The Bridge of Khazad-dûm
The chapter starts by identifying the Nine Walkers as ‘The Company of the Ring’. This is also the name Elrond first gave them. It goes on being used until Chapter 10, The Breaking of the Fellowship. But even there, the chapter says ‘Company’ until the end, when it says:
“The second part is called The Two Towers … it tells of the deeds and perils of all the members of the now sundered fellowship”
That’s incidental. In story-telling terms, the main purpose of the chapter is for Gandalf to be removed. It’s not his story. He has to fall for Aragorn to develop, and then later Frodo and Sam. But for good story-telling, there has to be a proper build-up and an explanation of how such an ancient and powerful wizard can be taken from his most urgent mission. In The Hobbit he has other more important business: that cannot plausibly apply here.
Gandalf has to be removed. The Balrog is the mechanism, since only Gandalf can match him. Had Glorfindel been included, which was one of Tolkien’s earliest ideas, it would have been almost a rematch. Glorfindel in the First Age perished slaying another Balrog. Years ago, when the matter was debated within the Tolkien Society, I made a little poem about this:
Glorfindel – we know him quite well
He copped it when Gondolin fell
But Frodo has told
He was there to behold
Ring-side seated in fair Rivendell.
But Glorfindel does not belong. Instead we have a gradual and tragic build-up to Gandalf’s loss to the Company or Fellowship. It opens thus:
“The Company of the Ring stood silent beside the tomb of Balin. Frodo thought of Bilbo and his long friendship with the dwarf, and of Balin’s visit to the Shire long ago. In that dusty chamber in the mountains it seemed a thousand years ago and on the other side of the world.”
This must be the visit by Balin and Gandalf at the very end of The Hobbit, well before Frodo was even born. Balin had also perished in Moria before Bilbo departed The Shire with other un-named dwarves.
The chamber with Balin’s tomb – identified as the Chamber of Mazarbul, the place of records – was the last hold-out of the dwarves. It has been plundered. There is no mention of dead bodies – the orcs would have eaten them back in their own lair, probably. But the film shows corpses, including Ori. The actor who plays Ori in the later Hobbit films joked ‘I had to lose a lot of weight for the part’. He would have been selected and made up to match the earlier corpse figure, of course.
The orcs have defaced a book of records and then left it, maybe fearing it or perhaps finding it worthless. Various dwarves had earlier written in it, including Ori who can use elven letters. It tells of many things, including finding Mithril. And we learn that the dwarves first lost the eastern exit, the one the Bridge of Khazad-dûm leads to. It says:
“Balin lord of Moria fell in Dimrill Dale. He went alone to look in Mirrormere. An orc shot him from behind a stone. We slew the orc, but many more…
“We cannot get out. We cannot get out. They have taken the Bridge and second hall.”
The orcs seem to be concentrated at the eastern end of Moria. This makes sense: they would raid lands beyond, though not going near Lorien. Hollin had no people, and still had a lingering elf presence they would have feared. But later in the first Lorien chapter, we are told that orcs had moved up there from the south. So perhaps few had remained after their ancient enemy the dwarves were wiped out.
The Fellowship perhaps had no trouble on the first part of their journey because the orcs, lazy and greedy, had assumed the door was still unusable for outsiders. Probably they knew nothing until Pippin’s dropped stone disturbed something, maybe some evil creature other than an orc. But orcs do make things, and would use hammers, and so might use them to signal.
Putting what the dwarven book tells together with details in the previous chapter, it is clear that during the long struggle against Balin’s dwarves the orcs ventured out, probably at night, to block the western exit. They built a dam to make a home for an evil creature that would block that way out for the dwarves:
“The pool is up to the wall at Westgate. The Watcher in the Water took Óin. We cannot get out.”
The orcs must have been determined to kill rather than just drive away their traditional enemies.
The book is entrusted to Gimli, to pass on to Dain, who was Balin’s overlord. Presumably it gets there, but I don’t think it is mentioned again.
The Fellowship have spent time on this, perhaps too much, and now hear orcs coming towards them. Coming from the west, the way they came, so Gandalf decides they will hold the chamber with Balin’s tomb and try to scare off the orcs. As Aragorn puts it:
“We will make them fear the Chamber of Mazarbul!”
The orcs do fear, sending forward a troll to open the door. Boromir’s blade cannot harm it, but Frodo stabs it in foot with the elven blade Sting. More burst in, but are driven off. But one has hung back and then strikes, presumably trying to take the One Ring:
“A huge orc-chieftain, almost man-high, clad in black mail from head to foot, leaped into the chamber; behind him his followers clustered in the doorway. His broad flat face was swart, his eyes were like coals, and his tongue was red; he wielded a great spear. With a thrust of his huge hide shield he turned Boromir’s sword and bore him backwards, throwing him to the ground. Diving under Aragorn’s blow with the speed of a striking snake he charged into the Company and thrust with his spear straight at Frodo. The blow caught him on the right side, and Frodo was hurled against the wall and pinned. Sam, with a cry, hacked at the spear-shaft, and it broke. But even as the orc flung down the truncheon and swept out his scimitar, Andúril came down upon his helm. There was a flash like flame and the helm burst asunder. The orc fell with cloven head. His followers fled howling, as Boromir and Aragorn sprang at them.”
The orc clearly had magic powers, but not enough to save him. Gandalf while trying to open the western door had mentioned orc spells, so there must be orc magicians. And probably this one wanted the One Ring for himself rather than to give to Sauron. None of his servants were trustworthy, apart from the Ringwraiths who had lost their independent wills.
Unlike in the film, most orcs are smaller than humans. The orc who nearly kills Frodo is an exception:
“A huge orc-chieftain, almost man-high”.
The film gets a better heroic effect by making the orcs human-sized. Which is also more convenient, since you mostly see them fight humans and ordinary actors can play the role without cinema trickery.
This last attack defeated, the Fellowship then flee. Legolas has to pull Gimli away from Balin’s tomb – his first friendly act, I think. But Boromir raises the broken door and Gandalf stays with it. We later learn he was setting a door spell. And without his glowing staff, they have to flee in the dark, feeling with their feet for stairs.
They see Gandalf use his magic and then joins them, his staff no longer giving light. He briefly explains:
“I found myself suddenly faced by something that I have not met before. I could think of nothing to do but to try and put a shutting-spell on the door. I know many; but to do things of that kind rightly requires time, and even then the door can be broken by strength.
“`As I stood there I could hear orc-voices on the other side: at any moment I thought they would burst it open. I could not hear what was said; they seemed to be talking in their own hideous language. All I caught was ghâsh; that is “fire”. Then 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.
“’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.
“`I am afraid Balin is buried deep, and maybe something else is buried there too. I cannot say. But at least the passage behind us was completely blocked. Ah! I have never felt so spent, but it is passing.’”
Assuming this is the balrog and not some other evil creature, this passage contradicts the way the creature is mostly shown. Sometimes dark and sometimes fiery.
Gandalf then asks after Frodo, surprised to find him alive. He must not have noticed the mithril shirt that Frodo was wearing.
I’d also say that a mail shirt does not block impact – not without the massive padding that some real mediaeval warriors also wore. A spear-thrust by a powerful man-sized orc should have killed him. The same orc had been strong enough to knock over Boromir. But that’s story-telling. And you could suppose it was a quick thrust with much less than the orc’s full strength.
They then move on, finding a trap that they had accidentally avoided. There is a fissure in a great hall, with fire in it, presumably set in lower chambers. But they are the right side of it to exit Moria, and the orcs on the wrong one.
But orcs are resourceful: they have two trolls that bridge the gap with slabs of stone. Then something much worse re-appears, having presumably fought Gandalf earlier at the broken door, and survived the collapse of the Chamber of Mazarbul:
“Legolas turned and set an arrow to the string, though it was a long shot for his small bow. He drew, but his hand fell, and the arrow slipped to the ground. He gave a cry of dismay and fear. Two great trolls appeared; they bore great slabs of stone, and flung them down to serve as gangways over the fire. 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. Something was coming up behind them. 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 to go before it.
“It came to the edge of the fire and the light faded as if a cloud had bent over it. Then with a rush it leaped across the fissure. The flames roared up to greet it, and wreathed about it; and a black smoke swirled in the air. Its streaming mane kindled, and blazed behind it. In its right hand was a blade like a stabbing tongue of fire; in its left it held a whip of many thongs.
“’Ai! ai! ‘ wailed Legolas. ‘A Balrog! A Balrog is come! ‘
“Gimli stared with wide eyes. `Durin’s Bane! ‘ he cried, and letting his axe fall he covered his face.
“’A Balrog,’ muttered Gandalf. `Now I understand.’ He faltered and leaned heavily on his staff. `What an evil fortune! And I am already weary.’”
It is a creature of fire and darkness. Assuming that it was the creature that Gandalf struggled with at the door, it has recovered and is taking on extra power. ‘The flames roared up to greet it’ – flames issuing from the burning fissure, and it or its servant may have set those flames. Gandalf must meet it, as a wizard of fire and light.
Note also that there is no mention of the Balrog having fought against Balin’s dwarves. Why anyway did Balin risk Moria, when it was known that ‘Durin’s Bane’ was still there? Dain had seen it during the Battle of Azanulbizar, in which the orcs of Moria had tried ambushing them in a valley leading to Moria, and been defeated.[A] As told by Tolkien, Dain is a wiser and more cautious dwarf – not at all like what Jackson makes him in the final part of The Hobbit films.
To the Balrog, Balin’s dwarves were maybe not important enough. Perhaps it assumed the orcs would deal with them, as in fact they did. Here, it had probably sensed Gandalf’s magic, beginning with the spell he reluctantly uses to get the fire going on Caradhras. Or Pippin’s stone disturbed it. And it perhaps hangs back in the hope it may not have to confront such a powerful foe.
You could wonder, in fact, why it was not content to just drive out these new intruders? It might also sense the One Ring and seek to possess it.
The Balrog might also not share Sauron’s resentment of dwarves. He had hoped to corrupt them with the rings he gave them, but from his viewpoint they were wasted. The Rings made them greedy, but not prone to fade or to live longer, nor to serve Sauron. He might have recognised the superior craft of Sauron’s original master, a Valar called Aule, who made the dwarves to be very hard to corrupt or dominate.
Who is the Balrog loyal to, anyway? It probably viewed Sauron as an equal. It might resent Sauron’s abandonment of Morgoth’s cause after his defeat by Luthien and Huan. Had Sauron reported his own failure, Beren and Luthien could not have infiltrated Morgoth’s stronghold. But if it was still loyal to Morgoth, chained but destined to eventually break free, it would see Gandalf as a major enemy even if it knew nothing of the One Ring.
It is probably not fond of orcs, and might kill any that get in its way. They are certainly scared of it.
It has a flaming sword – reminiscent of the sword of the fire-giant Surt from Norse mythology. The most coherent story has Surt fight the benevolent god Freyr, who dies because he had earlier given away his sword while wooing a giantess. And Surt then departs after laying the world waste – in line with Pagan Norse practice, were raids were more common than conquests before they got themselves organised into larger kingdoms.
Here the conflict is more simple, good and evil. Good angel and evil angel. But does this creature have wings or not? We get two references:
“The Balrog reached the bridge… the shadow about it reached out like two vast wings.”
Like wings – but later they are wings, wings made out of darkness:
“Gandalf stood firm.
“`You cannot pass,’ he said. The orcs stood still, and a dead silence fell. `I am a servant of the Secret Fire, wielder of the flame of Anor. You cannot pass. The dark fire will not avail you, flame of Udûn. Go back to the Shadow! You cannot pass.’
“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; 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 Balrog is perhaps weaker in fire-magic, and shifts more to darkness. It still strikes with its fire-sword, but this breaks when it meets Gandalf’s elven blade Gamdring. Yet it still comes at him, with its fire-whip as a strong weapon. Aragorn and Boromir are about to join in – and perhaps to protect Aragorn, Gandalf breaks the bridge under his enemy:
“With a terrible cry the Balrog fell forward, and its shadow plunged down and vanished. 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.
“The fires went out, and blank darkness fell. The Company stood rooted with horror staring into the pit. Even as Aragorn and Boromir came flying back, the rest of the bridge cracked and fell. With a cry Aragorn roused them.
“’Come! I will lead you now! ‘ he called. ‘We must obey his last command. Follow me!’”
If you remember that Gandalf’s mission was to encourage others to fight evil, this is less of a disaster than it seems. It was part of the Valar’s general plan to avoid direct use of power and authority. That had failed with the Noldor, and failed again with the Numenorians.
With Gandalf gone, Aragorn is forced to take over. He leads the rest of the Fellowship out into the light, brushing aside a small group of orcs guarding the broken gate. Aragorn kills their leader with one blow: the rest flee and they have escaped. But mourning the loss of Gandalf, obviously.
Only with Gandalf gone can they grow into true heroic stature. And all of them do, with even Boromir showing noble repentance after his great failure.
The neat trick of having the elder hero die was borrowed for Star Wars: A New Hope, and less successfully for The Phantom Menace. But as I’ve noted elsewhere, Star Wars also has a much weaker and muddier morality.