Yet another productive talk with Hendumaïca!

We were eating burgers and French fries, and talking about the problem of the Eagles in the Lord of the Rings. You may recall that, in the past, Hendumaïca has shown surpassing keenness in seeing through to the truth of things, and the current problem was this. When the Council of Elrond decided to destroy the Ring, why didn’t Gandalf summon Gwaihir and his Eagles to fly Frodo over to Mount Doom? Presumably, Frodo of the Ten Fingers could simply drop the Ring into the Fire like a WWII bombardier, avoiding all the risks of a year-long journey, an overweight spider, and a slippery schizophrenic.

The simplistic explanation, of course, is that Tolkien just overlooked the possible course of action, and sent his heroes packing to Mordor without thinking of more cost-efficient routes.

Hendumaïca and I, however (but mostly Hendumaïca), cooked up an alternative explanation. Here it is.

It’s really all about chance and secrecy. Peculiar constraints seem to be in play regarding who in Middle Earth is allowed or not allowed to know about the Ring. So we see that Elrond opens the Council in Rivendell with the curious announcement that he has not called it, and that the Elves and travelers who are sitting in the council have arrived by “chance.” But it is not just any chance, as Elrond makes clear in his following remarks. It is a chance that has determined who is to decide the Fate of the Ring; and though Elrond does not use the term “providence,” the reader increasingly suspects that this form of “chance” is what is in play — chance from the perspective of Elves and men, but not chance from a higher perspective. At any rate, everyone takes this “chance” as a “sign” that they are the exclusive company to know about and decide the fate of the Ring, to the exclusion of most other beings in the world.

As the Council members debate their course of action, the only outsider they consider calling up is Tom Bombadil. Bombadil, of course, has already seen the Ring and knows about Frodo’s burden. In contrast to Bombadil, it never occurs to anyone in the Council to call up the Eagles. Presumably, this is because the Eagles don’t already know anything about the Ring and are not concerned with it in any way. Gandalf has not taken them into his counsel, nor have any of Gwaihir’s folk arrived “by chance” in Rivendell in time for the deliberations. These two facts seem to rule out their involvement from the beginning.

Of course, to say that “chance” disqualifies the Eagles from involvement in the Quest of the Ring may be the same as stating that Tolkien simply forgot to include them, or chose not to, so that we all might have the pleasure of reading about a year-long journey and spiders and a schizophrenic Gollum. In this case, the interest of the narrative is a sufficient reason for excluding the Eagles. However, even if Tolkien had decided to include a debate about the Eagles in the Council — if an Eagle had flown in and offered safe transportation to the Ringbearer — there still might have been practical reasons to reject the airborne course. Gandalf and Elrond may not have thought it wise to risk a long, obvious airborne journey straight through the skies towards Mordor. The problematic thing about Eagles is that they are not the only birds in Middle Earth. Sauron has winged spies and servants, including dragons, and the rumor of the Ring’s coming could spread as quickly as wings could beat the air. And, as the reader and the Ringbearer learn only much later, the unhorsed Nazgul also find wings to bear them aloft. A confrontation between Frodo and the King of Angmar, mounted on Eagle and Reptile respectively, would not be likely to go well.