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Eagles: Plot Hole or Plan?

One of the most common criticisms of the story in Lord of the Rings is as follows: “Why didn’t Gandalf and Frodo just fly the Eagles to Mordor?”

People who enjoy finding plot holes in books and movies like to point out that walking to Mordor was the most arduous, least practical way to get the Ring destroyed. (As Boromir pointed out, “one does not simply walk into Mordor.”) And Middle Earth has these convenient, huge flying creatures who are strong enough to carry a man for a long distance and happen to be friends with Gandalf. Why spend months getting pursued by evil minions, wearing out your hobbit feet and running out of supplies, when you could just call up the Eagles?

This seemingly obvious solution  to all the Fellowship’s problems has produced some amusing parodies, like this one from HISHE:

But in fact, as everyone who has read the books and Tolkien’s other works knows, the Eagles are not great big flying plot holes. Tolkien hated plot holes more than most fantasy writers, which is why it took him so long to write The Lord of the Rings in the first place. He worked over every single detail until it was just right, and the Eagles were far from an oversight. Here’s my take on why.

First of all, let’s get one thing straight. Riding the Eagles to Mordor would not have solved all of Frodo’s problems. It would still have taken a few days, at least, for the Eagles to get there from Rivendell, and they aren’t the only flying creatures in Middle Earth. The Nazgul would still be a threat. Remember, “wraiths with wings!” And once Frodo got to Mount Doom, he would still have the whole “letting go of the Ring” issue to deal with. Remember, only two people in the Ring’s history have given it up willingly, and it was a struggle for both of them, even with the help of Gandalf and hobbit-sense. One does not simply drop the Ring into Mount Doom.

Now let’s get a second thing straight: only people who saw the Lord of the Rings movies first think of the Eagles as a plot hole. That’s because the movies portray them basically as Gandalf’s pets. They come when he calls, they do whatever he needs them to do without hesitation, and they don’t even talk back.

Tolkien’s original portrayal of the Eagles is quite different. For one thing, they’re intelligent, not trained animals. They talk, and they even have their own society and leadership. They’re also consistently described (in The Hobbit) as “wild” creatures. They don’t answer to anyone except themselves. Gandalf actually asked, during Bilbo’s first encounter with the Eagles, whether they could fly him and the Dwarves over to the Lonely Mountain, and they said no! 

“The Lord of the Eagles would not take them anywhere near where men lived. ‘They would shoot at us with their great bows of yew,’ he said, ‘for they would think we were after their sheep. And at other times they would be right.'”

See? They’re just regular birds, not Southwest Airlines. One does not simply buy a ticket to ride an Eagle.

Of course, later in that book, the Eagles do swoop in to become the fifth contender in the Battle of the Five Armies, but that’s more because of their hatred for the Goblins than their love for any of the other armies. And they do become good friends with Gandalf, which is why Gwaihir, the Lord of the Eagles, is so willing to help him in The Lord of the Rings (though incidentally, Radagast and Galadriel, respectively, were the ones who asked for his help both times he came to the rescue, not Gandalf himself).

The Eagles show up in The Silmarillion and other writings, too, and they’re always unpredictable. No one ever expects them to show up, and no one asks for their help unless they’re already friends. They only come to the rescue when someone is in their most desperate need, and being threatened by something very evil. The Eagles don’t like Goblins or Balrogs or any creature of darkness, and they will fight them in a crisis (and they usually win). But the rest of the time, they steal sheep from farmers and mind their own business.

I actually think Tolkien was trying to do something very profound with the Eagles. They’re the personification of what he called the “eucatastrophe,” the unexpected happy ending brought about by something far beyond the heroes’ efforts. You could even look at them as a symbol of divine intervention–the unexpected grace that saves people when they seem to be far beyond saving.

However you look at the Eagles, they’re definitely much more than a feathery mode of transportation. Suggesting that the Fellowship ride them to Mordor is a bit cheap when you think about it. I’m pretty sure Gwaihir would be offended. And one does not simply offend the Lord of the Eagles.

And finally–The Lord of the Rings is a novel. It’s supposed to be entertaining. How boring would it be if Frodo had just hopped on an Eagle’s back and dropped the Ring in the Cracks of Doom? I can tell you one thing–they never would have made a movie out of it.



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