Thranduil, The Fisher King and Oberon; Why It Matters
In the much-discussed article in the August issue of Empire Magazine, the three Mirkwood Elves we’ll see in The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug shared some information about their characters.
One particular statement from Lee Pace — that he drew upon Oberon and The Fisher King as inspirations for Thranduil — appears to have been overlooked.
This might not mean much to most people, yet I feel it carries more importance than most realise.
As usual, some backstory is helpful in order to understand the topic.
The Fisher King
The Fisher King was introduced by Chrétien de Troyes for the first time (as known to us today) during the late 12th century. His story as well as his characteristics makes him one of the many important and memorable characters from the well-known Arthurian Legend, and he has continued to appear in popular culture, most-recently portrayed by Donald Sumpter in BBC’s Merlin.
He is often believed to originate from Celtic mythology (a particularly noteworthy fact), and his connection to Bran the Blessed is strong. Today, it is possible to find many different versions of both The Fisher King’s story and the character, but common to all is that he always is wounded (thus he is often called The Maimed or Wounded King), and his kingdom has become a wasteland.
Just as every king should be mentally connected to his kingdom, the Fisher King is also physically connected to his; because of his injury, he is unable to move by himself and he depends on help from others. This connection goes even deeper because the kingdom becomes a picture of him. Notably, he is also said to be the last keeper of the Grail (in some versions of the story this is why he survives despite his injury), and he is only healed when the right question is asked. This is usually known as the healing question. (But, again, this depends on the version you’re looking at, because all of them are different.)
These are a few of the things we know for certain.
It is also possible to go further back because The Fisher King has a longer and even more interesting story that we know little of. There is a reason why he was wounded, and although it is not possible to say anything in particular, it is obvious that he fought against someone. As a king, it would make sense for him to lead his army into battle, which again would present him as a warrior. (In one version written by Howard Pyle, it was said that he was wounded by his brother, Sir Balin. However, this has no connection whatsoever to Tolkien’s Dwalin and Balin.) In addition, we often hear how his kingdom is described as a wasteland, and because that, there are many reasons to believe that the kingdom used to be prosperous, fertile and very much alive.
Moving forward to the early 13th century, we encounter another French character; Oberon. Although he is most famous for being the king of all the fairies in William Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, I do not believe that this version is the only version worthy of attention.
Looking at what Pace said (and more importantly what he did not say), he indicated he found inspiration in Oberon. Most fans have immediately thought about Shakespeare’s Oberon, but notably, Pace was never specific. Just as he never specifies which version of The Fisher King he called upon as inspiration, the quote can be interpreted as him talking generally about the Oberon character.
Oberon first appears in French poems as a beautiful fairy dwarf helping the hero of the story. (This is a bit amusing if you think how Thranduil is an Elf who cannot be described as being fond of dwarves.) Oberon lives in a forest, and when one of the other characters is travelling through it, he is warned against the fairy dwarf. However, he greets Oberon because he is in need of his help to succeed in his quest of going to a court where he must perform various feats to win a pardon. It is only when he receives this help from Oberon that he is successful. Now does this begin to sound very familiar? Yes, I thought so too.
Looking at Shakespeare’s version, the story changes a bit. But there is one particularly interesting thing. When Oberon fights with his wife, the weather is affected. In other words, their arguments affect nature, just as The Fisher King’s injury affects the climate and his kingdom.
And consider: Lee Pace stated that the corrupt forest of Mirkwood is very much a reflection of Thranduil. In other words, this is a major parallel because the actions of and conditions to these three characters will set a visible mark on either the weather or the earth itself.
Morally ambiguous characters
Returning to Shakespeare’s Oberon, closer character analysis reveals he appears to be quite ambiguous: he helps others, but also lets them suffer before doing anything. This makes him appear as a two-faced character; he can be kind at times, but not always. However, his motives are not revealed. That is also the reason why Oberon is seen as a contrary character, and it is difficult to place him in a definite category.
And now you may ask; is he evil or not?
The same applies to The Fisher King. In some versions, he is regarded as good, and in other versions, he is regarded as evil (and his injury is often a symbol of sin).
Looking at Thranduil, it is evident that some people believe that he is evil — mostly because he imprisons and refuses to help the dwarves in their quest. Others would argue that he is good — because he never actually hurt the dwarves, and he fought alongside with them during The Battle of the Five Armies.
The point however, is that he is a complex and morally ambiguous character. His actions can be argued to be both good and bad at the same time.
Thranduil’s withdrawal from the world
Again, this can be connected with the characters’ unknown, mysterious past.
With Oberon it is very difficult to say anything, but with The Fisher King, one can assume quite a bit about his past and why he and his country have become what they are.
What we know for a fact however, is that Thranduil fought in the Last Alliance of Elves and Men. And there are some indications this affecting (and probably injuring) him greatly, and it may explain why Thranduil has more or less shut himself up in Mirkwood.
[The Silvan Elves’]… losses were thus more grievous than they need have been, even in that terrible war. Oropher was slain in the first assault upon Mordor, rushing forward at the head of his most doughty warriors before Gil-galad had given the signal for the advance. Thranduil his son survived, but when the war ended … he led back home barely a third of the army that had marched to war.
There was a long peace in which the numbers of Silvan Elves grew again; but they were unquiet and anxious, feeling the change in the world that the Third Age would bring… There was in Thranduil’s heart a still deeper shadow. He had seen the horror of Mordor, and could not forget it. If ever he looked south, its memory dimmed the light of the sun…
Just as Thranduil is affected by the war and fighting, so is The Fisher King, although it may be argued that he is affected physically, while Thranduil is affected mentally. This can again be taken further because of Greenwood the Great turning into Mirkwood with the return of Sauron to Middle-earth.
Pace also points out to the corrupt forest being very much a reflection of who Thranduil is, and again the similarity between The Fisher King and the Eleven King is striking; both have been affected by something in their past, and now, their kingdoms and their people must suffer.
However, I do believe that it is also possible to say that the two monarchs perhaps are suffering the most because of this.
A series of overlapping similarities
There are other major and central similarities. There is nothing that indicates Oberon’s age (although there are at least reasons to believe that he cannot be very young), but The Fisher King is often portrayed as very old, and the same thing applies to Thranduil (although his age is more exact). In addition, The Fisher King’s wife is never mention (but we know that he had at least one daughter).
Again, there are similarities to Thranduil because we know little of his family (with Legolas the key exception). Also, a fun fact that applies to both Oberon and The Fisher King is that while Oberon is able to produce food and wine (with the help of a magic cup, often associated with the Grail), The Fisher King is associated with a cauldron that often is connected to the ability of providing food and that of giving life.
Immortality is not mentioned, but again, this can be connected to Thranduil and his feasts. Remember, Thorin and his Company were starving — the Elves appear as the only possible source of food in a desperate situation.)
There are striking similarities among them all.
Still, the way I see it, Oberon covers more of Thranduil’s story in The Hobbit. For instance, helping the quest can easily be linked with his role in The Battle of the Five Armies because the Elves become a force to be reckoned with.
On the other hand, The Fisher King covers more of Thranduil’s character — a great king that is strongly linked to his kingdom.
Will Jackson’s Thranduil need healing?
However, there remains one big and important question. As I mentioned, The Fisher King must be asked the healing question in order to be healed. In most versions of the Arthurian Legend, Percival asks this question and when The Fisher King is healed, so is his country.
How does this work with Thranduil?
According to Pace, Thranduil “doesn’t readily use his force”, but we already know that something or someone will drag him out of his dragon-like isolation. In other words, it appears that Thranduil is also in the need of being asked the healing question.
If so, how will that play out?
Perhaps it is dangerous to read too far into the story, but the way I see it is that if they employ this twist, either an object or a person will step forward to urge Thranduil to do something.
For all we know, it could be the Arkenstone itself (with the help of Bilbo), and by doing it like this, Peter Jackson will be able to stand closer to canon. However, are there any possibilities that Tauriel may take the Percival’s role?
For now, it is impossible to know.
Still, I would argue that Lee Pace’s thoughts provides us all much more that it seems on the surface, and I firmly believe that this is the ultimate proof of Lee Pace truly understanding his character.
If somebody did their homework properly, it was Lee. And because of that, I think we all have a lot to look forward to.
About the author:
Although being Norwegian and growing up with traditional Norwegian stories, Marthe has been interested in English literature, legends and stories from an early age. Favourite authors include C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien since she has grown up very closely connected to their stories as well as Narnia and Middle-earth, and she has written various school essays based on their works. The Arthurian Legend has also been a big part of her life; partly because of BBC’s Merlin (which she also has written school essays on), as well as various writings with Rosemary Sutcliff’s “King Arthur Trilogy” being a favourite. Marthe is currently studying at university in order to get a degree in English.