Thranduil was Tolkien’s second elf with a name, speaking role, and authority. Elrond was not even called an outright elf in the Hobbit, he is called “elf-friend” as is only compared to an elf-Lord, it isn’t until the Lord of the Rings that we find out that Elrond is an elf himself, instead of just a friend of theirs. So Thranduil might as well have been the first.
A lot of the character archetypes that we see in the Hobbit are repeated again in Tolkien’s later work of the Lord of the Rings. For example, the “king without a country”, in Thorin; is repeated with Aragorn, and “the humble heir” in Bard the Bowman; again with Aragorn. In Thranduil, however, the character archetype is so complex, that he repeats it by expanding the character to the entire Elfin race. Thranduil is a noble, aloof person; the elves become aloof in the Lord of the Rings, whereas in the Hobbit we primarily see them as changeable, singing and partying, or deadly warriors.
In the Hobbit, Thranduil’s character was probably the best explained and most complex, with the exception of Bilbo. But enough fan-girling over him, lets talk about history and literature.
In the ancient Germanic folk tales, Elves were told as tall, dangerous and merry folk who lived in the forest. The old storytellers would weave such yarns about the elf-folk, that many a child would remember and be careful in wandering off into the forest alone. An elf was not to be trifled with, but in the story-telling, the elf-folk started to take a different character, as would any oral tradition. Most elves became smaller, and were simply mischief-makers who loved to make merry with parties and revelries. A person who wandered unknowingly into an elfin revelry would never come back to tell the tales of the wonders seen, but would sleep forever with the enchanted elfin wine. From this last thought enters the other character that developed; that of “Der Elfenkönig”, or “the Elf King”. This creature lived in the dark forests and would reveal himself in his great splendor to passer-by, and the traveler would never be seen again… Alive. No. Litterally, the person would sometimes be seen again, but they would be dead. In 1782, the modern conception of the infamous Elf King was immortalized by Goethe’s poem “Der Erlkönig”. In this story, a boy being taken by his father to a doctor sees the apparition of a majestic king who attempts to coax and tempt the frightened, reluctant boy into accompanying him to his court to play with his children. The boy refuses, and the Elf King takes him by force. In the meantime, the father can see none of this, giving a really chilling flavor to the poem. The end is really good, check it out. I really love Schubert’s musical interpretation. So basically, the Elf King is a type of siren, or death.
HOLD ON! You’re saying that that beautiful creature who lives in the Greenwood in the Hobbit is related to that characterization of death??? Hold your horses! Yes, he is. But Tolkien vastly improved on him. Originally, in the Hobbit, we have no explanation of why this majestic Elf-King lived in such a dangerous forest. Tolkien took the character of the kidnapping Elf-King and gave him character and a motivation. Later on, he explains that the forest being dangerous was none of his doing. His kidnapping was a boon given to the travelers (the dwarves) to protect them from the forest. At the same time, Thranduil is not simply one of the merry elves that we have previously seen. He is bitter, and easily offended. At the same time, he is a gracious host, and does not suffer the Dwarves to be uncomfortable in his care. Later, we see that he even is kindly to Gollum.
There were other literary characters that lent an interpretation to Thranduil, but we have already heard about how he is related to the wounded Fisher King, or Oberon, the Fairy King. While I see the comparison with both of these characters, I’m surprised there was no parallel drawn for Thranduil and the Elf King.