I first came accross J.R.R. Tolkien's book The Lord of the Rings in my early twenties. A first reading proved so captivating that I even took a day off work because I couldn't put it down. And like many another, on reaching the end, I soon found myself turning once more to page 1 to begin all over again.
The Problem of Gwaihir and the Council of Elrond
“One […] difficulty was [Tolkien’s] perfectionism. Not content with writing a large and complex
“It is wisdom to recognize necessity, when all other courses have been weighed.”
“Why should the agèd eagle stretch its wings?” — T.S. Eliot, Ash Wednesday
The Council of Elrond
A suggestion by Erestor that Iarwain Ben-adar, alias Tom Bombadil, might be of help, since “It seems that he has a power even over the Ring,” is rejected by Gandalf because, “.. if he were given the Ring, he would soon forget it, or most likely throw it away. Such things have no hold on his mind. He would be a most unsafe guardian.”
“Then,” says Glorfindel, “let us cast it into the deeps … in the Sea it would be safe.”
“Not safe for ever,” rejoins Gandalf. “There are many things in the deep waters; and seas and lands may change. And it is not our part here to take thought only for a season, or for a few lives of Men, or for a passing age of the world. We should seek a final end to this menace, even if we do not hope to make one.”
In the end, concludes Elrond, his words echoing those of Gandalf to Frodo made long ago in the Shire, there is but one way to put the Ring beyond the grasp of Sauron for ever. The Ring must be unmade by returning it to the Fire in which it was forged, in the Cracks of Doom beneath Orodruin, or Mount Doom, in the heart of Mordor, the land of the Enemy.
There remains only a final question for the Council to decide, and that is how this perilous mission is to be achieved. Who is to be entrusted with the desperate enterprise of bearing the Ring to Mordor and casting it into the Cracks of Doom? We come thus to the final scene of the Council and the fateful utterance of Frodo that will decide the shape of all that is to come: “At last with an effort he spoke, and wondered to hear his own words, as if some other will was using his small voice.”
Some other will is using his small voice: the above, I contend, is what Frodo ought to have said. Or if not Frodo, then some other member of the assembly. Instead of which, what Frodo actually says is: “I will take the Ring, though I do not know the way,” and thus is launched the great adventure that culminates in Frodo and Sam’s eventual arrival at Mount Doom, the successful destruction of the Ring, and the downfall of Sauron. And few of us, I guess, would have it otherwise.
Nevertheless, below I hope to show that, for all his meticulous attention to the internal consistency of his created world, Tolkien is guilty of a whopping oversight in regard to Gwaihir that can only be viewed as an irretrievable flaw in the internal logic of his narrative. Irretrievable because no amount of logic-chopping is able to explain away a disparity that undermines almost everything that happens in the wake of the Council, which is to say, the very Quest itself. The only wonder is that this fatal blemish has not been pointed out long since.
My aim is not to denigrate Tolkien, whose wonderful book has brought me endless hours of delight, but merely to stake a claim for the dubious honour of being first in print to identify a significant discrepancy in The Lord of the Rings. It is a discrepancy that, to the best of my knowledge, has escaped the notice of everybody hitherto: legions of Tolkien readers, past and present, the members of dozens of Tolkien Societies around the world, the authors of countless publications devoted to every conceivable aspect of Tolkien’s works. [Added in 2012: ten years on, I am still unaware of any earlier publication dealing with Tolkien's slip regarding Gwaihir. I will be glad to hear from any reader able to supply a contrary reference.]
So bold a claim is unlikely to be accepted lightly. On the matter of priority I may, of course, be at fault. But as to the substance, if anyone can discover some plausible alternative to the conclusion here reached that Tolkien has blundered, I shall be curious to learn the details.
“Eagles are not kindly birds,” the narrator informs us, but they are “proud and strong and noble hearted.” Besides which, we might add, events show them to be loyal allies and fierce fighters, unswerving in their hatred of orcs and wolves, and willing to bear heavy burdens or fly long distances in the service of friends. The latter is clearly shown by the journey of the eagle host from their home in “the eyries of the North[ern Misty Mountains]” to the scene of the battle under The Lonely Mountain on the other side of Mirkwood, a distance that cannot be less than six hundred miles, according to the map of Middle-earth included in the book. Small wonder then that Dáin, the successor of Thorin Oakenshield, King of the Dwarves, “crowned their chief with gold, and swore friendship with them forever.”
Eagles, in short, are no cheap chickens, and Gwaihir’s credentials as an agent able to smuggle a small object over a long distance through an opponent’s defences without attracting notice are impressive, to say the least. Why then, we may wonder, did Elrond not invite Gwaihir to the Council? True, the story reveals no explicit indication that Elrond is acquainted with the Eagle, but the text does make clear that Gwaihir enjoys the friendship of at least two close intimates of the Lord of Rivendell.
“Naked I was sent back —for a brief time, until my task is done,” reminisces Gandalf, now reunited with Aragorn, Gimli and Legolas in Fangorn forest, following his presumed demise in the chasm under the bridge of Khazad-dûm. “And naked I lay upon the mountain-top,” he goes on. “And so at the last Gwaihir the Windlord found me again, and he took me up and bore me away.”
‘“Ever am I fated to be your burden, friend at need,” I said.
‘”A burden you have been,” he answered, “but not so now. Light as a swan’s feather in my claw you are. The Sun shines through you. Indeed I do not think you need me any more : were I to let you fall, you would float upon the wind.”
‘”Do not let me fall!” I gasped, for I felt life in me again. “Bear me to Lothlórien!”
‘”That indeed is the command of the Lady Galadriel who sent me to look for you,”he answered.”’
Very well, you may say, Gwaihir the Eagle was known to Gandalf and to Elrond, and perhaps a few other members of the Council, but so what? Is there any good reason why Frodo (who, as far as we know, has never so much as clapped eyes on an eagle), or anyone else, should start even thinking about Gwaihir at a critical juncture during the Council of Elrond?
There is every reason. In fact, the more one considers the circumstances, the more difficult it becomes to see how anyone present could have possibly avoided speculating about Gwaihir.
Quite so. And it will therefore be the freshest thing in the minds of his listeners when he has finished speaking and they begin their discussion about how to dispose of the Ring. A few points from this final part of Gandalf’s account will thus bear re-examination.
Gandalf explains how he had chanced upon Radagast the Brown, a fellow wizard, on the borders of The Shire. Radagast has been sent by Saruman to seek out Gandalf and to offer his help. This is welcome news to Gandalf, who immediately sets off for Orthanc, after telling Radagast, “We shall need your help, and the help of all things that will give it. Send out messages to all the beasts and birds that are your friends. Tell them to bring news of anything that bears on this matter to Saruman and Gandalf. Let messages be sent to Orthanc.”
So it is that, following Gandalf’s interview with Saruman-now-turned-traitor, at the conclusion of which he finds himself held captive upon the roof, eventually “.. there came a night of moon, and Gwaihir the Windlord, swiftest of the Great Eagles, came unlooked-for to Orthanc; and he found me standing on the pinnacle. Then I spoke to him and he bore me away.”
Good old Gwaihir has turned up in the nick of time once again. And how came Gwaihir to Orthanc? Gandalf explains: “Radagast knew no reason why he should not do as I asked: and he rode away towards Mirkwood where he had many friends of old. And the Eagles of the Mountains went far and wide, and they saw many things: the gathering of wolves and the mustering of Orcs; and the Nine Riders going hither and thither in the lands; and they heard news of the escape of Gollum. And they sent a messenger to bring me these tidings.”
Is it then credible that with this story still ringing in their ears, and with the problem before them of how the Ring is to be conveyed to the inaccessible Cracks of Doom deep within enemy territory, that nobody at the Council even paused to consider Gwaihir for the task? Based on the evidence Gandalf has presented but moments previously Gwaihir would seem to be better equipped for this errand than any creature in Middle-earth. The Ring could be carried without difficulty in beak or claw, or as a pendant around his neck, without requiring him to put it on. His former exploits show that a swift flight to Mordor is easily within his capacities. Keeping at high altitude he can count on remaining virtually invisible from enemies. The exact location of Sammath Naur, or the Fire Chamber, on the mountain is perhaps unclear at the time of the Council, but as a high flyer Gwaihir could use his piercing sight to perform a leisurely reconnaissance of the slopes of Mount Doom with little risk of danger. How he might have fared at the critical moment when the Ring was to be dropped into the Cracks we cannot know of course, but the same doubt attached equally to Frodo.
But would Gwaihir have been willing to take the Ring? For an answer, consider the behaviour of the Eagles in the face of acute personal danger as evinced near the end of the story, in their flight through smoke, fumes, and a rain of hot ash to the rescue of Frodo and Sam stranded amid rivers of fire belched out by the erupting cauldron of Mount Doom. The Quest, as they knew, had already been achieved, so that their deed of mercy, carried out at the urgent behest of Gandalf, is an act of unalloyed loyalty to him, unrelated to the fate of the Ring. Need we then think that Gwaihir would have hesitated to accept the Burden of the Ring had Gandalf suggested such a contingency, however obliquely?
Yet what of the Ringwraiths? Surely the wingéd Nazgûl would pose a mortal danger to Gwaihir in attempting a flight over Mordor? So it might seem, and yet scrutiny of the narrative specifically discounts this contingency in two distinct ways.
In the first place, recall that the greatest weapon of the Nazgûl is fear. “Their power is in terror,” as Aragorn tells the hobbits in Bree, and examples of this capacity to induce terror are exampled repeatedly thereafter : in the dell on Weathertop, in the pursuit of Frodo to the Ford, in the episode of ‘The Winged Messenger’ shot by Legolas above Sarn Gebir, and so on. Yet remarkably, the fact that the Eagles were not to be intimidated even by Ring-wraiths is plainly evidenced during the battle between the Captains of the West and the hosts of Mordor before the Black Gate. As on a former occasion, we hear: “The Eagles are coming! The Eagles are coming!” And, “There came Gwaihir the Windlord, and Landroval his brother, greatest of all the Eagles of the North... Behind them in long swift lines came all their vassals from the northern mountains, speeding on a gathering wind. Straight down upon the Nazgûl they bore, stooping suddenly out of the high airs, and the rush of their wide wings as they passed was like a gale.” [my emphasis]
Thus, not only are the Eagles unafraid of the Nazgûl, but any remaining doubts there may have been about the readiness of Gwaihir to make the long journey to Mordor and to join the attack against Sauron in the service of the Quest are here decisively resolved.
Secondly, remember that at the time of the Council, the Ringwraiths had only recently been unhorsed at the Ford of Bruinen. “There is nothing more to fear from them at present,” Gandalf tells Frodo as he awakes to recovery in Rivendell. Still later, following the return of the scouts dispatched by Elrond almost two months afterwards, we hear him say : “Eight out of the Nine are accounted for at least. It is rash to be too sure, yet I think we may hope now that the Ringwraiths were scattered, and have been obliged to return as best they could to their Master in Mordor, empty and shapeless. If that is so, it will be some time before they can begin the hunt again.”
Bear in mind that Gandalf is talking here about Ringwraiths in the shape of Black Riders; the time of the Nazgûl on flying steeds is not yet even anticipated in the story. Thus, had Gwaihir been dispatched with the Ring at the time of the Council, or indeed at any point in the two month interval following, his chances of running into a Nazgûl on the way, wingéd or otherwise, were remote in the extreme.
The objection that airborne wraiths would have been a threat to Gwaihir is thus demolished on two separate counts, while the fact that Gandalf was aware of this Nazgûl-free window of opportunity serves only to deepen the puzzle of why Gwaihir is passed over in silence by the wizard during the Council.
But Gwaihir’s absence or Gwaihir’s suitability are really beside the point, however compelling the arguments advanced. The crux of the matter is that for all his extravagant eligibility, the contingency of Gwaihir as Ringbearer is a notion completely ignored by the Council, is a proposal not even raised by any of those present. And this, I believe, is a gap in the story that, once glimpsed, cries aloud for explanation, and yet ineluctably defies every attempt to explain. An eyrie silence pervades the Council of Elrond on the topic of Gwaihir that nothing in the narrative is able to render intelligible.
Did it not, for example, once cross Gandalf’s mind that Gwaihir provided a dazzlingly obvious solution to The Problem over which the entire Council was now bowed in thought? The notion is ridiculous. But Gandalf, it may be conjectured, might have had a private reason for not wishing to enlist Gwaihir. Very well, but then why keep it secret? Given that the wizard might reasonably expect Glóin, or Legolas, or somebody else in the chamber to suddenly blurt out, “Couldn’t Gwaihir the Eagle take the Ring?” , whereupon his objection would need to be voiced, the inexplicability of Gandalf’s silence becomes only compounded. Nor is his seeming obtuseness confined solely to the duration of the Council meeting.
“Will you not first give us news of the hobbits,” asks Aragorn of Gandalf, again at their meeting in Fangorn forest. “Did you find them, and are they safe?”
“No, I did not find them,” said Gandalf. “There was a darkness over the valleys of the Emyn Muil, and I did not know of their captivity, until the eagle told me.”
“The eagle!” said Legolas. I have seen an eagle high and far off : the last time was three days ago, above the Emyn Muil,”
“Yes,” said Gandalf, “that was Gwaihir the Windlord, who rescued me from Orthanc. I sent him before me to watch the River and gather tidings. ..”
Here again then we find Gandalf, now returned from his former life (and presumably a wiser wizard for the experience), continuing to exploit Gwaihir’s singular avian skills, without it once dawning on him that Frodo and Sam and everyone else might have been spared their ongoing ordeal if only the same bird had been enlisted as a carrier pigeon at the very outset. Similar charges of impercipience apply equally to Elrond and Galadriel of course, as well as to others on the side of the West, any one of whom might have hit on the idea of recruiting Gwaihir, albeit belatedly, at any time after the Council. But no, there is something about Gwaihir that induces amnesia in all.
Gwaihir’s creator not excepted. For the truth can be put off no longer. Unpalatable as it may seem to some, there is simply no escape from the conclusion that Tolkien has sailed on, quite oblivious to the problem. Gwaihir has been overlooked. And not only by his creator. For, forgive me if I unwittingly tread on any toes, but it looks as though most of his reader-ship has been caught with its critical faculties around its ankles, too.
With the advantage of hindsight we can see also that Tolkien’s error is in fact a common-place inadvertency, one met with more frequently in works of fiction. Following the method of many an author before him, the writer has employed the hoary device of a deus ex machina or Surprise Rescuer. The Surprise Rescuer is an agency that is introduced in the nick of time to effect a sudden deliverance of the Hero, or Heroic Cause, from some supposedly ineluctable Fate. In a story depicting Cowboys beset by Red Indians, for example, such an agency might take the guise of The Cavalry. In both The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, it can be found in the shape of an Eagle. A danger in the use of a Surprise Rescuer, however, is its potential for being invoked by the reader while the author’s back is, so to speak, turned. And the writer’s only protection against this danger is for the Surprise Rescuer to be assidously rendered inert after each use, when its intervention is no longer required or desired.
It is this that Tolkien has neglected, of course. For, in between his deeds of rescue, Gwaihir has been allowed to retain his potential for action, when the narrative should have included devices for keeping him occupied, which is to say, pretexts that would rule out his further participation. A trivial lapse, but one with far-reaching implications, as we have seen.
According to his son Christopher , Tolkien “.. once said that in writing he had a sense of recording what was already there, somewhere, not inventing it, and where there were discrepancies between things he had written, he sought to study more deeply what he had already written in order to reconcile them.”
Nijmegen, July 2002
 J.R.R.Tolkien, A Biography. George Allen & Unwin, 1977
 Quoted by William Cator in A Tolkien Treasury. Running Press, 1978
|Copyright © Lee Sallows|