Legacy of the People: The Burdens of Thorin Oakenshield and Boromir of Gondor
I’m sure you’ve seen it stated already, “Richard Armitage’s Thorin is the Aragorn of The Hobbit.” I considered this a while ago, especially in light of the fact Viggo Mortensen and Armitage both sing a mean solo tune, but after initial enthusiasm for the idea, I discarded it for lack of proof. It might appear that Thorin and Aragorn, as returning kings, would have much in common, but despite a few similarities, they are less alike than Thorin is to Boromir (read this essay by Susan Messer Chan for a comparison of Thorin and Aragorn). Although these are somewhat superfluous details, both Thorin and Boromir are still unmarried, had younger brothers and strong-willed fathers. Both have seen war and are renowned for their bravery. Boromir may not be royalty, but he is the closest thing to it in the Heir of Isildur’s absence. Meanwhile, Thorin has the credentials of a king, but few people treat him as such. Before his modest reign in the Blue Mountains, he had endured exile and a period of humility, returning to basic blacksmithing for survival (despite this he has not lost a sense of self-importance). But most importantly, Boromir and Thorin have tangible flaws, while Aragorn’s are so fleeting they may pass unmarked (let’s face it, Aragorn is nearly messianic in his perfection). Both leaders make decisions which favor their own nations to the possible detriment of others. I feel that with the King under the Mountain, and the Steward’s son, Tolkien challenges the reader to decide if putting the needs of one’s own people ahead of all other peoples can be considered noble or not. This is pretty typical behavior for a leader (if they are not looking out for your interests, they are not much of a leader) but when these characters are compared to someone like Aragorn, who sets aside the fulfillment of his personal legacy while protecting many races, they come across as selfish and unenlightened, which is rather unfair (read my essay for a further defense of Thorin’s behavior in the original book).
One must be careful when comparing characters in the Tolkien universe to identify the source as either movie or film, since there can be wide discrepancies between each. Movie-Boromir is both hero and villain, most famous for having assisted, and then betrayed, the Ringbearer (and overall, he remains very similar to his textual counterpart). In contrast, movie-Thorin comes across as an unflinching hero, with the writers even adding in moments where he risks his life to save Balin and Bilbo. This is a decidedly different vibe from the early chapters of The Hobbit. It is true Tolkien’s Thorin had a moment or two of fearless altruism, such as when he fights the trolls with a burning branch after the rest of his Company have been put in sacks, but these great deeds are offset by having been the one to encourage Bilbo to wander alone into what turned out to be the troll camp (you’ll notice in the film that Thorin is not to blame for Bilbo having a run in with the trolls). I feel the addition of Bilbo and Balin’s rescue was made to more firmly establish Thorin’s hero status, so that it will be much more difficult to watch what happens to him in later films (if you don’t think that is necessary, keep in mind he will have some strong competition for the valiant leader spot from Luke Evans’ Bard, and Orlando Bloom’s Legolas in the next movie, and perhaps from Lee Pace’s Elvenking in the third film).
Fortunately, Richard Armitage assures us that by the last film Thorin will probably become more distasteful to viewers. In the interests of character complexity, I hope he is right. Although Armitage’s Thorin makes a standout hero in An Unexpected Journey, the unique ability of Tolkien’s Thorin was being able to inspire readers to both love and hate the actions he takes. We only see a hint of the darkness inherent in the character in this film (mostly through the scene where he lingers in the shadows of Erebor while witnessing his grandfather’s growing obsession with gold).
Even if you know nothing about what happens later in the book, and the role which “dragon sickness” plays on the mind of dwarves, the viewer should be able to recognize a sense of foreboding here, which relates to more than just the gold luring the dragon to the mountain.
But as much as I would love to compare and contrast the film versions of Boromir and Thorin, I don’t believe justice can be done to the task without witnessing the full cycle of Thorin’s cinematic fate, which won’t be realized until December of 2014. So barring that, we must return to the text. In this essay I will draw on all the sources in which Tolkien wrote about Thorin, including The Hobbit, “The Quest of Erebor” in The Unfinished Tales, and “Appendix A” of The Return of the King, and for Boromir, from The Fellowship of the Ring, and The Two Towers.
*Spoilers for the books to follow*
“Orcrist” and “Boromir” by Magali Villeneuve
Before we meet them, Boromir and Thorin have long had difficulties which they cannot overcome on their own; Boromir’s people are in danger of being overrun by the forces of Mordor. Thorin’s people have been in exile for many years with no ability to oust the source of their troubles:
The years lengthened. The embers in the heart of Thorin grew hot again, as he brooded on the wrongs of his House and of the vengeance upon the Dragon that was bequeathed to him. He thought of weapons and armies and alliances, as his great hammer rang in the forge; but the armies were dispersed and the alliances broken and the axes of his people were few; and a great anger without hope burned him, as he smote the red iron on the anvil. (Appendix A, ROTK)
Both leaders possess just enough humility and open-mindedness to seek out help from untested allies; Boromir takes it upon himself to make a solo journey to Rivendell after his brother Faramir has a prophetic dream encouraging such action (Boromir claims he once shared the dream). As for Thorin, he just happened to be in the same location as Gandalf when the two thought about asking for the others’ help. This bolstered the idea that their chance meeting was more than just coincidence. As Gandalf recounted:
He was troubled too, so troubled that he actually asked for my advice. So I went with him to his halls in the Blue Mountains, and I listened to his long tale. I soon understood that his heart was hot with brooding on his wrongs, and the loss of the treasure of his forefathers, and burdened too with the duty of revenge upon Smaug that he had inherited. Dwarves take such duties very seriously. (The Unfinished Tales)
Both Thorin and Boromir are disappointed in the type of help they are able to procure. In “Quest of Erebor”, Thorin is very reluctant to trust Gandalf’s choice of a burglar. Similarly, Boromir is initially suspicious and scornful of Aragorn, and taken aback when he is revealed as Isildur’s Heir. After recounting his own people’s failing efforts to hold back the growing forces of Mordor, his desperation is plain, but his pride is even more obvious. It is Boromir who first suggests they utilize the power of the Ring rather than destroy it, but he reluctantly accepts the decision of the Council, and assures them Gondor will continue the fight to the last. But he also suggests that help (in the form of Aragorn) must come soon if it is to be of any use. He does not actually reject the idea of Aragorn returning and claiming his birthright, but he is impatient to see if the Ranger will live up to expectations.
When Thorin sought Gandalf’s help, he was likely expecting the wizard to conjure up something more impressive than Bilbo Baggins. Like Boromir, Thorin was slow to accept the concept of not using force to get what he wanted, as Gandalf explains:
I promised to help him if I could. I was as eager as he was to see the end of Smaug, but Thorin was all for plans of battle and war, as if he were really King Thorin the Second, and I could see no hope in that. (The Unfinished Tales)
But Thorin does go along with Gandalf’s plan, and despite hardships along the way, there is no great falling out between any of the Company until they get to the Lonely Mountain, and well after the dragon is killed. It is then that the differences between dwarves and hobbits emerge and become a point of contention. Thorin is just beginning to reassert his claim to his kingdom by marshaling whatever means he can in its defense. He is adamant about not allowing himself to be pushed into a compromise by the army of the Elvenking. Being of a very different mind, Bilbo begins to weary of the siege he has become entrapped in, and longs for peace and home.
Similarly, during his journey with the Fellowship, Boromir is on good terms with his companions, even if he offers differing opinions. It takes a while before he starts to develop an unhealthy obsession over what he intends to do about the Ring. Before the audience with Galadriel in Lorien, he agrees to help the Ringbearer as much as he can before departing for Gondor. But whatever Galadriel put into his mind as a test of character awoke the very thing she suspected was lying dormant; a personal desire for the Ring. Boromir begins to fall into darker thoughts, which some of the others sense. Frodo noticed the change back in Lorien, and in the boats on the Great River, Boromir’s state of mind becomes plain enough that Pippin sees an odd gleam in his eye.
It is interesting that Thorin was also in close proximity to the Ring for an extended time, but felt no desire for it. Reasons for this may include the Ring not having the same power over dwarves as other races, but most likely because Sauron had not yet begun his campaign to get the Ring to return to him through its bearer. Instead of the Ring, Thorin has a personal obsession with another object; the Arkenstone, which has significantly less importance to Middle-earth than the Ring, but far more importance to Thorin on a personal level:
“For the Arkenstone of my father,” he said, “is worth more than a river of gold in itself, and to me it is beyond price. That stone of all the treasure I name unto myself, and I will be avenged on anyone who finds it and withholds it.” (The Hobbit)
The Arkenstone is of great importance to the direct descendants of Thrain I, who found it in the Lonely Mountain, and passed it down for generations. It was a unique glowing gem, but comparing it to something like the Silmarils, (other gems which caused great strife within and between the races) the Arkenstone is a relative newcomer to the list of Middle-earth artifacts (only known to the dwarves for 800 years or so). It has no true powers (aside from its glow). It was not made by anyone important, nor played a great role in past events. The Elvenking is later impressed by it, and Bilbo is driven to pocket it, so we know it must be very attractive (enchanting), but no one, aside from Thorin, absolutely must have it. It is an heirloom, but even there we have little description of how it was used in dwarven culture (of course the film expands on this to make the stone vital to Thror’s claim of dominion over everyone in the area, including the elves, but that’s taking it rather far). One could speculate there was some sort of intangible connection between the kings of Erebor and the Mountain’s Heart, but this is just a fancy of mine. More rationally, it was a convenient focal point for their pride.
Like Boromir after Lorien, Thorin’s change of personality happens once they are in the Lonely Mountain with the Arkenstone yet undiscovered by him, and the armies of the Lake-men and Elves making demands outside the gate. Having found the stone in the dragon hoard, Bilbo suspected that Thorin would not forgive him for keeping it secret, but he still held onto it. Despite this, or more likely because of this, Bilbo formulates his plan to use the Arkenstone as leverage to stop the siege.
The main difference between Thorin and Boromir is that Thorin is betrayed by a member of his Company, while Boromir betrays the Fellowship he has agreed to protect. When Frodo ventures off alone to think of his decision regarding the breaking of the Fellowship, he feels an unfriendly presence even before he sees the smiling face of Boromir. It is the fact that Boromir has become sneaky which disgraces him as much as anything. Thorin never hides his intentions from his allies. Whether or not Bilbo’s decision regarding the stone was ultimately more ethical than Thorin’s is immaterial. It is true that after the betrayal by Bilbo, Thorin secretly hopes Dain’s army can get there before he is forced to give up the gold that would have been paid to get back the stone, but since he was being blackmailed into it, one can hardly call this foul play.
This is not to say that Thorin has no flaws, but they should be judged according to the perceptions of his own people, which we have little knowledge of save for a line or two from Bombur to Bilbo, right before Bilbo is about to take the stone to the enemy. Bombur’s words mark Thorin as a stubborn dwarf:
“A sorry business altogether. Not that I venture to disagree with Thorin, may his beard grow ever longer; yet he was ever a dwarf with a stiff neck.” (The Hobbit)
Clearly Bombur is not the ultimate example to judge other dwarves by, with a desire to eat and sleep being his prime motivators (rather like a hobbit). But it does give the feeling that Thorin was known to be difficult to persuade once he set his mind to something. Even so, you don’t see the whole Company stand against him openly at any time in the story. There is a bit of muttering from the “younger dwarves” who would earlier have preferred to welcome the merry-making armies outside as friends rather than enemies, but although Tolkien later names Fili, Kili, and Bombur as having wished for a different solution, most still believe Thorin to be in the right. Later there is more widely felt dismay at the way Thorin behaves to Bilbo at the Gate, but it remains unspoken, so what he chooses to do must not be entirely unacceptable to them.
By this point in Boromir’s story, the power of the Ring had bested him, and turned his mind from a simple desire to protect Gondor, to the idea that he could rule quite effectively in Aragorn’s absence:
“Boromir strode up and down, speaking ever more loudly. Almost he seemed to have forgotten Frodo, while his talk dwelt on walls and weapons, and the mustering of men; and he drew plans for great alliances and glorious victories to be; and he cast down Mordor, and became himself a mighty king, benevolent and wise.” (FOTR)
This is reminiscent of Thorin’s thoughts “of weapons and armies and alliances” and his unlikely (in Gandalf’s opinion) “plans of battle and war”. Both were thinking as if they were kings, and yet neither had the resources of a king, and the futility of this makes them appear foolish.
At this point Boromir discards pretense, making his intentions clear to Frodo. His argument is not unreasonable; the Ringbearer wandering without escort of an army into the very heart of the evil that seeks it does sound like a bad idea. But Boromir refuses to recognize that he is being manipulated by Sauron when he thinks such thoughts. It takes an exceptional amount of trust in the council of the Wise, and an immense strength of will, to combat the siren song of the Ring, and Boromir was poor in this regard. The fact that he made it so far before attempting to take the Ring is a testament to his inherently honorable nature.
Both Boromir and Thorin descend into a maddened state when their respective hobbits thwart what they consider their right to the object of their desire. Boromir shouts at Frodo:
“If any mortals have claim to this Ring, it is the men of Numenor, and not Halflings. It is not yours save by unhappy chance. It might have been mine. It should be mine. Give it to me!”…And suddenly he sprang over the stone and leaped at Frodo. His fair and pleasant face was hideously changed; a raging fire was in his eyes. (TTT)
Thorin reacts no better when he sees the Arkenstone in the hands of his enemies:
Thorin at length broke the silence, and his voice was thick with wrath. “That stone was my father’s, and is mine,” he said….“How came you by it?” shouted Thorin in gathering rage. (The Hobbit)
When Bilbo admits that it was he who handed the Arkenstone over to Bard and the Elvenking, Thorin is not at all mollified by his honesty:
“You! You!” cried Thorin, turning upon him and grasping him with both hands. “You miserable hobbit! You undersized—burglar!” he shouted at a loss for words, and he shook poor Bilbo like a rabbit. (The Hobbit)
Gandalf finally speaks up and helps to redirect Thorin’s anger, persuading him to give Bilbo back unharmed, which he does with a curse. He wastes no time in sending messages to his approaching allies from the Iron Hills, informing them of the treachery. Thorin remains convinced he is doing the right thing, until possibly the very last moments of his life.
Boromir, on the other hand, feels the guilt of his actions immediately after Frodo disappears. But his honor wavers again as he only half explains to the group what transpired between himself and Frodo. Sam said it best when he told himself “Boromir isn’t lying, that’s not his way; but he hasn’t told us everything.” The typical honesty of Boromir is another mark in his favor, even if it slipped into deceit at the worst time. Incidentally, Thorin is also a poor liar in the books, presumably from lack of practice. The story he gave to the Goblin King would fool no one, and his terse answers to the Elvenking’s questioning in the dungeon of Mirkwood showed someone who would rather trust to silence than invention (I was pleased to see the movie version is possibly even less skilled at lying, being almost entirely silent during the audience with the Goblin King, and leaving the talking to Gandalf when Elrond asks about the map).
When Aragorn hears about what transpired with Frodo, he knows Boromir has really done it this time, but gives him a chance at redemption by finding and protecting Merry and Pippin from orcs. Pippin later recounted the fight:
Then Boromir had come leaping through the trees. He had made them fight. He slew many of them and the rest fled. But they had not gone far on the way back when they were attacked again, by a hundred Orcs at least, some of them very large, and they shot a rain of arrows: always at Boromir. Boromir had blown his great horn till the woods rang, and at first the Orcs had been dismayed and had drawn back; but when no answer but the echoes came, they had attacked more fiercely than ever. (TTT)
Aragorn hears the sound of Boromir’s horn, though he is not there to see the final fight:
Then suddenly with a deep-throated call a great horn blew, and the blasts of it smote the hills and echoed in the hollows, rising in a mighty shout above the roaring of the falls. (TTT)
There is an echo of the motif of the horn in a similar scene from Thorin’s charge into the Battle of Five Armies:
“To me! To me! Elves and Men! To me! O my kinsfolk!” He cried, and his voice shook like a horn in the valley. (The Hobbit)
While both Boromir and Thorin were able to beat back the enemy for a short time, the tide soon turned against them. Thorin’s group was “forced into a great ring, facing every way, hemmed all about with goblins and wolves returning to the assault.” The last stand of Thorin is given as an account after the battle:
The dwarves were making a stand still about their lords upon a low rounded hill. Then Beorn stooped and lifted Thorin, who had fallen pierced with spears, and bore him out of the fray. (The Hobbit)
We discover just how desperate the fight had become when we learn that Fili and Kili had “fallen defending him with shield and body, for he was their mother’s elder brother.”
Boromir’s battle had been lost as well. When Aragorn found him, he was alone, and the hobbits had been taken:
He was sitting with his back to a great tree, as if he was resting. But Aragorn saw that he was pierced with many black-feathered arrows; his sword was still in his hand, but it was broken near the hilts; his horn cloven in two was at his side. Many Orcs lay slain, piled all about him and at his feet. (TTT)
Thorin also showed the marks of a brutal battle:
There indeed lay Thorin Oakenshield, wounded with many wounds, and his rent armour and notched axe were cast upon the floor. (The Hobbit)
In his dying moments, Boromir admits to his ignoble actions:
Aragorn knelt beside him. Boromir opened his eyes and strove to speak. At last slow words came. “I tried to take the Ring from Frodo,” he said. “I am sorry. I have paid….Farewell, Aragorn! Go to Minas Tirith and save my people! I have failed.”
“No!” said Aragorn, taking his hand and kissing his brow. “You have conquered. Few have gained such a victory. Be at peace! Minas Tirith shall not fall!”
Boromir smiled. (TTT)
Likewise, Bilbo has a last audience with Thorin:
“Farewell, good thief,” he said. “I go now to the halls of waiting to sit beside my fathers, until the world is renewed. Since I leave now all gold and silver, and go where it is of little worth, I wish to part in friendship from you, and I would take back my words and deeds at the Gate.”
Bilbo knelt on one knee filled with sorrow. “Farewell, King under the Mountain!” he said. “This is a bitter adventure, if it must end so; and not a mountain of gold can amend it. Yet I am glad that I have shared in your perils—that has been more than any Baggins deserves.”
“No!” said Thorin. “There is more in you of good than you know, child of the kindly West. Some courage and some wisdom, blended in measure. If more of us valued food and cheer and song above hoarded gold, it would be a merrier world. But sad or merry, I must leave it now. Farewell!” (The Hobbit)
At the end, Boromir and Thorin acknowledge their mistakes, and repent of their choices. After death, both are laid to rest with great dignity. Thorin was buried in the Lonely Mountain, and his former enemies, Bard and the Elvenking, laid the Arkenstone and Orcrist upon his tomb.
Boromir was set upon the Great River in an elven boat by the remaining members of the Fellowship, with his cloven horn and broken sword. Through his death, Boromir had regained the respect of his companions, and the song that Aragorn and Legolas sing of him shows only remorse and honor.
But after all this, the question remains, can Thorin and Boromir still be considered noble? I feel the answer is an obvious yes, because while they may have made mistakes in life, both gave up their lives in payment. They never desired things only for their own needs. It is a very fine line, but in craving the Arkenstone, Thorin sought to protect the manifestation of his people’s pride, while Boromir’s desire for the Ring was only to help the people of Gondor. The Wise would have steered them away from such folly, but like most people of Middle-earth, they did not possess great wisdom, only a proud heart, a heavy burden, and the deeply felt legacy of their people.
And now, for another comparison of Thorin and Boromir, I encourage you to read Susan Messer Chan’s essay, which comes to slightly different conclusions about these two characters.
Additional info: For those who were wondering about what the scene from the film showing Thorin backing into the shadows might signify, here is an interview which is relevant. On page 2 Richard Armitage talks about greed, dragon sickness, Thror, and Thorin’s feelings about it all.