In J. R. R. Tolkien's fictional universe of Middle-earth, the eagles were immense flying birds that were sapient and could speak. Often emphatically referred to as the Great Eagles, they appear, usually and intentionally serving as agents of eucatastrophe or deus ex machina, in his legendarium, from The Silmarillion and the accounts of Númenor to The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings.
|Created date||First Age|
|Base of operations||Encircling Mountains, Misty Mountains|
These creatures are usually thought to have been similar to actual eagles, but much larger. In The Silmarillion, Thorondor is said to have been the greatest of them and of all birds, with a wingspan of 30 fathoms (55 m; 180 ft). Elsewhere, the eagles have varied in nature and size both within Tolkien's writings and in later visualisations and films.
The difference between "common" eagles and Great Eagles is prominently described in The Hobbit:
Throughout The Silmarillion, the Eagles are particularly associated with Manwë, the ruler of the sky and Lord of the Valar. It is stated that "spirits in the shape of hawks and eagles" brought news from Middle-earth to his halls upon Taniquetil, the highest mountain in Valinor, although later in the book the same is said of birds in general, and in the Valaquenta of "all swift birds, strong of wing".
Upon their first appearance in the main narrative, it is stated that the Eagles had been "sent forth" to Middle-earth by Manwë, to live in the mountains north of the land of Beleriand, to "watch upon" Morgoth, and to help the exiled Noldorin Elves "in extreme cases". The Eagles were ruled by Thorondor, who dwelt (apparently with the majority of his folk) in the Encircling Mountains to the west of Dorthonion.
When the Hidden City of Gondolin was built by Turgon, the eagles of Thorondor became his allies, bringing him news and keeping spies off the borders. Therefore the Orcs of Morgoth were unable to approach either the nearby mountains, or the important ford of Brithiach to the south; the eagles' watch had been redoubled after the coming of Tuor, enabling Gondolin to remain undiscovered the longest of all Elven realms. When the city fell at last, the eagles of Thorondor protected the fugitives, from the orcs that ambushed them at Cirith Thoronath north of Gondolin.
The Eagles fought alongside the army of the Valar, Elves, and Men during the War of Wrath at the end of the First Age, when Morgoth was overthrown. In The Silmarillion it is recounted that after the appearance of winged dragons, "all the great birds of heaven" gathered under the leadership of Thorondor to Eärendil, and destroyed the majority of the dragons in an aerial battle.
Tolkien mentioned the eagles in his accounts of the island of Númenor during the Second Age. He stated that three eagles guarded the summit of Meneltarma, appearing whenever one approached the hallow and staying in the sky during the Three Prayers. The Númenóreans called them "the Witnesses of Manwë" and believed that these eagles had been "sent by him from Aman to keep watch upon the Holy Mountain and upon all the land".
There was another eyrie upon the tower of the King's House in the capital Armenelos, always inhabited by a pair of eagles, until the days of Tar-Ancalimon and the coming of Shadow to Númenor. Many eagles, whether "great" or common, lived upon the hills around Sorontil in the north of the island.
When the Númenóreans had finally forsaken their former beliefs and began to speak openly against the Ban of the Valar, it was in the way of eagle-shaped storm clouds, called the "Eagles of the Lords of the West", that Manwë tried to reason or threaten them.
By the end of the Third Age, a colony of Eagles lived in the northern parts of the Misty Mountains, as described in The Hobbit, upon the eastward slopes not far from the High Pass leading from Rivendell, and thus in the direct vicinity of the Goblin-town beneath the Mountains. It is stated that these Eagles often afflicted the goblins and "stopped whatever wickedness they were doing"; however, their relationship with the local Woodmen was only cool, as the eagles often hunted their sheep.
During the events of the book, eagles of this colony rescued Thorin's company from a band of goblins and Wargs, ultimately carrying the dwarves to the Carrock. Later, having espied the mustering of goblins all over the Mountains, a great flock of Eagles participated in the Battle of the Five Armies.
In The Lord of the Rings it is stated that the Eagles of the Misty Mountains helped the Elves of Rivendell and the Wizard Radagast in gathering news about the Orcs. In addition, a prominent (though behind-the-scene) role is played by Gwaihir, and the Eagles appear in great numbers towards the end of the book. In a parallel to The Hobbit, they arrived at the Battle of the Morannon, helping the Host of the West against the Nazgûl. Several of them rescued Frodo Baggins and Samwise Gamgee from Mount Doom after the One Ring had been destroyed.
The Lord of Eagles in the First Age, said in The Silmarillion to be the "mightiest of all birds that have ever been", with a wingspan of thirty fathoms (54.9 meters, or 180 feet) and a beak of gold. His name translates from Sindarin, an Elven language devised by Tolkien, as 'King of Eagles'; its cognate form in Quenya, another Elven language, is Sorontar.
Thorondor first enters the narrative when he helped the Elven-prince Fingon rescue his kinsman Maedhros from imprisonment upon Thangorodrim. After the Dagor Bragollach, he saved Fingolfin's body from defilement by his slayer Morgoth, giving the Dark Lord a scar on his face and carrying the Elven-king's corpse to the Encircling Mountains north of Gondolin, where it was buried by Turgon. Shortly afterwards, Thorondor espied Húrin and Huor at the feet of the Mountains, and sent two of his servants to fetch them and bear them to Gondolin, fulfilling thus the intentions of the Vala Ulmo. Thorondor and two other eagles rescued Lúthien and the wounded Beren from the doors of Angband during their Quest of the Silmaril, taking them to Doriath.
Lord of the Eagles
While in The Silmarillion the title "Lord of the Eagles" applies to Thorondor, in The Hobbit it evidently has another significance. No eagles are identified by name in this book, and titles "the Lord of the Eagles" or "the Great Eagle" distinguish their leader from others. It is stated that once he had been healed from an arrow-wound by Gandalf, and that it was in the memory of this service that his eagles helped the dwarves. After his participation in the Battle of Five Armies, he was given the title King of All Birds and wore a golden crown.
An eagle from the Misty Mountains who helped Gandalf before and during the War of the Ring; his name means Windlord in Sindarin, and he is said to have been a descendant of Thorondor and the greatest and the swiftest of the Eagles of the North by the end of the Third Age. When the Eagles heard about Gollum's escape from Mirkwood, they sent Gwaihir to bear the news to Isengard, as they had been told by Radagast; the eagle espied Gandalf imprisoned upon the top of the tower and carried him to Edoras. Next time, Gwaihir was sent to seek for Gandalf by Galadriel; he found the wizard, who had recently defeated the Balrog, upon the summit of Celebdil and took him to Lothlórien. Upon Gandalf's orders, Gwaihir watched the river Anduin and brought him news about the Company of the Ring. The eagle participated in the Battle of the Morannon, and when Mount Doom erupted, he carried Gandalf to it, in order to save Frodo and Sam.
Eagles named "Gwaihir" and "Landroval" (or, in even earlier texts, "Gwaewar" and "Lhandroval") also appear in J. R. R. Tolkien's manuscripts of The Silmarillion, where they are stated to have been the two vassals of Thorondor who helped to bear Beren and Lúthien from Angband, several thousand years before the War of the Ring. The passage was removed from the published Silmarillion by Christopher Tolkien to escape the seeming discrepancy with The Lord of the Rings, although later he admitted that he was unable to interpret his father's intentions and regretted the suppression.
An eagle who helped to carry Frodo and Sam from Mount Doom, said in The Lord of the Rings to have been the brother of Gwaihir and descendant of Thorondor. His name means 'wide-wing' in Sindarin, and it was also used for an eagle of the First Age.
Concept and creation
The Great Eagles ruled by "Thorondor" [sic] already appeared in the first tale about Middle-earth that Tolkien wrote in late 1910s, The Fall of Gondolin, published in The Book of Lost Tales. The role of Thorondor was expanded in stages, with the successive introduction of the relevant plot elements; and after the conception of Númenor entered in 1930s, the notion that the eagles were the messengers of Manwë was further elaborated. Soon after, Tolkien introduced the eagles into The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, repeating in the latter some plot elements and names present in older writings. In several early texts Tolkien wrote that, before moving to Crissaegrim after the death of Fingolfin, the eagles of Thorondor nested upon the peaks of Thangorodrim above Morgoth's fortress of Angband; Christopher Tolkien assumes that this idea was later abandoned. Another rejected proposal was that after Beren's death Lúthien would not pass of grief, but would be carried to Valinor by Thorondor who would have been "summoned" by Melian the Maia
In Tolkien's early writings, the eagles were distinguished from other birds: Eä, the World, was bounded by the Walls of Night, and the space above the Earth up to the Walls was divided into three regions; common birds could keep aloft only within the lower layer, while the Eagles of Manwë could fly "beyond the lights of heaven to the edge of darkness". The conception of the limited world and of the layers of the firmament was rejected during the writing of The Lord of the Rings.
The eagle-shaped clouds that appeared in Númenor were one of Tolkien's recurring associations with the downfall of the island, just like the images of a sloping mountain and of an overwhelming wave; they were also introduced by him into two abandoned time-travel stories, The Lost Road and The Notion Club Papers. In a sketch for the former, Tolkien projected that it would be "Sorontur" (Thorondor) himself that appeared in Númenor to the protagonist of the story.
Tolkien's painting of an eagle on a crag appears in some editions of The Hobbit. According to Christopher Tolkien, the author based this picture on a painting by the Scottish ornithological artist Archibald Thorburn of an immature golden eagle, which Christopher found for him in The Birds of the British Isles by Thomas Coward.
The question of the Great Eagles' nature was faced by Tolkien with apparent hesitation. In early writings there was no need to define it precisely, since he imagined that, beside the Valar, "many lesser spirits... both great and small" had entered the Eä upon its creation; and such sapient creatures as the Eagles or Huan the Hound, in Tolkien's own words, "have been rather lightly adopted from less 'serious' mythologies". The phrase "spirits in the shape of hawks and eagles" in The Silmarillion derives from that stage of writing.
After the completion of The Lord of the Rings, Tolkien moved toward a more carefully defined "system" of creatures, with few if any exceptions:
- Incarnates or the "Children of Ilúvatar": Elves, Men, Dwarves, and Orcs,—those who possessed fëar or souls, with the defining characteristic of being able to speak;
- Self-incarnates or the Valar and Maiar—"angelic" spirits that "arrayed" themselves in bodily forms of the Incarnates or of animals, able to communicate both by thought and speech;
- Animals, unable to speak.
For some time Tolkien considered the Eagles as bird-shaped Maiar; however, later he realised that the statement about Gwaihir and Landroval's descent from Thorondor had already appeared in print in The Lord of the Rings, while the notion of the "Children" of the Valar and Maiar had been rejected by him long before. In the last of his notes on this topic, dated by his son to late 1950s, Tolkien decided that the Great Eagles were common animals that had been "taught language by the Valar, and raised to a higher level—but they still had no fëar."
A different conception may be present in a yet later essay on the origin of the Ents which, according to Christopher Tolkien, is likely to derive from 1963 and was included into the published Silmarillion. Contemporary J. R. R. Tolkien's notes define the Ents as "either souls sent to inhabit trees, or else that slowly took to the likeness of trees"; the essay agrees in this, adding that the Ents appeared shortly after the Awakening of the Elves, when "the thought of Yavanna ... [summoned] spirits from afar". The same origin for the Great Eagles may be implied by the speech of Manwë within the essay: "... before the Children awake there shall go forth with wings like the wind the Eagles of the Lords of the West. ... In the mountains the Eagles shall house, and hear the voices of those who call upon [the Valar]."
Eagles were associated with the Norse god Odin; for example, he escapes from Jotunheim back to Asgard as an eagle. The Tolkien scholar Marjorie Burns notes the similarity with Gandalf, who repeatedly escapes by riding on an eagle.
Deus ex machina
The screenwriter Brad Johnson, writing on Script, noted that Tolkien uses the Eagles three times as a deus ex machina, a sudden and unexpected mechanism to bring about a eucatastrophe: rescuing Bilbo and company in The Hobbit; lifting Gandalf from imprisonment by Saruman in the tower of Orthanc; and finally, saving Frodo and Sam from Mount Doom when they have destroyed the One Ring. Johnson states that this last instance is, undesirably, a complete surprise to the audience, and their sudden appearance "takes the audience out of the scene emotionally". Tolkien was aware of this problem, recognising the risky nature of the mechanism; in one of his letters, he wrote: "The Eagles are a dangerous 'machine'. I have used them sparingly, and that is the absolute limit of their credibility or usefulness. The alighting of a Great Eagle of the Misty Mountains in the Shire is absurd; it also makes the later capture of G[andalf] by Saruman incredible, and spoils the account of his escape".
Adaptations and influences
Different adaptations of Tolkien's books treated both the nature of the Eagles and their role in the plots with varying level of faithfulness to originals. The first scenario for an animated motion-picture of The Lord of the Rings proposed to Tolkien in 1957 was turned down because of several cardinal deviations, among which Humphrey Carpenter recorded that "virtually all walking was dispensed with in the story and the Company of the Ring were transported everywhere on the backs of eagles".
In The Lord of the Rings film trilogy directed by Peter Jackson, a notable deviation from the book is that Gandalf summons Gwaihir to Orthanc with the aid of a passing moth, rather than the Wizard Radagast, who was not included in the film. The same moth also appears to him before the Eagles arrive at the Battle of the Morannon, and a similar sequence of events (though with a different moth) is played out in Jackson's first installment of The Hobbit. According to fantasy artist Larry Dixon, the digitally animated eagles in the trilogy were based on a stuffed golden eagle he had offered to Weta Workshop for use in the project.
In The Lord of the Rings: War in the North, an eagle named Beleram acts as a supporting character, aiding the players in battle by attacking random, often powerful enemies such as trolls, giants or Uruk-hai, and carrying the heroes across areas of Middle-Earth. In the final battle against Agandaur, the game's antagonist and final boss, the player can decide whether to attack Agandaur with Beleram. If Beleram is summoned, he inflicts tremendous damage to Agandaur, but Agandaur will kill him. Preventing Beleram from attacking Agandaur allows him to live to the game's conclusion.
- This list identifies each item's location in Tolkien's writings.
- The Fellowship of the Ring, "The Council of Elrond", p. 275
- The Silmarillion, "Of the Ruin of Doriath", p. 228 harvnb error: no target: Silmarillion_1977 (help)
- The Silmarillion, "Of the Return of the Noldor", p. 110 harvnb error: no target: Silmarillion_1977 (help)
- The Hobbit, "Out of the Frying-Pan and into the Fire" harvnb error: no target: Hobbit_1937 (help)
- The Silmarillion, "Of the Beginning of Days", p. 40 harvnb error: no target: Silmarillion_1977 (help)
- The Silmarillion, "Valaquenta", p. 26 harvnb error: no target: Silmarillion_1977 (help)
- Morgoth's Ring, "The Annals of Aman", p. 138 harvnb error: no target: Morgoth's_Ring_1993 (help)
- The Silmarillion, "Of the Noldor in Beleriand", p. 125 harvnb error: no target: Silmarillion_1977 (help)
- The Silmarillion, "Of the Ruin of Beleriand", pp. 154, 158–9 harvnb error: no target: Silmarillion_1977 (help)
- The Silmarillion, "Of Tuor and the Fall of Gondolin", pp. 241, 243 harvnb error: no target: Silmarillion_1977 (help)
- Unfinished Tales, "Of Tuor and His Coming to Gondolin", and note 25
- The Silmarillion, "Of the Voyage of Eärendil", p. 252 harvnb error: no target: Silmarillion_1977 (help)
- Unfinished Tales, "A Description of Númenor" harvnb error: no target: Unfinished_Tales_1980 (help)
- The Silmarillion, "Akallabêth", p. 277 harvnb error: no target: Silmarillion_1977 (help)
- The Hobbit, "Queer Lodgings" harvnb error: no target: Hobbit_1937 (help)
- The Hobbit, "The Return Journey" harvnb error: no target: Hobbit_1937 (help)
- The Fellowship of the Ring, "The Ring Goes South", p. 288; "A Journey in the Dark", p. 309 harvnb error: no target: Fellowship_1954 (help)
- The Return of the King, "The Field of Cormallen", pp. 226–9
- The Lost Road, "Quenta Silmarillion", §97 harvnb error: no target: Lost_Road_1987 (help)
- The Etymologies, entries THORON-, TĀ- harvnb error: no target: Lost_Road_1987 (help)
- Morgoth's Ring, "Myths Transformed", VIII, pp. 409–411 harvnb error: no target: Morgoth's_Ring_1993 (help)
- The Silmarillion, "Of Beren and Lúthien", p. 182 harvnb error: no target: Silmarillion_1977 (help)
- The Etymologies, entries WAIWA-, KHER- harvnb error: no target: Lost_Road_1987 (help)
- The Two Towers, "The White Rider", pp. 98–9, 106
- The Fellowship of the Ring, "The Great River", p. 401 harvnb error: no target: Fellowship_1954 (help); The Two Towers, "The Riders of Rohan", p. 25 harvnb error: no target: Two_Towers_1954 (help)
- The Lost Road, "Quenta Silmarillion", Chs. 12–15, pp. 301–3 harvnb error: no target: Lost_Road_1987 (help)
- The War of the Jewels, "The Grey Annals", p. 68
- The Etymologies, entries LAD-, RAM- harvnb error: no target: Lost_Road_1987 (help)
- The Silmarillion, Appendix, entry menel harvnb error: no target: Silmarillion_1977 (help)
- The Etymologies, entries TĀ- harvnb error: no target: Lost_Road_1987 (help)
- The Shaping of Middle-earth, The Sketch, §15; The Quenta, §15; p. 66
- The Shaping of Middle-earth, "Ambarkanta" harvnb error: no target: Shaping_of_Middle-earth (help)
- The Lost Road, "The Fall of Númenor", (i), p. 12 harvnb error: no target: Lost_Road_1987 (help)
- The Lost Road, "Ainulindalë", p. 162 harvnb error: no target: Lost_Road_1987 (help)
- Morgoth's Ring, "Ainulindalë" harvnb error: no target: Morgoth's_Ring_1993 (help)
- Sauron Defeated, "The Notion Club Papers"
- The Lost Road, "The Lost Road", (ii), p. 75 harvnb error: no target: Lost_Road_1987 (help)
- Tolkien, C. J. R. (1979, editor), Pictures by J. R. R. Tolkien, George Allen & Unwin, plate no. 9, ISBN 0 04 741003 5
- The Hobbit, Foreword to the 50th-anniversary edition harvnb error: no target: Hobbit_1937 (help)
- The Lost Road, "Quenta Silmarillion", §2, p. 204 harvnb error: no target: Lost_Road_1987 (help)
- The War of the Jewels, "Quendi and Eldar", pp. 405–6 harvnb error: no target: War_of_the_Jewels_1994 (help)
- Morgoth's Ring, "Myths Transformed", (VIII) p. 412, note 4 harvnb error: no target: Morgoth's_Ring_1993 (help)
- Morgoth's Ring, "The Annals of Aman", p. 69; "The Later Quenta Silmarillion", Ch. 1, pp. 151–2 harvnb error: no target: Morgoth's_Ring_1993 (help)
- The War of the Jewels, "Of the Ents and the Eagles", pp. 340–341 harvnb error: no target: War_of_the_Jewels_1994 (help)
- Letters, no.247, p. 335
- The Silmarillion, "Of Aulë and Yavanna", p. 46 harvnb error: no target: Silmarillion_1977 (help)
- The Letters of J. R. R. Tolkien, #210
- Burns, Marjorie (2005). Perilous Realms: Celtic and Norse in Tolkien's Middle-earth. Toronto, Ontario, Canada: University of Toronto Press. pp. 95–101. ISBN 0-8020-3806-9.
- Johnson, Brad (29 July 2015). "PECS & THE CITY: Deus Ex Machina and 'Lord of the Rings'". Script. Retrieved 11 March 2020.
- Carpenter, Humphrey. "Cash or kudos". J. R. R. Tolkien: A Biography. George Allen and Unwin. p. 229. ISBN 978-0-04-928037-3.
- "Larry with Gwaihir". Larry Dixon. Retrieved 2010-07-26.
- "Genus Gwaihiria Naumann, 1982". Australian Faunal Directory. Retrieved 19 September 2012.
- Lord of the Rings: War in the North