In the depths of Grey Haven’s Palantir

ilverai:

I know it has been a long time since I’ve posted here, so by way of explanation, here is what I’ve been up to:

Originally posted on The Grey Havens Group:

We promised you a post about the Grey Havens Group’s Palantir meetings. Now, on the final day of this wonderful Tolkien week, we give you blogger ilverai’s account of how the love of Tolkien transcends distance. Ilverai conceived of, organized and leads the Grey Havens Group Palantir meetings and he designed the stunning logo that you see below. Thank you, ilverai, for being a vital member of our Fellowship!

ghg palantir with text small

‘You’re reading that again? Don’t you get tired of it?’

As a Tolkien fan, I cannot tell you how many times I have heard these two questions. I am sure they pop up in most fandoms in a variety of forms, but the same thread connects them all: why do we spend so much time reading and discussing what appears to be a mere book, television show or movie which for the layman is enjoyed once and set aside, perhaps to…

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Of Evil and Lust

‘Of Beren and Lúthien’ is arguably the central story of Tolkien’s entire Legendarium. All tales lead to and stem from the pivotal events described. As such, the tale is uniquely suited for closer study, as a microcosm of sorts of the entire history of Arda.

At the last meeting of the Grey Havens Group we discussed this most beautiful and most powerful of Tolkien’s works. Badgaladriel commented at one point that the unsurpassed beauty of Lúthien is difficult to even begin to imagine. Like Helen of Troy, it is a superlative quality which is impossible to qualify. However, in both cases, initially, we were only contemplating external, visual beauty and one member posited that Lúthien’s beauty may be of the flesh, but is also, and perhaps predominantly, a beauty of the spirit.

Lúthien is the most beautiful in the history of Middle-earth not just in appearance, but in substance, and in spirit.

She is the only scion of the pairing of Maiar and Eldar. Not only that, but Thingol is of the eldest, first generation of the Eldar, and one of the three emissaries to see the Trees of Valinor. In her the great and wise are combined. As a maiar, Melian stands among the most powerful beings of Arda, only surpassed by the Valar themselves. The persistent strength of the Girdle is a great testament to her power, only destroyed when she leaves her bodily form in grief following the death of Thingol.

This is Tolkien’s greatest story of love. Lúthien, and all her actions, is defined by it. In some sense, she is suffused by it in a loveliness which is love.

Morgoth lusts for this beauty: of light and love.

The Roman Catholic Catechism describes both greed and lust in similar terms. In both cases, describing the ninth and tenth Commandments, the Catechism refers to the ‘three kinds of covetousness…lust of the flesh, lust of the eyes and pride of life’ (CCC 2514). The desires in and of themselves are good and natural, but often become unreasoning, leading one to ‘covet what is not ours’ (CCC 2535). Also, in both cases these desires are driven by what St. Augustine calls ‘the diabolical sin,’ which is envy. Envy ‘refers to the sadness at the sight of another’s goods and the immoderate desire to acquire them for oneself, even unjustly’ (CCC 2529). The Catechism continues, stating that envy is also a ‘refusal of charity’ and an expression of pride (CCC 2540).

Understanding Lust, Greed, and Envy in this light is important to an understanding of evil in Tolkien’s work, and Morgoth in particular.

Morgoth’s rebellion begins in the very first moments of creation at the singing of the Ainur. Though the greatest of the Valar, and the brother of Manwë, he ‘[envies] the gifts with which Ilúvatar promised to endow” his children, wishing ‘to be called Lord,’ with mastery over them (S 18 &28). Seeing the fire of life kindled in Arda, the other Ainur’s ‘hearts [rejoice] in the light…[and are] filled with gladness’ (S 19). Melkor’s is not. Instead he envies the unique gifts and status given to the Children of Ilúvatar, as well as those unique skills and powers granted the other Valar entering Arda.

Entering the world, the Valar take on earthly forms, ‘lovely and glorious to see,’ filling Melkor with further jealousy. This envy, which consumes him, and his pride of place twist him into a ‘form…dark and terrible,’ falling ‘from splendor…through arrogance to contempt for all things save himself, a spirit wasteful and pitiless’ (S21 & 31). It would appear, therefore, that Melkor’s envious nature poisons his own power, making him incapable of taking on like form. He is filled by insatiable lust for power, for status and for beauty. First of all things he desires ‘Light, but when he [cannot] possess it for himself along, he [descends] through fire and wrath…into Darkness’ (S 31). Morgoth longs for the primordial physical Light, not just a desire for possession in some part, but for possession entire to the exclusion of all others. Presumably, as Light is intrinsically tied up in the genesis of Life (see the burgeoning growth in Middle-earth following the rise of the sun), in his quest to supplant Ilúvatar, Light holds to the key to the domination he desires. And so, all the wars of the First Age, and even those which follow, are defined by the contested ownership of Light, which may be seen as the sacred relic in Middle-earth’s crusades.

Upon their creation, Melkor immediately ‘[lusts] for the Silmarils, and the very memory of their radiance [is] a gnawing fire in his heart,’ causing him both joy (as far as he is able) and tremendous pain (S 66). Ungoliant too, twisted and strengthened by Melkor’s might, ‘[hungers]…for the light and hated it,’ gorging herself in an attempt to feed the ‘emptiness’ inside (S 73). This emptiness is intriguing. It implies the absence of something which was there before. This emptiness is the light of goodness, of life, of charity which is present upon the creation of the Ainur, but is somehow lost in Melkor’s rebellion during the Music. In Tolkien, evil is fallen. Fallen from goodness, or twisted. The hunger and unending emptiness is the sense of that loss within them; and the destructive lust and envy its direct byproduct.

This lust for light, beauty and sanctity, even in the face of searing and everlasting pain, defines evil in Tolkien, though in later years it becomes a lust for their destruction.

When Beren and Lúthien come to the gates of Thangorodrim, they are confronted by Carcharoth, a great beast of terror, fed by the hand of Morgoth with ‘living flesh’ (S 180). In a moment akin to Glorfindel at the flight to the ford, Lúthien is revealed in all her power, ‘radiant and terrible’ (S 180). Again reveale, before the seat of Morgoth, her beauty is the object of ‘evil lust’ (S 180). Morgoth is entranced by her beauty, in some ways like any man would be, but also by the thoughts of evils which might be perpetrated through possession of her. Escaping with the Silmaril, Beren and Lúthien again confront Carcharoth. Beren thrusts the gem at the beast, but rather than quail in its holy light, as does Shelob, he ‘[is] not daunted, and the devouring spirit within him [awakes] to sudden fire,’ driving him to consume the jewel (S 181).

The utter possession of beauty and purity desired by these exemplars (Morgoth and Carcharoth) is a striking aspect of this tale. Unexpectedly, evil hungers for good, for beauty, for purity and for love. True, their desire is unreasoning and without self-control, but remains the excessive expression of a natural impulse.

Might Morgoth desire his own redemption? Might all evil things? Yet looking back at the nature of envy, he must first die to self, eliminate pride and accept charity.

The Nature of Morgoth

This week for the Grey Havens Group meeting we were reading ‘Of the Ruin of Beleriand.’ Little did I know I was uniquely primed for this chapter to more deeply contemplate the nature of Morgoth, the fallen Valar.

I recently completed and reviewed Stant Litore’s No Lasting Burial. I have also been indulging a guilty pleasure of mine, re-watching Xena: Warrior Princess from its start. Neither was on my mind while reading, but the ideas they espouse brought aspects of the tale of ‘The Fall of Fingolfin’ to the fore as never before.

On a lark, I posted to the GHG facebook page, asking “What does Xena have to do with Morgoth?” and later “the Gift of Men and the Gift of Elves, leprosy and zombies” in order to stir up some interest. It proved to be an entertaining experiment, though I will never get the image of Morgoth in Xena’s armor out of my head. Thanks, Stant Litore!

A couple of weeks ago, I watched the Xena episode ‘Death in Chains,’ which is a retelling of the Greek myth of Sisyphus. In usual Xena fashion, it is no simple mash-up, blending many myths across many cultures.  In the episode, Sisyphus chains Celesta or Death, thereby preventing not only his own passing, but all deaths. Interestingly, however, suffering remains. As in the earlier episode “Prometheus,” humanity loses its ability to heal. Death is not something to be feared, but may be a release, a comfort.

Curious, I did a little research to see how accurate this portrayal is to Greek mythology.

The story of the chaining of ‘death’ is central to the mythology of Sisyphus, being one of the primary reasons for his unique punishment. Celesta is an invented goddess, basically substituting for Thanatos, Hades or Hermes depending on the myth. The twin brothers, Thanatos and Hypnos (Death and Sleep), like the Norse Valkyries, bore the dead down to Hades. The episode also pulls in elements of the keres, death spirits and daughters of Nix, whose touch sends the fallen warrior’s soul to Hades, as described in Hesiod’s Shield of Heracles. Whether it is Hades or Thanatos, the god of death is tricked into the chains meant for Sisyphus. And in one version, where Hades is captured, no one can die, those ill from wound, age or sickness suffer with no relief.

I am no expert on Classical mythology, and do not intend to prove anything about Tolkien’s sources or influences. Instead, I want to establish my frame reference. When I read Tolkien, I attempt to interpret Tolkien from within Tolkien using Tolkien, though applicability always opens new vistas.

The tale of the “Fall of Fingolfin” is unique in all the tales of the Legendarium in that it marks the only time Morgoth answered the challenge of the Eldar. It is also an interesting commentary on the nature of Morgoth, particularly as he relates to his fellow Valar, the Eldar and Men. Much like Sauron’s relationship to the Ring, Morgoth’s works in Middle-earth diminish and “[disperse]” his power, making him “ever more bound to the earth” (S 101). This marks the paradoxical condition in which Morgoth is both “greatest of all things in this world” and “alone of the Valar [knowing] fear” (S 153). These two brief statements are radical in their implications.

From the beginning, Melkor is “mightiest among” the Valar; foremost in power, and cunning (S17). Yet in his quest for dominion, there is a major tectonic shift, which is only hinted at up to this moment. The Valar are made by Ilúvatar, they are creatures of the Void, from without. However, in their choice to descend to the world, their power is “contained and bounded in the World, to be within it forever…so they are its life and it is theirs” (S 20). Paradoxically, the Valar are both of the World, being confined in it, and outside of the World. In part, therefore, they are akin to the Eldar, who “cannot escape and are bound to this world, never to leave it so long as it lasts, for its life is theirs” (S 265). On the other hand, having their origins outside the world, they are also akin to Men, who die not as punishment, but are allowed to “escape, and leave the world, and are not bound to it, in hope or in weariness” (S 265). The Valar, though bound to Arda, are intimately aware of the Void without, though they may not return until the ultimate end.

Returning to the description of Morgoth, given as he comes to answer Fingolfin’s challenge, it is critical to pay minute attention to Tolkien’s choice of words. Notice he says “greatest of all things in this world,” seemingly indicating in power Morgoth may not be judged among the Valar. However, turning the initial quote on its head, he “alone of the Valar” knows fear. These simple word choices demonstrate a great shift; Morgoth is become of the world, in a manner which negates his nature outside the world, thereby taking on traits from the world.

During the battle between Morgoth and Fingolfin, Morgoth is wounded seven times and finally pierced an additional time in the foot before Fingolfin’s death. Coming to preserve Fingolfin’s body from defilement, Thorondor mars Morgoth’s face. These actions in themselves are amazing, but the truly astounding part follows. After the battle, Morgoth is maimed. Not only is he maimed but “the pain of his wounds [cannot] be healed” (S 154). This single phrase shatters everything I ever thought of Morgoth.

“[T]he pain of his wounds [cannot] be healed.”

Think about that. Here is Morgoth, once mightiest of the Valar, wounded, in pain, suffering, with no remedy.

Ever.

There is no mention of hurt or harm ever coming to the Valar or Maiar, or at least any which may not be undone. Melkor has fallen so far it may be argued he may no longer be counted among their number. He has taken on the cares of the world, its fears and pains, with neither the release of the Gift of Men or the death and rebirth in Mandos of the Gift of the Eldar. He is trapped in a state in between.

For him, and presumably all the Valar, there is no death. Yet having invested himself so much in the world as to make himself of the world, he takes on the suffering of death and sickness without the comfort of final release, whether through death or through healing.

In his unsurpassed hunger for works both sacred and beautiful, out of jealousy and a yearning for dominance and the abasement of others that entails, Morgoth may be easily compared to the undead, to zombies. His is an unreasoning and unquenchable hunger, a sharp pain, which though never assuaged is somehow satisfied in the torture and destruction of others. But the wounds, and the pain, remain.

I am reminded of the Biblical treatment of leprosy, in which any ailment of the skin or flesh is proclaimed unclean. Stant Litore takes that to the ultimate extreme, with the unclean dead, but reading No Lasting Burial and Yeshua’s treatment of the hungry dead did remind me of something.

In Biblical times, any ailment was seen as a mark of sin, whether originating in the afflicted or their ancestors. In almost every miraculous healing, Jesus does not just heal the body, he first and foremost heals the soul. This is most poignantly shown during the healing of the paralytic in Luke, where Jesus first forgives the sins of the afflicted man, then, hearing those arrayed against him, commands him to “rise, take up your bed and go home” (Luke 5:24). In this, we are meant to see the more important wound, not that of the flesh, but that of the spirit.

Morgoth’s marred state is curious, and sets him apart. Though one of the Valar, and still mighty among the creatures of the earth, he is wounded and incapable of release. This state makes his fall from grace physical. Nowhere else is there any indication of pain, suffering, deformity or woundedness among the Valar. It radically changes the frame of reference by which Morgoth is to be judged.

In Review: No Lasting Burial

No lasting burialStant Litore’s No Lasting Burial is an amazing book on many levels. I admit I approached it with trepidation solely based upon its premise. The story expands upon the rather brief description in the New Testament of Christ’s invitation to the disciples to join in his ministry.

Shimon and Koach bar Yonah are the primary protagonists. They live in the shattered remains of Kfar Nahum, fighting for survival in a world in fear of both the Romans and the hungry dead. The community has been decimated and tremendously scarred by both. Litore masterfully weaves this history into the Biblical tale, breathing life into characters we all know, perhaps too well. His choice of use of the Hebrew names function in the same way. In each case, this provides the necessary distance to view the characters anew.

The book reads like a run-away express train. It is a tremendously gripping tale, perfect for setting your teeth on edge and reading with manic energy far into the night. This quality makes for an excellent thriller of a book, but that is not what No Lasting Burial is. It reminds me of the quality Tolkien ascribed to Norse myth: its inherent ability to ensnare and enthrall the reader upon first exposure, yet be capable of sustaining profound study. It is not the action I remember, so much as the calm (though often dark and brooding) which both precedes and follows. There is a lot of philosophical, historical and spiritual meat to be devoured, which though not always in tune with my own thought, invites profound contemplation.

It takes tremendous courage to write a book of speculative fiction centering on Jesus Christ. Though I was troubled by some of Litore’s portrayal, I greatly admire him for the effort and the intelligence shown in his choice to not place Yeshua center-stage. We all are familiar with who Yeshua is, or think he is; by making the tale center on Shimon, primarily, and the town, secondly, the reader is confronted by the same shocking strangeness which must have struck those first witnesses of His ministry. We are placed in the same mindset, slowly shown (or led through) the journey from incredulity to belief.

I did not agree with all of Litore’s choices, but they challenge us to reevaluate our own belief. In the secondary world of his first century Kfar Nahum, however, the development of Yeshua’s ministry flows logically and seamlessly to its conclusion, with many powerful applications to be found in its implications. Events, teachings and sayings from the Bible are recast as they would reflect upon the world of the hungry dead. They are made new.

This book is a tremendous vehicle for recovery, espousing Tolkien’s own theories of eucatastrophe and evangelium. There is great enjoyment to be found in it, but there is also the clarion call of challenge in it. No Lasting Burial invites us to enter more deeply into the Gospel story, to see the Truth in it, to see the humanity, and especially to rediscover the wonder and strangeness of the God made flesh. Even in those scandalous moments of disagreement, the mind is set aflame with our own beliefs and the hunger for knowledge stirred. This is the mark of not some simple thriller to be enjoyed and set aside, but a potentially life-changing novel capable of reinvigorating faith and wonder.

This is why I found No Lasting Burial both intensely troubling and sharply beautiful. I highly anticipate the opportunity to reread it to better absorb and consider without the mindless, moaning craving for resolution. I cannot say if it will stand the test of time and the vagaries of study, but it certainly will have a lasting effect on my thought and for that Stant Litore deserves congratulations.

The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug, Third Impressions

Viewing The Desolation of Smaug for the third time, I found the film pulling itself further and further away from the text. This explains my own paradoxical reaction to it, a rather weak reflection of Tolkien, and yet a very solid and enjoyable action film. The movie exists on three planes: as a cinematic wonder, a continuation of a cinematic adaptation and as a retelling of Tolkien’s tales. With the original trilogy, the first and third planes were set in tension, but were well matched. With the subsequent Hobbit trilogy, it may be the additional plane of existence, tied to precedent, is overturning the scale.

This is okay. They are completely different media after all; to be experienced and enjoyed in largely opposing manners. However, there is a danger in this, which I have voiced before. The films, and other book adaptations, have often been lauded for their stimulation of increased reading. This is great. But with a movie, now so far removed from its source, false expectations arise. The Desolation of Smaug is a rollicking action adventure. Though The Hobbit is the record of an adventure, action-adventure it is not. It is not about the adventure, the action, the confrontations, so much as the interpersonal relationships and the study of character growth, finding oneself and the realization of what truly matters in life.

My fear is movie goers may find disappointment in the book, instead of wonder and revelation. The balance and tension between the book and films in the Lord of the Rings trilogy never fully ruptured to swing completely to one side or the other. The revelation of the text, therefore became in some sense an ‘Easter egg,’ which often still had some reflection, if sometimes badly marred in the film. That is also generally true of AUJ and DOS, but given the whole-sale change of tone doesn’t feel as possible.

Maybe I am a grumpy purist at heart after all, fear mongering. In the end, though, I find myself pleased and proud of Christopher Tolkien for refusing to release rights to more of his father’s work.

Now that that’s out of my system, let’s move on to my thoughts upon my third viewing.

Beorn has bothered me each time I have seen him. I thought that perhaps his characterization would grow on me, but it has not. I do not like or find plausible the created back story of his capture and enslavement by Azog. Also, his visual depiction is distracting, particularly the chapped, dirty look of his skin. The nature of his home, and the sequence of these scenes, however were very well done.

As has been stated by many reviews, there are incessant references to the original LotR film trilogy sprinkled throughout Desolation of Smaug. Some are obvious, and some pretty subtle (which probably means I’ve probably already forgotten most of them). Given Tolkien’s use of repetition as a narrative device, I think its use is justified so long as it tells a metanarrative.

Many moments of reflection stick with me, including: Bilbo tweaking the webs in Mirkwood, the company’s capture by the elves, and Bilbo’s knocking and calling ‘Hello?’ in Erebor. The first and last, both duplicate, both in spirit and the first in deed, Pippin’s act in Moria. In Mirkwood, at least, the effect is the same; to call the spiders to them. The capture by the elves mirrors the encounter in Lothlorien. There are slight differences, but even the manner in which it is filmed seems lifted from FotR. Later, in the barrel escape, Legolas also surfs an orc, rather than a shield, copying TTT. Another moment, is Balin’s statement, in the tunnel leading to Smaug’s lair, regarding the courage of hobbits, which has been lifted from Gandalf. Considering Balin has had no dealing with hobbits, particularly adventurous ones (who don’t appear to exist beyond Bullroarer, Bilbo, and the LotR four), this rang utterly hollow.

In my current reread, Tolkien appears to use repetition almost like experimentation, changing variables, but largely leaving the situation the same, to study the results. Very little of that play, and characterization through repeated trials exists in these cinematic repetitions. They often felt stale or arbitrary.

There were moments of fun to be had, however, in the subtle nods to deeper Tolkien lore and other fun, basically nerd ‘Easter eggs’. These were done so as not to distract, but give a little back to those keen of eye and ear.

  • Bilbo’s waistcoat was missing buttons, and full of loose threads.
  • Beorn keeping watch as they travel to Mirkwood, both to protect them and guard his ponies.
  • Elvish dialogue is not translated exactly, particularly at Legolas’ description of Orcrist. He states it is made by his kin, when you clearly hear ‘Gondolin’.
  • A brief exchange between Gloin and Legolas regarding Gimli.
  • If I heard correctly, apparently one of the elves in the cellar is named ‘Elros’.
  • A possible allusion to the pilot episode of Xena when Legolas fights while standing on dwarves’ heads.
  • Legolas keeps Orcrist, and may be seen fighting Bolg with it in Esgaroth, which explains how it may (or may not) get back to Thorin.
  • Bilbo lifts a cup, which starts the gold-slide which uncovers and presumably wakes Smaug.
  • The frequent use of chapter names in dialogue: ‘Thrice Welcome’ and ‘Not at Home’
  • Azog’s reference to the orc and warg army as ‘legion’ which alludes to Mark 5:9 and Luke 8:30. (Not sure if this was the intent, but very intriguing.)
  • A possible allusion to The Shining when Smaug breaks through to the forges (or is this just me?).

One of the side effects of taking The Hobbit and granting it the epic tone and scope of The Lord of the Rings, is that it takes itself more seriously. By this I don’t refer to humor, but to the plausibility of danger, the intelligence of characters and narrative consistency.

There is a problem with geographical distance which seems to be endemic in the film industry. Azog is apparently able to travel the length of Mirkwood in a single day, or less, to reach Dol Guldor. Gandalf jetsets between Mirkwood, the High Fells and Dol Guldor; though the timing of his travels are less sure. Geography is clay. Very little apparent time is spent in Mirkwood. From the Carrock, the Company could easily discern the Lonely Mountain beyond. Either it is HUGE or it is very near. Distances stretch and disappear at will throughout. It doesn’t necessarily detract from the film, but it is a pet peeve of mine.

Orcs fight in full sunlight. The creation of the great Uruks is yet sixty or so years in the future. Though the orcs could persist in sunlight, as seen in the flight across Rohan, they suffered greatly for it and were hardly able to fight until nightfall. The full-scale onslaught during the Barrels out of Bond sequence is therefore terribly inconsistent.

Another point of dissonance, which did not really bug me but made me think, is the way the elves speak. I can understand the use of English (Westron) when speaking to the dwarves or the orcs, but why when the elves speak exclusively among themselves? There has been a huge push to put more language into these films. It is rather odd that Legolas and Tauriel speak in and out of Elvish when speaking privately. It is stranger still that an isolationist such as Thranduil would not keep to his own tongue wherever possible. I know more subtitles would put off many, but the balance is already too heavy, they may as well have gone all the way and made their elvish/’alien’ culture shine.

It makes sense to insert some effort by the dwarves to ‘off’ Smaug in the film. With the new focus on the Arkenstone, a plan would not have been conceived necessary until the return with an army of unite dwarvish kingdoms. So a haphazard effort makes sense should the company end up in an confrontation with the dragon. However, given the supposedly unsurpassed cunning of Smaug, the film fails to take his strengths of mind and body seriously. Yes, all the dwarves must survive until the ultimate conclusion, but this furthers the incredibility and absurdity of the final moments. As much as this would further separate the film from the text, the notion that they all get out of that completely unscathed (besides psychologically) defeats the nature of Smaug.

It begs the question how Smaug ever was able to claim the mountain, when he shows such complete incompetence. As a crafty wyrm, Smaug would not be so easily distracted by shouts or splitting up. It screams of impossibility that he’d pass over the company in a very open space and fail to see them. He is also supposed to have a keen sense of smell, which though not explicitly demonstrated, should have come into play. The entire series of events brought to mind the madcap chase scenes in comedies, where everyone goes in and out of doors along a corridor, but never the same ones.

Such an absurdity would work in the lighter context of the textual Hobbit, but not in the rather grave and epic Jacksonian Hobbit. The most hurt out of all that conflict is Thorin’s burnt overcoat. If you’re going to have the dwarves fight the dragon, you have to show the dragon as an adversary worthy of such effort and fear. If such a small company may have practically complete command of the place, unharmed, Smaug becomes like a kitten, a rabid and angry kitten, but no true threat. It creates a jarring dissonance.

Similarly, it is unlikely the orcs in Esgaroth could enter unnoticed. How they reached the town isn’t shown, but since they do have wargs, it must have been via the causeway, which would presumably be guarded. Also, with a protracted, noisy and destructive fight throughout the town, lights should have sprung up, and the people sounding the alarm left and right. The town may sleep, but it is not abandoned.

Another factor I noticed today was the unified nature of evil in Jackson’s films, which is extremely pronounced in the Hobbit trilogy. Everything trails back to Sauron. Azog is no free agent, a leader of Moria, but a leader in Sauron’s army. The spiders emanate from Dol Guldor. Even Smaug, who is very much a free agent capable of choosing his own side, appears cognizant of Sauron’s rise and not wholly unaligned. Yes, both evil and good tend to fight as united fronts in the end in Tolkien’s work, but they also often exist as separate and independent entities, completely unrelated to one another and even at times opposed.

Unlike An Unexpected Journey, where subsequent viewings have increased my enjoyment of the film, Desolation of Smaug appears to be doing the opposite. Taken alone, as a film apart or even as the continuation of Jackson and Co’s work, it is amazing. On the other hand, as time goes by, with further thought and subsequent viewings, I’m finding it harder and harder to see Tolkien in it.

It is a paradox. I love the movie. And at the same time I don’t.

Twelve Passages of Christmas

A number of years ago, I read a post from someone who has the tradition of reading The Lord of the Rings at Christmastime. They expressed some confusion regarding its suitability, but in reality Tolkien is a wonderful author to read at this time of year, particularly if you hold its true purpose near and dear.

Initially, I had thought to compose my own Tolkien-inspired parody of ‘The Twelve Days of Christmas’ carol, but decided against it as it cheapens both works. Instead, I give you the Twelve Tolkien passages of Christmas, those parts of his literary work which both reflect and cause reflection of this most joyous time of year.

Day 1, Christmas Eve/Day: ‘Mount Doom’

At first you may scratch your head at this selection, but it effortlessly fits the tone of Christmas. ‘Mount Doom’ is actually the perfect reading for Christmas Eve/Day, and by extension all of Advent. Though Lent is the more commonly known and practiced penitential season of the Church, Advent is as well. Both seasons function in order to prepare our souls for the coming of the Lord; in Lent for the Resurrection and in Advent the Incarnation. Therefore, in the Roman Catholic Church, the Biblical readings of this time most often refer to end times and the Second Coming, to make us ready and prepared. With the days waning and such grim readings it is also a time many feel a certain level of despair.

Sam gives us the perfect guide. Making their way across Gorgoroth, “hope [dies] in Sam, or [seems] to die, it [is] turned to new strength” (LotR 913). His is a model of faith and hope and perseverance which leads to the ultimate success of the quest. We must also hope, have faith and persevere, even in the direst of circumstances in hope of our ‘happy ending.’

The ultimate destruction of the Ring is achieved not by Frodo or Sam alone, but through the will of Providence, in a cosmic eucatastrophic moment born out of a moment of deepest despair and doubt. Christmas is the same.

 The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who dwelt in the land of deep darkness, on them has a light shined. Isaiah 9:2

March twenty-fifth, the day of the fall of Sauron and the destruction of the Ring, is also traditionally the day of both the Annunciation and the Crucifixion.  It is a day steeped in eucatastrophe, in both the primary world and the secondary world of Middle-earth. The parity of these two events marking the beginning and the end of Christ’s earthly life close a loop. Christmas is joyful, not only by the birth of Christ, but by the revelation of Christ’s mission on earth, the battle he would fight for us on Calvary.

Therefore it is necessary in the Christmas Season to recognize the fullness of eucatastrophe, the sorrows, the joys, the despair, and the ultimate glory.

Day 2, Feast of St. Stephen: ‘Of Beren and Lúthien’

St. Stephen is known as the first Deacon and first martyr of the Church. He is described as “full of faith, and of the Holy Ghost,” and gives testimony, even to the point of death, of fullness of salvation history (Acts 6:5 & 7:2-50). He persevered in proclaiming the Good News, even in the face of mockery and violence.

Tolkien’s great tale of love and sacrifice echoes the devotion and fortitude of this great saint, while also expounding on the awesome virtues of charity, faith and sacrifice. In particular, the story of the fall of Finrod Felagund in the aid and friendship of Beren speaks to the true nature of giving. Finrod remembers his oath to Barahir, Beren’s ancestor, and promises him aid in his quest, though nigh all Nargothrond is set against them by the wily oration of Celegorm (Sil. 169). They are captured by Sauron, and Finrod overcome.

“But when the wolf came for Beren, Felagund put forth all his power, and burst his bonds; and he wrestled with the werewolf, and slew it with his hands and teeth; yet he himself was wounded to the death.” (Sil. 174)

At this time in particular we are reminded of the true meaning of generosity and love, as a giving of oneself for others. Give the gift of yourself, through your kindness, a smile, food to the hungry, company to the lonely and fulfill that calling as both Felagund and St. Stephen did.

Day 3, St. John the Evangelist: the message of the Eagle

December 27th we celebrate the feast day of St. John the Evangelist, author of five books of the Bible and the beloved apostle. The word Gospel means ‘good news.’ As the Evangelist gave the Good News to all peoples, so too a great Eagle proclaims good news to the people of Minas Tirith:

“Sing now, ye people of the Tower of Anor…

Sing and rejoice, ye people of the Tower of the Guard…

Sing and be glad, all ye children of the West…

Sing all ye people!”

(LotR 942)

Christmas is the “Great Eucatastrophe,” the greatest “Joy, Joy beyond the walls of the world, poignant as grief” (OFS). This Joy is proclaimed via Evangelium, the Good News, the Messenger and given to all.

Day 4, Feast of the Holy Innocents: the coming of the Outland Armies (Minas Tirith, LotR 753-4)

After the visit by the Wise Men in Jerusalem, King Herod was determined to find and destroy the child who according to prophecy would be a “ruler who will govern…Israel” (Matthew 2:6). Failing to receive word from the Wise Men as to the location of the babe, Herod sent his troops, “[killing] all the male children in Bethlehem and in all that region who were two years old or under” (Matthew 2:16).

Tolkien often brilliantly depicts the nature of hope, particularly as it pertains to mankind. Hope is often closely paired with despair, and joy with sorrow. As noted above for Day 3, the great Joy felt in eucatastrophe is ‘poignant as grief.’ Our joys and hopes are feeble, a flickering candle in the wind, which due to our fallen nature is too often quickly quenched.

The coming of the Outland Armies is a scene I deeply love in Tolkien’s writing, for its awesome ability to delve into the human psyche and evoke that same hope and anticipation in the reader, who counts along with the crowd at the gate. Like the crowd, we come away glad of the aid, but despairing that it is sufficient. It is a moment I have previously termed ‘happy despair,’ a theme which runs through much of the legendarium. The proclamation of the last march of the Ents or Theoden’s realization that this will be his last battle also exemplify this curious emotion. It is a sadness, a grief, but in its capacity to defeat evil and save those one loves it is paradoxically an honor, a joy, a peace.

Day 5, St. Thomas Becket, Bishop and Martyr: ‘A Thief in the Night’ (TH 309-320)

St. Thomas Becket was Archbishop of Canterbury in the late twelfth century. He was devoted to the Church and the protection of its interests in the face of reforms pressed by King Henry II. In the heat of the conflict between the two Becket was martyred by four knights. Upon his death, he remained true to his priestly mission, commending his spirit to God. Within three years he was declared a saint and martyr of the Church.

St. Thomas Becket is a model of integrity, holding true in the face of persecution and unswervingly following the perilous but honorable road. The true moment of greatness of Bilbo, the true climax of The Hobbit, is summed up in his actions regarding the Arkenstone. The central tale of The Hobbit is not the confrontation with Smaug, but the journey and the friendship of Thorin and Bilbo. Bilbo betrays his friends, not out of spite, but in order to save them as well as to avert the suffering of all in either a protracted siege or battle. It is akin to the lesser deception of Frodo’s friends in ‘A Conspiracy Unmasked,’ which though dishonest has the best interests of all at its heart.

I won’t say much more besides my assertion that this defining moment in the quest of Mr. Bilbo Baggins is a masterstroke by the good Professor and again captures his writing at its best.

Day 6, Feast of the Holy Family: ‘The Tale of Aragorn and Arwen’ (Appendix A)

(Technically this feast may falls on the first Sunday following Christmas. This year, it falls on the fifth day)

In Tolkien, it is surprisingly difficult to find a good tale of family life. Too often the families of Middle-earth end in tragedy or strife or early death. In reality, however, this is not so surprising given the death of Tolkien’s father when he was four, and the abandonment by their extended family when they were received into the Catholic Church, and finally the death of his mother when he was twelve.

Aragorn’s father, Arathorn, dies when his son is only two years old. Gilraen and Aragorn find sanctuary in Rivendel, where Aragorn is named Estel or Hope. The relationship between Gilraen and Aragorn is particularly poignant, especially in their last conversation. The same poignant mutual love and respect is seen in the last moments of Aragorn’s life as both he and Arwen grapple, in their own way, with this new ending.

Of honorable mention is the brief passage on Sam’s family at the conclusion of The Lord of the Rings:

“And he went on, and there was yellow light, and fire within; and the evening meal was ready, and he was expected. And Rose drew him in, and set him in his chair, and put little Elanor upon his lap.” (LotR 1008)

Day 7, Pope St. Sylvester I: ‘The Grey Havens’ (998-1003)

Pope St. Sylvester I’s reign began shortly after the Edict of Milan legalized Christianity. He is also the central figure in the forged documents which constitute the ‘Donation of Constantine’ granting the Pope dominion over Rome and Italy. Many of the great basilican churches were also built at this time. He oversaw a time of great hope and growth for the Church.

In like manner, Sam also ushers the Shire out of the darkness and into a new springtime. The year 1420 (Shire Reckoning) is a year of great prosperity, life and health. The earth feels young, fresh and new and the sorrows and persecutions of the past are largely wiped away yielding a more beautiful and bountiful Shire.

Hardship is often viewed in a completely negative light. Though the miseries inflicted by Saruman are certainly evil, without that evil the hobbits would not have found their strength to usher in a new age of plenty. This does not excuse evil, but is a lesson for the everyday trials we face in life: a delay, illness, injury, annoyance. They may be the product of ill will or simply bad luck, but if approached with good will may become the refining fire.

“Spring surpassed his wildest hopes…Not only was there wonderful sunshine and delicious rain, in due times and perfect measure, but there seemed something more: an air of richness and growth, and a gleam of a beauty beyond that of mortal summers that flicker and pass upon this Middle-earth.” (LotR 1000)

Day 8, Solemnity of Mary, Mother of God: ‘Farewell to Lórien’

Happy Solemnity of Mary, Mother of God! And to the rest of you, Happy New Year!

The Solemnity of Mary always falls on the Octave of Christmas, which means it is always on the same day of the week following Christmas. Incidentally, this also means it is celebrated on the first of the year. This is fitting given the stature of Mary as the Mother of the God, as well as our adoptive mother and greatest mediator in prayer.

In his letters, Tolkien affirms the importance of the Virgin Mary to his life and work, “upon which [his] own small perception of beauty in majesty and simplicity is founded” (Letter 142). Further, he admits Galdriel, the Lady of the Wood, a figure of beauty, grace and mystery, “[owes] much…to Christian and Catholic teaching and imagination about Mary” (Letter 320). However, she is an imperfect analog. She is counted among the exiles of the Noldor and refuses the Valar’s pardon. She is therefore “a penitent…pardoned because of her resistance to the final and overwhelming temptation to take the Ring for herself” (Letter 320).

The beauty of Galadriel is nowhere more powerfully stated than by Gimli son of Glóin:

“It is enough for me to have seen the Lady of the Galadhrim, and to have heard her gentle words.” (LotR 366)

And when pressed to request a gift:

“There is nothing, Lady Galadriel…Nothing, unless it might be-unless it is permitted to ask, nay, to name a single strand of your hair, which surpasses the gold of the earth as the stars surpass the gems of the mine. I do not ask for such a gift. But you commanded my desire.” (LotR 366-7)

And further, when asked the purpose of the gift:

“[To] treasure it, Lady…in memory of your words to me at our first meeting. And if ever I return to the smithies of my home, it shall be set in imperishable crystal to be an heirloom of my house, and a pledge of good will between the Mountain and the Wood until the end of days.” (LotR 367)

Finally, the reader is left with the vision of the Lady in farewell, a shining figure of white. As they pass farther down the river, all that remains are the gentle strains of her elvish song of farewell, which fills the heart with longing for the West.

Day 9, Ss. Basil the Great and Gregory Nazianzen, Bishops: ‘Akallabêth’ (275-282)

Both St. Basil the Great and St. Gregory Nazianzen lived and served the Church as Bishops in the fourth century.  They were friends and collaborators working in the Eastern Empire. St. Basil wrote one of the oldest surviving monastic codes, and was a rock of orthodoxy in opposition to the Arianism of the East. He is a doctor of the Church. St Gregory also stood steadfast in the defense of orthodoxy and was an exemplary orator.

These two Bishops stayed the course, and attempted to lead their flocks down the path to orthodoxy. In like manner, the Elendili worked tirelessly to preserve the traditions of the Númenoreans and their age-old allegiance with the Eldar. Out of these people comes the hope of Middle-earth, which would be instrumental in defeating Sauron both in the Second and Third Age.

Day 10, The Most Holy Name of Jesus: ‘The Window on the West’

The Feast of the Most Holy Name of Jesus commemorates the circumcision and naming of Jesus (Luke 2:21). His name is above all others, “at the name of Jesus every knee should bend of those in heaven, on earth, and under the earth” (Phil 2:10).  The typical mode of respect and devotion is to bow one’s head slightly at the name of Jesus. This devotion not only demonstrates the proper deference, but also instills an appreciation and remembrance of what Jesus has done for us.

A somewhat similar tradition exists in Middle-earth, where before a meal the Rangers “look towards Númenor that was, and beyond to Elvenhome that is, and to that which is beyond Elvenhome and will ever be” (LotR 661). The similarities in phrasing and rhythm of this statement with the Doxology are striking, and may just be incidental, but I think the wording fits the mode of Evangelium, a sort of sacred formula, which more likely accounts for the resemblance. This simple gesture of silence is a demonstration of respect and remembrance; not shallow remembrance but the fullness of memory, which is an effort to enter into and be part of the history, reliving it in the moment.

Of like nature is the show of respect of the hobbits, who “bow to [their] host, and after…rise and thank him” (LotR 661). In each of these instances a vision of courtesy, manners and respect is shown; a lesson in the simple ways we can treat each other with kindness and dignity.

Day 11, St. Elizabeth Ann Seton: The Scion of Nimloth (LotR 949-51)

St. Elizabeth Ann Seton is the first native born American saint. She was married, with children, when a series of hardships and deaths led her to Italy and ultimately reception into the Roman Catholic Church. Returning to the States, she founded a sisterhood, which opened the first Catholic schools and orphanages.

St. Elizabeth Ann Seton was not born Catholic, but through the trials of her life she was drawn to God, and eventually to the Church and especially the Blessed Sacrament. Sometimes Grace sneaks up on us and leads us in mysterious ways.

On a day approaching mid-summer, Gandalf leads Aragorn up to a secret place above the city of Minas Tirith. They survey the realm, the vastness of Gondor, but Aragorn is still troubled. Gandalf gives Aragorn puzzling instruction, “Turn your face from the green world, and look where all seems barren and cold!” (LotR 950)

They find the young sapling of the line of Nimloth. It is a tree which “comes seldom to ripeness, yet the life within may then lie sleeping through many long years, and none foretell the time in which it will awake” (LotR 950). In many ways this simple description echoes the parable of the sower; the thirst for the faith is deep and awakens when the time is right just as there is a season for growth and a season for harvest (Luke 8:4-15). There is always hope, and there are always miracles, just not in the way we expect.

Day 12, St John Neumann: ‘The Muster of Rohan’

St. John Neumann is another American saint, and once bishop of Philadelphia. He was born in Bohemia, and travelled to the United States in order to be ordained a priest. Like St. Elizabeth Ann Seton, he is known for his tremendous work building up the Catholic school system in the States.

St. John Neumann was determined to serve God and the people of God. When refused ordination in his native Bohemia, he petitioned bishops around Europe, before finally being accepted by the bishop of New York. He left home behind, came to the states and served humbly.

This same humble and dedicated service in the name of love defines Merry’s relationship with Theoden. It is service of the purest kind, which though not always joyful or easy, they delight in because of that love. Over the years, I’ve come to cherish a single line in all The Lord of the Rings:

“Sometimes where the way was broader he had ridden at the king’s side, not noticing that many of the Riders smiled to see the two together: the hobbit on his little shaggy grey pony, and the Lord of Rohan on his great white horse.” (LotR 775)

There are endless choices of material befitting the season from among Tolkien’s works. There are many I would have liked to include, but did not suit the feast as well. So as additional reading for the season, if you choose not to read the novel(s) entire, I highly recommend in particular: ‘Ainulindalë’, ‘The King of the Golden Hall’, and ‘Athrabeth Finrod ah Andreth’

Merry Christmas and Happy Reading!

Did anyone call an Eagle?

There has been much debate over the years about Tolkien’s use of the Eagles in his works. The common argument is that the Eagles are nothing more than Deus ex machina, apparent evidence that Tolkien wrote himself into a corner. The Eagles are seen as a crutch, a tool or even to take it to its extreme, a taxi.

It is little wonder that these arguments are so common, given the Eagles’ proclivity for showing up at just the right moment to save the day. Given their utility, their abuse has been rampant even from the earliest days, where the Zimmerman story-line has “people gallop about on Eagles at the least provocation” (Letter 201). Tolkien states that “the Eagles are a dangerous ‘machine’…[which he uses] sparingly, and that is the absolute limit of their credibility or usefulness” (Letters 210). The trend humorously continues in the ‘How it should have ended’ spoofs for both The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. The topic is also briefly aired in the latest Grey Havens Group Podcast.

Tolkien refers to the Eagles as a device in his letters about the Zimmerman adaptation, stating that overuse “[stales] the device of the Eagles when at last they are really needed” (Letter 210). This manner of referring to the Eagles continues in many of Tolkien’s letters referring to the story-line, but I don’t think it refers to the Eagles as written in his full Legendarium.

From the beginning, the Eagles are a race apart. They are not precisely beast. They are not really among the Children of Ilúvatar. The hawks and eagles are the special servants of Manwë, a status established in the Book of Lost Tales, where “Sorontur King of Eagles [is given] much might and wisdom” by the chief Vala of Middle-earth (TBoLT I 74). Sorontur often acts as both watcher and messenger of Manwë and the Valar, even bringing their pronouncement of Doom to Melko after the theft of the Silmarils and murder of Fëanor’s father (TBoLT I 166 & 197).

The close relationship between the Eagles and the Valar is tightened significantly in the Valaquenta. Following Aulë’s creation of the dwarves and Yavanna’s reaction, Manwë is troubled and seeks the wisdom of Ilúvatar, which comes to him as a replaying of the great Song of creation. He receives knowledge, not only of the creation of the Ents, but also that of the Eagles, saying:

“But dost thou not now remember, Kementári, that thy thought sang not always alone? Did not thy thought and mine meet also, so that we took wing together like great birds that soar above the clouds? That also shall come to be by the heed of Ilúvatar, and before the Children awake there shall go forth with wings like the wind the Eagles of the Lords of the West.” (Sil. 46)

Like the dwarves and the ents, the Eagles are adopted children of Ilúvatar; born from the hearts and minds of Manwë and Yavanna, but given life and being by Eru. Yet, unlike the other adopted races, the Eagles remain closely tied to the Valar, particularly during the First and Second Age.

Their role as guardians and saviors has its roots in the Tale of the Fall of Gondolin, where their bravery helps the fleeing Noldoli escape along the Eagles’ Cleft through the Crissaegrim following the rape of the city (TBolT II 194). The reason for the unceasing enmity between the creatures of Morgoth, Morgoth himself and the Eagles is briefly described in the Tales. Morgoth and his forces capture Eagles, chain them and torture them in an attempt to gain the power of flight; even killing those who would not respond for their wings to make his own (TBoLT II 193-4). Other than Varda and Manwë, none of the Valar can reach the upper airs; in torturing the Eagles, Morgoth hopes to gain that edge as well.

Other than the single quote above regarding the creation of the Eagles from The Silmarillion, all the development of the eagles noted has been from before the composition of the Hobbit or LotR. Tolkien’s tale of a hobbit and company of dwarves meanders in and out of the perilous realm he explores in the Tales. The Eagles are, in a small sense, another example of this.

Though the Eagles of The Hobbit are significantly more savage than the storied messengers of Manwë, they are yet an “ancient race…the greatest of all birds…proud and strong and noble-hearted” (TH 121). They are clearly sentient beings, with their own culture and hierarchy. They are creatures of the air, who, when they deign to look to the ground, drive away the goblins. Gandalf knows the Lord of the Eagles, having aided him before and converses at length with him. As an Istari, a messenger of the Valar himself, this is only fitting (UT 406). The Lord of the Eagles refuses to take the Company further than Carrock, as they cannot come too close to the dwellings of men for fear “they would shoot at [them]…[thinking the Eagles are] after their sheep” (TH 129). Curiously, in The Hobbit at least, all the company may hear and understand the Eagles, proving they are much more than beasts.

Two things must be remembered when viewing the Eagles, especially as seen in The Hobbit. Firstly, this is a children’s story, whose episodic nature may be explained by stories told before bed. Secondly and similarly, though some foreshadowing or introduction of the concept of the Eagles may have increased their plausibility, it would have ruined the surprise. The Hobbit is meant to be Bilbo’s diary of his adventures, though possibly translated multiple times over as part of the Red Book (LotR 14). The Company is saved when all hope is lost. They themselves are surprised by the Eagles’ coming. Bilbo being a storyteller himself would presumably not want to ruin the surprise for the reader.

As Bilbo’s own epistolary account, much of the capricious nature of the text fits into place. It is more akin to the Norse Eddas or the Homeric epics than the nursery rhyme. Tolkien may have written and read along to his children or even spun tales to refine and write later; ultimately that truth of its composition is immaterial. Whether there is evidence to support an oral tradition for The Hobbit or not, the use of the Narrator naturally makes it so. The book works beautifully read aloud, so even if it was not composed that way, with the inclusion of the Narrator it is probable it was refined that way; or minimally is a monument to Tolkien’s supreme word-craft.The way the tale is framed not only corroborates Tolkien’s literary conceits of adventure log, but through the insertion of the narrator may also denote later insertions either by Bilbo or Frodo, or even by the scribes of Gondor who would later transcribe the Red Book.

Viewing The Hobbit from the oral and epic tradition is therefore quite fitting. The episodic nature, the seemingly sudden and swift mentions of peoples, places and events are all derived to some degree from this literary mode. As described in Elizabeth Solopova’s introductory book Languages, Myths and History, “[the] use of place names in sagas reflects their borderline position between fiction, which involves conscious invention and the use of names as a literary device, and a historical narrative.” (Solopova 22) This creates a level of ambiguity in the tale, blurring the lines between myth and history.

If the Eagles are solely a vehicle by which to fly away to safety or to save the protagonists in a pinch, no further information besides their simple existence is needed. Instead, the reader is given a glimpse of their thought, their life and their society. Like Tom Bombadil, the Eagles are an example of other, showing more of the fullness of the world (Letter 153). By showing seemingly extraneous characters, races, places and histories which may or may not bear on future events in the tale, Tolkien sends roots deep into the soil of Middle-earth. The Old Forest, Tom Bombadil, Old Man Willow, the Barrow Downs, Beorn, Goblin Town, Treebeard, Ithilien, the Dead Marshes…the list is endless. All increase the level of authenticity and reality of Middle-earth, grounding the tales as found or discovered rather than invented.

The Eagles function in much the same manner. If they are viewed as more than a mere taxi, much of their doings begins to make sense.

The Eagles live in the Misty Mountains, which at the time of The Hobbit is infested with goblins. The goblins and wargs often raid the dwellings of men, destroying their livelihood and taking many as slaves (TH 118).  A large massing of the goblins and wargs would certainly concern the Eagles, as this would threaten their own food supply (TH 129). To attack protects their eyries, as well as giving sport given their presumed hatred of the goblins. Taking the Eagles seriously in this manner, as a race apart, with their own needs and motivations, makes the scenario plausible.

In the Battle of Five Armies, the Eagles are the last to arrive. Why do they come only to save the day? Though pure conjecture, there are a number of reasons which stem directly from what little description Tolkien gives. Again, as a told story, supposedly from Bilbo’s point of view, the need for surprise, for eucatastrophe is evident. But if the Eagles are taken seriously, a couple plausible conclusions may be made. Just like the goblin armies, the Eagles need to travel from the Misty Mountains to Erebor. Presumably, the Eagles watch the army form and follow, whether immediately or after perceiving the true threat. It is also possible the Eagles harry the host along the way, though this seems unlikely as then the goblin host would have foreseen their attack from the air.

The Eagles may also be observing the battle from on high, fulfilling their ancient role as the watchers and messengers of Manwë. In The Hobbit, at least, this appears unlikely. Given their proud nature and their evident curiosity, it seems more likely the Eagles are observing to see which way the tide will turn, to give aid where the aid will do the most good, and also yield the most honor and possible reward.

The Eagles appear again in The Lord of the Rings, where they are most often seen aiding the Wise. When Gandalf is tricked into coming to Isengard, He tells Radagast to inform his beast and avian friends to watch and bring news to him and Saruman at Orthanc (LotR 251). This is how Gwaihir the Windlord comes to Orthanc and rescues Gandalf, fulfilling the ancient Valar-given role of his race as watcher and messenger.  Again, after the battle with the Balrog, at the “command of the Lady Galadriel,” Gwaihir finds and saves Gandalf. The two are also seen high over Rohan by the three companions (LotR 493).

These two examples show a much closer relationship between the Istari, Galadriel and the Eagles. There are clear ties of friendship and alliance shown. Through the lens of these clues, therefore, the Eagles’ appearance at the Black Gate may be interpreted.

First of all, by reviewing the Tale of Years in Appendix B, three attacks on Lórien occur concurrently with the battle at the Black Gate (LotR 169). Though no mention of the Eagles is made in the brief description of these battles, it seems likely they may have played a part. After all, why would the Eagles fly away from the near battle to reach the far? It is possible Galadriel, sensing the final thrust of Sauron’s might, sent the Eagles to the aid of the Armies of the West, even knowing the sacrifice in her own people’s blood that would entail.

As to assertions the Eagles may have flown the company to Mordor and thereby completed the quest simply and easily, the conception of the Eagles as beings in their own right refutes this claim. Even with the great ties of friendship between the Eagles and Gandalf there is little likelihood the Eagles would leave their homes on a hopeless venture where they would be completely exposed, particularly to the flying Nazgul. If they are taken seriously, on par with the Elves and the Men and the Ents, the same theme is there, just unspoken: why fight for the good of others; with the eventual response that only in fighting as one may evil be vanquished.

All of this is, of course, purely conjectural. Though guesswork, however, it is all drawn from the Eagles as depicted. These are the sorts of conclusions which may be drawn when they are taken seriously, as sentient beings, as a race, and not a taxi, not simply Deus ex machina.

How, then, do Peter Jackson’s Eagles compare?

In the original film trilogy, Gwaihir is called to Gandalf by a moth. This is a necessary evil given the deletion of Radagast from the plot. They actually play no role at all in the battle at the Black Gate, only appearing afterwards to save Sam and Frodo from Mount Doom. In An Unexpected Journey, Gandalf again calls for them via a moth. They do not speak, they appear nothing more than giant birds. They have been demoted to beasts of burden, the taxi service of Middle-earth, who come when called. The proud and ancient race is gone. There is no sight of the great friendship between Gandalf and Gwaihir, even if corrupted to the sort shown between Gandalf and Shadowfax. All of this is absent, and with it any hope of making the Eagles anything more than a device. If any Eagles are Deus ex machina, they are Jackson’s, not Tolkien’s.