The Definitive Answer: Why didn’t the Fellowship fly to Mordor
“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” – Professor J. R. R. Tolkien.
This was Tolkien’s peeved reaction to a (as it turns out, completely amateur) story treatment for a Lord of the Rings adaptation that arrived at his desk in 1956. Mistaking it for a serious enterprise, he offered a lengthy critique, one of whose points was criticizing the writer’s using of the Eagles as a plot device in places where Tolkien’s book does not. Tolkien’s pedantic streak (one can relate) got the better of him and he started laying a series of harsh critiques of the treatment, although he concluded he’d be willing to play along for big enough a sum of money. Still, the use of the Eagles was major sticking point with him. “‘Nine Walkers'”, he retored, “and they immediately go up in the air!”
This is a question that had bothered readers for decades, though: “Why don’t they use the Eagles to fly to Mordor?!” The obvious reason is that were that the case, there’d be no story. That’s really the main issue with these kind of criticisms that seek to dismantle one of the main conceits of a fictional story: “Why does Indiana Jones not affect the course of events in Raiders of the Lost Ark?” or “Why doesn’t Jack get on the plank in Titanic?” Of the latter said James Cameron: “Its just stupid. I mean, yeah, could Romeo had been smart and not taken the poison, yes. It sort of misses the point.”
Nevertheless, many an answer had been provided for this conceit in the past. One is that the Eagles operate on their own agency and won’t necessarily agree to take the Fellowship to Mordor. That always struck me as a weak argument because surely when entreated with the earnestness of the situation they could have been persuaded to land a helping hand (errr, wing) to the Nine Walkers, right? So that never struck me as a very good reasoning.
But the main reason it leaves me unconvinced is that Tolkien had provided the explanation in The Fellowship of the Ring:
‘ ‘‘How far can you bear me?’’ I said to Gwaihir.
‘ ‘‘Many leagues,’’ said he, ‘‘but not to the ends of the earth. I was sent to bear tidings not burdens.’’
‘ ‘‘Then I must have a steed on land,’’ I said, ‘‘and a steed surpassingly swift, for I have never had such need of haste
‘ ‘‘Then I will bear you to Edoras.”
There you have it: Gwaihir himself can only carry Gandalf so far so quickly: for all their size, the Great Eagles are not a very effective means of transportation. Indeed, when we chart the various air-fares that the Eagles had provided in Middle Earth history, they’re all surpassinlgy terse:
- Eagles, coming from their eyries in the Echoriath, go to nearby Angband to rescue Maedhros.
- Eagles beare young Hurin and Huor from nearby Dimbar and back to Gondolin, which is in the vicinity of their eyries.
- Eagles beare Beren and Luthien from the gates of Angband to the outskirts of Doriath.
- Eagles from their eyries in the Misty Mountains bear Thorin and Company from those very mountains to the nearby Carrock, with a layover at their eyries.
- Eagles come just after the Orc army that attacks Erebor. its noteworthy that it took the Eagles longer to get to the mountain that did the Orcs and Wargs, in spite of the Eagles espying the Orcs’ amassing army from the outset.
- Gwaihir beares Gandalf from the southern edge of the Misty Mountains and drops him off at nearby Edoras.
- Gwaihir beares Gandalf from Celebdil to nearby Lorien, and then from Lorien down the Anduin. Its again noteworthy that in spite of having been dropped at Lorien but a day after the Fellowship, who are traveling by boat and encounter several delays before switching to a foot-chase, it still takes Gandalf astride Gwaihir until Fangorn to catch up with them.
- Gwaihir and the other eagles arrive at the Battle of the Black Gates, presumably having been bidden by Elrond or Galadriel a few days prior. They proceed to go to nearby Mount Doom to fetch the Ringbearers and back.
All of these are short trips, and the lengthiest of the bunch – such as Gandalf’s journey down the Anduin – seem to take as long a time as a travel by boat, in spite of the Fellowship being beset by an Orc attack and having to drag their boats on foot for a short leg; all of it, presumably, because (as they do with Thorin and Company), the Eagles need to stop frequently for rest when they bear the weight of a person. This would suggest that the Eagles are no faster a mode of transportation than walking to Mordor, and they’re certainly not as steathly a mode of transportion. Are they a safer one? We’re told Gwaihir had been the target of archers in the past, and on top of that the Nazgul are equipped with flying Fell Beasts.
So there you have it: the definitive answer to why the goddamn Eagles couldn’t fly the Hobbits to Mordor: they’d be rubbish at it.
Quod Erat bloody Demonstrandum!