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High Flight: 1. High Flight
And danced the skies on laughter-silvered wings;
Sunward I’ve climbed, and joined the tumbling mirth
Of sun-split clouds – and done a hundred things
You have not dreamed of – wheeled and soared and swung
High in the sunlit silence. Hovering there,
I’ve chased the shouting wind along, and flung
My eager craft through footless halls of air.
Up, up, the long delirious burning blue
I’ve topped the wind-swept heights with easy grace
Where never lark, or even eagle flew –
And while with silent, lifting mind I’ve trod
The high untrespassed sanctity of space,
Put out my hand and touched the face of God.
John Gillespie Magee
The young eagles gathered on the Story Rock, a high, lonely pinnacle accessible only to the most daring flyers. Currents and slipstreams of air buffeted them as the wind whistled and moaned through the high peaks of the Hithaeglir. The unwary could be blown sideways by a sudden gust just as they landed on the rock, much to the amusement of others. They gathered to share tales and stories, to brag of their prowess in flying – how high, how far, how fast – or to boast of the rabbits and sheep they had caught single-talonned. Sometimes one of the older eagles would join them to tell tales of his youth – but that was rare, the old ones seldom risked the treacherous crosswinds.
There was much jostling for position on the rock, and more than once one would be pushed from the summit, tumbling downwards to a chorus of jeers, only to spread his wings and circle in graceful spirals on an updraft to land again on a less-favoured perch.
Today, one of the old veterans was there, more grey than golden, casually preening his feathers as the youngsters around him gossiped and whispered. They fell silent as he raised his head and stared at them with clear, golden eyes. “I was young once, you know. Oh, you may laugh now, my feathers may be grey with age and I may no longer fly high – but I was young once.”
“That was a long time ago!” one called out. The speaker ignored the interruption, and continued.
“As an eaglet I was considered daring and dashing – I could fly higher than all others, so high I felt I could touch the sun. I could fly the fastest, would chase and race the wind – and win. Sky-Dancer I was called, and Silver-Wings. But all that was before.”
Something in the old eagle’s voice halted all the murmurs and restless movements. They were silent now, listening avidly. “We had been aware of orcs and goblins multiplying in the mountains for some time. They infested the slopes, crawling over the ground like ants. Although they tried, they seldom troubled us, for they could not reach our eyries – we nest far too high. But they fought and killed the elves, who were our friends. They set snares to catch the unwary – and sometimes they came across a fledgling, fallen from the nest. You do not want to hear what they did to those poor young birds.”
The silence was broken only by the whine of the wind. All knew of the cruelty of the orcs and goblins. All could imagine.
The greying eagle shook himself and ruffled his feathers briefly. “Where was I? Ah, yes. Gwaihir spoke with Mithrandir, the wizard, and we agreed to help one another. We watched their movements in the mountains as they mustered, and word was passed among all the eyries in the Hithaeglir. We too gathered in great numbers, ready for battle, and waited.”
“When the call went out, we came – swooping and riding the wind, sweeping down on the goblins and their wargs. We could do nothing about the creatures in the valley – the press of battle was too close for us to fly – but there were many, many orcs swarming over the slopes of the mountain and hills. We scratched and tore at their faces with our talons, and fell on them, picking up the orcs and casting them over the precipice. Our wings knocked them aside, off cliffs and walls, down into the valley – where those that survived the fall soon fell to the spears and swords of the bright elves.”
There were many comments now. “Did you kill all the goblins and wargs?”
“The eagles won the battle for the men and elves, didn’t they!”
“Were any eagles hurt?”
On the wings of this remark, one young bird, scarcely more than a fledgling, asked “Were you hurt?”
The veteran preened himself briefly. “Did we kill them all? No, not nearly. But we cleared the mountain slopes, and elves and men who had become separated from their main forces could rejoin them. We didn’t win the battle alone, but yes, we helped. We were already allies with Mithrandir and the Elvenking, but that day we swore friendship with the dwarves and the men of Esgaroth as well. The dwarves even gave Gwaihir and his chieftains gold – though what they expected him to do with it, I do not know.”
“Were any of the eagles hurt?” the young eagle insisted.
In answer, the old one stretched out his wing. There on the underneath was a patch where the feathers grew white. “The goblins had archers with them. They were poor shots, and we soared and wheeled above them. But sometimes their arrows hit. My wing was broken, and I fell from the mountain to the valley below. I was lucky – I fell among the elves, not the orcs. They took me to one of their own healers, who told me he feared I would never fly again.”
The silence this time was horrified. To never fly again? To be an eagle was to fly – wheeling and soaring, hovering high above the land; dancing through the sky and tumbling down the wind. To never fly again was unthinkable, unbearable – death would be preferable.
“But – you flew here, didn’t you? How?”
The elder eagle spread his wings. “How? Because I would never listen to advice. When told my wing would never heal, I did not listen. When told I would never fly again, I would not listen. This is how I flew here.” With that, he stretched his wings wide, and leapt into the wind. He swooped low over their heads, and they glimpsed a golden collar encircling his neck. Then, catching an updraft of air, he climbed up, up, higher than the mountains, higher than the clouds, until he was a mere speck in the sky.
The young eagles watched until they could no longer see him. The youngest, who had been questioning the veteran so intently, sighed. “I wish I could take part in a battle. Do great deeds. Be heroic. Can you imagine the cries – ‘The Eagles are coming!’ But the battles are over now – there is nothing left for us to do.” He sounded forlorn.
“Take heart, Meneldor. You are young and swift – you may yet have chance to do great things. Wait and see.”
With a rush of wings, the eagles took to the air, soaring high, then slowly wheeling down towards their eyries. Far above them, the veteran slipped away from the bonds of Arda in his high flight.
Author’s Notes: The poem was written by a Canadian pilot aged 19, during World War II.
The Hithaeglir are, of course, the Misty Mountains. I decided it was more likely the eagles would use Sindarin names than Westron, as they avoided men.
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