Of barrow-wights and the Balrog: Tolkien brings horror to Middle-earth

Much is made of the differences in tone between J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit and its eventual sequel, The Lord of the Rings.  One was written for children, the other clearly was not.  But what is the defining characteristic of Tolkien’s epic (and there may be more than one) that sets it apart from its child-friendly origins?

I’d venture to say it’s that Tolkien brings horror to Middle-earth.

Some monsters are obvious, such as the undead barrow-wights and the demonic Balrog; but the theme is in the plot itself.

That the two works are so linked is entirely Tolkien’s choice.  As has been discussed during Puttin’ the Blog in Balrog over at ProfMomEsq, the original published version of The Hobbit had Gollum giving Bilbo the Ring voluntarily, as a present for winning their riddle contest. Tolkien later revised it completely, making the new version, in which Bilbo comes by it as if by chance, yet Gollum believing he stole it, the version that would reverberate through the later events of Middle-earth.

[Update: as has been pointed out in the comments below, in both versions of The Hobbit, Bilbo finds the Ring. In the original version, Gollum promises him a present (meant to be the Ring) if he wins the riddle contest, but when Bilbo does win, Gollum can’t find the Ring and so offers to show Bilbo the way out instead. In the revised version, the prize to Bilbo for winning the contest is simply to be shown the way out, and avoid being eaten. Thanks, Kate Ebneter, for the correction.]

Gollum, of course, figures very importantly in LOTR; but he didn’t have to. Had Tolkien stuck with his original version, he’d have as much consequence to LOTR as any number of other briefly-encountered characters in The Hobbit such as Beorn or the trolls.

Gollum, as readers of LOTR know, later provides a dark, if occasionally sympathetic, mirror to Frodo as Frodo struggles against the corrupting influence of the Ring, which he inherited from Bilbo.

Early in The Fellowship of the Ring, Bilbo has a telling encounter with the wizard Gandalf; Bilbo wavers and suddenly decides he won’t give up the Ring, becoming uncharacteristically suspicious, greedy, and angry. Gandalf talks him into giving it up vountarily, but Tolkien’s point has been made: even his most courageous of heroes — the hero of his children’s story, no less — is in danger of being corrupted. There may not be a happy ending.

Black Riders and the Barrow-wights

Later, the horror tropes become more explicit: Frodo and his friends flee the monstrous Black Riders, horrific, crawling pursuers who rely on terrifying steeds and relentlessly seek them (and the Ring). In the confines of the Old Forest, Frodo’s friends are nearly consumed by the carnivorous Old Man Willow, and Frodo himself is nearly drowned by him.

After being rescued by Tom Bombadil, they stumble into the territory of the barrow-wights, undead former kings who clothe them in funeral garb and bewitch them. Frodo’s fear in this encounter is even more palpable than when struggling against Old Man Willow: he and his friends have been buried alive, in a dark tomb, with the living dead. Again, Bombadil rescues them.

These two encounters may not seem all that horrific; after all, the hobbits are rescued promptly both times and set merrily on their way again.  But Tolkien has already made the broad strokes for what comes later: the powers of evil are more vast than our heroes’ capabilities.

The nightmare of Moria is where, narratively, Tolkien casts his fateful die. (If you haven’t read FOTR, yes, this is a major SPOILER.)

If Bilbo was the incorruptible hero of The Hobbit, Gandalf was the undefeated leader. Yes, he may have disappeared from time to time to attend to other things; but always on his own schedule, more or less.

In FOTR, however, we see his powers are not without limits. Captured by Saruman and imprisoned, he only escapes with great help to warn the others of Saruman’s treason.  And when the fellowship of the Ring is forced to literally take the low road through the doomed dwarven realm of Moria, now populated by orcs and worse, Tolkien makes it all too clear that the evil loose in his world may be overwhelming.

The entrance to Moria is guarded by a monstrous, nameless creature in a lagoon, a tentacled horror worthy of H.P. Lovecraft. (An interesting parallel, given that Tolkien and Lovecraft were contemporaries; and the balrog, Tolkien’s ageless creature of shadow and flame, is as incomprehensible as any from Lovecraft’s Cthulhu mythos.) After barely escaping the clutches of the “Watcher in the Water,” the fellowship eventually finds itself in the last holdout of the dwarf Balin and his dwarven allies who sought to take back Moria.

Gandalf reads from their journals, the horror growing as it becomes clear the dwarves were trapped; this literary device, in the form of a witness describing the terrifying events, by letter or transmission, to a narrator, was one Lovecraft employed often.

“‘It is grim reading,’ [Gandalf ]said. ‘I fear their end was cruel. Listen! We cannot get out. We cannot get out. They have taken the Bridge and second hall. Frár and Lóni and Náli fell there. Then there are four lines smeared so that I can only read went 5 days ago. The last lines run the pool is up to the wall at Westgate. The Watcher in the Water took Óin. We cannot get out. The end comes, and then drums, drums in the deep. I wonder what that means. The last thing written is in a trailing scrawl of elf-letters: they are coming. There is nothing more.'”

The Balrog

Of course, the fellowship soon learns, the sound of drums precedes the attack of the orcs who now control Moria; and worse, the arrival of Tolkien’s greatest monster: the Balrog.

Tolkien had already given his own interpretations on trolls, goblins (orcs) and chiefly dragons in The Hobbit; but here he creates something of his own, based on the deep mythology he created and which was the basis for The Silmarillion. The Balrogs were great and powerful spirits, cast out for following the vain and evil designs of the godlike Melkor, who serves as a Satanic proxy in Tolkien’s invented cosmos, struggling against the pantheon of gods known as the Valar.

By the time of LOTR, those godlike beings operate at great remove, if at all, in the events of Middle-earth; but some of the remnants of the old days lay hidden still. The Balrog, once one of many, may be the last of its kind, and it’s a vast creature of shadow and flame, who looms out of the depths of Moria to destroy not only the dwarven kingdom, but now also Gandalf, Frodo, et. al. as well.

At the Balrog’s approach, Gandalf stops at the Bridge of Khazad-Dûm and warns the others on with the words, “Fly! This is a foe beyond any of you.”  In that, we have arrived at the crux of the theme foreshadowed in the Old Forest and the Barrow-Downs: there are powers loose on Middle-earth from which you may not escape.

Gandalf alone faces the Balrog, but despite forcing it back, he is dragged into the abyss with it. His last words to his companions are chilling: “Fly, you fools!”

That, of course, is not the end of the characters’ woes. They are hunted by orcs; they cannot shake off the pursuit of Gollum, seeking revenge; and slowly the corrupting influence of the Ring tears the fellowship apart.

Those who have read LOTR, consider: what if Tolkien had written his story with just a few minor changes, and ended it at a different point?  What if not all the hobbits survived the encounter with Old Man Willow, or the Barrow-wights, perhaps, and if Frodo’s tale ended on a different note, with the death of Boromir and the flight of Sam and Frodo into a hopeless quest?  It would no longer be the heroic epic we have come to know.

It would be horror.


For more Puttin’ the Blog in Balrog posts and discussion, read SJ’s summary of LOTR Book II, chapters 1-5 here, Kate’s discussion whether the Watcher in the Water or the Balrog is more terrifying here, and what Jim at Thoughts in the Grass has to say on the story so far here.

UPDATE: For summary and discussion of the aftermath of the fight with the Balrog — and the corrupting influence of the Ring, visit the latest post at BookSnobbery.

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12 thoughts on “Of barrow-wights and the Balrog: Tolkien brings horror to Middle-earth

  1. When going to see the movie with my buddies, the encounter with the Balrog was what we were most anticipating. He(it) is the secret star of the first book. 🙂

    • I thought they really did it justice, including its ominous approach. When Ian McKellen says that line, “This is a foe beyond any of you,” you feel in your bones he is right. What did you think of it?

      • I was impressed. I figure the artists involved had to be pretty stoked to create a Balrog with all that computer technology.

        • I think in the DVD commentaries for FOTR, they said WETA had to write a new program/code just for the fire and smoke on the Balrog — it was down to the wire when they came up with it.

  2. Strangely enough I never thought of Tolkien adding horror, but that’s exactly right – and probably why I enjoyed LOTR so much more than the hobbit.

    • Yes, there’s a looming sense of menace — not just episodic peril — in LOTR. I think, too, the character of Gollum brings in a real element of psychological horror, in that he’s a disturbing mirror of Frodo; as well, there are characters such as Denethor, and in the end Saruman, who exemplify the horror of psychological breakdown.

  3. Pingback: Structural suspense in Tolkien's The Two Towers | As You Were

  4. Minor correction: In both versions of The Hobbit, Bilbo finds the Ring by chance. In the original, Gollum promises him a present if he wins the riddle contest, but when Bilbo does win, Gollum cannot (of course) find the ring and so offers to show Bilbo the way out instead. (Bilbo eventually realizes that the ring was the promised present, so he reasons that he won it fair and square.) In the revised version, the prize to Bilbo for winning the contest is to be shown the way out.

    • Thanks for the correction! I have not yet read the massive History of The Hobbit collection, with the original version. I find it fascinating that such a small change in that story could have such huge narrative consequences in The Lord of the Rings.

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