Only Seven Balrogs
I’m writing this because I know people might argue what I was talking about in my last post, in that I’m completely wrong or mistaken because there were a ton of Balrogs and way more than two were killed pre-LotR and “just look at the early writings!” Obviously, what I have to say is in adherence with Tolkien’s statement that “There should not be supposed more than say 3 or at most 7 ever existed.” [HoME Annals of Aman, section 2 X.80]
When dealing with earlier canon and determining if it’s legit or not, I follow a simple rule: if it’s contradicted by later canon, or if Tolkien outright dismisses or changes it, then it’s no longer viable. Believe me, if early canons weren’t overthrown by the later, more established canon, the earlier battle of Utumno would be hardcore canon for me through and through. Along with the original conversation between Thingol and Beren, to name a few (especially the original conversation between those two). But they’re not, because Tolkien revised them and made new decisions about them.
Arda originally had a very different shape and structure, but that was changed. Beren was an Elf, but that was changed. Mermaids, however, which can be found in the early writings, were never contradicted or dismissed and so I still believe they exist in Arda. In the early writings it was said that Melkor ripped the wings off Eagles when they wouldn’t tell him what he wanted, and since nothing contrary was ever later written, that specific canon is still canon to me. Hence why, in my Glorfindel essay, even though his duel with the Balrog is in those early writings, I still consider it legitimate canon because there’s nothing to contradict it (indeed, his slaying a Balrog carried on into the later lore). Determining what to use from the early mythology can be very difficult precisely because not every thing was rejected.
But Tolkien’s Balrogs cannot claim the same stability in the lore as Glorfindel’s story.
For one, those who study the lore will have noticed how the actual number of Balrogs fluctuated and decreased as Tolkien’s conception of his world evolved. Secondly, those earlier Balrogs weren’t even Maiar (so if we’re to accept the idea of the Balrogs being numerous as canon, shouldn’t we also accept that they’re not Maiar, just another type of creature Morgoth created?). In the early writings, there were hundreds of Balrogs and in other accounts, they numbered in the thousands and people were killing them left and right (Ecthelion being one of those people, along with Tuor).
But in the “finalized” lore, if you will (namely the time of the published Silmarillion), the Balrogs were no longer creations of Morgoth, but Umaiar and far more powerful and dangerous and destructive. And so that’s why it becomes much more impressive that Glorfindel and Ecthelion both slew a Balrog each, why their notoriety and praise is as great as it is.
I accepted Tolkien’s later statement(s) about the Balrogs on their own, but those rather large revisions made to the Balrogs themselves also convinced me that limiting the number to seven or to at least a very small amount was certainly Tolkien’s last intention regarding those demons.
Because here’s the rub: I don’t personally believe there were only seven Balrogs. As in, only seven Balrogs ever. Even though Tolkien uses that word “ever”, but I’m inclined to believe that’s from Elven perception (I’ll address that in a moment). I don’t really believe there were thousands or even hundreds, but certainly dozens before the construction of Arda began. Or maybe there were hundreds, I don’t know (the host of Maiar coming into Ea was never numbered). But I like to believe that the Valar/Maiar defeated those numerous Balrogs before the Awakening of the Elves. The Wars of the Valar lasted thousands upon thousands upon thousands of years, and I find it highly believable that those Balrogs were battling against the Ainur alongside Melkor and that the majority of them were defeated. And that those remaining seven or dozen or whatever escaped into the World no less than Sauron did (twice) where they then fell asleep for like five Ages.
That’s why, in my post, I said there were “only seven Balrogs”, in that at the very least, Elves/Men/Dwarves only knew of the existence of seven of them. They were only aware of seven. Only seven were ever seen, that kind of thing. I mean, it doesn’t explicitly say that all the remaining Balrogs awoke at Melkor’s call. Some could in fact still be sleeping! (that certainly seemed to be the case for the Balrog in Moria lol) So no, I don’t believe that there were only ever seven Balrogs or that only seven remained in Arda (I’d say a dozen, maybe two at most). But that only seven took part in Morgoth’s siege of Beleriand? Yes. That I believe. Maybe only seven woke up at Melkor’s scream.
The reason I said I suspect it might be from Elven perception is simply me accounting for the bias/limited perspective the history was written with. That, and Tolkien also talks a little bit later about the Maiar who followed Melkor and those who became Balrogs, and those Maiar were more than a few:
“For of the Maiar many were drawn to his splendour in the days of his greatness, and remained in that allegiance down into his darkness”
Tolkien then made an additional note, consisting of:
“These were the (ealar) spirits who first adhered to him in the days of his splendour, and became most like him in his corruption [Tolkien then proceeds on to name and describe the Balrogs]”
That’s why I suspect there were more Balrogs than seven, because the subject of all this is the Balrogs and the mention of the Maiar and their corruption were listed as being “many”. Thus, why I partly think many Balrogs did actually exist in the beginning but were defeated until only seven remained at the time of the Awakening of the Elves, when the Children’s own timeline began.
However, I could be and am possibly very wrong and we should be taking Tolkien’s use of “ever” literally since it is in fact a footnote that was written by him and not Pengolodh. And it does make sense if there truly were only ever seven. Taking into account how unique Balrogs were based on what Tolkien later wrote (most noticeably in The Later Quenta Silmarillion (I) MR.165 §18, where those quotes above comes from), I can’t think of a good reason not to take Tolkien literally with that. Though Melkor corrupted others into his service and “bred many other monsters” after indwelling Arda, the Balrogs were ever Melkor’s greatest “weapon” (or of his greatest) and like in many military ventures, the greater or more valuable something is, the less there is of it.
To go on a small tangent, part of me theorizes that those hundreds of monsters were renamed to what was conceived in the later lore as the Boldogs:
“the name of a kind of creature: the Orc-formed Maiar, only less formidable than the Balrogs[…]Morgoth had many servants, the oldest and most potent of whom were immortal, belonging indeed in their beginning to the Maiar; and these evil spirits like their Master could take on visible forms. Those whose business it was to direct Orcs often took Orkish shapes, though they were greater and more terrible.” [HoME Myths Transformed X.418]
Their description certainly fits the earlier stature of the Balrogs. Boldogs are canon and their numbers aren’t given, so maybe that’s where that big number of monsters went? This is only a theory, and one I don’t fully commit to.
By all means, everyone believe what he or she chooses! I know in the end, nothing in the lore is 100% concrete (thanks a lot, Tolkien), but I’m just trying to explain where I’m coming from and my thought process behind this. I’ve studied the lore and its infuriating contradictions so much that, for the sake of writing fanfiction and metas and hcs and stuff, I finally just developed that rule, which has so far stood the test of time, at least for me.