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|"Bilbo woke with the early sun in his eyes" by J.R.R. Tolkien|
|Origins||Animals sung and created by Manwë and Yavanna|
|Languages||At least Valarin, Quenya, Sindarin, Westron|
|Members||Thorondor, Great Eagle, Gwaihir, Landroval, Meneldor|
|Lifespan||Unknown, but obviously very longeval[note 1]|
|Gallery||Images of Eagles|
The Eagles were birds that served as messengers of Manwë. Among those were the Great Eagles, immense birds who were sentient, capable of speech, and often helped Men, Elves and Wizards in their quests to defeat evil. They were "devised" by Manwë Súlimo, King of the Valar, and were often called the Eagles of Manwë.
At a command of Manwë, the Lord of the Eagles, Thorondor, kept his eyries at the top of the Thangorodrim, the volcanoes above Angband, for a time. While he lived there, Thorondor helped Fingon rescue Maedhros.
Thorondor wounded Morgoth in the face after Morgoth's battle with Fingolfin, and he carried Fingolfin's body to the Echoriath, where he was buried by Fingon. Years later, three of the Great Eagles came to the aid of Beren and Lúthien, bearing them away from Thangorodrim after both had drained their strength in the Quest for the Silmaril. Thorondor's folk later removed their eyries to the Crissaegrim, part of the Echoriad about Gondolin. There they became friends of Turgon, bringing him news and keeping spies off their borders. Because of their guardianship, Orcs were unable to approach either the nearby mountains or the important ford of Brithiach to the south.  They redoubled their watch after the coming of Tuor, enabling Gondolin to remain undiscovered for the longest of all Elven realms. When the city fell at last, the eagles of Thorondor protected the survivors, driving away the orcs that ambushed them at Cirith Thoronath, the Eagles' Cleft north of Gondolin.
The Eagles fought alongside the army of the Valar, the Elves, and the Edain during the War of Wrath at the end of the First Age. After the appearance of winged dragons, all the great birds gathered under Thorondor and aided Eärendil, destroying the majority of the dragons.
Second Age (Númenor)
The Númenóreans believed that three eagles, "the Witnesses of Manwë", were sent by Manwë to guard the summit of Meneltarma; these appeared whenever one approached the hallow and stayed in the sky during the Three Prayers.
Eagle-shaped storm clouds, called the "Eagles of the Lords of the West", were sent by Manwë when he tried to reason with or threaten the Númenóreans.
- "- Farewell! wherever you fare, till your eyries receive you at the journey's end!
- May the wind under your wings bear you where the sun sails and the moon walks."
- ― Polite way to exchange good-bye with an Eagle
By the end of the Third Age, a colony of eagles under the Great Eagle lived in the northern parts of the Misty Mountains who mostly nested upon the eastward slopes not far from the High Pass leading from Rivendell, and thus in the direct vicinity of the Goblin-town beneath; they often afflicted the goblins and disrupted their plans.
These Eagles helped the Radagast and the Elves of Rivendell in watching the land and in gathering news about the Orcs.. As a result of feeding on the sheep of the local Woodmen of Mirkwood, their relationship was not good and the Eagles were afraid of the men's bows.
The eagles rescued Thorin and Company from a band of Goblins and Wargs and carried them to the Carrock. Some days later, they espied the mustering of goblins all over the Mountains to be gathered under the Great Eagle in the Battle of Five Armies near Erebor. It was only with their help that the Dwarves, Men and Elves managed to defeat the goblins. The Great Eagle became known as the King of All Birds.
The Eagles appeared in great numbers at the Battle of the Morannon, helping to fight against the Nazgûl. It was Gwaihir, his brother Landroval, and Meneldor who rescued Frodo Baggins and Samwise Gamgee from Mount Doom after the One Ring had been destroyed.
In Gnomish, one of Tolkien's early conceptions of an Elven language, a word for "eagle" is ioroth (poetic form ior). A cognate of the same meaning in Qenya is the poetic ea(r) or earen. Another Gnomish word for "an eagle" is thorn. The Thornhoth was the name for the eagle-folk in this early version.
Origin and nature
Spirits in the shape of hawks and eagles flew ever to and from his halls; and their eyes could see to the depths of the seas, and pierce the hidden caverns beneath the world.
Living things in Aman. As the Valar would robe themselves like the Children, many of the Maiar robed themselves like other lesser living things, as trees, flowers, beasts. (Huan.)
However, the notion of a "Maia" like Thorondor having descendants contradicted later concepts. Therefore, Tolkien decided that the Great Eagles, Huan and other intelligent animals were just animals, despite being "higher level" ones.
But true 'rational' creatures, 'speaking peoples', are all of human / 'humanoid' form. Only the Valar and Maiar are intelligences that can assume forms of Arda at will. Huan and Sorontar could be Maiar - emissaries of Manwe. But unfortunately in The Lord of the Rings Gwaehir and Landroval are said to be descendants of Sorontar.
(...) In summary: I think it must be assumed that 'talking' is not necessarily the sign of the possession of a 'rational soul' or fëa. (...)
The same sort of thing may be said of Huan and the Eagles: they were taught language by the Valar, and raised to a higher level - but they still had no fëar.
Then Manwë awoke, and he went down to Yavanna upon Ezellohar, and he sat beside her beneath the Two Trees. And Manwë said: 'O Kementári, Eru hath spoken, saying: "Do then any of the Valar suppose that I did not hear all the Song, even the least sound of the least voice? Behold! When the Children awake, then the thought of Yavanna will awake also, and it will summon spirits from afar, and they will go among the kelvar and the olvar, and some will dwell therein, and be held in reverence, and their just anger shall be feared. For a time: while the Firstborn are in their power, and while the Secondborn are young." But dost them not now remember, Kementári, that thy thought sang not always alone? Did not thy thought and mine meet also, so that we took wing together like great birds that soar above the clouds? That also shall come to be by the heed of Ilúvatar, and before the Children awake there shall go forth with wings like the wind the Eagles of the Lords of the West.'
In the text Tolkien stresses the fact that the Eagles appeared "before the Children awake", whereas the "spirits from afar" that would give rise to the Ents only would appear "when the Children awake". Therefore, there is no strong indication that Tolkien could have changed his mind and abandoned the notion that the Eagles have no fëar. Indeed, to the Ents, in turn, a very special origin is given, which can be compared to the origin of the Dwarves:
No one knew whence they (Ents) came or first appeared. The High Elves said that the Valar did not mention them in the 'Music'. But some (Galadriel) were [of the] opinion that when Yavanna discovered the mercy of Eru to Aule in the matter of the Dwarves, she besought Eru (through Manwe) asking him to give life to things made of living things not stone, and that the Ents were either souls sent to inhabit trees, or else that slowly took the likeness of trees owing to their inborn love of trees.
It is quite remarkable that this contrast between the Ents and their "humanoid" or free nature, on one side, and the Eagles and their animal or conditioned nature, on the other side, can already be intuited in the Treebeard's song in The Lord of the Rings:
Learn now the lore of Living Creatures!
First name the four, the free peoples
Eldest of all, the Elf children
Dwarf the delver, dark are his houses
Ent the earthborn, old as mountains
Man the mortal, master of horses;
Hm, hm, hm.
Beaver the builder, buck the leaper
Bear bee hunter, boar the fighter
Hound is hungry, hare is fearful...
Eagle in eyrie, ox in pasture,
Hart horn crowned; hawk is swiftest
Swan the whitest, serpent coldest...
The most notable were those Maiar who took the form of the mighty speaking eagles that we hear of in the legends of the war of the Ñoldor against Melkor, and who remained in the West of Middle-earth until the fall of Sauron and the Dominion of Men, after which they are not heard of again. Their intervention in the story of Maelor, in the duel of Fingolfin and Melkor, in the rescue of Beren and Lúthien is well known. (Beyond their knowledge were the deeds of the Eagles in the war against Sauron: in the rescue of the Ring Finder and his companions, in the Battle of Five Armies, and in the rescue of the Ringbearer from the fires of Mount Doom.)
"Flying the Ring to Mount Doom"
- "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
Some readers have questioned why the Eagles simply didn't carry Frodo and the One Ring into Mordor and drop the Ring in Mount Doom, or at least aid the Fellowship at some part of the journey, such as helping them avoiding the Redhorn Gate and Moria. At first glance this seems incredibly easy compared to what actually happened. These readers also take issue that the possibility of using the Eagles was not mentioned at all during the Council of Elrond. Although many flawed proposals are made during it (destroy the Ring, guard it, send it to the West, give it to Tom Bombadil), none of the participants thought to propose this seemingly obvious solution, especially after Gandalf described his escape with Gwaihir; even if only to be deemed unfeasible like the ones above.
These complaints are self-evidently addressed within the text, and their arguments are borne out by some of Tolkien's letters which shed light onto his views relating to these alleged issues, and why he himself did not regard them as issues.
In a letter concerning a possible adaptation of The Lord of the Rings into an animated movie, Tolkien said that the Eagles were "not taxis", and reiterated that the Fellowship's mission depended upon secrecy, so depicting a long arduous journey on foot was required to maintain the credibility of their stealthy approach.
Many readers have thus concluded from this and/or independently reasoned that the Eagles coming from the air, especially going straight to Mordor and Mt. Doom as is often joked about, would be the opposite of being stealthy, the importance of which the books emphasize a lot by themselves, as Sauron did not expect anyone would ever try to destroy the Ring. The huge Eagles would have been fairly obvious and defenseless to Sauron, who would thus have seen them coming from a distance and deduced the plan fairly quickly; his Ringwraiths and their Fell beasts and/or his legions of archers and his siege machines would most likely have stopped the attempt. Therefore a small party was needed to go on foot all the way as to minimize the risk of attracting notice.
Peter Jackson and Fran Walsh joke around the issue on the writer-director DVD commentary track; writing partner Philippa Boyens then bursts out and angrily declares one of the common explanations: "Why does everyone always say that?! The flying Nazgûl on their Fell Beasts would have stopped them! How more obvious does that need to be?! Mordor has flying creatures too!"
The topic is also brought up in the video game The Lord of the Rings: War in the North, where the heroes (who have experience working with the Great Eagles) suggest having one fly Frodo and the Ring to Mount Doom. Gandalf, however, explains that Sauron would anticipate such an intrusion and how dangerous the attempt would be.
In the letter, Tolkien further says that Eagles should be used carefully as a plot device, showing he was self-aware whenever he used them, and he described them as a "dangerous 'machine'" that he used sparingly, yet already at "the absolute limit of their credibility and usefulness".
He likened the proposed shortening of the Fellowship's journey via Eagles to "introducing helicopters" to the first ascent of Mt. Everest "to take the climbers halfway up (in defiance of probability)", and said that this would make "a farce" out of "the arduous journey". He wrote that this "achieves nothing but incredibility", and that it makes stale "the device of the Eagles when at last they are really needed".
These last words in particular connect the Eagles to his concept of "eucatastrophe" (Indeed, Tolkien wrote of the Eagles in explicit terms of eucatastrophe in a letter where he describes their coming to save the day in The Hobbit.) - the unexpected, sudden hand of providence showing itself and leading to a turn for the better, often realized at the climax and averting a sad ending but also appearing elsewhere in story structure. Since eucatastrophe is by nature unexpected, the Eagles by design would not and could not have been considered by the other characters as available or feasible options to take.
- The Eagles expressed fear in The Hobbit about going into the Lands of Men because of their bows. After the Ring is destroyed (along with all of Sauron's forces), the Eagles met no resistance from evil forces; thus, they were able to rescue Frodo and Sam.
- The Eagles could have possibly become corrupted by the power of the Ring and would have most likely attempted to prevent the destruction. Gandalf himself not only knew that anyone might and would refuse to throw in the Ring, but he was also afraid of it; the Eagles, as Maiar, could have been corruptive and dangerous.
- As emissaries of the Valar, the Eagles may have been somehow limited in how they intervened to great events, which the Valar perhaps considered matters between the Elves and Sauron; for example, they had sent the Wizards, who were prohibited to directly fight Sauron by physical or supernatural force, and the Eagles did aid the free peoples and even participated in battles. But otherwise, the Eagles would had been either afraid, unwilling, incapable, or (like the Wizards) forbidden to take any greater part.
- The Eagles's availability and power must have been limited. Gwaihir only arrives at Isengard because he is sent by Radagast. Once he rescues Gandalf, the Wizard asks him how far he can bear him, to which the Eagle replies "...not to the ends of the earth. I was sent to bear tidings not burdens." He took Gandalf just to Edoras, so he could find a horse to ride, and then departed.
- With the War of the Ring expanding to all the western realms of Middle-earth, the Eagles would need to protect their own lands in the event that Sauron's forces invade, and thus would be unable to spare any resources to assist the Fellowship.
The supposed issue with the Eagles not being brought up at the Council of Elrond is also explained away by fans by pointing out that the question is beyond the purview of the Council. They did decide that the Ring should be taken to Mordor and destroyed, and that Frodo would bear it just as he had volunteered to do so, but they did not discuss exactly how he should get there, and the other alternatives proposed were wholly different courses of action.
Fans also note that the live-action movies contributed to the controversy because Gandalf explicitly summons Gwaihir through a moth, while in the books he was saved by chance when Gwaihir flew by.
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 Archibald Thorburn of an immature Golden Eagle, which Christopher found for him in The Birds of the British Isles by T.A. Coward. However, Tolkien's use of this model does not necessarily mean that his birds were ordinary Golden Eagles. Normal Golden Eagles are a little too small to carry any normal non-baby human.
Other versions of the legendarium
In the earliest version of the fall of Gondolin, the king of the eagles, Thorndor (later Thorondor), had no love for Melko (later Melkor) because he had caught many eagles and tortured them for the magic words that would enable him to fly (in order to challenge Manwë for command of the air). When the eagles refused to reveal the magic words Melko cut off their wings in order to fashion a pair for himself, "but it availed not".
Portrayal in adaptations
- The Eagles are associated with moths; while Gandalf is trapped on the summit of Orthanc, he whispers to a moth and lets it go. Later, when confronted by Saruman, the moth reappears; an Eagle (supposedly Gwaihir) arrives and Gandalf escapes on its back.
- Right before the Battle of the Morannon, Gandalf notices a moth flies near him. Then the Eagles appear and fly against the fell beasts. They pick up Frodo and Sam from the slopes of Orodruin.
- As Thorin and Company are trapped in a falling tree by the band of Azog and their Wargs, Gandalf uses a moth to summon them to his aid. They grasp the wargs and drop them onto the rocks or in the fire, pick up an unconscious Thorin, and save the protagonists from falling. Unlike in the book, they drop the characters on the Carrock and leave; as in the other film adaptations, the Eagles don't appear sentient and there is no dialogue between them and the characters.
- The Eagles participate in the battle, and upon their arrival one drops Beorn in bear-form into the field of battle.
- Sean Crist: Could the eagles have flown Frodo into Mordor?
- Tolkien FAQ
- Michael Martinez: Is there an in-story explanation for why the eagles rarely participate in great events?
- J.R.R. Tolkien, Christopher Tolkien (ed.), The War of the Jewels, "Part One. The Grey Annals" p. 68
- J.R.R. Tolkien, Christopher Tolkien (ed.), The Silmarillion, "Quenta Silmarillion: Of the Noldor in Beleriand"
- J.R.R. Tolkien, Christopher Tolkien (ed.), The Silmarillion, "Quenta Silmarillion: Of the Ruin of Beleriand and the Fall of Fingolfin"
- J.R.R. Tolkien, Christopher Tolkien (ed.), The Silmarillion, "Quenta Silmarillion: Of Beren and Lúthien"
- J.R.R. Tolkien, Christopher Tolkien (ed.), The Silmarillion, "Quenta Silmarillion: Of Tuor and the Fall of Gondolin"
- J.R.R. Tolkien, Christopher Tolkien (ed.), Unfinished Tales, "Of Tuor and his Coming to Gondolin"
- J.R.R. Tolkien, Christopher Tolkien (ed.), The Silmarillion, "Quenta Silmarillion: Of the Ruin of Doriath"
- J.R.R. Tolkien, Christopher Tolkien (ed.), The Silmarillion, "Quenta Silmarillion: Of the Voyage of Eärendil and the War of Wrath"
- J.R.R. Tolkien, Christopher Tolkien (ed.), Unfinished Tales, "A Description of the Island of Númenor"
- J.R.R. Tolkien, Christopher Tolkien (ed.), The Silmarillion, "Akallabêth: The Downfall of Númenor"
- J.R.R. Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings, The Fellowship of the Ring, "The Council of Elrond"
- J.R.R. Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings, The Fellowship of the Ring, "The Ring Goes South"
- J.R.R. Tolkien, The Hobbit, "Queer Lodgings"
- J.R.R. Tolkien, The Hobbit, "The Return Journey"
- J.R.R. Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings, The Return of the King, "The Field of Cormallen"
- J.R.R. Tolkien, Christopher Tolkien (ed.), The Silmarillion, "Appendix: Elements in Quenya and Sindarin Names", entry thoron
- J.R.R. Tolkien, "I-Lam na-Ngoldathon: The Grammar and Lexicon of the Gnomish Tongue", in Parma Eldalamberon XI (edited by Christopher Gilson, Arden R. Smith, and Patrick H. Wynne), pp. 51, 73
- J.R.R. Tolkien, Christopher Tolkien (ed.), The Book of Lost Tales Part Two, "III. The Fall of Gondolin", p. 103
- J.R.R. Tolkien, Christopher Tolkien (ed.), Morgoth's Ring, "Part Two. The Annals of Aman" p. 138
- J.R.R. Tolkien, Christopher Tolkien (ed.), The Silmarillion, "Quenta Silmarillion: Of the Beginning of Days"
- J.R.R. Tolkien, Christopher Tolkien (ed.), The Lost Road and Other Writings, "Part Two: Valinor and Middle-earth before The Lord of the Rings, IV. Ainulindalë (Lost Road)"
- J.R.R. Tolkien, Christopher Tolkien (ed.), Morgoth's Ring, "Part One. Ainulindalë: The Music of the Ainur and the Coming of the Valar [Version C]"
- J.R.R. Tolkien, Christopher Tolkien (ed.), Morgoth's Ring, "Part Five. Myths Transformed", "[Text] VIII". Note 4.
- J.R.R. Tolkien, Christopher Tolkien (ed.), Morgoth's Ring, "Part Five. Myths Transformed" pp. 409-11
- J.R.R. Tolkien, Christopher Tolkien (ed.), The Silmarillion, "Quenta Silmarillion: Of Aulë and Yavanna"
- J.R.R. Tolkien, Christopher Tolkien (ed.), The War of the Jewels, "Part Three. The Wanderings of Húrin and Other Writings not forming part of the Quenta Silmarillion: IV. Of the Ents and the Eagles"
- J.R.R. Tolkien; Humphrey Carpenter, Christopher Tolkien (eds.), The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, Letter 247, (dated 20 September 1963)
- J.R.R. Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings, The Two Towers, "Treebeard"
- J.R.R. Tolkien, Carl F. Hostetter (ed.), The Nature of Middle-earth, "Part Three. The World, its Lands, and its Inhabitants: VIII. Manwë's Ban", Footnote #3
- Sean Crist, "Could the eagles have flown Frodo into Mordor?", (accessed 3 December 2022)
- J.R.R. Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings, The Fellowship of the Ring, Book II
- J.R.R. Tolkien; Humphrey Carpenter, Christopher Tolkien (eds.), The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, Letter 210, (undated, written June 1958)
- J.R.R. Tolkien; Humphrey Carpenter, Christopher Tolkien (eds.), The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, Letter 89, (dated 7-8 November 1944)
- Tolkien FAQ
- Michael Martinez, "Is There An In-story Explanation For Why the Eagles Rarely Participate in Great Events?", Xenite.org (accessed 3 December 2022)
- Cf. J.R.R. Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings, The Fellowship of the Ring, "The Council of Elrond", Elrond: "for good or ill [the Ring] belongs to Middle-earth; it is for us who still dwell here to deal with it".