Thranduil and the Fisher King: The Grail

Of all the characters in The Hobbit, I have been most interested to see what will be done with Thranduil. In an article in Empire Magazine, Lee Pace said that two inspirations for the character were Oberon and the Fisher King. I didn’t get a copy of the magazine; I only read a wonderful article on The One Ring.net titled “Thranduil, The Fisher King, and Oberon; Why It Matters.” The possible relationship between Thranduil and the Fisher King intrigues me.

Spoilers follow. I’m assuming that anyone who will be upset by spoilers has seen the movie already.

The Hobbit doesn’t give a great deal of development for Thranduil. It doesn’t need to; he’s not a character with a great deal of action within the storyline, but we’re going to need more if The Hobbit is to become a trilogy of movies. Since Pace ties Thranduil to the Fisher King, I would love to know just how familiar he is with Arthurian myth. Did he read the medieval works? The Victorian ones? Is this inspiration just coming from the cinema? I’m not questioning Pace’s merits; I’d just love to know which Fisher King(s) he’s drawing on so I can speculate more accurately.

There are really three characters to note here: the Fisher King, the Maimed King, and the Grail King. These are all the same character in some versions of the story, while they are separate in others. There are so many versions and sources for the Grail quest that even medieval authors sometimes confused the characters, so I’m just going to take them all as one. Marthe, author of the original article, gives a good summary of the Fisher King’s general traits. He probably originates in Celtic mythology with these important points: he is injured, and his kingdom has become a wasteland as a result.  The Fisher King has sustained a leg injury that will not heal, leaving him unable to move on his own and unable/unwilling to govern his kingdom. He can only be healed when the Grail quest is completed. I’m going to deal with Marthe’s intriguing conclusions about healing in my next post. For now, I want to focus on how the Grail quest fits The Hobbit.

The Grail

The relationship between the Fisher King and the Grail has some obvious parallels in The Hobbit. If we substitute a quest item of great value for the Grail, regardless of its actual properties, the Grail in The Hobbit becomes the Arkenstone. It fits perfectly, especially since a specific vow has been made to find each. The films are clearly giving the Arkenstone more importance than it had in the book, possibly conflating it with the Silmarils.

The most familiar image of the Grail is a chalice. Sometimes, the Grail is a paten. However, no single understanding of the word graal ever came about in the Middle Ages, leading to varied interpretations. [1] In Wolfram von Eschenbach’s Parzival, the Grail is a miraculous stone:

If you do not know its name, now learn: it is called lapis exilis (small, or paltry, stone). By the power of the stone the phoenix is burned to ashes, but the ashes speedily restore it to life…. Never is a man so ill but that, if he sees the Grail on any day, he is immune from death during the week that follows. Besides, his looks never change; he retains the same appearance as on the day he saw the stone…. The stone is also called the Grail. [2]

This Grail also supplies its beholders with food and drink, both gifts from God. Roger Sherman Loomis suggests that in seeking to interpret “graal,” von Eschenbach conflated it with a miraculous stone with similar properties given to Alexander the Great. [3] The similarities are tempting, especially since the knights in the Fisher King’s household (and sometimes the Fisher King himself) all look far younger than their actual years. While the Arkenstone has no connection to elvish immortality, one could easily use these knights for inspiration in portraying the ageless.

arkenstoneIn The Hobbit as a book, the Arkenstone has little purpose other than being really pretty (it is not magic, nor does it signify kingship in the way of, say, Andúril). Peter Jackson has promoted the Arkenstone to a symbol of “divine right to rule” [4] that will later unite the dwarves. The film establishes that Thranduil paid tribute to Thror after the discovery of the Arkenstone and Erebor’s increased riches. Thranduil appears shocked when he is shown a chest of white gems, but the purpose of those gems and the shock is unclear. Is the Arkenstone related to those gems?

Tolkien establishes Thranduil as having a love of white gems, so it would be no travesty of plot development for the elf-king to desire the Arkenstone:

So to the cave they dragged Thorin—not too gently, for they did not love dwarves, and thought he was an enemy. In ancient days they had had wars with some of the dwarves, whom they accused of stealing their treasure. It is only fair to say that the dwarves gave a different account, and said that they only took what was their due, for the elf-king had bargained with them to shape his raw gold and silver, and had afterwards refused to give them their pay. If the elf-king had a weakness it was for treasure, especially for silver and white gems; and though his hoard was rich, he was ever eager for more, since he had not yet as great a treasure as other elf-lords of old. [5]

However, this event and Thranduil’s shock aren’t triggered by the Arkenstone, but the gems in the chest and what appears to be a necklace lying on top. Though it would require the elf-king mentioned to be Thingol and not Thranduil, Tolkien and the film could be referring to Nauglamír here (or some non-copyrighted reflection of Nauglamír). It is probably this treasure, not the Arkenstone, that Thranduil wants. But, I digress. Both relics could reflect the Grail, but I should focus on the Arkenstone.

whitegemsIn most versions of the Grail quest, the Fisher King is in possession of several relics; not just the Grail, but also a spear, sometimes the Spear of Longinus. These artifacts are holy in themselves, but have devastating results if misused. Sometimes, the Fisher King’s injury is a result of his misusing the spear. This could bring us to Tennyson’s interpretation of the Grail Quest, one Pace is likely to have used. I haven’t read Tennyson’s Arthurian works in a while. However, scholars have noted that his interpretation is decidedly different from the medieval versions in that the Grail “inspires moral irresponsibility which destroys a utopian possibility….” [6] The Grail is holy, but that doesn’t mean the knights who pursue it will do so piously.

Linda Ray Pratt argues that in Tennyson’s work, Arthur’s knights vow to pursue the Grail for the wrong reasons. They are interested in fame, less concerned about curing the kingdom than curing themselves. [7] Even in the older works, Sir Gawain kills 18 of his fellow knights through misfortune while on the Grail quest. [8] This perfectly encapsulates the wars for the Silmarils—a holy object that brings disaster when desired for the wrong reasons. Even if the Arkenstone is not a Silmaril, this still describes the way it is viewed by most of the characters. It inspires greed when viewed with the wrong intentions, so much that it drives Thror to insanity. The Arkenstone can bring healing, but only when it is viewed as a tool of unity, not domination.

If the Arkenstone is the Grail and Thranduil is the Fisher King, then Thranduil needs the Arkenstone. He doesn’t need to possess it. He needs healing, and his need for healing will be tied to the Arkenstone being used for unity. To be continued next week.

  1. Roger Sherman Loomis, The Grail: From Celtic Myth to Christian Symbol (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1991), 28.
  2. Ibid., 209.
  3. Ibid., 212–13.
  4. The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, extended edition. DVD. Directed by Peter Jackson. Burbank, CA: Warner Home Video, 2013.
  5. J.R.R. Tolkien, The Hobbit (New York: Ballantine Books, 1966): 167.
  6. Linda Ray Pratt, “The Holy Grail: Subversion and Revival of a Tradition in Tennyson and T.S. Eliot,” Victorian Poetry 11, no. 4 (1973): 308.
  7. Ibid., 312.
  8. The Death of Arthur, trans. Thomas Cable (Penguin Books, 1976): 24.

Comments

Thranduil and the Fisher King: The Grail — 1 Comment

  1. I enjoyed this; I’ll be looking forward to the next installment!
    Sad to say, I haven’t had a chance to see The Hobbit–I’m going to try to make time for it soon.

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