One thing that makes Thranduil such a difficult (and intriguing) character is the fact that he is so old. He’s well over 6,000 years by the time the Lord of the Rings happens, and is in fact one of the oldest Elves remaining in Middle-earth (assuming, of course, that he was indeed born in Doriath). While this makes his history and his character far more interesting, it also makes it far more complex, as (as with all characters), the longer he is alive, and the more history he lives through, the more layers of a personality and character he has.
There are two major points I would like to discuss in this essay particularly: Thranduil’s reputation as being “arrogant” and a “jerk,” which is especially spoken of when it comes to matters concerning Dwarves; and his apparent greed.
The first part is actually the easiest to discuss. The truth of the matter is that Thranduil is somewhat arrogant (which you only have to read the books to see), and he most certainly dislikes Dwarves…however he is not so arrogant as many people make him out to be, and he actually has a valid reason to dislike the Dwarves. A reason which also then adds to his coming across to readers as “arrogant,” “vain,” and plain old “mean.”
In order to understand this, we have to travel back to the First Age, and the Dwarven Sack of Doriath. Now, I intend to write an essay in a couple of weeks solely concerning this event in history, so I shall write only a short explanation here. But basically, Elu Thingol (the king of Doriath, the first Woodland Realm in Beleriand in the First Age) received a Silmaril (a holy jewel with the last light of the Two Trees, who were the mother and father of the Sun and Moon), and asked the Dwarves to set it into the Nauglamír, a Dwarf-made necklace given to the Elves. The Dwarves did so, however a dispute grew over the necklace and the Silmaril, and the Dwarves slew Thingol. The Elves then attacked the Dwarves as they fled, killing all but two or three who escaped to their kin. The Dwarves then came down out of the mountains to avenge their kin who had been slain, and fell upon the Elves of Doriath unsuspecting. Thousands were slain, including Elven women and children, and Doriath was sacked.
This is likely one of the key points in Thranduil’s life, and one of the building blocks for much of his future character. First and foremost is his dislike (and even hatred) of Dwarves that was spawned that day; indeed, that day was the day that the blood feud between Elves and Dwarves began. The Dwarves had slaughtered who knows how many of Thranduil’s friends and family (indeed, it is my headcanon that his mother was slain by a Dwarf during this attack) – who would not dislike the Dwarves afterwards?
Suddenly, Thranduil’s actions in The Hobbit take on much more significance, both his reaction to the Dwarves entering his lands and (as he perceived it) attacking his people as they feasted, and how he reacted to the Battle of Five Armies.
Whatever you may say about Thorin and his Company, the truth of the matter is that (at least in the books), how they first met the Elves was rather traumatic and not well-thought-out on the Dwarves’ part. They charged into the forest, hearing the sounds of revelry made by the Elves as they feasted, and essentially chased after the Elves searching for food and drink (they were starving and half-mad from the forest). That was when Thranduil captured them, and had them thrown in his dungeons.
And then, of course, Thorin (being his typical Thorin self) is rather uncooperative when Thranduil questions him (quite civilly I might add) as to why he and his people were chasing after the Elves in the forest. The only answer Thorin gives is “We were starving,” and will not even tell Thranduil why they were in his kingdom to begin with. So Thranduil returns him to his cell in the dungeons, and basically says, “Okay fine, you can remain there until you can tell me the truth.”
This encounter is often where the “bad name” for Thranduil starts. Questions and accusations such as “He’s such a jerk to Thorin!” and “He won’t listen or trust him,” start flying around, which leaves me raising an eyebrow and laughing. Truthfully, Thranduil was actually rather benevolent all things considered. He doesn’t like and strongly mistrusts Dwarves (for good reason), they were in his kingdom, and they were all but attacking his people. (I say all but because they were not actually attacking his people, and did not even draw their weapons, but to all appearances to the Elves that was what they were doing, and they were indeed chasing after them).
So, to summarize:
a) The last time Dwarves had arrived unlooked-for in the forest and began accosting Thranduil’s kin, thousands of Elves were slain.
If this does not give Thranduil the right to be wary of Dwarves, especially when they randomly show up in his kingdom and chase after his people, I’m not entirely sure what does. He has valid reasons for disliking Dwarves as he does, and truthfully he treats Thorin and his people kindly, giving them food and water and, although it is indeed a prison cell, a dry place to sleep.
b) Thorin and Company were in Thranduil’s kingdom.
Historically, trespassing on a lord or a king’s lands was often punishable by imprisonment (whoa, does that look familiar?), and even, in some extreme cases, by death. Thranduil clearly uses the former method, imprisoning Thorin and Company in his dungeons which serves to 1) protect his own people, and 2) keep Thorin and Company out of the way with the whole Necromancer thing going on.
So was Thranduil arrogant? Well, by looking at the text you can see that that was a character trait. However, once you take a deeper look, and have a deeper understanding of his character, you find that much of his perceived arrogance was mostly him being a good king and protecting his people (which yes, in the terms of The Hobbit set him as an antagonist, as he was against the Dwarves). As with everyone, Thranduil had his reasons behind his actions, and they were solid and logical reasons. Indeed (although I am most certainly biased), I believe that Thranduil handled the situation with much more courtesy and wisdom than Thorin.
Secondly, I wished to take a very quick look at the Battle of the Five Armies, and the part that Thranduil played in it. After going through the whole discussion about why Thranduil doesn’t like Dwarves, and why he was right to distrust Thorin and his Company, I think it makes it all the more astounding and telling of Thranduil’s true character when one looks at what he did when faced with the Battle of Five Armies. It is true that initially he was marching on Erebor, however when he saw the Orcs and the Wolves, he turned and fought against them…alongside the Dwarves. And even after the battle was over, and the Elves, Dwarves, Men, and Eagles had won, Thranduil actually paid his respects to Thorin, and did not pursue the matter he had initially come for. He, for all intents and purposes, bowed out, giving aid to the Dwarves and not demanding anything in return (although he was gifted with Girion’s emeralds).
Oh yes, I actually just remembered one last thing I wanted to talk about in regards to this aspect of Thranduil’s character: the movie line “But no help came to the Dwarves that day, nor any day since,” and the fact that many have risen up against Thranduil for not aiding the Dwarves when Smaug initially attacked.
Again, it goes back to the fact that Thranduil was actually just being a good king (which he actually was. He was actually a very good king). He looked down, saw that Smaug had taken the mountain, and was unwilling to sacrifice hundreds, if not thousands of his people to make an attack on one of the fire wyrms of the First Age. Yes, as a winged wyrm, Smaug would have been born in the First Age. He would have fought in the War of Wrath, likely fleeing from Eärendil’s wrath and the Valar’s judgment. Thranduil has seen the ruin that dragons can have. He has heard tales since his youth of Glaurung and the horrors that the Father of Dragons wrought upon Beleriand. It is possible that he even has seen the destruction brought by the dragons as Beleriand broke and was sunk by the waves. Attacking Smaug, who had already taken Erebor, was both unstrategic and suicidal. And Thranduil, wishing to save the lives of his people and not awaken the wrath of Smaug upon his own kingdom, did not attack, especially not for a people he already dislikes and distrusts.
And now onto Thranduil’s greed. Most of my analysis on this aspect actually has come from other analyses I’ve read concerning this particular aspect of Thranduil, so bear with me. I would link you all to those essays, however I cannot even begin to remember where I saw them, let alone know where to even begin where to look for them.
Basically, it all comes back to how Thranduil was raised, and the world in which he lived. Especially in the First Age, but truly throughout all of Middle-earth, (and historically as well, I might add), a measure of power was synonymous to the king’s and the kingdom’s wealth. The wealthier a king was, the more powerful their kingdom – it was as simple as that. Menegroth, the palace in Doriath, was literally strewn with jewels – precious stones and precious metals were as common as wood and rock in the place that Thranduil was raised. And that is only one example – the one that Thranduil was most closely associated to, and that had the most influence upon Thranduil’s growth and character development. And the idea that wealth equates power went beyond Menegroth and Doriath.
When viewed through that lens, Thranduil’s amassment of wealth, especially precious stones, suddenly becomes far more than he is “vain” or “greedy.” Instead, it becomes Thranduil striving to increase the power of his kingdom, as well as to cement his kingdom’s place and strength. Because, in truth, while Thranduil’s claim to the Mirkwood throne was legitimate (the Silvan Elves had chosen his father to be king), when faced with Elrond in Rivendell, and Galadriel and Celeborn in Lothlórien, and even Círdan in the Grey Havens, Thranduil’s bloodline was actually rather weak. If he was of nobility at all, he was of a lesser noble strain – a distant cousin to Celeborn and Elrond. As I said, while this in no way lessens Thranduil’s right to the Mirkwood throne, I would imagine it would serve to make him feel more insecure, as well as to push him to prove, again and again, that his claim was legitimate, and that his kingdom was “just as powerful as theirs.”
I feel like there may have been a question about Thranduil’s schooling, so I’m just going to answer that here really quickly. It is mostly likely that Thranduil was tutored when he was a child in Menegroth. If he was lesser nobility or if his family was wealthy, then it is likely that he had a private tutor. If he was not, then it is possible he was either taught by his mother or a sibling, or else was taught by something like a “public tutor.” The education system is never really discussed, so it’s really up to the reader/writer’s interpretation and where they want to go with it.
I hope that you enjoyed this essay series on Thranduil! More essays, concerning characters, places, events, and even social dynamics/culture will be following. The next essay will be concerned with Elrond. I truly hope that you will stick around to read more of them!