|Base of operations||Encircling Mountains, Misty Mountains|
In J. R. R. Tolkien's fictional universe of 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 deus 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.
These creatures are usually thought to have been similar to actual eagles (for example, as an independent species of the subfamily Buteoninae), but much larger. In The Silmarillion, Thorondor is said to have been the greatest of them and of all birds, with a wingspan of 30 fathoms (180 ft; 55 m). Elsewhere, the eagles have varied in nature and size both within Tolkien's writings and in later visualisations and films.
The difference between "common" eagles and Great Eagles is prominently 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.
Throughout The Silmarillion, the Eagles are particularly associated with Manwë, the ruler of the sky and Lord of the Valar. It is stated that "spirits in the shape of hawks and eagles" brought news from Middle-earth to his halls upon Taniquetil, the highest mountain in Valinor, although later in the book the same is said of birds in general, and in the Valaquenta of "all swift birds, strong of wing". (On the different conceptions implied by these and similar passages, see Nature below.)
Upon their first appearance in the main narrative, it is stated that the Eagles had been "sent forth" to Middle-earth by Manwë, to live in the mountains north of the land of Beleriand, in order to "watch upon" Morgoth, and to help the exiled Noldorin Elves "in extreme cases". The Eagles were ruled by Thorondor, who dwelt (apparently with the majority of his folk) in the Encircling Mountains to the west of Dorthonion.
When the Hidden City of Gondolin was built by Turgon, the eagles of Thorondor became his allies, bringing him news and keeping spies off the borders. Therefore the Orcs of Morgoth were unable to approach either the nearby mountains, or the important ford of Brithiach to the south; the eagles' watch had been redoubled after the coming of Tuor, enabling Gondolin to remain undiscovered the longest of all Elven realms. When the city fell at last, the eagles of Thorondor protected the fugitives, from the orcs that ambushed them at Cirith Thoronath north of Gondolin.
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".
There was another eyrie upon the tower of the King's House in the capital Armenelos, always inhabited by a pair of eagles, until the days of Tar-Ancalimon and the coming of Shadow to Númenor. In addition, it is stated that many eagles lived upon the hills around Sorontil in the north of the island, although in the last case it is unclear whether these were "great" or "common" eagles.
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 or threaten them.
By the end of the Third Age, a colony of Eagles lived in the northern parts of the Misty Mountains, as described in The Hobbit, upon the eastward slopes not far from the High Pass leading from Rivendell, and thus in the direct vicinity of the Goblin-town beneath the Mountains. It is stated that these Eagles often afflicted the goblins and "stopped whatever wickedness they were doing"; however, their relationship with the local Woodmen was only cool, as the eagles often hunted their sheep.
During the events of the book, eagles of this colony rescued Thorin's company from a band of goblins and wargs, ultimately carrying the dwarves to the Carrock. Later, having espied the mustering of goblins all over the Mountains, a great flock of Eagles participated in the Battle of the Five Armies.
In The Lord of the Rings it is stated that the Eagles of the Misty Mountains helped the Elves of Rivendell and the Wizard Radagast in gathering news about the Orcs. In addition, a prominent (though behind-the-scene) role is played by Gwaihir, and the Eagles appear in great numbers towards the end of the book. In a parallel to The Hobbit, they arrived at the Battle of the Morannon, helping the Host of the West against the Nazgûl. Several of them rescued Frodo Baggins and Samwise Gamgee from Mount Doom after the One Ring had been destroyed.
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" (Letter 210).
The Lord of Eagles in the First Age, said in The Silmarillion to be the "mightiest of all birds that have ever been", with a wingspan of thirty fathoms (54.9 meters, or 180 feet) and a beak of gold. His name translates from Sindarin, an Elven language devised by Tolkien, as 'King of Eagles'; its cognate form in Quenya, another Elven language, is Sorontar. He led the eagles during most of their appearances in The Silmarillion, and has a significant role of his own.
Thorondor first enters the narrative when he helped the Elven-prince Fingon rescue his kinsman Maedhros from imprisonment upon Thangorodrim. After the Dagor Bragollach, he saved Fingolfin's body from defilement by his slayer Morgoth, giving the Dark Lord a scar on his face and carrying the Elven-king's corpse to the Encircling Mountains north of Gondolin, where it was buried by Turgon. Shortly afterwards, Thorondor espied Húrin and Huor at the feet of the Mountains, and sent two of his servants to fetch them and bear them to Gondolin, fulfilling thus the intentions of the Vala Ulmo. Thorondor and two other eagles rescued Lúthien and the wounded Beren from the doors of Angband during their Quest of the Silmaril, taking them to Doriath.
Lord of the Eagles
While in The Silmarillion the title "Lord of the Eagles" applies to Thorondor, in The Hobbit it evidently has another significance. No eagles are identified by name in this book, and titles "the Lord of the Eagles" or "the Great Eagle" distinguish their leader from others. It is stated that once he had been healed from an arrow-wound by Gandalf, and that it was in the memory of this service that his eagles helped the dwarves. After his participation in the Battle of Five Armies, he was given the title King of All Birds and wore a golden crown.
Many readers assume that it was Gwaihir that led the eagles in this story; but in The Return of the King Gandalf said that Gwaihir had carried him twice before the Battle of the Morannon, while the proper count would have been three or four times if Gwaihir and the Lord of the Eagles had been the same individual.
An eagle from the Misty Mountains that helped Gandalf before and during the War of the Ring; his name means Windlord in Sindarin, and he is said to have been a descendant of Thorondor and the greatest and the swiftest of the Eagles of the North by the end of the Third Age. When the Eagles heard about Gollum's escape from Mirkwood, they sent Gwaihir to bear the news to Isengard, as they had been told by Radagast; the eagle espied Gandalf imprisoned upon the top of the tower and carried him to Edoras. Next time, Gwaihir was sent to seek for Gandalf by Galadriel; he found the wizard, who had recently defeated the Balrog, upon the summit of Celebdil and took him to Lothlórien. Upon Gandalf's orders, Gwaihir watched the river Anduin and brought him news about the Company of the Ring. The eagle participated in the Battle of the Morannon, and when Mount Doom erupted, he carried Gandalf to it, in order to save Frodo and Sam.
Eagles named "Gwaihir" and "Landroval" (or, in even earlier texts, "Gwaewar" and "Lhandroval") also appear in J. R. R. Tolkien's manuscripts of The Silmarillion, where they are stated to have been the two vassals of Thorondor who helped to bear Beren and Lúthien from Angband, several thousand years before the War of the Ring. The passage was removed from the published Silmarillion by Christopher Tolkien to escape the seeming discrepancy with The Lord of the Rings, although later he admitted that he was unable to interpret his father's intentions and regretted the suppression.
An eagle who helped to carry Frodo and Sam from Mount Doom, said in The Lord of the Rings to have been the brother of Gwaihir and descendant of Thorondor. His name means 'wide-wing' in Sindarin, and it was also used for an eagle of the First Age, either the same as that of the Third or not (see above).
Concept and creation
The Great Eagles ruled by "Thorndor" [sic] already appeared in the first tale about Middle-earth that Tolkien wrote in late 1910s, The Fall of Gondolin, published in The Book of Lost Tales. The role of Thorondor was expanded in stages, with the successive introduction of the relevant plot elements; and after the conception of Númenor entered in 1930s, the notion that the eagles were the messengers of Manwë was further elaborated. Soon after, Tolkien introduced the eagles into The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, repeating in the latter some plot elements and names present in older writings.
In several early texts Tolkien wrote that, before moving to Crissaegrim after the death of Fingolfin, the eagles of Thorondor nested upon the peaks of Thangorodrim above Morgoth's fortress of Angband; Christopher Tolkien assumes that this idea was later abandoned. Another rejected proposal was that after Beren's death Lúthien would not pass of grief, but would be carried to Valinor by Thorondor who would have been "summoned" by Melian the Maia.
The eagles possessed a notable characteristic that distinguished them from other birds in early writings. Tolkien originally described that Eä, the World, was 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 conception of the limited world and of the layers of the firmament was rejected during the writing of The Lord of the Rings.
The eagle-shaped clouds that appeared in Númenor were one of Tolkien's recurring associations with the downfall of the island, just like the images of a sloping mountain and of an overwhelming wave; they were also introduced by him into two abandoned time-travel stories, The Lost Road and The Notion Club Papers. In a sketch for the former, Tolkien projected that it would be "Sorontur" (Thorondor) himself that appeared in Númenor to the protagonist of the story.
Tolkien's painting of an eagle on a crag appears in some editions of The Hobbit. According to Christopher Tolkien, the author based this picture on a painting by Archibald Thorburn of an immature golden eagle, which Christopher found for him in The Birds of the British Isles by Thomas Coward. However, Tolkien's use of this model does not necessarily mean that his birds were ordinary golden eagles.
Nature of the Eagles
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 the 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". The phrase "spirits in the shape of hawks and eagles" in The Silmarillion derives from that stage of writing.
After the completion of The Lord of the Rings, Tolkien introduced a strict "system" of living creatures:
- Incarnates or the "Children of Ilúvatar": Elves, Men, Dwarves, and Orcs, — those who possessed fëar or souls, with the defining characteristic of being able to speak;
- Self-incarnates or the Valar and Maiar — "angelic" spirits that "arrayed" themselves in bodily forms of the Incarnates or of animals, able to communicate both by thought and speech;
- Animals, unable to speak.
For some time Tolkien considered the Eagles as bird-shaped Maiar; however, later he realised that the statement about Gwaihir and Landroval's descent from Thorondor had already appeared in print in The Lord of the Rings, while the notion of the "Children" of the Valar and Maiar had been rejected by him long before. In the last of his notes on this topic, dated by his son to 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 fëar."
A different conception may be present in a yet later essay on the origin of the Ents which, according to Christopher Tolkien, is likely to derive from 1963 and was included into the published Silmarillion. Contemporary J. R. R. Tolkien's notes define the Ents as "either souls sent to inhabit trees, or else that slowly took to the likeness of trees"; the essay agrees in this, adding that the Ents appeared shortly after the Awakening of the Elves, when "the thought of Yavanna ... [summoned] spirits from afar". Apparently the same origin for the Great Eagles is implied by the speech of Manwë within the essay: "... before the Children awake there shall go forth with wings like the wind the Eagles of the Lords of the West. ... In the mountains the Eagles shall house, and hear the voices of those who call upon [the Valar]."
However, the spirits summoned by Yavanna come to Arda only after the Awakening of the Elves; nevertheless the eagles, according to Manwë, already would exist "before the Children awake”. Given this, the eagles would not have been among the spirits summoned by Yavanna in that paragraph, suggesting that Tolkien didn’t change from the view that the eagles are animals, and have no fëar. They would be like dragons: they have inside themselves a "part" of their creator, which defines their conduct, or their “programming”.
Adaptations and influences
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 harpy, crowned or monkey-eating eagles of the tropics (subfamilies Circaetinae and Harpiinae), 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 the film). The same moth also appears to him before the Eagles arrive at the Battle of the Morannon, and a similar sequences of events (though with a different moth) is played out in Jackson's first installment of The Hobbit. According to fantasy artist Larry Dixon, the digitally animated eagles in the trilogy were based on a stuffed golden eagle he had offered to Weta Workshop for use in the project.
Although giant birds of prey appear in legends of many cultures, Tolkien's Great Eagles may have been the direct inspiration for similar creatures in various modern fantasy genres, such as the Giant eagles in the role-playing game Dungeons & Dragons.
In Lord of the Rings: War in the North, an eagle named Beleram acts as a supporting character, aiding the players in battle by attacking random, often powerful enemies such as trolls, giants or Uruk-hai, and carrying the heroes across areas of Middle-Earth. In the final battle against Agandaur, the game's antagonist and final boss, the player can decide whether to attack Agandaur with Beleram. If Beleram is summoned, he inflicts tremendous damage to Agandaur, but Agandaur will kill him. Preventing Beleram from attacking Agandaur allows him to live to the game's conclusion.
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