J.R.R. Tolkien, Peter Jackson, Richard Armitage and…epic heroes?

I had finally extricated myself from Hobbit fever.  With the exception of following some ongoing fanfiction pieces, I really had.  Well, that’s over!  The storm before the bigger storm blew into the U.S. on Monday when the first new images of Richard Armitage down under hit the web. Last year I was rather ambivalent about The Hobbit project, not being a huge fan of Tolkien and having an aversion to ginormous blockbuster film franchises in general, but the pull of Armitageworld was much too strong.  This time around, I’m not wasting precious energy on resistance since it’s futile anyway.  I was thinking last night about what to do…classics, hobbit, Thorin…classics, Thorin, hero….Thorin, hero, epic.  Aha!  There it is – Thorin as an epic hero, in the vein of Homeric heroes like Odysseus and Achilles.

Epic as a literary form appears in a variety cultures.  The Epic of Gilgamesh of Ancient Sumeria, The Mahabharata of Vedic India, The Epic of Sundiata in Mali are a few that come to mind.  Of the group, I would hazard to guess that the Homeric epics, The Iliad and The Odyssey are the most widely known in the western tradition.  Most of us educated in this tradition have either read them, read parts of them, or have encountered Homeric themes in one way or another along the way.  Many of the conventions developed regarding epic evolved out of examination of the Homeric texts, a fact which works out well for me.  The characteristic features of the epic hero are dealt with in numerous and sundry places, but The Victorian Web entry on Heroic Poetry does a nice job of summing the topic up in readable English at a single location, so all the quotes below are drawn from that synopsis.

J.R.R. Tolkien was certain to have encountered Homer in the course of his studies in English Literature and philology at Oxford, and it is not difficult to find the influence of Homeric epic in the pages of The Hobbit or The Lord of The Rings trilogy.  A simple Google search will reveal that much ink, both real and virtual has been spilled on the Homeric qualities of the Lord of the Rings cycle, and also on trying to work Bilbo Baggins’ quest into the epic form.  What I didn’t find immediately was any sign of people making the connection between Homeric heroes and Thorin Oakenshield.  (If anyone knows of such, I’d love to see it.)  At first glance, I think that there are enormous similarities, especially in Peter Jackson and Richard Armitage’s version of Thorin.

Disclaimer:  Before I continue, I’d like to note for the record that I’m neither a Tolkien scholar (The book was read to me in 2nd grade and I may have dozed through parts – don’t judge!  It was immediately after lunch recess and I was 7.  Besides, Tolkien apparently used it as a bedtime story.) or a specialist in Homeric poetry.  I’ll be referring heavily to the screen version of The Hobbit, and as for the Homeric scholars in the crowd…whatever, this is a blog, not a master’s thesis.  🙂

Thorin Oakenshield as an Epic Hero

1. “The hero is introduced in the midst of turmoil, at a point well into the story; antecedent action will be recounted in flashbacks.”

  • So far so good.  The action is well underway when Thorin enters the scene in media res preceded by an extensive flashback to the fall of Erebor (I particularly like the part where Thorin admits that he got lost on the way to Bag End…a deliberate reference to the wandering of Odysseus?  I don’t know, but I don’t find it in the original text.)
Thorin Arrives in Bag End Screen Cap from Gallika.com via The Heirs of Durin

Thorin Arrives in Bag End
Screen Cap from Gallika.com via The Heirs of Durin

2. “The hero is not only a warrior and a leader, but also a polished speaker who can address councils of chieftains or elders with eloquence and confidence.”

  • No problem – who wasn’t moved by Thorin’s speech to his assembled men, or more so as he spoke to his elder adviser Balin about “loyalty, honor and a willing heart?”
Rallying the Troops Screen Cap from Gallika.com via The Heirs of Durin

Rallying the Troops
Screen Cap from Gallika.com via The Heirs of Durin

"Loyalty, honor and a willing heart..." Screen Cap from Gallika.com via The Heirs of Durin

“Loyalty, honor and a willing heart…”
Screen Cap from Gallika.com via The Heirs of Durin

3. “The hero, often a demi-god, possesses distinctive weapons of great size and power, often heirlooms or presents from the gods.”

  • Thorin is not divine, but he is royal, and he does acquire a particularly special weapon in Orcrist which seems to fit the Homeric bill.  (prior to this is another flashback – this one to the battle with the Orcs where Thorin gained his epithet “Oakenshield”)
Discovery of Orcrist Screen Cap from Gallika.com via The Heirs of Durin

Discovery of Orcrist
Screen Cap from Gallika.com via The Heirs of Durin

4. “The hero must undertake a long, perilous journey, often involving a descent into the Underworld (Greek, “Neukeia“), which tests his endurance, courage, and cunning.”

  • Though not strictly an “Underworld” in the sense that Homer intended, the Goblin kingdom is certainly evocative of a lot of the qualities that we might attribute to a “hellish” place.
The Goblin Kingdom Screen cap from Gallika.com via The Heirs of Durin

The Goblin Kingdom
Screen cap from Gallika.com via The Heirs of Durin

5. “Although his fellows may be great warriors (like Achilles and Beowulf, he may have a commitatus, or group of noble followers with whom he grew up), he undertakes a task that no one else dare attempt.”

  • I am sure that there will be many more of these episodes in the 2nd and 3rd films, but Thorin’s heroic rescue of Bilbo from the side of the cliff during the Battle of the Stone giants is a decent example of his willingness to go over and above what others might do.
Thorin to the rescue... Screen cap from Gallika.com via The Heirs of Durin

Thorin to the rescue…
Screen cap from Gallika.com via The Heirs of Durin

6. “Whatever virtues his race most prizes, these the epic hero as a cultural exemplar possesses in abundance. His key quality is often emphasized by his stock epithet: “Resourceful Odysseus,” “swift-footed Achilles,” “pious AEneas.””

  • “Oakenshield” does not simply represent Thorin’s shield, but his character.  Oak is renowned for being hard and unyielding, able to sustain enormous winds and still stand…all virtues to be valued in a dwarf, especially a dwarf king.
The Oakenshield Screen cap from Gallika.com via The Heirs of Durin

The Oakenshield
Screen cap from Gallika.com via The Heirs of Durin

7. The concept of arete (Greek for “bringing virtue to perfection”) is crucial to understanding the epic protagonist.

  • This is a perennial issue for the ancient Greeks, the quest for excellence or arete…Thorin possesses this drive for excellence in spades, but he also suffers from the dangerous side effect…excessive pride, or hubris which led many a would be hero to his doom.  Thorin’s arete is visible throughout the film, but I think the most telling scene of his potential for hubris is the period in Rivendell when his pride threatens the whole quest.
Thorin beats back hubris for the good of the quest Screen cap from Gallika.com via The Heirs of Durin

Thorin beats back hubris for the good of the quest
Screen cap from Gallika.com via The Heirs of Durin

8. “The hero establishes his aristeia (nobility) through single combat in superari a superiore, honor coming from being vanquished by a superior foe. That is, a hero gains little honor by slaying a lesser mortal, but only by challenging heroes like himself or adversaries of superhuman power.”

9. “The two great epic adversaries, the hero and his antagonist, meet at the climax, which must be delayed as long as possible to sustain maximum interest. One such device for delaying this confrontation is the nephelistic rescue (utilized by Homer to rescue Paris from almost certain death and defeat at the hands of Menelaus in the Iliad).”

10. “The hero’s epic adversary is often a “god-despiser,” one who has more respect for his own mental and physical abilities than for the power of the gods. The adversary might also be a good man sponsored by lesser deities, or one whom the gods desert at a crucial moment.”

  • Not too hard to see where I’m going here I expect.  The final battle of The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey is rife with Homeric symbolism.  It is certainly not un-Homeric that Thorin is defeated by Azog, but still lives to fight another day.  In fact, far from undermining his heroic nature, that he survived a battle with a much superior opponent enhances his heroism.
Thorin in the grip of Azog Screen cap from Gallika.com via The Heirs of Durin

Thorin in the grip of Azog
Screen cap from Gallika.com via The Heirs of Durin

11. “The hero may encounter a numinous phenomenon (a place or person having a divine or supernatural force) such as a haunted wood or enchanting sorceress that he most use strength, cunning, and divine assistance to overcome.”

  • The film has not reached this point, but the challenges in Mirkwood and those posed by Thranduil or especially Smaug seem to satisfy this criteria as well

Even just this cursory glance through the The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey has provided us with ample indication that there is definitely a Homeric quality to the characterization of Thorin Oakenshield.  I’m not so far gone as to argue that Richard Armitage is a hero along Homeric lines, but he sure does play one well at work!

Stay tuned for future installment:  Who’s Thorin:  Achilles or Odysseus?

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23 comments on “J.R.R. Tolkien, Peter Jackson, Richard Armitage and…epic heroes?

  1. Leigh says:

    Wow. Great analysis, Obscura. I felt that Thorin had more in common with the Homeric tradition than with the Teutonic and Norse mythology. Achilles or Odysseus, that’s an interesting question. My bet is on Odysseus, a risk taker but a leader, but I’m curious to read the next installment.

    • obscura says:

      Oh good…I didn’t scare everyone away 🙂 I don’t know a whole lot about either Norse or Teutonic myth (so my son reminds me regularly), but I didn’t have to work very hard to fit Thorin very handily into the Homeric model. I’m biased, but as far as epic quests go, Thorin seems to trump Bilbo. (I have put on my Tolkien flak jacket to deflect the missiles that are coming my way) Another interesting thing that people have pointed to is that Thorin comes across as sort of a jerk – of course he does…this only makes him all the more epic in character!

      • Leigh says:

        “Jerk”, huh? Have these people read Homer? Harumph. Achilles is a total jerk. And if you want real jerks, try the Nibelungenlied.

        Bilbo does not fit the heroic mold at all, in my way of thinking. I look at Campbell’s “Hero With a Thousand Faces” and Thorin fits; Bilbo doesn’t.

        • obscura says:

          I’ve read a lot of that sort of comment in the AO3 postings…either trying to rationalize why Thorin appears to be such a “douche” or running with the irascibility quotient. I think it says more about what contemporary society wants in a hero…the kind of Lancelot, but without the mortal sin of banging the wife of one’s liege lord! – everyone conveniently forgets that part. Achilles is the quintessential epic hero, but I doubt he was very good company – even Odysseus was frequently a jerk by modern standards (laying into his long suffering wife after he’d just been lolling around at “Club Med” with a girl young enough to be his daughter…)

          • Leigh says:

            It’s true that the cultural expectations of the hero have changed over history. Odysseus is a jerk, but a sneaky, successful jerk, so the Hellenes thought he was just fine. Thorin is a hero in that he faces the terrifying quest without illusions. He knows that only he and his company can hope to regain their homeland, so he takes the responsibility of leadership, aware of the risks. This is not the kind of awareness we see in other heroic figures from the past.

          • obscura says:

            Yep – cultural context is key. I have never gotten that Homeric heroes cared much about collateral damage, but Thorin does (even if he is doubts his ability to prevent it) While it is not hard to see the epic quality, it is also impossible to miss a sort of Christian ideal of nobility of character in Thorin that I think is underscored in RA’s approach to him.

  2. guylty says:

    This, Obscura, is absolutely brilliant. It is clear to me now from your analysis that The Hobbit is an exemplary homeric epos. Well, or rather, Thorin is a homeric hero. I am no Tolkien scholar, either, but I agree with you that Tolkien must have planned his book deliberately like this. It is just too obvious.
    I laughed out loud at you drawing a parallel between the Odyssee and Thorin getting lost. I feel placated that Thorin can have such a bad sense of orientation and *still* feel the confidence to attempt his quest. After all, Odysseus spent decades wandering the Aegeis *haha*.
    A little addendum in reference to point 3 – the hero often being a demi-God. I am reminded of early medieval society, where the royal bloodlines always validates itself by claiming to be descendent from God. They are human, but directly related to God, they rule because of God and they are divine in their decisions… Interestingly, the divine power is also symbolised by their long hair – to divest a early medieval king of power, they cut off his hair. I am thinking of Thorin’s long flowing locks – definitely not a coincidence that he and his nephews are the only ones with long hair like that…
    Looking forward to your next instalment.

    • obscura says:

      The epic quality of Thorin is so clearly apparent in the film, it can’t be accidental on the part of the screen writers. I really didn’t take the time to fully examine the thematic leanings of the original text versus the screenplay, but I haven’t heard a major outcry from the Tolkien camp that Jackson took it too far past the original, so I don’t think I’m taking too big of a leap to assume that these elements are present in the original, if not as developed.

      Thanks for the info on pt 3 – this does rather resemble medieval-ish society, so one could certainly read that divinity of royalty element in Thorin. That whole hair thing must hearken back to biblical Sampson yes?

      • guylty says:

        Not sure about the biblical reference. *Serveeeeeeeeeetuuuuuuuuuuuus*!!!!!!!!!!!!! Need your help here. (My historical scholarship is all a bit rusty 😉 )
        As regards the epic quality in the film – it is overemphasised in the film in comparison to the book, I think, but heck, Thorin makes a brilliant figurehead (not to mention a babe-magnet). And he is an interesting co-hero to Bilbo’s anti-hero. I personally think that the introduction of Thorin as such a strong heroic figure in the film has enhanced the story. If I remember correctly, Tolkien was not overly fond of his own dwarf creations, or the race of the dwarfs as such. Unfairly, I think, as they possess qualities that are certainly positive (and needed in the progression of the epic quest in both book and film).

        • obscura says:

          That is the beauty of an “adaptation” isn’t it 🙂 I’m not a literary purist, (fine, I haven’t read the book in decades and I don’t remember the details) so I don’t really mind the changes in emphasis – what makes a book great does not necessarily translate 1:1 on film IMHO…

          • guylty says:

            Yes, they are two things. I tend to be one of those “literal” people, but I have to admit that sometimes adaptations are better than the original. Open mind, I guess.

          • obscura says:

            It really depends doesn’t it? I think a lot of it depends on the intent of the screenwriter…it seems to me that the Jackson et al’s intention with TH was to stay true to the overall theme of the original while enhancing some elements in it’s translation to film. In the other direction, look at the screen adaptation of Homer’s Iliad in the 2004 film Troy – train wreck! It turns the tale of the “anger of Achilles” into a soppy love story – blech. One can “adapt” without wholesale changing the entire basis of the original text, but not all do 😉

            BTW…Did you get the “present” I emailed you? 🙂

          • guylty says:

            Oh my – just only checked mail. I am ROFLMFAO. The clothes. The hair. The music… Mind you – the brown leather jacket actually makes an appearance, as does RA’s hairstyle, although in blond incarnation on David Soul’s head. Have you noticed. Oh Cod, obscura – you have given me a proper bit of joy right now – so much so, that I have all but forgotten what deep, intellectual reply I had in store for you re. adaptation… Probably along the lines of “I agree with you, obscura”. You have said it better than I could. – I never watched Troy, btw – I think I was put off by the big names in it. Is that the one with Brad Pitt as Achilles? Hollywood just doesn’t seem to get the classic stuff right – I only say “Cleopatra” *muhahaha*.
            Bless again for sending that clip – a total mood enhancer! xxx

          • obscura says:

            Oh, I noticed 😀 …it was a must share! David Soul…he made my 10 year old heart go pitter pat! It is the Brad Pitt version I’m talking about…I would agree that Hollywood has a tendency to mangle the classics. “Here’s a story that people have read for 2500 years, but I think we really need to change the tone of it, it’ll be great!” Umm, nope. I don’t find an official historical advisor for the film, hmmmm…

          • guylty says:

            Re. David Soul: Oh, so you were into blondes, too? My pre-RA prey pattern was blonde men… ahem. That’s all gone. And even blonde Pitt does not gloss over the fact that Troy was one huge heap of ___ [insert expletive of choice]. It’s a great pity that they skimp on the expense for a historical advisor on such films.

          • obscura says:

            I was a waffler – I was infatuated with John Schneider in his Dukes of Hazzard days too. But I’m a total sucker for dark hair – light eyes 🙂 I think Pitt did a creditable job conveying Achilles’ arrogance, and I didn’t mind the various anachronisms throughout all that much but the last 1/3 of the film where they basically into a boy saves girls blech-fest…Maybe it’s a blessing to the professional historical community no one was formally attached – I know of at least two major motion picture period films that the historical consultants asked to have their names taken out of the credits. Film doesn’t have to slavishly follow history or literature, but if your intention is to wholesale change the tale, why not start from scratch?

          • guylty says:

            I suppose it really only is painful for the professionals whose area of expertise is somehow touched on in any film. Same with medical drama. I suspect most doctors totally cringe when they see ER and the like…

          • obscura says:

            I tend to be hypercritical of films set in my field, but I can’t seem to stay away either. 🙂 I don’t know that I’d want my name attached to some of them though. I’m kind of torn on the issue (both from a literary and historical position) On the one hand, filmakers do take liberties, but on the other hand, it is often the case that a film version exposes a topic or a book to a much wider audience, some of whom might even take the time to look into it further and find the discrepancies on their own. Six of one, half dozen of the other I guess 🙂

            Crime drama is another area that must make specialists cringe. Obscurus and I watched S1 of The Following (premiered this spring with James Purefoy and Kevin Bacon) I’m no FBI agent, but there were criminal justice procedural holes in that story line big enough to drive a black Suburban through.

          • Leigh says:

            Just as I sit through some science fiction muttering “Bad physics, bad physics…” or through certain other movies going, “Hey, wait a minute, it doesn’t work like that!” or “You can’t touch that with your bare hands, let alone effing lift it!” My initial exposure to RH had me and my girlfriend in stitches, howling and whooping at the anachronisms because both of us have done historical research into 12th century Britain. (I was surreptitiously licking my chops over Guy, but that’s another story.) I couldn’t watch “The Tudors” because it was so bad…

          • obscura says:

            I’m a total film floozy – I knew The Tudors was full of conflation and anachronism after the first episode and I watched it anyway – just for the costumes 😉 I’m gearing up to start The Borgia another sumptuous costume series 🙂

          • Leigh says:

            I think it all depends on who is doing the adapting. I liked Emma Thompson’s screenplay for “Sense and Sensibility” better tha I liked the original Austen.

          • obscura says:

            I would agree…S&S was such a beautifully crafted film all around wasn’t it?

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