Northern Courage, Ofermōde and Thorin Oakenshield’s last stand

Thorin 1

Northern Courage

Tolkien was fascinated by the concept he called “the theory of courage”, which exemplified one of the highest qualities in the literary Northern hero: that of unflinching courage, steadfast resolve and sheer determination of will in the face of impossible odds.

In Beowulf, the epic Anglo Saxon poem, we unearth such a concept in some of its verses. As the titular character finds himself in dire need of aid against the fury of the dragon, Wiglaf – companion of Beowulf – bravely stands beside his beloved lord.

Then I heard how the earl alongside the king
in the hour of need made known the valour,
boldness and strength that were bred in him.

Beowulf: Verse Translation, Michael Alexander
(verses 2691-2693)

Looking at another example, The Battle of Maldon is an Anglo Saxon poem recounting a conflict fought in 991AD between the Anglo Saxons and Viking invaders. From this work, Tolkien recognised the crucial feature of this heroic spirit. As Byrhtnoth lies dead and his remaining warriors face defeat, the character of Byrhtwold speaks out to his fellow companions as they prepare for one final attack.

 (Hige sceal þe heardra, heorte þe cenre,
mod sceal þe mare þe ure maegen lytlað.)

Will shall be the sterner, heart the bolder,
spirit the greater as our strength lessens.

The Battle of Maldon
as translated in Tree and Leaf, J.R.R. Tolkien
‘The Homecoming of Beorhtnoth Beorhthelm’s Son’

There is a pureness and a melancholic beauty of spirit in this idea of Northern courage, which provides a sense of raw emotion on both characters and situations occupying the piece of literature they find themselves in. It so strongly recalls the ancient heroic impetus, one that is synonymous with the Anglo Saxon and Norse ideals, that it is not surprising to find Tolkien applying this same idea in The Lord of the Rings.

One of the most popular examples occurs after the charge of the Rohirrim during the Battle of the Pelennor Fields, when Éomer finds himself surrounded by a sea of foes. After the sense of despair and loss at their current predicament, Théoden’s nephew embodies the very essence of the Northern hero.

Stern now was Eomer’s mood, and his mind clear again. He let blow the horns to rally all men to his banner that could come thither; for he thought to make a great shield-wall at the last, and stand, and fight there on foot till all fell, and do deeds of song on the fields of Pelennor, though no man should be left in the West to remember the last King of the Mark.

The Lord of the Rings, J.R.R. Tolkien
Book VI, Chapter 6, ‘The Battle of the Pelennor Fields’

Tolkien wanted to create a new image of heroic style by reducing the pagan essence found in those literary works he was inspired by, and add the more suitable Christian elements to it. To achieve this, he created characters and situations that embodied this heroic spirit within his own personal mythology. We can find similar examples of this, such as Húrin’s single-handed resistance towards the end of the Battle of Unnumbered Tears in The Silmarillion, and the Easterlings’ steadfast last stand during the cataclysmic events of the Dark Lord’s downfall in The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King.

Ofermod

Besides Northern courage, Tolkien also discussed quite in detail this theme of pride and overbearing confidence in certain Anglo Saxon characters.

In The Battle of Maldon, between the two opposing forces lies a causeway over which the tide has swept. Byrhtnoth, leader of the Saxons, allows the Vikings to pass over into the mainland and reform themselves for battle. A decision which ultimately proves disastrous for him.

(Ða se eorl ongan for his ofermode
alyfan landes to fela laþere ðeode.)

Then the earl in his overmastering pride
actually yielded ground to the enemy, as he should not have done.

The Battle of Maldon
as translated in Tree and Leaf, J.R.R. Tolkien
‘The Homecoming of Beorhtnoth Beorhthelm’s Son’

The word “ofermode” is somewhat ambiguous in its meaning and has been much debated, not least by Tolkien himself. He wrote an essay on “ofermode” in which he goes into detail to try and explain its true significance. Although containing the word “mod” for “boldness”, Tolkien is quick to state that the term does not mean “overboldness” but rather “spirit”, which mostly manifests itself in pride. Characters can never be too courageous according to Tolkien, but this trait can lead to pride and confidence, and dangerously result in a downfall.

Ofermod can be seen as a direct result of extreme Northern courage. When the unflinching will goes beyond the point of no return, it turns into selfish chivalry and overconfidence. Characters should therefore be aware of this and not fall into the trap.

Thorin Oakenshield’s Last Gambit

As The Hobbit reaches the climax of the story, and Elves, Men and Dwarves find themselves hard pressed to defend the Mountain against the swarming Orcs, Thorin emerges unlooked for from his hold and charges forward with his twelve companions.

Having succumbed to dragon sickness a few chapters earlier, Thorin redeems himself by participating in the battle as he attempts to assist in pushing back the evil forces. A valiant attempt, if foolhardy.

The Dwarf lord’s decision to rush towards the overwhelming numbers of the enemy certainly invokes that Northern courage Tolkien had discussed in Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics.

One of the most potent elements in that fusion is the Northern courage: the theory of courage, which is the great contribution of early Northern literature. This is not a military judgement […] I refer rather to the central position the creed of unyielding will holds in the North.

Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics, J.R.R. Tolkien

Here, in The Hobbit, is a character who has emerged from a safe and secure place of hiding to face a potentially fatal encounter. Perhaps, some sense of strategy is still existent in an attempt to cause shock and confusion amidst his foes, but the sheer difference of numbers between Thorin’s Company and the Orc army outweighs the sense strategy in favour of the strong spirit of the will and the boldness of the heart.

Tolkien subtly makes reference to that popular verse, quoted earlier, from The Battle of Maldon (“Will shall be the sterner, heart the bolder, spirit the greater as our strength lessens”) and rewords it accordingly to fit within Thorin’s moment in The Hobbit.

In the gloom the great dwarf gleamed like gold in a dying fire.

The Hobbit, J.R.R. Tolkien
Chapter 17, ‘The Clouds Burst’

However, Thorin falls into the ofermod trap. His sense of duty and righteousness impel him into battle. Whether he seeks personal glory or not is not made clear, but given his characterisation and motivations throughout the novel, this does not seem to be the case. However, the rash decision to charge headlong into the fray, with only a handful of companions at his back, is nothing short of folly: both for him, his friends and his allies.

Tolkien provides an example of this in his Ofermod essay. He cites Beowulf’s determination to lay aside weapons and armour in order to confront the creature Grendel.

Beowulf then made a boasting speech,
the Geat man, before mounting his bed:
‘I fancy my fighting-strength, my performance in combat,
at least as greatly as Grendel does his;
and therefore I shall not cut short his life
with a slashing sword – too simple a business.

Beowulf: Verse Translation, Michael Alexander
(verses 675-680)

The risk he is taking, brought about by an overconfident mindset, poses significant danger to himself and his companions in the hall. Although Beowulf emerges as the victor, that strong sense of pride proved disastrous during the battle of Maldon. Thus, none of these literary heroes is immune to ofermod. That drive to achieve more and test one’s strength might result in the dire consequences if pushed to the extreme. Yet, at the same time, it is a flawed character that transforms simple narratives into memorable storytelling.

And as the valley widened his [Thorin’s] onset grew ever slower. His numbers were too few. His flanks were unguarded. Soon the attackers were attacked …

The Hobbit, J.R.R. Tolkien
Chapter 17, ‘The Clouds Burst’

Thorin’s actions, though successful at first, bring about the near annihilation of the good forces. This same error can clearly be seen in Byrhtnoth’s character as he allows the Vikings to cross over into the mainland before the battle.

From reading the account of the Battle of Five Armies, Thorin goes through a three-act story arc. His stern will to charge into the enemies’ ranks aspires to the concept of Northern courage, but Thorin’s impetus reaches the limit and his confidence in battle is tipped the other way to become ofermod. His is hard pressed by his rash decision and the fatal mistake, just like Byrhtnoth, leads to his death.

Yet, in a vague reference to Tolkien’s own concept of eucatastrophe (that sudden turn from bad to good), Thorin’s ofermod, which proves his undoing, leads to the character’s revival of Northern courage due to his last stand with the Dwarves in the midst of the battle.

It might seem odd to have both concepts present in a single work/instance. Then again, The Battle of Maldon presents us precisely with this notion. Tolkien remarked that the poem was in essence “an extended comment” (Tree and Leaf) on the words of Byrhtwold as he urged his companions to attain glory in the face of defeat.

“[T]he full force of the poem is missed unless the two passages are considered together.”

Tree and Leaf, J.R.R. Tolkien
‘The Homecoming of Beorhtnoth Beorhthelm’s Son’

Tolkien seems to imply that, for a literary piece dealing with the northern heroic ideals to work successfully, both ofermod and  Northern courage concepts must be present. The successful execution of one concept rests upon the inclusion of the other.

Thorin Oakenshield’s character transformation throughout The Hobbit is beautifully intricate and profound. His initial noble stature grumbles under the lust for Smaug’s gold; however, his path to redemption is attained by his courageous actions during a hopeless event. This sense of righteousness proves too much and quickly turns the tide into great danger, but is ultimately transformed into one final redeeming stance of demonstrating those Northern heroic qualities that lead to his death.

It can be said that Tolkien has cleverly placed Thorin alongside literary heroic giants and, as with  Byrhtwold, Beowulf, (and even the warriors occupying Valhalla, who know they are nonetheless doomed to lose during Ragnarök), has successfully revived those Anglo Saxon and Norse ideals into the modern novel.

“To me! To me! Elves and Men! To me! O my kinsolk!” he cried, and his voice shook like a horn in the valley.

The Hobbit, J.R.R. Tolkien
Chapter 17, ‘The Clouds Burst’

***

Works Cited

Alexander, Michael (2003) Beowulf: Verse Translation. Penguin Classics.

Crossley-Holland, K. (2009) The Anglo-Saxon World: An Anthology. Oxford: Oxford World’s Classics.

Tolkien, J.R.R. (1999) The Return of the King, Part III of The Lord of the Rings. pbk.ed. London: HarperCollins (paperback edition)

——–  (2001) Tree and Leaf. London: HarperCollins

——–  (2006) The Monsters and the Critics and Other Essays. London: HarperCollins.

 

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16 thoughts on “Northern Courage, Ofermōde and Thorin Oakenshield’s last stand

  1. What you say here not only harms the moment of Thorin’s charge, it tears it apart and tramples the pieces. You ruin this moment with what you say here. You have taken a moment that is about self-sacrifice, courage, heroism, honor and dying for what’s right and have said it’s about not self-sacrifice but selfishness, not courage but recklessness, not honor but stupidity, not dying for what’s right but “Selfish chivalry and overconfidence.”

    You seem to think that Tolkien meant for Thorin’s charge to be stupid and reckless and pointless, that its “foolhardy”, and “rash”, and that it just worsens the situation. I thought you said in another of your posts that this was you favorite moment. How can a moment that, according to you “bring about the near annihilation of the good forces.” be your favorite moment, unless you root for selfishness and idiocy that only leads to more unnecessary death and destruction?

    According to the line of logic you set out Thorin should have stayed in Erebor and waited the battle out, with the result that Thorin’s charge is pointless and is only belated redeemed by him dying, making his death pointless and merely an example of what stupidity will get you. What you say takes one of the most moving deaths in all of Tolkien’s work and makes the proper reaction be “Well, he was stupid and got tons of people killed who would have lived, he had it coming, good riddance.”

    Because Thorin’s charge is not about heroism turned to stupidity, or courage taken to the point of selfishness, it is about true courage, heroism, honor, self-sacrifice, not taken to the point of foolishness, but true pure courage, fighting in the face of certain death. Rather then hide while other’s fight and die, Thorin, even knowing that with only 13 companions he likely would not survive the day, went out to fight, and risk his own death. It’s about true courage, heroism, and honor. And wisdom The whole point is that the forces of good were being beaten down, and were doomed to defeat. Thorin, by charging out, gave them the courage and will to temporarily turn the tide, holding off defeat long enough for Beorn and the Eagles to arrive. Thus, Thorin saved the day and caused victory.

    According you you he caused nothing but pointless death. Now, does Tolkien provide cases of boldness or “courage” taken to far? Yes, such as Eomer leading the Rohirrim into battle again after Theoden’s death without waiting for Imrahil. Or Gwindor’s foolish charge. But Thorin’s charge and death are not examples of this. They are examples of courage that has not become recklessness, but true courage: fighting because it’s the right thing to do, no matter the cost.

    You end your post with Thorin’s resounding quote. According to the line of logic you set out, that call is not the valiant call of a King fighting his heroic last stand, risking his life rather than bow down to evil, but the call of a reckless foolhardy warrior who should have known better.

    • Hreodbeorht, thanks for your very interesting comments on this subject.

      I never implied that Thorin’s charge was out of selfishness. I believe the Dwarf’s decision to aid his fellow allies in the most crucial moment of the battle embodies the true Northern courage qualities that Tolkien was so interested it.

      This is indeed one of my favourite moments in the book, and it certainly clear that Thorin’s correct (and noble) decision to charge out, was initially a good choice. Thorin should not have remained in Erebor and waited on the outcome of the battle. He does not do this because he’s not that kind of character; he acts as a hero of the North and brings about those ideals of courage.

      However, later on, this choice brings about a turn for the worst. I’m not saying this was done on purpose, but Thorin’s charge indirectly leads to great losses for the Elves, Men and Dwarves as they follow Thorin’s attack (“heedless” states Tolkien himself).

      “Down, heedless of order, rushed all the dwarves of Dain to his help. Down too came many of the Lake-men, for Bard could not restrain them; and out upon the other side came many of the spearmen of the elves.”

      Hard pressed, Thorin’s initial daring deed overreaches, and his now reckless (yes, I use the word “reckless” towards Thorin) action has proved almost fatal, as the allies find themselves surrounded from all side due to their previous charge. Thorin himself probably realised this too as the battle progressed, but what was initially a good starting point which has turned into a bad situation, does not reflect on the qualities of the character in that situation.

      I’ve always believed that the Battle of Five Armies was won only because of Beorn’s arrival. Thorin may have delayed defeat, just like the Eagles. Yet, it was the shapeshifter’s arrival that ultimately tips the scales of the battle in their favour.

      However, this does not take away anything from Thorin’s sense of duty and courage. His decision to charge out, and his later predicament, do ultimately lead to his death. But it is also a chance for the character to shine again and bring out, for a second and final time, those qualities of Northern courage as he mounts a last stand.

      He redeems himself not by his death, but by his decision to participate in the battle. Yet, things don’t always go as planned, no matter how righteous or honourable your character’s decisions are.

      I’m not taking away anything from Thorin’s courage, heroism and honour. I’m simply stating that one’s actions, as much as they might be noble, can overreach sometimes and cause unexpected reactions.

      As I said, good storytelling comes about by having flawed characters.

      Beowulf as a poem is beautiful and stirring, but it’s main character has always seemed too boastful and invincible to me. Every decision he takes, even if it is made out of a sense of pride, seems to go right for him. Is that luck? Or is he truly that good that he (almost) always escapes unscathed? I use the word “almost” because, as we learn towards the end of the poem, Beowulf’s daring decision to confront the dragon proves too much and leads to his death.

      Thorin is not like this, which is why he works as a fully-fleshed character. He can be wrong somethings, but it does not take away any of his qualities. These qualities are further amplified by his actions during course of the battle and his eventual last stand.

  2. Well, to a large extent, Thorin demonstrates the Classical Greek or Roman tragic hero as well. A fatal flaw, good, of noble birth…, catharsis at the end.
    But I’ve always found Northern courage more complicated, perhaps because it’s more brutal and the relish at conquering the enemy is more depicted. You also can’t really sympathize with the hero (as hated Beowulf for his bravado). There’s also a lot more honor involved, and social responsibility. The Northern heroes perform their duty so that their communities can continue. Great work comparing Beowulf and other old tales with Tolkien’s. I would disagree with Hreodbeorht. I think it is the fine line between foolish and courage that is complicated in all heroic actions that Tolkien emphasizes here… and the nature of where that comes from impossible to truly understand in our rather individualistic societies.

  3. Ofermod is a word still used in scandinavian language, at least in Swedish (spelled Övermod today). What the word represents these days, is very close to what you’re getting at in this article. It’s synonym to hubris. “Foolhardy” also works.

    It is really interesting to reflect over the differences between the concepts of being courageus and bold, and foolhardy or “övermodig” as we would say in Swedish.

      • And the term is alive and well in German too: ofermod = übermut An example in the great Ring Cycle of Richard Wagner is that the dragon Fafner, as Siegfried taunts him into mortal combat, uses this word to warn the hero. One more example of the obvious and significant parallels between the Ring works of Tolkien and Wagner. Siegfried, the boy who wants to learn fear in order to become heroic, is a prime example of all the qualities of ofermod. He does learn fear, briefly, but not how you would think. Wagner brings out all the implications of this quest.

    • It is also in use in Danish, overmod, with a meaning very close to the one that Tolkien describes in his ofermod essay – and very often used for young people in ungdommeligt overmod – ‘youthful ofermod’, suggesting the kind of foolish courage from an excessive spirit.

      The exact meaning in Old English seems to be debated, but I agree with Hreodborht that the sense Tolkien expounds in his essay is not applicable to Thorin’s charge.

      Thorin’s charge in The Battle of Fie Armies seems to me to exemplify rather the purer form of the Northern courage. Thorin attacks in the knowledge that he will die, but he attacks because it is the right thing to do. He does not, as Beorhtnoth does, forsake a greater responsibility to realm and king, and his mod at worst only affects himself and his heorðwerod, and at best it ensures the victory of Men, Elves and Dwarves over the Orcs, and thus paves the way for a peace that Thorin’s earlier dragon-sickness-induced stubborness had prevented (one might have a better case trying to argue that his willingness to fight the Men and Elves were a case of ofermod).

  4. Similar, the word Ofermod is also still used in Danish as “Overmod” with the same meaning as Swedish “Övermod”.
    I may be grasping at straws here, but the part “Ofer” is relatively close to the Danish word “Offer” meaning “Sacrifice”. So perhaps Ofermod also meant “Courage to sacrifice (one self)”?

  5. Northern Courage is not exclusive to the “North”. The theme of sacrifice against overwhelming odds is an archetypal motif found throughout myth, legend and history. Northern Courage could just as easily be called Spartan Courage, as in the sacrifice of Leonidas and the 300 Spartan warriors at the Battle of Thermopylae, to delay the advance of the Persian army into Greece.

    Be sure, stranger, to let the Spartans know [or…go tell the Spartans.]
    that we lie here obedient to their command.

    Epitaph at Thermopylae
    Simonides (ca. 556-466 BC)

    For the samurai warriors of feudal Japan courage and sacrifice were written into the code of Bushido, the Way of the Bushi, or warrior (the word ‘samurai’ actually means…one who serves),
    and there are innumerable tales of samurai battling overwhelming odds, having overcome any fear of their own death. As John Howe notes, in the LOTR Appendices, this is a thoroughly pagan concept, regardless of whether or not a Christian veneer is put on it.

    Hubris (or Hybris) is often translated as meaning…excessive arrogance and/or pride, and is an integral part of the structure of Greek Tragedy and the myths the dramas are based on. The first stage is…success. The great victory, the hero’s triumph. Then hubris sets in, the arrogance of the hero at his accomplishments and the fame he has gathered. But then comes…downfall, or reversal (or what Tolkien referred to as the Fall, the Downfall of Númenor being an excellent example of success/hubris/downfall). And all the hero has achieved may be destroyed, and often the hero along with it.

    Concerning ‘ofer’. Our English word ‘offer’ derives from the Anglo-Saxon ‘offrian’, meaning …
    to sacrifice, or to bear, to bring. “To present, as an act of worship; make an oblation of; sacrifice.” ‘Offrian’ would seem to indicate that there a religious component at work in courage and sacrifice, that must be brought, must bear on the hero’s actions and experiences.

    However, for the most part, Tolkien has removed the religious element from The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. There is of course the archetypal battle between good and evil, but his religious theology found throughout The Silmarillion is largely absent. Whatever kind of Christian “spin” Tolkien, or anyone else, wants to put on the theology of The Silmarillion, that theology remains
    pagan and polytheistic (“…which can be accepted – well, shall we say baldly, by a mind that believes in the Blessed Trinity.” Tolkien writing about himself, in his 1951 letter to Milton Waldman).

    I think any serious study requires an objective approach to the material. Or as objective as possible. For me that entails removing, or “taking back” the projections that one has made on the
    characters and their actions. Sometimes I think there’s too much obsessiveness, too much “worship” among some Tolkien fans, toward his books and the characters. As well as a transference of that obsessiveness and worship to Peter Jackson, and his film versions of Tolkien’s works. As well as to the actors and the characters they played. For example, Legolas seemed to emerge as a major hero figure for adolescent males. The epitome of Middle-earth “cool”, you might say. Tolkien was a great story teller, but was not the best at character development (which Fran Walsh, Philippa Boyens and Peter Jackson worked to correct in their screenplay adaptations). Especially in the development of his female characters. The heroic world
    depicted in LOTR is largely a masculine world, filled with masculine heroics. Even Éowyn initially wants to be warrior-man!

    “…an equally basic passion of mine [from the beginning] was for myth…and for fairy-story, and above all for heroic legend on the brink of fairy-tale and history, of which there is far to little in the
    world (accessible to me) for my appetite.”

    From the letter to Milton Waldman.

    But in reading and studying Tolkien’s writings, and even Peter Jackson’s film versions, I believe an objective (as much as possible) critical approach to characters and story should be primary.

    We shall not cease from exploration
    And the end of all our exploration
    Will be to arrive where we started
    And know the place for the first time.

    T.S. Eliot

  6. This reminds me that there are so many things going on behind the scene in Tolkien’s stories. Language was one of his great loves and inspirations; but not the only one by far. There is a lot going on under the bonnet of even his stories for ‘children’. I ponder than although on the surface he moved away from a mythology for England; with aspects as you describe the spirit of that mythology is still there.

    • This whole issue of a “mythology for England” is somewhat mis-leading. Firstly, the Angles, Saxons and Jutes who began arriving in Briton/Britannia in the 5th century AD were German and Danish tribes. When they emigrated to Briton they brought their religion and mythology with them;
      Germanic/Teutonic myth and religion, which evolved from Norse religion, myth and saga. Archaeological sites of temples/places of worship of Thor, Odin/Wotan/Woden, and Teutonic fertility goddesses have been found in England, gods brought over from northwest Europe to the place that became known as…”the land of the Angles”; “Angleland”; “Angland”…England.

      Tolkien scholars and specialists appearing in the Appendices to the Extended Editions of The Lord of the Rings film trilogy, state that Tolkien wanted to create a mythology for England because whatever authentic English mythology was developing was cut short by the Norman invasion in 1066. A nice theory, but the fact is that the conversion of the Anglo-Saxons to Christianity was essentially completed by the end of the 7th century AD. The religion and mythology of the many gods was replaced by the religion and mythology of the one.

      Completed over 350 years before William of Normandy, that over achieving illegitimate son, landed with his army at Hastings.

      What Tolkien created is not a genuine mythology. It did not grow, develop and evolve out of an oral tradition of a people, a culture, a civilization. Rather it is a literary-originated mythology, a masterpiece of Tolkien’s creative imagination (“my imaginary world”), brilliantly conceived and executed, but a pseudo-mythology nonetheless. One of the primary characteristics of myth is that it takes place on the landscape of its place(s) of origin. One can hardly go a mile in Greece before encountering landscape/place connected to the Greek myths. But Tolkien’s works have no connection whatsoever to the landscape of England. They did in The Book of Lost Tales, but Tolkien subsequently eliminated all those connections.

      Those same Tolkien specialists and scholars dismiss the Celtic Arthurian myth and folklore as not being genuinely British, and a precursor to English, because of its “contamination” by French Romance. However the Arthurian material, the “Matter of Britain”, evolved in southern Britain, Cornwall and Wales, and was written down, before the French poets began working with the material in the late 12th century, creating the character of Sir Lancelot, as the Cistercian-influenced “The Quest for the Holy Grail” introduced Sir Galahad, a very obvious allegorical Christ figure.

      Tolkien’s books, especially The Silmarillion and The Lord of the Rings are magnificent literary achievements, but they are not true mythology. They’re Tolkien’s personal, literary “mythology”.

      • No. They dismiss them as not being English. British is entirely applicable. Tolkien is well-documented as lamenting the loss of Anglo-Saxon sagas and mythology. Yes, they probably had overlaps with what we know from Snorri and other Nordic and Germanic sources that have survived. And yes, a few tales (like Beowulf) have survived. And yes, some stories of Arthur and his predecessors overlap with Anglo-Saxon migration due to the conflict they had with the native Britons. But by and large, we know little about the specific tales and cultures of the Anglo-Saxons, which were lost during the Norman suppression.

        We know far more about Cymric/Brittonic myth cycles and stories (which is spotty as hell, mind you) than we do about Anglo-Saxon. Tolkien knew probably the most of any modern scholar about the Anglo-Saxon stories, given his specialty in the extinct language and its surviving documents. Tolkien sought a mythology that merged the quintessential English quality he saw in the farmers of the countryside, the workers of the factories, and the soldiers of the trenches, with the northern spirit he read about in the Norse Sagas. He knew there was some relation – a kinship, but to claim it is the same is similar to ignoring the cultural differences between the Rohirrim (Anglo-Saxon) and the Lake-men of Dale and Esgaroth (Nordic). Tolkien would not have been very fond of Campbell’s Monomyth: the specific takes on stories in specific cultures were very important to him.

  7. Thanks for this post — I learned a lot (and also thought of Wagner and Übermut) as it’s been years since I have thought much about Beowulf.

  8. One can gain additional insight into Thorin’s psychology, character and emotional state from
    The Quest of Erebor, in Unfinished Tales. This essay is structured as Gandalf’s “recap” of the events in The Hobbit to Frodo, Gimli, Merry and Pippin, at Minas Tirith after the War of the Ring.

    Gandalf describes Thorin as…”troubled”; “…his heart was hot with brooding on his wrongs…”;
    “…Thorin was all for plans for battle and war, as if he were really King Thorin the Second, and I could see no hope in that.”; “…indignant and contemptuous…and suspicious.”; and Gandalf says to Thorin…”And curb your pride and greed, or you will fall at the end of whatever path you take, though your hands be full of gold.”; “But alas! Thorin did not live to enjoy his triumph or his treasure. Pride and greed overcame him in spite of my warning.”

    And in earlier versions…”The embers in his heart grew hot…and a great anger without hope burned him…”; “Your own ideas are those of a king, Thorin Oakenshield, but your kingdom is gone.”; “I wish you would not always speak so confidently without knowledge,”.

    Subsequently, Thorin says to Gandalf…”I am in no mood to be made a fool of. For I am serious also, Deadly serious, and my heart is hot within me.”

    There’s absolutely no question that Thorin had great [Northern] courage! But he also had his tragic flaws. Hubris: excessive pride, which contributed to his downfall. “Pride goest before a fall”. And greed: the lust for gold, which was deep in Thorin’s psyche before he even entered Erebor, and contracted the so-called “dragon sickness”. Thorin was a deeply troubled dwarf, traumatized
    by his experiences: Smaug arriving from the North, bringing death and destruction; the brutal murder of his grandfather Thrór, by Azog; the subsequent Battle of Nanduhirion/Azanulbizar; exile
    in Dunland and then the Ered Luin; the disappearance of Thráin, Thorin’s father, from their home in exile in the Ered Luin. Thráin, for whom “the lust for gold was ever in his mind”, left the Ered Luin to return to Erebor, without informing Thorin of his decision! A decision and a journey that
    turned out VERY badly for Thráin…to say the least!

    Deeply troubled; mentally disturbed; at times delusional, including paranoia; carrying great anger; and acting on the basis of his emotions, without any seeming input from his intellect; today there’s a very strong possibility that Thorin would be diagnosed as suffering from PTSD: Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome.

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