J.R.R. Tolkien and the Baffling Plot Hole

Seriously, Tolkien?

Let me make something clear: I love the books of J.R.R. Tolkien. Besides The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, I’ve read The Silmarillion and many of Tolkien’s obscurer works, not to mention two or three biographies of the man and several books about his mythos. (I once went through a Tolkien/Lewis phase.) There are few people in all history who fascinate me more than the reclusive, disheveled Oxford professor who created a universe in his spare time.

As much as I love Tolkien’s works, I have to wonder how he could have overlooked the eagles as a way to carry the cursed Ring to Mount Doom. He had no qualms about using them as a deus ex machina to rescue Sam and Frodo from Mount Doom after they’d walked hundreds of miles through dangerous enemy territory to cast the Ring into the volcano’s molten depths. Why not just fly the Ring there in the first place? If the villain’s domain were completely eagle-proof, couldn’t the eagles have carried the heroes at least to its border? And if there were a good reason, why not mention it?

Tolkien was incredibly meticulous about his writing. As he drafted The Lord of the Rings, he kept track of things like the phases of the moon and how long it takes to travel distances on foot. I’m surprised he overlooked (or ignored) so great a plot hole as the eagles as an alternative to walking the whole freaking way.

Incidentally, How It Should Have Ended is a remarkably funny, clever YouTube series that’s worth checking out. Its writers have a gift for pointing out inconsistencies and plot holes in films, and the series is pretty darn funny.

8 thoughts on “J.R.R. Tolkien and the Baffling Plot Hole

  1. *slips quietly in* I was given the link to this post by a friend, and being the Tolkien enthusiast that I am, I must leave a comment.
    I have seen several of the HISHE videos, and they are all quite amusing. Hehe =P I love this one. The blindfolded Eagle XD “What’s going on??” hehe. I have gotten in the why-didn’t-the-Eagles-fly-them-to-Mordor debate several times. Before I go into that, though, think of the plot holes in other books…or in real life. I mean, what if there had just been a fence around a certain Tree in the Garden of Eden? 😉
    Anyhow.
    First, consider the Nazgul and their fell beasts. The Eagles helped fight them off in the battle at the Black Gates, yes, but not for long. They were a distraction, to keep the Nazgul away from Mt. Doom while Frodo did his work. They wouldn’t have lasted long against them, I don’t believe, had they needed to fly across Mordor to Orodruin, and had it been…just them. No ground army to support or back them up. And second, you can’t just use the Eagles as free transportation. It’s not their battle. The Eagles are messengers of Manwe, the lord of the Valar. Technically, if Middle Earth became overrun with Orcs/Sauron, the Eagles could/would just fly home to Valinor and not have to worry about it. It’s a much more valid question to ask, “Why didn’t the Valar just get themselves out of Arda and into Middle Earth and blast Sauron to dust? Why didn’t THEY take care of it?” …Ah, but they did. They sent the wizards. Incidentally, Gandalf was the only one who actually succeeded because the others became distracted by one thing or another. But. He did succeed in the overthrow of Sauron. At the request of the Valar.
    Which is probably why Gandalf was able to get the Eagles’ aid the times he did. They were messengers of Manwe, and he sort of was too. Interesting…

    Anyway. My apologies for the massive comment. I leave it at the request of the friend who gave me this link, and because well. I have never yet managed to pass up a chance to talk about Tolkien. 😉 *slips quietly back out* Allons-y =)

    • You make some valid points, but I’m going to argue anyway. Because that is how I roll. 😉

      The Hobbit makes clear the eagles detest orcs, and Sauron’s triumph would cover Middle-Earth in hordes of foul creatures. Moreover, the eagles could have carried the Fellowship at least as far as Minas Tirith or Osgiliath, sparing them months of travel and major obstacles. The eagles didn’t hesitate to help Gandalf with relatively minor tasks such as rescuing the dwarves (and Bilbo) in The Hobbit or saving Sam and Frodo after the Ring’s destruction. I doubt they would have put up much of a fight if Gandalf asked them for a lift to the edge of Mordor. Everyone wanted the Ring gone. Heck, even Tom Bombadil wanted the Ring gone, and he seemed to have hardly a care in the world. The eagles might have been selfish, but probably not selfish enough not to help carry the Ring at least partway to Mordor.

      In the end, The Lord of the Rings is amazing, eagles or no eagles. Tolkien was a remarkable man. I simply can’t help but wonder how he could have overlooked this particular plot hole.

      Incidentally, I’m delighted someone concluded a comment with “Allons-y.” I award you ten points. 🙂

      • HISHE always has great stuff.

        I’ve never really had a problem with the Eagles not helping out more, because thematically it doesn’t fit Tolkien’s milieu. Even though it is assuredly not an allegory, LOTR is heavily influenced by his Catholicism, and the story is wrought with such symbolism and biblical metaphors that would be rendered useless by the Eagles just doing the whole thing, so I think he was less concerned about plot holes than about theme holes – either way I think we can agree that he didn’t care much for wormholes.

        Like Anna Estelle said, it’s like saying why didn’t the Valar directly intervene, or even why didn’t Eru Ilúvatar. You may as well ask why God didn’t teleport the Israelites directly to the Promised Land, I mean, com’on, He parted the Red Sea, what’s a little manipulation of time and space? (Sidenote: hopefully no one thinks I’m being blasphemous.)

        But when I’m tired of convincing myself of this whole thematic congruity nonsense, I like to pretend that perhaps Tolkien was secretly writing an epic about the Eagles off doing some other equally important adventure during most of the LOTR timeframe, and were thus unavailable to help out.

        On a somewhat unrelated topic, you mention having gone through a Tolkien/Lewis phase, and I was wondering, have you ever read any Charles Williams?

        • Tolkien focused on themes in his writing, it’s true, but his biographies show us he also tried to make his stories believable. He went out of his way to ensure the accuracy of little details, as mentioned above, and he invented all kinds of backstories (some of which were included in the appendices of The Lord of the Rings) to explain minor plot points. Perhaps I’m being pointlessly stubborn, but it seems uncharacteristic of Tolkien to ignore a plot point like the eagles.

          Perhaps the eagles were indeed off on some other important adventure. Who knows? 😉

          I read The Place of the Lion by Charles Williams a number of years ago. I thought it was all right, but I’d probably appreciate it much more now that I’m familiar with the philosophies of Plato. I have nothing against Williams, but for some reason his writings have never interested me as much as those of Tolkien and Lewis.

      • *concurs with Josh Hamm on the whole allegory/theme holes thing* =) And yes, every history has it’s holes, as you point out with the Red Sea thing. And I’m all for manipulation of time and space. Or at least travel through it…;)

        And for the record, literally the only topic I am even half-decent at arguing/debating is Tolkien. So. Argue away. =D

        The Eagles, as messengers of Manwe, do detest orcs, and would be pretty lousy as messengers-for-the-good-guys if they didn’t. =P However, they are just that – messengers. NOT fighters. Not a weapon, not an attack force, not a taxi-service-to-the-front-lines 😉 As for carrying the fellowship as far as Gondor/Ithilien/the Black Gates: All the time the Fellowship spent walking is absolutely vital to the story and the outcome of the plot. They needed to get Sauron in a place where he would empty Mordor so Frodo could walk across it. In the beginning of LotR, Sauron isn’t strong enough. Throughout the last part of the book, like the Battle of the Pelennor Fields for example, Sauron is testing his strength and the strength of his enemy. The only reason he empties Mordor in the end is because he finally deemed himself strong enough to take over the world. He was breeding an army in there, but the opposing forces were building an army as well and Sauron knew it. Move too early, and he goin’ downnnnn. He’s only got all Middle Earth to the west of Mordor against him. 😉 So if the Eagles had dropped the Fellowship at the edge of Mordor, they would have had to fight their way through. And that would have been an epic failure, because it would have been teeming with orcs. Even had Aragorn gone to the Gates and challenged Sauron, Sauron would not have completely emptied Mordor for him. Also, had there been no walking, then Aragorn wouldn’t have shown himself to Sauron in the Palantir, which is another reason why Sauron emptied Mordor to fight him at the battle before the Gates.
        As for the Eagles helping with minor tasks: again, notice that none of those tasks involved fighting, up until the very end at the Pelennor Fields and the Black Gate. They’re messengers. 😉

        And Tom Bombadil does too have a care in the world. He has Goldberry. 😉

        Oo. There are points involved? I love points. 😉 Hehe. The Doctor is my second biggest obsession. 😉

        • I’m not baffled that Tolkien didn’t use the eagles to carry the Fellowship part or all of the way to Mount Doom. After all, there are in-story reasons the eagles could or would not do such a thing, and even more out-of-story reasons. No, what perplexes me is that Tolkien, a notoriously meticulous writer, never lampshaded the eagles by explaining why they couldn’t or wouldn’t help. (To lampshade something in a work of fiction is to call attention to it and explain why it isn’t problematic, cliched or contradictory.) Tolkien’s work is so well constructed that I can’t help but feel a bit cheated when he fails to explain away incongruities.

          I award bonus points occasionally, but they’re completely meaningless. Don’t say I didn’t warn you. 😉

          In conclusion, the Doctor is amazing. 🙂

      • Shoot. I just typed out a nice reply, and then deleted it somehow that I cannot fathom. -_- Haha. Well. Long story short, I agree. It’s strange that there’s one thing out of the whole history that isn’t explained or fixed, especially given the level of detailed meticulousness throughout all the rest of the works. However, think of everything else Tolkien DID get right/explain/reference/cross-reference/etc. All those details, down to exactly how long it would take a hobbit to walk from point A to point B if they stopped for a twenty-seven-minute lembas and smoke break. 😉 It’s understandable that a few details would slip through the cracks somewhere. Also, the Eagles aren’t the only thing in Tolkien’s work that is difficult to explain. Take the water-fearing Ringwraiths. The water at the Bucklebury Ferry was enough to turn the Ringwraith back and force it to go twenty miles out of its way to cross the Brandywine Bridge so as to get to Frodo. That is a pretty intense fear of water. At the ford before Rivendell, the Wraiths do go into the water, but only when Frodo is on the other side passing out and they are being attacked from behind by the fire-wielding Aragorn, Glorfindel, and Co. However. The only way for the Wraiths to get from Mordor to the Shire to hunt for the Ring in the first place involved crossing the *bridgeless* Gwathlo/Greyflood river. The only crossing point there was a ford. At that point, they didn’t have the motivation of fire behind them and their quarry visible and incapacitated on the other side to spur them on. Another detail leaked through the cracks? Tolkien himself said the water-fearing thing was a far stretch and difficult to sustain.
        Anyhow.
        But…if there are in-story and out-of-story reasons the Eagles couldn’t or wouldn’t help…doesn’t that count as a sort of lampshading? 😉 Perhaps it isn’t directly pointed out and spelled out in plain language, but it is explainable.
        …and ok, this comment is more like a long-story-still-long. =P

      • …and what we really SHOULD be debating is why the TARDIS can’t go to Middle Earth. Because that’s the only way that I can figure that I’d ever be able to get there myself…;)

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