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Why doesn’t Frodo just ride an eagle to Mount Doom?

07.09.09 | Kunochan | 47 Comments

Many critics of The Lord of the Rings (yes, there are such people, bizarrely) think they have identified a major plot hole in both the book and the film trilogy.

These are the people who complain that the books and films are too long (false — they’re too short); there is too much description of trees and hills (true); there are too few strong female characters (true); there is too much poetry (false – try reading the poems instead of skipping over then); that Tom Bombadil doesn’t fit into the story (true – the films removed him entirely); and that the various homosexual relationships were sublimated (true, but come on – the books were written by a Catholic in the 1950s).

But the major complaint from critics of LOTR, the one that makes them feel all clever and smug, is this supposed plot hole: Why didn’t Frodo just ride an Eagle straight from Rivendell to Mt. Doom, and drop the One Ring into the lava? We know Gandalf was buddy-buddy with some giant Eagles, who rescued him from Orthanc and later snatched Frodo and Sam from certain immolation. If the Eagles can pick up the Hobbits from Mordor, why can’t they take them there as well?

This video presents the question in a humorous way:

Tolkien himself had to deal with this issue the first time a Hollywood producer tried to develop a Lord of the Rings film, in 1958. If you want to read how Tolkien excoriated the screenwriter over changes to the story, read letter 210 from Humphrey Carpenter’s The Letters of JRR Tolkien. I’ll wait.

Back? That was fast. You can see that Tolkien pretty much hated any changes to his story, even minor ones (although he was willing to cut the Battle of the Hornburg entirely, rather than lose the Ents). I suspect Tolkien would have hated the Peter Jackson trilogy, despite the fact that it makes very few changes that approach the stupidity of the 1958 treatment that Tolkien despised so much. (It describes Orcs with feathers and beaks. Really? Really??? Then again, Jackson turned Wargs into giant zombie hedgehogs.)

The treatment has Frodo and the Fellowship flying from location to location on the backs of Eagles.  To quote the Professor:

…the Eagles are again introduced. I feel this to be a wholly unacceptable tampering with the tale. [emphasis original] ‘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.

There are three general reasons Frodo does not fly an eagle to Mordor. The first has to do with storytelling; the second with the plotlines of The Hobbit and LOTR; and the third comes from The Silmarillion and other writings.

First, Tolkien considered the Eagles to be what he called a “device,” a deus ex machina that allows Frodo and Sam to be teleported to safety. Tolkien admits as much. Tales of the journey to slay the dragon/destroy the Ring are exciting and interesting – journeys home are not. As he put it:

But would [the screenwriter] 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…?

The Fellowship walks (they don’t even have horses, except poor Bill the Pony) so they can have adventures. The end. Now, you could complain that this is poor storytelling. If you don’t want the characters riding friendly talking Eagles, then don’t introduce friendly talking Eagles.

Fortunately, Tolkien does explain why, in the story, Eagles were not an option. This second reason is revealed in The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings.

In those two books, there are five instances where Eagles intervene. In The Hobbit, Eagles rescued Gandalf, Bilbo and the Dwarves from the Wargs and Orcs. The Eagles intervened because they hate Wargs and Orcs, but they refused to take Gandalf and the others very far, because the Eagles have their own business to take care of and don’t exist for the convenience others.

Later they arrived during the Battle of Five Armies, turning the tide of the battle for the good guys. Again, this is because they hate Orcs, and not because they respond to any summons, or follow anyone’s orders.

In The Fellowship of the Ring, an Eagle happens to rescue Gandalf by accident. Gandalf had previously asked the wizard Radagast (who doesn’t appear in the films, and is replaced, in one of Peter Jackson’s most bizarre changes, by a moth) to send any messages for him to Orthanc.

Each of the five Istari, or Wizards, had a special power. Gandalf had fire, Saruman had charisma, and the Blue Wizards had complete irrelevance. Radagast’s power was friendship with birds and beasts. It’s Radagast who asked an Eagle to take a message to Gandalf. The Eagle saw that Gandalf was imprisoned on the roof of Orthanc, and carried him away.

Perhaps Radagast could have convinced the Eagles to carry Frodo to Mordor, but he wasn’t at the Council of Elrond.

Later, an Eagle retrieved the newly resurrected Gandalf the White from the summit of Celebdil. The reasons for this are made clear below.

And finally, Gandalf got the Eagles to rescue Frodo and Sam from the violent eruption of Orodruin. This is why some people think that Eagles should have flown them to Mordor in the first place.

Why does Elrond send Nine Walkers, without steeds? Because Sauron and Saruman are both on the lookout for anyone who might have the One Ring. They are both using all the magic and manpower (orcpower?) they possess. All the roads are being watched. Some of the birds are spies.

Riding horses would just bring attention to the Fellowship. And riding Eagles? Why not just construct an enormous neon sign that says in all-caps “HEY SAURON – THE RING IS RIGHT HERE.”

Sure, the Eagles are able to fly safely in and out of Mordor – after Sauron is defeated. Remember the Ringwraiths? The ones with flying steeds? Maybe an Eagle could defeat a Ringwraith in an aerial battle, but I wouldn’t want to be the Halfling clinging to its back. And if Sauron himself attempted to interfere with the Eagles (either the menacing humanoid Sauron of the book, or the “evil lighthouse” of the films), I would place my bets on Sauron.

No one at the Council of Elrond suggested riding Eagles because (a) Eagles don’t take orders and (b) it would have drawn the attention of The Eye and insured disaster.

Many things that occur in The Lord of the Rings are unexplained, or only partially explained. Readers in the 50s and 60s enjoyed this aspect of the book, that it takes place in a fully realized world, and there isn’t time to cover everything. But it’s clear to the reader that these mysteries have explanations, even if those explanations aren’t provided.

In 1977, Chris Tolkien published The Silmarillion, and most of those mysteries were revealed. Which brings us to our third point – what are Eagles, anyway?

Tolkien went back and forth on this, at one point writing that Eagles are just regular eagles given giant size and intellect by magical means. But canonically, according to The Silmarillion, Eagles are Maiar (lesser gods or angels) incarnated as large birds. (This goes against the canonically established fact that Eagles have offspring, but whatever.)

No matter what Eagles are, all sources agree they are servants of Manwë Súlimo, King of the Valar (greater gods or archangels), making them quite literally deus ex machina. The Eagles provide help when Manwë wishes them to do so, and only then.

Tolkien’s gods, whether the Valar or Eru Ilúvatar (God) Himself, are the kind who create the world and then sit back and watch the fun, only interceding in the most extraordinary circumstances. The Eagles don’t make the quest to destroy the Ring easy because the gods want mortals to solve the problem on their own. Once Frodo and Sam have completed their tasks, then the gods reward them by (a) rescuing them from certain death and (b) allowing them to make the voyage to the Uttermost West.

But what about Gandalf? Why are Eagles always rescuing him? Because Gandalf is a mortal manifestation of the Maia Olórin, sent by Manwë to aid mortals in the fight against Sauron. So Gandalf has a special hotline to divine intersession. And when he dies, the Valar send him back to try again.

So the Eagles don’t fly Frodo to Mordor because the gods don’t want it going down that way. Makes you wonder why anyone would want to live in a universe with a capricious God, or gods, in the first place.

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