Hey Gandalf, Where Are the Freaking Eagles? [Updated]

Sean Crist confronts a problem I didn’t even realize existed, but now sticks in one’s literary craw: Why didn’t the eagles just fly Frodo to Mordor, and skip all that unpleasant trudging about through a medieval hellscape and struggling with a demented jewelry addict bent on his demise?
Essentially, because Tolkien just kind of screwed up by introducing the eagles in the first place:

. . .  the strongest argument that there is nothing to rule out the “eagles” plan, and that this is simply a hole in the plot, is that the matter is not discussed at the Council of Elrond. Every possible plan is discussed: sending the Ring to Tom Bombadil to keep, guarding it in Imladris or Lórien or the Havens, sending it across the ocean, dropping it into the ocean, using it, etc. In each instance, there is a good explanation given to rule out the plan; this is the literary device by which Tolkien sets up the quest to Mt. Doom as the direction which the story must take.

In all of this discussion, no mention is made of the possibility that the eagles could help in taking the Ring to Mt. Doom. If Tolkien wanted to rule out the possibility, this would be the perfect opportunity to do it, by inserting dialog such as the following around pages 348-9:

“Then,” said Glorfindel, “let us send messages to the eagles, and then pass by foot and boat to the Brown Lands, and meet there with the eagles, who shall fly with the Ringbearer to Orodruin.”

“Nay,” said Gandalf. “For the Valar have prohibited the eagles from participating so directly in the downfall of the Dark Lord.”

OR: “Nay,” said Gandalf. “For I feel in my heart that the creature Gollum has yet some role to play, and he will not be able to do so if we fly with the eagles into the Dark Land.”

OR: “Nay,” said Gandalf. “For the Dark Lord is capable of throwing fire over many miles, and he would be able to stop the eagles from their flight.”

Since Gandalf had just related his rescue from Orthanc just prior to the discussion of the various possible plans, the eagles would have been in the thought of everybody at the Council of Elrond, and it is very likely that somebody would have brought the possibility up. But they do not, and I think there are two possible explanations: 1) the possibility never occurred to Tolkien, or 2) Tolkien realized he had a problem and opted not to draw attention to it. In either case, the matter should be counted as a hole in the plot.

The entire article is well worth reading for fans of the book. It teaches a lesson that fanatics of all kinds (of authors, series, companies, etc.) can find value in: even awesome things made by awesome people will have meaningful flaws, yet still maintain their essential value. Lord of the Rings is not demoted because the Fellowship didn’t think of the eagle plan. It’s just a reminder that it’s not holy scripture.

UPDATE: My Twitter pal @gwrthryfel, a Tolkien enthusiast if ever there was one, sends me this video, that lays this very idea most pithily.

And of course, Avery in the comments shows us why the eagles could have been more trouble than we think.

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15 thoughts on “Hey Gandalf, Where Are the Freaking Eagles? [Updated]

  1. How could mere giant eagles stand up to the dreaded Nazgul, the ringwraiths of the air, who would undoubtedly beat them and capture the ring immediately? That would have been the fastest way to get the ring into Sauron’s evil clutches. Maybe.

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  2. The last reason you quote is the only plausible reason not to use the eagles: they’re big and visible, a whole wing of them making a beeline for Mordor would be easily noticed by even the most amateur spies (like the birds who spy for Saruman, who could then pass on the intel via palantir), and the Ringwraiths would probably have serious tactical advantages over eagles with hobbits strapped to their backs. Hobbits aren’t aerodynamically shaped, donchaknow…

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  3. Nazgul – as Bruce M noted in the very first post.
    Perhaps knowing of the winged Nazgul dragon monsters along with Saruman’s bad bird army and the obvious disadvantages of eagles carrying hobbits as noted by (#3) Raging bee Gandalf didn’t even bother raising the idea.

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  4. Hi Paul,After re-reading the article you linked to, I ultimately have to agree with you that this is a true plot hole. But, from a more omniscient point of view, I would still refer to my Nazgul post (in #1) to say that that would be the best response against it being a possible plot hole. In other words, you’re right, but I wish I could believe that the LOTR is fully self-consistent. Thanks for bringing all of this to our attention.

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  5. I’ll add that whilst Sean Crist’s article covers the Nazgul – noting that the eagles are possibly faster than them* and that the eagles can attack the Nazgul this is whilst the eagles are NOT carrying anything heavy – like, say, a hobbit.
    When the eagles rescued Frodo and Sam the Nazgul & Sauron had already been destroyed by the eruption of Mt Doom and Mordor was in disarray and panic and chaos in mid collapse. Taking them into Mordor when it was focused without distractions such as the army of good and was powerful still would have been a very different matter
    It also seems to me that while Sean Crist deals *individually* with the Nazgul, Orc archers shooting them down, shooting them on landing, the will and effects of the Ring, etc .. he doesn’t combine them and note how these objections pile up *cumulatively * so put together it just makes the eagles plan too risky.
    Not that the alternative they follow is risk averse and troubles free either I know but still.
    There’s also one small objection there Crist doesn’t cover – the air of Mordor is apparently pretty horrible isn’t if memory serves? Volcanoes do emit clouds of poisonous gas and deadly ash after all.
    Given the staggering heat and power of major pyroclastic flows perhaps the biggest plot hole is that Frodo and Sam do indeed manage to survive the eruption and get eagle-vacced out!
    * Sean quotes :

    “Then come, and let your brother go with us, and some other of your folk who is most swift! For we have need of speed greater than any wind, outmatching the wings of the Nazgûl.” (III, 280; emphasis is mine. Sean Crists.)

    But of course that is oblique and rhetorical and we don’t know *how much* faster the eagles are. Or how they compare manouvreability~wise.
    Plus Ringwraiths riding Nazguls can fire bows and arrows, spears, throwing knives and possibly swords, and I’m not sure an eagle can outrun those!

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    • Well one answer to a lot of that might be “bring enough eagles”– even if it’s extremely dangerous, presumably some eagles would risk their lives, like the fellowship, to stop the rise of Sauron.

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      • Ok. Good point & fair enough there – but it does have me wondering – just how many eagles are there and how willing are they to die for the cause?

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      • IOW, [Maude (I think?) Flanders voice] Somebody think of the poor eagles! Won’t somebody think of the eagles!!! [/Maude (I think?) Flanders voice.]
        Also imagined eagles reaction : you want us to do What!?! 😉

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  6. http://www.e-reading.by/bookreader.php/139008/Tolkien_-_The_Letters_of_J.R.R.Tolkien.pdf
    Just read letter 210 wherein he discusses the screenwriter’s attempts to insert the eagles in order to contract the story:
    “At the bottom of the page, the Eagles are again introduced. I feel this to be a wholly
    unacceptable tampering with the tale. ‘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 lastthey are really needed. It is well within the powers of pictures to suggest, relatively briefly, a long
    and arduous journey, in secrecy, on foot, with the three ominous mountains getting nearer.
    Z does not seem much interested in seasons or scenery, though from what I saw I should say
    that in the representation of these the chief virtue and attraction of the film is likely to be found. But
    would Z think that he had improved the effect of a film of, say, the ascent of Everest by introducing
    helicopters to take the climbers half way up (in defiance of probability)? It would be far better to
    cut the Snow-storm and the Wolves than to make a farce of the arduous journey.”

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  7. We always used to refer to them as the “Deus Ex Machina Airlines.”
    And this is not a big new internet thing. Tolkien fans have been discussing this since the books came out.

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  8. Maybe they would have been attacked right away by either Black Riders on flying horses or some other nefarious super weapon.

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  9. I think Gandalf not volunteering the services of the eagles is perfectly consistent with his usual pattern of just not being as helpful as he could, only as helpful as he must. His job is only ensuring that victory is possible, not that it’s easy – as long as it’s possible to reach Mordor by land, supplying air transport would be doing too much within the context of his instructions.
    While there are many issues that could possibly make the idea of using the eagles impractical, the mere fact that it isn’t even brought up as a possible scenario at the council seems to me to indicate clearly that this is the reason – Gandalf doesn’t want to do it, so he doesn’t even want it discussed. The others probably took his silence on the issue as meaning that it’s not practicable – after all, with his recent rescue for Orthanc, there was no way he could have overlooked the possibility.
    I don’t think it’s a plot hole, mostly because it would have been too easy to fill. Of course it’s possible that Tolkien simply overlooked the issue, but given all of the other, sometimes much more far-fetched, scenarios that are explicitly ruled out in the Council scene, that doesn’t appear very plausible to me. I think the reader is supposed to question, looking back, why Gandalf didn’t employ the eagles earlier than he did, with the same going for some other belated displays of his powers – after all, in the wider context of the mythology, these questions are actually valid.

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  10. It’s not a plot hole; it’s a plot point. The reason they have a chance at success is that they’re small, insignificant beings doing a completely crazy thing, while big distractions occur elsewhere.

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