Sunday, May 19, 2024

The Balrog, The Book, and the Bridge of Khazad-Dûm

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I don’t know if Tolkien was a believer in the Rule of Three: the idea that jokes are funnier, instructions more memorable, or stories more evocative if they come in threes. The idea popped up when I finished “The Bridge of Khazad-Dûm.” It’s the third chapter in a row that throws an unexpected hurdle at the Fellowship, it’s the third chapter in a row that ends on a curt, brusque note of defeat. Start to look too hard you can start to see it everywhere. Three battles of escalating difficulty, three final drum rolls as the Company spills out into the Dimrill Dale, key phrases repeated three times.

This sort of thing easily becomes silly, of course: you can also find patterns of two, four, six, or eight. But there’s a reason I was looking for patterns to explain “The Bridge of Khazad-Dûm”: there had to be something to explain why it’s so good. It’s a masterpiece of structural suspense and a vivid, near-perfect chapter.

Drums in the Deep


We’ve talked a lot over the course of the past few chapters about how good Tolkien is at conveying magic, power, and fear through the absence of information. Bombadil is interesting because we can’t pin down the extent of his power, The Old Forest is interesting because we can’t articulate the foundation of its magic, Moria is frightening because its most dangerous aspects remain in the shadows. “The Bridge of Khazad-Dûm” works so well because Tolkien continues this trend in a myriad of subtle (and almost playful) ways.

Some of it is obvious. Death is everywhere. The chapter opens with a terse sentence: “The Company of the Ring stood silent before the tomb of Balin.” After seeing the tomb the Fellowship looks around and discovers a pile of broken bones and a chaotic pile of broken swords, shields, and orcish scimitars. And then somehow it gets worse: an old, slashed-apart book, covered in so much dried blood it’s almost unreadable. It’s so much more eerie and effective than if Gandalf & Company had actually run into a battle. Instead, they’re trapped in a small room with the echoes of one.

There’s also the fact that Tolkien relies so heavily on non-visual cues to convey tone. Sound – and its absence – is especially important. The most obvious example is the drums, whose doom-boom chorus echo throughout the chapter. Tolkien’s use of onomatopoeia is masterful, as I am exactly the kind of person who would make fun of an author for articulating a drumbeat as DOOM DOOM. Especially when on one occasion it serves as some kind of foreshadowing pun:

“Trapped!” cried Gandalf. “Why did I delay? Here were are, caught, just as they were before. But I was not here then. We will see what – “
Doom, doom came the drum-beat.

But somehow he manages to pull it off. I’m going to ascribe a lot of it to Tolkien’s flexibility of sentence structure, where drumbeats act as short punctuation marks after long and fluid sentences.

But just as important is silence. Both times the Balrog enters – the second time visible to our heroes, the first time not – Tolkien makes a point of noting the “dead silence” of the room. Clamor and noise and drumbeats is for buildups. When the danger actually arrives, or as Gandalf says, when it “perceived me and my spell”, everything goes silent.

The Book of Mazarbul

Leave it to Tolkien, though – linguist nerd extraordinaire – to use a scene of manuscript deciphering as his key tool in building narrative tension. The entire scene of Gandalf reading from the Book of Mazarbul is fantastic:

We drove out orcs from the great gate and guard – I think; the next word is blurred and burned: probably room – we slew many in the bright – I think – sun in the dale. Floi was killed by an arrow. He slew the great. Then there is a blur followed by Floi under grass near Mirror mere. The next line or two I cannot read. Then comes We have taken the twentyfirst hall of North end to dwell in. There is I cannot read what. A shaft is mentioned. Then Balin has set up his seat in the Chamber of Mazarbul.

Prop department, please. This is entirely legible and needs much more dried blood.

Maybe it’s because I’m a history nerd myself, but this is already really evocative storytelling. The poor quality of the manuscript transforms a scene that could have been fairly standard backstory into an odd, dreamlike sequence. The gaps in the narrative change the story into a collected burst of images (note that Tolkien includes a location in these excerpts, and often a word like “bright” or “grass” that allows the reader to form a quick mental picture of what was occurring). After pages and pages of walking through the dark, it’s jarring to suddenly come across bright sun, green grass, and the memories of other people. It’s like getting a sudden set of snapshots from someone else’s memories.

We cannot get out. We cannot get out. They have taken the Bridge and second hall. Frar and Loni and Nali 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 Oin. 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.

This is so good, guys. It’s the linguistic equivalent of a horror movie, all packed into a couple of sentences. It’s such a short, efficient way to convey a pervasive sense of claustrophobia and doom.

Let’s take a look at the first part, sandwiched between the first two instances of “we cannot get out” and the third. There’s not a lot of information that’s covered:

  1. We cannot get out
  2. They have taken the bridge and the second hall
  3. Frar and Loni and Nali fell there
  4. 5 days ago
  5. The pool is up to the wall at Westgate
  6. The Watcher in the Water took Oin
  7. We cannot get out

The first two iterations of “we cannot get out” instill a sense of claustrophobia and dread: the sort of panic that sets in when you can feel that danger is imminent and something, anything has to be done. But the centerpiece of this text is that any attempt to escape inevitably leads to failure (and disaster).  The bridge and second hall are taken; the pool is blocking escape through the Westgate. All attempts to get out are blocked, and all attempts lead to violence and terror and loss.  It gives the reader the brief, stark evocation of frantically running in all directions for an exit, but finding nowhere to go. And then, to close off the loop, one more evocation of “we cannot get out.” This time with less panic, more certainty.

The rest of the narrative just sits still. There’s no longer an attempt to escape. Just waiting: drums in the deep followed by “they are coming.”


The Balrog

Of course, all of this only works because when we do finally see what the Fellowship – Gandalf, really – is up against, it does not disappoint. The Balrog is scary. And the scene at the Bridge is wonderful: stark and compelling.

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.
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 had was a blade like a stabbing tongue of fire; in its left it held a whip of many thongs.

Balrogs, for those of us not overly steeped in Silmarillion lore, are corrupted Maiar (the less-powerful of Tolkien’s immortal beings). They could (and did) take on many forms and had various strengths and weaknesses but are in many ways analogous to angels. And that’s what makes Tolkien’s balrog so scary to me. This isn’t some gigantic fire monster, bellowing and bashing pillars. Instead it’s a lithe, demonic creature, wreathing itself in fire and emanating an ambiguous sort of terror. Tolkien’s language surrounding the Balrog even has a Biblical lilt. I’m not a theology expert but “a power and terror seemed to be in it and go before it” seems to have a very biblical cadence. It’s a nifty way to add immediate gravitas and weight to the scene. And once again, like the rest of Tolkien’s depictions of power, the Balrog’s might is mostly implied rather than apparent.

The Balrog made no answer. The fire seemed to die, but the darkness grew. It stepped forward slowly onto the bridge, and suddenly it drew itself up to a great height, and its winds 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 relationship between Gandalf and the Balrog also strengthens the scene on the Bridge. For all their physical differences, they also share similarities. Both are Maiar (though working for different sides), and both are heavily associated with fire. Gandalf is carrying one of the three Elven Rings – Narya, tied to fire. He’s known in the Shire largely for his fireworks. And Tolkien himself said Gandalf’s personality was intentionally inspired by fire:

Warm and eager was his spirit (and it was enhanced by the ring Narya), for he was the Enemy of Sauron, opposing the fire that devours and wastes with the fire that kindles, and succours in wanhope and distress; but his joy, and his swift wrath, were veiled in garments grey as ash, so that only those that knew him well glimpsed the flame that was within.

Tolkien never takes it quite this far, but in some ways Gandalf is fighting against a dark, inverse image of himself.

Ian McKellen is such a treasure.
Ian McKellen is such a treasure.

Final Comments

  • How big are Balrogs? Do they have wings? Does it matter? Argue away in the comments (for the record I tend to think: not that big, no, and not really but have fun?).
  • Considering that this is a short chapter and so much happens, there are still a lot of good character moments. I liked that while Aragorn and Boromir were ready to stand by Gandalf and fight the Balrog, Legolas and Gimli were paralyzed by fear. It nicely highlights the different histories of these characters as well as highlighting how scary this creature is. Of course the Elf and the Dwarf, who know very well what a Balrog is and is capable of, would be terrified.
  • I also liked Gimli’s moment of refusing to leave Balin’s tomb despite it being overrun by orcs. Legolas drags him away, which I think is maybe the first explicit indication of their future friendship.
  • The orc chieftain, much like the Watcher in the Water, goes after Frodo first. I’m not sure how much to make of this, though I’m tempted to chalk it up to chance.
  • Bye, Gandalf! I will very much miss you for the rest of the book and look forward to seeing you again sometime in 2017.
  • Can we talk briefly about how this chapter ends? It’s amazing. “Dark yawned the archway of the Gates under the mountain-shadow. Faint and far beneath the earth rolled the slow drum-beats: doom. A thin black smoke trailed out. Nothing else was to be seen; the dale all around was empty. 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. UGH. I don’t know how Tolkien pulls it off. His onomatopoeia work is so spot on – from what I remember he also uses it to excellent effect at the end of The Two Towers.
  • Another good example of Tolkien’s use of sound comes from the description of orcish laughter. “There was a rush of hoarse laughter, like the fall of sliding stones into a pit.” Outside of a rather lackluster description of the attacking orc chieftain we get very little about how the orcs look. I think this works well – it’s much scarier to imagine an unseen hoard that laughs like rocks falling into a pit.
  • Prose Prize: My favorite is the passage describing the Balrog and Gandalf as a tree before the storm. But to offer something different, I also liked the description of a hall in Moria, ominously lit by firelight. “Down the center stalked a double line of towering pillars. They were carved like boles of mighty trees whose boughs upheld the roof with a branching tracery of stone. Their stems were smooth and black, but a red glow was darkly mirrored in their sides.”

Images courtesy of New Line Cinema and: The cover”Gandalf and the Balrog”, by El Bardo; The stained-glass style picture of the scene on the Bridge “You Cannot Pass,” by Jian Guo; and “The Balrog of Moria” by Marvin Herbring.

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