A Change in Character: Thorin Oakenshield

I am a Tolkien nerd, fiend, geek, whatever term you would like to insert here, I will probably admit to being one.  I cannot honestly say how many times I have seen either The Lord of the Rings, or The Hobbit (An Unexpected Journey or Desolation of Smaug).  Recently, I have been paying attention to The Desolation of Smaug and watching the teaser trailer for The Battle of the Five Armies, which is to be released December 17.  So when I watched, in full, An Unexpected Journey today, I came away with some new thoughts.  You know that feeling of re-watching or re-reading something after a long while and noticing things you didn’t before?  One of the biggest eye catchers for me was the decline of the character of Thorin Oakenshield and the respect for him of the members in his company.

I feel like this character is less evolutionary in the book.  He is old, bitter, and cranky through pretty much the entire narrative and only has his change of heart at the end.  But in the film, Peter Jackson and Richard Armitage have created a more visible arc in the character and it suits the story of the movie quite well.  One of my favorite lines in An Unexpected Journey is Thorin’s conversation with Balin in Bag End where he says, “Loyalty, honor, a willing heart; I can ask no more than that.”  Clearly, Thorin understands the immensity of the quest and the slim chances of their success.  He is also so impressed that the few men he has, including his young nephews, are willing to follow him even under those dire circumstances in order to fight for their king and their heritage, that he in turn is willing to cast aside Balin’s request to go back to the Blue Mountains and continue the peaceful and plentiful life Thorin has built for them.  While this decision may seem selfish on the surface, it is also a nod to the Norse tradition from which Tolkien derived his dwarvish race and many of the dwarven characters, including Thorin.  In order to reach Valhalla, the majestic haven for brave warriors who have died in battle, the Norse fighters are rewarded, especially if their battle was against impossible odds.  The dwarves hold a similar belief which is why Thorin and his company have chosen to continue this quest.  Their options are living in peace in a strange land or dying fighting for their natural heritage.  If they don’t die doing that, then they live in the halls of their fathers which is greater than the living in peace option.  Once you understand this logic, you can understand why this decision was made.  But honor and loyalty are still vitally important to Thorin.

A Thorin who feels this way is nowhere to be seen when, in The Desolation of Smaug, Thorin tells his injured nephew Kili to remain in Laketown because he will slow them down and he will not risk the quest for the sake of one dwarf, “not even [his] own kin.”  Wouldn’t the dwarf leader who is inspired by loyalty, honor, and a willing heart feel differently?  At the very least he would force Kili to remain behind for the sake of his own health, not for the fact that he would slow them down.

Thorin has also changed in his treatment of Bilbo.  At the end of AUJ, he embraces the hobbit confessing he was wrong for doubting him and he seems to be grateful to have Bilbo in the company.  Once he enters Erebor, however, the dragon sickness begins to set in and his only priority is to retrieve the Arkenstone.  He even threatens Bilbo at the point of the sword for it!  In the book he threatens to toss him over the side of the mountain, and I do hope that moment is replicated in the final film. 

What does this character change do for the other characters’ opinion of Thorin and how does it affect the narrative?  In the teaser trailer for The Battle of the Five Armies, Bard asks Thorin if he will have peace or war.  Thorin, dressed in the regalia of the true King under the Mountain, boldly claims that he will have war.  In this instance, if you look to the right of the screen shot, you can see Kili looking at his uncle with what I’d interpret as pure disappointment.  The book too mentions that “so grim had Thorin become, that even if they had wished, the others would not have dared to find fault with him; but indeed most of them seemed to share his mind- except…Fili and Kili” (H267).  The younger generation of this story obviously wanted to restore their forefathers’ kingdom to greatness, but war is not exactly how they envisioned accomplishing that.

 As for the story, giving Thorin more of a character arc is a brilliant decision in terms of narrative evolution.  A Thorin who is bitter and sour throughout the story is not one for which the audience wants to cheer.  A sympathetic and almost heroic leader is what they want.  Although Tolkien had in mind a character more inspired by Norse heroes whose only victory is in death, the more Western European style hero works for Jackson’s storyline without stripping the original story of its authenticity.  Jackson places more value on the dragon sickness affecting Thorin’s character.  In the Extended Edition of AUJ the audience witnesses a conversation between Elrond and Gandalf where the Elf lord tells the wizard that a strain of madness runs in Thorin’s family.  This madness is heightened by the lust for the Arkenstone and the wealth beneath the roots of Erebor.  The climax of Thorin’s madness is reached at the Lonely Mountain, once Smaug is defeated and he has assumed power as king.  Appropriately, his redemption is found in the same place.  Hopefully the movie will interpret this because it is a powerful moment in Thorin’s character development and Richard Armitage is a gifted actor who could definitely portray this on screen.  Thorin was never my favorite character in the book, nor was he intended to be a favorite of anyone by the author, but in the film I enjoy watching his character change and I cannot wait to see what is in store for us in December.

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