forms of deep, deadly falls and mysterious noises. When Pippin drops a stone down a well, they are met by the distant ringing of a hammer — a signal, perhaps? Frodo is bothered by the sounds of faint footfalls, not an echo of his travelling companions, and the vision of two pale lights in the dark. The atmosphere of Moria is oppressive. Its vastness and historic wonder mingles with its grimness:
All about them as they lay hung the darkness, hollow and immense, and they were oppressed by the loneliness and vastness of the dolven halls and endlessly branching stairs and passages. The wildest imaginings that dark rumour had ever suggested to the hobbits fell altogether short of the actual dread and wonder of Moria.
The chapter ‘The Bridge of Khazad-Dum’ initially begins with the fear of capture before spiralling into more operatic stakes. As the company stand around Balin’s tomb, a dark answer to the previous chapter’s question — what of the dwarves? — they find and look at the book of records, detailing the grisly end to the Moria mission. It is here that the sense of tension begins to grow from the echo of the dread and despair of the dwarves end. In the previous chapter, there has been mention of a mysterious figure named only ‘Durin’s Bane’ — none know what it is, only that it drove the dwarves from Moria and any attempt to reclaim the kingdom, before Balin, have been rejected in the memory of its terror.
III: The Balrog and Flight From Terror
The opening of ‘The Bridge of Khazad-Dum’ recounts the dark fate that befell Balin’s colony. We find that they were slain as orcs repopulated Moria, and the exhibition was lost. In the leaves of the book of Mazarbul, great drums are referenced signalling despair and evil things; a constant beating that rings out during the dwarves’ end. The drums become a recurring feature of the chapter, echoing in the halls after the Fellowship as they attempt to flee. ‘Doom, doom’ they are written almost as if signalling a voice calling, carrying the grim message: the same tragic fate awaits the company, if they cannot escape.
The flight from Moria introduces the reader to a new collective of enemies: Sauron’s orcs appear for the first time, as does a great troll. And, of course, the Balrog is set-up and introduced as the chapter progresses. The chapter has neither the time nor does its pacing allow for a particularly in-depth introduction to this being; that it is maia akin to Gandalf is not addressed in the narrative. Still, Tolkien effectively establishes it as a primary threat and even a rival to Gandalf within the limited space. After having pushed back a dozen orcs, the Fellowship flee down the eastern stairway. Gandalf remains at the top trying to shut the door. As the booming drums sounds, the wizard is flung down the stairs, exhausted. Amongst the orcs, a more threatening presence entered the chamber:
…something came into the chamber — I felt it through the door, and the orcs themselves were afraid and fell silent. It laid hold of the iron ring, and then it perceived me and my spell.
Immediately there is a strangeness to this new figure. The world-travelled Gandalf does not know it, yet it has a more distinct presence than the Watcher (of which he was also unaware). Something immensely ‘magical’ can be read into his words; it perceived his spell. Even the Orcs fear it: it is not ‘of them’ per se, greater than them possibly, more than one of their captains. Its alliance to the Orcs is not fully established; they demure to it, it tolerates them perhaps. “What is it?” a first-time reader might wonder. Certainly the Fellowship question this, “Did you meet the beater of drums?” asks Gimli, emphasising the dooming that has followed them from the tomb. Is there a connection between these two features?
As Gandalf continues, he offers evidence of its power from its sudden defeat of him:
‘What it was I cannot guess, but I have never felt such a challenge. The counter-spell was terrible. It nearly broke me. For an instant the door left my control and began to open! I had to speak a word of Command. That proved too great a strain. The door burst in pieces. Something dark as a cloud was blocking out all the light inside, and I was thrown backwards down the stairs. All the wall gave way, and the roof of the chamber as well, I think.
Any magical speculation is confirmed. It is a being of magic, perhaps one more powerful than Gandalf. It proves the better of him, and the clash of power causes devastation in the Chamber. All the sounds of pursuit die down for now, but the threat to the company still seems increased by a tenfold here, and their only option is now to run and hope to enter out into daylight. Many Orcs proved enough danger: this seems near-impossible for the Fellowship to tackle even as a collective. ‘This is a foe beyond any of you!” Gandalf asserts, when the creature is revealed, and he himself is currently too wearied from the previous encounter to conjure even some small guiding light — ‘Gandalf felt the ground with his staff like a blind man’ on the way down to the bridge.
IV: The Confrontation
The Balrog has the most intimidating appearance of any on-stage villain in the text. As the Fellowship attempt to cross the bridge, being showered by arrow-fire from advancing Orcs, Legolas’ counterattack is stopped. Tolkien plays with an effective set-up: he describes two great trolls creating a path across a fissure spewing flames — deadly enough — though reveals an even more deadly turn of events:
But it was not the trolls that had filled the Elf with terror. The ranks of the Orcs had opened, and they crowded away, as if they themselves were afraid.
The trolls already present a severe danger, but Tolkien uses them merely as an introduction to emphasise something even more terrible. As the orcs behaviour callbacks to Gandalf’s recount on the stairway, an immediate association is drawn. The malicious creature from the chamber has returned:
What it was could not be seen: it was like a great shadow, in the middle of which was a dark form, of man-shape maybe, yet greater; and a power and terror seemed to be in it and go before it.
Despite certain criticisms, Tolkien is often not particularly descriptive. Here, he favours the effect and mystery of the balrog over a lengthy physical description. As a figure it is somewhat vague, shrouded in shadow; it is not man, though has human shape, and it seems unlike anything in the story so far. Special importance is given to the sense of power that emanates around it. The balrog is an awesome figure — different, ethereal, deadly — the image of it leaping through the fires, its mane igniting, drawing a flaming sword as a weapon is one of the most fantastical images seen in the text thus far. Even the setting takes on a near biblical grandeur: the deep, looming halls of Moria, bright fires blazing the dark, a demonic beast rising from the depths of the earth. Essentially, it’s an angel facing a demon, a clash of titans, the implications of their might even more impressive than actual displays of magic. Now a fresh opponent, greater than the others, one implied to be of immense power, faces the exhausted wizard:
‘A Balrog,’ muttered Gandalf. ‘Now I understand.’ He faltered and leaned heavily on his staff. ‘What an evil fortune! And I am already weary.’
A second powerful image is of Gandalf, the enervated wizard, standing alone on the bridge confronting this new terror. The world around them falls to silence. Even the orcs seem to watch, transfixed.
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 about it reached out like two vast wings. It raised the whip, and the thongs whined and cracked. Fire came from its nostrils. But Gandalf stood firm.
One can cut the tension with a knife. Initially, Tolkien suggests the balrog as the being in the position of power; it has already bested Gandalf once. Its shadow (perhaps even its power) appears to grow as it prepares to strike. Gandalf remains stolid. For an invested reader, this is an emotionally charged event. The balrog has effectively been established as a dangerous and powerful foe: yet Gandalf is the guide, the wizard, the leader of the company. It seems unfathomable for the Fellowship to continue without him. He will surely win this challenge.
As often with Tolkien, power comes from language and words, as much as, if not more than, dazzling displays. “You cannot pass!” commands the wizard, as he offers his enemies a chance to back down, a possibility of mercy, to let them pass or be harmed. He asserts ‘the dark fire will not avail you!’ telling his foe that the mastery of the darkness will not prevail. The balrog makes no verbal response. Is it cowed, enraged, seeing itself as a cat with a mouse in its trap? We don’t know. There is power in Gandalf’s word, an incantation-like quality to it, as if he is summoning great strength from deep within to face the challenger. “I am a servant of the secret fire…”
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; 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.
The tension is racketing up, the balrog’s darkness grows ‘from wall to wall’ as it seems to dominate the scene. Gandalf stands alone, against a seeming tide of darkness. ‘Like a wizened tree before the onset of a storm’ Gandalf’s frailty and age are emphasised, he is no longer a voice of thunder, or an ancient immovable stone king. The balrog seems an impossible odd, capable of casting the wizard aside as a hurricane might an old tree. Gandalf is framed as the weaker player, the one vulnerable and near defeat. The moment hangs on a balance of fear.
It seems to follow an almost classical, and rewarding, conflict strategy. Gandalf is belaboured, seemingly defeated, Aragorn and Boromir, sensing his loss, run towards him in an act of valour and then —
At that moment Gandalf lifted his staff, an crying aloud he smote the bridge before him. The staff broke asunder and fell from his hand. A blinding sheet of white flame sprang up. The bridge cracked.
It’s a powerful return, a last minute burst of elemental power. It seems as if Gandalf has the upper-hand now and with the last use of his might has rescued the company. The dark twist comes with a sudden jolt before the reader can even really feel the sense of equilibrium of Gandalf’s victory and reinstatement as a figure of safety return:
But even as it fell it swung its whip, and the thongs lashed and curled about the wizard’s knees, dragging him to the brink. He staggered and fell, grasped vainly at the stone, and slid into the abyss. ‘Fly, you fools!’ he cried, and was gone.
There’s a strange perfunctoriness to Gandalf’s defeat. It seems like an act of petty malice, the balrog’s last ditch attempt to drag him down into defeat. ‘And was gone’ sees the wizard’s presence fade into the blackness as if he had barely been there at all. The stakes were at their grandest, perhaps the most mythic and magical part of the book so far, and they end on a note of solemn quietness. Everything fades. The company flees, barely having time to register the event, much like the readers themselves.
Nothing else was to be seen; the dale all around was empty. Doom. Grief at last wholly overcame them, and they wept long: some standing and silent, some cast upon the ground. Doom, doom. The drum-beats faded.
The world has fallen into darkness. The ‘doom’ of the drumbeats continue to roll as the company finally escapes outside: the triumph of seeing blue skies again muted by the melancholy, as if the dark of Moria itself has followed them out. The chapter ends on a sorrowful calm, the sensory loudness that had propulsed much of the flight from Moria finally dying down. The most important protective figure of the company gone.
The impact of Gandalf’s fall is born from successfully establishing him as a figure of safety and power. Interestingly, it’s through Tolkien’s use of absence that that association with Gandalf is established: the journey to Rivendell feels more perilous without him, and his on-screen presence makes the next stage of the journey feel safer. The combined effects of the surety of Gandalf with the ambiguous terror of the balrog — in the context of the chapter the full extent of its power, its history as a corrupt Maia, is unknown — draws into an intense chase against a horror that is revealed to be more magical and powerful than any on-screen threat before. Fascinatingly, there is a contrast here where the most action-filled and magical chapter of the first book is followed by a final page of quiet despair. Gandalf’s fall works so well because it is unexpected, yet the narrative elements that give it its potency are what makes it such a convincing shock. It might feel sudden and left-field, but Tolkien has structured the entire character and chapter to convincingly establish a challenge of immense magical power, one that subverts the reader’s hopes in its final line.