Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Gandalf Didn’t Mean It That Way

Gandalf knew what he was doing
Recently, I’ve seen a post going around Facebook about the supposed “eagle plot hole” in The Lord of the Rings. It turns out to be not-so-recent, as I found it was posted on Reddit more than a year ago. And it’s wrong.

Since this is my first, and hugely belated post about fantasy or science fiction, let me provide some bona fides. I am not some newbie who got into LOTR because the movies came out. When I first read LOTR there were exactly 0 movies. Ralph Bakshi’s animated film was yet to come out.[1] I was the sort of kid who was writing in Tengwar in my mid-teens (and, oh, that was a very long time ago). In addition to decades of reading science fiction, I’m also trained in Medieval Studies, inspired in part by Tolkien.

Old school, hard core Tolkien fan.

While we consider the idea that the Gandalf meant for the Fellowship to fly into Mordor on the backs of the eagles,[2] let’s compare it to another battle in Lord of the Rings, The Battle of Minas Tirith. If you’ve read this far, you’ve probably not only seen the meme that’s been bouncing around, but also seen the movies, and maybe even read the books. That’s all the spoiler warning you’re getting. At Minas Tirith, the orcs make a full frontal assault. They are seen coming for miles, and the warriors of Minas Tirith are able to defend the city long enough for help to come. I think we can safely assume that each side had more than nine casualties.

Tolkien, in addition to being an medieval literature and history, fought in World War I. He was in the trenches in the Battle of the Somme.[3] Tolkien understood warfare.[4] He set up Minas Tirith so that the orcs could only make a frontal assault. Did you ever notice that some medieval castles were built on the edges of cliffs? Why is that? Oh, yeah, it limits the approach.

A perfectly good battle scheme (even now) is to keep the main approach busy while a smaller force finds a quiet, protected area. One technique was to start digging. You keep everyone busy at the front gate while a small team is digging under the walls, with the hope of breaching them. Obviously, if you’re defending a castle under siege, you have to watch to make certain that the enemy isn’t making your walls unstable. Sending a small force through some unprotected corner was a perfectly legitimate way of getting into a defended city.

This was, of course, what the plan was for the Fellowship. If you walk up to the doors, you will be crushed. Mordor wasn’t ruled by some great king, but by a being to whom time meant nothing. Galadriel was a few millennia old at the time of The Lord of the Rings, but Gandalf and Sauron remembered when her most distant ancestors, the first of the elves, were born. Any frontal assault on Mordor was doomed.[5]

Just as nine people walking across the plains on their way to Mordor would have been slaughtered before they got to the Black Gate, the same would have happened with eagles. Think about it: Sauron’s stronghold was always prepared for a frontal assault. It’s exactly what strategy Sauron would have attempted (and did: Minas Tirath).

Tolkien, after using the eagles at a few plot points in The Hobbit clearly knew he had to tie up that plot hole. This is why “fly, you fools” was not an instruction to take the eagles to Mordor. I give you the Nazgûl.

Oh, that’s right. Sauron have things that fly too. Scary things.

Imagine this: the Fellowship get the eagles and attempt to fly past Barad-dûr to Mount Doom. They’re going to be seen for miles. And where are the Nazgûl during this? Napping? Oh no. Unless someone could come up with a foolproof plan to draw the Nazgûl away from this (preferably on their horses, which are much slower than their flying mounts), any arial assault on Mount Doom was, well, doomed.

So near the end of The Fellowship of the Ring, the Fellowship gets on the eagles, fly to Mordor, where they are all picked off by the Nazgûl, and the Ring returns to Sauron. It would make a rather short and dark fantasy novel.

As a medievalist, Tolkien knew that many important battles were won not through a frontal assault but through patience and cunning. From his experience in the war, Tolkien probably knew that while the generals get all the glory, it’s the people in the trenches who are doing all the work.

But flying into Mordor? That’s a suicide mission. Run, you fools, but don't fly into Mordor.

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  1. The mispronunciations in the film and other deviations from the book drove me crazy, especially as Tolkien had taken the trouble to write a pronunciation guide.  ↩
  2. Not to be confused with the rock band of the same name.  ↩
  3. The battle is notorious for, despite a massive loss of life on both sides, failing to actually move the front lines.  ↩
  4. Some of the movements of the Fellowship are based on British Army regulations on soldiers moving about on foot.  ↩
  5. I actually think he covered this in The Fellowship of the Ring.  ↩

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