My love for The Lord of the Rings (and related books) is no secret. As a self-proclaimed semi-expert, I am here to clear up the fandom’s disagreement about the eagles.
Am I the first one to try this? Probably not. Will this solve anything? Doubtful. Am I going to do it anyway? Yes.
People wonder why Frodo did not just have the eagles fly him to Mount Doom and drop the Ring in. There’s an obvious answer: It wouldn’t have worked. Frodo and Sam got into Mordor and to Mount Doom because they were sneaky; otherwise they would have quickly been caught and killed. (Or tortured. Or both!) Flying in on the back of an enormous eagle would have been pretty much the opposite of sneaky.
But there’s a deeper misunderstanding that I think results from a seemingly insignificant change in the movies: Birds never talk.
I don’t know why this change was made. It’s hardly noticeable in The Lord of the Rings movies, where the eagles are a teensy part of the whole long story. It’s much more obvious in The Hobbit movies; a scene where Thorin and Co. stay with the eagles is skipped, and one of the few major plot changes seems to occur (at least partly) to leave some dwarves in Lake-town so they can deliver the news that the dragon is dead to the other dwarves instead of having a raven do so.
With this change, the audience’s perspective of the eagles changes drastically. They come across as similar to the horses of the Rohirrim or the oliphaunts of the Haradrim: powerful and wild, but potentially controllable. As a friend with whom I once had this discussion once suggested, they are better compared to Ents: powerful and wild, and not on anyone’s side, per se.
In his book Exploring J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit, Corey Olsen has a good discussion on the eagles. “The great birds certainly seem noble and heroic. And yet we mustn’t get the wrong idea about the Eagles. They are not champions of goodness, soaring about looking for wrongs to right and damsels (or hobbits) in distress to rescue. The eagles do save the dwarves, but they don’t actually care much about them.” As the Lord of the Eagles informs Gandalf, “No! we are glad to cheat the goblins of their sport, and glad to repay our thanks to you, but we will not risk ourselves for dwarves in the southward plains.”
That Lord of the Eagles, Gwaihir the Windlord, helps Gandalf because Gandalf once helped him. It’s a mutually beneficial relationship that develops into a friendship. But like any intelligent, sentient being, Gwaihir has an intricate personality, as do the other eagles. Corey Olsen again: “The eagles are good, but they are not automatically on the side of everyone who is good, devoting their efforts to opposing evil wherever they find it.” Gandalf could not have ordered them to fly Frodo to Mount Doom. He could have asked, perhaps, but it doesn’t seem all that likely they would have agreed.
But perhaps it doesn’t matter much, since it wouldn’t have worked anyway!