Arguments from absence

Discussion in 'Questions for Narnion' started by Jonathan Cassels, Mar 28, 2018.

  1. I'm a few classes behind, but just got to the discussion criticizing "arguments from absence" and I have a brief question:

    Is there any support for the notion that Balrogs don't have wings which doesn't rely on an argument from absence?

    (I'll be caught up in a couple more days, and look forward to contributing to our discussion in productive ways. In the mean-time, I hope my mild trolling made you laugh :) )
    JJ48 likes this.
  2. Corey Olsen

    Corey Olsen Administrator Staff Member

    Yes. The presence of Balrogs frequently plummeting to their deaths is one. ;)
  3. The Balrog Gandalf fought survived its fall...

    My first post was a joke... but thinking critically about your answer has actually half convinced me that they could have wings.

    Wings would explain why the Balrog Glorfindel cast off a precipice died, but the one Gandalf cast off a precipice didn't. The wings don't allow the Balrog to fly, but they serve a purpose similar to a Barnacle gosling... slowing it just enough to have a chance at surviving but not giving it enough control to guarantee it.

    Can we think of a better explanation for why the two Balrogs would suffer different outcomes from virtually the same circumstance? If not...

    ... Oh no Corey... what have you done? (And you've only got like 18 months to come up with an answer before we reach the Bridge of Khazad-dûm, and I legitimately ask the question!)
  4. Darren Grey

    Darren Grey New Member

    Durin's Bane finally died when it was cast off a mountain top by Gandalf, same as Glorfindel's balrog (and Ecthelion's, I think?)

    I don't think surviving the initial drop from the bridge is evidence in support of wings, since Gandalf survives the same drop. Unless you think Gandalf had a secret wing glider on him?

    The other argument from text for them not having wings is it's stated that Morgoth had no mastery of the skies until Ancalagon the Black.

    Arguments for wings tend to involve ignoring the text and throwing in a dash of imagination - not a good basis for interpreting the text, in my opinion.
  5. Let's not get ahead of ourselves, and let's be careful about what the text actually says.

    I don't think Gandalf just pushed the Balrog off the top of Celebdil, and that the fall killed it. The moment Gandalf kills his Balrog is described like this: "I threw down my enemy, and he fell from the high place and broke the mountain-side where he smote it in his ruin". I think "threw down his enemy" is a poetic way of saying "Slay his enemy", and "in ruin" means "in his death". So, the phrase could read "I slay my enemy, and he fell from the high place and broke upon the mountain-side where he smote it in his death". Gandalf kills the Balrog, and it falls as a result of being dead.

    Tolkien uses "threw down" poetically like this in the battle of pelennor fields: "Right through the press drove Théoden Thengel’s son, and his spear was shivered as he threw down their chieftain" (RoTK, Chapter 6). And he describes both Smaug and Ancalagon the Black as falling in their ruin after they were killed. So it's not a stretch to think he's using this language the same way here.

    I'll admit that it's possible to interpret this passage the way you did. But given how this language is used elsewhere, and the fact that the Balrog just survived a far larger fall (whatever the explanation), I think it's way more likely that Gandalf killed it, then it fell. But, even if I'm wrong, the Balrog still survived that initial fall. A fall extremely similar to that which killed Glorfindel's Balrog. Why the different outcome? Non-flight capable wings, like a Barnacle gosling's (who sometimes survive their initial fall from their nest, but often don't) is a plausible explanation.

    He totally would have! The Balrog itself would have been his "glider". We know for a fact that the Balrog wrapped its whip around Gandalf as he initially fell ("But even as it fell it swung its whip, and the thongs lashed and curled about the wizard's knees" (TFoTR Chapter 5)). We know that Gandalf was in close proximity to the Balrog as he fell ("Long I fell, and he fell with me. His fire was about me. I was burned" (TTT, Chapter 5)). And we know they continued to clutch at one another after they reached the bottom "Ever he clutched me, and ever I hewed him" (TTT, Chapter 5). It does not, at all, seem to be a stretch that they were entangled/gripping one another as they fell and whatever mechanism the Balrog used to slow its fall to a survivable pace also slowed Gandalf.

    I'm arguing for wings not flight.

    I stand by what I said. The arguments against wings are all arguments from absence. And wings explain the events described better than any explanation I can think of. That's obviously a weak argument. But I think "Wings explain the events we see" is actually a stronger argument than the argument from absence "They're never explicitly described, so they don't exist". As I said, if someone can come up with another plausible explanation for why Glorfindel's Balrog is killed by a fall, while Gandalf's isn't, that tears this to shreds. But the only other explanation I can think of is "some unknown magic did it"... which is both unsatisfying and dull (and has just as little textual evidence as wings).
  6. JJ48

    JJ48 Member

    Everyone who argues against Balrog wings seems to fall into the trap of assuming there are only two possible reasons for them having wings. The argument usually goes something like, "Balrogs can't fly (numerous references), so therefore they don't have functional wings. But Balrogs also don't reproduce biologically, therefore they don't have vestigial wings (which would also imply that they had functional wings at one point."

    However, this ignores a third, much more likely possibility: Balrog wings are cosmetic! Even those who claim Balrogs have no wings admit that they look cooler with them. Assuming Balrogs have any control whatsoever of the shadowy stuffs surrounding them, and assuming that at some point Morgoth or the Balrogs themselves realized they looked cooler with wings, it only makes sense that they would fashion shadowy wings for themselves to look more impressive and imposing. The fact that such wings wouldn't allow them to fly is meaningless when the primary purpose is intimidation.

    Also, it would be perfectly in keeping with the twisted, lying nature of Evil to have a creature with appendages normally associated with flight, but which cannot fly and instead uses those appendages strictly for fear.
  7. amysrevenge

    amysrevenge Well-Known Member

    Let's also look for positive evidence that Balrogs only have one head. And that Gandalf has two rather than five legs. It's probably there, but without textual support, it's just an assumption.

  8. Jim Deutch

    Jim Deutch Member

    Silly thread! ;)

    The only shred of evidence for wings is in The Bridge of Kazad Dum. I like the rebuttal: "Tolkien was a professor of English! To suggest he used simile then switched to being literal with the same word is ludicrous!"
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  9. JJ48

    JJ48 Member

    We still haven't answered, do Balrogs have any control over the shadow that cloaks them? Can they manipulate it or shape it intentionally?
  10. Harnuth

    Harnuth Member

    I knew it! Hobbits have wings!
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  11. The_Singing_Fox

    The_Singing_Fox New Member

    The text says:
    To me this sudden change from fire to shadow sounds quite intentional, and as Gandalf can control light and shadow, as seen in chapter one (Gandalf the Grey not yet uncloaked), I would guess that the Balrog is quite capable of it as well. These "wings of shadow" could, however, only be called "wings" in a metaphorical expression.
  12. JJ48

    JJ48 Member

    I guess we need to define what we mean by "wings", then. If I went to Comic-Con and saw a man cosplaying as Archangel, would it be incorrect for me to say I had seen a man with wings?
  13. amysrevenge

    amysrevenge Well-Known Member

    I think saying, without context, "I saw a winged man" would be technically correct but so misleading as to be a functional lie.

    With the costume/inoperative context added in it is both true and accurate.
  14. Lincoln Alpern

    Lincoln Alpern Active Member

    Yeah, I've always been slightly irked that Corey invokes these arguments to establish that Balrogs absolutely cannot have wings. (I should probably be more charitable, I'm sure he's quite sick of fielding that question by now.)

    I haven't read the passages carefully enough to wonder about the difference between Gandalf's Balrog and Glorfindel's (if you get the kill credit on the monster we get to name it after you - that's how this works, right?); perhaps it's due to a misunderstanding on the part of the Silmarillion's translator, or LotR's.

    In any case, I don't think Balrogs with gliding wings, or cosmetic wings, or wings that help them with balance somehow (my personal pet theory) are likely in Middle-earth. I think it's very likely they just don't have wings - except, as discussed above, metaphorically - but I also don't think we can definitively, 100% rule out the possibility based on the text. Perhaps had Tolkien survived longer and seen what long, involved arguments have sprung from what is, most likely, a silly but understandable misreading of the text, he would have clarified somewhere.
  15. Jim Deutch

    Jim Deutch Member

    I have another instance of argument from absence, and I think it's more compelling than the balrog wings controversy, if only because it's new -- at least to me -- and hasn't been discussed to death already.

    In class, Corey has said that Bree is literally thousands of years old. The book tells us that the Butterburs have been proprietors of The Prancing Pony since "time out of mind", and if this is to continue, Barliman Butterbur obviously must have progeny of his own. Or at least there must be another branch of the family that can continue the proprietorship. And Gandalf calls him "old Barley", so we can guess that he's not a youngster anymore. But we are never told of his having a wife, or a child, or indeed any relations at all.
    • If he had a child old enough to reach the tables, surely he or she would be working the common room. No mention.
    • Seems likely that if he had a wife, she would be in evidence as well. No mention.
    • If he were a confirmed bachelor, he should be training up a nephew or something. No mention.
    • When he tells the hobbits to ring for Nob, or ring and shout, he doesn't add anything about calling any other name.
    Is Barliman the last of the Butterburs????

    The mind boggles.
  16. amysrevenge

    amysrevenge Well-Known Member

    All sorts of absences of that sort. Does Sam have a living mother? Almost certainly not, but only because of some pretty conspicuous absences (unless there's positive evidence of the late Mrs. Gamgee that I have forgotten).
  17. Jim Deutch

    Jim Deutch Member

    I guess I just can't refrain from sarcasm in this balrog's wings thread. It's a weakness of mine.

    The most egregious absence -- if it weren't for the fact that it is absent in the vast majority of all literature -- is that there is no evidence in the book for the functions of bodily elimination. Hobbits don't poop!
  18. NotACat

    NotACat Active Member

    I always figured that since Nob is a Hobbit, he is the member of staff who caters to Hobbit customers.

    We don't know anything about back-room/kitchen staff at the Prancing Pony, doesn't mean they don't exist: somebody had to cook that supper.
  19. Darren Grey

    Darren Grey New Member

    Linking with the "is Bob human" theory, maybe Bob's Barley's son? "Bob Butterbur" has a nice ring to it.

    It's also possible that the line of succession isn't a smooth one, with it being transferred to nephews or cousins who have or adopt the Butterbur name. The Numenorian line has a few instances of this, why not lesser lines too?

    Or, indeed, as NotACat says there could be a son or daughter in the kitchen, or working other bits of the Pony. I fancy there should be a Barbara Butterbur somewhere.
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