Thursday, March 05, 2009

On Wings to Mordor

On Facebook Stephen Carlson posted an amusing youtube clip, How The Lord of the Rings Should Have Ended, which suggests a safer and swifter way to Mount Doom than the route taken by Frodo and Sam. The idea, of course, is as old as the book itself. In light of the eagle-rescue at the end, why didn't they just fly the hobbits to Mordor to begin with? Surely Gandalf would have thought of that?

One answer is that there would have been no story, and so perhaps we shouldn't look closely at these things. But Tolkien was better than that. He had rules in place for almost everything in Middle-Earth, and he was quite particular about how the Eagles could be used. A revealing letter is #210, written in the late '50s to Forrest Ackerman, who along with scriptwriter Morton Zimmerman, was preparing a film adaptation of Lord of the Rings (which thankfully never came to be). Tolkien tore Zimmerman a new one in this letter -- for just about everything, but not least for his liberal (mis)use of the Eagles. Tolkien wrote:
"I think [the Eagles] are a major mistake of Zimmerman, and without warrant. 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 Gandalf by Saruman incredible, and spoils the account of his escape. One of Zimmerman's chief faults is his tendency to anticipate scenes or devices used later, thereby flattening the tale out."
But not only did Tolkien object to gratuitous changes for aesthetic reasons, he had clear ideas about the role of the Eagles, at least by the time of writing Lord of the Rings. As servants of the Valar, they (like Gandalf) couldn't just bail out the Free Peoples of Middle-Earth by doing their leg-work or fighting battles for them. They couldn't be used as "taxis". Their primary duty was to watch and report to Manwe (the chief Vala) the world's tidings, and seldom interfere.

Gandalf, himself a servant of Manwe, made use of the Eagles, but mostly for last-ditch rescue operations. For instance, Gwahir rescued him from imprisonment in Saruman's tower, and also after his fight with the Balrog. In the apocalyptic battle at the Black Gate -- when everyone, including Gandalf, thought Sauron had the Ring and the world was about to end -- the Eagles showed up to show their solidarity (an "eschatological" moment if there is one in Lord of the Rings). When the Ring was suddenly destroyed, they were then sent (at Gandalf's behest) to rescue Frodo and Sam for saving Middle-Earth. In Lord of the Rings the Eagles play a consistently limited role, and in line with their creator's intention.

Unfortunately, that can't be said for The Hobbit. I'm not talking about Bilbo and the dwarves being flown away from the orcs in the Misty Mountains (which is, after all, a rescue operation commandeered by Gandalf), but the unacceptable participation in the Battle of Five Armies -- fought, of all things, over the question of how a dragon's treasure should be allocated. That strongly violates the rule of non-interference, and while apologists have tried justifying the Eagles' involvement here sixty ways to Sunday, I've found none of them convincing. It's just a matter of realizing that ideas were still gestating in the early stage of Tolkien's writing.

But it's a fun video anyway:


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