[in honour of Tolkien’s birthday, a reprint of a classic blog post]
And this was what the letter said:
I read that you were a Tolkien scholar so I was hoping you might be able to answer a question regarding the LOTR story.
It has been asked why the one of the Eagles couldn’t take Frodo to Mt. Doom in the first place, but no one seems to be able to answer this. I’m having a hard time finding anyone who will even take this question seriously; they all give the same lame copout answers (“because then there would be no story; eagles weren’t taxis, etc.). My belief is that this was a hole in the plot that Tolkien failed to address. One might imagine that there were reasons not given in the story which would rule out the Eagles plan, but to be honest I’m not sure if there would be any way to explain it without making a couple minor revisions to the story. Even so I think it would be a difficult problem to solve. Tolkien himself admitted that the Eagles were “a dangerous literary tool”. I was just wondering if you’d heard any discussion on this and if you had any thoughts on the subject. Any insight you could give me would be greatly appreciated.
Your question is one that’s often discussed on Tolkien bull-session bulletin boards, but it’s not been dealt with at any length by Tolkien scholars, because it’s not really a very important question.
The real answer, that is to the question “Why didn’t Tolkien write it that way?” you already have – because there would be no story. That’s no cop-out but a simple fact. This is fiction, remember, and the reader has to accept the set-up. There’s more to it than that, though. Intentionally or not, LOTR is a story of moral perseverance against the odds. Constantly in the story, Frodo and the other heroes succeed because they have put forth their supreme effort. If the job were too easy, they wouldn’t succeed. For instance, had Frodo not been brought to extremity in the wilderness and come, through that and the long burden of carrying the Ring, to understand Gollum’s suffering, he would not have decided to spare Gollum. Merry and Pippin could never have put the Shire ruffians to flight had they not been tempered in Fangorn, Rohan, and Gondor. This may sound like another cop-out, but it’s actually a key to the story. Gandalf indicates in a couple of places that the quest serves a purpose in the hobbits’ own moral development: when he tells Frodo “Bilbo was meant to find the Ring, and not by its maker,” and when he assures the hobbits near the end that they can settle the Shire’s affairs: “That is what you have been trained for.” The easy solution to the Ring, one might think, is to have an Eagle fly it to Mount Doom, but we already have solutions such as sending it away or actually using it that are easy, simple – and wrong.
But you want an internal, continuity-based answer. There is none, actually. Tempting as it is to consider Middle-earth a real place, there are many holes in its history that the author never bothered, or never figured out how, to fill. (Could an orc repent, and what would happen if it did? is the biggest; Tolkien spent quite some time in later years scratching his head over that one.) I can make a couple of comments on this question, though.
1) Eagles really aren’t a taxi service. They’re proud, independent birds, and while they may grant favors, you can’t just call on them to solve all your problems.
2) Eagles are also wild, dangerous, and serve no-one but themselves. I wouldn’t let one anywhere near the One Ring once it’s been rendered “radioactive” so to speak by Sauron’s active searching.
3) The Fellowship’s only hope for success is to come in to Mordor underneath Sauron’s radar, so to speak. Obscurity and stealth are their bywords. A Giant Eagle of the Misty Mountains flying directly towards Mount Doom is going to be noticed. The rescue from Mount Doom is possible only because by that time Sauron and the Nazgul are otherwise occupied.
[Coda: My inquirer still thought it was a cop-out.]
[Sub-coda: After a couple of commenters on the original post cracked, “The round-trip fare required a Saturday night stay,” someone else pointed out, “There was actually a black out period going on for air travel. (Remember the darkness that issued out of Mordor.)”]
David Bratman is co-editor of Tolkien Studies: An Annual Scholarly Review, and former editor of Mythprint, the bulletin of The Mythopoeic Society. He likes to write about Tolkienian biography and bibliography.