A Balrog of Moria

The Riddle of Moria

The western gate of Moria opens a passage to the tomb of Balin, son of Fundin, the friend and companion of Bilbo Baggins on his adventure. By the tomb is a battered book, covered in dust. The inscription on the tomb and the writing in the book are runic, an elvish alphabet of inscription adopted by the dwarves (one of JRRT’s invented alphabets in contrast to the Anglo-Saxon runes of The Hobbit.

Composition of this vital passage of the story, which leads beyond the tomb of Balin to the Balrog, bane of both Durin and Gandalf the Grey, was composed in three stages. In the Foreword to the second edition of the new hobbit story Tolkien recalled a long halt at Balin’s tomb in the dark years of World War II. Christopher Tolkien corrects his father’s date (the half began at the close of 1939) and shows us precisely what happened:

7 entered Moria as Tolkien wrote the tale in late 1939, and 8 left when he continued the story in autumn of 1940.

Yet there is a third phase, when the meaning of the riddle on the Doors of Durin took on historical and thematic significance, and the Second Age came fully into imagination.

The 1940 writing has sorted out the backstory of the family of Elendil down to Aragorn (just told in an extension of the Council of Elrond) and Trotter the hobbit named Peregrin Boffin in 1939 is now Aragorn the heir of Eldenil, while the Fellowship as we know it has come into being with the addition of the dwarf Gimli and the elf Legolas. And the Council at Rivendell has also seen the mines that the dwarfs worked but did not live in become Moria, the original Dwarf Kingdom under the Mountain.

But the conception is not quite what we know.  In 1940 JRRT is still thinking the western border of Moria has two doors, and this is the elvish one. The Star of Fëanor has yet to appear on the door while the legend beneath the drawing of the Door transliterates into Roman letters “the elvish characters” rather than the Fëanorian letters. Celembrimbor was named already in 1939, but in 1940 there is as yet no hint that he was the grandson of Fëanor and the original Ring-maker. Likewise, in the story from Bag-end to the Doors of Durin as spruced up and expanded in summer 1940 before JRRT revises and continues his story, there is as yet not mention of the Elvish smiths of Eregion or Hollin. And while the Balrog is named ‘Durin’s bane’ it has yet to assume full significance as the cause of the end of this golden age of the dwarrowdelf.

Sowing the backstory of the exiles of Númenor, with Elrond at the Council telling how Elendil has founded the towers of Ond in the South (the land of Boromir) and the line of Isilur lost after the Last Alliance and the taking of the One Ring from the hand of Sauron, has set the new (and therefore the old) hobbit story in a Third Age of Middle-earth, with the story of Númenor (penned by JRRT in 1936 as the last myth of the elves) framing JRRT’s vision of the history of the Second Age in 1940. On the Doors of Durin we can see the two further strands that would soon be woven into the story of the exiles of Númenor to establish the mythical backstory of the legendary War of the Ring, namely the elvish War of the Rings and the dwarf-goblin wars that mysteriously turn on the awakening of the Balrog of Morgoth.

All this can be put neatly in terms of the riddle spelled by the elvish characters: in the manuscript composed in 1939 JRRT has written the riddle in the letters the invention of which he has already ascribed to Fëanor and described the door in the story through the words of Gandalf. But the “elvish characters” are used simply to allow JRRT to construct his new riddle – the riddle that the sequel will counterpose to the riddles in the dark underneath the mountain in the original: as the hobbits cannot read the interlacing letters, Gandalf reads them; but rather than simply read the sounds aloud – which would have opened the door – he translates them into English (the Common Tongue), thereby establishing the riddle:

Mellon, the elvish word, operates here as a password; while whatever password you choose likely has some (cryptic) association with your life, as a password it has no longer this meaning – it has the same meaning as Open sesame! Gandalf overlooks this meaning, missing it by translating the word as used in ordinary elvish speech, where it means friend.

In the third phase of imagination of the Doors of Durin, which is not given in the drafts provided by Christopher Tolkien but which, I am sure, dates to 1941 as JRRT got the story of the Rings of Power clear when writing the Lothlórien chapters, the meaning of the word in ordinary elvish speech introduces a second level of meaning to the riddle: friend speaks of the great deception Sauron practiced upon the elvish smiths of Eregion.


In 1939 JRRT wrote out on the page of his story the Fëanorian letters spelling the Sindarin words of the riddle, which is translated: Speak, friend, and enter. In 1940 he drew the door, with the emblems of Durin and below them Three Elf-Stars, which is how Gandalf describes the door in the story on these manuscript pages; but the drawing, it is shown, was subsequently revised so that two of the stars became the two trees of the High Elves, leaving one central star – the Star of Fëanor.

‘Treason of Isengard’. Revised version of first drawing of Moria gateway. Original drawing composed autumn 1940.

Ringlore and the history of Middle-earth are coming into being before our eyes. Only after passage through the Golden Wood did JRRT understand who had made the Three Rings of the Elves, and what significance was this event in the history of Arda. Only then did the name Celembrimbor, mentioned in the small line of inscriptions below the riddle in the first version, become linked in the ways we know to Fëanor (grandfather) and Sauron (false friend), and the riddle of the western gate take on the meaning of The Lord of the Rings.

Before 1941, perhaps the darkest year of World War II, the story of Moria was imagined as a mirror of the pivotal chapter of The Hobbit‘Riddles in the Dark’.




The Lord of the Rings was made in the Mines of Moria. The Balrog is the image around which a mirror of the original story of Bilbo Baggins became another echo of cosmic history and the true end to the Silmarillion.

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