If I Had an Eagle . . .

eagle-the-hobbitRiding an eagle is the only way to commute . . . and escape from wargs!

I’ll resist the urge to sing, “I’d hammer in the morning,” since the title of this post reminds me of the song “If I Had a Hammer.”

bald_eagle-normalI’ve been thinking about eagles lately, and not just because my brother claims he saw one as we returned to Illinois after our trip to Houston. I recently watched the extended version of The Hobbit (directed by Peter Jackson) and am currently making my way through the appendices (the behind-the-scenes documentaries). In various forums, I’ve read comments of people complaining about the deus ex machina effect of the eagles in The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings.

According to Wikipedia, deus ex machina is

A plot device whereby a seemingly unsolvable problem is suddenly and abruptly resolved by the contrived and unexpected intervention of some new event, character, ability or object. Depending on how it is done, it can be intended to move the story forward when the writer has “painted themself into a corner” and sees no other way out, to surprise the audience, to bring the tale to a happy ending, or as a comedic device.

You probably already knew that, didn’t you? Getting back to the eagles, I love their intervention in these books and the film adaptations. SPOILERS AHEAD. I read The Hobbit when I was a kid, and can readily recall the immense comfort I felt when the eagles arrived to rescue Bilbo, Gandalf, and the dwarves from burning trees, and later when they showed up during the battle of five armies. As I read The Lord of the Rings (and watched the films), I cheered as Gwaihir, Lord of the Eagles, rescued Gandalf from Isengard (Fellowship of the Ring). I woo-hooed as eagles fortuitously arrived during the battle at the Black Gate (The Return of the King), and cried when they carried Frodo and Sam away from Mount Doom. END SPOILERS.

Their presence provided the assurance that all would be well. Now, I realize everyone does not share that sentiment. But I love the fact that when characters are on the verge of death or at the very least, at the end of their strength, help comes from an unexpected source. I can breathe a sigh of relief until the next crisis. And in The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, the next crisis is always just around the corner.

Help comes from a surprising source in my novel. I don’t use eagles, however. I won’t say what I use, but I wonder if I might be judged in the same way as Tolkien has been. To prepare for the possibility of a deus ex machina backlash from readers, I used foreshadowing earlier in the book so that what happens toward the end is not a total surprise. At least one of the intervening forces makes an appearance early on, so I’m hoping the later arrival feels inevitable, rather than contrived. Also, the intervening forces don’t actually fight the battle at the end. The main characters still have to do that. But these forces are there to provide help and hope in a story with many bleak moments. I included them, because it is a fairy tale after all. 😀

I don’t know about you, but I read to escape. Life is difficult sometimes. So if an eagle wants to appear and whisk someone away from those who would do that person harm, I’m all for it.

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This is not a feather from an eagle, in case you’re wondering. (You probably aren’t.) It kept flopping on my living room floor, so I had to take a photo of it and include it.

What’s your take on the subject? Are you appalled by even the whiff of a deus ex machina ending? Do you employ one in your novel?

Bald eagle from hdwallpapers. Bilbo on the eagle image from The Hobbit.

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21 thoughts on “If I Had an Eagle . . .

  1. In the hero’s journey there is often a magical helper–there is a long history of that. And for me, foreshadowing is crucial. If the helper has been woven into the story and is an integrated part of the world, then I don’t feel manipulated, the help seems natural and satisfying–and fun. One of the great elements of fantasy is the chance to have magical helpers.

    • So glad you brought up the magical helper, Sandra. Thanks for that! Good. I don’t feel bad then. My intervening forces are magical helpers. Happy New Year to you!!!

  2. I swear, I’ve seen people complaining about the damn Eagles every week since the second movie came out. To the point where I think they simply want to complain. Mostly people wonder why they didn’t fly them into Mordor during LOTR (as if Sauron wouldn’t see them?!) or to the Misty Mountain. It’s all about favors that the Eagle King owes Gandalf. Really the Eagles only seem to be big in The Hobbit and get a mention in LOTR, but I’m ranting at this point.

    I think the complaint about deus ex machina is ridiculous at times. People hate the surprise rescue, but then they also hate when the hero always finds a way out. Even if you had some foreshadowing about the Eagles, people would complain about how they made it with perfect timing instead of being late. It’s simply that something that has to happen in order to prevent the story from ending with the characters’ premature deaths. It happens all the time in fantasy and coincidences seem to be in every story too. I love how the definition of it comes off as insulting and hateful of the practice.

    In regards to the Eagles specifically, didn’t Tolkien write The Hobbit as a book for his son? It’s read in Children’s Lit classes alongside Harry Potter. By the way, the return of the flying car in Chamber of Secrets never seems to get this type of treatment. Tolkien wrote this so long ago that it wasn’t seen as a bad move, so it’s kind of ridiculous that people pounce on him for doing it. We’re used to these events because people copied the Eagles many times over the years and did it rather poorly at times.

    Yeah, I’ve gotten into this debate at least a dozen times ever since those movies came out. That and ‘why didn’t the unstoppable elves take the ring to Mount Doom?’. That whole fear of corruption and not caring goes over people’s heads. Then again, they try to use elves showing up at Helms Deep against me on that one. Not in the book, so it doesn’t count as ammo.

    • I feel the same way. If the eagles flew Frodo and Sam to Mordor, the book would be about 30 pages long–kinda boring. There wouldn’t be a need for anyone to sacrifice anything. I love the arduous journey. No one takes the easy way out.

      I agree that the term is thrown around way too much. I read a review of a book by Robin McKinley book (Chalice) in which someone complained about the ending. I was like, “Oh come on! She set up the book for this ending!” My guess is that those who complain couldn’t come up with a better ending themselves. I was very satisfied with the ending of that book as I was with Tolkien’s books.

      Great point about the flying car. No one ever complained about it. And yes, Tolkien’s book was a bedtime story, I believe. Kids (and adults too) need a surprising rescue every now and then.

  3. I’m with you, Linda. I too read to escape and if the writer chooses to throw in an eagle or a knight in shining armor, to save the day, that’s fine by me. I saw my first eagle in the wild a couple of years ago, it was magnificent.

  4. I learned about these in theater when we watched Medea. I don’t usually mind them if they are deployed well. I’m really looking forward to reading your novel and seeing what you did with it. I always imagine Medea up on stilt shoes when I hear that term.

    • Also, I read for so many reasons. Escape is one. Education is another. I like to challenge myself and read things outside of my comfort zone sometimes. I’m also happy to read light books (or things I deem trash) from time to time. I’m all over the map, because I don’t want to box myself into a steady diet of anything. I wish more readers were that way. When I was in a book club, most of the participants were very boxed in and picky about what they read. By the time we considered everyone’s strictures, there was very little left to read.

      • I’m an eclectic reader also, which is why I never stick with book clubs. I’m not one for constantly reading what’s on the bestseller list. I love nineteenth-century British lit, graphic novels, nerdy biochemistry nonfiction, young adult novels, novels for kids, and Entertainment Weekly. I was not built for a book club.

  5. For the most part, I don’t mind the “deus ex machina” resolutions. In my opinion, fiction is a “machina,” so in the end, who’s to say what is plausible and what isn’t. There is a line between what someone will and won’t accept, and I think that line is different for everyone. That’s why this fiction thing is such an art. There are certain methods to the craft that more people find attractive and interesting, but in the end, you can’t please everyone.

    • Good point, Phillip. It’s all fiction. What’s funny is that people debate the issue of why eagles did not fly Frodo and Sam to Mordor but not the fact that there are giant talking eagles in the first place–a nice staple of fantasy. But true: you can’t please everyone.

  6. I agree with Philip on this point – the better it’s done the less obviously it sticks out like a sore thumb.The weird thing is people think this is just writer’s being lazy, but DEM happens in real life too. I’ve been saved from disaster and death by appearances and interventions that were seemingly part of someone else’s narrative unexpectedly intersecting with mine at the crucial moment. Unfortunately, it wasn’t eagles, but non less dramatic. Life is weird and if storytelling reflected it accurately the three act play and ‘slick storyteling’ would be out of the window.
    Lord of The Rings is the pinnacle of fantasy. People could comfort themselves with the ‘it’s not real’ mantra and save themselves a lot of internet time.
    BTW – when I went to the Grand Canyon, I really wanted to see some Bald Eagles. I was awed by the canyon itself and then, as I was driving away through the snow, I spotted THREE sitting in the dead branches atop of a fir tree. Obviously placed there just for the perfect end to my Grand Canyon story.

    • Man, how wonderful that you saw three eagles and got to go to the Grand Canyon. I’ve never been. I don’t have a bucket list, but if I did, that would go on my list.

      I agree that DEMs happen, which is why I don’t mind them. I actually have yet to read one where I thought, No way! I can’t spend my disbelief to accept this.

  7. I think the DEM works better in speculative fiction, as long as you give hints all along that something out of the ordinary may come and save the day. I was really turned off by the DEM ending of Philip Roth’s The Plot Against America–and I loved the rest of the story–because he clearly backed his characters into a corner with no way out. Writers have to be careful not to strip all agency from their main characters.

    • I didn’t read Roth’s book, but I agree about the need for caution. If the deck is stacked so high, it becomes almost a gimmick, especially if one is a pantser writing by the seat of one’s pants.

  8. Eagles (and abrupt pov shifts) make me stop and say, “The writers in my critique group would have something to say about this,” and then I keep on reading. Sometimes, those thing stick with me and sometimes they don’t.

  9. Pingback: Deus ex Machina | Nina Kaytel

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