19 December 2013

Thorin: A House Divided Cannot Stand

Our theme this month, characters in conflict with themselves, suits the recent movie The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug perfectly. Several of the characters have inner conflicts, but nowhere is it more visible than in Thorin's struggle to reclaim his homeland and restore his family's honor.

Tolkien wasn't just writing about fantasy characters, dragons, dwarves, and elves. While The Hobbit was, admittedly, less of an epic than The Lord of the Rings, he still saw his characters as foils for people around him and universal challenges facing humanity. In Thorin, Tolkien saw a grieving son trying to restore the honor of his family as well as his people. His grandfather had been driven mad by wealth and power and received the harshest punishment imaginable: a dragon came and destroyed his kingdom, killing hundreds and scattering his people to the winds.

At the time Tolkien wrote, the backdrop of World War I and the factors that led up to World War II informed his storytelling. He fought personally in WWI and lost comrades. More than that, he saw WWI through the lens of history and, in some ways, The Hobbitis a reflection of that – a cautionary tale for a king. Beware the lure of gold, the story says, or you may go mad and destroy your homeland.

What I find interesting about Richard Armitage’s performance is that he’s utterly at home in his character. He is Thorin, a flawed man, but a hero none-the-less – and a king. He sacrifices and does what is necessary for his peoples’ survival. But he is also grieving for his lost father, which we see more in this movie than in the first one. In the opening, he meets with Gandalf because reports of his father have surfaced and he desperately wants to find him.

In contrast, King Thranduil is an insular king, closing his borders to the outside world and refusing to aid Thorin. He is a character worth hating, a man blinded by power and prestige within his own borders and uncaring what happens outside it or how it may affect his people. He saw the ravage of the dragon, and the greed of Thorin’s father, and is unmoved to help Thorin now. He no longer has an inner conflict because he’s given up, and given in to his baser instincts where Thorin still struggles to be larger than he is.

I am looking forward to Peter Jackson and his team’s vision of the final chapter in this story. I found myself wishing that the story were longer (and the movie was nearly three hours as it was!). The portrayal of Middle Earth reflects modern life and informs it, makes it richer – and cautions us about undue greed, loyalty and power.

“It takes courage to grow up and become who you really are.”
- E.E. Cummings

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