Why didn’t the Eagles fly the Ring to Mount Doom (or the Lonely Mountain)?

UPDATE: See below for a discussion of the Eagles’ role in The Hobbit films.

One of the most commonly asked questions about The Lord of the Rings is why the Fellowship didn’t just fly into Mordor on the Eagles. It is frequently illustrated by the (in)famous How It Should Have Ended video:

The video is, of course, comedy, and not all Eagle scenarios are the same, yet it raises an interesting question. However, the reason the Ringbearer did not fly to Mordor by Eagle is fairly simple: the purpose of the Fellowship of the Ring and the linchpin of the entire strategy decided on in Rivendell was to destroy the Ring in a mission of secrecy.

Taking the Eagles might have worked, I will grant that. It may have been a successful mission and allowed the Ring to be destroyed earlier than it “actually” was. However, it would have sacrificed secrecy and drastically increased the changes of the Ring being captured. When you have the fate of the world hanging in the balance, you don’t want to take any unnecessary chances.

Eagles are, clearly, far more noticeable than Hobbits or other travelers on foot. We don’t know how exactly Gandalf planned to get into Mordor, but we can surmise that they would have gone through a mountain pass or valley some where. We know of only three (the Morannon, Cirith Ungol, and the Nameless Pass), but it stands to reason that there were more. Not ideal ones, perhaps (though Cirith Ungol itself was not ideal), but mountains are not impenetrable and continuous walls of rock.

An Eagle flying through the air would be easily noticed by Orcs or other watchers (remember the sinister and sorcerous ones at the Tower of Cirith Ungol – there might have been more). Travelers on foot could sneak around much more easily, scout ahead (especially with a ranger), and slip by unnoticed (remember how quiet hobbits are?). The Eagles might have been able to slip by unnoticed, but it would have become far more likely that they would have been caught. Once inside Mordor (if they even make it), there is still the chance that the Eagles could be caught. There are the threats of the Nazgul’s fell beasts, and archers (the Eagles in The Hobbit were afraid of shepherds with bows, so one can imagine how they might react to trained soldiers).

The “classic” Eagle plan, as outlined in the YouTube video, would not work for a couple of reasons. First, the Ring could not just be dropped into the caldera; it had to be taken into the Crack of Doom itself: the center of Sauron’s sorcererous powers. The Crack of Doom was at the end of a tunnel that bored into the mountainside, and an Eagle would likely not fit inside, so it would have to bring have a rider. This would limit the height to which it could fly (the rider would need to breathe) and its agility during a fight. Yet more possibilities for failure. Second, a giant Eagle landing on the slope of Mount Doom would be quickly evident to any troops stationed there. A small group of people on foot might be able to sneak up unnoticed. Again, the Eagle plan might work, but it increases the chances of being caught.

In conclusion, the Council of Elrond did not know exactly what to expect in Mordor, so they had to plan for the worst (i.e., assume the worst case scenario for each possible solution). The Fellowship plan was itself a very long shot and indeed, it failed in its original conception, though obviously a fragment of the Fellowship persisted. The Eagle plan raises such a host of potential issues and problems that I think it is quite understandable why the Council opted to send people on foot. As I mentioned at the beginning, their concern was stealth, not speed.

Update: A commenter has asked why the Eagles in The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey did not simply fly the Company of Dwarves all the way to the Lonely Mountain, particularly since the mountain was visible at the end of the film.  The situation in The Hobbit is complicated by certain fairly minor changes made by Peter Jackson to the story.  In the original novel, the Eagles agree to help Gandalf as a favor, in return for him having saved the life of their chief before the events of the story.  However, they were afraid of the men of the Vales of Anduin, who shot arrows at the Eagles (including the chief whom Gandalf saved) to keep them from stealing livestock.  Therefore, the Eagles took the Company only a short distance.

The situation is muddled in the film because the Eagles do not speak at all, which removes the explanation of their motives.  (It is possible this will change in the Extended Edition.)  The final shot of the Company looking towards the Lonely Mountain is also misleading in its depiction of the distance left before them.  The Eagles drop the Dwarves off on top of the Carrock, a large rock in the middle of the River Anduin.  The Anduin flowed through a broad valley to the east of the Misty Mountains, placing the Carrock nearly 200 miles away from the Lonely Mountain: a far longer distance than the Eagles were willing to fly simply to repay a favor.  The Lonely Mountain would not realistically have been visible from the Carrock, but Peter Jackson chose to show it for dramatic reasons.

Back to main Tolkien page.

33 Responses to Why didn’t the Eagles fly the Ring to Mount Doom (or the Lonely Mountain)?

  1. fredo says:

    so why didnt the gandalf cut off fredo’s fingers

  2. Yongk says:

    In the fellowship, saruman conjured a powerful thuderstorm with lightning to strike the company. It is fair to assume that Sauron can do that even faster and better so the eagles woile have been toasted in seconds.

    • jimbillingsly says:

      read the book. in the books, it’s not saruman who does that. rather, it’s the god of Caradhras mountain who brings down the lightning.

      • rndmstuffguy says:

        In the movie the translation of his spell is essentially him trying to “wake up” the mountain

  3. Dallan says:

    Sure, you mean a six day journey by eagle, over the legions of watchful eyes commanded by Sauron and Saruman, who, by the way, can command the weather; carrying a ring which can change its weight at will; past how many archers and Nazgul? And if the ring doesn’t make them drop like a stone, then the storms sent by Sauron and Saruman will ground the eagle’s flight, where swarms of orcs, uruks, and wargs will finish the job.
    Pardon my skepticism, but I think they have a better chance of inventing a railgun powerful enough to launch the ring into the sun. Now bring on the video that shows that.

  4. Rachid says:

    Besides, who’s to stop the eagle from taking the ring for himself?

    • Breee says:

      Um….I don’t think an eagle would be able to bring it upon itself to possess a ring of such power. And really…..what would it do with the ring? Not a really thought out response if you ask me.

      • Rachid says:

        Please elaborate, why would an eagle not “be able to bring it upon itself to possess a ring of such power”?
        And what would it do with the ring you ask?!
        Wait; have you actually read the book?
        I have read it several times and to me it seems perfectly plausible for an eagle to take the ring for himself. Please quote me the passage that i have missed.

      • Walker says:

        Actually, the Eagles have kings, one being the King of all of the Eagle fiefdoms. See the Hobbit. They also desire power, the same way men do, and they receive crowns – marks of that power – in The Hobbit from the dwarves after the battle of five armies. This was one of Tolkien’s concerns.

      • Rebecca says:

        Actually, it’s a very logical response. The eagles were part of the Maiar and could have been as easily corrupted as Sauroman.

      • NinjaAssassin says:

        Read The Hobbit. They can talk, they can think.

        As far as I’m aware, that’s about the only qualifications you need for the ring to try and corrupt you

  5. Rebecca says:

    Also the eagle that saves Gandalf from the tower states that he can not travel very far with Gandalf on him as “he is a messenger and not meant to carry burdens.”

    Another thing, the Nazgul on the fell beasts could have easily destroyed them.

  6. Shunn says:

    Then why didn’t they fly at night? I don’t think they cuold have hit something and I guess orcs have not invented powerfull dazzle lamps that can spot them. And someone told something about weight of the ring… yeah a hobbit can carry a ring but an eagle with that same hobbit cant… yeah seems legit. I will be honest, maybe the eagle version has some problems in details but walking there has 1000x more…

    • fantasywind says:

      Because night is permanent in Mordor so to speak :) ,,there lay darkness under the sun”, the whole land is covered from sun to ease the orcs and other evil creatures lives, also the higher you fly through it the more toxic fumes and ash you’ll be breathing in, the clouds that shadow the land would be also difficult for a bird like the Eagles to navigate on bigger heights (flying creatures of Mordor are the other problem, besides beasts of Nazgul there are most likely swarms of huge, blood sucking bats like those who aided orcs in The Hobbit during Battle of Five Armies) besides orcs have good eyesight in darkness (and even better sense of smell by the way so could track on scent like dogs :) and Eagles have no means of concealing themselves like Fellowship (meaning these magnificent cloaks of Lorien that make you blend in environment even at few paces) also Mordor isn’t devoid of artificial light, Mount Doom makes red glow all over the place, the sorcery can create the pillars of light as signals so why not for scouring the landscape :) and not to mention eye of Sauron who can see everything in one place at a time (he can’t see everywhere at once yet, until he regains the Ring, hobbits never really were in line of sight of it and being small, stealthy, with said cloaks on, later even dressing up as orcs made great effort to be undetectable).

      The example of ,,powerful dazzle lamps” (also known as Great Signal :) haha:
      “But it was too late. At that moment the rock quivered and trembled beneath them. The great rumbling noise, louder than ever before, rolled in the ground and echoed in the mountains. Then with searing suddenness there came a great red flash. Far beyond the eastern mountains it leapt into the sky and splashed the lowering clouds with crimson. In that valley of shadow and cold deathly light it seemed unbearably violent and fierce. Peaks of stone and ridges like notched knives sprang out in staring black against the uprushing flame in Gorgoroth.
      Then came a great crack of thunder. And Minas Morgul answered. There was a flare of livid lightnings; forks of blue flame springing up from the tower and from the encircling hills into the sullen clouds. The earth groaned; and out of the city came a cry. Mingled with harsh high voices as birds of prey, and the shrill neighing of horses wild with rage and fear, there came a rending screech, shivering, rising swiftly to a pierce pitch beyond the range of hearing…And out of the gate an army came.”

      The point with silent Watchers (as they are called in book) is also very good. These magical statues can create invisible barrier and detect intruders, even sounding an alarm when barrier is breached are a great way of protection on borders of Mordor (Cirith Ungol is not the only place where they are located, it is clearly stated that others are in Minas Morgul and they in fact sensed the hobbits when they passed by).

  7. Ralekk says:

    So basic question why does the fellowship ignore the eagles and try to walk to mount doom. Short answer better story.

    Tolkien was a conservative catholic, so it’s safe to assume he was not a fan of logic. Not all books written are based on logic, this is one of them.

    The story is full of flaws and other illogical stuff, magic is kind of hard to explain with logic. But since it is a fantasy theme setting the book never claims to hold any logic. When you step away from basic logic, what do you have?

    (correct answer is probably a psychic disorder, or a crusade for insanity)

    It is a story with a made up world. with made up men that does made up actions, the world is also illogical. So it´s like participating in an dream/fantasy world of someone else that defies logic, and then trying to find logic in it.

    That is what millions of people all around the world is trying to do everyday… (but with various stories, some taken more serious then others)

    • Drogo says:

      I don’t see how being a conservative Catholic necessitates that one “not be a fan of logic”. Read Aquinas and then try making the same remark. If you yourself consider yourself so logical, why would you make use of such an ignorant non-sequitur?

      Aside from that, Tolkien was a master at linguistics. He not only learned numerous languages, but he also invented several languages. The grammatical structure of any language is essentially a logic problem. So I am pretty sure Tolkien was a logical guy.

      He may very well have made a mistake in not covering up the “eagle plot hole”, but given that he was creating a 1000+ page book, as well as an extensive mythology, what I find shocking is that there are so few plot holes to be found.

  8. bilbo says:

    Now “the hobbits” part I movie is published, then i have a same question, why didn’t they ride the eagles from the start? They don’t have enemies like mighty sauron’s armies and fearsome nazgul’s dragons in that time, lol, it’s truly illogical.

    • Eldorion says:

      Tolkien actually wrote an explanation for The Hobbit himself, unlike LOTR. The Eagles agree to help Gandalf because they owe him a favor, despite not being particularly interested in the dwarves’ quest. However, they were afraid of the men of the Vales of Anduin, who shot arrows at the Eagles to keep them from stealing livestock. Therefore the Eagles only took the Company a short distance.

      The situation is muddled in Peter Jackson’s film version because PJ removes all Eagle dialogue, though this may change in the Extended Edition. The final scene is also a bit misleading about how much distance is still to go before they reach the Lonely Mountain. At least half of the Company’s journey is still ahead of them, far longer than Gandalf could ask the Eagles to fly as a personal favor.

      I hope this explanation helps! :)

  9. William S says:

    Here we go, a fairly simple comedic summary of why the Eagles wouldn’t work.
    http://oglaf.com/ornithology/1/

  10. ZT says:

    Philippa Boyens also said in one of the LOTR commentary tracks that Tolkien had ‘explained’ the general eagle situation as one in which they didn’t generally care for the goings on of men and elves and dwarves and more or less lived in their own closed society, not wanting to become involved in the ‘political dramas’ of the day. Presumably they do individual favours for Gandalf, as a caretaker of Middle Earth at large.

  11. lotrfan112 says:

    I think it’s simply for the purpose of the story. I mean, who would watch a movie/read a book about a bunch of eagles flying? This way there are more events and adventures.

    • Trike says:

      There would still be plenty of adventures if Tolkien had used the eagles. By answering the plot hole, it might have even have made Sauron even more formidable. The adventures would have been *different* from what currently exists, but that’s not the same thing as nonexistent.

  12. David says:

    I didn’t read many of the comments so I am sorry if this has already been said. One of the biggest misconceptions about the Eagles is that they are simply steeds whose only purpose is to ferry people about middle earth. This is not the case. The Great Eagles are a race of intelligent, wise creatures (or spirits) who have their own lives that they live. Asking them to fly you about would be like asking someone (or a stranger because you probably wouldn’t be friends with the Eagle you ask) to pull you around in a Rickshaw. It’s not something you would do lightly. As is pointed out in the article the reason the Eagles fly the Dwarves, Bilbo, and Gandalf around in the Hobbit is because they were returning a favor. A life for a life if you will. It’s not like the Eagles aren’t willing to help out in some situations (for instance, when Gandalf jumps off of Orthanc) but it’s not like you could just go up to one and be all like “Hey, um, yeah. We want you to fly us hundreds of miles into probably the most well fortified and armed area that we know of so that we can drop this ring into a pit of lava and save Middle Earth. Do you think you could help us out with that?” There are many other reasons as to why this would not have worked too. There are also many reasons why it could have worked. But, you know, even Tolkien is not without fault.

    • Trike says:

      Your last line is most important. Tolkien had so much going on that he probably just forgot about the eagles. It was simple oversight and nothing to get one’s panties in a bunch over, but Ringers seem to lose their minds when anyone points out it’s not perfect.

  13. you forgot the part about the giant eagles being the servants of manwe, god of the sky. after many bloody battles the gods vowed to not get involved in the wars of middle earth, and sent the istarii as their representatives before shutting themselves off from the world. using the eagles directly against sauron would be a gray area, it would almost be like manwe sending troops to the battle.

    • Eldorion says:

      I didn’t forget that part, but I deliberately didn’t include it here since I’ve found it’s very hard to convincingly describe the Valar and their role to people who haven’t read The Silmarillion. And it also invites criticism of the Valar’s decision and the question of how the Istari are SO different from the Eagles, why the Eagles were willing to help Radagast with surveillance, etc.

  14. […] of his notion of eucatastrophe, readers (and viewers) of the more cynical modern age ask instead why the eagles couldn’t just fly the Ring to Mordor. In terms of LOTR LCG, Eagles formed one of the early viable deck archetypes, being fleshed out […]

  15. T.Frings says:

    The whole idea of the journey was to take the ring to Mordor under Sauron’s nose. Hence, the point was to get to Mount Doom without Sauron noticing. An enormous eagle bearing the ring (which we don’t even know how tempted it would be if they were in possession of it, and you’d probably have to to tell them what exactly they’re carrying since Mount Doom’s no walk in the park) would probably get noticed by Sauron and his forces pretty quick.

    • Trike says:

      I rather doubt that. Early on Legolas mentions he can barely see an eagle flying overhead and Aragorn remarks that the eagle must be very high indeed since he can’t see it with his excellent eyesight.

      Also, the whole point of the armies making a feint in another part of the border is to distract Sauron from seeing the company sneaking in the backdoor. That distraction would work just as well with eagles flying overhead, since Tolkien specifically says Sauron can’t see everywhere at once. If Frodo can manage to keep the ring off his finger for 15 minutes, he won’t draw Sauron’s gaze.

      If Sauron takes over Middle Earth, he’ll eventually get to the eagles, so they should be just as invested in stopping him, so there’s motivation.

      It’s not like the eagles have to fly right up to the lip of the volcano: they just need to get Frodo into Mordor and he can hoof it from there. The story would be different from the one we’re familiar with, but it would still be pretty amazing because the core would still exist.

      • Eldorion says:

        I don’t think Sauron personally seeing the Eagles is the biggest concern. There are plenty of scouts and guards in Mordor, including the winged Nazgul. And while the Eagles could have flown far overhead for part of the trip, it would have been harder to do so and evade enemy eyes while crossing the mountains of Mordor and on descent to approach Mount Doom. (I’m not sure what the use of the Eagles would be if they only got Frodo into Mordor and then let him walk on his own, as that last part is the riskiest section of the journey.)

  16. dfgdfgfdg says:

    here’s a thought, why didnt the elves just put the ring on that ship they were sending the other elves to the undying lands with, sail it out to sea, and chuck the ring in the middle of the goddamn ocean?

    • Eldorion says:

      Those are both worthwhile suggestions, and ones that Tolkien thought were important enough to address in the book (something he did not do with the Eagle idea). The reasons the characters give for shooting down those ideas in the book are that the Valar would not allow the Ring into the Undying Lands, and that there was no guarantee that Sauron might not find a way to recover the Ring even from the bottom of the Ocean in the far future. It’s also worth noting that even without the Ring, Sauron was on the verge of conquering all of Middle-earth. He would have been even worse with the Ring, but the only way to stop him was to break his power by destroying the Ring, not just by continuing to hide it. The free peoples were no longer strong enough — and Sauron had spend too long preparing — for them to win a full war against him.

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