Lords of the Skies

16 Dec

In Tolkien’s 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 dei ex machina, in various parts of his legendarium, from The Silmarillion and the accounts of Númenor to The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. Just as the Ents are guardians of plant life, the giant eagles are the guardians of animal life. In The Silmarillion, they were described as the noblest of the winged creatures of Arda, for they were brought forth by two mighty Valar: Manwë, Lord of the Air, and Yavanna, Queen of the Earth. The Great Eagles were numbered among the most ancient and wisest of races. These birds were always messengers and servants of Manwë. Over all the azure world they flew, like lords of the skies – for they were the eyes of the Valar, and like thunderbolts fell on their foes. In the First Age, a mighty breed of this race lived in Beleriand. These Eagles were far-famed for their deeds in the War of the Jewels. Their lord was Thorondor, said to have been the greatest of all birds, whose wingspan was thirty fathoms and whose speed out-stripped that of the fastest wind.

The difference between ‘common’ eagles and Great Eagles is pronounced, as described in The Hobbit: “Eagles are not kindly birds. Some are cowardly and cruel. But the ancient race of the northern mountains were the greatest of all birds; they were proud and strong and noble-hearted.” The eagles possessed a notable characteristic that distinguished them from other birds in early writings. Tolkien originally described Eä, the World, as bounded by the Walls of Night, and that the space above the surface of 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 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 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”. In the last of his notes on this topic, dated by his son to the 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 fear.”

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 during a battle in the air. 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.” 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 with or threaten them.

In the Third Age, Gwaihir the Windward ruled over the Eagles of Middle-earth. Though he was not the size of even the least of the Eagles of the First Age, by the measure of the Third Age he was the greatest of his time. Gwaihir’s people, the Eagles of the Misty Mountains, were fierce and much feared by the Dark Powers. In the War of the Ring Gwaihir, with his brother Landroval and one named Meneldor the Swift, often advanced in battle with the Eagle host. They helped defeat the Orcs in the Battle of Five Armies. They rescued the Wizard Gandalf and the Hobbit Ringbearers and fought in the last battle of the War of the Ring before the Black Gate of Mordor. The idea of the Eagles transporting the Ring to Mount Doom, or at least part of the way, is not discussed in The Lord of the Rings and Tolkien himself apparently never specifically addressed it, except in an oblique manner. In The Letters of J. R. R. Tolkien, he stated: “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. [Gandalf] by Saruman incredible, and spoils the account of his escape.”

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”! The Rankin-Bass animated version of The Hobbit portrayed the eagles as similar in physique and appearance to the harpy, crowned or monkey-eating eagles of the tropics, while Jackson’s trilogy provided a more traditional interpretation, with birds similar to the golden eagle. In The Lord of the Rings film trilogy directed by Peter Jackson, these creatures are 6 m (20 ft) tall with a maximum wingspan of 23 m (75 ft). A notable deviation from the book is that Gandalf summons Gwaihir to Orthanc with the aid of a by-passing moth (the role of Radagast was not included in that trilogy, although he later turned up in The Hobbit films). The same moth also appears to him before the Eagles arrive at the Battle of the Morannon, and a similar sequence of events is played out in Jackson’s first instalment of The Hobbit trilogy. In the films, like the books, they are used sparingly, as guardians, heralds and, every once in a while, dei ex machina on the side of our heroes.

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One Response to “Lords of the Skies”

  1. neilirving December 16, 2018 at 8:42 am #

    Always loved the eagles and ents 😀

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