Way back in 2007 How It Should Have Ended put out a little animation about the Lord of the Rings saying that Fellowship should have just flown an eagle into Mordor and dropped the ring into Mt. Doom with little to no fuss. This video is really funny (I’ve linked it below) especially when you get to the punch line, “Imagine what it would have been like if we walked!” It still makes my chuckle.
But of course if you’re read the books you know that this scenario would not have worked for many, many reasons outlined in the text in great detail. If you have just seen the movies and have not read the books then I can see how it may seem a bit unclear. Still, it doesn’t take a genius to realize that if the eagles had simply flown the ring to Mt. Doom there wouldn’t really be much of a story would there?
But this has become a meme.
You’ll constantly see this pop up in articles and videos with titles like ‘Biggest Plot-holes in History” or “Tolkien’s Biggest Mistake” or some such. Usually when I see this sort of thing I just roll my eyes and chalk it up to Internet people not doing research or not, you know, reading. Until recently that is. While watching the movies again with my family someone asked (I won’t say who, but you know who you are), Why didn’t they just fly the Eagles to destroy the ring? I was forced to acknowledge that even in my own household this misconception persists. And a stop must be put to it.
Let me just state for the record that I am not a Tolkien expert, I have simply read the books multiple times and paid attention to detail. I just want to attempt to clear up some misconceptions because, well, I’m a nerd with a blog. It’s what we do.
Reason #1: Stealth & Pointy Things
Gandalf states at the outset that the biggest advantage they have is the fact that Sauron cannot even conceive of anyone wanting to destroy the ring. So the idea of anyone marching into Mordor up to the Cracks of Doom to unmake the Ring was just not even on his radar. That is why a small, unassuming little band sneaking in and being stealthy was the plan.
Giant flying eagles are not stealthy.
Mordor is a big place, huge in fact. And the Eagles are impressive but they get tired like any other animal and so couldn’t fly to Mt. Doom in one day; they would have to rest. This would allow plenty of time for the armies of Mordor to notice them. Keep in mind that these are armies of tens of thousands of Men, Orcs, Trolls and other sundry creatures. All of which had bows and arrows and catapults and various other pointy things that could be thrown, flung or otherwise heaved in their direction. Pointy projectiles can seriously damage feathered wings.
But if that didn’t stop them there’s always the semi-ghost-like wraiths who ride dragons. Although the movies did not portray them in as such, the Nazgûl are pretty bad-ass. Even if there were a whole slew of eagles the Nazgûl could do some damage. But even if the Eagles managed to defeat dragon ghost riders their presence would still be known.
And that would bring them to the attention of the spirit of evil taking the form of a giant disembodied eye. Sauron’s powers are I admit vaguely defined; but suffice to say he’s probably got some tricks up his sleeve. And if he knew that giant flying eagles had the One Ring in a talon you can rest assured that whatever magic/force/voodoo he’s got would be focused on those birds and game over man, game over.
Reason #2: Watch Your Language
One of the more persistent Internet theories is that Gandalf always intended for everyone to grab a ride with the Eagles. That’s why he said, “Fly, you fools!” just before being killed by the Balrog so that the rest of the party would understand what to do.
That’s cute and kinda funny like the video below but does not take into account that that is not what is meant in context. Tolkien was a linguist. He studied language, specifically medieval languages. And that is not what fly means.
The verb “fly” originally meant “to flee” and is used that way multiple times in the books. For instance:
“[Frodo] had suddenly realized that flying from the Shire would mean more painful partings than merely saying farewell to the familiar comforts of Bag End”. – Fellowship of the Ring
“This is no treasure-hunt, no there-and-back journey. I am flying from deadly peril into deadly peril.” – Fellowship of the Ring
“There agelong she had dwelt, an evil thing in spider-form, even such as once of old had lived in the Land of the Elves of the West that is now under the Sea, such as Beren fought in the Mountains of Terror in Doriath, and so came to Luthien upon the green sward amid the hemlocks in the moonlight long ago. How Shelob came there, flying from ruin, no tale tells….” – The Two Towers
And there are many more examples. So you see when Tolkien had Gandalf say “fly” he meant “run away you idiots” not “go find the giant eagles I never once mentioned ever and convince them to fly you over the most hostile land in the entire known world for no other reason other than I told you to and, yeah I probably should have mentioned this before and shared it with someone else just in case but hey, I’m cryptically telling you now so that works right?”
Reason #3: What Am I Your Taxi?
The major thing about the Eagles is they don’t give a rat’s ass about Men and Elves.
The Great Eagles are the messengers of Manwe (think Zeus crossed with an angel) and as such are really only concerned with the “higher” issues and not at all concerned with “lesser” things like war and succession; least of all taxiing hobbits and dwarves to and from various mountains.
But they did like Gandalf. He had helped them in the past like saving the king of the eagles at one time and the fact that he is an Istari, a protector sent by the Valar to assist the peoples of Middle-Earth in times of great need. So when he asked for help or assistance they reluctantly agreed. Even so it was only occasionally and only when Gandalf asked nicely. And sometimes Radagast but he’s an Istari too so, same goes. Basically, the Eagles don’t play.
Reason #4: It’s a Metaphor Dammit
The one term that is thrown around quite often in regard to the Eagles is Deus ex Machina. The eagles, it is argued, are just a fantastic plot device to get the heroes out of danger or save them from a hopeless situation. And my response to this is – yes of course. Duh.
Tolkien himself said this:
“The Eagles are a dangerous ‘machine’. I have used them sparingly, and that is the absolute limit of their credibility or usefulness.” ― Letter 210, J.R.R. Tolkien
The Eagles are in fact, without a doubt, a Deus ex Machina. Or, as Tolkien called it, Eucatastrophe. That is exactly the point. A eucatastrophe, according to Tolkien, was a sudden, favorable resolution; or to put it plainly, a happy ending. He felt it was essential in faire stories and fantastical tales to have an unexpected boon given to the characters. The thing that made fairy tales unique was the supernatural and the unexpected, so of course a giant bird appearing from out of nowhere to save the day was just what the author intended it to be – a crazy, magic bit of wonder.
But more than that the Eagles were a metaphor. Tolkien was a devout Catholic and this informed his writing quite a bit. While not as overt in his symbolism as C.S. Lewis, a contemporary and friend writing at the same time (yes we get it, the lion was Jesus) Tolkien was still interjecting Christian doctrine and thought in his stories.
The Eagles are Divine Grace.
Grace is bestowed upon an individual not by request or petition but randomly and in times of greatest need. The Eagles as Tolkien uses them are just this. They do not come when called and do not take orders but instead arrive just in time to aid when the situation seems most dire. They give hope when all seems lost. You are meant to be overwhelmed by the wondrous nature of their arrival and the spectacle of their beauty.
I can understand not liking that idea. To modern notions this may seem contrived, simplistic. But Tolkien was not writing a post-modern deconstruction of the fairy tale. He was writing a straight-up medieval legend. And in that respect he succeeded. When I was a kid reading “The Eagles are coming, The Eagles are coming,” it was always an awe-inspiring, fist pump the air moment. It still works for me to this day, book or film.
Reason #5: Telling a Good Story
So everything above means nothing and in the world of The Lord of the Rings the Eagles, majestic beasts, messengers of Manwe, embodiment of the Valar, take the One Ring in their strong talons and fly the foul creation to the cracks Mount Doom and drop it in thus ending the potential reign of the evil Sauron. The end.
Not much of a story.
Look, the whole thing comes down to do you like The Lord of the Rings? If you don’t then these supposed plot holes will simply reinforce what you already want to believe and cement in your mind it’s a bad book. Fine, that’s your prerogative but in my mind you are missing out.
If you do like the books than these supposed plot holes don’t matter because you are caught up in the story and the world and the characters. The eagles flying whoever to wherever does not matter because we all know that the beauty of the story lies somewhere else. The enjoyment we get is from the telling – the words, or in the case of the films, the visuals – and the journey that we take, the songs we sing, the time we spend. The power of this is not diminished by randomly trying to pick holes in plot or structure because the power is in the fun we have in the world itself.
I have argued – flippantly – various points in counter to, in my mind, a very silly argument. Because you see, it is not about whether the Eagles could have or should have flown the hobbits to Mordor, it comes down to why would you want them to?
The story is so much more than the outcome. Give me the journey, not the destination.
And Just for Fun: How It Should Have Ended