The Hobbit Trilogy Is Almost Over

hobbitI’ve written tens of thousands of words on the Hobbit trilogy. It truly appears that there is nothing left for me to say about it. But it’s not over. Not yet.

As all True Hobbit Fans know, the movies aren’t official over until the extended edition comes out and we are nearing the release date of Peter Jackson’s last Middle Earth extended edition. (The digital edition arrive October 20 while the Blu Ray arrives November 17).

What does this mean?

I don’t know. A lot of the narrative weight of the trilogy rests on the last film. The first two films in the series raised a ton of questions about the questionable nature of Thorin’s quest, the significance of the Arkenstone, possible necromancy in Dol Guldur, and Smaug’s political alliance with Sauron. Many of those questions got left behind as the tension between the different armies kicked into high gear. Characters were slain, including dwarves we had known for three movies, but their deaths didn’t quite resonate with the emotional impact many were expecting. It ended almost too soon.

The theatrical version did give us one final spectacular battle but curiously removed the main heroes from the heat of battle and had them split up to get killed off one by one.

The Dol Guldur subplot that has been years in the making resulted a cameo-filled battle that was both visually stunning battle and painfully short.

Even the signature Peter Jackson length was trimmed down to neat 2 hours and 24 minutes, instead of his trademark 3 hours.

The biggest issue however is that the third film was juggling way too many balls. It didn’t quite figure out how to integrate Tauriel, Legolas, Radagast, and Alfrid into the story naturally. It didn’t solve the mystery of the dwarven rings of power. It didn’t explain Thorin’s dragon sickness or even give him a heroic death. And it didn’t quite set up a satisfying link to the next trilogy.

I’m not saying the trilogy is a failure. I wouldn’t have spent literally days of my life watching, rewatching, and analyzing the films if I didn’t have an inordinate love toward them. But I have to wonder if there’s any way the extended edition could rehabilitate the parts of the installment that didn’t work out. Could the extended edition redeem the film? Will it sufficiently answer all our questions?

Probably not. What’s done is done. An extended edition will most likely be just a longer version of what we already have, not an actual reworking of material. We’ll get a little more here and there, an extra action set piece involving the dwarves, and hopefully a little more resolution for Thorin’s death in the form of an actual funeral, but it is what it is.

The Hobbit is an ambitious trilogy that had a lot of potential and actually turned out pretty great considering the conditions under which it was made (a stalled production that was suddenly rushed into existence with a reluctant substitute director with only three months to prepare), but those limitations really show up most in this third film. Although it’s a minor miracle that it got made at all, that doesn’t make the loose ends easier to swallow.

Even though the creative decision to split the films into a trilogy at the last minute didn’t result with a powerful conclusion to the story, it did give us more time with a stellar cast of memorable characters in a stunning fantasy world, three beautifully haunting scores, and 27 hours of behind-the-scenes features that are a masterclass in blockbuster filmmaking all by themselves.

I eagerly await the final extended edition and will be watching as soon as it hits digital shelves. The Hobbit Trilogy for all its flaws is still leaps and bound above most fantasy films and an enthralling ride back to Middle Earth. Even if the plot is shaky from time to time, the characters and the world they inhabit will continue to hold up for years to come. What will our final 20 minutes with The Hobbit be like? I can’t wait.

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A Final Overview: The Battle of the Five Armies

bilbo and thorin

If you’re reading this, you’re probably aware that I have devoted extensive time to writing about the Hobbit trilogy. By now everyone knows that this series was never intended to be a straightforward retelling of the book but rather a modern fantasy epic using the style and appendices of The Lord of the Rings. While the accusations of narrative bloat and creative shortcomings have accompanied many reviews of the new trilogy, it’s easy to forget that the glory of Lord of the Rings is not without its own complications.

When I saw The Fellowship of the Ring I was a high school freshman several months after September 11 rocked the nation. It was the most exciting, imaginative, and beautiful movie I had ever seen. I went back and saw it in the theater two more times. But many of the college students I talk to today have never seen Lord of the Rings nor are interested in doing so. The Return of the King‘s famous Oscar sweep in 2004 might as well be ancient history to them. The first trilogy despite it many merits still struggles to have an appeal outside of genre fans.

And long before the complaints about Radagast and Tauriel began rolling in, Tolkien purists remained rather vigilant about the numerous changes from the books. Aragorn wasn’t supposed to be self-doubting. Tom Bombadil wasn’t an expendable side character. Gimli was never supposed to play for comic relief. Despite spawning a widespread fanbase and garnering academy approval, Peter Jackson’s first trilogy had its own share of concerns. For many adult filmgoers, this whole project was simply too long, too slow, and too incomprehensible.

Holding up Lord of the Rings as the golden standard and The Hobbit films as its less inspired relative obscures several facts. The young people who most needed fantasy in 2001 are all grown up and the new generation most likely to relate to this genre have found a replacement in Harry Potter, Twilight, The Hunger Games. It is also very unlikely that the nostalgic value we have for Star Wars, Indiana Jones, Lord of the Rings, and other fond series of our youth will ever be matched by the next new thing that comes out. We are simply more discerning, self-aware, and grown up than we once were to fall for the charms of something like a Hobbit movie.

It was true however that Lord of the Rings stood the test of time as the one fantasy series that defied the box office and challenged the prevailing notions of what a truly great fantasy epic could be. Out of New Zealand’s bootstrapped film industry a worldwide phenomenon had been born. Fans enthusiastically rewatched the extended editions every year, dressed up as their favorite characters, and evangelized the cause of a cinematic Middle Earth. Since there was really was no other easily adaptable or legally accessible Tolkien work out there, it really came down to The Hobbit as the last and only chance to further this cinematic legacy.

After an extensive period of working out the movie rights to a film adaptation of The Hobbit, a bitter lawsuit between Peter Jackson and New Line Cinema, and even a labor dispute settled by national legislation, Guillermo Del Toro arrived as the man to carry forth this vision and expand it in a different direction. Working alongside Peter Jackson’s team, he would have made a fascinating and unmistakably personal adaptation of The Hobbit. But months of production setbacks cut his dream short, also freeing him to launch the world of Pacific Rim. With the promise of The Hobbit films fading fast, co-writer and producer Peter Jackson stepped in as director and gave the project the impetus it needed to get a green light.

Whereas Jackson had spent three years on pre-production for Lord the Rings, now he had only months before filming was set to begin. Creatures that Guillermo had designed no longer fit in with Jackson’s directorial vision and had to be started over from scratch. Pre-production, production, and post-production would all have to happen simultaneously for these films to get finished on time. The luxury of careful planning that had accompanied the filmmakers in the first trilogy were simply not there for the second. Creature designs like the goblins that were intended to be shot in live action tested poorly and were changed to motion capture. Several crucial design pieces like Azog and Smaug did not get finished until shockingly late into post-production.

The summer before An Unexpected Journey premiered, Jackson was looking over their early cuts of the film and decided that they had much more material than could easily fit into a trim two-part story. Even though The Hobbit is a relatively short book, it includes many characters, encounters, and locations worthy of expanding upon. The thirteen dwarves alone would require a significant amount of screentime to avoid being mere caricatures. Archetypal figures like Bard, the Master, and the king of the Woodelves would need additional time to fully flesh out. And it was not without precedent to expand upon such a story.

After publishing Lord of the Rings, Tolkien himself had gone back to The Hobbit and altered the significance of Bilbo’s encounter with Gollum to highlight the significance of the One Ring. He also had greatly expanded upon the backstory of Thorin Oakenshield’s quest to retake Erebor in the appendices of Return of the King. Drawing inspiration from these changes, Jackson and his writing team of Philippa Boyens and his wife Fran Walsh split up their two part Hobbit film into three films. To do this, they completely rewrote their scripts to create a new third script, The Desolation of Smaug. Suddenly the duology’s lightly developed characters like Tauriel and Bard would be given more lines to be filmed during reshoots. Legolas would be given more screen time. And Gandalf’s mysterious off-screen adventures apart from the Company would be included in full, demanding the return of iconic members of the White Council.

Would these changes work? Could the lightweight children’s story handle the narrative equivalent of heavy steroids to bring it up to the stature of the first trilogy? While there are plenty of issues to talk about here, I think we should first applaud and admire Jackson’s ambitious attempt to craft a worthy prequel and in some small sense continue the Professor’s work. There is much to so much appreciate here in this three-film marriage of story, acting, cinematography, stunt work, animation, costume design, and scoring. And even if many do not like the final result, it’s clear that most have at the very least decided to go watch this last entry in theaters anyway.

The Hobbit films on a whole don’t manage to reach the heights of The Lord of the Rings. But that’s okay. I’m not sure they needed to. This trilogy has both the benefits and constraints of being a studio production. It’s enriched by the immense talent of hardworking Kiwis, its characters embodied by fine actors, its universe crafted by an expert filmmaking crew. If not a perfect follow up to the first trilogy, The Hobbit can only be intended to be enjoyable entertainment for a global audience. Creating an epic prequel trilogy worthy of The Lord of the Rings seems just as daunting as filming of the notoriously “unfilmable” Lord of the Rings itself. It really shouldn’t be possible nor would it be wise to expect lightning to strike twice.

My problem with most negative reviews of The Hobbit films is that rarely do they take these natural limitations into consideration. It’s strange not to care that the production was rushed or that the source material was limited, but still demand a better movie. Pessimists assume that Jackson split the films into three to make more money, that the trilogy itself is an act of creative hubris, and the story changes fundamentally dishonor Tolkien’s printed words by expanding upon them. Such criticism assumes the worst of Jackson and his writing team for trying.

To be fair, there is much Hobbit merchandise surrounding the project. Someone clearly made a lot of money on this venture. However Peter Jackson is probably already rich enough to not have to work long hard days and nights over something he doesn’t truly care for. Any careful observer would know that, for whatever their faults, Jackson, Boyens, and Walsh would not purposefully water down their scripts just to milk the last few dollars out of a nostalgic fanbase. Perhaps an eager studio might, but not the people giving their blood, sweat, and tears every day for four years. Why are we so afraid to give them the benefit of the doubt?

One reason is that there are many more problematic issues with The Hobbit trilogy than there was with Lord of the Rings. The formerly rare big budget fantasy epic is now much more common than it was in 2001. Disney has been releasing one large scale live action fantasy every year. The restrained CGI of the first trilogy is now greatly overused at the expense of the story, The Hobbit films being no exception. The astonished audiences who saw Lord of the Rings in theaters are now older, more cynical, and less impressed by movies in general having long since realized that nothing will quite capture their imaginations like the first time they watched Star Wars as a kid.

With two divisive Hobbit movies down, what could The Battle of the Five Armies possibly offer? What would a successful end to such an ambitious but inferior trilogy even look like?

Now that we have finally seen the third and final film, it looks like we know. As it stands, cutting out huge portions of a long book seems much easier than expanding and developing a short one. While The Hobbit films often capture the magic and feel of Middle Earth and excels in giving us fresh new characters and locales to enjoy, they also suffer from the relatively simplistic undergirding narrative of the book.

If there is one major issue with The Battle of the Five Armies, it is the lack of narrative payoff for everything that we have seen in the last two films. Despite the epic feel and nature of this revisionist Hobbit story, it is at its heart still too faithful to the events Tolkien wrote. The Arkenstone is just a shiny gem, nothing as instrumental as a ruling ring of power. The Necromancer is just an offscreen menace shrouded in mystery, not a true character. Thorin hiding in Erebor not helping his kin seems out of place. Bilbo, the purported main character, is really just along for the ride and doesn’t having much at stake in the outcome of the climatic battle.

It was thought that there would be major story reasons for things like the addition of Azog, the Ringwraiths, Radagast, the White Council, Legolas, Tauriel, and even Sauron himself. It turns out that none of them matter quite as much as they should have.Instead of serving as acceptable background elements, one or two them might have been revelatory. From the massive build up to Dol Guldur, most people probably expected a development beyond “Look, Sauron is back!”

Another concern is that the true antagonist of the series is dead before the title credits. Smaug is a masterful villain and an impressive enemy, but his death leaves one huge hole to fill. This is issue that stems directly from the book. Arguably it would be much more interesting to have a dragon actually fight in the big battle. To overcome this challenge, the filmmakers allow Smaug’s evil to persist even after his death through Thorin’s dragon-sickness. The final film takes a leap and subtly departs from the wild adventures Bilbo and becomes much more the Shakespearean tragedy of Thorin Oakenshield.

Unlike Aragorn, this king’s journey does not end with a rightful throne, a beautiful queen, and a promising heir. His descent into total paranoia is a far cry from the ruggedly inspiring leader we saw in the prologue fighting outside the gates of Moria or guiding the exiles through the wilderness. Jackson’s imaginative portrayal of this mental and moral decay is masterfully achieved in the psychedelic sequences inside the halls of Erebor. He is a king slowly gone mad, corrupted by greed, only finding redemption at the last moment.  While we do get the sense that the filmmakers are fighting an uphill battle, we see them make the best of a story that kills off its most interesting villain long before the final act. The Hobbit films are necessarily as much or more about Thorin than Bilbo. While Thorin may not be as charismatic as Aragorn or as heartwarming as Frodo, he is an unforgettable and valuable protagonist in this reimagined Middle Earth saga.

There are hints floating around online that Jackson was forced by the studio to trim down this final film so that theaters could fit in more showings and generate more money. If this is true, it is unfortunate because The Hobbit finale needed much more story resolution than what we get in the completed film. No where is this more evident than in the deaths of Kili, Fili, and Thorin. In particular Fili, the heir to the throne after his bachelor uncle, received little attention both before and after his death. For a character that has been with us for three films, albeit somewhat on the sidelines, he could have been greatly improved with some additional dialogue and screen time. But perhaps what the three royal Dwarves needed most of all, and what was sorely missed, was a funeral scene and a heartfelt acknowledgement by Bilbo and the other dwarves who would be most impacted by this great loss. For whatever reason, these deaths are quickly passed over in the film leaving the audience little time to process and mourn their passing. This brings up a more salient point about the third film in general.

It is useful to think of The Battle of the Five Armies as a discontinuing of the story that begin at Bag End and something else altogether. The story of the dwarven company of Thorin Oakenshield effectively ends once the dragon is slain and Erebor is reclaimed. Their goal is accomplished. However what has unfolded along the way is somewhat divorced from what came before. While the dwarves do not care much for the plight of the men of the lake, Bard’s story is only halfway done once Smaug is slain. The same goes for Thranduil who sees a ripe opportunity to reclaim the white gems inside Erebor. And behind all this is Sauron who secretly has been marshaling his armies to gain a strategic position in the North and has possibly even recruited a dragon to his cause.

This is not an invention of Jackson but a later point made by Tolkien in a writing called The Quest for Erebor found in the appendices. While the simpler story of the dwarves increasingly becomes tangential to the more comprehensive story of the woodelves, the lakemen, and Sauron’s armies, we are seeing a massive narrative shift under way. This is by design. There is a reason that for years the filmmakers have occasionally referred to the second (now third) film as a “bridge film.” Using Tolkien’s own words as a starting point, the writers have taken The Battle of the Five Armies and used it to tell the story of the larger geopolitical forces at work in Middle Earth rather than the smaller story of the titular hobbit and Thorin’s largely self-centered quest.

This is a film that requires two endings, not one. We need a proper resolution for the Company of Thorin and a completely different one for the men, elves, and dwarves who have staked so much in battle. The first two films denied us payoff for so long, tantalizing us with future developments like the White Council, the Arkenstone, the addition of Tauriel and Legolas, and Azog’s return from the dead that it ultimately leaves us wondering how all of it is supposed to fit together. The final answer is uncertain and it is little use to hope that the extended edition will sort any of this out. It turns out that everything new that was added really just was padding and that the basic story of the book is still the same basic story of the films. Such padding isn’t necessarily bad – I liked Tauriel, Radagast, Azog, et. – but I did hope that it was all going to build into something more.

That is not however to say that I think the trilogy and its final entry are a failure. I find them massively enjoyable, rewatchable, entertaining, heartwarming, and finely crafted. In many ways I prefer them to Lord of the Rings for their lightheartedness and their great spirit of adventure. Upon watching the credits close over The Battle of the Five Armies, I find much to like about the third film.

One of the highlights of the film is the Dol Guldur sequence, perhaps the most obvious example of a subplot in recent memory. In An Unexpected Journey we were teased with the resurrection of the Witch-king, the possible return of Sauron, and a new fortress based at Dol Guldur. However even more exciting was the reality that the White Council would lead an assault there as recorded in the appendices. Galadriel’s promise of help was a perfect indicator that this was going to happen. Gandalf and Radagast further confirm that the Nazgul have escaped their graves in The Desolation of Smaug. The extended edition ends with Gandalf discovering Thrain, confirming Smaug’s alliance with Sauron, and being defeated by the Dark Lord himself. When Galadriel, Elrond, Saruman, and Radagast reach Dol Gulur, indeed they witness for themselves the resurgent Sauron and his spectral lieutenants.

Luckily they happen to be some of the most powerful beings in Middle Earth. Elrond and Saruman deftly counter the nine during a rapidfire series of attacks. Galadriel revives the fallen wizard and delivers him to the safety of Radagast’s sled. With the Nazgul dispatched, Galadriel confronts the Dark Lord herself and drives him off in a frenetic supernatural battle of wills. While not as stylish as the dark/light battle of Gandalf and Sauron from the second movie, it accomplishes the forced retreat of Sauron from Dol Guldur to the East. The implication here is that the diminished Sauron will be less able to influence Middle Earth banished to the less centrally located stronghold of Barad Dûr. The elimination of both his headquarters and his twin orc armies in this film would seem to be deathblow to his plans, but we know it is only a setback until the ring of power can be found.

The events of Dol Gulur are concisely presented and provide a nice excuse to visit old favorites from the original trilogy. While they don’t add too much to the overall story of The Hobbit, they showcase an important development straight out of Tolkien’s mythology and a serve as a reminder to the large happenings surrounding Thorin’s quest. While this subplot is not essential to the The Hobbit, it’s too expensive to only film for the sake of an extended edition and the only real alternative was to not bother filming it at all. I’m glad they included it.

Considering The Battle of the Five Armies as a whole, I think the first two thirds of the film are spectacular and close to perfect in their execution. Even after the thrilling Smaug vs. Bard sequence, the plight of the lakemen and the arrival of Thranduil’s forces pretty much builds to an uneasy standoff between the alliance of men and elves and Thorin in his mountain. The addition of Dain and the dwarves of the Iron Hills only raises the stakes.

During this pre-battle phase of the film, Bilbo’s loyalty to Thorin is profoundly tested. Their conversations together are believably tense, leading up to his reluctant betrayal. While Bard hopes to resolve things peacefully, Thranduil seizes upon this opportunity. You really feel all the chess pieces moving around. This is fitting for what is pretty much the only Middle Earth film where the main cast doesn’t actually travel anywhere.

When the orcs finally emerge from their tunnels aided by the fabled were-worms (only hinted at in the book), the action proceeds like a smaller version of Helm’s Deep or Pellenor Fields. You can’t fault Jackson for the mostly solid fantasy battle that follows. If it doesn’t exactly match the hype of the marketing or the nostalgic perfection of Return of the King, the final product is still a league ahead of the confusing battle chaos found in most modern fantasies like Jack and the Giant Slayer, Snow White and the Huntsman, or last year’s Maleficent. The fighting tends to move throughout the course of the battle from the gates of Erebor toward and into the strategic position of Dale itself.

Perhaps what is more surprising is Jackson’s decision to set aside the battlefield altogether and instead transport Thorin to Ravenhill for his final stand against Azog. This has the unfortunate result of the relegating the battle to the background. We all pretty much expected Thorin to die on the main battlefield in heroic fashion, but instead Jackson opts for a set of isolated skirmishes away from the main armies. While in theory it was probably a smart move, it suffers in execution as the dwarves’ decision to split up seems unfounded and the string of deaths it sets off lacks the emotional impact they deserve.

After Fili and Kili are unceremoniously killed off, Thorin initiates a final duel with Azog over a frozen river. This sequence is an interesting visual choice but it just doesn’t work as well as it’s supposed to. Balancing on slabs of ice and villains emerging from beneath the ice somehow feels like less than what the final battle of this trilogy deserved. As a fan of westerns, I would much prefer the style of a prolonged standoff in the vein of Sergio Leone like they did with the end of An Unexpected Journey.

Thorin himself seems to backtrack on his character growth. For all Thorin’s other virtues, his animosity with Azog has always been motivated by revenge pure and simple. Yes, he is helping turn the tide of battle down below but Thorin has wanted this duel from the very beginning and has always chosen to retaliate against Azog’s savagery with suicidal assaults of his own. Even though Thorin doesn’t die saving anyone or sacrificing himself for a bigger cause, he does yield to Azog’s blade just in time to finish off the pale orc. At least he finished what he started. While it would have been nice to have Thorin die for some higher purpose, I suppose this way is befitting the less heroic and more turbulent character that we have already seen across these three films.

The arrival of Beorn, Radagast, and the eagles to wipe out the second army is sudden and swift. It seems like a missed opportunity. However it is true that the main thrust of the story and all its primary characters have already met their eventual fates. While more battlefield sequences with a skin-changing bear at their center might seem warranted, they could have just as easily come off as unnecessary and indulgent. At its heart this is still Bilbo and Thorin’s story after all.

In the final scenes between the dying Thorin and the hobbit who betrayed him, we get a much needed resolution that is somewhat lacking in the rest of the denouement. Thorin understands that Bilbo gave away the Arkenstone to protect him and Bilbo understands that this king under the mountain, despite many his faults and temporary insanity, remains his friend at the very end. Though evil may have cut short their time together, the bonds of loyalty they have forged together undoubtedly endures beyond the grave.

There are other clues given about the future of the other characters. While we knew that a romance between Tauriel and Kili was never going to work out, it is a bitter end for both of them. Her desire to contribute to the greater good of Middle Earth which has led her to pursue evil all the way to mountain now results in her seeing Kili die before her eyes. Oddly enough, it is the series’ great anti-hero, Thranduil, who steps in to provide her solace in her grief. The white gems that Thranduil has been seeking belong to a necklace his dead wife once wore, his last remaining reminder of her. That death has helped turn Thranduil into the cautious, mistrusting isolationist that he is. Not only has Thranduil lost his wife and been left to mourn her all his immortal days but he now has lost his son, the other last reminder of her. But it is this same sense of loss that also allows him to finally crack a bit and comfort Tauriel. While we do not know what becomes of Thranduil and Tauriel, we do see Legolas’ decision to leave the Woodland Realm for good and join the Rangers of the North.

When it is time for Bilbo to leave the dwarves and return home, we get the overwhelming sense that things can never be the same again. Erebor is reclaimed but without the line of Thror to lead it. Bilbo has succeeded as an invaluable burglar, but he has suffered deadly perils in the form of trolls, giants, spiders, and orcs, the burning of Lake-town, the madness of Thorin, his own betrayal of the dwarves, the seduction of the One Ring, and a gruesome war that has left bodies strewn across the battlefield. This has been an important journey but one with great cost. As it turns out, slaying dragons and stealing treasure is not as idyllic at they seem.

When Bilbo reaches the borders of the Shire, he is changed. Gandalf cannot accompany him any further because his true return is something only Bilbo can do on his own. Bilbo’s prime motivation for helping the dwarves has always been his love of home and his stated goal has been to help them retake their ancestral mountain. However back in Hobbiton, Bilbo’s possessions have been auctioned off and for a moment we get a glimpse of the same stuffy, fussy, uptight hobbit that we saw in the first film. Bilbo reinhabits Bag End but this time it is barren and empty. He has returned home but nothing can be the same as it once was.

Bilbo, from this point on, will be known as the odd hobbit who goes on adventures and tells tall tales of dragons and trolls. He is exceptional, unconforming, peculiar, and ageless. This is the Bilbo Baggins who will be the talk of the town for years to come. And this is the dutiful uncle who will take in a young Frodo after the unfortunate death of his parents. This hobbit may not have been at the center of events, and at times only tangentially related to the wider plots of wizards and dark lords, but he surely participated in and affected them in his own way.

If there is one thing I have learned from my many hours of rewatching, thinking about, and writing about The Hobbit films, it is that analyzing films is vastly different than watching them. A logical analytical approach to film, while useful in its own way, ultimately pales in comparison to the experience of letting a story overtake you with its own agenda and its own purposes. My memories of a film are often reductionist and never quite as good as seeing the film once again with fresh eyes. The Hobbit trilogy succeeds much more as an cinematic experience, an exercise in imagination and honest storytelling, than as a purely logical narrative on its own. The panoramic shots of Middle Earth, the array of otherworldly cultures and races, the noble plights of archetypal heroes against overwhelming evil, somehow it all comes together into a transporting effect whose real impact can only be measured in fleeting moments and intangible feelings.

In this sense, The Battle of the Five Armies works quite beautifully. It may not be as cerebral or intellectually satisfying as we might want it to be, but it nevertheless daringly touches upon the intuitive nature of fantasy offering a sweeping conclusion to the five films that have come before it. There are no perfect stories, but there are plenty of good ones. This is one of them.

Objects in the Hobbit Trilogy

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The Hobbit trilogy features a unique array of objects that help further the plot and add weight and meaning to the story. These objects of significance play a powerful role in directing our attention toward where exactly the Dwarves and their associates are in their attempt to retake Erebor

These objects are indicators and markers of the status of the quest. By following them and tracing their development, we can see how close or far the company is to accomplishing their ultimate goals. Although the Dwarvish weapons are hugely meaningful to the Company, I’ve already written about the role that having or not having these weapons has on the characters. Instead I want to examine some of the other elements in the films, some common and others not so common.

oin

Oin’s Ear Trumpet

Oin, brother of Gloin, is the medicine man of the company. He is in charge of healing, medicine, and reading the portents relevant to the success of their quest. Aging and partially deaf, Oin carries with him a simple ear trumpet to amplify conversations. He uses this on many occasions, including at the dinner at Bag End and during the elvish music in Rivendell. In addition to helping differentiate Oin from the other twelve dwarves, this ear trumpet always functions as a good measurement of how the company is faring on their quest.

In Bilbo’s house, we are introduced to the instrument in its original state. As the dwarves ravage Bilbo’s pantry and throw food, Dwalin pours ale into Oin’s trumpet to which the elderly sage unceremoniously blows air into the horn ejecting the beverage all over the table. Here at this juncture the horn is part of their recreational destruction, wholly indicative of the relatively happy and benign state of the quest. They are at the beginning and still full of hope. Their many challenges and grim misfortunes lay out of sight.

The trumpet makes a few more appearances but a major shift occurs in the Goblin Tunnels. Captured by a grotesque rabble of goblins, the company sits at the mercy of the wretched Goblin-King. Upon discovering their identities as well as their famous goblin-slaying swords, the king demands they be slaughtered on the spot. During this upheaval, a goblin flattens Oin’s trumpet under his foot. Just like the company’s prospects, the horn is now greatly impaired by their untimely capture deep in the Misty Mountains.

Later in The Desolation of Smaug, the trumpet makes yet another appearance during Tauriel’s healing of Kili at Bard’s house. Oin still has the horn, and he has managed to pry it open and make it usable again. Visibly contorted, the horn is still functional but shows signs of the hardships that the company has faced on their journey. It’s a small but notable visual reminder of how the quest is going. Such subtle touches provide texture, weight, and continuity to a long and winding narrative.

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A Map and Key

We most likely will see the origin of these twin objects in the extended edition this November, but we know that Gandalf met Thrain in Dol Guldur and acquired them there. The map and key are crucial objects to the quest, for they are what set the entire affair into motion. In a conversation with Balin at Bag End, Thorin asserts that he must attempt this quest not only as his birthright but because these two objects have now come into his possession as the means to reclaim it.

However like Oin’s horn, the map and key also must go through a type of progression, serving as further indictators of the dwarves’ relative success or failure. The map and key are useless by themselves. Presumably Thorin already knows the layout and terrain of the Lonely Mountain region. He does not need help finding it, he needs directions on how to access it. The key is useless as well without knowing what door it opens and where it is located. At the beginning of the quest, the map and key set things into motion but they also lack the crucial data that the company needs to accomplish their mission. Showing up outside the gates of Erebor without more information will make a nice field trip, but do nothing to advance their greater goals of vanquishing the dragon, reclaiming the Arkenstone, and reestablishing a kingdom under the mountain.

The quest receives a huge boon in Rivendell when Thorin reluctantly provides Elrond access to the map. Using his knowledge of the ancient Dwarvish language and the special properties of moon runes, Elrond reveals the message hidden inside the map. As this information could only be recovered by the light of a perfectly phased moon, this event gives the company not only the physical knowledge of where to go but also the metaphysical suggestion that their quest is somehow sanctioned by a higher power. Enlightened by the news that they must reach Erebor by Durin’s Day, the quest takes on a more defined purpose and shape now. The urgency and immediacy which the decoded map provides is yet another sign that this quest is moving forward and inching closer to its fulfillment.

However the map and key must work in tandem. When Thorin and his companions finally do reach the door as the sun sets on Durin’s Day, they still do not know exactly how to interpret the map nor where precisely to insert the key. The dwarves’ lack of understanding combined with Thorin’s rather extreme impatience lead the company to the brink of failure. With the sunlight gone, Thorin retreats down the side of the mountain leaving only Bilbo behind to reexamine the riddle. Physically abandoning the key, Thorin demonstrates the near futility of the entire quest now left only in the hands of a lowly hobbit. The key has transformed from prize possession to yet another abandoned relic of Durin’s diminished legacy.

When the moonlight finally exposes the riddle’s full meaning and the invisible keyhole, Bilbo searches frantically for the key. In haste he kicks the key into the air and it bounces impossibly off the edge of the mountain. For a short second all is truly lost as our imaginations cast this all important object into oblivion. The quest is over. Smaug shall remain. The North shall fall to shadow. Sauron shall triumph. Middle Earth is lost.

Thorin slams his boot down, barely catching the thin string attached to the flying key. Hanging on the edge of a knife, the quest survives through a mixture of tenacity, sheer luck, and a little divine intervention. All of this can be traced through an object that fits inside the palm of your hand.

ring

Bilbo’s Ring

The Bilbo who left the Shire clutching his contract in hand is the fussy non-adventurous type whose primary values are well cooked meals and the comfort of home. Despite pre-adventure Bilbo’s flaws, he still leaves the Shire clinging to a sense of innocence and idealism that will change over the course of his journey. A major turning point in his development occurs at his acquistion of the ring, a relic which we know to be the near indestructible One Ring forged by the Dark Lord Sauron in the fires of Mount Doom and used to dominate the races of Middle Earth according to his malevolent, all consuming will.

By the time The Fellowship of the Ring occurs, the corruption of Bilbo through the power of the ring will be evident as it causes him to become increasingly erratic, manic, and subjects to uncontrollable fits of rage. This however is only in its beginning stages in The Hobbit. The change however is notable. Bilbo’s relationship to this object can and does influence him in very non-subtle and aggressive ways.

Before Gollum’s cave, Bilbo decides to abandon the quest altogether and sneak off into the night. Rivendell is a suitable substitute for his comfortable hole and he has given up all pretenses of courage, loyalty, and adventure. But after he encounters the Ring, a more ruthless determined Bilbo emerges. He is ready to slay the creature Gollum in cold blood if not for the warm hobbity music that plays in his head the moment he raises his sword.

Upon reaching his companions, Bilbo conceals the truth about the ring refusing to explain just exactly how he escaped the goblins’ lair. Not long after Azog and his wargs attack the company, Bilbo demonstrates a newfound resilience in the face of danger. In a desperate solo act, Bilbo saves Thorin from decapitation with a show of great courage. But is this true courage? Perhaps this is the self-preservation and influence of the Ring at work? The Ring wants to defend its bearer however it can. Could it be both? Either way, the Ring’s presence makes it increasingly difficult to read Bilbo’s actions and distinguish his real motivations. A foreign object now exerts its influence on the quest through Bilbo, but to what purpose?

In Mirkwood, things get even more fuzzy. Bilbo again comes to the rescue and frees the company from the spiders’ webs. But there is a new viciousness that did not exist previously in his soft amiable countenance. We are accustomed to a hobbit who wrinkles his nose and expresses himself with quirky guestures and odd mannerisms. This changed hobbit slashes spiders with a sheer hatred that would be completely unfamiliar to the character we were introduced to in the Shire.

When Bilbo is suddenly seperated from his prize object, he reaches an utterly revealing dimension of transformation. Hacking the baby spider with mad abandon, the hobbit’s ring-induced rage channels the unrestrained depravity of Gollum and delivers none of the traits of the loveable master of Bag End. The One Ring has taken hold, making Bilbo all the more powerful and brave yet increasingly violent and possessive as well.

This duality will help Bilbo survive the hardships of the quest, but it will also slowly poison his soul. When Bilbo is possession of this object, he is more useful to the company and at times absolutely crucial to their quest’s success. The Ring gives Bilbo the strength to overcome his enemies and the tools to outwit his captors, but it also corrupts him beyond saving. We know that one day an unnaturally long-lived Bilbo will board a ship to the West and sail off to the only place that can comfort those who have bourne the agony of this profane object.

arkenstone

The Arkenstone

The King’s Jewel is the grand MacGuffin of the trilogy, but what a glorious one it is. Indeed, the point of the quest is not just ridding history of Smaug but also finding this singular jewel by which Thorin may claim his right to rule over the Dwarven race in the image of his grandfather. If he carries this gem, the other dwarves, including the warriors of the Iron Hills, will pledge their allegiance to him and follow him into battle. After all, even if the company ousts the dragon, they cannot start a civilizations with just thirteen dwarves. Thorin will need a people to rule, and thus he must have the Arkenstone.

In fact, the status of the Arkenstone is the primary indicator of the status of the entire quest. For Thorin, the dragon is a nuisance and an abomination but he can leave him for others like Gandalf and the men of Lake-town to deal with. Thorin just wants the jewel, even if it means awakening an evil that will become a deadly problem for everyone else. Succumbing to the same madness as his fathers before him, Thorin does not hesitate to send Bilbo alone at high risk of death in an attempt to find it. Bilbo, the other dwarves of the company, and Lake-town are affordable casualties if it means repossessing that shiny glittering object.

When Bilbo returns emptyhanded from his encounter with Smaug, Thorin is naturally suspicious and upset. He is quite comfortable threatening the hobbit at swordpoint if it means advancing his purpose. At this point in the story, the goals of Thorin and Bilbo are finally diverging. Bilbo wanted to help Thorin reclaim his homeland, but to what end? To the destruction of Lake-town? To the unleashing of dragonfire upon the free people of the North? To the death of every single member of the company?

The recovery of the Arkenstone is both the goal of the quest and the turning point by which Thorin’s madness begins to overwhelm his more noble and courageous nature. Bilbo has accomplished the goal of the quest – finding the Arkenstone – but he has done so at great cost to the lives of others back in Esgaroth. What was once buried in the dragon’s horde has now become the origin of much death and destruction. Such an object will prove the end of a fruitful partnership and the first steps toward a terrible and costly war.

The Nature of Greed in The Desolation of Smaug

smaug

Today I want to examine what I believe to be the main unifying theme of The Hobbit films. Although this central idea was touched upon in An Unexpected Journey, it really wasn’t until The Desolation of Smaug that this theme crossed over into the foreground.  The Hobbit is first and foremost about the nature and duality of greed.

As wonderful as The Lord of the Rings is, the central conflict of that series is the battle between good and evil. Sauron is a dominating oppressive force whom the heroes must resist in the face of impossible odds. Although it is a powerful story in its own right, this theme is also difficult to relate to on some level. Evil in our world tends not reveal itself with legions of orcs and corruptible rings. No, here the good guys and the bad guys use the same words and often look indistinguishable from one another.

So while I appreciate Sauron and what he represents, I greatly looked forward to seeing The Hobbit on the big screen anticipating a somewhat smaller story with a much more relatable evil. And in the second film I was not disappointed to see an increasing emphasis put not just on the evil of dark lords but also on the surprising evil within ordinary folk. In The Hobbit, Thorin’s Company has goals less virtuous and pure than those of the fellowship of nine companions. Whereas Frodo and his friends were tasked with defeating Sauron and saving Middle-Earth from tyranny and slaughter, the motivations of the dwarves are much more selfish.

If Thorin’s quest succeeds, Erebor will become a restored kingdom for all the Dwarf exiles and wealth will flow from the mountain once again. Yet the Dwarves are clearly just as interested in profit as they are in the fate of their displaced kin. Thorin and Company are not fighting a widespread global evil but a personal regional evil, Smaug. They are self-interested, they just want their home back along with all the gold that comes with it.

While this has often been mentioned as a critique of The Hobbit films, I see this as a strength. After all, perhaps what our culture needs is not another message about black-and-white morality but rather a reminder on the pervasive influence of greed, materialism, and isolationism.

However in context of the story, things are of course more complex. Thorin also has a moral duty established by lineage, prophesy, and the support of Gandalf and Galadriel to revive the kingdom of Erebor to its former glory. Yet Oakenshield also has an ever increasing desire for gold. The more he craves, the more he loses touch with reality. Thorin carries the same strain of madness that aroused the dragon, brought his grandfather’s kingdom to ruin, and drove his father insane.

This consuming greed is perfectly represented in the Arkenstone, an impossibly brilliant jewel that radiates light and beauty. This is the true purpose of Thorin’s quest, revealed to Bilbo only at the doorway to the mountain. Thorin would risk the life of his burglar just to lay hold of this deeply seductive gem once more. Possessing this stone determines whether Thorin is to be a wandering disgraced outcast or the rightful ruler of his race. Understandably he desires this gem above all else.

Yet this desire is not pure. He may want to be crowned King Under the Mountain and re-light the great forges of his ancestors, yet he will likely also be torn apart by greed. His grandfather Thror sat on mounds of treasure, ripping off the elves, basking in the light of the Arkenstone, and constructing a huge golden statue of himself. This perverse image of addictive soul-destroying wealth is the exact same fate awaiting Thorin Oakenshield if he defeats Smaug. As the dragon insinuates, the Arkenstone is able to destroy Thorin all on its own.

Throughout the film, we see there are two twin forces at work. These are the agents of greed and agents of the common good. Characters work together and against each other in interesting ways, pursuing their own agendas sometimes at the expense and other times at the benefit of others. Greed, although clearly not a force of good, sometimes yields altogether unexpected results. Let’s examine character motivations one by one and see the surprising manner in which this all plays out.

Agent of Greed: The Dwarves

As we have already mentioned, Thorin and Company are essentially there to get the gold. Their people have already established a nomadic and semi-prosperous existence in the Blue Mountains. In fact, Dain and the other Dwarf families refuse to even assist the Company on their journey. After all, the gold of Erebor belongs first and foremost to the heir of Durin. As proof, Thorin’s promised reward for his companions’ help is nothing less than an equal share of the gold, 1/14th of it to be exact.

Although they are not evil beings like the orcs, goblins, trolls, and wargs, ostensibly the dwarves are not entirely benevolent either. They love their iron-forged weapons, great underground mines, and glimmering gold. The wider fate of Middle-earth is only tangential to the dwarves compared to their love of precious rocks.

We see in Bard’s boat that Gloin is reluctant to invest more coin into the quest, having been bled dry by this venture. Why? Because this is primarily a business trip. Gloin (and by implication the other dwarves) are expecting to get rich helping Thorin reclaim Erebor and would not be risking their lives otherwise. For all Thorin’s talk of courage and loyalty in Bag-End, we can be assured that if there were no riches lying under Smaug’s belly they would leave the beast in eternal slumber. Though not particularly unethical, it’s hard not to think of their quest as in large part a money-making scheme.

Agents of the Common Good: Gandalf and Bilbo

In the Bree prologue we see the fortuitous encounter that set this quest in motion. Gandalf chooses to aid Thorin Oakenshield because he fears the terrible effect of a dragon if he were to come under the influence of Sauron. The Free People of the North were crippled by the loss of Erebor and Dale and are thus vulnerable from another eventual attack from the enemy. Only by restoring balance in the North can the whole of Middle-earth be safeguarded.

Bilbo, though unaware of these geopolitical aspirations, also cares about the common good. Familiar with the comforts of home, he accompanies the dwarves because he cares to see their dwellings returned to them. (He also revels in the chance to experience a Tookish adventure.) However I believe Bilbo’s true motivations are revealed once he enters the mountain. Quite courageously Bilbo accepts the task to burgle the Arkenstone from Smaug, willingly accepting the likely danger in store. Upon finding the Arkenstone and learning that it will bring Thorin harm, Bilbo conceals the gem from Thorin not wanting him succumb to greater madness. With great difficulty the hobbit chooses to place a higher goal above the quest itself. He have yet to see what other intentions the hobbit has behind this decision, but greed does not seem to at play here.

Agent of the Common Good: Beorn

The great Beorn is one who lives in harmony with nature, a living bridge between the natural world and the races of sentient beings. He does not care for wealth nor those who threaten the lives of plants and beasts alike. Despising orcs for their cruelty, he has no fondness for dwarves either. He thinks they are hopelessly greedy. Understanding that the dwarves’ quest, driven by greed as it is, will help counter the more dangerous forces of evil, the skin-changer decides to assist them.

Though not interested in their gold, Beorn is however interested in the preservation of the world from the spreading darkness from Mirkwood and Dol Guldur. He recognizes the orcs roaming across his land as a serious threat to the world at large and so he provides lodging and ponies to these dwarves to help turn the tide. He contributes to the common good by supporting the Company’s greed-centered goals, knowing that it will ultimately curb the evil of the land. We can only look ahead to see what will draw him back for the third film.

Agent of Greed: Thranduil

The strong-willed isolationist king of the wood-elves is another example of the corrosive influence of greed in this world. Robbed of precious jewels by Thorin’s grandfather, Thranduil has since refused to aid the dwarves instead blaming their misfortunes on their own stingy behavior. Even as Thorin singlemindedly seeks the Arkenstone, Thranduil sets his heart on the jewels. He would rather imprison the Company wrongfully against their will than be deprived of the wealth that belongs to him.

It is this same self-interest that leads the unscrupulous king to close his doors to the larger world outside in dire need. Although spiders and orcs creep viciously across the borders of the Woodland Realm, the great Thranduil who has faced dragons and slayed orcs in great battles of old will now turn a blind eye to the growing peril. An enemy has returned to drown the world in darkness and yet the wood-elves will do nothing but feast under the stars and lock their gates tight. He is corrupt and we have yet to see if there is any redemption in store for this lesser ruler.

Agent of the Common Good: Tauriel

Hardened by battle and long serving her king, Tauriel finds her loyalty tested when the Company passes through her forest. She forms an attachment to the dwarf Kili in particular whose spirit she finds unexpectedly sweet. Tauriel decides that the lives of these dwarves, though different than her own people, are worth protecting from the treachery of orcs and disobeys Thranduil to pursue them.

To this elf-warrior, the common good outweighs the narrow interests of her people. If evil triumphs over one race, it will soon spread to engulf others. The fate of a few dwarfs is indeed intimately tied to the rest of the larger pattern. Hiding in their deep halls away from the problem will not keep Sauron from one day shrouding their own beloved starlight in gloomy darkness.

Tauriel also effects an influence on Legolas. Torn between his father and his fondly liked captain of the guard, the prince ends up choosing to follow in Tauriel’s path to aid a dubious quest that carries a larger significance he can’t yet fully recognize.

Agent of the Common Good: Bard

Bard is both a friend and enemy of the dwarves. Like Thorin, he has a secret identity as the descendant of disenfranchised royalty. Although initially he aids the Company, when he uncovers their true intentions he works against them in an attempt to prevent them from unleashing the dragon’s fury.

Weirdly Bard is right. If Thorin enters the mountain, it will put all of Lake-town at risk and will endanger many innocents. He has a motherless family to look after all. We can’t doubt his motives or disagree with his intentions. But although Bard is seeking the common good, there is something beyond Thorin’s greed at stake. Oakenshield is the rightful heir. The dragon is a real evil that threatens more than just the future of Lake-town.

Although Bard is technically correct in his assessment, the greed around him pushes the quest forward and though the consequences will be grave, it will also accomplish the elimination of darker forces at play. Again, we will have to wait for the third movie to see how Bard’s part in this story is fully resolved.

Agent of Greed: The Master of Lake-town

The primary antagonist of Bard, the Master seems to be greed and self-interest personified. Overweight, diseased, and pompous, he uses his authority to extract wealth from the people rather than seek their benefit. Unlike Bard who cares about feeding the people and giving them a voice, the Master chooses to silence those who would interrupt his scheming machinations.

It is a great irony then that it is the Master who lends his full support to Thorin’s quest while Bard is the sole voice of opposition. Erebor reborn means wealth for Lake-town and most of all for its despotic Master. Thus he provides weapons, armor, supplies, boats, and fanfare for the Company sending them right on their way. Curious how such greedy intent moves the story forward to ultimately result in a terrible confluence of fire, war, and ultimately (we hope) peaceful prosperity.

Agent of Greed: Smaug

He is the epitome of selfish wanton greed. After all, what use does a dragon have for gold? He cannot spend it. He simply uses it to bathe himself in deep slumber. He does not enjoy his riches, only depriving others of it. Like much of the greed in real life, it is excessive and cruel, the ownership of wealth by people who neither need it nor know what to do with it.

Smaug is a scathing indictment of misappropriated wealth. He will guard it as long as he lives but never knowing why. Too much money in one place attracts at type of dragons, clouds the mind, and numbs the heart. Just as Thror could not part with a single box of jewels to give Thranduil, neither will Smaug part with a single cup from his hoard. Sounds disgusting? It is because it is.

If there is one thematic problem with Smaug it is that he is almsot too grotesque. I’m afraid one could easily gaze upon Smaug’s treasure in a theater and then return home feeling smug for not sleeping on a bed of gold coins. However just because Smaug is the most prominent manifestation of greed should not let us forget that the true victims here are the dwarves, men, and elves who will ultimately die as a result of this madness. Smaug is the chief evil in this story, yet it is Thorin who will suffer most because of his treachery.

Wealth can blind us to those around us, preventing us from sympathizing with their needs. It closes the eyes of dwarves and elves causing them to look inward instead of outward. It distracts them from the bigger issues at play and the more significant issues happening in the world. You don’t need to be rich to experience these things, you only need to live in a world that contains riches to be seduced by its power.

The Hobbit is a story of how material possessions can corrupt otherwise good people. That impulse can be destructive but sometimes it works toward an unforeseen good. Wealth can be cruelly addictive but sometimes it accidentally slays a dragon. That is the reality in which this story engages. And it is one that I find deeply fascinating and frighteningly true.

Greed is real. I am greedy for things I neither need nor know what to do with. And whether I have much or little, it is something that constantly threatens to drive me apart from others and turn my gaze inward. And I expect if you’ve read this far it is perhaps true for you too.

The Many Leitmotifs of The Desolation of Smaug

DOS

As a follow up to last week’s analysis of the music of the first Hobbit movie today we will be exploring the many new musical themes in The Desolation of Smaug. Whereas film reviewers felt the first film relied too heavily on familiar themes, this time around some argued that the score was too dark and that none of the new themes were memorable. However reviews for the released soundtrack told a different story: this was an ambitious, beautiful (if somewhat dark) addition to Howard Shore’s Middle-earth magnum opus.

As with all his prior contributions to this series, Shore’s most intricate work on The Desolation of Smaug comes out through his various leitmotifs denoting different themes, locations, and characters. While many of them could be missed in a first or second viewing, Shore really has put tremendous effort into tying a grand assortment of these small musical statements into a larger cohesive whole. It is this devotion to telling one big story that really sets his work on The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings apart from the vast majority of film scores.

Although I’m sure I haven’t identified all the new themes in this movie nor am I knowledgeable enough to give anything even close to a professional musical assessment, I feel that these themes and what they represent to filmmaking are too important to be left unnoticed. We will try to stay in chronological order of the film although since these leitmotifs are repeated at various times this will prove difficult.

A final note: since the soundtrack was recently removed from Spotify, I am stuck with posting links to YouTube videos, some of which may eventually be taken down. Just in case, I will include the track listing and time for your benefit.

The House of Durin

The leitmotifs for Thorin Oakenshield are pretty well established in An Unexpected Journey so I won’t get in to them here. There is however one brand new theme for Thorin representing his family legacy and his duty to restore the kingdom of Erebor to its former glory. It’s called the House of Durin and it is integral to the story of The Hobbit.

This low humming melody is played in several places, including when Bard finds the tapestry, as the dwarves find their dead kin, and the climactic battle with Smaug. It’s my personal favorite theme of the entire film.

House of Durin – Girion, Lord of Dale, 2:35

Heroic version (during the battle with Smaug) – My Armor Is Iron, 0:57

Beorn

This deep brassy theme for Beorn rises and builds in intensity appearing several times in the film’s opening act. It shrouds Beorn in mystery, refusing to reveal whether he is friend or foe. The introduction version slowly explodes into Smaug’s theme as played over the title credits of the movie.

Introduction to BeornWilderland, 0:53

Running from BeornWilderland, 2:32

Breakfast with Beorn, The House of Beorn, 0:32

Mirkwood

The Mirkwood theme is built around three falling notes in slow succession. It appears briefly at Beorn’s house when he mentions the forest’s danger. The full theme appears when the Company arrives at Mirkwood as Gandalf steps onto the path. Different variations of the theme are played as the Company wanders through the myriad paths of the forest.

Beorn talking about Mirkwood, The House of Beorn, 1:16

The Company arrives at Mirkwood, Mirkwood, 0:00

Into the forestMirkwood, 1:53

“We’ve lost the path”Mirkwood, 3:08

Wood-Elves

There are several themes for the different Wood-elves and they often blend and run together quite seamlessly. However they are quite distinct as we will see below. To remind you just how important these characters are, the end credits music (Beyond the River) is pretty much solely devoted to the Wood-elves and their various themes.

Thranduil

Our first hint at Thranduil’s theme is again during Beorn’s conversation when he mentions the more dangerous and less wise wood-elves. However the big appearance is at the introduction to the king’s underground throne, orchestrated with beautiful strings and ethereal voices to create a wholly majestic effect.

Beorn talking about the Wood-elvesThe House of Beorn, 1:26

Thranduil Main Theme – The Woodland Realm, 0:39

Thorin’s confrontation with ThranduilThe Woodland Realm, 2:49

Thranduil’s first appearance in AUJ Extended Edition – My Dear Frodo, 3:23

The Woodland Realm

The Woodland Realm and its inhabitants have an appropriately mysterious theme. Most of the musical references to the Woodland Realm are dominated by Thranduil’s theme and I can only think of one time where the Woodland Realm theme is played in full, but it does seem to be hinted at in several places in the film. It’s main introduction occurs when the elves are leading their dwarf captives over the bridge to the entrance of their kingdom.

Main theme, The Woodland Realm, 0:00

Legolas

Legolas’ theme is very fascinating. Since his theme is usually played fast (during frenetic action sequences) and Thranduil’s theme is played slow (over long extended introductory and dialogue sequences), it’s easy to overlook their relationship.  Legolas’ leitmotif is actually based off the first line of Thranduil’s theme but it is obscured due to the tempo differences. Listen to Thranduil’s theme and then compare it to the Legolas leitmotif below and behold the uncanny similarities.

Legolas arrives at the river – The Forest River, 1:32

Legolas mega action version – The Forest River, 4:11

Legolas at Bard’s houses – The Hunters, 4:22

Variant: Legolas chases after BolgThe Hunters, 9:20

Tauriel

As Thranduil’s captain of the guard as well as the center of an unlikely love triangle, Tauriel has perhaps the most complex musical themes of any character in this film. She not only has her own leitmotif but also a few dedicated to her different relationships.

Tauriel Battle Theme

During her first appearance we hear her main battle theme as she leaps down to rescue Kili from the spiders. This powerful and melodic string rhythm appears many times throughout the score and reminds us of just how dangerous Tauriel can be.

Tauriel saves Kili from spiders, Flies and Spiders, 7:23

Tauriel arrives at the barrel chase, The Forest River, 1:15

Beautiful end credits version, Beyond the Forest, 2:45

Tauriel Reflective Theme

We also hear quiet meditative oboe music for the times that Tauriel is reflecting upon her place in the world as a lowly Silvan elf. This music, more of a style than an actual melody, is first heard during her conversation with Thranduil but is also heard in other places. If you listen carefully to the first example below you’ll hear a lovely blend of Tauriel’s reflective music, Tauriel’s battle theme, and finally the second half of Legolas’ theme.

Lowly Silvan Elf, The Woodland Realm, 3:49

Tauriel Reflective theme, Feast of Starlight, 2:19

The Feast of Starlight

Of course there is also special music for Tauriel’s budding attachment to Kili. This elegant vocal piece is one of the highlights of the entire score, providing a stirring emotional weight for their scenes together.

The Feast of Starlight – Feast of Starlight, 1:35

Plucked harp version – Kingsfoil, 1:07

Flute version – Beyond the River, 1:06

Fittingly, there is also a final reference to the Legolas theme right as Tauriel decides to stay behind and save Kili’s life. The music transitions quickly from the Legolas leitmotif to the Reflective theme and right into the Feast of Starlight.

Tauriel chooses Kili over Legolas, Kingsfoil, 0:20

Esgaroth

While not quite as many as the elves of the Woodland Realm, the men of Lake-town get a good amount of new themes all to themselves. With a more medieval feel to them, its themes add great personality to this ill-fated town that has seen better days.

Bard

Bard’s theme reflects his ambiguity as a character. Switching between descending minor and major notes, his theme shows us how uncertain everyone else is about this dubious smuggler. The first instance of Bard’s theme contains only a few notes but later versions develop his melodies further as we get to know his character more fully.

Bard on his barge (simple version)  – Bard, a Man of Lake-town, 0:11

“That trouble-making bargeman’s behind all this.” –Protector of the Common Folk, 0:00

“Where are the weapons?” – Thrice Welcome, 1:36

Lake-town

Much like how the human city of Edoras was given big stately music in The Two Towers, the Lake-town leitmotif is centrally featured several times during outdoor shots. Carrying a strong Medieval pulse, the theme pretty much captures the heart of this city right away. When Thorin delivers his speech about restoring Esgaroth to its former glory, a quieter version of the theme is played.

Lake-town theme – Protector of the Common Folk, 1:53

“Our house is being watched” – Thrice Welcome, 2:15

Alternate somber version during Thorin’s speech – Durin’s Folk, 0:32

The Master of Lake-town

Although the Master doesn’t have too many scenes and often shares the ones he does have with other main characters, he does have his own peculiar and sometimes ominous melody. Since he exerts his will through his servant Alfrid, they seem to share the same theme. However when the Master is present, his theme is played with a dulcimer-like instrument instead of strings.

Alfrid questions Bard – Protector of the Common Folk, 2:38

Alfrid dumps the fish – Protector of the Common Folk, 3:22

The Master’s theme (quiet version) – Thrice Welcome, 0:31

The Master’s theme (loud version) – Thrice Welcome, 1:01

Girion

Girion, Lord of Dale, is only seen in flashbacks but he is prominently discussed twice during the film. Both times he is given new interesting music. I can’t quite figure out exactly how his two pieces fit together, although the second one sounds a little bit like Bard’s theme.

Girion’s failure – Girion, Lord of Dale, 0:45

Girion’s heir – Durin’s Folk, 1:32

The Nature of Evil

The High Fells

The spooky tombs of the Nazgul receive a haunting high register vocal melody. It’s beautifully eerie and not what you would expect from one of the more evil places in Middle-earth.

The High FellsThe High Fells, 1:01

The Necromancer

The major Necromancer cue appears at his battle with Gandalf battles in Dol Guldur. His dissonant pounding feels vaguely familiar until eventually fully transforming into a distorted Sauron melody.

The Necromancer Revealed – A Spell of Concealment, 2:05

Bolg

I haven’t been able to figure out if Bolg has his own leitmotif, if his is a variation of his father Azog, or if he simply shares generic battle music with the other orcs. If you sort it out, let me know.

Smaug the Terrible

As the primary villain and impetus for this entire quest, Smaug naturally has three main themes all to himself. Each of these contain numerous variants which I will try to all list below.

Main Theme

We first heard Smaug’s theme back in the prologue to An Unexpected Journey. His sinister six note melody has shades of Sauron in it, yet remains distinct. In The Desolation of Smaug the dragon’s theme is first played vehemently over the title credits. It then takes on so many different forms I have lost track. It is also has a two note component that sometimes precedes the full theme.

Smaug (An Unexpected Journey version) – My Dear Frodo, 4:56

Smaug (introduction) – In the Shadow of the Mountain2:11

Smaug (sneaky version) – Inside Information, 2:06

Smaug (subdued version) – Inside Information, 0:08

Smaug (intense version) – Inside Information, 2:54

Smaug Slinking

This music is used for when Smaug is sneaking around. It sounds similar to the sneaky version

Smaug (slinking) – Smaug, 0:15

Smaug (more slinking) – Smaug, 0:58

Smaug’s Wrath

This particular theme doesn’t appear until the final climax of the film as Smaug flies toward Lake-town. It’s strangely beautiful and captivating. I believe it represents the dragon’s terrible and majestic beauty. Though he is on his way to burn all of Lake-town to the ground, he is still an irresistibly amazing creature to behold.

 Anticipating Smaug’s Wrath – My Armor Is Iron, 2:13

Choir variant – My Armor Is Iron, 3:33

“What have we done?” – My Armor Is Iron, 4:30

A Note on the Controversial Score of The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey

howard shore

When An Unexpected Journey arrived in theaters back in 2012, we finally journeyed back into Peter Jackson’s cinematic take on Middle-earth. Featuring many familiar faces and places, this was a second chance to visit this strange world yet again. Clearly the filmmakers wanted to go to great effort to tie these prequels into the same tone as The Lord of the Rings.

No where was this felt more than in the many musical callbacks, ranging from the rustic fiddles of the Shire to the rising crescendoes of Rivendell. Back in the first trilogy, composer Howard Shore rigorously applied the concept of Wagnerian leitmotifs across the three films, developing expansive and evolving musical themes each tied to important themes, characters, relationships, and locations. Like the production of an entire trilogy all at once, this had never really been done. And now it looked like Shore might do it again for The Hobbit.

However at An Unexpected Journey‘s release many critics expressed disappointment that both the film and its accompanying score fell far short of the magisterial heights of the first three Middle-earth films. Blaming a lack of source material, slow pacing, overt use of CGI, and comical tone, concerned reviewers felt that the new film was not up to par. Concerning Howard Shore’s efforts in particular they leveled several accusations.

First, many felt that Shore’s music relied far too much on the pre-established themes of The Lord of the Rings rather than standing on its own. Critics questioned the score’s dependency on the familiar leitmotifs for the Shire, the One Ring, Rivendell, Gollum, A Hobbit’s Understanding, and the Eagles.

In addition,the score featured a liberal dose of the Misty Mountains song first sung by Thorin and Company. Not written by Shore himself, the melody was composed by the New Zealand group Plan 9. Feeling that this non-Shore theme was both the best new melody of the film and yet at the same time largely overused, critics seemed to agree that the 66-year old Shore had lost some of his mojo.

Conspicuously, there were also some major last minute changes made to the score. Many segments in the released soundtrack were completely absent from theatrical release. In addition, new themes in the movie were nowhere to be found on the original soundtrack.

Changes in the film include a much pared down Radagast theme, various repetitions of the Misty Mountains theme, a new sweeping choral piece for the Eagles, and the controversial repurposing of several key leitmotifs from The Lord the Rings, specifically the themes of the Ringwraiths, Lothlorien, Nature’s Reclamation, and Gondor Reborn.

These missing themes from the soundtrack and late additions to the theatrical cut caused some consternation. Diehard fans familiar with these theme’s associations in The Lord of the Rings were perplexed at their reuse in An Unexpected Journey. Why were the originally intended themes from the soundtrack replaced with the repurposed ones from the original trilogy?

At the end of the day, the exact reasons are unknown. But we can be fairly confident that these late decisions were made directly by Peter Jackson and Howard Shore upon viewing a close-to-final cut of the film. The recorded music they had wasn’t working well as it should have. And Shore, known for his consistent detail to the meaning of leitmotifs in The Lord of the Rings, now incorporated these preestablished leitmotifs into An Unexpected Journey. While we can’t know why, we can reflect upon what old themes were used and what Wagnerian connections Shore might be making.

Let’s look individually at four most controversial leitmotifs and examine just why they may have been employed.

LOTHLORIEN

Listen the theme here.

This theme is used when the Company slides down to the hidden path to Rivendell and a hunting party of elves take out Azog’s warg-riders. This theme is first heard in The Fellowship of a Ring as a mystical choral piece when the Fellowship enters Lothlorien. This beg the question, what do Elrond and the warriors of Rivendell have to do with Lothlorien?

Rivendell elves have their own music completely separate from Lothlorien elves (as do the Wood-elves.) It could be easily argued that swapping themes between elves cheapens their use.

But as it turns out, Howard Shore has only used this particular battle version of the theme once before. It occurs in The Two Towers when elves from Lothlorien arrive at Helm’s Deep. However there is a Rivendell connection after all. Here’s the context. Previously Galadriel asks Elrond in Rivendell telepathically if the elves should leave Middle-earth to its fate or if they should in fact step in and aid men. Fast-forward to Helm’s Deep, the Lothlorien battle music plays as Haldir leads 200 Galadhrim archers inside the gates.

When he arrives, Haldir’s exact words are as follows:

I bring word from Elrond of Rivendell. An alliance once existed between Elves and Men. Long ago we fought and died together. We come to honor that allegiance. We are proud to fight alongside men once more.

Even though these elves are from Lothlorien, for whatever reason the impetus for their arrival seems to rest on the decision of Elrond. It is by the authority of Rivendell that these elves have come. And as we know, Elrond fought alongside men in the War of the Last Alliance and was gravely disappointed when Isildur refused to destroy the One Ring. Although technically the Lothlorien theme belongs to Lothlorien, as it is established in The Two Towers this leitmotif also has connections to Elrond and the former alliance that once existed between elves and men.

And when this theme resurfaces in An Unexpected Journey, who of course is leading elven archers to the last minute rescue of non-elves? It is Elrond again. Could Shore have created or extrapolated a brand new theme for this brief appearance? He could have, but instead he picked a theme that already had close ties to battling elves, an alliance between elves and non-elves, Rivendell, and Elrond himself.

As we will see in the next few leitmotifs, Shore’s reuse and repurposing of familiar themes never arrive completely out of the blue. They always build some kind of thematic connection between something we have seen before and what is now happening in an unfamiliar but similar variation.

Where the problem arises is when we take a theme like “Lothorien,” give it a static name as such, and then refuse to see any other circumstance which is not as literally similar. Even though some of these definitive leitmotif names do come from official sources, just because they have been given a name shouldn’t negate the fact that Shore’s music is always evolving and growing. Why should Shore be limited by a name picked out 10 years ago when there were only three Middle-earth films? Given Shore and Jackson’s history of meticulous attention to detail and unprecedented level of leitmotif development across multiple films, I believe that the use of these themes,  though at times difficult to fully understand, are always intentional.

RINGWRAITHS

Watch an example here

In An Unexpected Journey a pounding version of this chanting chorus plays when Thorin sees Azog for the first time and runs through the burning branches to challenge him. For many diehard fans of the LOTR soundtrack, this music actually took them completely out of the moment. Why was the theme for the Ringwraiths playing when there were no Ringwraiths in sight?

As perhaps my favorite moment in The Hobbit films so far, it took me a while to understand why this was so disconcerting. Listening to the released soundtrack, Shore originally had a completely different idea in mind for this moment. Late in post-production Shore re-recorded a version of this old theme and inserted it into this sequence.

As jarring as it is for some, especially those who own the Doug Adam’s book, it’s very possible that Shore simply decided to expand the use of this particular theme beyond the narrow confines of the Ringwraiths. There is already one instance where this has precedent: the first introduction of this theme in the prologue of The Fellowship of the Ring. It is here at the Battle of Dagorlad during the War of the Last Alliance that we see this theme’s primary association is with Sauron and his army. Although perhaps we forget it later on in the trilogy, the Ringwraiths’ use of this theme is as primarily and thematically as an extension of Sauron himself. As direct agents of Sauron’s will, the Nine only do what their master commands them bound eternally by their rings of power. Fittingly their music belongs to Sauron as well.

So by claiming this leitmotif as the Ringwraith theme all along we have been forgetting that this is really the theme of Sauron, first used for his charging orc battalions at Dagorlad and then next used for his embodied armored form as he wields the ring. It is only afterward that this leitmotif is used for his nine servants of evil. By playing this theme over Azog (who clearly has his own distinct theme of dissonant notes in the lower register) Shore is making a strong association between the Defiler and the will of Sauron. You might not like the overt way this thematic connection is made, but it is there.

In The Desolation of Smaug, we see this relationship confirmed. Azog is no ordinary orc. We discover he is actually the commander of Sauron’s armies and that the elimination of Thorin’s claim to Erebor is indeed the Dark Lord’s number one military priority. He is building an army to claim the mountain for himself. Sauron would like nothing more than for Azog to cripple the Free People of the North for good, recruit a dragon to unleash upon his enemies as he has in the past, and use the gold of Erebor to buy the allegiance of easily corruptible men. At the moment Azog the Defiler is Sauron’s chief servant, very much like the Witch-king will be later on. By employing this obvious theme, a theme that establishes Sauron in the prologue and later defines his chief servants, Shore is making a statement. It may not be a subtle or veiled statement, but the meaning is pretty clear. If you want to know what Sauron is up to in The Hobbit, you need only look at Azog.

To speculate further, it’s possible there are more connections that we just haven’t unearthed yet. We don’t know exactly what will happen in The Battle of the Five Armies, especially concerning Azog, the Ringwraiths, and Sauron since none of them feature in the actual book of The Hobbit. However Jackson and crew have clearly decided to take Sauron’s Necromancer role literally, having him resurrect the Nazgul. As we know, Sauron is very good at overcoming things like death and disembodiment.

According to Tolkien, Azog was definitely killed at the battle of Azubiliazar outside the gates of Moria. Interestingly, Thorin offers the same explanation to Bilbo, claiming he died of his wounds long ago.

Is it possible that Sauron, a powerful necromancer, raised Azog from the dead just as he brought back the Nazgul?

That would explain the Pale Orc’s allegiance to Sauron which overrides his burning motivation to eliminate Thorin himself. If Azog has indeed been resurrected just like the Nine to be a servant of evil, this would make his relationship to the Ringwraiths and their musical cues even more appropriate. We will just have to wait for the next film and perhaps the extended editions to find out.

NATURE’S RECLAMATION

Listen to examples here.

There are several versions of this leitmotif used throughout the three LOTR films. It is used to signify the natural world or sometimes men taking back something that evil has stolen. Its first instance occurs as a soft boy solo used when the Lord of the Eagles reclaims Gandalf from the top of Orthanc. The most exemplary use of the Nature’s Reclamation theme occurs in The Two Towers when the Ents go to war and the Rohirrim ride down the hill to Helm’s Deep.

A few other uses are notable. In The Return of the King when Rohan arrives at the Battle of Pellenor Fields, a brass version of the theme plays over the men and horses as opposed to the usual chorus of boys used for the moths, eagles, and Ents. The theme last occurrence is when the eagles arrive outside the Black Gate.

In An Unexpected Journey, this theme is played when Gandalf sends the moth for help and the eagles snatch up the Company from the trees. This is pretty straightforward. It connects the two eagle appearances from LOTR to the eagle rescue in The Hobbit and makes thematic sense. The only issue I can see is that we have heard this theme quite a lot before, used in the climaxes of both The Two Towers and The Return of the King.

However if the theme is familiar, Howard Shore extrapolates further and leads into a stirring choral piece as the eagles carry the Company through the skies and a beautiful sunrise. Not found on the soundtrack, this is Shore at his best. Here he takes a relatively bare moment in the story and turns it into a beautiful meditation on the harrowing danger that Bilbo and his friends have just barely escaped from. The fact that this is also a late addition to the score should alert us to the fact that these last minute changes were not laziness. Shore is both willing to recycle and devise something utterly new as needed.

GONDOR REBORN

Watch an example here.

In the closing sequence of An Unexpected Journey, a wounded Thorin confronts Bilbo and warmly embraces him as the other dwarves cheer them on. It’s a moment that signals Bilbo’s acceptance into the Company and a turning point for Thorin and Bilbo’s relationship. However the music was changed at the last minute, reusing a theme known as Gondor Reborn. This perplexed many fans since this moment in The Hobbit has nothing to do with Gondor and comes off as thematically incongruent.

This Gondor Reborn cue comes from The Return of the King originally intended to mark the crowning of Aragorn and the dawn of the Fourth Age of Middle-earth. There are two especially notable uses of this leitmotif in the third film and both occur toward the end. The first takes place at the defeat of Sauron right as Barad-dur comes crashing down. A second use occurs at the crowning of King Elessar, signaling the titular return of Gondor’s royal lineage. What’s interesting is that only one of these uses has direct ties to Gondor. While I suppose the destruction of Barad-dur does very much affect Gondor’s survival, it’s not the same thing as Gondor being physically reborn through its reinstated monarch.

In fact, I believe in retrospect this theme is now misnamed. As presented in The Return of the King, it is not narrowly limited to Gondor’s revival. The theme signals the climactic defeat of evil and it’s also about celebrating the unexpected victory of hobbits over the larger forces of evil in the world. When Sauron’s lidless eye explodes and his tower crumbles, it is because of two brave hobbits. When Aragon receives his crown, it is in large part because of the four hobbits standing before him who outran Nazgul, convinced Ents to overthrow Saruman, deceived Sauron, and delivered the One Ring to Mount Doom. This theme is about the strength of ordinary everyday folk over the looming shadow of darkness. Though intended for Gondor and Elessar, late changes to The Return of the King seem to have expanded this leitmotif to encompass a much broader meaning.

Bilbo singlehandedly saved Thorin from Sauron’s agent, Azog the Defiler, and preserved the Quest for Erebor from certain doom. The dwarves cannot reclaim the mountain without a king and clearly his nephews are not ready to carry that mantle. They need a capable leader and a rightful heir of Durin to defeat Smaug and restore the throne of the Lonely Mountain.

One might argue that the embrace of a hobbit and a dwarf pales in comparison to the climactic defeat of Sauron and the crowning of the long-awaited king of Gondor, but one might also argue precisely the opposite. Bilbo prevents the quest from failure inspiring a chain of events that will lead to the destruction of Smaug and the restoration of Erebor and Dale. His actions directly lead to the reestablishment of a prosperous and strong civilization of dwarves and men in the North. If Thorin dies by Azog’s hand, Sauron’s armies will explode unchecked beginning in the North and spreading down through the rest of Middle-earth. It is Erebor and Dale who will fend off Sauron’s advances in the coming War of the Ring and keep his attention divided between themselves and Minas Tirith.

Shore uses this small moment to illustrate the greater meaning of the actions of a single hobbit. Though he cannot know it, Bilbo’s courage affects the fortunes of many across the whole of Middle-earth. And as Gandalf reminds us, only deeds of ordinary folk like this can stop Sauron. This emotional orchestral theme is all at once victorious, celebratory, and illuminating. Just as it will happen gloriously in The Return of the King, in this short moment a hobbit quietly thwarts a great evil.

The Thematic Significance of Weapons in The Desolation of Smaug

legolas 3

For my first article on The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug, I want to talk about the weapons. Although it’s a common theme across all of the Middle-earth movies, it seems clear that possessing weapons directly expresses a character’s power to exact their will on those around them. Simply put, having a well-crafted sword, axe, or bow allows you to effect change on the world in a way that bare hands do not.

It seems rather obvious that weapons should be a natural source of power. When you are armed, you are dangerous. When you are not, you are usually defenseless. Yet The Desolation of Smaug states and repeats this theme several times employing the characters’ weapons or lack thereof as a reflection of their current situation.

When we first meet the Dwarves in An Unexpected Journey, they are each armed with a particular and unique set of weapons. Their choice of weapon also signifies something important about their individual personalities.

It’s no accident that Kili, the Dwarf who shares a certain affinity for Elves, also happens to be an excellent archer. We see him occasionally fight using his sword, but usually he chooses the bow.

Think of Ori, one of the youngest Dwarves on the quest, who is constantly being fussed over by his protective older brother Dori. What does he wield? A slingshot, the most innocent and child-like weapon in the whole company.

Bombur, the overweight cook, is armed with a large ladle. Balin, despite his age, brandishes a devastating mace that is both sword and axe. And Thorin Oakenshield, though now bereft of  his oak shield, carries a superb Elven blade known for slaying a thousand orcs. Curiously the handle of Orcrist is made from the tooth of a dragon.

Weapons mean something. The fact that each Dwarf begins their journey well-armed and skilled at fighting signals that they have great ability and willpower to accomplish their quest’s goal. They are not helpless Shirelings or defenseless merchants. They are effectual doers capable of imprinting their will upon Middle-earth and bringing about the change they seek.

And as we know from Tolkien’s writings, the success of the Quest for Erebor is a crucial component later on in the War of the Ring. When Sauron unleashes his forces upon the nations of Gondor and Rohan in the South, it is the reestablishment of this Dwarven kingdom and the city of Dale that holds evil at bay in the North.

Throughout The Desolation of Smaug, weapons are a symbol for each character’s status. The possession of a sword or a bow shows which characters can accomplish their goals and impose their will and which ones cannot.

bilbo

Case 1: The Naming of Sting

Although I failed to notice it in the first film, Bilbo’s sword actually remains unnamed until the company enter Mirkwood. A year prior in the Shire, Thorin asks Bilbo what his weapon of choice is, axe or sword. Unable to answer, the neurotic hobbit jests about his skill at conkers. To the Dwarves, an individual who cannot fight is powerless and weak. It is in great battles that the fortunes of the world are decided and initially Bilbo is a non-participant.

That changes when Gandalf hands Bilbo his famous sword that glows blue when orcs are near. Initially reluctant at carrying such an instrument of violence around, in time Bilbo learns to wield his sword against orcs, wargs, and goblins. He crucially also learns when not to use it, sparing the life of Gollum.

Through the power of this sword he saves the life of Thorin from Azog and finally becomes a real player alongside the rest of the company. But it is not until his sword is named that Bilbo really comes into his own.

Attacked by huge spiders and wrapped in their webs, Bilbo draws his sword to free himself and slay these creatures. Cloaking himself in the ring’s invisibility, he repeatedly stabs a spider which cries out, “Sting, it stings!” Remarking at what a good name that is, Bilbo names his sword subtly reminding us that this sword is now truly his. He can wield it. He can use it to overthrow the menace of evil. It is not a one-time tool but a reliable means to furthering this quest.

Unlike the Dwarven weapons, this sword will remain with Bilbo up until the moment he ultimately bequeaths it to his nephew Frodo. Now that Bilbo has established himself as a potent force, Sting will not be removed from his side.

elves 2

Case 2: The Wood-elves Encounter

Unfortunately the Dwarves face an opposite situation, finding themselves parted from their weapons. As the company is surrounded by the Mirkwood spiders, the Wood-elves arrive with disastrous consequences.

Moments after meeting the company, the Elves begin disarming the Dwarves and diminishing their agency. Tauriel slaughters the spiders attacking Kili but when he asks her for a weapon for himself, she denies him.

Legolas is especially suspicious and unkind to the company. Almost immediately he accuses Thorin of being a thief and a liar. In a grievous act, Legolas takes Thorin’s iconic blade Orcrist and claims it for himself. For the rest of the film, he carries it and uses it in battle as his own.

The Elves proceed confiscate all of the company’s weapons. Under Thranduil’s direction, they are to be placed in prison indeterminately. Fili is relieved of his many many knives seemingly wedged into every nook of his outfit. One by one, these defensive weapons are stripped from him. These were a sign of his skill and prowess and now they are gone.

bifur bofur bombur

How tragic it is that the Dwarves each lose their special armaments. It seems that they will never get these weapons back, although we will have to wait for the third movie to know for sure.

Overall, this is a humiliating encounter, one that leaves the company vulnerable and weak. As the main symbol and expression of their strength, weapons are key to their very survival, not to mention the outcome of their quest.

 

barrels

Case 3: Barrel Ride

During the daring barrel escape, the Dwarves are without weapons. As the Elven guards on the bridge raise their swords against the escapees, Bolg’s orcs ambush them out of nowhere. Suddenly the Dwarves and Elves are no longer fighting each other but united against these new foes.

Both Legolas and Tauriel reappear, armed again with knives and bow. Their many weapons indicate that they are indeed in control. Hardly an orc can touch them. During the skirmish the Dwarves manage to grab a few weapons fighting off the enemy. These they pass around, reminding us of their weakened status.

Several times the Dwarves get the upper hand. Bombur goes on the offensive in his barrel, turning into a whirlwind of death. The Dwarves hack through a log, plunging many orcs into the river. Thorin heaves an axe through the air just in time to save Legolas. These are all signs that the Dwarves are reestablishing their power against any force that would try to stop them.

However the orcs are equipped with effective weapons of their own. A Morgul shaft pierces Kili’s leg. Though he is bandaged up, an evil poison has already begin to spread through the wound that will eventually kill him. These are powerful weapons that the enemy wields.

Throughout this extended sequence, we witness Elves, Dwarves, and orcs each fighting for dominance, agency, and the right to effect their will on one another.

laketown

Case 4: The Weapons of Lake-town

Meeting Bard on the riverbank the Dwarves realize immediately his skill with a bow, a sign of his strength and leadership. The company offers him a small fortune not only to transport them across the lake but also crucially to supply them with weapons. With an orc pack behind them, the vulnerable Dwarves find themselves forced to trust this stranger against their better judgment.

Unfortunately the weapons Bard has to offer are not up to their standards. As it turns out the Master of Lake-town keeps all the real weapons under lock and key, an indicator of his iron rule over the city. Subservient to this despotic Master, the people of Lake-town can neither defend themselves from oppression nor enact their own will.

The company breaks into the armory and retrieves weapons for themselves once more. Although they are caught, this attempt reveals their latent abilities as free agents able to take matters in their hands. After convincing the Master to aid their quest, they are once again fully armed, their strength restored.

Despite Bard’s apparent lack of true weapons, he does have one little secret: a famed black arrow. Inherited from his ancestor Girion, this single shaft is the only weapon among men known to be able to kill a dragon. Even though the Master governs the town, it is Bard alone who possesses such a potent weapon.

In this story, one arrow makes all the difference.

black arrow