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.