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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?

4 Answers 4

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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 its 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. Apr 13, 2014 at 15:59
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    @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, 2014 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, 2014 at 23:18
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    Because all other things being equal, it's simpler to assume that they were a sort of spirit that Tolkien had mentioned (one from before Ea) than that they were a sort of spirit that he hadn't. It's more or less an application of Occam's Razor. (I'm going to leave off commenting at this point as I think the question has been fully answered, and I know our disagreement is essentially a matter of opinion.) Jun 6, 2014 at 0:04
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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, 2014 at 17:44
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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 Apr 12, 2014 at 22:29
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The Eagles are Maiar.

Tolkien seems to have considered a few possible origins for the Great Eagles.

  1. They are Maiar who took the forms of giant eagles
  2. They are creatures without any fëar[=souls], and were just taught language by the valar
  3. They are creatures created by Manwë, but who were then granted fëar by Eru

Tolkien went back and forth a bit between these views, but Eagles as Maiar is both the most frequent explanation, and also is still in use the latest in his writings, several years after anything else.

Eagles as Maiar

The first explicit place this occurs is a note written on a c.1958 typescript of the "Annals of Aman".

They forbade return and made it impossible for Elves or Men to reach Aman - since that experiment had proved disastrous. But they would not give the Noldor aid in fighting Melkor. Manwe 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. Ulmo went to Beleriand and took a secret but active part in Elvish resistance.
Morgoth's Ring - "The Annals of Aman"

It's also found in the drafting material of a c.1959 essay on "primal impulse"

The fëar of Elves and Men and still later things (Ents? Dwarves) were intrusions by Eru, like the Valar – Aule and the Dwarves. Yavanna and the Ents. Maiar could take forms of Eagles etc. – [?these] were sent into Eä. They are not of Eä, but Eru’s agent in Eä.
The Nature of Middle-earth - The Primal Impulse

And lastly, it can be found among Tolkien's last writings, in a c.1972-3 essay about Manwë's Ban. This was written in the final year of Tolkien's life.

But it is not said that Manwë abandoned them, peoples over whom he had been appointed by Eru to be a vice-regent. His messengers could come from Valinor and did so, and though in disguised form and issuing no commands, they intervened in certain desperate events.

[Footnote:] The most notable were those Maiar who took the form of the mighty speaking eagles that we hear of in the legends of the war of the Ñoldor against Melkor, and who remained in the West of Middle-earth until the fall of Sauron and the Dominion of Men, after which they are not heard of again. Their intervention in the story of Maelor, in the duel of Fingolfin and Melkor, in the rescue of Beren and Lúthien is well known. (Beyond their knowledge were the deeds of the Eagles in the war against Sauron: in the rescue of the Ring Finder and his companions, in the Battle of Five Armies, and in the rescue of the Ringbearer from the fires of Mount Doom.)
The Nature of Middle-earth - Manwë's Ban

Eagles as regular animals without fëar

In 1959, Tolkien wrote an essay exploring the nature and origin of orcs. In this essay he also discusses the nature of talking animals such as the eagles, and notes all three of the possible explanations, before deciding on them just being regular animals who were taught to speak by the Valar.

What of talking beasts and birds with reasoning and speech? These have been rather lightly adopted from less 'serious' mythologies, but play a part which cannot now be excised. They are certainly 'exceptions' and not much used, but sufficiently to show they are a recognized feature of the world. All other creatures accept them as natural if not common.

But true 'rational' creatures, 'speaking peoples', are all of human / 'humanoid' form. Only the Valar and Maiar are intelligences that can assume forms of Arda at will. Huan and Sorontar could be Maiar - emissaries of Manwë. But unfortunately in The Lord of the Rings Gwaehir and Landroval are said to be descendants of Sorontar.

... But again - would Eru provide fëar for such creatures? For the Eagles etc. perhaps. But not for Orcs. ... In summary: I think it must be assumed that 'talking' is not necessarily the sign of the possession of a 'rational soul' or fëa. ... The same sort of thing may be said of Huan and the Eagles: they were taught language by the Valar, and raised to a higher level - but they still had no fëar.
Morgoth's Ring - "Myths Transformed"

Eagles as animals who were granted fëar

In what Christopher Tolkien thinks was likely 1963, Tolkien wrote out an origin story about Eagles being created by Manwë and given fëar from Ilúvatar. This was the account that Christopher choose to use in the Silmarillion.

Then Manwë awoke, and he went down to Yavanna upon Ezellohar, and he sat beside her beneath the Two Trees. And Manwë said: 'O Kementári, Eru has spoken, saying: "Do then any of the Valar suppose that I did not hear all the Song, even the least sound of the least voice? 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, and be held in reverence, and their just anger shall be feared." But do you not now remember, Kementári, that your thought sang not always alone? Did not your 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 Ilúvatar, and before the Children awake there shall go forth with wings like the wind the Eagles of the Lords of the West.'
Reconstructed from The Silmarillion - "Of Aulë and Yavanna" and The War of the Jewels - "Of the Ents and the Eagles"

It should be noted that all of these three concepts are only found in writings that Tolkien never published, and that like Orcs, his opinions here fluctuated a lot. However his final word on the matter was that Eagles are Maiar, and so that is what I would go with.

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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...

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  • Welcome to the site. This specific quote is already included in the accepted answer. You're not offering anything additional.
    – Stan
    Mar 28, 2015 at 13:43
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    This quote is not in the Silmarillion.
    – user8719
    Mar 28, 2015 at 13:55

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