Saturday, April 24, 2010

Wings or No Wings -- That Is Not the Question

God what an atrocious title.

Anyway, according to The Encyclopedia of Arda, this single question receives more user input than any other of the literally hundreds of entries on their site -- to such an extent that they have devoted several pages to the discussion of whether a Balrog has wings, whether they can fly (assuming they have wings), whether they can change shape and size at will (in order to accommodate both sides of the argument), etc. The subject has inspired scholarly essays, full-length book chapters, and a general feeling of chaos and uncertainty among Tolkien enthusiasts. If we don't know whether a Balrog has wings, then gosh darn, is there anything we can really know for sure about Middle-earth?

To start -- most coherent essays on this issue that I've read conclude that, based on painstakingly nit-picky considerations of what constitutes a metaphor, Balrogs probably don't have wings in the same sense as, say, the Great Eagles (see: deus ex machina), or the Nazgûl's flying beasts. To the No-Wings camp, this seems to justify the belief that Balrogs are utterly bereft of any sort of scary adornments attached to their backs, doomed to wander the darkened halls of Moria or Who-Knows-Where wearing an immortal sadface for their inability to take to the skies. (No-Wings folks don't seem to raise any stink about visualizations of Balrogs with tails, despite the fact that Tolkien never used the word "tail" in reference to them.)

But just like the camp that says they do indeed have actual, honest-to-goodness wings, that interpretation takes a flying leap in reaching its conclusion. One thing is (almost) certain: Balrogs don't fly. At least, we should assume this is true considering they fall to their deaths often enough that, if they could fly, they'd also have to be abysmally stupid (pun absolutely intended). But it is still entirely plausible that they might have wings, if only of a shadowy, ethereal sort. Why? Because they're servants of Morgoth, and as such, there's one thing they enjoy doing above almost anything else -- looking scary.

Think about the most descriptive passages concerning what may or may not be wings on a Balrog:

'His enemy halted again, facing him, and the shadow about it reached out like two vast wings.'
'...suddenly it drew itself up to a great height, and its wings were spread from wall to wall...'

The Fellowship of the Ring, II 5, "The Bridge of Khazad-dûm"

If Tolkien didn't want us to imagine the shadowy cloud of a Balrog as looking strikingly similar to wings, why would he use the word twice within a few paragraphs, and in the only real physical description of this creature? Shadowy and ethereal does not mean functional, but it does mean it'll be lookin mighty intimidating -- which, as I'm sure none will deny, is exactly what Tolkien's bad guys just loooove to do.

This argument has been made before -- i.e., "A Balrog can have wings if it wants to have wings, because it's a lesser god and they do what they want." Well... cosmetic, non-functional, scary-as-hell wings, definitely.

Further, let's think about Tolkien's use of his languages, as we always should. Their names in both Sindarin and Quenya mean "demon of power." How do most people in the western hemisphere imagine a demon? Granted, there are many, many possibilities -- even a cursory glance at Wikipedia's page on demons reveals "demonology" to be a massive and convoluted subject (almost certainly more so than Tolkienology). However, my guess would be that a majority of people would describe a large, man-like creature with beastly features, horns, and wings, à la Lucifer and many other Christian visualizations of fallen angels (which, by they way, is more or less what Balrogs are). Search Google Images and see what comes up.

To my extensive (but necessarily incomplete) knowledge, Tolkien does not use the morpheme for "demon," in any of his languages, to collectively describe a class of creatures other than Balrogs. "Orc" can also mean "demon" in his Elvish tongues, but it also carries other connotations, and as far as I can tell, "rog" in "Balrog" and "rauko" in "Valarauko" are not etymologically related to it. ("The word [orc] is, as far as I am concerned, actually derived from Old English orc 'demon', but only because of its phonetic suitability" -- the author, The Letters of J. R. R. Tolkien) Regarding his use of the morphemes "rog" and "rauko," though, this might be an indication that "demon" meant something fairly specific to him, especially considering that, despite being a devout Catholic and acknowledging The Lord of the Rings as a "fundamentally religious" work, he almost always avoided using words or concepts with any strong Christian connotations. Once the reader becomes aware of the meaning of the creature's name, it seems nearly unavoidable that many should imagine it with wings, or at the very least, extremely wing-like forms expanding behind it.

Fortunately for the casual fan, but unfortunately for us Wing-Agnostics, Tolkien was actively against forcing a single, particular meaning on the reader. His primary interest was to entertain with an enjoyable fantastical narrative, and he frequently indicated his displeasure with both over-analysis of a text to the point of meaninglessness ("He who breaks a thing to find out what it is has left the path of wisdom" -- Gandalf), and with the "tyranny" of authors who intentionally fashion a story so as to deny any freedom of interpretation. See The Letters of J. R. R. Tolkien for many examples of this sentiment, as well as the Foreword to The Lord of the Rings.

My final conclusion, then, is basically an altered version of an above statement: Balrogs (almost certainly) don't fly, but a Balrog can have wings if you want it to have wings, because Tolkien was an author who wanted you to enjoy the story to its fullest. My Balrogs have wings of shadow because I think they look more intimidating and evil that way, and that enhances my enjoyment of Tolkien's writing. Tolkien was vague about the appearance of Balrogs -- probably intentionally, what with the whole "cloaked in shadow" thing. It's a fact we should face with excitement rather than frustrated deliberation.

As of two days ago, I have a much more important question on my mind. Balrogs: hosts or a handful? The answer could change my visualization of an entire age of Middle-earth.

Monday, April 12, 2010

A Postcard from Middle-earth

So I haven't been around Sure as Shiretalk the last week or two, and I'll tell you why: over the weekend of March 27-28, The Lord of the Rings Online offered a $9.99 deal for the Mines of Moria and Siege of Mirkwood expansions plus 30 days of free play. So I've returned to Middle-earth in the guise of Haldaran Casarmacil, Protector of the Shire (I love the title system in LotRO). You'll be happy to know I've leveled up four times since then; I'm currently sitting about halfway to level 43.

What I love most about this game is how incredibly true to the novel it feels. I've played most of the LotR-based games out there, and most of them are forced to sacrifice much of the subtlety and restraint employed by Tolkien -- espeically regarding the use of "magic" -- in favor of, presumably, attracting and entertaining a wider audience than die-hard Tolkien fans (why this "wider audience" requires all that flashy Magic Missile bullshit to be adequately entertained is entirely beyond me). But if not for Gandalf very occasionally creating fire or lighting his staff up like a lamp, The Lord of the Rings would be basically devoid of overt displays of supernatural power. Most of Middle-earth's magic is in the land, in the creatures that inhabit it, and in the interactions between good and evil intentions -- most emphatically not at the end of a wand or the tip of somebody's fingers.

Unlike titles such as The Third Age (a Final Fantasy clone with flashy spells for every class) or The Two Towers/The Return of the King (aka Dynasty Warriors in Middle-earth), LotRO keeps the offensive magic and flashy sword-and-sorcery nonsense to the minimum necessary, and finds ways to work it into the game that effectively maintain Tolkien's vision. Players have Morale rather than Health; you retreat to a rally point rather than die and get resurrected. Consequently, your hitpoints are affected by abstract stimuli, most notably fear, as well as the common orc-sword. For example, should you encounter a great source of terror like a Ringwraith or a dragon, you take a noticeable hit to your total number of HP (which is then removed when you either defeat that enemy or remove yourself from its presence; there are of course many ways to partially/completely counteract these fear effects). Accordingly, then, the "healer" class is a Minstrel who keeps his/her allies in the fight by inspiring them instead of performing on-the-spot surgery and blood transfusions.

Beyond that, the storytelling also feels very Tolkienesque; although I'm sure his perfectionism would've found countless things to disagree with, the quests and "Epic" plotline feel close enough to his style and sensibilities that a Tolkien fanatic/purist like myself can really enjoy the feeling of (near) total immersion in Middle-earth and its cultures.

One final comment: I cannot express how beautiful and how detailed this game is. When I first started playing, I wandered off to Weathertop to check out the scenery, and when I got to the top, I checked for the rock with Gandalf's runes written on it. It's there. Even locations that Tolkien left with almost no descriptions are startlingly, awesomely depicted. My jaw dropped when I first set eyes on the massive tower of Annúminas on the shores of Lake Evendim; Rivendell nearly broke my heart with its autumnal splendor; the Shire is every bit as charming and peaceful as you'd expect it to be.

In other words, I love this game. It's a brilliant rendering of my favorite novel of all time.

Last comment: I've also loaded up the GoldenEye 007 again recently. God this game rocks my socks.