Why Didn’t the Eagles Take the Ring to Mordor?

lotr eagles memeThere’s been a rather silly meme going around on Facebook over the last few days that purports to offer an explanation (based entirely on the films) for why Gandalf didn’t simply call the Great Eagles in to carry the One Ring all the way from the Shire (or Rivendell) directly to Mount Doom.

There was a solid response on the Lord of the Rings subreddit by user Uluithiad that took the matter point by point.  It’s worth a read in its entirety, but to summarize, the points Uluithiad makes are:

  • Tolkien did not ignore or disregard the Eagles as a method of getting the Ring to Mordor; they were never a consideration for that task.  The books make clear that any open assault or entry into the Black Land would have been fruitless, as Sauron’s military might was too great.
  • Gwaihir (the lord of the Eagles) was already en route to bring news to Gandalf when he found that he needed rescuing on the pinnacle of Orthanc; Gandalf, Radagast, and Gwaihir had designed this plan previously.
  • The idea that the flying Nazgul were at all a consideration at this point in the story is simply wrong: Sauron had not yet revealed them; did not, in fact, until well after the Nine were first defeated at the Ford of Bruinen and the War of the Ring started in earnest.  The protagonists, Gandalf included, had no knowledge of the existence of the Nazgul’s flying mounts.
  • The idea that Saruman somehow caused the storms on Caradhras is an invention of the films; the snows they encounter on the Redhorn Pass are just that: snows.  There is some indication that the mountain itself might have it out for them, but Saruman was neither aware of their route nor responsible for slowing them with weather.
  • “Fly” simply means “flee.”

These are all excellent and accurate points, but I think there’s more to be said.

J.R.R. Tolkien was a man of faith–specifically, he was a Roman Catholic.  The themes and worldbuilding of his work reflect that viewpoint: the world of The Lord of the Rings, also known as Arda, is the creation of one true God known as Eru Illuvatar.  Many lesser powers (essentially, angelic beings) known as the Valar and the Maiar serve the One and act as local (for lack of a better term) “gods,” overseeing the unfolding of God’s Creation.  It was they who sent the Istari (the Wizards) to aid the peoples of Middle-Earth.

It would be a mistake to consider the question of the Eagles’ involvement with the Fellowship’s quest solely within the bounds of the immediate plot; there are higher-order reasons for why things happen in the story as they do.

First and foremost, Uluithiad is right to suggest that even if they were willing to do so, a plan based on the Eagles flying the One Ring into Morder simply wouldn’t have worked.  Sauron would likely have become aware of it almost immediately, and the idea that with all his power, both spiritual and physical, he couldn’t take down a few eagles is a bit silly.

But taking it from an entirely in-world standpoint, the meme-poster appears ignorant of the fact that Gwaihir (the Eagle who saved Gandalf) and his Eagles are servants of Manwe, High King of Arda, highest of the Valar, and lord of the air.  The Eagles are his creatures, essentially, and report to him directly, bringing him news from all parts of the world.

Which is to say, the Eagles are essentially divine messengers.  They’re servants of God (or servants of the servants of God, if you want to get technical).  They don’t often intervene directly because God and the Valar don’t often intervene directly.  Without getting into too much detail (you could, and Tolkien did, write several books on this subject alone), the Valar long ago left Middle-Earth to its own devices.  Sauron’s rise to power was in large part due to the aid and manipulation of Men and Elves, and the Valar figured that since they made their bed they could lie in it.  They didn’t leave them completely in the lurch–hence the wizards (Gandalf himself is, in truth, a Maia, one of the lower choirs of angelic beings)–but essentially, from the point of view of the Undying Lands (where the Valar dwell), Sauron was Middle-Earth’s problem.  Once the Ringbearer had completed his quest, the Eagles assisted Gandalf in saving Frodo and Sam from a fiery death.

This is consistent with the idea of agency, from a religious standpoint: God helps those who help themselves.  Mortal life, from a Christian perspective, is intended to be a learning experience.  Having God essentially do the hard part for you entirely misses the point.

Secondly, from a meta-textual point of view, the meme-poster also fails to recognize the author’s own insight and intentions into the Eagles and their purpose.

Tolkien was well aware that the Eagles were, in effect, a literary device; his collected letters contain references to this fact.  In a letter to Forrest J. Ackerman in June of 1958, in which Tolkien was commenting on a film treatment of The Lord of the Rings, he said:

The Eagles are a dangerous “machine.” I have used them sparingly, and that is the absolute limit of their credibility or usefulness.  The alighting of a Great Eagle of the Misty Mountains in the Shire is absurd; it also makes the later capture of G[andalf] by Saruman incredible, and spoils the account of his escape.

Apparently the film treatment, by a man named Morton Grady Zimmerman for an American film company interested in making an animated film of Rings, was not to Tolkien’s liking, for a variety of reasons that he enumerated in this letter.  One of those reasons was Zimmerman’s persistent over-use of the Eagles:

At the bottom of the page, the Eagles are again introduced.  I feel this to be a wholly unacceptable tampering with the tale. [Emphasis in the original.]  “Nine Walkers” and they immediately go up in the air!  The intrusion achieves nothing but incredibility, and the staling of the device of the Eagles when at last they are really needed.

If you read between the lines, it seems likely that the film company (whose treatment Tolkien referred to as treating his work “carelessly in general, in places recklessly, and with no evident signs of any appreciation of what it is all about….”) was asking the same question: why shouldn’t the Eagles take them the whole way, and why not rewrite it so that they do?

As we can see from his comments, Tolkien thought of the Eagles’ involvement in the story as being very limited.  He recognized them as a “machine,” and a “dangerous” one: meaning that he was aware of the potential for just this sort of speculation and had no patience for it.  His comment about an Eagle landing in the Shire indicates his in-world conception of the suggestion: to Tolkien, the idea of an Eagle of the Misty Mountains condescending to land in a place as foreign and simple as the Shire was ridiculous.  It seems that to him, the suggestion that the Eagles should serve as chauffeurs for the Fellowship was similar to suggesting that Gandalf ought to go around the Shire using his innate wizardly powers to light the hobbits’ hearth fires for them.

It’s dangerous, in general, to apply too much modern reasoning to The Lord of the Rings.  Not only is the work itself, in its published form, almost 60 years old, it was also deliberately created it in archaic form.  Tolkien’s stated intention in writing The Silmarillion and The Lord of the Rings was, in part, to bring an element of mythology to English history that he found lacking.  Growing up reading the Norse Eddas and such, Tolkien was disappointed in the comparative lack of English myth.  As such, he wrote The Lord of the Rings in the style of an epic saga, an ancient song or ballad: neither the pacing, the structure, or much of the story is intended in any way to be “real” or “believable” in the modern sense.  There’s a reason that he didn’t, for instance, intercut the point of view chapters in The Two Towers: because unlike a modern novel, he wasn’t interested in building false suspense in the same way.  He told Aragorn, Gimli, and Legolas’ story, then he told Frodo and Sam’s.  It was an accounting, a saga, a quest story, not a thriller.

Tolkien realized that the Eagles were, in effect, deus ex machina–almost literally–and he intended it that way.  Thematically speaking, it would be more correct to characterize the Eagles’ assistance in the beginning of the story as the kind of limited, non-interventionary guidance that the powers of the world were willing to give, and their rescue of Frodo and Sam at the very end as something of a divine reward for their struggle and self-sacrifice.

This is all academic, of course, as the poster clearly hasn’t read the books.  Read the books!

P.S.: All quotations are taken from The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, edited by Humphrey Carpenter, pp. 271-273.  I could spend hours citing each and every one of my other assertions regarding the world and characters of Tolkien’s Legendarium, but I don’t have that kind of time.  It’s all there for the finding if you look.


2 thoughts on “Why Didn’t the Eagles Take the Ring to Mordor?

  1. This question has been floating around in one form or another for years, usually attached to some form of, “but if they were willing to help AFTER…” This is the best discussion I’ve seen of it, and I especially like your idea of the rescue being a sort of reward. Helping them destroy the ring would have been outside their scope. Helping them afterward was just… nice.

    Also, divine though they may be, they’re physically vulnerable. I believe it’s said outright in The Hobbit that they’re not so into being shot with arrows, and that’s why they’re only willing to fly the dwarves and Bilbo so far. So as you say, the idea that Sauron couldn’t just have them shot down is a little silly.


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