J.R.R. Tolkien and the Eagles’ Wings: Middle Earth and the Bible

Tags

, , , , , , ,

So why didn’t they just ask the eagles?  This is a question about The Lord of the Rings I’ve heard before from time to time.  Given that the eagles appear out of nowhere to rescue Bilbo and the dwarves when they’re about to be wiped out by goblins in The Hobbit, and the fact that another eagle rescues Gandalf from Isengard in The Fellowship of the Ring, why couldn’t the whole of The Lord of the Rings have been short-circuited by giving the eagles the One Ring and telling them to drop it into Mount Doom?

eagle lectern

As this article on Tolkien Gateway discusses, various answers have been offered to this conundrum, from the fact that Sauron also had winged creatures that could fight the eagles, to the eagles’ need to defend their own territory, to the possibility that they might be limited in how far they were allowed to intervene in Middle Earth’s affairs.

These theories are largely internal to the fictional world; they assume that the explanation for the apparent discrepancy in logic must lie within the fiction.  They bring other information from inside the fictional world of Middle Earth to bear on the problem, in order to discern the causality which led to the events as “recorded” in the books.

In a fictional world as rich and immense as Tolkien’s Middle Earth this technique makes a lot of sense.  The care and creativity which the writer clearly lavished on his creation, and the way the Middle Earth corpus builds up a network of stories surrounding each other, encourages us to look for causality within the fiction.

It’s also encouraged by the fact that Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit are what Farah Mendlesohn has termed “immersive” fantasies.  In other words, they present us with narratives containing fantastical elements without making any explicit connection between the world of the reader and the world of the characters.  They offer a complete and “sealed” world of the fantastic which operates according to its own rules and contains all the narrative elements.

Gandalf may do a fair amount of explaining the history and lore of Middle Earth to Frodo, but at no point does he discuss how Middle Earth relates to the world outside the novel, or indeed admit that there is another “world” that looks anything like the one which the reader inhabits.  Still less does the story depict anyone from the real world crossing over into the fantastical world, as seen in Lewis’ Narnia books.

Given all this, it makes sense to assume that the explanation for a puzzle – or indeed an apparent discrepancy – might lie within the fictional world.  There are other ways such a problem could be resolved, of course; other “places” we might look for a solution in similar situations.  The most basic solution is that it was a mistake.  The author is at fault, and the text does not present such a seamless whole as we had thought.  The apparent problem within the fictional world – why the eagles weren’t commissioned to undertake the ring quest – points to a problem outside the world, where the author didn’t manage to tie all up loose ends and weave together the narrative satisfactorily.

This, as I suggested, involves taking the step from inside the narrative to outside, seeking the causes in the conditions of the text’s production as we know them.  We replace the query “why didn’t Gandalf or Elrond think of the eagles?” with the query “why didn’t Tolkien think of the eagles” and answer it with the response “because he didn’t think of everything”.  This might impair our appreciation of the novels or it might not, but it would certainly shift our mode of reading whilst we were trying to solve the problem.

Another way of going “outside” the fictional world for a solution would be to look for a reason in the reader’s world rather than the writer’s mind.  This feels more instinctively right in fictions which are less “immersive” in a single fantastical universe, and might involve the fantasy elements “intruding” into the reader’s world, or someone travelling through a “portal” into the fantasy world (all Mendlesohn’s terms.)  For example, several people have asked whilst reading some vampire fiction, “if these creatures are super-intelligent, why haven’t they realized that turning everyone into vampires will eventually mean they will have no food sources, and will die out?”

To which one of the plausible answers might be variations on “That’s not really how this kind of fiction works.”  Of course there are other answers, such as “Er, good point, this book is a bit dumb” or “Actually that issue is tackled in Blade: Trinity.”  But the “how this fiction works” answer offers the solution that the internal mechanics of the fiction matter less than their relationship to the world beyond the page.  Essentially: it’s not a mistake, it’s a metaphor.

Vampire fictions have been read as metaphors for the fear of invasion of colonial “others”, for the destabilisation of gender norms, for the fear of HIV AIDS, for the parasitic systems of capitalism, amongst other things – and indeed for bundles of those anxieties wrapped up together.  Asking why the vampire population graph ultimately doesn’t make sense can direct our attention towards the possibility that the importance of vampires biting and “turning” people has more to do with the reader’s world than the fiction’s world.  Indeed the very incongruity of something not making sense within the fiction can be a positive aspect of this kind of reading: it signals to the reader that another mode of interpretation would be helpful, encouraging them to connect the fantastical elements of the fiction with their world.

There’s another option in going beyond the fictional world in order to patch or solve a problem: going not into the writer’s mind or the reader’s world but into other fictional texts.  This might involve pointing to source relationships, lines of influence, quotation, parody or other intertextual connections, in which an earlier text explains or illuminates a confusing passage or a problem.  What, as a college friend memorably asked, are these Italian soldiers Barnado and Fransisco doing on the battlements of Elsinore?  Isn’t that a bit suspicious?  We might answer that Italian mercenaries were widely employed in European wars, and that Claudius has hired a unit of them because of his worries about the threat from Fortinbras across the border.  The more accurate answer, of course, is that Elsinore was where Shakespeare’s source set the story, and that explains why everything is happening there.

And this rather lengthy excursus points at the kind of solution I’m suggesting to the question of eagles in The Lord of the Rings.  I noticed it during a Eucharist in our parish church, when the following passage was read out:

And Moses went up unto God, and the LORD called unto him out of the mountain, saying, Thus shalt thou say to the house of Jacob, and tell the children of Israel;

Ye have seen what I did unto the Egyptians, and how I bare you on eagles’ wings, and brought you unto myself.

Now therefore, if ye will obey my voice indeed, and keep my covenant, then ye shall be a peculiar treasure unto me above all people: for all the earth is mine:

And ye shall be unto me a kingdom of priests, and an holy nation. These are the words which thou shalt speak unto the children of Israel.

(Exodus 19)

It was the very oddness of the metaphor that caught my attention.  Eagles appear in various parts of the Bible, as metaphors for strength and life, and for for parental love and care.  But the reference here to eagles’ wings isn’t a particular feature of the escape from Egypt, which is being pointed to here.  The mention of God’s rescue of the people, and care for them, seems to use this phrase as an image of surprising and dramatic rescue – a much more compressed equivalent, perhaps, of the parting of the Red Sea, which does form part of that story.

This finds an echo in a letter (cited in that Tolkien Gateway article), which Tolkien wrote when there was a discussion about filming The Lord of the Rings.  It contains this phrase:

The Eagles are a dangerous ‘machine’. I have used them sparingly, and that is the absolute limit of their credibility or usefulness.

Here Tolkien might be warning of the danger of the eagles as a glib solution to plot problems, or indeed his awareness of their potential to spoil the logic of his fictional world.  But the term “machine” is suggestive: rather than a mechanical contrivance it suggests to me the deux ex machina of Classical theatre.  This device, the “god from the machine”, was a shorthand for the appearance of a divine character, lowered into the playing area on the flying “machine” or theatrical crane.  It later became a term (in literature which ran on different principles to Classical tragedy) for sloppily plotted solutions to fictional situations, in which a character suddenly turns up and sorts everything out with more or less magical powers and complete knowledge.

So Tolkien’s reference to the eagles as a “machine” strengthens the likelihood of an intertextual link to Exodus.  The wings of eagles as an image of powerful and mysterious deliverance, which cannot be accounted for rationally or summoned at will, stretches across both texts.  In both the protagonists are saved suddenly for a purpose they don’t yet understand.  Tolkien has apparently undertaken a move often seen in fantastical writing: he has taken a metaphor and made it into a physical reality.  The metaphorical idea of “a living death” or “sucking someone’s blood” find physical expression in the figures of the zombie and the vampire; here being rescued “on eagles’ wings” comes to involve actual eagles.

Tolkien’s own knowledge of the Bible, and his engagement with Christian ideas in his fiction, are both well attested.  I’ve written a quick post myself on how his fictional style reflects the theological world of his Catholicism.  There seems to be a decent case here that the answer to the problem of the eagles is a passage of Exodus, which embedded itself in Tolkien’s imagination and came out in his own writing when he reached for an image which expressed what he meant.  Maybe Tolkien’s eagles are perched, so to speak, on the crags of Mount Sinai.