The Great Eagles are said in The Silmarillion to have been "devised" by Manwë Súlimo, leader of the Valar, and were often called the Eagles of Manwë. They were sent from Valinor to Middle-earth to keep an eye on the exiled Ñoldor, and also on their foe the evil Vala Morgoth and later his lieutenant and future Dark Lord, Sauron.
The Great Eagles were the messengers and spies of the King of Arda, and possessed the ability to see through all physical matter except for the blackness of Morgoth's evil pits. Morgoth first discovered the limits of their sight prior to the fall of the great stronghold of Utumno. The king of these eagles was Thorondor and descendents of his included the eagle lord Gwaihir, who carried Gandalf many times during the Third Age.
For a time the King of the Eagles, Thorondor, kept his eyries at the top of Thangorodrim, the three mighty peaks that Morgoth raised from the Iron Mountains above the gates of Angband. While they lived there, Thorondor helped Fingon rescue Maedhros. Thorondor's folk later removed their eyries to the Crissaegrim, part of the Echoriath about Gondolin. There they were friends of Turgon, and kept spies off the mountains.
Thorondor wounded Morgoth in the face after Morgoth's battle with Fingolfin, and carried Fingolfin's corpse to the Echoriath, where Turgon buried him.
In the Second Age, a pair of Eagles had an eyrie in the King's House in Armenelos the capital of Númenor until the Kings became hostile to the Valar. The Eagles also watched the peak of Mount Meneltarma, and three Eagles would always appear when someone climbed to the summit.
In The Hobbit, no eagles were identified by name. Only the title Lord of the Eagles distinguished the eagle leader from other eagles in this story. (The text added that he was given the title King of All Birds at a later date.) Many readers assume that it was Gwaihir and Landroval who rescued Thorin Oakenshield and company from a band of Wargs and Goblins, flying them to the river Anduin, and later assisting in the Battle of the Five Armies fought near Lonely Mountain. However, in Return of the King Gandalf says that Gwaihir has carried him twice before, while the proper count would be three times if Gwaihir and the Lord of the Eagles were the same individual.
Before and during the War of the Ring, Gwaihir rescued Gandalf the Grey from the top of Isengard and again from Zirak-Zigil. The Eagles aided troops of King Elessar at the Battle of the Morannon at the Black Gate. The Eagles arrived in time to overthrow some Nazgûl, including Khamûl. Gwaihir, with others of his people, rescued Frodo Baggins and Samwise Gamgee from Mount Doom in Mordor after the One Ring had been destroyed.
An attack by the Great Eagles must have been terrifing for the armies that were being attacked. The Eagles could attack in two ways. They could attack using their talons and beak to stab through armour, but probably the most common way for the Eagles to fight was to simply pick up as many foes as possible, carry them to a great height, and drop them onto rocks or other hard objects so that they were killed by the fall.
Portrayal in adaptationsEdit
In Peter Jackson's film trilogies (those of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings), the eagles are much smaller than depicted in the book. They have been noted to been around 6m (20ft) tall, and have a wingspan of no more than 23m (75ft). Also, in the film adaptation, unlike in the books, the birds are less sentient and not capable of speech.
Behind the ScenesEdit
Tolkien's painting of an eagle on a crag appears in some editions of The Hobbit. According to Christopher Tolkien, the author based this picture on a painting by Archibald Thorburn of an immature Golden Eagle, which Christopher found for him in The Birds of the British Isles by T. A. Coward. However, Tolkien's use of this model does not necessarily mean that his birds were ordinary Golden Eagles. In some of his texts Tolkien speculated that these great Eagles were actually Maiar in bird-shape, as he felt it unlikely Ilúvatar would grant feär to animals. If this was true, then Roäc the Raven and the Thrush, who appear in The Hobbit, might also be Maiar or other spirits in animal form (and possibly even Beorn, who sometimes takes the form of a bear).
Notable Great EaglesEdit
Races of the Creatures of Arda