By guest blogger: Katey Duffey
"Eagles are not kindly birds. Some are cowardly and cruel. But the ancient race of the northern mountains were the greatest of all birds; they were proud and strong and noble-hearted.”
-J.R.R. Tolkien, The Hobbit
Ah!, the Great Eagles of Middle-earth. They are both the welcomed last minute saviors of the stories’ heroes, swooping in just when all hope seems to be lost, and the subject of a debated plot-hole where The Lord of the Rings fans find themselves yelling at Frodo’s fellowship “Take the eagles to Mt. Doom! Weren’t you paying attention to Gandalf when he said ‘Fly, you fools!’?” However, if the beloved characters did take the birds from the start, there would be no hardships and good fortune, no chance of discovering strange places and even stranger beings. There would be no adventure, no story…
As immortal as the Elves, the Great Eagles served as messengers and guardians of life within Middle-earth. They were highly intelligent, keen of sight and possessed the ability to speak (though remained stoically silent in the films). The most notable of these huge raptors was Thorondor, the “Lord of Eagles”, who was described as having a wingspan of thirty fathoms (180 ft or 59.86m). During the ages, the great Eagles fought alongside Elves and Men in the wars against the forces of Morgoth. Although the Eagles seem to be depicted as Golden eagles in both a painting by Tolkien and in Peter Jackson’s films, there is no concrete evidence in the text of the books that indicates this was the actual species. However, fans associate the giant birds of prey mostly with Golden eagles based on the current interpretations of their appearance.
Golden eagles are one of the most globally distributed species of raptors. They range throughout the majority of the northern hemisphere: North America, Europe, and much of Asia. These eagles inhabit open plains, deserts, tundra, and rocky mountain terrain. Perhaps it is their wide distribution and commonality that Golden eagles were chosen as the inspiration for the Great Eagles of Middle-earth. They seem to look like the stereotypical eagle that many people would envision.
Among the top five largest eagle species, Golden eagles can have a wingspan of up to 2.34m (8ft), and weigh up to 6.35kg (14lbs). With great size comes great power, and a large female can have a talon grip strength of 450psi. That’s enough force to crush into sheet metal! Although they mainly prey on small or medium animals such as rabbits, ground squirrels and marmots, they are perfectly capable of taking down larger prey. In fact, Golden eagles have been known to bring down cranes, livestock, deer, mountain goats, and bobcats!
It is the strength and aggression of Golden eagles that have resulted in the use of them in traditional falconry in Mongolia, Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan for centuries. Female eagle chicks are removed from the nest just before fledging, and are hand-raised for several years by an eagle hunter. This gender is chosen because they are more aggressive than males, said to be more intelligent and are also larger. The bond between man and eagle is revered as the ultimate relationship in falconry, and training methods are generally passed down from father to son. If there are no sons, then the tradition is passed onto a daughter.
In the winter, hunters may even use their eagles to hunt wolves! Considering the ability for Tolkien’s Great Eagles to dispatch the massive wolf-like Wargs, the ability for Golden eagles to do the same, but on a much smaller scale, only adds to the impressiveness of the birds. However, attacking a large canine, no matter how powerful or fierce an eagle is, does not come without risk. It is for this reason that several eagle hunters will release their birds to work as a team. After several years of working with its master to catch prey for food and warm furs, an eagle is then released back into the wild. This actually helps the wild population by giving some birds the ability to grow strong and healthy, allowing a chance for the next generations to inherit the traits that made the veteran hunters successful.
Like the Great Eagles of Middle-earth, the Golden eagles of Planet Earth cannot be fully tamed. It is always to the high reaching thermal air currents of the wild that these magnificent birds will long to be.
“Farewell! Wherever you fare, ‘till your eyries receive you at the journey’s end!” ~Great Eagles
“May the wind under your wings bear you where the sun sails and the moon walks.” ~Gandalf
- J.R.R. Tolkien, The Hobbit
Robinson, C. 2010. Mongolia: Nomad Empire of Eternal Blue Sky. Odyssey Books and Guides. Pp. 352-360.
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Sofia Martinez Vilalpando