Almost no other issue in Tolkien history has been disputed as much as the question: 'Do Balrogs have wings?' Obviously, there is no good answer, or else it would not have been debated as hotly as it has been. Yet here, I seek to prove that in Tolkien's conception at least, Balrogs did not have wings. (Yes, I know they look cooler with them)
Here they are: The two statements that have caused more controversy than abortion:
"His enemy halted again, facing him, and the shadow about it reached out like two vast wings." (LoTR I: 5)
"...suddenly it drew itself up to a great height, and its wings were spread from wall to wall..." (ibid.)
First of all, what is the shadow Since it stretches, it's obviously not simply an area with lesser light, but a physical part of the Balrog. It can change shape, but it is a sort of 'dark aura' that surrounds the Balrog, almost like an infernal halo.
So what does this mean? Does this mean that the Balrog stretched its wings from wall to wall? Or does it mean the shadow, previously described as "two vast wings" stretched out? The Encyclopedia of Arda, from which I am getting the majority of my arguments, argues thus:
It's probable, though, that neither is explicitly correct: how you read the passage depends on what you already presume a Balrog to look like. We're not trying to prove anything at this point, just to show that the structure of the sentence will bear either interpretation. One way of doing this is to replace the disputed 'wings' with terms that have a more certain status.
Let's start with 'arms'. There's absolutely no question that Balrogs had arms - it's so obvious that it seems odd to even mention it. Now, imagine that Tolkien had written 'the shadow about it reached out like two vast arms'. That's still obviously a simile, just like the real text (1). If that's followed shortly afterwards by 'its arms were spread', it seems natural to read this second reference as referring to its real arms, not its shadow-arms, even though we've just been told that it had 'arms' of shadow. This is how the pro-wings faction sees the text, because they assume that Balrogs have real wings, just as unquestionably as real arms.
We can simulate the alternative view with 'tentacles'. There's absolutely no evidence for Balrog tentacles, and its safe to presume that they didn't form any part of a Balrog's anatomy. Once again, 'the shadow about it reached out like two vast tentacles' reads without a problem as a simile. Now, though, when it's followed by 'its tentacles were spread', the natural interpretation is slightly different. We know for sure that there are no 'real' Balrog tentacles, so the statement reads much more easily as referring back to the preceding simile: it must mean 'tentacles of shadow'. This is the anti-wings position: because they assume that Balrogs have no real wings, they naturally see 'its wings' as an extension of the earlier passage. (Encyclopedia of Arda, Balrogs)
Obviously, the argument that Tolkien deliberatly did not write 'the wings of shadow spread' or somesuch is nonsense. For example, take the quote:
"Gandalf came flying down the steps and fell to the ground in the midst of the Company" (LoTR I: 5)
Tolkien did not write 'Gandalf seemed to be flying down the steps', yet it is obvious that he did not really fly.
Now, let's ask the question, 'Could Balrogs fly?'. This really doesn't prove if they had wings or not, but it does lend a lot of support to a side depending on what can be proven. Let's look at this quote:
"Swiftly they arose, and they passed with winged speed over Hithlum, and they came to Lammoth as a tempest of fire." (MR: The Later Quenta Silmarillion: Of the Rape of the Silmarils)
Is this to be taken as proof that Tolkien imagined winged Balrogs? Not at all. It simply depends on your prior conception of Balrogs again. For instance, try substituting 'the horsemen' for 'they' and the sentence will still make perfect sense. Obviously, this proves nothing for the opposition.
Now, since, as supporters of wings claim, it's obvious that Balrogs have air-capable wings, they should be flying at every available opportunity right? Right? Wrong.
"Then with a rush it leaped across the fissure." (LoTR I: 5)
"It stepped forward slowly on to the bridge..." (ibid.)
Why would a creature capable of flying 'leap' accross a fissure and even bother with bridges? Furthermore, as Gandalf tells of his fight with the Balrog...
"I threw down my enemy, and he fell from the high place, and broke the mountain-side where he smote it in his ruin." (LoTR I: 5)
If the Balrog actually could fly, couldn't it save itself from 'ruin' by simply flapping its giant wings? The evidence seems overwhelming in favour of non-flying Balrogs.
Now, what about those wings? The chasm that the Fellowship stands in is repeatedly described as huge. In fact:
"Before them was another cavernous hall. It was loftier and far longer than the one in which they had slept."
"He turned left and sped across the smooth floor of the hall. The distance was greater than it had looked."
"...a slender bridge of stone, without kerb or rail, that spanned the chasm with one curving spring of fifty feet."
In other words, the distance from wall to wall must be at least a few hundered feet. For a Balrog of wings that size, it must be huge. Not just the size of a large human, but house-sized. Yet the Balrog is easily able to come into the door to the Chamber of Mazarbul. For instance, see:
"...orcs one after another leaped into the chamber." (LotR I: 5)
"... [They] clustered in the doorway." (LotR I: 5)
"the Balrog strode to the fissure, no more than man-high yet terror seemed to go before it." (TI: The Mines of Moria II: The Bridge)
In other words, the Balrog is probably the size of a large man, but certainly not on the building-sized scale that such a huge wingspan demands. Furthermore, it's ludicrous to suppose that Tolkien would have meant such a huge creature. He would undoubtedly have mentioned at least once that the Balrog was so big that the fellowship could easily pitch a tent and rest on its face. The conclusion seems inescapable -- whatever might be more pleasing to fantasy-lovers, Balrogs do not have wings. They're just too small.
99% of these arguments are from the Balrogs article at The Encyclopedia of Arda. (http://www.glyphweb.com/arda/). The kudos and credit belong to them. (Note, though, that this was not a cut-and-paste job.