Back to blog feed
I received this hoary query …

[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.)”]

About the Author: David Bratman

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.

  • cuthalion04

    Or, if you want to bring The Silmarillion into the mix, as Peter Jackson seems to enjoy doing, The Eagles are servants of Manwe, King of the Valar. As was said in the Council of Elrond, they could not send the Ring West, as the Valar would send it back, as it was one of Middle Earth’s problems. Manwe would most likely have told the Eagles not to get involved.

  • Chad

    #3 seems quite important, actually, and has always been the key point of continuity upon which my argument against such an idea has hinged.

  • Janet Georgiou

    I just love that people care.

  • The good, old “why don’t we fly the Ring to Mt. Doom?” question. 🙂 There really seems to be an everlasting interest in something which has been discussed to death. We even have several dozens of videos on YouTube tackling this issue – and mostly from a taxi drivers’ union pov. 😉

    This one is possibly the best of all solutions. *cough*

    And no, it is not a cop-out. Eagles don’t care for rings, the fate of Middle-earth or whatever. Not really. And most certainly not a future in the logistics sector….

    • That’s a great video – I’m surprised I hadn’t seen it before!

      • Go to Youtube.

        Enter “Eagles Mount Doom.” Enjoy 😉

        There are actually quite a few extremely entertaining ones. And they ALL suggest Tolkien is a hack who should have simply sent the Eagles 😉

    • David Bratman

      That’s a terrific video, Marcel, and it brings to life my reason #3. I wanted to forward this to my original inquirer as the definitive answer to his question, but the e-mail he was using at the time is no longer functional, and his name is not distinctive.

  • Potatamoto

    This seems to be salient to the topic (though beware of crude language):

  • swozzle

    Flying in by Eagle (assuming the Great Eagles would’ve assented to the mission) would’ve almost certainly failed as mentioned in 3) above. The best course of action was an overland mission by stealth, which is exactly what was attempted.

    The Hobbits got into Mordor by a route that was largely secret and very hazardous, and despite both of these it was well-guarded. The only reason they made it was due to the fortuitous chance that they had Gollum as a guide; and he was a most unlikely guide, particularly considering that the very object he desired was being carried by those he was guiding. That the Hobbits were able to tolerate the hard road to Mordor was beyond what most would think that Hobbits as a people were physically capable of, and then there is the fact that any path between the Mountains of Mordor and the fiery peak of Orodruin was always (until a final lucky stroke) positively brimming with Sauron’s troops. However, in the Hobbits favour were the facts that they were aided in their stealthy action by their elven cloaks and that they enjoyed a number of lucky breaks – though rather than luck it could probably best be called Providence.

    In any case, Sauron was strong in his belief that due to the Ring’s seductive power, no one (regardless if they came by foot or by Eagle) could wilfully abandon or destroy it anyway — at least no one except those of great power: and those of great power would be unlikely to be able to enter (or remain long in) Mordor unnoticed. He of course was right and Frodo could indeed not destroy the Ring, but Fate or Providence or some other Power(s) played it’s hand and the Ring was destroyed regardless.

    Most likely, flying it in by Eagle would’ve been the quickest and easiest way, not to destroy the Ring, but to deliver it to the eager grasp of Sauron’s Black Hand.