Hair’s to you Richard Armitage! (I’m sorry – I had to do it!)

**WARNING** :  There may be an excessive number of alliterative hair descriptions below…

This week’s  “oof” installment, with it’s discussion of Thorin’s luscious locks started me thinking about hair.  Maybe it’s a holdover of my hard rock days, but I have a soft spot for long haired men – in theory at least.  There is just something wild and untamed about a man with a magnificent mane…something powerful perhaps.  There is ample indication from a variety of cultures of the significance placed on unshorn hair.  It had a variety of meanings to different people…To the Nazirites of the Hebrew Bible (most famously Samson) unshorn hair was a source of power and strength.  To the Gaelic Irish, long hair was a symbol of allegiance to Ireland as it was infiltrated by colonial forces.  To the Sikhs it represents the strength and vitality of the whole religious community.   For many cultures hair can be a  “crowning glory” or when shorn, an indication of abject humiliation and scorn.

Although long hair seems to have been common for men in earlier periods of Greek history, after the 6th century BC there are clear indications that shorter hair became much more customary. (the Spartans being the exception to the rule.)  It’s not surprising that the increasingly militaristic nature of Greek culture in the 6th and 5th centuries BC would produce a trend toward shorter male hair…long hair must have been a decided disadvantage on the battlefield.  I’ve always been intrigued by some of the characterizations of the Persians as being overly coiffured and perfumed…for the 5th century Greeks this effeminate characterization of a feared and hated enemy was empowering.   While there are some Greeks who are represented as long haired in this period, the character who most regularly sports long, luxurious tresses is the god Dionysus.  This is doubly interesting to me since Dionysus is one of the gods in the Greek pantheon whose origins are not exactly clear.  There are several conflicting birth stories, and a lot of other stories that suggest at least some degree of connection between this deity and the exotic  East. (the Persians fall into that category as well…the Greeks were at once intrigued and repulsed by various elements of eastern cultures)

Dionysus and a satyr Source: http://www.theoi.com/Gallery/K12.3.html

Dionysus and a satyr
Source: http://www.theoi.com/Gallery/K12.3.html

Dionysus by Kleophrades Painter Source?  pantherfile.uwm.edu

Dionysus by Kleophrades Painter
Source: http://www.pantherfile.uwm.edu

A relative latecomer into the pantheon, Dionysus was established as the youngest of the Olympian gods.  He is associated with the theater, but particularly with wine and reveling.  The vase paintings above show us the typical look of Dionysus.  He is most often depicted wearing elaborate Eastern Greek style robes and is often found in the company of satyrs and maenads.  One other main attribute of Dionysus is his elaborately styled curls and beard.   “Back in the day”  I used to pay big money and sit in the stylist’s chair for hours to achieve the kind of spiral curls that Dionysus wears.  Take a close look at his beard and you will see that some artistry has been applied there as well, to articulate the edges into individual curls.  Dionysus’ whole look is something that would have been a bit suspect to the average Greek, who after the Persian Wars, was inherently suspicious of things with an eastern tang.  The cult of Dionysus was at once a mainstream part of Greek polytheism, and also on the fringe.  There were ecstatic and orgiastic qualities of the cult practice that made more than a few Greeks uneasy…one only needs to read Euripides’ The Bachhae to witness what the cult of Dionysus might get up to.   For Dionysus, long curling locks represented an exotic, mysterious nature.

Love it or hate it, it seems that long hair on men is here to stay (My son is currently sporting a look that is somewhere between Dionysus and Shaggy -*sigh*  there are much bigger battles to be won!)  I love Richard Armitage and his most common close cropped style, but I have to say, the man can certainly rock the wigs and hair extensions…

Whether it is as Sir Guy of Greasy Locks….boozy and tormented in Robin Hood S3 Episode 1…

Sir Greasy...*ahem* I mean Sir Guy Source:  www.richardarmitagenet.com

Sir Greasy…*ahem* I mean Sir Guy
Source: http://www.richardarmitagenet.com

Or a gloriously coiffured Sir Guy returned and ready for action after a trip to Price John’s personal stylist in S3 Epidsode 5…

Sir Guy of Gorgeous... Source:  www.richardarmitagenet.com

Sir Guy of Gorgeous…
Source: http://www.richardarmitagenet.com

Or Thorin in the moonlight remembering a painful past…

Remembering past battles... Source:  www.richardarmitagenet.com

Remembering past battles…
Source: http://www.richardarmitagenet.com

Or Thorin preparing for yet another fight….

Thorin bracing for a threat... Source:  www.richardarmitagenet.com

Thorin bracing for a threat…
Source: http://www.richardarmitagenet.com

Or Thorin…who am I kidding?!  There are just way too many examples of Thorin’s uncrowned glory – and with two films still to come – the mind boggles!  Suffice it to say that Richard Armitage can hair act with the best of them!!

Richard Armitage and Achilles – tRAgic lovers

There are a multitude of stories about the Greek hero Achilles…Homer’s epic poem The Iliad , focuses on Achilles’ rage at being thwarted by the expedition commander Agamemnon.  Achilles’ reputation was that of the greatest of the Greek warriors assembled before the walls of Troy but I don’t want to talk about Achilles the warrior today.   I’ve been thumbing through images of Achilles lately an came across one that refers to one of the few “romantic” stories in his mythology.

This part of Achilles’ story is set shortly after the action of The Iliad, when Achilles  has rejoined the Greeks in battling the Trojans.  Penthesilea (Pen-theh-si-lay-uh) was the queen of the Amazons, a mythical tribe of warrior women who lived on the fringe of Greek society.   Penthesilea was crippled by grief after accidentally killing her sister in a hunting accident. (is there no end of tragedy for these mythological characters?)  She agreed to fight with the Trojans against the Greeks because it offered her the opportunity to end her misery by dying an honorable warrior’s death – a requirement of an Amazonian queen.  There are several variations of the story, but in all of them, Penthesilea and Achilles meet on the battlefield, and powerful as she is, she is no match for Achilles who deals her a fatal blow.

Penthesilea1

Penthesilea dies in Achilles arms
Cup from Vulci, around 460 BC
Munich / Germany, Antikensammlungen 2688.
Source: Wikimedia Commons

One way or another, Penthesilea’s ends up in Achilles arms as she dies.  Several versions recount that their eyes meet and they fall instantly in love just as she dies.

Achilles and Penthesilea - The Look of Love Detail of image above

Achilles and Penthesilea – The Look of Love
Detail of image above

In the detailed image above we can see this moment depicted…damage to the vase obscures Achilles slightly, but one can still make out the connected gaze between the two figures as Achilles drives his sword home just below Penthesilea’s chin.  This is among my top ten most evocative moments in Greek myth and it is incredibly similar to a scene between Richard Armitage as Guy of Gisborne and Lucy Griffiths as Maid Marian in Robin Hood – the infamous death scene of course.

Death of Marian Robin Hood S2.12 Screen Cap courtesy of www.richardarmitagenet.com

Death of Marian
Robin Hood S2.12
Screen Cap courtesy of http://www.richardarmitagenet.com

Only seconds after he’s stabbed her, Guy supports Marian’s dying weight as she looks up and their eyes meet.  According to Robin Hood’s writers the emotion of the scene is vastly different, at least from Marian’s point of view, but the composition is eerily similar.

Richard Armitage is famously quiet regarding his personal life, (which is fine by me) but I don’t think I’m speculating too wildly to suppose that he couldn’t possibly be as tRAgic in love as either Achilles or Guy… especially since ending love affairs at sword point is highly frowned upon these days.  Here’s hoping for a much less classical ending for him in real life!

Neutrality and Richard Armitage: It’s all a matter of source.

One thing I struggle with as a fan of Richard Armitage is the temptation to take all the source material that emerges about him at face value.  It’s hard not to do when some completely charming new interview or article is released.  I want to believe that every bit of it is a true, unbiased account of this man who fascinates me.  I want to, and I probably do for a minute, but, as a scholar, I’ve been relentlessly drilled on the reality that NO source is completely unbiased or neutral, so I have to step back and consider the source.   There was a really interesting discussion about this concept this week  in Armitageworld, on a non-RA topic (gasp) that brought this issue back to the surface for me.

In studies of the ancient world, neutrality is an elusive thing.  Perhaps the most neutral source I’ve studied is material that I’ve pulled from the ground myself.  Material that has not seen the light of day in almost 3000 years.  It has no voice, it carries no inherent bias, it just is.  The attachment of bias begins pretty quickly though as I look at it and form an opinion as to what it is…which basket it belongs in – pottery?  bone?  stone?  metal?  It goes on from there, acquiring the opinions of all the scholars before me who have studied similar material.  See what I mean about the elusive nature of neutrality?

It is much more difficult to find an neutral written account of the ancient world.  Even in the modern world when news agencies carry taglines like “Fair and Balanced”  a wise consumer should know that this is only marketing – every source carries at least some bias.  I have a favorite example that I use to illustrate this to my students which I think makes the point well:  the word TYRANT

dictionary.com entry for TYRANT

dictionary.com entry for TYRANT

Most English speakers are aware that this word carries a negative connotation in English.  Few contemporary rulers would find it a compliment to be referred to as a tyrant.  Looking above at the etymology, or origin of the word, we can see that it originates in the Greek word τύραννος (tyrannos).  Consulting the Liddell and Scott Greek-English Lexicon.   That’s by far the most famous and often employed Ancient Greek to English dictionary…mine is a Middle Liddell…as opposed to the pocket version Little Liddell or the “only libraries have space for this”  Great Scott.  (I am not unaware that it is more than a little funny that classicists name their dictionaries…I’d like to note, for the record, that I’m an archaeologist 🙂 – I named my trowel)  Sorry, I got distracted – my more observant students notice this happens often and find ways to cultivate it .  Back to the matter at hand:

τύραννος…according to Liddell and Scott, prior to the 6th century BC,  meant “an absolute sovereign unlimited by constitution.”   This definition will probably throw up a lot of red flags for a modern audience accustomed to a larger degree of participation in elected, constitutional governments, but for the vast majority of ancient Greeks, the “unlimited by constitution” part wasn’t particularly problematic.  It all comes down to who wrote the constitutions and who they protected really.  I’ll come back to that idea later, but first I’d like to illustrate one of the reasons why τύραννος became a nasty word for the Greeks and came into English as such.

In large part, this is due to the rule of two generations of tyrants in 6th century Athens known as the Pisistratids.  When Pisistratus seized power in the 6th century, he was a tyrant by Greek definition since he had no constitutional authority to rule Athens.  Even so, he was tremendously popular with the majority of the population…that is, the common people.  In general, he was a capable and qualified ruler who made a multitude of changes to the Athenian state and economy that primarily benefited the common people, but often at the expense of the elites, making him wild popular with one group and increasingly hated by the other.  Athens flourished under his rule.   As is often the case in history though, the seduction of establishing a family dynasty was powerful, and when he died, Pististratus “left” the control of Athens to his two sons (Hippias and Hipparchus) which started out well enough, but went south quickly.  In a weird sequence of events related to a love triangle, Hipparchus was assassinated, and after his death, Hippias began to act much more like the modern definition of a tyrant, leading to his eventual exile and the foundation of the famous Athenian democracy at the end of the 6th century.   In the following years, the murderers of Hipparchus, Harmodios and Aristogeiton were held up as symbols of the new Athenian democracy, having defeated the evil of tyranny (leaving out the fact that they had killed Hipparchus for personal, not political reasons).

Harmodius_and_Aristogeiton

Statue of Harmodius and Aristogeiton, Naples. Roman copy of the Athenian version by Kritios and Nesiotes
Source: Wikimedia Commons

So there’s the backstory, but how did the word tyrant become so universally understood as a negative term?  How did a few bad decisions by his son wipe out all of the progressive changes made by Pisistratus?  It becomes a matter of the source of the accounts…that is, who recorded these events?  By and far, the history of the ancient world was recorded by educated elites – in this case, the very same educated elites whose power and wealth had been systematically attacked by Pisistratus, and later his sons.  These same elites wrote the constitution of Athens (which benefited them over the common people) that Pisistratus had violated to seize power.  Despite the notion of a democracy in Athens, functionally, the wealthy elites still dominated it, in the early stages especially.  Pististratus and his sons became the fall guys of tyranny, Harmodious and Aristegeiton, the martyred heroes of democracy.   Considering those sources,  it is any wonder that the word tyrant carries a negative slant?  There is really no such thing as a neutral source of this event.  Even the most even handed ancient historian, Thucydides, himself a landed and wealthy citizen of Athens, carried bias.

To approach neutrality, I think we have to be willing to look beyond what is written, to read between the lines.  For me, this is much harder to do when it comes to accounts on Richard Armitage.  I have a much more emotional reaction to him that seriously impacts my immediate ability to be critical of what is written.

yet another ascroft

Yet another Robert Ascroft
Source: http://www.richardarmitagenet.com

Just look at him for goodness sake!  How’s a girl supposed to remain neutral!?

Richard Armitage and the classical canon of sculptuRAl proportions

I’ve been hemming and hawing about this post for about a month now, fiddling around with the drawings, checking, double checking, but I finally finished it today while I should have been doing other things…funny how that works in Armitageworld isn’t it?  Before you read further, remember what I said here about my thoughts on artistic nudity:  Enter at your own risk 🙂

The classical Greeks were very interested in proportion and formulas for creating it.  This desire to “regularize” is especially prominent in architecture and sculpture, and it reflects a lot of information about what the Greeks found visually appealing, their visual aesthetic.  If we had only sculptures to go by, we would have to assume that the population of ancient Greece was a median age of about 23 and in peak physical condition. That was certainly not the case.  Classical sculpture was not trying to replicate reality, but rather to create an ideal, portraying perfected people.

In order to do this, classical sculptors developed complicated formulas of proportions, canons, that divided the body into component parts, each pieces of the whole, proportionately and symmetrically connected to one another.  The idea was that if the sculptor followed the proportional model, no matter what the scale (size) of the sculpture was, it would fit the ideal of what the Greeks found visually appealing.    There are basically two competing canons of proportion:  the original, developed by Polykleitos in the 5th and early 4th centuries BC and then another developed later in the 4th century by Lysippos.  Looking at the image below, we can see the differences in proportion between each sculpture.  The Doryphoros (Spear Bearer) on the left is thought to represent the canon of Polykleitos.  On the right, the Apoxymenos (The Scraper) represents the same for Lysippos.

Comapring the Canons of Polykleitos and Lysippos  (https://sites.google.com/site/pistasdeplastica/3o-eso/canon)

Comapring the Canons of Polykleitos and Lysippos (https://sites.google.com/site/pistasdeplastica/3o-eso/canon)

In detail, the formulas are extremely complex, extending all the way to the length of the digits in proportion to the size of the hand, but in terms of the overall height and basic proportion of the body as a whole, the formula is relatively simple…for Polykleitos, the head is 1/7 the the overall height of the body, for Lysippos, 1/8.  The result is clear…the Polykleitan ideal is compact and solid, the Lysippan rather longer and leaner.  Since I have a rather pronounced interest in all things Richard Armitage, I wondered how he measures up to the classical ideal. Before I go further I should point out that I can only come to very general conclusions for a couple of reasons.  First, since I’m working from photographs, and photographs of a fully clothed Richard Armitage at that, I have to guess-ti-mate A LOT.  And, more importantly, what we know about the details of either canon is compromised by a lack of preservation of the original materials.

When it comes to much of classical Greek sculpture, there are really two broad categories:  Lost Original and Roman Copy, which are actually two sides of the same coin.  Both Polykleitos and Lysippos were prolific sculptors, but very little of the original work of either artist has survived.  Except for a few notable examples, the greatest number of “Greek” sculptures that survive are actually Roman copies of a lost original work.  The Romans were competant copyists, but there is a strong probablity that some (many)  elements of the originals were “lost in translation.”  Even so, we can still take a look at a basic proportional comparison.

The image below shows a full length shot copied onto graph paper, on which I can make out (or at least fudge) some critical measurement points.  The place we have to start is measuring the head to set up the unit of measure.  From the hairline to the jaw, the head measures 5  blocks on the graph paper – this is the basic unit of measure to divide the body parts.  The solid lines indicate the canonical divisions:  1/7 divisions as determined by Polykleitos (left), 1/8 by Lysippos (right).  The dashed lines represent where those divisional lines should fall if the body fits into the canons.  Looking at even this very provisional scheme, I came away with a couple of conclusions:

canon

Click to enlarge for details…such as they are
(we’re working on a shoestring budget here!)
Original Photo Source: http://www.richardarmitagenet.com

1.  Richard Armitage, by classical standards, has a disproportionately large head.   (big head, big brain right 🙂 ). This actually seems to be a desirable trait for film actors since larger heads photograph better.   Unlike many of his colleagues, Mr. Armitage also has a body size that is proportionate to his head…hurray, no bobble head look here!

2.  That head factor skews the other measurements a bit.

3.  All is not lost.

It is clear to me from my extremely “scientific” analysis, that if we make a correction for the size of the head, Richard Armitage fits better into the Lysippan canon than the Polykleitan since he is generally longer and leaner in proportion.  Even so, there is a fair amount of difference.  As a test, I used this same canon system on Daniel Craig, who exhibits rather more traditional male proportions.  He conformed more to canon, but still not perfectly.

Doryphoros/Thutmose III/Apoxymenos Source:  Wikimedia Commons

Doryphoros/Thutmose III/Apoxymenos
Source: Wikimedia Commons

What becomes evident is that these proportions do not correspond to actual humans, but rather to a mathematical ideal of what the Greeks found pleasing to the eye.  Although the Doryphoros and the Apoxymenos appear much more realistic than say, a typical example of Egyptian sculpture (in the image above, the Egyptian piece is clearly meant to represent a human form, but it is much more stiff and stylized than either of the Greek works.) they are not really representative of an actual human body.

As a whole, we have not changed very much over the 2500 years since these canons were conceived in terms of the desire for idealized forms.   Our eyes are constantly being tricked into believing that the human forms we see in the media are perfect.  What we find if we look closer however,  is that they are not perfect, but instead have been “perfected.”  Many people argue that this trend toward over manipulating images has produced a warped notion of an ideal body for generations of people, particularly women.    While it is unlikely that any professional images shot of Richard Armitage reach the public eye completely UN-retouched, I gather from various conversations that the general consensus is that he requires little or no retouching.  I tend to agree – the great attraction of Richard Armitage to me is the sum of “imperfections” that result in a beautiful, REAL man.

Oh, I almost forgot…on one front (or back I guess) Richard Armitage has a lot in common with Greek sculpture….

One of these things is not quite the same...

One of these things is not quite the same…

With the exception of not having a tree trunk sticking out of the back of his leg, he could be a butt/bum model for classical male nudes!   (Thanks to my enabler Servetus for the screen cap from Spooks S8.4)

Richard Armitage and the Quest for Arete: Hubris or Sophrosyne?

I’ve been thinking a lot about Richard Armitage lately…I know, shocking revelation right?!  Specifically, I’ve been thinking about him in the context of several ideas that were first articulated to me in the spring of 1988, though they were active long before that in my life.  I was completing my sophomore year in college and was being inducted into the Phi Beta Kappa Society chapter at my university.  I don’t remember a lot of the events – I do remember that I was  proud to be one of the youngest students being inducted (thanks to high school classes in Latin and English which had been accepted for university credit.)  I’m a lifelong academic nerd – what can I say?   I wouldn’t be able to identify the keynote  speaker if my life depended on it, with the exception of recalling that she was a she, but I have never forgotten the gist of her message.  She talked to us about the ancient Greek concepts of Areté  (ἀρετή) and Hubris (ὕβρις).   Her premise was that the quest for areté, defined as excellence, or being the best that you can be, was central not only to the Greeks, but was still at play in the contemporary world.  We should all strive to do the best we can at whatever task is in front of us…excellence is often it’s own reward, she argued.  The problem is, she went on, that the downside to those who achieve areté is a potential for hubris, excessive pride or arrogance.  In English idiom, hubris is perhaps best captured in the warning, “pride goeth before a fall.”   Although I seriously doubt my 19 year old brain put it together at the time, she was clearly congratulating us for our achievement, encouraging us to continue striving for areté, but at the same time,  cautioning us against the dangers of hubris.

This balancing act between the quest for areté and the avoidance of hubris was a defining ideal for the ancient Greeks on a day to day basis.  Numerous Greek authors mention a concept known as the Golden Mean, but I think my favorite discussion of this idea appears in the Niomachaean Ethics by Aristotle where he talks about the need to achieve balance in all things.  Aristotle argues that either too much or too little of anything is bad.  For instance, too little bravery leads to  cowardice, too much bravery to recklessness.  The best place to be is at a balance between the extremes.  To the Greeks, this balance was summed up in the word σωφροσύνη (sophrosyne – so-fro-soo-nee in English).

Greek myth is littered with cautionary tales of humans whose hubris was so great that it offended the gods.  I told you the story of Niobe’s hubris last week, but she was certainly not alone in myth.   Characters like Actaeon, Pasiphae, Daedalus and Icarus and Phaethon also suffered for their hubris.   On a daily basis though,  hubris was a human failing that affected not the gods, but other humans.  I doubt that I am alone in occasionally wishing comeuppance on some particularly arrogant person who crosses my path.  As it happens, the Greeks had a goddess for that!  The job of the goddess Nemesis was to deliver divine retribution, literally, “to deliver what was due” to humans.  Those who practiced sophrosyne had nothing to fear from Nemesis, but there was no escaping her if one was hubristic.

Nemesis, Roman marble from Egypt, 2nd century AD (Louvre)  Source:  Wikimedia Commons

Nemesis, Roman marble from Egypt, 2nd century AD (Louvre)
Source: Wikimedia Commons

It is clear to me that Richard Armitage is constantly striving for areté.  From the remarks that he has made himself, to the comments made by his past and current colleagues, his commitment to achieving excellence in his craft is notable.  It is something that has drawn and held the attention of many a fan over the years.  Hubris?   I don’t think Richard Armitage has much to fear from Nemesis on this score.  He seems to embrace the concept of sophrosyne –temperance, moderation – in his approach to the accolades that have come his way….if anything, he may lean to the modesty side a bit too  much sometimes.

Source:  the-hobbit.tumblr.com

Source: the-hobbit.tumblr.com

I mean seriously, who could accuse this guy of hubris?!

ὅ παῖς καλός – Richard Armitage and the Fountain of Youth

Robert Ascroft released two new images of Richard Armitage this week that have generated a quite a lot of discussion and I’m happy to jump on the band wagon with a καλός offering.

The ancient Greeks valued youth and youthful vitality enormously, so much so that they personified the idea of youth in a goddess named Hebe ( Ἥβη).  A fairly minor player in Greek mythology,  Hebe was  the daughter of Zeus and Hera, the king and queen of the Greek pantheon.  Her principle role, until she was married to the deified hero Herakles, was as a cupbearer who served ambrosia and nectar to the other gods on Mount Olympus .  Hebe also had the ability to bestow eternal youth and to make the old young again

Hebe serving ambrosia and nectar to Hera Photo:  www.theoi.com

Hebe serving ambrosia and nectar to Hera
Photo: http://www.theoi.com

The pursuit of youth is certainly not unique to the Greeks.  Several lines of discussion on blogs this week addressed how youthful Richard Armitage appears in the image below.  I’ll allow that some of the youthfulness may be courtesy of Photoshop or other photographic “magic”, but the whole tone of the shot conveys an idea of youthful vim from the perch on a narrow seat to the untucked tee and unlaced Converse sneakers.

Picture of youthful vitality Photo by Robert Ascroft Courtesy of richardarmitagenet.com

Picture of youthful vitality
Photo by Robert Ascroft
Courtesy of richardarmitagenet.com

Youthfulness seems to be an element of life that we all wish to maintain in some shape or form.  In part, I think, youth is a state of mind.  I have known people who were “middle aged” in their twenties, but I have an 81 year young friend at church who yesterday expressed an interest in joining a laser tag outing.   I’m not surprised that Richard Armitage is able to convey a look that belies his actual years, even without sipping from Hebe’s nectar cup.  He’s admitted in past interviews to thinking of himself as younger than he is.  He’s also made no secret that he enjoys an active lifestyle and he’s pretty clearly physically fit.  All of the above speak of a youthful attitude inside that shows through.   In an industry where youth seems to be something of an obsession, I think he’s looking pretty good – ὅ παῖς καλός!

PS:  try scrolling up on this image slowly from bottom to top…I really like the impact!

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?