Is the race of eagles in Tolkein's Middle Earth a form of Deus ex Machina, or does it simply resemble this device in the cinematic adaptations?
It's been many years since I read any of the books, and my suspicion comes, in part, from the frustration that I can't remember the details from the novels clearly enough. I've also come to realise that this question isn't going to stop bugging me until I examine it.
First of all, what exactly is deus ex machina? Wikipedia says it is 'a plot device whereby a seemingly unsolvable problem is suddenly and abruptly resolved by the inspired and unexpected intervention of some new event, character, ability or object'.
However, I can't simply look for wires and rigging to answer this question. What makes this plot device such a cheat is the fact that it often comes from nowhere to save a hopeless situation. We can also take this a step deeper, in that the character or force behind it often has little to no motivation behind their actions.
So I devised a simple means of testing, by asking two questions:
- Was there any other means of escaping the situation?
- Was there sufficient motivation for intervention?
I applied these questions to every notable appearance by the eagles in both the books and films, and here's what I came up with:
The eagles first appear after Thorin's company escapes from the Goblins:
Sufficient motivation? The book states that the eagles despise Goblins and often take measures to upset their evil plans. The motivation in the movie is a little harder to grasp. This moth messenger appears nearly every time the eagles do, but its presence is never explained.
The eagles appear again during the Battle of the Five Armies:
Sufficient motivation? In the movie we see Gandalf tell Radagast to muster their allies after the battle of Dol Guldur. As far as the book is concerned, we already know the eagles loathe the goblins.
The Lord of the Rings
The book periodically mentions news from the eagles relating to the movements of the Orcs, or the Nine ring wraiths. The eagles appear in every book, but the lord of the eagles, Gwaihir, is most prominent.
The Fellowship of the Ring
An eagle rescues Gandalf from the pinnacle of Orthanc in Isengard:
Sufficient motivation? Gwaihir himself rescues Gandalf in the book, and we already know that Gandalf healed him on a previous occasion so Gwaihir might have felt indebted to the wizard. In the movie, we have the appearance of messenger moth.
The Two Towers
Gwaihir rescues Gandalf from the mountain peak after his battle with the Balrog. This scene isn't in the movies.
Sufficient motivation? Would you say no to Lady Galadriel? Exactly.
The Return of the King
The eagles appear during the battle before the black gate of Mordor
Sufficient motivation? Sauron would have been seen as a threat by the eagles, so yes—and this applies to the movie as well. When Gandalf asks Gwaihir to carry him, he says that the ‘third time pays for all’ implying that Gwaihir would no longer be indebted to him. It must be said that Gwaihir doesn’t seem to care much about that and seems willing to carry Gandalf out of friendship.
We're three for two in terms of the necessity for intervention, with fair to good motivation on the eagles' part throughout--in the books, at any rate.
I've satisfied my curiosity about deus ex machina, but something is still bothering me. The movies regularly use this messenger moth in connection to the eagles. Judging by Gandalf’s reaction to the creature, I feel it’s safe to say that its not his moth, so who keeps sending it?
Galadriel makes her support of Gandalf clear on several different occasions, and offers to help him at least once. We know from The Two Towers that she had sufficient authority to command Gwaihir too.
Radagast has a deeper association with the eagles than anyone else, except perhaps for Gandalf. He’s known to be on good terms with most animals, and is responsible for Gwaihir’s appearance at Orthanc during The Fellowship of the Ring. In fact, this is the only eagle appearance in the movies where we know from the books that someone sent them—even if it was to deliver news.
So, is Radagast behind the eagles' timely arrivals? What do you think?
For a more in depth discussion of the eagles, you may want to read this awesome post or take a look at this article.