It’s a classic question asked of the Lord of the Rings trilogy. As storytellers, we should be thinking about this kind of hole-poking in our own plots too.
If old Ganders was best mates with those great big eagles, majestic lords of the sky and all that – and knowing full well that they were only ever a mothmail away – then why didn’t he use them to carry Middle-Earth’s greatest heroes straight over Mount Doom in the first place? Like, straight from Rivendell?
They could’ve dropped The One Ring into that fiery chasm on the first day and had done with it, and been back home in time for mystical Elven slow-motion tea. Maybe some orc-slaying action for Aragorn & Co. in the middle, to cover their backs while our brave hobbits cast the ring into the fire… but all completely Gollum-free. Saving thousands of lives, two war-torn realms and Frodo’s best writing finger in the process.
Instead, Gandalf – the wizened, scheming, arch-sadist that he is – sees fit to wander our heroes all across
pretty New Zealand enchanting Middle-Earth, getting his “pals” into all manner of scraps and scarytimes.
He gets them chased. He gets Frodo stabbed. He leads them up a deadly mountain in a snowstorm, and back down again. He gets them captured by Cate Blanchett and her crazy forest people, and he gets himself killed when he pits his own outsized ego against a frickin’ Balrog.
Why would you do that Ganders. Why.
Ohhh yeah. You wanted the upgrade to Gandalf White Version, didn’t ya? Always just thinking about you, eh Gandalf? Looking out for number one?
He also makes Christopher Lee so upset that he unleashes a horde of genetically-engineered super-orcs to chase them down and kill them. (Do you know how upset a man has to be to do that?) Said super-orcs capture two of his most vulnerable friends, drive the band of buddies apart and even kill Ned Stark – the greatest military leader that Gondor has known in centuries. Gandalf then takes control of Theoden-King’s mind for his own agenda, positions himself as the saviour of Rohan, and tries to topple the steadfast (and understandably cynical) steward of Minas Tirith to take control of the city himself. Oh yeah, and sent Frodo to his death. He admitted that much.
You get the point. All because good old Gando wouldn’t MothsApp his giant eagles from the start, when life was easy and Ned Stark didn’t have all arrows in him.
If we accept this theory, then from a realistic, strategic point of view the story has flaws. But it’s a fable. It was never meant to be an extended treatise on the wartime strategies of Middle-Earth. The Lord of the Rings isn’t a military campaign. Of course, some people are all for the military campaigns of Middle Earth. There are boardgames for all that. But as storytellers, we need to be more concerned about the people involved. Their fears; their passions. Their lives. We can write about ranks of warriors, but readers have to know them and care about them too. They need to feel like real people – not just pieces on a chessboard. (Yeah, Gandalf.)
We know, instinctively, that the story’s ruined when “the eagles are coming”. It’s cool for all of two seconds, before we feel cheated out of the whole bloody tale. Because now we know, the eagles were always an option. The eagles remove all the hardship that causes our heroes to grow. Without that hardship, they aren’t really heroes. Suddenly, they’re just passengers. They could’ve been passengers from the start.
Ha! What were you thinking, Tolkien? What a cop-out. Guess he wasn’t that great after all.
But ego is a fragile, and often ugly, influence. It makes critics of us all. We could be the kind of people who look out for movie mistakes. Who search for flaws in paintings, to make ourselves feel better. Sneering at plot holes in every book there is, seated atop our mountains of all the great things we never achieved.
The Lord of the Rings isn’t about orcs, monsters, dark lords or the races of Men. It isn’t about eagles, or how best to dispose of a ring. The ring’s just a token; a signifier for the frightening potential in all of us to commit ungodly acts of evil. One look at the century those books came out of should be enough to tell us that. Gulags, death camps, atom bombs… Sauron’s soft in comparison.
LOTR is a story about human beings, with human whims and fears and emotions, being called upon to do the impossible to protect all that’s good and growing in their world. They mess up, and come back stronger, and learn that “in the caves they fear to enter lie the treasures they seek”. (Read more about the Hero’s Journey here).
Yes, Gandalf’s plan might be flawed, but what plan isn’t? Anyone who’s ever done anything knows that reality isn’t kind to our best-laid plans. Maybe the entire scheme was wrong from the start. People get hurt; friends are lost. For all the joys, death’s a constant shadow. But given the choice between an epic odyssey and an avian airstrike, I know which story I’d read.
We read Tolkien’s books for the characters’ journeys. We want to see how hardship hardens them; how love enriches them. How our unassuming selves could rise to great heroism, if what we believe and fight for is virtuous. We read to train ourselves, subconsciously, for life’s slings and arrows and ends.
It’s easy for us to heckle and find fault from the side lines. It’s hard to hear about our own faults when we try.
We could slip through life on the wings of a plot device, safe and protected from the orcs and monsters below. We’d land unscarred on that final mountain, and see our death staring back from the fires. And we’d tremble. We’d wail, that our end had come and we’d done nothing we wanted to do. And we’d ask ourselves, whether the life we’d lived was truly lived at all. We’d done nothing; suffered nothing. We’d existed. A robot, just dropping the ring.
Things would stay as they were. Fools of Tooks wouldn’t show their great worth. Striders wouldn’t become kings. Elf-Dwarf foreign relations would remain at an all-time low. Shieldmaidens wouldn’t drive their swords through the hooded spectre of death itself. Gorgeous Arwen Evenstars would remain unsmooched. Once-mighty Theodens would wither on their thrones. Sams wouldn’t know that a wife and family is all that counts. And the restless Frodos of the world wouldn’t realise, that there is no place called home. That to sit and hurt and remember is no life for them, and the next adventure is all that would give them peace.
That’s one way to live our lives. A life of absence, and regret.
Or, we could take a risk. And another. Take that first step out of our door. Home is behind, the world ahead; there are many paths to tread. We’d face fears, and forge friendships, in the fires where friendships really come from: hard fucking times. Simply put, we’d live a real life.
We’d take scars that haunt us, and we’d learn how to fight, until all those caves and spectres and spiders didn’t scare us. We all hold the potential for so much evil in the palm of our hand – or the power to vanish completely from the world. It’s up to us, to resist those temptations. It’s up to us, not to hand our power to someone else. Someone wiser, or stronger. It’s our burden to bear.
We come to recognise great evil by the sight of it, and by doing so we truly recognise the good. We didn’t see our home for what it was before; an uneventful place that might’ve held us in low regard. Until we face life’s horrors, and come back all the stronger, when we realise how rare and precious a peaceful life really is. Food and drink; friends and family. Contentment in the small things, and good long stories to tell. No great lord or leader in their halls could ask for more. Truth is, they often have it much worse.
After hardships, normal life seems so much sweeter; we never saw that before. We were just missing the context. We found out what was at stake.
You don’t gain life’s great insights from staying put in the same old Shire. Or travelling safe on some giant bird. You have to laugh and journey and sometimes suffer through life – your own epic story – for it to be a story at all.