“The only way he knows how to resolve conflict is with those damn Eagles,” is one of the most persistent complaints about Tolkien. “They’re such a deus ex machina,” the complainer will add if he wants to make it absolutely clear that he went to college.
As a storyteller, Tolkien was no flailing amateur, hurling his characters into conflicts that he could not extract them from. Whether or not you like his style of resolution, it was quite intentional. He even coined a word – “eucatastrophe” – to refer to this type of sudden deliverance, which he detailed in his essay “On Fairy Stories”:
The consolation of fairy stories…the sudden joyous “turn” (for there is no true end to any fairy tale): this joy, which is one of the things which fairy stories can produce supremely well, is not essentially “escapist,” nor “fugitive.” In its fairy-tale or otherworld setting, it is a sudden and miraculous grace: never to be counted on to recur. It does not deny the existence of dyscatastrophe, of sorrow and failure: the possibility of these is necessary to the joy of deliverance; it denies (in the face of much evidence, if you will) universal final defeat and in so far is evangelium, giving a fleeting glimpse of Joy, Joy beyond the walls of the world, poignant as grief.
It is the mark of a good fairy-story, of the higher or more complete kind, that however wild its events, however fantastic or terrible the adventures, it can give to child or man that hears it, when the “turn” comes, a catch of the breath, a beat and lifting of the heart, near to (or indeed accompanied by) tears, as keen as that given by any form of literary art, and having a peculiar quality.
If you think Tolkien is stretching it with the claim that the eucatastrophe “can never be counted on to recur,” considering how often it does occur in Middle-Earth, tell that to the heroes of The Silmarillion. They were seldom lucky enough to get happy endings.
But when the Eagles did play Big Damn Heroes in The Silmarillion, it was quite illustrative. Here’s the very first example of aquiline intervention in the chronology of Middle-Earth:
Elven prince Fingon is trying to rescue his friend Maedhros, who has been chained to a cliff by an iron band around his wrist. Unable to reach his friend to release him, Fingon prepares to kill him instead.
‘O King to whom all birds are dear, speed now this feathered shaft, and recall some pity for the Noldor in their need!’
His prayer was answered swiftly. For Manwë to whom all birds are dear, and to whom they bring news upon Taniquetil from Middle-Earth, had sent forth the race of Eagles … Now, even as Fingon bent his bow, there flew from the high airs Thorondor, King of the Eagles, mightiest of all birds that have ever been. And staying Fingon’s hand he took him up, and bore him to the face of the rock where Maedhros hung.
That passage leaves little doubt about what is going on. The Eagle comes in answer to Fingon’s prayer, not for help but for pity, after he had already proven himself by journeying alone at great peril to save his friend. The Eagle comes because it is a servant of Manwë, the “Lord of the Air” and King of the Valar (gods with a lowercase g). And yes, Manwë was apparently willing to let Maedhros hang there in anguish (for decades) until Fingon stepped up.
Manwë may seem like kind of a dick at this point, arbitrarily deciding who gets to be saved. But in his defense, the Valar are caught in a constant dilemma. Whenever they try to intervene with the events of Middle-Earth, they usually fuck things up pretty badly. Even the seemingly simple example of rescuing Maedhros turned against them in the end. Maedhros would go on to slaughter innocents, kidnap children (including a young Master Elrond!), and steal from the Valar themselves before eventually committing suicide. Fingon fell while answering Maedhros’ call to arms.
Though the Valar are much more powerful than Elves and Men, they are not necessarily wiser. They know that Iluvater (God) has laid out a grand ‘theme’ for them to follow, but it has been corrupted, and they have only partial knowledge of it. Still, the Valar know of all that passes in Middle-Earth, and in a thousand little ways, they try to nudge the balance in the right direction. Once you are familiar with their means, you can see their footprints all over The Lord of the Rings. And their servants, such as the Wizards and the Eagles, are still their most visible representatives.
All this is to say that the Eagles are a sign of divine grace. They are a form of deliverance that must be earned, and yet can never be counted upon. In other words, they represent the god from the machine. I’m sure that’s exactly what everyone means when they call them that, right?
I’ve started tagging these “Tolkien Talks.”
Art Credit: zdrava on deviantART [Sorry also for the paucity of images. I got bored of looking at Eagles. Also, don’t google images of Fingon and Maedhros together if you don’t want to see a lot of homoerotic amateur art. Or do, if you do.]