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Balrog. Photo: Stine Netman - The National Museum of Denmark

Balrog - medieval monsters

Dwarves are not the only ones who live underground. In Tolkien’s universe, the Orcs and Mountain Trolls live inside the mountains. And older and more fearsome creatures live deep underground. In The Lord of the Rings, Gandalf the wizard fights a demon known as a Balrog. 

Tolkien’s Balrogs have their own mythology. In Tolkien’s Elvish language Sindarin, Balrog means “demon of might”. After Sauron, Balrogs were the most powerful and most terrifying of his servants. They are fire spirits, but also shrouded in darkness. Most of the Balrog died in the Great Battle, but a few survived by hiding in the depths. In the Third Age, one of Balrogs was discovered by the dwarves at the bottom of the Mithril seam in Khazad-dûm. It was the Balrog that Gandalf had fought and eventually defeated after ten days of fighting. 

But the Balrog has a clear predecessor in Norse literature in the form of fire-giant Surtr, which means “the black one” or “the swarthy one”. The giant is the master of fire and guardian of Muspelheim, a burning realm of fire, closely linked to the volcanic underworld. In 1963, a new island formed off Iceland following a volcanic eruption. It was named Surtsey meaning Surtr’s island. In Völuspá, we are told that Surtr is an evil creature. He comes from the south and is connected to fire. In VafϷrúðnismál (saga), it says that Surtr has to fight the gods and that Surtr uses fire as a weapon. At Ragnarok, Surtr will be surrounded by burning fire, and his sword will shine brighter than the sun. 

The Balrog is quite simply the fire giant Surtr. Both are creatures of the underworld and the dark, and at the same time fire monsters. They both carry fiery weapons – a fiery whip and a flaming sword respectively. Both will fight powerful people – Surtr, the gods and the Balrog, Gandalf the Grey.