“You Cannot Pass.” Gandalf Confronts The Balrog at The Bridge of Khazad-dûm.

The Fellowship of the Ring by J.R.R Tolkien (Harper Collins 1991) pp.310-323

At the end of their journey through Moria the Company are pursued by orcs and trolls and then, worst of all, by a Balrog, one of the most terrible servants of Morgoth, a survivor of the Elder Days, that had hid from the wrath of the Valar in the depths of the Misty Mountains until it was disturbed by dwarves delving ever deeper in search of mithril in the Mines of Moria. For this is Durin’s Bane. This is why the dwarves have always failed to return to their ancient kingdom and why Balin and his companions had finally fallen after early success in their attempt to regain their ancestral home.

Not knowing the true identity of his foe Gandalf has attempted to turn back its power and has exhausted himself in the process. Now he stands alone on the Bridge of Khazad-dûm knowing that unless he overthrows his enemy the Quest of the Ring and the lives of all the Fellowship are at an end.

“The Balrog reached the bridge. Gandalf stood in the middle of the span, leaning on the staff in his left hand, but in his other hand Glamdring gleamed cold and white. His enemy halted again, facing him, and the shadow about it reached out like two vast wings. It raised the whip, and the thongs whined and cracked. Fire came from its nostrils. But Gandalf stood firm.”

Alan Lee depicts the battle on the Bridge of Khazad-dûm. Note how all the light comes from Gandalf and not from the Balrog.

It is at this moment of crisis, of deepest need, that Gandalf reaches down into the innermost depths of his being, of his soul, there to find his true self.

“‘You cannot pass,’ he said. The orcs stood still, and a dead silence fell. ‘I am a servant of the Secret Fire, wielder of the flame of Anor. You cannot pass. The dark fire will not avail you, flame of Udûn. Go back to the Shadow! You cannot pass.'”

Those who are careful readers of Tolkien will have become used to certain aspects of his style as a writer. Things such as the way that he uses capital letters in certain nouns and his use of exclamation marks. They will notice that the sentence, “You cannot pass”, does not end with an exclamation mark neither at the moment when Gandalf first speaks to the Balrog nor when he repeats these words. In other words Gandalf does not shout. This is not a challenge of a warrior to his foe. It is a simple statement of reality.

The reality is that of the world in which Gandalf and the Balrog both stand. The Balrog is, even in its terrible power, a creature of the shadow, not of the flame in whose light all the works of evil are no more than shadow, even its fire. In his excellent study of the spiritual vision of J.R.R Tolkien, Stratford Caldecott describes the Secret Fire, “the flame of Anor” as “Tolkien’s term for the distinctive creative power of Eru. It is God’s ‘secret’, for only God can truly create ex nihilo (from nothing). For Tolkien the fire represents life, love and creativity, the wisdom and love of God that burns at the heart of the world and sustains it in existence- it is a willed emanation from the creative energy of God’s own self; it is the life of God shared with the world” (Secret Fire by Stratford Caldecott, Darton, Longman and Todd, 2003, p107).

Anna Kulisz wonderfully imagines the Ainulindalë and the Secret Fire at its heart.

This is what Gandalf serves, what Morgoth lusted after in order to possess for himself but could never attain except as a gift freely offered by Eru to all who, like Gandalf, offer their lives in free service to him. Morgoth and his terrible servants, like the Balrog and like Sauron himself, could never possess the fire because they could never serve. The fire that they wield is mere shadow and it is to the Shadow that Durin’s Bane must return. It cannot pass.

Tolkien expresses this wonderfully as the Balrog responds to Gandalf’s words. “The fire in it seemed to die, but the darkness grew.” And so begins their mighty struggle upon the Bridge of Khazad-dûm to which I will return next week.

Gandalf Gives Light in the Dark of Moria. Matt Stewart’s fine depiction of the Servant of the Secret Fire.

9 thoughts on ““You Cannot Pass.” Gandalf Confronts The Balrog at The Bridge of Khazad-dûm.

  1. That “but” in “but the darkness grew” always baffled me. If Tolkien were talking about actual flames and darkness, the word would have been “and”, I think. This is a good shot at figuring out what is really going on, after the fire-metaphor breaks down.

    • Thanks, Jo. As so often in my reflections, having a good shot at figuring something out is what I am trying to do. A kind of conversation starter. The thought was new to me based upon Stratford Caldecott’s reflection on the Secret Fire.

    • Many thanks, Tom. I had Ian Mckellen’s exclamation mark in mind as I re-read the passage, noting for the first time their absence in Tolkien’s original text. Except for “Go back to the Shadow!” That is a word of command. Similar, perhaps, to Tom Bombadil’s command to the Barrow Wight.

  2. Excellent point, about the lack of exclamation marks. Ian McKellen is great in that scene, but I think you’ve identified a quieter spiritual layer here. It seems that Tolkien had less of a warrior-interpretation, or vision, when crafting this episode.

    • I cannot blame Peter Jackson for his direction in this scene. I suspect that I would have done it his way myself and it was very powerful. I have been reading LOTR for over 50 years now and this is the first time that I have really seen this.

  3. Interesting to compare the confrontation of Gandalf with the Lord of the Nazgul at the Gate of Minas Tirith. It’s all a series of exclamation marks.

    “‘You cannot enter here,’ said Gandalf, and the huge shadow halted. ‘Go back to the abyss prepared for you! Go back! Fall into the nothingness that awaits you and your Master. Go!’”

    But then the Witch-King answers him in the same tone:

    “‘Old fool!’ he said. ‘Old fool! This is my hour. Do you not know Death when you see it? Die now and curse in vain!’ And with that he lifted high his sword and flames ran down the blade.”

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