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2.8.14 To Defend Oropher’s Son/The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug (Film Comments 9, “Flies and Spiders,” Part 5)

2.8.14 To Defend Oropher’s Son/The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug (Film Comments 9, “Flies and Spiders,” Part 5)

The Wood-elves, Tauriel & Legolas (Evangeline Lilly & Orlando Bloom) from The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug (New Line Cinema, 2013)

The Wood-elves, Tauriel & Legolas (Evangeline Lilly & Orlando Bloom) from The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug (New Line Cinema, 2013)

Good Morning, Everyone!

Finally, we’re at the hall of the elf-king, briefly detailed in the last couple pages of J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit (“Chapter VIII: Flies & Spiders”), and incredibly expanded upon in Peter Jackson’s film adaptation, The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug.  Now, Tolkien aficionados are very well aware of the great divergence that’s occurred between book & film, but for the uninitiated, here are the facts that have some critics of Jackson’s adaptation massing against the film-maker like Saruman’s Uruk-hai marching on Helm’s Deep.

importimagesource=MCthe-hobbit-desolation-of-smaug-thranduil-cropped55085Fan-Rage Critique 1: Retro-fitting roles of Thranduil & Legolas (from The LotR, The Silmarillion, & Appendices in RotK):  While known as “Thranduil” (Lee Pace) in an appendix to The Return of the King (& also named in The Silmarillion), the Wood-elven King that appears at the end of this chapter is never named in Tolkien’s original version of The Hobbit; nor, for that matter, is his son, Legolas (Orlando Bloom), who first appears in “The Council of Elrond” chapter in The Fellowship of the Ring.  Bringing this father/son dynamic into high relief is but the first of many problems that detractors have with Jackson’s work. In the original conclusion to “Flies & Spiders,” Tolkien merely emphasizes the distrust that the Wood-elves have for all dwarves, then describes a brief interrogation of Thorin & Co. that ends with the king saying, “Take [Thorin] away and keep him safe, until he feels inclined to tell the truth, even if he waits a hundred years.”

Thranduil (voiced by Otto Preminger, Rankin-Bass, 1977)

Thranduil (voiced by Otto Preminger, Rankin-Bass, 1977)

In the book, the Elf-King and his people — along with everyone in Wilderland — live in great fear of Smaug, and by the end of the novel the Wood-elves unite with the dwarves because of the promise of gold and jewels (only after being coerced by the common threat that the goblin-and-warg army pose to Men, Elves, & Dwarves).  That miserly depiction of Thranduil governed the previous presentation of him in 1977’s Rankin-Bass animated film (Think of the wildly inflected voice that Otto Preminger  imparted to Thranduil in that cartoon:  “Our people have suffered greatly from the Worm over the years…”)  Jackson & Co. went a completely different route here, and, in my mind — again, for a feature film — the dynamic of making the elven and dwarvish kingdoms have a true history with one another raises the believability (and stakes) to another level —a level that we’ll see brought to a climax in next year’s concluding film of this Hobbit adaptation, There and Back Again.

Thorin & Thranduil (Richard Armitage & Lee Pace)

Thorin & Thranduil (Richard Armitage & Lee Pace)

Fan-Rage Critique 2: Making the animosity between Thranduil & Thorin a crucial plot point: While Jackson’s film adaptation takes much from Tolkien’s posthumous work, “The Quest for Erebor” (in Unfinished Tales), critics believe too much license has been taken with the Elven-king character, especially with regard to Thranduil turning away from the  dwarves in An Unexpected Journey when Smaug invades Erebor, and completely changing Thranduil’s motives. That is, in the text, Tolkien wrote:

…to the cave they [the Wood-elves] dragged Thorin — not too gently, for they did not love dwarves, and thought he was the enemy.  In ancient days they had had wars with some of the dwarves, whom they accused of stealing treasure.  It is only fair to say that the dwarves gave a different account, and said that they only took what was their due, for the elf-king had bargained with them to shape his raw gold and silver, and had afterwards refused to give them their pay.  If the elf-king had a weakness it was for treasure, especially for silver and white gems… [J.R.R. Tolkien, The Hobbit —1966 version, pp. 179-180.]

Tolkien, "Elf Woods" (by Ted Nasmith)

Tolkien, “Elf Woods” (by Ted Nasmith)

Viewers of the film who’d like to see an adaptation that follows The Hobbit’s Thranduil, are better served by going back to the 1977 cartoon, which cleaves this simple depiction, and ignores the back-history that Tolkien later imparted to him and his bloodline in The Silmarillion and the Appendix in The Return of the King. In those accounts, we learn that Thranduil and Legolas aren’t even “true” Wood-elves (they’re actually what Tolkien called Grey Elves, of the “Sindar,” many of whom had migrated to the West after the Wars of the Second Age, and Morgoth’s incursions into Beleriand).  Here is where I think that detractors of The Desolation of Smaug have done a disservice to Jackson & Co., who reveal themselves to be so steeped in Middle Earth lore that I’m not surprised none of the screenwriters has dignified these kinds of critiques with a response.  Tolkien critics have prided themselves in exclaiming outraged variations of “WTF?” whenever the elves get some screen time in these Hobbit film adaptations, often expressing that Jackson’s “padding” the original story for the sake of making a trilogy out of Tolkien’s original one-off.  More, in critiquing Thranduil simply as a cold s.0.b. who’s threatened by (and fearful of) everything, those critics forget (or don’t know) that this Sindarin elf has been hiding out for centuries because of what happened to his father, Oropher.

Thranduil (Lee Pace)

Thranduil (Lee Pace)

Oro-who?  Thranduil’s father, Oropher, was one of the Sindarin elf-kings slain at the Battle of Dargolad.  In Jackson’s The Fellowship of the Ring, remember that huge battle scene at the beginning, where the combined forces of Gil-gilad, Elendil, Elrond, & Isildur fought at the base of Mount Doom against the Dark Lord’s armies?  Tolkien called that war the Last Alliance of Elves and Men.  Sauron lost, had the One Ring sliced off his finger, and disappeared for 500 years. Where did Thranduil go for that half a millennium? He retreated to (and hid out in) Mirkwood!  This appears to be the characterization that Jackson’s taking, both because of the martial hardiness of the warriors under the command of Legolas and Tauriel, and also because of the repeated moments of hesitation and fury that Thranduil shows. Of course he’s going to have reservations about involving himself in anybody’s affairs, let alone dwarves whose king’s greed attracted Smaug.

Sauron watches Battle of Darolad (by Paul Lasaine)

Sauron watches Battle of Darolad (LotR, by Paul Lasaine)

Jackson knows all of this, and has depicted Thranduil in a way that’s completely in keeping with the lineage/events set forth by Tolkien.  Did you notice the moments of hesitation when Thranduil did nothing while watching Smaug make a barbecue of the dwarves of Erebor in An Unexpected Journey?  Did you think it a bit strange that every time either Thorin or the captured orc is about to reveal something important, Thranduil either imprisons (Thorin) or decapitates (orc) them?  Did it seem strange that an elf-king with fighters as adept as Legolas and Tauriel would shut the doors to his kingdom because of the arrival of a few dwarves pursued by the white orc, Blog, and his troops?  It would upset you ONLY IF YOU FORGOT/DIDN’T KNOW THAT THRANDUIL’S FATHER WAS SLAIN BY THE FORCES OF SAURON AT DARGOLAD!!!  If you’d been hiding out successfully for half a millennium, and the worst thing you had to do was occasionally kill some giant spiders, would you be tempted to take your forces against a dragon (or Necromancer)?  

Elves of the First Age: The Kinslaying at Aqualondë (Tolkien, The Silmarillion, by Ted Nasmith)

Elves of the First Age: The Kinslaying at Aqualondë (Tolkien, The Silmarillion, by Ted Nasmith)

Don’t get me wrong, I don’t necessarily like the character of Thranduil, but in these instances of (1) seeing a dragon destroy Erebor, and (2) watching minions of a resurgent Dark Lord invading his kingdom, his hesitation and reticence at getting involved do become understandable.  (I’ll deal with what the presence of Smaug might mean to an elf in a later blog — suffice to say, in the Wars of the First Age, the Dragon Glaurung was a general for Sauron’s master, Morgoth…not much of a stretch to think that Thranduil here might be fearful that Sauron himself might want to have his own dragon as an asset.)

Elrond Half-Elven (Hugo Weaving)

Elrond Half-Elven (Hugo Weaving)

Moreover, that narrative tack gives (1) a more varied look at different elven cultures within Middle Earth (heretofore we’ve really only seen the 6,ooo-year-old Elrond, who was actually “half-elven,” meaning that he and his twin brother were descended from Luthien, and like Gandalf/Mithrandir, was partially one of the Maiar who chose to live out his immortal life as an elf); with Thranduil & Legolas, we get to see “pure” elves, which should make any Tolkien fan really excited to at least see an attempt by Jackson to show more of the “races” of Middle Earth that Tolkien was so careful to delineate.  We also get to see (2) a lot more depth in the character of Legolas, who by disagreeing with his father (and ultimately leaving Mirkwood against Thranduil’s wishes), begins to reveal the path that it took him to become part of the fellowship which would destroy the One Ring in LotR.

In all of these considerations, Peter Jackson and his fellow screenwriters have shown not (as some “Tolkien fans” are clamoring) that they’re trying to make an extra buck by extending The Hobbit story into three films, but that they’re actually doing justice to all of the characters and mythology that Tolkien spent the majority of his life creating.  (More explanations about Thranduil’s background at http://askmiddlearth.tumblr.com/)

Next time:  To Defend Legolas and Tauriel! 

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