Tolkien’s Antithetical Heroes: Thorin Oakenshield & Boromir of Gondor

Many fans of Tolkien’s works have noted certain similarities that exist between two heroes that inhabit the mythological realm of Middle Earth. Thorin Oakenshield, King of the Dwarves, and Boromir, future Steward of Gondor, share some characteristics, to be sure. They are both noted for their prowess on a battlefield, for their ability to garner the loyalty of their followers, for their belief in the worthiness of their own people, and for their ardent, bullheaded sense of pride. However, these two warriors differ in the most decisive way.  One was esteemed by the writer for his magisterial qualities. The other, was derided for his lack of abstemiousness when it counted the most.

Thorin Oakenshield was born to rule. He was a prince descended from a long line of kings. In medieval society, monarchs were divine. They were not like everyone else. By rights, they were obeyed in all matters. By provenance, they were worthy of such veneration. Tolkien observed these ethical codes when writing all of his Middle Earth series. The Dwarf King was ordained by God to take his rightful place as commander of his people.  He would naturally be imbued with the majestic qualities of strength, morality, pride, equitability and a conquering spirit.

When Thorin is faced with the seemingly insurmountable task of reclaiming his homeland, he strides onward with the imperial bearing expected of him.  Not for a moment’s respite, does the warrior shrink from his destiny. He is the son of Thrain, the son of Thror, and he must redeem the line of kings. He is fighting for what is rightfully his to fight for. The treasure (particularly the Arkenstone) belongs to his house. The city of Erebor belongs to his kin. It is an ordinance of predestination. To die in the process is commendable. To succeed is prodigious.

Boromir, on the other hand, is not of the Gondorian royal house. While being of Numenorean blood, he is of the line of stewards instead. When this line was created, it was forbidden for any of royal blood to be of its ranks.  The stewards were there to serve their lord as high chancellors, and in time of need, to rule in their stead. Denethor II, Boromir’s father, ruled Gondor for all of his son’s life. A haughty man who was consumed with power, he behaved more like a monarch than a loyal servant. Boromir resembled his father in many ways. He came to believe that his own line had as much merit as the sovereign house itself.  He is reticent, at best, to accept the true heir, Aragorn, when he reemerges at long last. This unnatural superiority complex was something that Tolkien decried.  To usurp another’s rightful place in the order of things can have far reaching and unforeseen consequences.  Boromir’s arrogance is of a disdainful sort that breeds malcontent and trouble for those on the quest to destroy the One Ring of Power.

Boromir has pride in his people. He is a mighty warrior who inspires those that serve him. There is no doubt that he wants to restore the glory of his once mighty kingdom to its full splendor. However, he goes about it in all the wrong ways. The dream of the One Ring comes, not to Boromir, but to his younger brother, Faramir. Superciliously, though, Boromir seizes onto the message and makes the journey to Imladris himself.  He is so full of insolence that he believes that he is the most apposite one to handle the power of this mighty relic. He is so imprudent that he is convinced that he can harness the evil that it wields for the glory of his own family. It is this mindset, which ensnares him when he finally encounters the One Ring.  As Tolkien reiterates throughout the LOTR, it is only one of the purest mind and most benevolent spirit that can escape its malignant grasp. Readers know that his younger sibling, Faramir, was the one that should have made the journey to join the fellowship in Rivendell. For, that is why the ring showed itself to him in the first place. Faramir was made of stronger moral fiber than his older brother.  He would not have jeopardized the mission as Boromir so wantonly did.

Thorin Oakenshield wielded power with a just and providential hand. Boromir attempted to usurp it through a misguided sense of his own self-importance. Unwittingly, the human warrior veered off of his noble path when he granted his pernicious hubris the upper hand.  Members of medieval society believed that this was an inherent danger in conceding power to those of inferior bearing. Only those of a certain aristocratic deportment were equipped to handle the nuances of prodigious responsibility. Aragorn recognized and rewarded this quality in Boromir’s brother, Faramir. Though redeemed in the end, Boromir imperiled those in his safe keeping, grievously. This was something that no culpable exemplar would do.

For Tolkien, Thorin Oakenshield represented the ideal Nordic warrior king, and by extension, what we should all strive after, moralistically. He was scrupulous, righteous, staunch, immolating, and unblenching. Boromir, on the other hand, serves as a cautionary paradigm. As human beings we are all imperiled by the constant threats of self-glorification and intemperance. Only by rising above these ignoble traits, can we, as a species, truly reach our apical potential. As Boromir showed in the end, we are capable of such superlative exploits if we can command the fortitude needed to battle the rancorous thoughts that reside within us all. Thus, our two heroes serve as models of opposite character. Thorin Oakenshield emblematizes the consummate human experience. He may be haughty and cynical at turns, but he never loses sight of what is paramount to his people.  Boromir of Gondor, by contrast, epitomizes the intrinsic frailties that most of us struggle with throughout our lives. By coveting the ring of power, he places his own concupiscence above the inviolability of the fellowship, and ultimately, of all of the inhabitants of Middle Earth. Some of us are able to rise above these contemptible shortcomings, whilst many more of us fall prey to our fallacious desires. Tolkien sought to provide a moral in his characterizations. To be human is to falter, but to fully embrace your humanity is to persevere conscientiously.

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Thorin Oakenshield: A Warrior In the Norse Vein

I recently returned from seeing “The Hobbit” for the third time.  Being a Tolkien scholar, there is obviously no shortage of themes which this film delves into which would fail to inspire me. This evening, however, I happened upon one quite by chance. As my daughter, husband, and I were making our way out of the auditorium, I heard a man speaking with his friends. He seemed to be in rather a muddled state. He asked the lady to his right why in the world would that dwarf leader have leapt off of the tree and rushed straight into a nest of bloodthirsty orcs and wargs all alone? It seemed suicidal and thoroughly dim-witted. All those in his group agreed.

Naturally, I couldn’t let this simply pass. It dawned on me that so many people out there seeing “The Hobbit”  for the first time have no background in Norse mythology.  Although the majority of the film can be readily enjoyed without a knowledge of certain themes or a grasp upon medieval literary history, a few key elements are going to go completely over the viewer’s head.

The scene where Thorin confronts Azog in the forest is one of those moments. To someone not versed in the nuanced language of  Nordic warrior code, his actions may, indeed, seem nonsensical. If you are well versed in Viking culture, however, you will see the symbolism of the scene in all of its eloquent glory.

For, Thorin did not act thoughtlessly or with an eye towards ending his own gloomy existence. Quite the contrary. He reacted as any proud, dauntless leader would have done. To face one’s worst enemy head on is the most admirable thing that a man can do.

Azog had murdered his grandfather, Thror, in the Battle of Azanulbizar and had caused his own father, Thrain, to suffer a complete emotional collapse. In fact, his father had then disappeared without a trace, forcing the young warrior to assume the heavy burden of leadership before his time.

Tolkien borrowed Thorin Oakenshield’s names from two of the Viking prose sagas. He is mentioned as a valiant dwarf in both “The Voluspa” and the “Prose Edda.” In fact, all of the dwarves names come from these sources. Tolkien wanted them to epitomize the character of valiant Viking warriors of old.

In Nordic warrior society, bravery and honor in battle are paramount.  It was their belief that through your valour upon the battlefield you would attain immortality-through the remembrances of poetic skalds and also, because you would have won a coveted place in the warrior’s heaven of Valhalla. Only those who died in battle would be escorted to these hallowed halls by the fierece shield-maidens known as the Valkyries.

Furthermore, only an audaciously brave leader was worthy of following. In a world where violence and uncertainty lurked around every corner, only the most indomitable could even hope to survive. If Thorin Oakenshield had not stepped out of that tree and faced his mortal enemy, Azog, so valiantly, he would have failed his followers in an irrevocable way. He could not have called himself their leader any longer.

Peter Jackson showcased Tolkien’s nod to Nordic society brilliantly in this scene. As Thorin stared the evil Azog down he knew that he had no choice, but to meet him head long in one on one combat. To have remained ensconced in the limited safety beyond the fire line provided by Gandalf would have been a fate unbearable to such a noble and proud warrior. He would have desecrated his family’s name for all time.

Thorin, son of Thrain, son of Thror, would brook no such shame. He showed his insuperable courage on that craggy cliff and proved worthy of his people’s unwavering certitude in him. A king both in name and in character.

Thorin Oakenshield: Tolkien’s Inimitable Hero

 

            Most of us are well acquainted with the warrior hero at the center of J.R.R. Tolkien’s epic literary masterpiece, The Lord of the Rings.  Aragorn is the reluctant human heir to the Gondorian throne. Sporting the illustrious Dunedain bloodline, he bravely accepts his fate and leaps into action as bodyguard to the erstwhile Hobbits placed in his charge.  In addition to having an intact kingdom to return to, he also possesses the undying love of the most beautiful maiden in the land, Princess Arwen of Rivendell.

            Aragorn is noble to be sure. He is the sort of man anyone would want alongside them in a battle. His will is iron clad, his loyalty unshakeable, and his strength of character unimpeachable. In short, Aragorn is unlike any flesh and blood human being that has ever existed. When faced with the One Ring he barely flinches. Staring down the wrath of Sauron’s forces, he charges into the fray without a moment’s hesitation. Aragorn is not troubled by seeds of self-doubt or flagrant fear. He is, in short, a representation of what we all wish that we could be, but know that we cannot possibly live our lives upon such lofty moral cliffs.

            Herein lays a conundrum. How can we truly invest in a character that doesn’t resemble us in the deepest sense as imperfect creatures? Aragorn is an ideal to strive after. He is not representative of the complexities that define everyday life on Earth. We, as human beings, are deeply flawed. We hold grudges, we feel jealousy, we get unreasonably angry, we slander, we lie, we distrust, we are weak more often than we are strong, and we fear the unknown intensely.

            However, there are times in our lives when we are forgiving, altruistic, patient, honest, valiant, and self-sacrificing. These are fleeting moments for most of us, but they can come at truly character defining occasions. These moments can change our own fates and the fates of those around us.

            Thorin Oakenshield is a hero in this vein. Though a dwarf, Tolkien imbued him with far more relevant qualities than his actual human characters. Thorin is flawed in many ways. He can be arrogant, prideful, suspicious, unyielding, shortsighted, brash, ill-tempered, fearful, greedy, and vengeful. He is full of contradictions and emotional complexities. He is brilliantly reminiscent of our own species.

            Thorin witnesses the loss of his birthright, the loss of his family, and the loss of his station in life. Unlike Aragorn, however, he doesn’t spend his time enjoying the privileged company of elves or romancing lovely ladies. Thorin has to rally his people. As the rightful King Under the Mountain, he is the one that they look to in this harrowing time. Though he is full of  bitter indignation and self-doubt, he takes up the mantle and determines to reclaim his ancestral homeland once again.

            In contrast to Aragorn, Thorin is a king without an actual kingdom, he is a leader stripped of any real semblance of an army, he is an aristocrat stripped of his honor. He is representative of life. It is full of hardship, failure, and disappointment. Yet, just like most of us, Thorin holds onto an inner spark that illuminates his path in the darkest of hours. For, no matter what obstacle is tossed his way, Thorin never gives up on the hope that somehow, some way, he will prevail. Despite his shortcomings, he is a leader worth following. For, it is in those desolate moments that he finally finds the courage, the strength of character, and the conviction to give himself up to something far greater than himself. He discovers beneficence in the process and becomes truly transcendent.

            Thorin Oakenshield is Tolkien’s finest example of the flawed, highly complex warrior hero. He resonates with a realism that we can grasp hold of. Aragorn, on the other hand, is far too pat moralistically speaking. The Son of Arathorn gets his shiny crown, his beautiful Elven bride, his brood of heirs, and gets to enjoy a long, peaceful life. Our dwarfish king, on the other hand, does not get to enjoy any of the fruits of his long labors. Thorin does not get the kingdom, the girl, or a long life. Instead, the valiant warrior dies from battle wounds, without an heir. He represents the harsh reality of human existence. Life is finite and often times inequitable. Yet, despite this fact, it is still a journey worth taking. For along its winding path, we discover an eternal truth. Each and every one of us possesses the seeds of the divine and we have but to reach deep within and grasp onto its budding tendrils to transmute the mundane. Tolkien understood this and he crafted his dwarf king into a paragon of human tenacity and potential. Thorin Oakenshield represents each and every one of us. The good, the bad, and the immutable.

           

Confessions of a Tolkien Scholar

Let me start off by readily admitting that I had never heard of Richard Armitage before casting had been announced on The Hobbit. I read his name with a mixture of suspicion and haughty dismissiveness. For I already knew that no one could bring my childhood hero/crush to life. I even felt a bit sorry for the unwitting actor that was attempting to make a success of such a futile performance.

I knew for a fact that bringing Thorin Oakenshield to the big screen was destined to fail. I had first read The Hobbit when I was seven years old. I immediately fell in love with the brash dwarf king. He was my first hero and I loved him fiercely. As I matured I held onto that romantic attachment with a tenacious determination. When I went to university, I carried that love with me. All things Norse and Anglo-Saxon became my obsession. I focused my energies on writing a senior dissertation centered around Tolkien’s Middle Earth. I knew Thorin Oakenshield. Richard Armitage did not. He could not.

I reluctantly bought tickets to the midnight premiere of The Hobbit. My daughters had been the impetus. I was pessimistic, to put it mildly. I sat in my sit dreading the inevitable cinematic destruction of my literary idol. I prepared to suffer through the desecration stoically.

Then a strange thing happened. I saw Thorin Oakenshield on screen, larger than life, and he was beautiful, strong, and complex. He was everything that I had ever imagined him to be. I sat absolutely riveted to my seat for the next two and a half hours. I didn’t want it to end. I left the theater singing this unknown (to me) actor’s praises. I couldn’t wait for the next installment!

So, I humbly admit that I was very wrong indeed about Mr. Armitage. I realize that there are legions of you out there that already knew this fact. I hope that you will forgive me for my wrongheadedness and welcome me into the fan club, so to speak.