Guest contributor Susan Messer Chan compares two of the supporting heroes from The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit; Aragorn and Thorin Oakenshield.
Thorin Oakenshield: Tolkien’s Inimitable Hero
by Susan Messer Chan
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.