Friday, September 20, 2013

Tolkien's Great Eagles

Gandalf rescued from Orthanc


Recently I've been pondering on the Great Eagles of Middle-earth, those divine birds who show up at the last minute to save our heroes from destruction, whether it be Bilbo and his dwarven friends in The Hobbit, Gandalf atop Orthanc in The Fellowship of the Ring and after his battle with the Balrog, or Frodo and Sam in The Return of the King. The existence of the Eagles raises many questions, particularly:

1. Why would Tolkien use such a deus ex machina, and multiple times?

2. Why couldn't the Eagles simply fly Bilbo and the dwarves to the Lonely Mountain, or Frodo and Sam to Orodruin?

But before we can explore these questions, some definitions are in order.

First, deus ex machina. It's Latin for "god from the machine," and the term comes from Greek and Roman theater. A deus ex machina is "a person or thing (as in fiction or drama) that appears or is introduced suddenly and unexpectedly and provides a contrived solution to an apparently insoluble difficulty."

"The Lord of the Eagles" by Darrell Sweet
The first time the Eagles appear in Tolkien's literature, in terms of publishing chronology, is in The Hobbit. Here we see the greatest divide between book and film. In the book, the Eagles suddenly save Bilbo and the dwarves from a band of goblins who are attempting to burn and smoke the heroes out, but this happens at around the 35 percent point of the story. By the time the heroes move on from the Eagle nest, we've nearly forgotten the deus ex machina. The book moves on. The film version has no such luxury, since the heroes are saved by the Eagles at the final climax, and we must wait until the next film for the story to move on. Of course, the viewer has seen the Eagles before in The Lord of the Rings, since this film is cinematically a prequel, but ending one episode of the story in such a way is still irksome to many viewers.

Additionally, I don't believe the Eagles function as a complete deus ex machina in The Return of the King. At least not in the same way they are used in The Hobbit. I say "complete" because, while the Eagles do save Frodo and Sam from a fiery death rather suddenly, this is frustrating because of question 2 above, not because the Eagles resolve the main plot, which they don't. The question was: why couldn't the Eagles have flown Frodo to Mt. Doom in the first place? More on that question later. I also think the Eagles in The Return of the King are not a frustrating deus ex machina because we've encountered them before. Their existence has been set up, therefore they don't fly completely out of the blue.

The second necessary definition: the Great Eagles. Not much exposition is given on them in the films. You could read the Lord of the Rings wiki definition, but there's a lot of Tolkienese. Essentially, the Eagles of Manwë are divine creations who were sent to Middle-earth to keep an eye on the forces of darkness, specifically on Melkor, who was banished from the Undying Lands and whose darkness and power surpasses all others, even that of Sauron. (1)

The Great Eagles function as angels, with the role of watchmen. But again, why would Tolkien employ angelic figures to save the heroes when things get too tough? Isn't this just a cheap trick? Tolkien, not only a master of language but also widely read, had to have known this oftentimes frustrating plot device and the effect it had on readers.

In fact, Tolkien mentions the Eagles in a letter to Forrest J. Ackerman in 1958. The letter was in regards to a movie script treatment adapting The Lord of the Rings, and Tolkien was displeased with many aspects of the treatment, namely the use of the Eagles to fly the Fellowship to their destinations. (Obviously the script writers felt the same way many readers do: if the Eagles exist, why can't they be around to help more often, since they are ever so useful?)

Said Tolkien:

The Eagles are a dangerous "machine." I have used them sparingly, and that is the absolute limit of their credibility.

And later:

"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. It is well within the powers of [film] to suggest, relatively briefly, a long and arduous journey, in secrecy, on foot.

We can glean a few things from Tolkien's words:

1. Tolkien was aware of the Eagles as a device, or "machine." (Remember: "god from the machine.")

2. Tolkien uses the Eagles sparingly because he himself thought they were borderline incredible.

3. The answer to one of our questions: the Eagles didn't fly Frodo and the Ring to Orodruin because "secrecy" was important. Sauron could not know where the Ring was, and you can bet he had his Eye on the sky; being chief lieutenant of Melkor, he must have known of the existence of the Eagles.

4. The journey of the Fellowship, their trial, was more important than an easy quest.

And the latter is where I've been trying to get to with this post (it's been a long, roundabout, unexpected journey, I know).

This belief in the power of the journey or trial is common among many people, particularly Christians. It connects to what the Apostle Peter calls "the trial of your faith" (1 Peter 1:7). Also, Mormonism specifically teaches, "Ye receive no witness until after the trial of your faith" (Ether 12:6).

While the Eagles may indeed be examples of deus ex machina, perhaps Tolkien's reasons for using them the way he did was, again, function: the Great Eagles are the "witness," the "joy unspeakable" (1 Peter 1:8) that comes from faith, from facing the trial head-on, from our heroes doing all in their power until there's nothing left.(2)

Although there might be no way to know for sure, I believe this power of the trial was Tolkien's purpose for using the Eagles the way he did, saving our heroes when they had been stretched to their limits.

"The Eagles Are Coming" by Michael Whelan
And timing is everything. The Eagles often show up at the last possible moment, with Frodo and Sam's encounter being the most poignant—and, again, the Eagles are less frustrating here than in other instances. Yes, the Eagles save them from death, and the reader/viewer has forgotten about the Eagles, which makes it feel like a "tricksy" plot device. But the Eagles don't show up until after the central climax, the destruction of the Ring. The main quest has already been completed; Frodo and Sam have already saved Middle-earth. In a sense, what happens after the Ring is destroyed is just nice denouement—it wouldn't really matter, from a story standpoint, if Frodo and Sam died on the mountain, although it may be less impactful or cathartic. The Eagles don't fly into Orodruin to make sure the Ring falls into the volcano, nor do they keep Gollum from doing all he can to retrieve it for himself. This falls on our characters' shoulders.

The Eagles also don't come until after Frodo has faced his darkest moment in the entire story, when he decides to take the Ring for himself. Yet, he overcomes this weakness because of Gollum, the Ring is destroyed, and only then do the Eagles save him and Sam from ruin.

But saving Frodo and Sam isn't the only mission of the Eagles there, at "the end of all things." They've come because Gandalf, Aragorn, and company are fighting outside the Black Gates (notice how the Eagles always show up near Gandalf, who has a strong connection to the "divine"). And they will lose this battle, just as Frodo and Sam have no hope for survival. Yet, the Fellowship faces their doom, the trial of their faith, head-on anyway. It is then, and only then, that the winged watchmen arrive.

Such divine intervention is often true in our lives. Sometimes we are deeply mired in personal hardship, and we're blind to any light at the end of the tunnel. When we are stretched to our thinnest, just when we're about to give up, is often the moment when we learn the purpose of the trial, the moment we find the hope we've been looking for. That's when our own Eagles, the divine helpers, show up.

And isn't this metaphor for personal difficulty worth the deus ex machina?


1.  Does Melkor's story sound familiar? The Silmarillion, in which much of this takes place, is possibly the most allegorical of Tolkien's work. Gods, creation, a banished brother. But most of the events and characters within The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings are not quite so obvious in their metaphor. Tolkien didn't care for 1-to-1 metaphorical relationships. In fact, one of his few criticisms of his friend C. S. Lewis's Narnia series was the direct allegory of Aslan as Christ. The contrast in Middle-earth is apparent, with multiple characters exemplary of Christ: Aragorn as the lowly man destined to be king, Gandalf the White as a resurrected being capable of banishing evil spirits, Frodo as bearer of the burden, and even Samwise as friend and bearer of Frodo. But the character metaphors aren't meant to be antitheses to Aslan. The function of this is the idea that we all have Christ within us. And function is everything. Particularly with the Eagles.

2.  Notice also the use of "fire" in 1 Peter 1:7—"though [your faith] be tried by fire"—and the fire preceding the Eagles' saving Bilbo and company, the burning trees in Isengard with Gandalf on the tower, the fiery Balrog and Gandalf's being saved after facing it, and the fires of Doom faced by Frodo and Sam. Not to say this was intentional on Tolkien's part (who knows?), but an interesting connection nonetheless.


  1. I asked Brandon those same questions months ago and although his answer was to the same end as yours, I really like all your explanation!

  2. I love the post. I wrote one on the same topic myself after watching the Hobbit last year. Thanks for posting.

  3. Nicely expounded upon. It just would have been nice for us to have had a quick explanation as to *why* it was happening like that - if the eagles have a rule or something like that that they abide by, if they aren't able to be close to evil (the ring, for example) etc. It would have made the appearance of the eagles less random. Granted there are / may be reasons, but unless they are *said* then as far as the movie goer is concerned, those reasons don't exist.

  4. Like you mentioned in note 1, there are a lot of spiritual (especially mormon) concepts that can be found in the silmarillion