The Encyclopedia of Arda - an interactive guide to the world of J.R.R. Tolkien
Dates
First appeared early in the history of the World1
Meaning
Ultimately from the Latin word aquila2

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  • Updated 31 December 2009
  • Updates planned: 1

Eagles

The harbingers of Manwë

The great birds who were the friends of Elves and Men in Middle-earth; the mightiest of the Eagles was Thorondor, who dwelt in the Encircling Mountains; he and his kin were inhabited by spirits akin to the Maiar.


The Perils of Aerial Ring-bearing

Once the Council of Elrond had decided on their goal of destroying the Ring, they were faced with the problem of somehow getting it into Mordor and reaching Mount Doom. In the event, they decided to send out Nine Walkers to fulfil this quest, but they had an apparently much better option: to call on the aid of the Eagles. With the help of Gwaihir, they could have flown straight to Mordor in a matter of hours, and then simply thrown the Ring into the Fire, or at least dismounted close by and entered the Sammath Naur on foot.

On the face of it, this looks like a dreadful mistake: not only did the Council discount this apparently safer and easier option, but they didn't even discuss the possibility. Looking more closely, though, it's not hard to see why the idea of sending the Ring to Mordor by air raises at least as many problems as it solves.

Problems With the Eagle Strategy

There would be certain logistical problems in bringing the Eagles into play. At the very least, they'd have to be contacted somehow, which would involve a dangerous journey of its own. What's more, it's doubtful that even a great Eagle could make the entire flight from Rivendell to Mordor while carrying a passenger (Gwaihir seemed reluctant to carry Gandalf much further than the distance from Orthanc to Edoras, a trivial journey by comparison). Those are inconveniences, but they're probably not insurmountable obstacles.

Much more problematic would be the abandonment of secrecy, which lay at the core of the plans of the Wise. Their stratagem relied on a psychological blind spot in Sauron's nature: given the power of the Ring, he would assume that his enemies must try to use it against him. The notion that they might try to destroy it simply wouldn't occur to him (otherwise, no doubt, he would have taken urgent steps to fortify the Chambers of Fire and set a guard on Mount Doom). That was the purpose behind sending out Nine Walkers; they could pass through the landscape unnoticed even by the Great Eye.

Using the Eagles would instantly eliminate this advantage. They could hardly remain hidden, and seeing his enemies travelling directly towards his land, Sauron could hardly fail to guess their intent. Having realized their strategy, he would be able to quickly correct his mistake of leaving the way to Mount Doom unguarded. What's more, he had huge numbers of archers at his disposal, and possibly flying Nazgûl ready to intercept the Eagles. Far from finding the way to Orodruin open, the Ring-bearer would now have to pass through a sea of foes to reach the mountain.

Worse, sending the Ring into the air would make it obvious to Sauron where it was, and how to recover it. If, say, a single Orc succeeded in shooting down the Ring-bearer's Eagle, Sauron would quickly recover his Ring, and his victory would then be unstoppable. So by sending the Eagles, the Council would have simultaneously made their own quest immensely harder to achieve, and given Sauron a much greater chance of regaining the Ring's power. That would be a dangerous gamble indeed.

Rethinking the Strategy

Are there ways around these difficulties? One common suggestion is that an Eagle could have avoided any ground forces altogether, and just swooped down to drop the Ring into the volcano's vent. That's perhaps not inconceivable, but it would hardly be a simple task to navigate through a cloud of burning ash to drop the Ring accurately into the Cracks of Doom (especially as failure would quite possibly give the Ring back to Sauron).

Perhaps a more workable strategy would be to fly stealthily to Mordor, making short low-flying trips under cover of darkness, maybe in staggered directions to hide their goal, with a final journey over the guardian mountains of Mordor to reach the Fire-mountain in secret. After that, the Ring-bearer could pass unhindered into the Chambers of Fire and dispose of the Ring.

A stealthy approach like that might have worked, but it still wouldn't be free of risk: even low-flying Eagles would still be more than noticeable to the night-sighted Orcs, and any news of their approach would be much more likely to stir Sauron into action. In short, the journey would be somewhat quicker, but the risk of failure would be proportionately worse. With failure meaning victory for Sauron, it's not obvious that this would necessarily be a better strategy than sending a Company of Walkers out into the Wild.

The Missing Discussion

The Eagle strategy has its own set of disadvantages, but it's perhaps surprising that the Council didn't stop to discuss it at all before making its decision. Perhaps it would be truer to say that they're not recorded as having discussed it; in fact there's a remote hint that they may have considered the possibility. We know that scouts were sent to seek out Radagast at Rhosgobel, and though we're not told why, we do know that Radagast was friendly with the Eagles. Just possibly, this is a hint that - 'behind the scenes' - this strategy was actually considered, with the hope that Radagast would act as a contact to gain the Eagles' help. In the event, Radagast could not be found; if he had been at home, perhaps the story of the Ring-bearer's journey would have taken quite a different turn!

Of course that's the merest speculation. In fact, it's not clear that Tolkien himself considered the Eagle option at all; certainly he didn't offer any specific reasons for avoiding it. The closest he came was a more general comment in a letter of 1958:

'The Eagles are a dangerous 'machine'. I have used them sparingly, and that is the absolute limit of their credibility and usefulness.'
The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, No 210

And that is the real reason the Ring-bearer didn't travel to Mordor by air. Leaving aside any logistical or strategic advantages it might have had, bringing in the Eagles would have made The Lord of the Rings much less of a epic story, and that's surely reason enough to leave them out.

Notes

1

The mighty Eagles of the Elder Days were more than mere birds, they were gigantic, intelligent creatures. Thorondor, the greatest of them, had a wingspan of thirty fathoms (55 metres, or 180 feet), and spoke with Elf-lords as an equal. Beings like this first appeared after the awakening of the Elves, when spirits sent by Eru entered the World and inhabited certain of its living things (the Ents first appeared at about this time, for the same reason). 'Ordinary' eagles, of the kind we still know today, must presumably have predated the arrival of these spirits.

2

The Latin word for eagle, aquila, seems to be related to Aquilo, a name for the north wind. This connection occurs in Tolkien, too. The Eagles are the special emissaries of Manwë, who rules the airs and winds of the World, and the great Eagle of the Third Age, Gwaihir, has a name that means 'Windlord'.

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