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What do we know about the origin of the Great Eagles in LOTR?

We know quite a bit about the origins of Elves, Men, Dwarves, and (somewhat) the servants of Morgoth (dragons, orcs, etc.).

But I don't know anything about the sentient race of Eagles, other than that they seem to be good guys, and friends of Gandalf and Galadriel.

I doubt they are Maiar, since I don't recall any display of power that would suggest that.

Where do they come from, are they mortal, and what is their relationship to other Middle-Earth races?

17

Silmarillion chapter 2, Of Aule and Yavanna, states that the Eagles were neither Valar nor Maiar but instead offspring of the thoughts of Manwe and Yavanna, given life by Iluvatar:

But dost them not now remember, Kementari, that thy thought sang not always alone? Did not thy thought and mine meet also, so that we took wing together like great birds that soar above the clouds? That also shall come to be by the heed of Iluvatar, and before the Children awake there shall go forth with wings like the wind the Eagles of the Lords of the West.

This was largely derived from an essay called Of the Ents and Eagles, published in HoME11, and which Christopher Tolkien notes was used largely unmodified in the Silmarillion.


It's frequently speculated that many other types of spirit or being in Tolkien's works where doubt exists about their origin must be Maiar. This IMO is a very restrictive viewpoint.

The Valar and Maiar have a very specific origin: they're members of the Ainur, spirits that were created before the world, and that took part in the Music. They came down into the world following it's creation, and live in it but are not of it. The Ainulindale is clear about this:

...their shape comes of their knowledge of the visible World, rather than of the World itself; and they need it not, save only as we use raiment...

The Valaquenta is also clear about the distinction between Valar and Maiar only being in degree of power, but they're otherwise of the same class of being:

With the Valar came other spirits whose being also began before the World, of the same order as the Valar but of less degree. These are the Maiar, the people of the Valar, and their servants and helpers.

Eagles are an example of another class of spirit, one that was sent to the world by Iluvatar after it's creation, or that was created as part of the world. We see similar in the extract from Of Aule and Yavanna/Of the Ents and Eagles preceding that I give above:

Behold! When the Children awake, then the thought of Yavanna will awake also, and it will summon spirits from afar, and they will go among the kelvar and the olvar, and some will dwell therein...

These kind of spirits are also mentioned in the Ainulindale, and their origin was that they were called by Manwe after the Valar and Maiar had entered the world and to aid in their first conflict with Melkor:

...he called unto himself many spirits both greater and less, and they came down into the fields of Arda and aided Manwe, lest Melkor should hinder the fulfilment of their labour for ever...

So the inescapable conclusion is that as well as the Valar and Maiar, there are other spirits in the world, and these were the source of the Eagles, the Ents, and yes, probably even Bombadil and Goldberry.

Update - 24th December 2014

The Eagles were actually probably intended to be Maiar.

This derives from a note in the Annals of Aman (History of Middle-earth 10) where it's said:

Manwe however sent Maia spirits in Eagle form to dwell near Thangorodrim and keep watch on all that Melkor did...

I'm uncertain at the moment if this was Tolkien's last words on the subject, or if Of the Ents and Eagles supersedes it.

Update - 28th March 2015

I had forgotten this. Reviewing Of the Ents and the Eagles, Christopher Tolkien notes:

This brief text belongs to the late, or last, period of my father's work, and must be dated at the earliest to 1958-9, but may well be later than that.

The note which I referred to above was written on the typescript of the Annals of Aman, which Christopher Tolkien dates to 1958, so while the relation of the two texts is not definitively confirmed, it seems that Of the Ents and the Eagles is probably the later work, and intended to stand as an authorative origin-story for both.

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    +1 "It's frequently speculated that many other types of spirit or being in Tolkien's works where doubt exists about their origin must be Maiar." Yes, and I don't like that either. – Paul Draper Apr 13 '14 at 15:59
  • @PaulDraper: I think the reason for that is that the Silmarillion certainly gives the impression that creating sentient beings is the prerogative of Ilúvatar - he created the Ainu and the Children, and when Aule created the Dwarves, that was trouble at first. The concept of sentient spirits created by Ilúvatar and later "summoned" by the Valar seems a bit dodgy, and easy to overlook given how it's mentioned only in passing. – Michael Borgwardt Apr 14 '14 at 7:16
  • @MichaelBorgwardt: "The concept of sentient spirits created by Ilúvatar and later 'summoned' by the Valar seems a bit dodgy" - but yet that's definitely how the Ents came about: "When the Children awake, then the thought of Yavanna will awake also, and it will summon spirits from afar, and they will go among the kelvar and the olvar, and some will dwell therein". Why posit anything different for any other kind of being? – user8719 Apr 14 '14 at 11:47
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    @MattGutting - because Tolkien didn't say so. As far as I can figure out, the "everything must be a Maia" trope originated with David Day and has absolutely no basis in Tolkien's actual writings. Tolkien's writings allow for spirits that exist in Ea but which are part of Ea (rather than existing before it) and states that the Eagles/etc are this kind of spirit. So: read yer Tolkien. – user8719 Jun 5 '14 at 23:18
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    @MattGutting - this from the Silmarillion (Valaquenta): "in majesty they are peers, surpassing beyond compare all others, whether of the Valar and the Maiar, or of any other order that Iluvatar has sent into Ea" (my emphasis). – user8719 Dec 6 '14 at 17:44
7

The first mention of 'eagles' is in the very first chapter Of the Beginning of Days of the Quenty Silmarillion:

But Manwë Súlimo, highest and holiest of the Valar, sat upon the borders of Aman, forsaking not in his thought the Outer Lands. For his throne was set in majesty upon the pinnacle of Taniquetil, the highest of the mountains of the world, standing upon the margin of the sea. Spirits in the shape of hawks and eagles flew ever to and from his halls; and their eyes could see to the depths of the seas, and pierce the hidden caverns beneath the world. Thus they brought word to him of well nigh all that passed in Arda

And later on, the Eagles are frequently referred to as the "Eagles of Manwë", which implies that these are the same beings. Note that the quote above occurs not long after the Valar jointly created pretty much every living thing on Arda except for the Children of Ilúvatar. This leaves two possibilities:

  • The Great Eagles are Maiar, though they are never explicitly mentioned as such; but the Maiar are also called "spirits", as the Eagles are when they are first mentioned.
  • They were created along with all the other non-Children living beings, probably by Manwë
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    I always believed that the Eagles were not Maiar but were entities of the same order as the Ents, albeit created by Manwe rather than Yavanna, I believe this due to the fact that there is no mention of what hapened to Thorondor and the eagles of the Encircling mountains after the war of wrath. I believe that these eagles finally died with their descendants moving to the misty mountains – Steven Wood Apr 12 '14 at 22:29
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Quenta Silmarillion,"Of the Beginning of Days":

"MANWË HOWEVER SENT MAIA SPIRITS IN EAGLE FORM to dwell near Thangorodrim and keep watch on all that Melkor did and assist the Noldor in extreme cases."

Case closed...

  • Welcome to the site. This specific quote is already included in the accepted answer. You're not offering anything additional. – Stan Mar 28 '15 at 13:43
  • This quote is not in the Silmarillion. – user8719 Mar 28 '15 at 13:55

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