Quickly now to the top of this rock the eagles swooped one by one and set down their passengers.
"Farewell!" they cried, "wherever you fare, till your eyries receive you at the journey's end!" That is the polite thing to say among eagles.
"May the wind under your wings bear you where the sun sails and the moon walks," answered Gandalf, who knew the correct reply.
From Chapter VII of The Hobbit, J.R.R. Tolkien.In these busy days leading up to the fast approaching holiday madness, against all odds, I've managed to finish reading The Hobbit and went to see the movie. Or rather, the first of the three films: An Unexpected Journey. As much as I enjoyed the three Lord of the Rings movies as they were released, this is actually my first time reading Tolkien.
The book is very charming and has succeeded in making me want to read more of Tolkien's work and delve deeper into this world. Being only a casual Tolkien fan, I don't think my opinion of the film adaptation is all that relevant. Though as a more general movie fan, I will say I didn't think this installment lived up to all the hype; maybe the next two will. Epic battle scenes are awesome. Excessive epic battle scenes, coupled with what I felt was rushed character and plot development, are tiring. But that said, I liked it well enough, it was as beautiful as I expected, and some of my favorite scenes - the Dwarves' songs, the riddle-game with Gollum, the stone giants in the thunderstorm, the eagles, and so on - were marvelous!
Oh yes, the EAGLES. What I really want to talk about is the eagles. I'm sure you all could have guessed that the parts of the book I most enjoyed and most looked forward to seeing brought to life in the film have to do with the Great Eagles of Middle-earth. In the book, the eagles are fully conscious beings and can speak. Their leader, the Lord of the Eagles, was once healed by Gandalf from an arrow wound (there are apparently more eagle rulers in other Tolkien books, but only the Lord of the Eagles is present along with other unnamed eagles in The Hobbit).
The small backstory would've been more interesting in the movie rather than Gandalf sending a moth to beckon the eagles. In the book, the eagles simply notice all the commotion of the goblins and wargs from their high perches and come down to investigate, coincidentally just in time to save Gandalf, the Dwarves, and Bilbo from the tops of the burning trees. They're carried high to the inaccessible peaks of the mountains to the eagles' eyries. The great birds are happy to repay Gandalf for his past kindness and also agree to carry the travelers a bit further after spending the night. So the next morning the group climbs onto the backs of the eagles and sets out.
Bilbo opened an eye to peep and saw that the birds were already high up and the world was far away, and the mountains were falling back behind them into the distance. He shut his eyes again and held on tighter.
"Don't pinch!" said his eagle. "You need not be frightened like a rabbit, even if you look rather like one. It is a fair morning with little wind. What is finer than flying?"
Bilbo would have liked to say: "A warm bath and late breakfast on the lawn afterwards;" but he thought it better to say nothing at all, and to let go his clutch just a tiny bit.
From Chapter VII of The Hobbit, J.R.R. Tolkien.While the movie doesn't reveal anything about the eagles aside from being majestic beasts that swoop in to save the day (much like their appearances in the Lord of the Rings films), the book reveals slightly more about their motivations and character. From the book, I imagined them to be a bit like the animal gods are portrayed in Princess Mononoke: beautiful and awe-inspiring, yet equally terrifying and potentially deadly at the same time.
I've seen several mentions roundabout the internets that the elk-creature the Elvenking Thranduil was riding in the film is likely based on the recently extinct Irish Elk (Megaloceros giganteus), one of the largest deer that has ever lived, with the largest antlers of any known cervid. I have no idea if this is based on anything in other Tolkien writings or not (do let me know in the comments if you happen to know) but it did get me thinking about what the Great Eagles might be based on. They look most like hugely oversized Golden Eagles (Aquila chrysaetos) to me, as far as extant eagles are concerned. The largest known eagle that has ever lived, the extinct Haast's Eagle (Harpagornis moorei), though impressive in size with a wingspan of almost 10 feet, was still too small to be the species of eagle as they're shown in the movie. So in size, no actual eagle can quite get there.
But, there is another group of extinct birds of prey that possibly do come somewhat close to matching the epic size of the fantasy eagles: the teratorns. The biggest of the teratorns and largest flying bird ever discovered, Argentavis magnificens, was thought to have a wingspan of up to 23 feet. Incredible! I've been lucky enough to see wild bald eagles a number of times, and once witnessed one lifting off the ground close enough to thoroughly startle me - bald eagles have a wingspan of about 5 to 7 feet, and they look massive close up with wings spread! I can't quite imagine how impressive a bird with a 23 foot wingspan would be.
It's perhaps only loosely relevant, but I don't think I can end this post without mentioning the largest known flying animals to ever grace the skies of planet earth: the pterosaurs of the family Azhdarchidae. The size of Quetzalcoatlus didn't even need slight exaggerating for the Skybax riders to seem plausible in James Gurney's Dinotopia books. The idea of riding on oversized flying creatures never gets old to me, and apparently captures the imagination of plenty of others out there as well.
And with that, my friends, may your beard grow ever longer! Or, breathe deep, seek peace...whichever you prefer.