It’s fairly common for people to point out (often sarcastically or with no small amount of displeasure) the repeated ‘arrival of the Eagles’ motif seen during the climactic battles of both The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings (meaning, of course, Aragorn’s last stand in front of the Black Gates, and not the Scouring of the Shire). It’s a fair argument, I suppose. It is, of course, very true that the two incidents are strikingly similar. As anyone familiar with the stories knows, the Eagles arrive on both occasions and help to turn the tide of battle. But the similarities go beyond abrupt avian arrivals.
Let’s take a look at the moments leading up to the Eagles, and we’ll note not only the similarities but also some interesting differences:
Already behind [Thorin] among the goblin dead lay many men and many dwarves, and many a fair elf that should have lived yet long ages merrily in the wood. And as the valley widened his onset grew ever slower. His numbers were too few. His flanks were unguarded. Soon the attackers were attacked, and they were forced into a great ring, facing every way, hemmed all about with goblins and wolves returning to the assault. The bodyguard of Bolg came howling against them, and drove in upon their ranks like waves upon cliffs of sand. Their friends could not help them, for the assault from the Mountain was renewed with redoubled force, and upon either side men and elves were being slowly beaten down.
On all this Bilbo looked with misery. He had taken his stand on Ravenhill among the elves — partly because there was more chance of escape from that point, and partly (with the more Tookish part of his mind) because if he was going to be in a last desperate stand, he preferred on the whole to defend the Elvenking.
[The end] did not seem far off. “It will not be long now,” thought Bilbo, “before the goblins win the Gate, and we are all slaughtered or driven down and captured. Really it is enough to make one weep, after all one has gone through. … I wish I was well out of it. [The Hobbit, Chapter XVII, ‘The Clouds Burst’]
Little time was left to Aragorn for the ordering of his battle. Upon the one hill he stood with Gandalf, and there fair and desperate was raised the banner of the Tree and Stars. Upon the other hill hard by stood the banners of Rohan and Dol Amroth, White Horse and Silver Swan. And about each hill a ring was made facing all ways, bristling with spear and sword. But in the front towards Mordor where the first bitter assault would come there stood the sons of Elrond on the left with the Dúnedain about them, and on the right the Prince Imrahil with the men of Dol Amroth tall and fair, and picked men of the Tower of Guard.
For it seemed best to [Pippin] to die soon and leave the bitter story of his life, since all was in ruin.
‘Well, well, now at any rate I understand poor Denethor a little better. We might die together, Merry and I, and since die we must, why not? Well, as he is not here, I hope he’ll find an easier end. But now I must do my best.’
Well, I’ll smite some of this beastly brood before the end. I wish I could see cool sunlight and green grass again!’
Blackness and stench and crushing pain came upon Pippin, and his mind fel away into a great darkness.
‘So it ends as I guess it would,’ his thought said, even as it fluttered away; and it laughed a little within him ere it fled, almost gay it seemed to be casting off at last all doubt and care and fear. [The Lord of the Rings, Book 6, Chapter 3, ‘Mount Doom’; emphasis mine.]
In both instances, the heroes are ringed in. Thorin & Co. are ringed in on all sides and in this case the hills/mountain work against them (orc reinforcements have come up over the hills from the other side. Aragorn & Co. are also ringed in, but they do at least have the high ground, as they are on hilltops surrounded on all sides by the lower flatlands outside the Black Gates.
In both instances, we have a hobbit’s eye-view of the final moments. In the case of TH, it is, of course, Bilbo; in LotR, it is Pippin.
Both are Tooks (or half-Took, in the case of Bilbo).
Both stand with an Elven host (sort of): Bilbo with “the Elvenking” (aka Thranduil), and Pippin with Imrahil of Dol Amroth (though no specific allegiance is mentioned in the case of Pippin). Now, to be fair, Imrahil only claims partial elf-blood, and that of the lesser-sort (not the Eldar).
Both see the inevitability of their demise. Strikingly, whilst Bilbo has no fleeting thought of taking down at least some of the host before he is himself slain (indeed, he holds onto a desperate hope of escape), Pippin has no such hope, but he does screw up his courage enough to take down a troll.
Both make one last, desperate wish before the end: Pippin wishes to see sunlight and green grass, whereas Bilbo wishes quite simply to be “well out” of his predicament.
Tolkien does a fantastic job of first setting up the desperate situation. We are encouraged to believe that there is nothing that can be done to save the heroic Men and Elves (and one dwarf). How indeed could our heroes possibly escape almost certain death?
And that is the very point. For, of course, the ‘forces of Good’ are rescued, and they do triumph over evil. Tolkien’s word for that moment — when they are rescued beyond all reasonable hope — was Eucatastrophe. And the beauty of Eucatastrophe is that it is devoid of value (indeed, it cannot exist) without expectation of utter defeat. In his seminal essay, On Fairy Stories, Tolkien puts it thus:
[Eucatastrophe] does not deny the existence of dyscatastrophe, of sorrow and failure: the possibility of these is neccessary to the joy of deliverance;
The concept of the co-dependence of joy and sorrow was hardly new when Tolkien penned On Fairy Stories. As Mark Twain put it:
What is joy without sorrow? what is success without failure? what is a win without a loss? what is health without illness? you have to experience each if you are to appreciate the other. there is always going to be suffering. it’s how you look at your suffering, how you deal with it, that will define you. [88 Days in the Mother Lode: & Stories of the Mother Lode by James Fletcher, Manzanita Writer’s Press, 2016]
And Tolkien and Twain were, of course, not alone.
Your joy is your sorrow unmasked.
The deeper that sorrow carves into your being, the more joy you can contain.
When you are joyous, look deep into your heart and you shall find it is only that which has given you sorrow that is giving you joy.
I say unto you, they are inseparable.
Together they come, and when one sits alone with you at your board, remember that the other is asleep upon your bed.
[‘On Joy and Sorrow’, from The Prophet (1923), by Khalil Gilbran]
Nor was this a novel concept even during Twain’s or Gibran’s time:
What will the violence of a foe do if it cannot touch the seeker
of the Friend?
Treasure, serpent; rose, thorn; grief and pleasure are all linked together. [Saadi Shiraz, The Gulistan (c.1258 BCE)
That joy and sorrow walk hand-in-hand seems to be a concept just about as old as one can imagine. And having established his dystcatastraphe so very well, Tolkien then delivers the Eucatastrophe with which it is paired.
First, in The Hobbit (ibid):
Seeing the sudden gleam in the gloom Bilbo looked round. He gave a great cry: he had seen a sight that made his heart leap, dark shapes small yet majestic against the distant glow.
“The Eagles! The Eagles!” he shouted. “The Eagles are coming!”
Bilbo’s eyes were seldom wrong. The Eagles were coming down the wind, line after line, in such a host as must have gathered from all the eyries of the North.
“The Eagles! the Eagles!” Bilbo cried, dancing and waving his arms. If the elves could not see him they could hear him. Soon they too took up the cry, and it echoed across th evalley. Many wondering eyes looked up, though as yet nothing could be seen except from the southern shoulders of the Mountain.
“The Eagles!” cried Bilbo once more, but at that moment a stone hurtling from above smote heavily on his helm, and he fell with a crash and knew no more.
Compare with The Lord of the Rings, where we pick up immediately where we left off above, with Pippin’s final thoughts (ibid):
And then even as [Pippin’s thought] winged away into forgetfulness, it heard voices, and they seemed to be crying in some forgotten world far above:
‘The Eagles are coming! The Eagles are coming!”
For one moment more Pippin’s thought hovered. ‘Bilbo!’ it said. ‘But no! That came into his tale, long long ago. This is my tale, and it is ended now. Good-bye!’ And his thought fled far away and his eyes saw no more.
The two passages do have remarkable similarities. Both our heroes have fallen to near despair (arguably, Pippin into complete despair; but that’s a game of semantics I do not wish to play against either Gandalf or Tolkien). Both have effectively given themselves up for complete loss and are then struck down at the moment of the Eagles’ arrival.
However, I think the differences are just as striking. Bilbo sees the Eagles, whereas Pippin only imagines that he hears of their arrival. He is convinced, rather, that he is hearing an echo of his own meory from Bilbo’s own tales.
Bilbo never actually takes any active role in the Battle whereas Pippin actually fells the troll which is crushing the consciousness out of him on the hilltop.
And, perhaps most striking of all, Bilbo is knocked unconscious with a last thought of hope, with an uplifted heart, and filled with joy; Pippin loses consciousness with no thought or hope of rescue. He is convinced that his tale (and life) are now ended.
It must of course also be noted that, although Pippin has no hope for survival, he shows no signs of distress over the fact. His thought is described as ‘gay’ and is said to laugh as it leaves him. His troubled thoughts are all ‘cast away’. And so we cannot help but be reminded of the fact that death/mortality is a gift from Ilúvatar. It could be argued that Pippin is embracing this gift with open arms. In what he believes to be his final moments, he realises that he need not concern himself any longer with the tribulations of the mortal coil.
(All images on this post are by Joona Kujanen, via https://tulikoura.deviantart.com/gallery/?catpath=%2F&edit=0&q=battle+of+five+armies)
(Excerpt from The Prophet taken from: https://www.npr.org/programs/death/readings/spiritual/gibran.htm