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.


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.

The 16 Most Breathtaking Moments from The Battle of the Five Armies Trailer

The new trailer for The Battle of the Five Armies dropped like a hammer today. It’s a brilliant piece of marketing that is definitely going to build lots of excitement for this last installment.

Here is my opinion on the 16 most breathtaking moments from the trailer in roughly chronological order.

Potential spoilers ahead!

1 laketown

1) Lake-town Burns

We’ve seen Smaug torch Lake-town in the teaser trailer but here we finally see the after-effects. And it’s brutal. The whole city is ablaze with towers of flames and smoke. It definitely brings to mind Bard’s words about remembering the firestorm that destroyed Dale. It’s happening all over again.

2 barricade

2) The Dwarves Build a Barricade

Or so it appears. We see a few shots of giant statues crumbling before the gates of Erebor. I assume this is Thorin beefing up his kingdom’s defenses to keep out unwanted company looking for gold. His chief concerns at this point are of course Thranduil and the men of the Lake.

3 warmoose

3) Return of the War Elk

Although in the past I’ve incorrectly referred to it as a moose, I’m pretty sure it’s an elk. Anyway I’m happy to see Thranduil back riding his war elk as seen in the prologue to An Unexpected Journey. This is just such a cool and distinctive visual. I really hope he can ride it into battle at some point even though from the two trailers we’ve seen it looks like Thranduil does most of his fighting on foot.

4 caves

4) Orc Tunnels

Here is Sauron’s army marching from Dol Guldur to the slopes of Erebor. Gandalf mentions in this trailer that this is the ultimate culmination of Sauron’s plans but I’m still unsure of how the line of Durin and the Lonely Mountain fit into his schemes. We know from Thrain in the extended edition for Desolation that Smaug is in league with Sauron but I’m not sure how or why this requires a giant army to march halfway across Middle Earth to fight a handful of dwarves. Is he planning to use the gold of Erebor to buy up all of Middle Earth and drive up property values?

5 bats

5) War Bats

I’m not sure how I feel about the bats. They look cool in the trailer but I’m not super excited for CGI bats actually swooping into battle. Gandalf does specifically mention the bats in the book:

“Behold! the bats are above his army like a sea of locusts. They ride upon wolves and Wargs are in their train!”

Legolas is convinced these oversized bats were bred specifically for war. Still, they are probably not quite big enough to fight eagles. They are easy enough for elves to shoot down I suppose. We’ll have to see how important these bats end up being, hopefully they are more just for atmosphere than posing as a serious threat.

6 nazgul

6) Nazgul Fight

I’ve been wondering who would be left in Dol Guldur for the White Council to fight and it looks like we have found the answer: the Ringwraiths themselves! This wonderful shot has been floating all around the internet today. Galadriel is cradling an injured Gandalf while the nine lieutenants of Sauron close in around them. Each of the Nazgul has a distinct design look, which is visually very interesting.

It’s hard to forget that we have been teased their return for two entire movies. In An Unexpected Journey, Radagast encountered the Witch-King and retrieved his sword. Then in Desolation of Smaug Gandalf and Radagast explored the High Fells and discovered all nine had been resurrected and escaped their tombs. That’s exactly two years of buildup just to get to this one battle. You can bet that Peter Jackson and his crew are going to go all out to make these two years finally pay off, right?

7 elrond

7) Battle Elrond

We’ve seen Elrond fighting in the prologue to Fellowship of the Ring and glimpse of his battle-ready self in An Unexpected Journey but for the first time we are going to see Elrond whip out his sword and take on some serious bad guys: the Nazgul themselves! He’s such a great character and even though he is not going to make to the Battle of Five Armies, I’m really glad that we get not only to see him again in costume but to go dish it out against Sauron in person in the Dark Lord’s own home base.

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8) Saruman Goes After Sauron

Christopher Lee’s Saruman is an unapologetic scene stealer. After giving Lord of the Rings an unforgettable villain almost as dangerous as the Dark Lord himself and overriding Gandalf’s concerns in An Unexpected Journey, Saruman is back one last time for the White Council assault on Dol Guldur. Honestly this is like a dream come true: Galadriel, Elrond, Gandalf, and now Saruman all back for one more movie. And in this scene Saruman reveals his intentions to go after Sauron himself. This opens up so many possibilities:

  • Will the wise and powerful Saruman be able to defeat Sauron in his weakened state?
  • Did Gandalf exhaust some of the Dark Lord’s power so that now Saruman can finish him off?
  • Is this the scene where Saruman becomes convinced of Sauron’s power and decides secretly to align with him?
  • Will Saruman choose to let Sauron go free?

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9) Dwarven Ballistas

That’s clearly a dwarf there operating what looks to be a huge ballista which fires an equally huge projectile. These must be fresh arrivals to Erebor from the Iron Hills. I like the dwarven armor a lot and can’t wait to see more of the dwarf battle designs. The armor used for the Battle of Moria flashbacks was initially supposed to be used for the Battle of Five Armies so it will fun to see what Weta Workshop comes up with this time.

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10) Arrows Fly

The meticulously organized elven arches line up outside Erebor and fire their first volley of arrows at the dwarves. I’m not sure who they are hoping to hit since the walls seem pretty impenetrable but any exposed dwarf is going to be in lots of trouble. It’s sad to think that these same elves that are attacking Erebor could have come to Erebor’s aid when Smaug first arrived and only come now out of enmity towards Thorin. It will be interesting to see how much fighting actually takes place between men, elves, and dwarves before Sauron’s army arrives.

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11) Dwalin Confronts Thorin

Of course Dwalin, more so than any other member of the company, is Thorin’s right hand man. He would follow Thorin to the ends of the earth and he would rather start a good fight any day than engage in diplomacy. He is the least likely of any of the dwarves to disobey his king or run from a fight and yet here we see even the loyal Dwalin questioning Thorin’s motives. There’s probably no better shorthand way to show that Thorin has truly gone mad than this heartfelt line from Dwalin.

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12) War Trolls

These look a bit like upgraded cave trolls, carrying some kind of siege weapon on their backs. It’s nice to see that Sauron’s army will have a diversity of troops much like it did in the Battle of Pelennor Fields. Curiously enough we haven’t seen any wargs in this trailer but of course we know there will be many. These trolls don’t look quite as fierce as the trolls outside the Black Gate that Aragorn faced but they are a welcome surprise nonetheless. They will add texture and progression to what will be a very long battle.

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13) Kili Shouts at Thorin

Usually quite good-natured, Kili unleashes his anger at his uncle in what is no less than an absolutely shocking moment. Things must be going to pretty bad for the king’s own nephew to openly defy him like this. Kili’s reference to others fighting their battles perhaps refers to Tauriel whom has sacrificed her livelihood to the protect the innocents caught up in the path of the orcs.

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14) Thranduil Turns Against Tauriel

It literally looks like Thranduil is swinging at Tauriel with his sword while she parries his blow. The scar on Thranduil’s face also appears to be showing slightly. What would cause the king of the wood-elves to attack the captain of his own guard? This seems to be much more than her simply defying his orders. Something big must have happened for this aggression from the king of the wood-elves. Unfortunately it looks like Tauriel will not be getting a break either.

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15) Bolg Throws Tauriel

In a devastating blow, Bolg knocks Tauriel into a wall. This is just cruel. We know Tauriel can handle herself against legions of orcs so the fact that Bolg is able to do this shows both that he is incredibly dangerous and unimaginably strong. I really hope that this scene is not the end ofTauriel. If she does die in this movie, she deserves a much more heroic death than getting slammed into a pile of bricks.

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16) Azog’s Blade

The Defiler had a functional but not-quite-menacing claw hand in An Unexpected Journey and we didn’t see too much of him in Desolation of Smaug. He is clearly going to be back in a big way for this last film. Instead of a claw hand he has a full on curved blade perfect for impaling and perhaps even preparing sushi. It has exactly four sharp pointy ends on it just in case he forgot to poke enough holes in his enemies already. In this scene he seems to fighting Thorin which may prove fatal for at least one of them. Intense stuff.

Those 16 moments took my breath away. What about you?

Comparing An Unexpected Journey and The Desolation of Smaug


The first two Hobbit films are very different animals. Despite The Desolation of Smaug picking up right where An Unexpected Journey left off, the second film explores much darker territory and seems willing to stay there right up until the nail-biting cliffhanger. While I absolutely loved the first film, the second film confused me for a long time with its rougher-to-swallow elements. After many repeated viewings, I have finally come to terms that they really are two chapters of one continuous story and very much two sides of the same cinematic coin. Over time I have come to appreciate these differences but I think a straightforward comparison is in order.

An Unexpected Journey is the more innocent of the two, beginning in the Shire before Bilbo has experienced any of the growing peril spreading across Middle Earth. The extended arrival of the dwarves at Bag End and their dinner time antics is undoubtedly one of my favorite scenes ever put to film. It perfectly captures the English fussiness of our titular hobbit and is a refreshingly minor nuisance compared to the trolls, wargs, black riders, orc armies, and fell beasts that will follow in the chronology.
As tremendous as The Lord of the Rings trilogy is and as much good as it did for the fantasy genre as a whole, it is morbid stuff. Legions of merciless soulless killing machines marching across the land is hard to stomach movie after movie. The lightheartedness and innocence of the first hour of An Unexpected Journey is an appreciable indulgence and something that Fellowship of the Ring had little time for. 
Once the Company leaves Bag End, this playful spirit doesn’t let up. Immediately we see that these dwarves are less serious traveling companions than the likes of Boromir and Aragorn. The fact that the dwarves take bets on Bilbo’s participation in the quest provides a welcome and refreshing humor that reminds us that Middle Earth does not always have to be brooding and grimdark.
Additionally, Radagast the Brown appears into the story out of the blue. A wacky wizard clothed in floppy brown rags and the silliest grin possible, he would be totally out of place in a more self-important story. His rabbit sled and uncomfortable affinity for birds and hedgehogs may draw complaints, but you can’t argue that he isn’t a fully imagined and realized character. We already have Gandalf and Saruman as wizardly examples and Radagast fits neatly into the category of something different and altogether unexpected.
The Goblin-King as well comes across as purposefully offensive in just about every way, from his revolting character design to the blasphemous howl that apparently constitutes his singing voice. He is a foul caricature writ large, a ridiculous counterpoint to the big bad that Gandalf would later fight in the mines of Moria. Where the Balrog was demonic and scary, this guy is one big fat joke.
What An Unexpected Journey does, to varying degrees of success, is it refuses to commit to one single tone and attempts to balance the epic nature of the quest for Erebor with the comic absurdity of a uptight handkerchief-loving hobbit, a wildly disfunctional band of dwarven bachelors, and a younger brighter Middle Earth still ruled by the lesser villains of the age. While fans are still free to ritually and endlessly rewatch the brutally apocalyptic and cataclysmic events of Lord of the Rings, what we have in An Unexpected Journey is something a bit brighter if still somewhat shrouded in the looming shadow of a Sauron resurgent.
By the time the film ends, Bilbo has earned his place in the Company and made ammends with the flawed but still admirable Thorin Oakenshield. The warm feels and long hugs are there, still maintaining a deft balance between innocence, bravery, loyalty, and ridiculousness. But all of this is over when we arrive at The Desolation of Smaug. No more mountain-trekking montages or bunny-sled chases here. It’s time for serious business.
Suddenly a sense of gravitas and urgency that was partially lacking in the first film falls upon us with full force. We open with a chance meeting at Bree, filled with ominous tangible threats in the form of two grubby unwashed bounty killers. Next we see the Company pursued by Azog’s warg-riders and a menacing bear-creature. Soon Bilbo and friends are desperately lost in a hallucinogenic forest populated by arachnid nightmare fuel. The relentless violence and danger just won’t let up.
From someone who has watched An Unexpected Journey about 20 times, this sudden abandonment of the whimsical and plodding pace for menace and slaughter is quite jarring. Replacing the wise and cautious elves of Rivendell, Desolation introduces the racist isolationist North Korea of the elven world, the Woodland Realm. Contemptibly vain Thandruil, gruff executioner Legolas, and a city full of slovenly drunks do little to expand our wonder and appreciation for elven culture. Tauriel is the one bright counterexample in a culture steeped in violent self-preservation.
I’m not saying I don’t enjoy and appreciate The Desolation of Smaug, but it does take some getting used to. Nowhere is this more necessary than in the changing relationship between Thorin and the rest of the company. Whereas he supposedly earned Thorin’s respect by the end of the first film, we see pretty quickly that this blossoming comradery is short-lived. Just as the ring corrupts the relationship between the Fellowship and the Ringbearer, the trophies of Erebor and its crown jewel poison the friendship between Bilbo and Thorin.
It’s one thing to watch your heroes fight a sea of hybrid orc soliders, it’s another thing to see the heroes lose faith in one another and betray the very bonds of friendship for which they have risked their own lives. Thorin’s path toward the Dark Side is hasty and without remorse. The heir of Durin leaves behind his nephews and fellow heirs Fili and Kili without a second thought. He unflinchingly sends in Bilbo to probable death by fire. He even interrogates his burglar at swordpoint, viciously seeking the Arkenstone above all else.
The hopes and dreams that the dwarves shared in Bag End have come to fruition but at the expense of Thorin’s sanity and his friendships developed over the course of their many adventures. Our royal hero craves only riches and he will sacrifice Lake-town to get them. Who knows what he will do in the next movie?
Such disparate tones between films belong partially to the source material and partially to the imagination of the screenwriters fleshing out this expanded narrative, but ultimately what we end up with on screen is the story of a group of dwarves robbed of their kingdom who travel further into the heart of darkness and watch as their leader slowly descends into madness, all as seen through the eyes of an unseasoned hobbit. And since much death is coming, I suppose we should be glad to be prepared for such.

Let’s look at a few further points of comparison.

Standout Sequences

Both films feature one over-the-top action sequence chock full of gags, CGI animation, battles, beheadings, and improbable escapes. In An Unexpected Journey this occurs in the goblin tunnels when Gandalf suddenly appears and orders the dwarves to fight their way out. The extended chase and battle scene shows goblins swinging, climbing, falling, attacking, and dying. Each dwarf gets a moment or two to show off their fighting prowess and the sheer insanity of the sequence adds up to a wild and memorable ride.


Though some have compared it to a video game, the escape from the clutches of the Great Goblin is a visually interesting sequence that pulls out all the stops for the sake of fun. I suppose there is more simple and less feisty way to have gone about it, but I’m glad that they tried something new for how the Company gets through the rickety goblin shantytown.


In The Desolation of Smaug the filmmakers up the ante with the now infamous barrel sequence. Inserting the Company inside of a skirmish between elves and orcs, what could easily have been a relaxing float down the river turns into a life-or-death contest of survival. Weaponless and at the mercy of the current, the dwarves narrowly fend off a huge pack of bloodthirsty orcs led by one supremely ugly son-of-an-Azog. This moment gives Legolas and Tauriel a chance to really shine as they combat Dol Guldur’s finest. Just as in the escape from Goblintown, the barrel sequence hits moments of sillyness and unbelievability. However the sheer inventiveness and unfettered exhilaration keeps these two risky sequences afloat. It’s gigantic moments like this, too big for books or television, that make movies special.

A Wizard’s Sidequests

Gandalf receives his own mission in this trilogy and the two films make sure to make a big deal about showcasing his exploits. An Unexpected Journey reunites the grey wizard with some familiar faces from Lord of the Rings. Seeing Elrond, Galadriel, and Saruman all in the same room talking together caused quite a few brains to explode. Even though they are really just spouting exposition, the calibre of the acting and intense nostalgia dating back to December 2001’s Fellowship of the Ring is almost too much to handle. Seeing Gandalf defer to the wily Saruman is both frustrating and awesome. The previously unseen amity between Lady Galadriel and Gandalf is equally pleasant, giving us new insight into the wizard’s choice of burglar. We still don’t know exactly what all the talk of the Dwarven rings is about in the Extended Edition, but it anticipates more revelation about the nature of Sauron’s growing influence. All of this extra material isn’t necessary for a story about Bilbo’s little journey, yet it is unadulterated fun for those of us dying to see more of Middle-Earth and committed to watching these films over and over until entropy swallows the universe.
In The Desolation of Smaug, Gandalf continues his adventure by teaming up with Radagast to explore the High Fells where the corpses of the nine Nazgul supposedly rest. Visually dazzling and musically haunting, Gandalf’s ascent to the tomb’s entrance is dizzingly incredible. More time with the brown wizard is quite welcome (although we must assume that fan favorite Sebastian at still at home recovering.) The relationship between the two wizards is developed a bit further, showing Gandalf as the more dominant instigator and Radagast as the more subservient ally. Finally Gandalf ventures alone into the abandoned fortress where the enemy has made his home and confronts the hidden evil lurking there. He battles Sauron, a ball of expanding light against overwhelming mist and shadow, losing badly and getting locked in a cage. The conclusion to this wizard’s auxiliary adventures will have to wait for yet another film. However we can hold out hope that all of this setup will result in a hefty payoff.

Duelling Riddles

Both films make sure to balance their extensive casts with some ample attention given to one very hobbit-centric sequence highlighting the ingenuity of Master Baggins. An Unexpected Journey gives us this in the tense verbal confrontation between Bilbo and Gollum. The game of riddles would be nothing without the dynamic interplay of emotion, body language, and personality created by Martin Freeman and Andy Serkis. Somehow the murderous deformities of Gollum are loveable, while the nervous confidence of Bilbo come across as funny and authentic. This scene is worth the price of admission, recapping all the best things about our hobbit protagonist and recreating the hideous perfection that is the creature Gollum.
In Desolation Bilbo takes center stage again as he peruses the dragon’s lair. Whereas Gollum was more or less Bilbo’s equal in size and ability, the fire-breathing, dwarf-eating, town-razing Smaug is something else altogether. This is 10 levels above tricking Gollum. Against Smaug the hobbit must employ flattery, deception, and feigned ignorance as he buys the needed time to acquire the Arkenstone. Despite his invulnerability and strength, the dragon is hopelessly vain and apparently somewhat bored. Bilbo manages to fight off his fears just long enough to accomplish his task, albeit in his quintessentially quirky manner. The growls of Benedict Cumberbatch’s Smaug do impeccable justice granting an incomparable ferocity to Erebor’s worst nightmare. 
These two scenes are primarily psychological in nature, testing the strength of Bilbo by pitting him against two sinister forces of corruption and forcing him to outwit them through intelligence alone.  Treated with delicate care and an almost theatrical flourish, these two confrontations elevate what could have just been another plot moment into iconic turning points in the history of Middle-Earth.

Inconclusive Endings 

Although not terribly different than the LOTR trilogy, both installments of The Hobbit manage to leave us with quite an open-ended conclusion, a sort of non-ending. An Unexpected Journey finishes by teasing a sleeping dragon stirring under a pile of gold. Yet it still manages to come up with a narratively satisfying resolution between Bilbo and Thorin atop the Carrock. All of this comes after a climatic assault from Azog and a dramatic rescue by eagle. It’s a powerful ending despite being a last minute addition shot during pick ups. A lot of things happen in the first film and the last words spoken are Bilbo’s: “I do believe the worst is behind us now.” Knowing the terrors of Mirkwood and Smaug waiting up ahead, the irony is palpable.
Much is still left undecided at the end the first film. Gandalf’s concerns over Dol Guldur and the Necromancer are patently on hold. Who can say what sorcery is still going on there? Azog and his minions are alive somewhere, perhaps regrouping and planning their next move against the Company. Thorin’s madness, mentioned a bit more in the Extended Edition, remains yet unrealized. And of course, Smaug and his vast riches await. It’s not so very different from Sam and Frodo crossing the shore at the end of Fellowship of the Ring.
But for every unanswered question in An Unexpected Journey, there are of course seemingly three more at the cruel climax of The Desolation of Smaug. After a rousing effort by the dwarves to smother Smaug in molten gold, he bursts through the gates of Erebor with his sights on the poor men, women, and children of the lake. Bilbo says, “What have we done?” Cut to black.
So many loose ends. Where to begin?
Back in Lake-town Kili is barely healed from his wound, Tauriel at his side. Next to them are Fili, Oin, Bofur, and Bard’s two girls. How will they escape from the coming inferno?
Bard is locked away while his son Bain has hidden the black arrow, the one last weapon that can defeat Smaug. How will Bard escape, grab the arrow, and get to the windlance? Do any of these people in Lake-town really stand a chance?
Legolas appears to have made it to safety, riding across the bridge to land hot on the heels of Bolg and his riders. Will he catch up to them or will they escape his grasp once again?
Back in Dol Guldur, Gandalf is defeated and caged, ostensibly waiting for Galadriel and reinforcements to arrive. A massive army of orcs march out toward the Lonely Mountain, implying the imminent battle that names the next film. What is Sauron’s endgame here?
On the slopes of Erebor, Bilbo watches in horror as he sees what their quest has unleashed. He holds the Arkenstone. What will he do with it next in the aftermath of the destruction? Behind him Thorin and the remaining dwarves stand in the newly vacated mountain kingdom, their plans uncertain.
There are other characters to consider as well. Is Thranduil and his army back in the Woodland Realm or have the wood-elves decided to venture into the geopolitical intricacies of the mountain region too?
What of the Master of Lake-town and his sniffling sidekick, will they survive the flames to come?
The last two movies took their time in establishing a huge list of political and military players spanning the breadth of Middle-Earth. We have the entire White Council, the orc commanders Azog and Bolg, the Necromancer/Sauron in Dol Guldur, the goblins of the Misty Mountains, the eagles, the spiders, the wood-elves, the men of the Lake, the resurrected Nazgul, Beorn the Skinchanger, the Company of Thorin Oakenshield, and the briefly mentioned dwarves of the Iron Hills under Dain. This is an insane amount of people to keep track of. In all likelihood, every single group on that list are going to make some kind of appearance and impact in the next film.
If An Unexpected Journey cracked open the door a bit, then The Desolation of Smaug just went ahead and kicked the whole thing down. Essentially what these two films have done is placed a tremendous burden on film three to answer all our questions in a fulfilling, logical and unforgettable way. It’s a staggeringly ambitious task and I hope they pull it off.

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’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.


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.


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.


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.

Rampant Speculation on the Prologue for The Battle of the Five Armies

**Possible Spoilers for The Battle of the Five Armies**

Every single Peter Jackson Middle Earth film so far has has opened with an extensive prologue. When The Fellowship of the Ring entered theaters way back in 2001, an unfathomable amount of pressure rested on those precious opening minutes. If the audience could digest thousands of years of backstory and comprehend it, then the risky $300+ million adaptation just might work. If that opening prologue didn’t make sense, literally billions of dollars in potential revenue were at stake. Unsurprisingly the prologue concerning Sauron and the history of the ring was one of the very last sections of the film to be completed before the premiere. It worked and it’s success guaranteed a future for the two finished Middle Earth trilogies we have come this December.

It seems only natural that the sixth entry, The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies, would uphold this hallowed tradition. Fellowship had the Battle of Dagorlad. The Two Towers featured Gandalf’s freefall battle with the Balrog. Return of the King showed us Smeagol’s transformation into Gollum. An Unexpected Journey showcased Smaug’s destruction of Dale and Erebor. And The Desolation of Smaug took us back to Gandalf’s initial meeting with Thorin in Bree.

So what lies in store for the sixth and final visit to Middle Earth? Will there be one last prologue to continue the pattern? If so, what would it concern?
The following is pure speculation. These ideas are probably wrong. One or two of these I may have read somewhere else on some dark corner of the internet, but hopefully I have added my own spin on it. These possible prologues may only exist in my head, but let’s not let that fact get in the way of having a little fun anyway. Soon all shall be revealed, but for now we may imagine what is in store on December 17.

The Witch-King Recruits Smaug

Back in the first Hobbit film, Radagast encounters the Witch-King of Angmar in Dol Guldur at some unspecified point in the past. In the second film, Radagast and Gandalf investigate the High Fells and discover that all nine Nazgul have mysteriously disappeared from their tombs. During the conversation between Bilbo and Smaug, new details come to light that cause us to question whether Bilbo is really the dragon’s first visitor since he took Erebor. Not only does Smaug seem perfectly knowledgeable about Thorin Oakenshield and his quest, but he also clearly knows something about the One Ring and Sauron’s army in Dol Guldur.

Smaug: “A darkness is coming. It will spread to every corner of the land.”
Cut to Gandalf imprisoned in Dol Guldur.
Clearly there is some kind of collaboration between Sauron and Smaug going on. At the very least Smaug can sense the power of the ring, but more likely is that Sauron is actively recruiting the dragon to wreak havoc on the free people of the North. In An Unexpected Journey, the White Council covers this possibility:

Galadriel: The dragon has long been on your mind.


Gandalf: This is true, my lady. Smaug owes allegiance to no one, but if he should side with the enemy, a dragon could be used to terrible effect.

Understanding the high likelihood of such a dark alliance, it would be faintly possible that the prologue for The Battle of the Five Armies could feature Sauron’s initial attempt to sway Smaug over to his side. We already know that the Witch-King is out there somewhere doing Sauron’s bidding. Especially with his seeming ability to dematerialize and pass through solid objects, the Witch-King would be the perfect agent to penetrate the sealed walls of Erebor.
After showing their sinister dealings in the dark, the prologue could cut right back to the dragon as he razes Lake-town into ash and embers. This would get us right back into the action of the non-stop thriller that will be The Battle of the Five Armies.

Gandalf Finds Thrain

We were teased in trailers for both AUJ and DOS a scene in Dol Guldur where a wandering Gandalf encounters a raving mad Thrain jumping down upon him from above. This is clearly the moment where Gandalf aquires the map and key he presents to Thorin at Bag End. Now that Thorin has unleashed the dragon, might not the next prologue be a natural place to explore the origins of this quest with Thorin’s long lost father?
This heir of Durin, despite some lunatic ramblings, could perhaps shed some more light on why he was being held in Dol Guldur and how the massive gold treasury of Erebor factors into Sauron’s plans. If Thrain was thwarted in his attempts and tortured by the Dark Lord himself, maybe he holds some crucial piece of knowledge that motivates Gandalf to undertake this endeavor in the first place. The Bree prologue in DOS did the same thing showing the initial meeting between Gandalf and Thorin establishing a precedent for such Hobbit prologues.
But on second thought, this might be a little too similar to what we have already seen and it is unlikely that Peter Jackson will give us another Gandalf-getting-ready-for-the-quest prologue. More likely this scene will show up in the DOS Extended Edition come November.

Galadriel Rescues Gandalf

We’ve seen in the initial teaser trailer for The Battle of the Five Armies a glimpse of Galadriel walking barefoot through some rocky place and kissing a fallen Galdalf on the head. In AUJ, Galadriel promised to show up if Gandalf ever needed her. And in DOS Gandalf sends Radagast to go bring her back to Dol Guldur with reinforcements.
Is this scene from the trailer showing the rescue of Gandalf from Sauron’s prison where he ended up at the end of the last movie? And if so, could that not make a suitable prologue for the third film?
I’m not sure how long it is going to take for the titular battle of five different armies to get started but it might make sense for the timeline to be sped up a little to get things moving after the burning of Lake-town. Gandalf needs to get rescued and get over to the battle pretty quickly. While this prologue is unlikely, this scene is not in the book and thus there’s no real way to tell when it will take place. The opening few minutes might be as good a place as any.

Goblins and Orcs

After Gandalf was defeated by Sauron toward the ends of the second film, we see him hanging in a cage watching as an army of orcs march out to war. Presumably led by Azog himself, they are already on their way to Erebor even before Smaug faces off against Bard.
However in the book it was not the orcs of Dol Guldur that marched out to battle but the angry goblins of the Misty Mountains coming to avenge their fallen king. Since the third film is all about the build up to war and then the climatic battle itself, it makes good sense to stick with that theme in the prologue. One possible prologue could involve Azog’s army encountering the vengeful goblins and joining together as one even bigger force. Showing such a massive double-flanked army would heighten the tension for the rest of the film even as the main characters are busy dealing with other seemingly more pertinent issues surrounding the aftermath of Smaug.

Sauron Resurrects Azog

The Hobbit films give us the perplexing predicament of giving us a Necromancer who can summon the spirits of the dead, but who is actually revealed to be the disembodied formerly defeated Sauron himself. This kind of does away with the whole Necromancer idea altogether if it weren’t for the newly emancipated Ringwraiths running around somewhere. One way this could be ameliorated is by giving more weight to the whole necromancy concept in the third prologue.
According to Tolkien, Azog the Defiler died of his wounds long ago at the Battle of Azanulbizar. However in the movie version, lo and behold there is he walking around waving his metal claw hand around like he never died.
This discrepancy could easily be mended by a short prologue opening on the aftermath of the battle outside the gates of Moria. Imagine as the camera zooms past the seas of bodies and bloodstained rocks penetrating into the black night of the mountain. There in the eerie darkness lies the lifeless corpse of Azog.
Suddenly a howling wind, a piercing shriek, fills the cavern walls. A flickering shadow spreads across the floor to the feet of the fallen orc chieftain. A whispering voice begins to chant in Black Speech. Azog’s toes begin to wiggle one by one. A shiver goes down his body. His heart begins to thump loudly. With a bloodcurdling scream, the Defiler sits up.
Azog blinks and recoils in fear. He scrambles to his feet, his back to the wall. He does not know who is with him in the dim underground tombs of Moria. A soulless voice speaks to him in the gravelly language of Mordor, “Bow to me.” Azog bends his knees and feebly spits out a reply, “Yes, master.”

The Rewind

Desolation of Smaug ended with many characters’ fates hanging in the balance. It is very possible that the third film may take some time to rewind a few minutes and show what is happening with the rest of the cast before leaping back into all the fire and death stuff. A multi-character prologue could show the result of this chase right before the dragon arrives.
When we last saw them, Legolas was chasing Bolg on horseback as the ugly white orc fled town. Perhaps he catches up before Smaug even arrives, who knows?
The dwarves back in Lake-town presumably all survive for the upcoming battle so we could see how they get away from the impending doom ahead of time along with Bard’s children. Tauriel can perform some more heroics to save more non-elves. Perhaps we can see Bain breaking his dad out of prison and handing him the black arrow, but this is seeming less and less likely even as I write this.
Back in Erebor, Bilbo and Thorin can watch in horror for a few moments more as they prepare to see wanton destruction befall an innocent populace as a direct result of their actions. The Master of Lake-town and Alfrid can scream in horror as they realize what they’ve done by helping the dwarves.
Ok in all honesty, there probably won’t be time for all this. Smaug really seems to mean business at the end of the second film and I doubt he will waste any time so that people can work out their issues. Since the other five prologues take place a significant time before the opening title, I sincerely doubt that there would be time for such a needless delay.

No Prologue

This is probably the opening that most people expect for The Battle of the Five Armies: no prologue and getting straight back into the action. The second Hobbit film was the first in the entire Middle Earth film series to end on a straight up cliffhanger. Such an ending may seem to rule out the possibility of seeing an extended prologue like we’ve seen before.
However I feel this is unlikely for three reasons.
First, such a committed tradition spanning five movies is not so easily discarded. You can’t just Gimli it with an axe because Smaug happens to be coming over for second breakfast. Although it might make sense on one level to skip it this time around, there are too many hypothetical scenarios (like the ones I’ve listed above) to pass up this opportunity to showcase more tender moments from the long established annals of Middle Earth.
The second reason is that this trilogy, for better or worse, has to deal with the issue of padding. We are dealing with two films that were split into three at the eleventh hour. Since that three movie decision was made back in summer 2012, there has been plenty of man-hours devoted to writing and filming additional scenes that weren’t originally planned back under the the two film treatment. Adding, not removing, a prologue would be a simple and relatively easy way to extend the running time and provide additional thematic clarity to a significantly elongated narrative.
The third reason is that the first two films have left us with so many dangling threads that it feels far too implausible that a prologue wouldn’t be used to answer at least a question or two. Really, there are questions that need answering. I don’t think we can make it another movie without answering every single question on this list:
  • Why is Azog still alive when Bolg could have been perfectly serviceable? What is so special about the Defiler that he was needed to brought back to life to replace his son at the final battle?
  • What is the deal with Dol Guldur? We’ve been teased it for two films but we still haven’t seen why it was so necessary to this particular adaptation of The Hobbit? And if Sauron wanted to keep it a secret, why did he breed giant easy-to-notice spiders there?
  • What is the White Council up to? When are Galadriel, Elrond, and Saruman going to get involved in this whole spider infestation issue and the endless intrigue surrounding Dol Guldur?
  • Where are the Ringwraiths? If we saw their empty tombs in the High Fells that means they are out doing something. What is the thing they are doing? Do they do anything besides conspicuously fumble their swords and leave them behind at the slightest provocation? Why does Sauron rely on the one-handed Azog instead of his chiefest lieutenants all of whom have two useable hands? Are the nine servants of evil not yet strong enough to take physical form like Sauron is? And do they ever get tired of being invincible unkillable ghosts whose only weakness is getting stabbed in the face by women?
  • What is so special about Thrain that he needed to be teased in two movie trailers yet also cruelly withheld from us twice in a row for some sinister purpose that lies veiled in the shadows? Why was the White Council talking about Thrain’s ring of power in the extended edition and is that how Sauron is regaining his former strength? Does Sauron collect rings like how some people collect Magic cards?
  • Speaking of rings of power, the elves were not corrupted by their rings like men and dwarves. Are we finally going to see Galadriel, Elrond, and Gandalf each wield their rings in a battle against Sauron? That would be the coolest thing ever.
  • What is going on between Legolas and Tauriel? Did they used to date? Did they break up when Thranduil found out? Is there a good reason Legolas is still single in Lord of the Rings?
  • Speaking of wood-elves, where is Thranduil’s moose? Can we please see him ride it into battle? Can somehow get some more details about the traditional use of war moose?
  • Does Smaug have a good singing voice? I feel like he would. That baritone is just perfect for some kind of Hobbity song.
  • What is Bilbo planning to do with the Arkenstone? He has it, right? Did anyone see him pick it up? He has to have it. There’s no way he doesn’t have it. I couldn’t quite see but he must have it, right?
  • Is Legolas going to give Thorin his sword back? It’s so not cool for him to be killing orcs with the funnest sword that he lifted just so he could have it. Is anyone going to mention to Legolas that the handle of Orcrist is made from a dragon tooth and obviously belongs to Thorin for personal dragon reasons?
  • Are the new characters like Tauriel, Alfrid, and Bard’s daughters who were invented for the movie, going to meet an untimely end? I feel like their chances are not good.
  • Since Bilbo blacks out in the book during the final battle, will we not actually see the battle on screen and instead just hear people talking about the battle when Bilbo finally wakes up? Just thinking from a purist perspective, that would be logical, right?
  • Are black arrows really that hard to make? They look kind of just like regular arrows but maybe bigger. There will be a perfectly good explanation for why people didn’t feel like making more after an actual dragon showed up, no?
  • Also, why is Thorin such a jerk? I really liked him in the first movie. It seemed like he reconciled with Bilbo after the whole eagle rescue but now he’s back to trying to kill Bilbo. Is dragon sickness contagious? Should I be concerned here?
  • Why did the Misty Mountain song disappear from the second movie? I know it was a bit overplayed in the first movie but can we have it back now? We’re sorry for complaining, Peter. One more time, for old times?
  • Why are there no guardrails in Middle Earth? Don’t people ever fall off these walkways? Is there really no governmental agencies around to inspect bridges to make sure that children and drunks don’t accidentally plummet to their death? I know this is a faux history of a fantastical medieval European civilization and things were often brutally grimdark, but surely they still had guardrails. Are these magic guardrails that we can’t see because of a spell of concealment? I just find it hard to believe that elven architectural aesthetics trumps safety every time. We’re talking about saving lives here.

The Nature of Greed in The Desolation of 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.