*Spoilers for The Hobbit to follow*
Thorin is often criticized for the choices he makes after the death of Smaug, and the average reader is rarely sympathetic with his refusal to share the treasure with the people of Lake-town. But when I read the story, I find it hard not to side with him. This essay is an attempt to justify my reaction. [Note: This is based on my reactions to the original Hobbit story only, without factoring in the material from the Appendices, Unfinished Tales, or the film.]
In Defense of Thorin Oakenshield: A Journey from Hero to Villain, and Back Again
Thorin, by Anke Eissmann
While he is never entirely a villain, Thorin Oakenshield becomes temporarily cast as one due to circumstance. From the beginning, the character possesses a strong sense of self-importance, and a gruff impatience which is not entirely endearing. By the time the dragon has been destroyed, it is already clear he is an inconsistent hero, occasionally brave and heedless of danger, but just as often shirking the riskiest activities, and letting a small hobbit face them. After the Lonely Mountain is reclaimed, his character becomes even less appealing. Because of pride, and an unwillingness to bend to the will of outsiders, he commits his followers to a desperate battle. At one point, even Gandalf stands against him. Given the wizard’s status, readers know the dwarf must be doing something wrong if he has earned this stamp of disapproval. What appears to be a flaw in his character culminates in a deadly rage against Bilbo. But exactly how did the exiled king shift from protagonist to antagonist?
To answer this question, it is first important to note that although Bilbo may be the main character, it is actually the lesser protagonists who move the plot along. The quest is organized by Gandalf (who has his own hidden motives), while the journey is driven forward by Thorin’s desire to reclaim his kingdom. Bilbo goes along for the ride, partly to live up to Gandalf’s recommendation of him as a burglar, but mostly because he is seeking something intangible; a connection to his ancestors via a discovery of his more adventurous self. Thorin is guided even more strongly by ancestral expectations, but his goals are very tangible. He wants the Lonely Mountain, the horde of treasure that lies within it, and the heirloom Arkenstone, as well as the restoration of his people to their rightful home. A keen sense of pride is linked to each of these goals, and we find out he is unwilling to settle for anything less than achieving all of them.
To say Bilbo is the hero of the tale, and Smaug the villain, oversimplifies matters. Bilbo is not initially possessed of heroic qualities, but bravery and self-sacrifice come to him over the course of the book. There are many antagonists that serve as foils to Bilbo. Practically everything harries the hobbit, including trolls, goblins, Gollum, wargs, and spiders. After having bested these opponents, Bilbo must face the dragon. His own triumph over fear (manifested in their face-to-face conversation) is more important to his character’s growth than the actual slaying of the beast, and it is left to Bard, a more traditional human hero, to stand before the villain. But although Bilbo is not directly responsible for Smaug’s demise, his discovery of the dragon’s weakness (passed along to Bard by the thrush bird) plays an important part.
With the death of Smaug, the role of chief antagonist is left vacant. The greedy Master of Lake-town is the first to take on the mantle, but, being the tricky fellow he is, he quickly passes it along by pointing out how stirring up the dragon, and the subsequent destruction of Lake-town, would never have happened had not the dwarves returned. This turns the opinions of the Lake-men against Thorin, and begins the process of undermining the dwarf’s status with the reader. Thorin may have waited a lifetime to regain his birthright, but without the bravery, skill, and luck of Bard, (not to mention Bilbo’s insider information) he would still have the dragon standing between him and that goal. It leaves the reader questioning whether or not he deserves all that he demands.
The armies of Bard and the Elvenking (a character who starts out with avaricious intentions, but who ends up being unsullied by greed) march toward the Mountain in hopes of availing themselves of a treasure free and clear of dragons and dwarves. Roac, the raven, warns Thorin that elves and men are coming to seize his gold, and the bird even mentions the unsettling detail that carrion crows follow in their wake, hoping for a battle feast. In this way, Thorin is already prejudiced against the “delegation” that later arrives at the Mountain. This is an important point, since part of the criticism lodged against him is his unwillingness to trust other races.
Though loyal to the dwarves, the raven views the situation from a tactical perspective, recognizing they are at a disadvantage. He advises Thorin to trust Bard, and choose peace over gold. But wrath blazes in Thorin’s mind at the suggestion. There is never a moment afterward that he thinks of anything but defense, and if that fails, war. Although it cost the dwarves nothing in blood to retake the Mountain and its treasure, they will give their last to keep it.
When scouts arrive at the Gate, they are surprised to see it blocked, and more so to see Thorin and Co. alive. When he questions them, they retreat without word. Their silence betrays their disappointment that the King under the Mountain still lives. Thorin is wise enough to know they would have been happier to find thirteen charred corpses blocking their path to the treasure, rather than a massive stone wall.
As the music of elf harps begins in the valley, Bilbo briefly imagines leaving the dour dwarves, and even a few of the dwarves think longingly of a peaceful resolution. But Thorin remains unmoved. Perhaps in an effort to maintain solidarity, his company craft their own song about the glorious recovery of the Mountain throne. It works to appease Thorin, but Bilbo finds the song, and the attitudes behind it, distasteful.
Up until this point, the hobbit’s main concern was dealing with the dragon, and to him, the death of Smaug should have been the end of the conflict. Thorin’s assertion, that battle is preferable to compromise, strikes Bilbo as insufferable (hobbits have not been embroiled in warfare for many generations, and while there are greedy hobbits, there are none who would choose battle over peace just for the sake of gold).
The same traits Thorin exhibited as a prisoner in the dungeons of the Elvenking, such as stubbornness and distrust, are now in conflict with the wishes of the chief protagonist, and he is no longer seen as the victim, but as a miser. In this way, he becomes the antagonist by opposing the goal of the hero, even though his own goals never change; he never makes a secret of his desires, nor a promise that he will be generous with the treasure. As it is, the original contract between the dwarves and Bilbo is very specific on the matter of shares. By being protective of the treasure, Thorin is safeguarding all of the Company’s interests. Looking at it from the standpoint of the dwarves, one could say Thorin remains true to his nature, and everyone else becomes antagonistic toward him.
The delegation of men and elves arrives at the Gate, and Bard’s speech is as condescending as it is accurate. As slayer of the dragon, and heir of Dale, Bard can be excused for exuding some pride, but he lacks diplomatic skill. He speaks as one who knows he has the advantage, being less concerned with coming to an agreement of equals, as he is with getting what he wants.
Having listened to Bard’s argument, Thorin does offer to make modest reparations, but not on their terms. Had the Lake-men been in less of a rush to force the dwarves into agreement, they might have avoided escalating hostilities. Putting aside the matter of rights to the treasure (which are complicated by Smaug having used the Mountain as a storehouse for things he stole from many races), perhaps Thorin should not be judged so harshly for denying the claims of what he sees as an army come to plunder his treasury, for that is indeed what it is. Would his heart have softened had just Bard appeared, pleading the case of the Lake-men, and might he have sought to reestablish the old alliance their people shared? Perhaps, but the presence of the elf army stirs up old hatred.
The Elvenking’s longstanding desire for dwarf treasure is infamous, but his purpose has shifted from taking the treasure for himself, to backing up Bard’s claim, showing that he is capable of sympathy for those in great need (and making Thorin appear that much more selfish). But Thorin has not forgotten how the Elvenking detained them for weeks in Mirkwood with little cause. With nothing at his command but twelve dwarves and a hobbit, he would be at their mercy again, were he to let his guard down. But he knows he has a chance to even the odds if his cousin Dain can arrive with five hundred soldiers from the north, and refuses to discuss terms as long as the elves remain.
When messengers return to reveal Bard’s terms—peace will cost the dwarves more than a twelfth of the treasure—Thorin replies succinctly; by shooting an arrow into the messenger’s shield. He is finished with the pretense of parley. Some readers will likely see this act as a prime example of bad form, but he had warned them he would not negotiate while the Elvenking’s army remained. For a character who likes to hear himself talk, this wordless reply is more poignant.
Gathering of the Clouds, by Alan Lee
The messenger declares the Mountain besieged, promising that armies will remain until hunger changes stubborn minds. Bilbo sees it all as insanity, and wants out, and even some of Thorin’s people are not enthusiastic about his choice. Kili, Fili, and Bombur do not support the decision, but dwarves are nothing if not loyal to their own kind, and no words of dissent are spoken. While it may not have an impact on Thorin’s plan, the fact that not all the dwarves are behind his decision (including his own heirs) has a powerful effect on the reader, and marks Thorin as an unreasonable king.
Taking matters into his own hands, Bilbo sneaks out with the Arkenstone (like a true burglar), and plans to force Thorin into giving up a fourteenth share of the gold to Bard. Here, Bilbo is to the dwarf like the thrush was to Smaug, appearing unexpectedly in the enemy camp, and revealing Thorin’s weakness to Bard; “This is the Arkenstone of Thrain, the Heart of the Mountain, and it is also the heart of Thorin.” Not only does he hand this over, but also ruins the element of surprise that Dain’s army might have had. But unlike the thrush with Smaug, Bilbo does not want to see Thorin and Co. fall into disaster. A complex traitor is Mr. Baggins, since he then returns to the Mountain out of a sense of loyalty to friends.
What Bilbo did might incur revenge from folk less war-prone than dwarves, for it is not merely the stone’s value that is at stake. The Arkenstone is of personal significance to Thorin as a symbol of the House of Durin. Letting it remain in the hands of his enemies would be a severe blow to his pride, and this is one thing dwarves cannot accept (think of Gimli, ready to die instead of allowing himself to be blindfolded by the elves of Lothlorien).
Gandalf has been missing for a large part of the book, and only now does he return to the scene. Yet he has chosen not to return to the dwarves, who he encouraged and aided up to this point, but sides with Bard and the Elvenking. His beliefs are aligned with those of Bilbo, and when Bard returns to reveal the Arkenstone as leverage, it is Gandalf in disguise who presents it. It is a mystery why the wizard does not try to encourage peace by talking to Thorin directly. He must have an idea how well Bilbo’s bargain will be received. His actions toward Thorin are less like those of an ally, and more like a parent waiting for a spoiled child to learn their lesson.
When Thorin demands to know how the stone came to Bard, Bilbo is compelled to tell the truth, presumably believing it will help quench his fiery resentment. The hobbit may not live to see the result of his good intentions, as Thorin is about to hurl him from the walls for the betrayal. It is at this moment the dwarf comes closest to graduating to true villain-hood. But Gandalf reveals his presence at the last second, redirecting Thorin’s rage.
Furious, yet powerless, Thorin is left isolated from what is becoming, from the reader’s perspective, the good guys’ side. “You all seem in league,” he accuses his former allies. And he is correct, as men, elves, wizard, and hobbit stand united against his interests. In his darkest moment, he asks Bilbo viciously, “What have you to say, you descendant of rats?” revealing he has not lost his initial disdain for hobbits, despite all that Bilbo has achieved. Even if his reactions to the betrayal are understandable, his prejudice attitude, and lack of gratitude, is not.
Dwarves of Middle Earth, by Ian Miller
When Bilbo explains how Thorin has been beaten by a technicality, the dwarf must concede the point (though he never accepts Bilbo’s claim to the stone as the promised fourteenth share). Outwardly, he agrees to the terms, while inwardly, he is hoping to stall long enough for Dain to arrive. He lets Bilbo go back to Bard with a curse, and Gandalf chides him, “You are not making a very splendid figure as King under the Mountain,” and the reader would find it hard to disagree. Whether or not one supports his denial of Bard’s claim to the treasure, the disrespect he shows to Bilbo, after all the hobbit has done for them, is ungracious. Not all of his company are as hard-hearted, and some regret the poor treatment of Bilbo, but none speak against their leader.
We leave Thorin in this less than honorable state, and watch as Dain’s grim and well-armed soldiers arrive. After a brief and unproductive parley with Dain’s messengers, Bard realizes they are a genuine threat, and wants to attack before they can give support to Thorin. But the Elvenking (now standing firmly on his moral high ground) refuses to make the first move, hoping instead that peace can be reached. But Dain has been kept up to date on events via raven messengers, and knows the time for discussion is over. Sensing hesitation in his foes, he launches into battle. [It should be noted that Dain, who is later revealed to be generous to elves and men (in contrast to Thorin), is more than willing here to fight them both without another thought.]
Before the armies clash, Gandalf appears with unpleasant tidings: A vast host of goblins and wargs is coming. Elves, men, and dwarves unite without hesitation, and all fight valiantly against this common enemy. When next we see Thorin, his status reverses from vaguely villainous to truly heroic, though it is arguable he is still unchanged, and it is only circumstances which have shifted.
As the tide of battle turns in favor of the goblins, Thorin and his twelve followers abandon the defense of the Gate, and rush into the fray. What they lack in numbers, they make up for in attitude, swiftly cutting through the enemy. Thorin rallies men, dwarves, and elves around him, then charges against Bolg, the leader of the goblins. By summoning all three groups to him, Thorin goes part way to being absolved of his earlier prejudice. It is at the moment of greatest need that he finally shows himself to be worthy of the respect of all. His group fights on until they are nearly broken, at which point Beorn, the shapeshifter, rages onto the scene, and beats down Bolg. To some degree, Beorn represents nature and power in its raw state, and his unexpected aid of Thorin can be read as a mark of elemental approval for the dwarf’s actions. It works to reestablish Thorin’s status with the reader.
Many reviewers incorrectly assume that Thorin’s less appealing traits are the reason for his downfall. If anything, it is due to courage that he comes to his end, being mortally wounded leading the charge against Bolg, not because of any particular greed or pride. This is not to say that he remains unaware of his own flaws. Before his death, he recognizes his treatment of Bilbo was ill-mannered and undeserved. It is not specifically stated that he regrets all his choices involving the treasure, though the reader who scorned him for his actions earlier will probably see these words as an admission he was in the wrong; “If more of us valued food and cheer and song above hoarded gold, it would be a merrier world.”
The conflicting feelings the reader experiences, as they follow the journey of a character like Thorin, are due to expectation. Tolkien waits more than half the book before he makes it clear “dwarves are not heroes, but calculating folk with a great idea of the value of money; some are tricky and treacherous and pretty bad lots; some are not, but are decent enough people like Thorin and Company, if you don’t expect too much.” The dwarven heart is little motivated by altruism. Their loyalty takes time to develop, and once set, it remains firm, but the connection must be established through a history of common hardship, or mutual gain. After the Battle of Five Armies, Dain is more than willing to embrace both elves and men as comrades, but only because they have proven worthy of the honor; by fighting alongside the dwarves. Thorin has no such experiences to influence him when he is making decisions.
Some will forever brand Thorin as greedy, but unlike the Master of Lake-town, he does not seek wealth only for himself. Despite being their king, his share of the treasure is no higher than the rest of the Company (including Bilbo). The exception to this is his claim to the Arkenstone, which is his by right of inheritance. Even when Tolkien describes Thorin as having an eye for the beautiful things in the treasury, he makes certain to add the appreciation goes beyond the monetary, and that around each item “were wound old memories of the labours and the sorrows of his race.” The treasure was, in many cases, made by dwarves, with ore they mined or traded for. They do not simply lust over other people’s wealth, but over that which they, or their ancestors, put their hearts into.
The issue of Thorin’s bravery is equally complex. There are many passages where it appears he and the rest of the dwarves are behaving like cowards, insisting Bilbo go first into some unknown danger. Tolkien explains how Thorin believes these are the jobs for which he hired their burglar (though even Bilbo is skeptical how so many events could be covered under one contract). But if there were ever a final question of Thorin’s courage, one need only recall The Battle of Five Armies: In contrast to the Master of Lake-town, who attempts to leave when the going gets rough for the Lake-men, Thorin gives everything to change the tide of battle, and recapture the glory his people once enjoyed. The fact that he ultimately succeeds in his quest shows that his fate is not a tragic one resulting from hubris, but instead serves a noble purpose.
Source: Tolkien, J.R.R. The Hobbit. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2007.