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.

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37 thoughts on “Thorin Oakenshield: A Warrior In the Norse Vein

  1. Reblogged this on Heirs of Durin and commented:
    I’ve no background in Norse mythology (aside from a brief reading of the dwarf names), so this suggestion by Susan Messer of possible motivations for the screen version of Thorin is very helpful.

    I’m still not sure how the revised version of the Thror>Thrain>Thorin vs. Azog>Bolg vendetta is going to resolve itself, but at the moment, I’m bemoaning the missing details on Thrain. Thrain was quite a force to be reckon with in the Appendices, unwilling to stop at the Battle of Azanulbizar when injured, even after his son Frerin dies, and after he’s lost half his people. In many ways he is the ultimate dwarf, and really fulfills the role of the Norse warrior as described in Susan’s post. He takes the fight to the orcs for seven years straight until he gets his revenge. But like his son became later, he is quite stiff-necked, and would have pushed on to take Moria (Balrog or no Balrog) if there had been anyone left who would follow him. Wiser and wearier, Dain deterred him from taking action that day, but Thrain’s spirit of desire and determination (amplified by having a Ring of Power no doubt) would not die, and drove him to his fate with the Necromancer.

    I think that understanding Thorin’s relatives is important in understanding him, and I do hope they give us a more insightful look at Thrain in the next film.

    • I agree with you about the Thrain issue. It would have been nice to have more background here. Of course, since Tolkien was such a thorough and prolific writer there is SO much that could be included. I really hope that PJ does some extended version stuff for The Hobbit. Perhaps, we will get some of this good stuff then!

  2. Hello…loving your blog so far…really interesting. I know nothing of Viking & Nordic mythology and the like or Tolkien for that matter, but I have to say that to me, everything you describe as Thorin’s reasons for facing his enemy head-on are the reasons I had already assumed. I’m really pleased about that…and I think that says a lot about RA’s acting & PJ’s storytelling 🙂

  3. Fantastic read! Thank you. I’ll be seeing it tonight for the second time, and I will definately watch this scene differently (not than I didn’t love it the first time) Makes me love Jackson’s attention for detail even more. And of course Richard Armitage, who put everything in it to bring Thorin to live, and an amazing job he did..

  4. First let me say I am enjoying your writing, having discovered you through the magnificent site Heirs of Durin. I grew up on the stories of Asgard, the gods and doings of Men and Dwarves. Scholars always awe me as I have no patience for academia. Even in college when I tried to do serious studying of the myths I’d find my mind wandering out of the dusty books and into the battlefield where the shouts and clang of weapons drove further study far from my mind.

    I had less than no surprise that Thorin made a desperate stand against Azog. I would have expected no less of him. Whether it was a determination to die gloriously in battle or to try to distract the Orcs from his company is of little consequence. I’d be willing to bet that not even Thorin could tell you what he was thinking as he roared and charged. Some actions are purely visceral. I expected no less that his warriors joined him, determined to inflict as much harm as they could before their end. When all odds are against you and your death is near make such an end that even your enemies will remember.

    I am unable to divorce Thorin from all the Norse tales and since Tolkien based his Dwarves on them, I feel that they are more useful than a hindrance. I know that Richard Armitage said he played Thorin like a Viking or words to that effect. Dwarves are shorter in height but tremendously powerful and certainly not someone to take lightly in battle. Certainly no Orc going up against Dwalin with his Mohawk and beserker attitude would think him “small.” I am hoping for a glorious end for Thorin so that he is ready for the Valkyrie when they come to take him to Valhalla to dwell with his honored ancestors.

    “Baruk Khazâd! Khazâd ai-mênu!” — “Axes of the Dwarves! The Dwarves are upon you!”

  5. We saw the movie for the second time last night, and I feel the same way you do about this scene, for the same reasons.

    I agree that It is not just about dying a warrior’s death to Thorin, but also about being a good leader.

    Despite his statement at the onset to Gandalf that he would not be responsible for Bilbo’s fate, and his continuing outward comments of distain toward Bilbo, his actions prove that he *does* hold himself responsible, for Bilbo has become one of his company. When facing the trolls, he tosses down his weapon and accepts a possible death to save Bilbo. While in the mountains, he makes the dive to save Bilbo from falling, despite setting himself up for the same possible fate. In both places, he puts the welfare of his “people” before his own – a truly kingly trait.

    He even sets aside his own hatred for the elves to get Elrond’s help with the map, because it is best for his people.

    I think that his decision to face down Azog is as much about his people as his own pride or need for vengeance. For years he had believed that he had slain Azog – to find otherwise made him less worthy in his own eyes. And if he did not feel himself worthy, how could he continue to lead others. So he moved to set things right, to become the man he had believed himself to be. I believe he would rather have died than live with himself if he had walked away.

    Which also leaves me to wonder how he will feel about the “rescue” once he has time to ponder it…

    A year is such a long time to wait to see how PJ plays this out!

    • I agree with you, jenn. Thorin does accept responsibility for Bilbo despite his testy protestations to the contrary. I think that this is a great source of his disgruntledness with the hobbit. Thorin knows that this quest is likely to end in death. He can readily accept this outcome for himself, but he regrets that it must be so for the others. You will see this in great detail when they are set to take on Smaug. Thorin suddenly has almost insurmountable misgivings about his nephews, Fili and Kili, being involved in the fray. He wants to send them back. Thorin is a noble leader in the Norse tradition. As head of the company he takes on an enormous emotional burden. Bilbo adds to that stressful load. I think that his gruff manner has as much to do with his remorsefulness over the innocent hobbit’s involvement as it does his inherent distrust of others.

  6. I am enjoying your blog. Reading about the Norse mythology is reminding me of my homeschooling years when I covered some of this with my kids. Happy memories. They’ve all read Tolkien, but I’ve only read The Hobbit and that only after Richard Armitage was cast. Thank you for your insights.

  7. Long time Tolkien fan here and have seen The Hobbit twice so far…but just getting started! I am so glad this Tolkien book is being welcomed to film as enthusiastically as LOTR. So many more young people being inspired to read Tolkien.
    I was adopted as a child and found such comfort when I read that Tolkien and his brother lost both parents when they were very young (a bitter tragedy) and raised by relatives and a kind priest…Talk about overcoming the worse of all fates and being honored as a writer, philosopher, teacher through history….”a life spared to a grand end”..Thank you JRR Tolkien!

  8. Outstanding insights! I’ve sailed on Viking Longship Sae Hrafn (www.longshipco.org) and hung out with Viking reinactors for decades, and don’t know some of this! One of the points of these kinds of tales, whether book or film, is to keep alive this worldview, so different from our modern one.

    • I’m very envious! One of my dreams is to sail on a longship. Tolkien wanted to create a mythology that English people could grasp hold of and call their own. His meticulous attention to Nordic and Anglo-Saxon cultural identity and his propensity with linguistics is almost beyond comprehension. One can believe that Middle Earth as he created it was a real place in the distant past. It’s absolutely gobsmacking what he managed to achieve.

  9. I love Norse mythology (and Egyptian) if you have any questions, feel free to ask me! I’ll answer the best I can (since I am only still a student). ^_^ And you have such brilliant insight! I am impressed!

  10. in the hall where i was watching the movie, people behind me were asking the (pardon my lack of manners) dumbest questions! like “how is gollum still alive?” and “how is saruman suddenly friends with everyone?” i had the STRONGEST urge to turn around and give a LONG lecture on movie theatre manners and the hobbit.

  11. Let me preface this by saying, many thanks to you for bringing a more scholarly tone to the discussions of the Hobbit online, and more specifically, Thorin and the dwarves. I have to admit I am usually nothing more than a ghost online, passing through and never commenting and do not even adhere to the cult of fb.. But I am moved to add to the discussion here after my own newfound obsession with Thorin Oakenshield and The Hobbit. I have been a lifelong fan of fantasy literature, and a fan of Tolkien since high school. I have to admit at first reading, I was more of a fan of the Lord of the Rings and the Silmarillion. But after the last few weeks, going back to watch Richard Armitage’s incredible performance as Thorin a grand total of 4 times, I have come to a new appreciation of the Hobbit and the origins of Tolkien’s dwarves.
    As a constrast to some of the other comments here, I have a bit of a different connection with the Norse aspects that you speak of. I am Asatru, which for those of you that don’t know, is a religion which is based around the worship of the Aesir and the Vanir (the Norse Gods). So, it’s not just mythology to me, it is what I live by. I couldn’t help but be impressed by the familiarity I felt with RA’s portrayal of Thorin as not only a Viking leader, but showing many of the traits that I try to emulate in my own personal life. I admire his unwavering sense of honor, the most steadfast of loyalty to his purpose, and even the stubbornness I see more as an unwillingness to compromise on his beliefs. Your recognition of these traits and their origins is important. What always impressed me about Tolkien was the fact that his fiction was rooted in places of truth, through the study of the Eddas and the Old Norse language and history. I am probably not the only Heathen who feels such a strong connection to this character and a familiarity with the culture of Tolkien’s dwarves.
    Thanks again for the insightful and thought provoking pieces you have written here. I want to add my appreciation, as someone who has a deeply personal connection with the Eddas, Nordic culture, and the ideals which you are discussing. Keep up the wonderful writing.

  12. Thanks Whitney. I feel the same way that you do about this. I fell in love with Norse culture in kindergarten. When I read The Hobbit the following year, I was transfixed by Thorin Oakenshield’s character. Now, seeing him onscreen, I feel transported. RA has blown away my expectations and made my childhood hero into a flesh and blood Viking warrior 🙂
    Being a Tolkien scholar I feel that it is necessary to view his work in the light in which it was composed. You cannot truly understand what the stories are saying unless you go back to their Norse (and Anglo-Saxon) roots. To do otherwise, is to misinterpret the meaning behind the words. It’s unfortunate that so many are unwilling to do some research and to put things into perspective before framing opinions. Even though the films do change some key elements, you can still gain a richer understanding of the action onscreen by learning about these cultures.

    • I was about 6 when my Dad read The Hobbit and LotR to me in installments as a bedtime story. I’m now 49. So for over 40 years, I’ve loved these stories and characters. What always rankled with me was the injustice in The Hobbit: that Tolkien creates this Norse warrior hero and then punishes him for it, while letting Bilbo off the hook. I think he had problems trying to square his love for the sagas and the values they uphold with his own religious and social hang-ups.

  13. To further expound upon the connections with the Norse Gods, I wonder if anyone has noticed the use of the “Tiwaz” or “Tir” Rune on the top of Thorin’s ring? More specifically, the ring he wears on his right hand, it’s square and has the arrow shaped figure on the top. I seem to remember someone writing somewhere that this has to do with the Rune symbolizing the T in Tolkien’s dwarven Runic alphabet. However, I have found some deeper connections as that is the Rune connected with the God Tyr.
    Tyr was a God most notably that Viking leaders looked up to as an example. Snorri, in the Prose Edda, describes Tyr as “the boldest and most courageous, and it is very much up to him who wins in battle. For men of action, he is good to invoke. The expression goes that a man is Tyr courageous if he is the type who advances out in front, never losing his courage.”
    Sound familiar?
    Further, the Anglo Saxon Rune poem links the Rune with the pole star, Polaris. Just as the Vikings used that star to guide them in navigating, they looked to Tyr as a model for being leaders and great warriors. This puts me in mind of the scene in the film when Balin is telling the story of when he first begins to see Thorin as a true leader, and we see Thorin looking off into the starry night. Might he be contemplating Polaris, Tyr, and his abilities as a leader?
    Also it is interesting to note that Tyr is the one who sacrifices his hand when the Gods bind their enemy the Fenris wolf. (This story can also be found in the Prose Edda.)
    Is it coincidence then, that Thorin’s mortal enemy Azog has his hand cut off in battle? The symbolism of the sacrifice of a hand is surely carried over here, even if in some kind of reversal from the story of Tyr and the Fenris wolf.
    Personally, I have found Tyr to be obstinate, stubborn in his ways and just downright irritating at times in his adherence to rules and laws. I have seen the same comments made about Thorin.

  14. Excellent article. I grew up primarily on Norse (and Greek and Arthurian) mythology, and the traditions of my father’s roots (the mixed Norse/Gaelic culture of the West Highlands – my father’s first name translates as ‘Wisdom of Thor’) and the Anglo-Danish Yorkshire where I grew up (my mother’s ancestors in 11-12C North Yorkshire had names like Sigrid and Thorfinn). I was read The Hobbit and LotR as a complete bedtime story by my Dad when I was 6. By 9, I was on Njal’s Saga (in English). I love songs such as ‘A Mhic Iain ‘ic Sheumais’. I ‘get’ Thorin completely. He did exactly what I expected of him, facing down his enemy : he’s utterly magnificent – the sort of tragic hero I can’t help but fall for. You face the enemy and you go down fighting, taking as many of them with you as you can.

    So are the boys: their ultimate fate reminds me of nothing less than the 7 warriors who died defending the mortally wounded ‘Eachann Ruadh’, Sir Hector MacLean, in the Civil War battle of Inverkeithing in 1651. Each threw himself in front of the chief with the cry “Fear eile airson Eachuinn!” (“Another for Hector!”), which then became the MacLean war-cry. (See the marvellous poems, ‘A Ruined Church’ and ‘Clan MacLean’, by Sorley MacLean/Somhairle MacGill-Eain for modern literary references).

  15. Did you ever consider that he charged the orcs to stall them while the rest of the party climbed off the tree? It was either that, or hang there waiting for the orcs to pick them off. Yes, there are ton of Norse themes in Tolkien’s work, and that act was heroic, but that particular scene there was some common sense in what he did.

    • But the trees were starting to burn and break. Until the Eagles came, they were all doomed. Thorin chose the death he wanted, which was to go down fighting and be sung of.

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  17. I’m still disappointed the final film didn’t give us the last stand of the Heirs of Durin as per the book – our 3 Norse heroes, standing close together in the thickest part of the battle. Mind, if they’d done it as I envisage it in my imagination, it wouldn’t have been a PG-12 certificate!

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