The Lord of the Rings trilogy is one of the most beloved series in the history of literature. It also has a glaring plot problem.
(Quick spoiler alert for anyone who somehow hasn’t read these books yet!)
There are eagles in The Lord of the Rings, though they aren’t the kind one finds at the zoo. The Eagles of LOTR, called "The Great Eagles," are gigantic. Their immense size means humans (and sometimes wizards) can ride them. In The Hobbit, Tolkien describes them as "proud and strong and noble-hearted." Plus, they battle orcs and the Fell beasts of the Nazgul, when they feel like it.
From a fantasy fandom perspective, the Eagles are just plain cool. So how can cool magical plot elements possibly be problematic? Let’s discuss.
The Eagle Problem
Many readers/viewers of the LOTR book or film series come away with a legitimate question:
Why didn’t Frodo ride an Eagle over Mt. Doom and drop the Ring in?
Yes, it’s a question even the most die-hard LOTR fans must consider. The Great Eagles of Middle Earth are like a jet pack introduced to a basketball game: If you have the option to use it, it makes no sense not to do so.
Yet, incredibly, that’s what happens in LOTR. None of the characters suggest using the Eagles to shorten their journey, nor does J.R.R. Tolkien even address the issue. The closest he got was writing the following passage in a letter:
“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.”
The Eagles are a problem. They certainly don’t ruin the trilogy, but they do generate logical inconsistencies in the plot. So, today, we’re going to analyze the problem and investigate ways of preventing similar ones from invading our work. Sound good? Let’s get started.
Lesson 1: Don’t Prioritize “Coolness” over Story
I put “coolness” in quotes here because it’s not exactly a technical term. Nonetheless, I think it’s apt. Clearly, Tolkien included the Eagles in his work because he thought they were cool.
We’ve all had elements like that in our writing. Perhaps it’s a character with godlike magical abilities, or maybe a hidden object that holds the key to the entire plot. Whatever it is, we keep it in our work because it’s cool, not because it helps the story.
Let’s imagine the godlike character as an example. We’ll call her Solara, since that’s the name of one of my cats. Let’s say Solara is a witch who can snap her fingers and turn people to dust whenever she feels like it.
Now that’s pretty cool. You get a striking visual of bad guys disintegrating into the wind, plus a character detail: clearly Solara is an accomplished mage. She’s totally a cool character.
Yet the further we progress, the more problematic Solara becomes. If there’s ever a confrontation where she doesn’t use her talent, readers will wonder why she chose not to. And if there’s ever a reason you don’t want her to use her talent, you’ll need to explain why she doesn't. Furthermore, Solara’s power will impact the tension and conflict in your story. There’s not much suspense in a fight when we know our hero can vaporize enemies at will.
This is the core problem with the Eagles: they offer a convenient solution to the book’s central problem without an explanation of why they aren’t used. Let’s avoid the same trap in our work.
Lesson 2: Be Careful of Deus Ex Machina
It’s apt that Tolkien used the word "machine" to describe the Eagles in his letter. They are a prime example of deus ex machina.
Deus ex machina is a Latin term which means, "God out of the machine." It dates back to Ancient Greek theater and describes scenes where Gods would be lowered onstage in the final act to restore order to the world. Shakespeare emulates this technique in As You Like It, for example, when the God Hymen appears onstage and marries off eight of the characters.
Deus ex machina was an acceptable trope in its time. Not so much anymore. Now it refers to any convenient plot element that appears at the end of a narrative and solves everyone's problems. The Eagles are a prime example. After Frodo and Sam (and Gollum, sort of) destroy The One Ring, a flock of Eagles appear and rescue them. They're a convenient solution to a plot conundrum; therefore, they verge into deus ex machina territory.
The lesson to us authors: Be careful what magical elements you introduce and when you use them. If they exist only to solve everyone's last-minute problems, that's an issue that needs fixing.
Lesson 3: Answer Your Readers' Questions Before They Ask Them
Part of what makes the Eagles a problem is Tolkien’s convenient forgetfulness of them in key moments. He makes that oblique reference in his letters, but never addresses the problem in the text.
If Tolkien had kept his Eagles but explained why they couldn’t fly the Ring to Mordor, he would've answered our question. For example, perhaps all the Eagles were slain by the minions of Sauron. Perhaps the Eagles went into exile in the Misty Mountains because they no longer cared for the wars of humans. Perhaps they flew to the Undying Lands along with the elves. A good explanation can satisfy most plot holes.
But yes, it must be a good explanation—and by that I mean both logical and convincing. If Tolkien had written, "The Eagles were having lower lumbar pains and therefore couldn’t take riders," it would’ve been little better than no explanation at all.
Granted, some readers have devised explanations to the Eagle problem on Tolkien's behalf. Their argument goes something like this:
The Eagles are a proud and ancient race of creatures that date back to the First Age of Middle-Earth. They’d never allow some lowly Hobbit to ride them thousands of miles south into Mordor!
I'll admit, this is better than Tolkien's non-answer. But even this relatively well-reasoned argument doesn't cut it. This is the fate of the world we’re talking about here. No passionate reader will accept that the Eagles refuse to save the world because of a little pride.
I present this example to illustrate exactly how convincing you need to be if you go down this route. You can have magical eagles in your story if you want them. Just be prepared to explain in detail why they can’t single-handedly resolve your conflict.
Lesson 4: Tolkien Isn't the Only One with Similar Problems
In fact, many writers create overpowered magical elements for the sake of coolness. Take Marvel Studios as another example.
With so many powerful characters in their universe, it’s been difficult for Marvel to balance them all. Captain America has superhuman strength, yes. But Thor is stronger, and Hulk is stronger still. Yet for the sake of a compelling story, Thanos must be stronger than any of them. The narrative is constantly presenting elements that solve one problem, yet cannot solve the next problem, or else we lose our compelling conflict.
However, unlike the Eagles, Marvel at least attempts to resolve these problems—albeit with mixed results. One method is to simply sideline characters. For example, in Avengers: Endgame, Captain Marvel is powerful enough to resolve most, if not all, of the narrative's problems. She's sort of like the Eagles in that she provides a simple solution to the main conflict. Therefore, the filmmakers had to explain why she didn’t. They settled on a pressing appointment on another planet.
Another way Marvel handles easy solutions to complex problems is humor. Referring back to strength, for instance, consider a brief comedic sequence in Thor: Ragnarok. When Thor tries to activate the Avengers’ ship using voice command, the ship asks for identification. Thor then describes himself as "the strongest Avenger." The ship doesn’t respond. Later, when Bruce Banner (a.k.a. The Hulk) arrives on board and announces himself, the ship says, "Welcome, strongest Avenger."
That's a humorous nod to the fuzziness of character strength in the Marvel universe. Even the characters can't seem to agree on the proper ranking.
Lesson 5: Limitations Are Necessary
From a storytelling perspective, magic is tricky. On the positive side, it inspires wonder and awe in readers. Magic might even make your entire world possible.
However, as we’ve established, magic gets out of hand when it’s overpowered. Therefore, be sure to establish the rules and limitations. For example, I'm reading a series called The Resonant Saga by Levi Jacobs. His characters can do extraordinary things such as fly, read minds, and slow time. If everyone could do so whenever they wanted, it would make for a pretty uninteresting read. Therefore, the author establishes limitations on his magic system. These powers are only available when characters consume yura, a valuable and finite resource that activates magical talents.
The takeaway: All-powerful magic makes for a poor story. Powerful magic with limitations makes for a great one.
Summing It Up
Do the Eagles ruin The Lord of the Rings trilogy? Certainly not. The books are an outstanding achievement of imagination. But would they be better without the Eagles, or at least with an explanation of why the Eagles don’t help with the Ring? I believe so, and I know many other readers do, too.
If you agree, let’s learn from Tolkien’s mistake. Doing so can help make our work even better.