The eagles in Lord of the Rings are a plot hole, but also an us problem

Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy contains one of the great mysteries of our modern age. It’s a question that has been asked among friends, on Reddit, on Quora, on Stack Exchange, and on the dearly departed Yahoo Answers. It’s been memed, video-essayed, and even immortalized in stop motion Lego. It will never die.

2021 marks The Lord of the Rings movies’ 20th anniversary, and we couldn’t imagine exploring the trilogy in just one story. So each Wednesday throughout the year, we’ll go there and back again, examining how and why the films have endured as modern classics. This is Polygon’s Year of the Ring.

Why didn’t the Fellowship just ride eagles to Mordor?

That is, if Gandalf can ask a moth to bring him a giant eagle to rescue him from Saruman in The Fellowship of the Ring or pick Sam and Frodo up from the lava fields of Mount Doom in The Return of the King, why couldn’t he summon some giant eagles to carry the One Ring to Mordor itself, shortening the Ring Quest by months?

This question haunts me. Nay, it tortures me. So I’m going to answer it, and prove once and for all that it doesn’t fucking matter why they didn’t just ride eagles to Mordor.

The giant eagle that Gandalf calls up in The Fellowship of the Ring is sentient, one of an entire race of giant eagles that’s as old as the dwarves or the ents. This is one of the many bits of Tolkien lore that Philippa Boyens, Peter Jackson, and Fran Walsh decided would stay on the cutting floor of a trilogy that’s already over nine hours long.

Gandalf’s particular eagle friend is Gwaihir the Windlord, who owes Gandalf for some service the wizard paid to him in the past — possibly a life-debt, though The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings are somewhat contradictory on this. When Gwaihir gives Gandalf a ride in The Lord of the Rings, he’s doing the wizard a favor. He doesn’t do requests.

Gwaihir noticed Gandalf on top of Saruman’s tower and agreed to rescue him, but would only take him as far as Edoras in Rohan. Then, he noticed Gandalf on top of the peak of Zirak-zigil, after he defeated the Balrog, and agreed to take him on another short trip to Lothlorien. When Gandalf asked Gwaihir to help rescue Sam and Frodo from Mount Doom, it was with a promise to never ask him for anything else ever again. “Twice you have borne me, Gwaihir my friend, […] Thrice shall pay for all, if you are willing,” he said to the Windlord in The Return of the King.

A giant eagle roosts on a mountaintop, with Bilbo Baggins reclining nearby.
Tolkien’s illustration of an eagle and its eyrie in The Hobbit.
Art: J.R.R. Tolkien

Like most of how Gandalf flexes power in The Lord of the Rings, it’s not about magic, but about politicking. The giant eagles of Middle-earth aren’t beasts to tame, like Shadowfax; they have their own society and concerns. And just like literally everyone else in the story, it takes a lot of work to get them to care about all this Dark Lord stuff until it affects them directly. The eagles can’t carry the Fellowship to Mordor because Gandalf can’t simply summon a squadron of birds to divebomb Mount Doom.

Without a throwaway line or a hung lampshade from Boyens, Jackson, and Walsh, it’s reasonable for movie fans to wonder why the Fellowship can’t ride eagles to Mordor. But the real problem is that book fans are always there with the answer.

Back in my World of Warcraft days, I saw it demonstrated that the best way to get useful tips out of a disinterested zone-wide chat was to ask your question about the location of that quest NPC, and then have a buddy reply with something you knew was not the right answer. Previously apathetic players would leap to “correct” your friend and demonstrate their far superior knowledge of Ashenvale Forest or whatever.

This is the real reason the eagles question will never die: It’s too appetizing for The Lord of the Rings fans. The Lord of the Rings doesn’t have plot holes. How dare you suggest! Movie viewers will keep asking, and book readers are going to keep answering, and we will never escape the “Eagles, Explained” cycle.

I myself fell prey to this trap for many, many years, before I realized that the book explanation of the eagles question isn’t the real answer.

Movie fans should be able to figure it out on their own

A Nazgul riding a monstrous and winged fel beast menaces Frodo in The Two Towers. Image: New Line Cinema

Perhaps Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy didn’t underline this enough, but everything the Fellowship does on the Ring Quest is to maintain Sauron’s ignorance of its existence. The moment the Dark Lord realizes there is a plan to destroy the Ring rather than use it, he would turn his entire operation into a Find Frodo Free For All. That’s why Gandalf and Elrond assemble a small group to sneak into Mordor in Fellowship. It’s why Gandalf and Aragorn actively mislead Sauron into thinking the Ring is in Minas Tirith in The Return of the King.

The eagles plan is cool, but it’s not secret. The Fellowship can’t ride eagles to Mordor because of the giant, flying snake-dragon monsters ridden by One-Ring-sensing warrior kings and their half-mile-wide aura of fear. The moment the eagles swooped in, the Fellowship would show its hand, and if the plan failed, Sauron would recover the Ring and instantly reunite with a power he hasn’t held in 6,000 years. If the Ringbearer dies in Moria, or on top of a mountain, or unseen in the Dead Marshes, or is slain by squabbling orc kidnappers, then the Ring would be lost once again, to the forces of good and evil.

The eagles can’t carry the Fellowship to Mordor because that’s actually a shitty plan.

But here’s the thing. That’s also not the real answer.

Plot holes aren’t actually about plot

Why does Buzz Lightyear freeze with the other toys when a human walks into a room, if he believes he is actually a space ranger? How is it possible for an Apple PowerBook 5300 to download a virus into an alien mothership? Is it really harder to train as an offshore driller than as an astronaut? Why didn’t Jack get on the door with Rose? Why doesn’t Batman just kill the Joker?

Chances are that, with at least one of the above examples, the thought of a person seriously demanding that the movie provide an answer exhausts you. And chances are that you also have a movie or two that leaves you with a brain-tweaking question every time you see it. And I can hear you saying, right now, “Well, the things that bother me are real plot holes. Those other things … people need to just relax and enjoy the movie.”

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The thing about plot holes is that they’re not just about the movie. They’re mostly about the viewer. If you can’t stop thinking about a logical inconsistency, it could be because the movie failed to engage you in believing in it. But it’s just as likely that you just… weren’t that into it.

Maybe you’re not a science fiction buff, and these laser swords bore you, so you find yourself focusing on how the ships make sound in space, which is impossible. Maybe you’re not into romantic drama, so you find yourself focusing on why nobody in this movie just talks about their feelings, which would really help Elizabeth and Mr. Darcy work this out.

Every story has something that someone could consider a logical inconsistency. But stories are a contract between the teller and the listener. The listener will engage with the teller’s story, and the teller gets to tell the story they made. If you have to ask “Why didn’t the story do X,” when the story is clearly about “Y,” you’re not engaged in it. And the answer is always the same: It’s a made up story. And they made it about Y.

The real answer to why the eagles couldn’t just fly the One Ring to Mordor is that flying Frodo and Sam to Mount Doom is a completely different story from their long, lonely struggle against impossible odds. You might as well ask why Elrond and Gandalf didn’t raise an army to invade Mordor, and then throw the Ring into Mount Doom. You might as well ask why they didn’t just take the Ring’s power for their own.

Tolkien invented the eagles for The Hobbit, and used them sparingly as a fast travel system for his wizard in The Lord of the Rings. Boyens, Jackson, and Walsh brought them to the big screen in all their feathered glory. The eagles have an explanation, but they don’t really need it. The plot of the Lord of the Rings is the story Tolkien, Boyens, Jackson, and Walsh wanted to tell. A story with occasional giant eagles.