The Many Faces of Thranduil (29.09.14 by Tedoras) -
While much recent hype about Peter Jackson’s The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug has been focused on the captain of the Wood-elf guard, Tauriel, little has been said of her boss, King Thranduil of the Woodland Realm.
Yet, most of what is written about Thranduil is not found in The Hobbit at all; rather, we must turn to the Unfinished Tales—that great amalgamation of lore compiled and edited by Christopher Tolkien. While Thranduil plays an important (albeit small) role in the contemporary events of The Hobbit, his part in DoS has been expanded, and we can expect to see more of him in the third and final installment.
However, if we wish to understand how Thranduil will affect the future course of Thorin and Company’s quest, we must first look to his past.
Well, what is it that we already know about Thranduil? He is, of course, the King of the Wood-elves of Greenwood the Great, son of Oropher, and father of Legolas. Yet there is far more to his kingship than mere titles. Thranduil is descended from the line of the Sindar, or Grey Elves; yet the population over which he rules in Mirkwood is Silvan (the so-called Wood-elves). The mingling of these two peoples began in the beginning of the Second Age, when some of the Sindar elected not to leave Middle-earth, and so migrated eastward. It is said that under the Sindar, the Silvan elves “became again ordered folk and increased in wisdom” (UT 269). While it is hard to imagine any clan or line of elves as less than ideal, given the characteristics we as fans attribute to them (and, doubtless, inflate, too), Tolkien makes clear that there is a divarication. The Silvan of Mirkwood are, if not a lesser line, than a more distantly-sundered one in terms of culture, more firmly fixed in Middle-earth than their counterparts, who would seek to journey to the West. In this distinction of favor, that of the veritable earth versus the evanescent haven, we find the decline, the relegation of the Wood-elves to a lower status among elves, in perception only if in nothing else. But it is a concrete difference, culturally-ingrained and reinforced, and necessary to understand the ruling dynamic between Thranduil and his host.
Now, originally, the realm controlled by Oropher, Thranduil’s father, extended further south and east. But, in the Second Age, he made the decision to withdraw north of the Gladden Fields, in order “to be free from the power and encroachments of the Dwarves of Moria” (UT 270). While here we may see the roots of the enmity and distrust harbored by the elves of the Woodland Realm for the Line of Durin, it should be noted that Oropher also withdrew north in order to distance himself from the intrusion of Galadriel and Celeborn into his lands. Thus did Oropher begin to hide and distance his people from outside troubles, and thus did he stop all interference in affairs beyond the eaves of Mirkwood. Thranduil, it appears, inherited his father’s wariness and mistrust of strange folk. And it is, to this author’s mind, most interesting to note that even as relations with Lothlorien broke off, and even as the shadow crept further over Mirkwood, Thranduil maintained his father’s policy, knowing full well that there was common kinship between the Wood-elves and the Galadhrim. Thranduil would preserve secrecy and doubt over all else; even, as it appears, if it meant his people would have to struggle against encroachment themselves. Indeed, it was ultimately Galadriel and her folk that cleansed Dol Guldur, not the Wood-elves.
Despite the image his reserved and secretive nature conjures up, Thranduil, we cannot forget, was a valiant warrior. Thranduil fought alongside his father and their Silvan host in the Battle of Dagorlad as part of the Last Alliance. And, while Oropher was slain somewhere between the Dead Marshes and the Morannon, Thranduil survived the battle. Though Thranduil was crowned king upon his return, he noted the terrible loss his people had suffered (“he led back home barely a third of the army,” UT 271). It is perhaps this horrible experience of loss and death in battle that further pushed Thranduil to shelter his people in the fastness of the Greenwood, to further prevent involvement in such matters, since he knows the cost of war too well. Thus, while we do see Thranduil’s folk come to war in the Battle of Five Armies, I believe we must consider this a rather calculated decision by a prudent lord not rash to throw his people into disarray and death. His motivation for war (be it insufferable enmity or avarice—though I do find these motivators unbecoming of Thranduil in either case) must have, indeed, been great.
While not touched on in The Hobbit, Thranduil’s participation in the War of the Last Alliance is perhaps the single most influential event in his life. The horrors of the war (beyond the death of his revered father and the ravaging of his army) stuck with him long after victory was won. As the Third Age began, Thranduil and his folk felt a resurgence of fear and anxiety, an ominous air blowing from the East. While shadow and doubt slowly crept westward, Thranduil felt still a “deeper shadow” in his heart, for “he had seen the horror of Mordor and could not forget it” (UT 271). The pain of war remained very real for Thranduil, and “if ever he looked south its memory dimmed the light of the Sun” (UT 271). This sense of fear—a paralyzing, lasting dread—contrasts with the stern and proud king portrayed in the novel and on film. But for all his fear, Thranduil remained a wise and discerning leader; he understood the changes he felt in the world, and “fear spoke in his heart that [Mordor] was not conquered for ever” (UT 271). Thus, when at last the Shadow reached the Woodland Realm, Thranduil led his people further north and east; and there, in a far corner of the Wood, they built and fortified great halls.
Interestingly, Thranduil took inspiration from another great Sinda before him, and, “following the example of King Thingol,” he delved underground, though his works rivaled not Menegroth of old (UT 272). It was indubitably a massive undertaking, but it serves to highlight this leader’s commitment to his people; for if there is one thing this delving conveys, it is a deep desire for peace, isolation, and security. Yet, for all their remarkable works and the ever-noble rule of Thranduil, the Silvan Elves of Mirkwood were still held as “rude and rustic” (UT 272). Their sundering from the rest of Elvendom goes beyond linguistic, geographic, and other cultural boundaries; rather, it is derived from a fundamental difference in worldview. Most importantly, the Silvan Elves of Mirkwood live with the inheritance of their Sindarin rulers, who “wished...to return...to the simple life natural to the Elves before the invitation of the Valar had disturbed it” (UT 272). It is a stark difference, and it runs straight to the core of the greatest internal struggle in Elvendom; yet, Thranduil and his folk give a firm, defiant answer, where others are far more subtle and cautious in their decision. But from a simplistic standpoint, the achievements of this group of Elves (and their lords Oropher and Thranduil, in particular) are all the more impressive.
With the full history of Thranduil in mind, a rather different image of the King of Greenwood the Great emerges. Certainly, Thranduil is not given just treatment in The Hobbit: the noteworthy contributions of this valiant leader are, unfortunately, not noted. The Unfinished Tales provides great context for deeper understanding of this elf-king, but these are often overlooked by fans (though that work deserves as much scrutiny and focus as any). The films have so far shown Thranduil in an expanded role, but he is as yet removed from the figure we have explored.
As the third and final installment of the film series is prepared for release, we are left to wonder about Thranduil’s role. There is, of course, the Battle of Five Armies, but questions circle as to the fate of Dol Guldur (brought into the plot in film two), his relationship with Tauriel, and the portrayal of the final standoff post-battle. Regardless, knowing more about Thranduil has me, at least, hoping that this Elf-lord will finally get some well-deserved attention.
References to the text from:
Unfinished Tales by J.R.R. Tolkien, edited by Christopher Tolkien. Del Rey/Ballantine Books, 1988.
Artwork by: Saramondo and JonHodgson.
Title: Unfinished Tales of Numenor and Middle-Earth
Authors: J.R.R. Tolkien
Publisher: Mariner Books
Publication Date: 7 Oct 2014
Type: paperback, 480 pages
About Ted Fruchtman
Ted is a scholar, bibliophile, and linguist who regularly publishes about Tolkien online. Be sure to look for his works on TolkienLibrary.com and at TheOneRing.net, where he writes under the name Tedoras.
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