Among the most intriguing and misunderstood creatures in the Tolkien legendarium are the Great Eagles. Are they working as Gandalf’s personal chauffeur? Or are they a general Middle-earth taxi service with a moth for a receptionist? And regardless, aren’t the Eagles a lazy deus ex machina contrivance employed by a professor who was a better linguist than author? Indeed, since the release of Peter Jackson’s films, several critics cite the Eagles as a gaping plot hole that undermines the entire story of Lord of the Rings. Why didn’t they just fly the Ring to Mordor from the beginning? Surely the meticulous Tolkien must have thought of this when composing his narrative! And if not, what was he thinking about?
Today we’re going to take a look at these questions through the lens of an Eagle card from The Lord of the Rings LCG. However, rather than choosing a character like Landroval or Descendent of Thorondor and going into the story details as we did previously with Nimrodel and Ungoliant, this time we’re going to explore an event card as our gateway to perhaps the most significant theme in all of Tolkien’s writing. It has a title that bears special climactic prominence in Tolkien’s two most popular works and was arguably the professor’s favorite part of his own stories. Cast off at last all doubt and care and fear. The Eagles are coming!
EXPLORE THE LEGEND
The clouds were torn by the wind, and a red sunset slashed the West. Seeing the sudden gleam in the gloom Bilbo looked round. He gave a great cry: he had seen a sight that made his heart leap, dark shapes small yet majestic against the distant glow.
‘The Eagles! The Eagles!’ he shouted. ‘The Eagles are coming!’
This euphoric exclamation voiced by Bilbo in Chapter 17 of The Hobbit “The Clouds Burst” is repeated verbatim by Pippin in the diversionary battle led by Aragorn at the Black Gate in The Return of the King. After his cry, Pippin actually convinces himself otherwise, noting (along with many readers) that the Eagles’ timely and miraculous intervention was part of Bilbo’s story and therefore unlikely to happen again. But he is wrong; the Eagles have come again, as described previously by Bilbo in The Hobbit, “speeding down the gale in the nick of time”.
Indeed three examples from The Silmarillion show that even in his older work, a convenient Eagle coming is the plot device of choice for our poetic professor when his most beloved characters are in a bind. As we survey them, note that in each case the same critique that is leveled against The Lord of the Rings could be applied. If an Eagle was going to come anyways, why not just come sooner and save a lot of unnecessary trouble, pain, or death?
- The Noldorin prince Maedhros has been captured by Morgoth and handcuffed to the cliff face of the Dark Lord’s evil stronghold by the right wrist. Fingon’s rescue attempt comes up short and just as he is about to put Maedhros out his misery with an arrow, the King of Eagles Thorondor “[flies] down from the high airs” and speeds them away. (Chapter 13 “Of the Return of the Noldor”)
- Fingolfin, High King of the Noldor, confronts Morgoth in epic single combat before the gates of Angband, striking seven wounds and hewing the Dark Lord’s foot before being slain. As Morgoth limps away with Fingolfin’s corpse to feed it to the wolves, Thorondor again “[comes] hasting from his eyries”, pecks at Morgoth’s face and retrieves the body of the fallen king. (Chapter 18 “Of the Ruin of Beleriand and the Fall of Fingolfin”)
- Beren and Lúthien are Tolkien’s two most favorite characters and their names are inscribed on his gravestone referentially to himself and his wife Edith. In his quest to wrest a Silmaril from the crown of Morgoth, Beren loses the jewel (and his right hand) to a vicious bite from the wicked wolf Carcharoth. As Lúthien uses her “failing power” to staunch the wound, the “hosts of Morgoth [are] awakened” and the adventure is about to “end in ruin and despair”. Only at this moment, Thorondor and two Eagle allies “came swiftly down” and “bore them aloft into the clouds”. (Chapter 19 “Of Beren and Lúthien”)
From these examples, we can answer our first question about the Eagles of Middle-earth. Expedient Eagles deliveries are not the exclusive purview of Gandalf as Tolkien tends to regularly rely on them in similar situations throughout his history. However, when we come to the question about “lazy deus ex machina contrivance”, these frequent Eagle interventions seem to support the critics as the very definition of the term. Why then does this plot point hold such a fascination for Tolkien?
The answer can be found in Tolkien’s famous essay “On Fairy-Stories” in which he discusses the origin and purpose of his favorite literary genre. Near the conclusion of the piece, Tolkien lays out what he calls the “highest function” of “the true form of fairy-tale” which he claims as the ability of the story to give the reader “a piercing glimpse of joy and heart’s desire that for a moment passes outside the frame, rends indeed the very web of the story, and lets a gleam come through.” Tolkien calls this moment a “good catastrophe” or eucatastrophe, a term he invented to describe the unlooked for, irrational bursting in of “sudden and miraculous grace”. Eucatastrophe brings the “joy of deliverance” from “beyond the walls of the world” and will “give to the child or man that hears it, a catch of the breath, a beat and lifting of the heart, near to (or indeed accompanied by) tears”.
In Tolkien’s mind, a story’s capacity for delivering eucatastrophic moments is the defining litmus test of its success. He applies this criteria to himself in a 1944 letter to his son Christopher in which he says, “I knew that I had written a story of worth in ‘The Hobbit’ when reading it (after it was old enough to be detached from me) I had suddenly in a fairly strong measure the ‘eucatastrophic’ emotion at Bilbo’s exclamation: ‘The Eagles! The Eagles are coming!’”
With this in mind, we can answer why Tolkien’s Eagles don’t intervene before the situation gets out of hand and won’t simply carry the Ring to Mordor. Their appearance is not rooted in the demands of rational plotting but from the desire to deliver an emotional uplift just when all seems lost. According to The Hobbit, Eagles seldom take any notice of goblins and are simply “proud and strong and noble-hearted”. They act on their own accord when and where they choose, but when they do, they “stop whatever wickedness” is going on.
Thorondor does not save Maedhros until he is “in anguish without hope”, Fingolfin until he has died after his “last and desperate stroke”, and Beren until he “lay in a swoon” as “death drew nigh him”. The same dire straights are prerequisites for Eagle rescue of the dwarves in the fiery pines of the Misty Mountains, the Free Peoples in the Battle of Five Armies, Gandalf upon Saruman’s tower, and finally and most poignantly, Frodo and Sam at the Cracks of Doom.
In the Epilogue to his essay “On Fairy-Stories”, Tolkien acknowledges his own presumption before concluding that the reason these eucatastrophic moments affect us so is because they are “a far off gleam or echo of evangelium (good news) in the real world”. For the Catholic Tolkien, this is the Jesus story, and so the “peculiar quality of joy” evoked by the Eagles is a dim mirror that serves simply to reflect “the convincing tone of Primary Art, that is, Creation” and resonate with our innate and abiding hope for life’s joyful fulfillment despite our present sorrows.
So while all this proves that the Eagles are a “god from the machinery” story device, they are most definitely not so by lazy plotting but rather intentional and impassioned design. Far from being a contrivance and plot hole, Tolkien seems to have crafted his entire work primarily to setup his readers for the exuberance of the Eagles’ unexpected arrival. Who can resist sharing his hope that in our darkest hours, even after suffering and loss, glorious deliverance will descend from above?
SHOWCASE THE ARTWORK
The card artwork for The Eagles Are Coming! was created by an Ohio based artist named Jake Murray. Mr. Murray’s bio reveals that he is living his childhood dream as a fantasy artist which is an incredible break. You can see more of his work, including a number of pieces for Fantasy Flight’s new Star Wars Living Card Game on his website. Enjoy!
Since Tolkien holds the eucatastrophic Eagles in such high esteem in his own valuation of his tales, it is fitting to showcase his personal artwork of an Eagle from The Hobbit. Apparently Tolkien drew over 100 illustrations for his stories, many of which were never published before September 2012 and are now available in The Art of The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien. I just learned of this title and now I’m eager to check it out!
Tolkien’s image below is titled Bilbo Woke Up with the Early Sun in His Eyes and is one of the few color illustrations he made for the 1938 American edition of the novel. Christopher Tolkien recalls finding for his father the 19th century bird artist Archibald Thorburn’s picture of a golden eagle that this illustration is based on.
Continuing in the theme of classic illustrations, the next piece was created by Eric Fraser for the 1979 Folio Society edition of The Hobbit. As digital publishing and e-books become increasingly common, the Folio Society continues to see typesetting and bookbinding as an art form and produces gorgeous books. I was gifted with the Folio edition of The Hobbit and it is a beautiful tome. Holding the embossed hard cover while turning stiff pages added the to sense of antiquity and enchantment during my last read through of The Hobbit!Finally, let’s return to professional Tolkien illustrator Ted Nasmith who we met last time featuring Ungoliant. I love the aerial perspective of his work titled Eagles to the Carrock which appears to have been the June entry in the 2010 Tolkien calendar. As before, here is his online Tolkien gallery.
DISCUSS THE CARDS
In terms of thematic play, I’ve struggled with using the Eagles since they were first introduced. I usually keep my player cards organized by sphere, but as I was opening the Mirkwood cycle adventure packs, I sorted the Eagles into a separate stack, never feeling entirely comfortable with including them as the idea of Eagle allies perpetually soaring along with the Company just seemed too bizarre (even if many do leave play after defending or attacking).
It wasn’t until I got to the Heirs of Númenor saga expansion that I could no longer avoid them strategically as I needed the battle and siege questing power of Vassal of the Windlord and Winged Guardian in order to get me through. Still, it just doesn’t seem right to have the Eagles of the Misty Mountains hovering nearby always at your beck and call, especially in a bar fight at The Leaping Fish!
More importantly though, I think your ability to appreciate the Eagles thematically depends on how you see yourself and your role as the player of the game from a metacognitive angle. In other words, who are you, the player, in the scenario as you play the game? Are you a leader of the Company, marshalling allies and making strategic decisions? Or are you a powerful Maia or even Ilúvatar himself, observing the fates of Middle-earth from a transcendent plane of view while you intervene to influence them. Your answer here will likely determine which Eagle cards you see as thematic.
For me personally, I usually see myself in the former role, as a hero in the Company who simply doesn’t have his own character card on the table. The higher plane is the random force of fate and fortune that dictates draws from the encounter or player deck (which through my magic and divination I can occasionally influence). From this perspective, I think it’s outstanding that The Eagles Are Coming! is a zero cost event. This captures well the feeling of “sudden and miraculous grace” that Tolkien tries to convey with his Eagle appearances.
From this perspective though, most of the Eagle cards don’t make as much thematic sense unless they are paid for by resources from Radagast who, along with Gandalf, would at least be able to commune with them but not directly order their actions. After all, we’re told in The Hobbit that even Gandalf only knows the eagle-lord “slightly” and in The Lord of the Rings, Gwaihir rejects Gandalf’s request to carry him too far saying, “I was sent to bear tidings, not burdens.” Paying for Eagles with Tactics heroes like Boromir always feels strange as I can never imagine how he’d be able to get their attention. Do Eagles respond to the Horn of Gondor?
However, if you see yourself in the latter role above, as someone like Manwë, the Valar of Air who can command the Eagles, then perhaps sending Eagles of the Misty Mountains to tag along for an entire Journey Down the Anduin with Gimli wouldn’t seem as far-fetched! Granted the Eagles never did anything like that in the novels, but at least with your higher power there would be an in-universe explanation for why they’d be doing so in your game. Does anyone see yourself in that kind of role as you’re playing? I’d be curious to hear others’ point of view on this question of player perspective in the comments below.
I’d also like to hear how others have utilized the Eagles in their gameplay. Here’s a cool deck called “Where Eagles Dare” constructed at Tales from the Cards and another named “Accelerated Eagles 2.0” from Landroval at CardGameDB. Go check them out!
But returning to my perspective and our central theme though, while the zero cost aspect of The Eagles Are Coming! fits thematically, I feel the event can happen too frequently and is not majestic enough given that it is based on the sacred climax of Tolkien’s narratives. Therefore, taking my inspiration from cards like Path of Need and The Black Arrow, I’ve created a custom The Eagles Are Coming! card that would prove for a more rare, unlooked for, and jubilant play when it shows up. With more time and skill in Photoshop, I’d even consider making it a neutral sphere card which, like Gandalf, would probably be automatically included in any deck. After all, if Tolkien didn’t have qualms about including salvific Eagles in nearly all of his stories, why should we?
Despite this customization though, I must say that my most “eucatastrophic moments” playing LOTR LCG (if I can use Tolkien’s term in reference to our card game without overly diminishing it) rarely come when I draw a good player card, but rather when the encounter deck reveals something that actually helps me. I got this feeling most strongly during my blind first play through of “The Massing at Osgiliath” scenario. In the midst of a brutal combat phase while I was cringing for the next nasty shadow effect, I flipped over Ranger of Ithilien. Wow! Being unaware such a friend existed and then suddenly gaining his aid at such a crucial turn may not have brought tears to my eyes, but did spark the pleasant emotion of awe at unexpected deliverance that Tolkien describes as the “eucatastrophe”!
For this reason, I think that the Misty Mountain Eagle in the new The Hobbit: On the Doorstep saga expansion might be the most thematic Eagle yet. You have no control over when it comes during the “Battle of Five Armies”, but when it does, it will be a “piercing glimpse of joy”. While I haven’t had a chance to play this scenario yet, I’m looking forward to experiencing that peculiar “catch of the breath” and “beat and lifting of the heart” that accompanies a “good catastrophe”. Let the Eagles come!