Golden Boys: King Midas and Thorin Oakenshield

“It’s this attraction to gold which becomes their downfall, has always been at the back of his mind.”

 -Richard Armitage (http://collider.com/richard-armitage-the-hobbit-interview/)

The allure of gold, the danger of succumbing to greed, is a recurrent theme in many world societies, and it was certainly of interest to the ancient Greeks.  Arguably the most famous cautionary tale from Greek mythology is the story of King Midas.   As the Greeks tell the story (and a lot of them do!)  Midas was a powerful king of the kingdom of Phrygia in central Anatolia.  He was renowned for a lot of things, including wisdom and a love of the arts and literature, but it is the story of The Golden Touch that most everyone remembers.

A lot of authors tell this story and virtually all the versions start with the wanderings of the reveling followers of Dionysus, his favorite satyr friend Silenus in particular.  The revelers were travelling through Midas’ neck of the woods and Silenus was separated from the group, ending up in the famous rose gardens of Midas.

Silenus brought before the king... Source: http://www.ancient.eu.com/midas/

Silenus brought before the king…
Source: http://www.ancient.eu.com/midas/

When the drunken old satyr (half man, half goat) was apprehended and brought before the king, Midas treated him with cordiality and hospitality.  When Dionysus heard of the friendly reception that Silenus had received from Midas, he offered the king anything he wished in thanks.  Midas asked Dionysus to grant him a golden touch…that is, that everything he touched would turn to gold.

In theory, this sounds like a good idea, but in practice it turns into one of those “be careful what you wish for” scenarios.  Dionysus told Midas as much, warning him of the potential dangers of such a wish, but Midas would not be talked out of it, so the wish was granted.  Initially, Midas was ecstatic…touched a branch – Presto! – gold branch.  Touched a rock – Shazam! – er…you get the picture.  Midas made his way home, touching everything in sight as he went.  (Good thing ancient kings always traveled with large retinues – somebody had to carry all that gold!)

By the time he made it back to his palace, Midas was jubilant…and famished.  Gold making is hungry and thirsty work!  He ordered a feast to be laid out for him and quickly encountered the catch of his golden wish.  Everything he touched turned to gold…everything, including the bread he picked up to eat and the wine he tried to drink.  When he tried to sleep, his comfy bed with its sumptuous coverings, turned to cold hard gold too.  Before long, the very sight of gold was abhorrent and Midas was headed back to beg Dionysus to reverse the “gift.”

This story served two purposes for the Greeks.  It was an etiological myth that explained why gold was so plentiful in a certain river in Lydia…Dionysus instructed Midas to bathe in the river Pactolus to lose the golden touch.  It also served as yet another illustration of the Greeks’ assertion that sophrosyne was the way to go.   Midas would have been fine with a moderate gift of gold from Dionysus, but his greed in wanting it all was his undoing.

Thorin’s ability to withstand the lure of the “dragon sickness” that had consumed his grandfather is certain to be a major theme in the remaining films of The Hobbit trilogy.   Thorin is even more aware of the potential dangers than Midas.  Midas had only been warned of the threat…Thorin has seen for himself the damage that greed for gold wrought on his house.  I will be very interested to see how Richard Armitage characterizes this growing obsession in Thorin’s character….the peeks from the trailer are alluring!

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22 comments on “Golden Boys: King Midas and Thorin Oakenshield

  1. The second trailer is definitely very intriguing in that respect. After the first DoS trailer, there were numerous comments and references on Tumblr about seeing signs of the Dragon Sickness showing in Richard’s Thorin already. To be honest, I was not seeing enough of that yet just from the first trailer. But then again, there wasn’t that much there of him to go by in general – something that concerned me a bit at the time. I kept in mind it was just a teaser, and probably one of many, which is now already true. But from the second trailer, I am actually seeing the Dragon sickness in his eyes and demeanor. I am very much looking forward to seeing further how he handles that. I am very much looking forward to seeing all of it, period. 🙂

    I would be curious to know if Tolkien ever said if he was directly influenced by the King Midas fable. I think there is a version of the lesson “be careful what you wish for or desire above all else” in most every society and culture, and now The Hobbit is part of such teachings.

    • obscura says:

      I’m not sure where in the film this cap comes from, but I really liked that when I brightened the midtones up a little, there is this golden glow on Thorin’s left cheek…I’m guessing this is right outside the gold chamber? I love the imagery!

      I’m not sure how direct Tolkien’s exposure would have been, but it is very likely that he would have been quite familiar with this myth given the context of his studies at Oxford.

      It’s a very good lesson isn’t it?!

      • It is a good lesson. It is one that I would hope anyone would learn before finding out the hard way. Midas was given the opportunity to reverse it. In life, that opportunity may or may not present itself.

        I would be also fascinated to see any papers or examinations on Tolkien’s books and his own interior fabling comparative to that of ancient or longstanding fables of old, since Middle Earth is now its own mythology.

      • And the cap: Yes, it is such a good one. That glow also shows great contrast in his face – not that it is difficult to accomplish with those fine features. 🙂

    • obscura says:

      I was thinking more about this vis a vis Tolkien…although I’m sure that he would have been familiar with the Midas story, I would guess that as a Catholic he would have been much more familiar with the notion of greed in terms of the Seven Deadly Sins. Then I thought hmmm…how many of those can we find among the dwarves, or even within Thorin alone? (Lust, Gluttony, Greed, Sloth, Wrath, Envy, Pride) Fascinating really!

  2. guylty says:

    Greed – as old as humanity. I love it when the stories of old can so easily be applied to our modern afflictions.
    BTW – I find the term “dragon sickness” a bit of a misnomer. Or is it meant to imply that the dragon is a symbol for greed?

    • obscura says:

      Why are so many of the “timeless” concepts so…ah,…less than favorable?

      I think it is a reference to the fact that the dragon’s primary motivation is greed…it was Thror’s greed in accumulating all the gold that attracted the dragon to Erebor. (I could be wrong…it has been a LONG time since I read The Hobbit)

  3. I get chills down my spine every time I run the GIF of him flipping his sword and blocking Bilbo’s exit. He does it so casually and so fast. “Like no sword, boink, sword at Bilbo’s throat.” One handed no less. And those eyes. Notice how they are starting to turn in toward themselves. Scary. I think he’s going to do a very believeable “dragon-sickness Thorin.”

  4. Perry says:

    i didn’t remember that Midas got a do-over, for some reason I thought his touch turned loved ones in to gold and he starved to death. What book was I reading??
    I am curious,Obscura, about the depiction of Selenius on the vase. Nothing more than an ungoatlike tail to depict half a goat on a centaur? Not even a cloven hoof, a bit of fur?

    • obscura says:

      There are multiple versions of the story in the classical tradition, but they all seem to end more or less the same. There are also a number of modern versions of the story…you may have read a sort of “wages of sin” modern telling?

      Silenus? Yeah, this is a very weird satyr…his tail looks more horse -like than goat-like. I can’t tell…the image I have pixelates too much, but he might have pointy goat ears…but you’re right – he’s not particularly satyr-ish. *running to check the painter..*

  5. Servetus says:

    I did not know about the purposes of the tale for Greeks — I think I encountered Midas the last time when I was a freshman in college. Great post.

    • obscura says:

      Herodotus talks about this at some point and he is forever using stories of foreigners and all of their failings to highlight Greek morality 🙂

      • Servetus says:

        I’m sure Herodotus was the last time I ran into Midas. In the opening part of the Finley Ancient Greek Historians Reader. I used the book when I taught that half of western civ, too, but I always limited Herodotus as much as possible in order to make room for, well, you know who.

  6. […] Richard Armitage, Thorin Oakenshield and King Midas. […]

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