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.)
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?”
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”)
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?