It’s either become a helpful or annoying habit of mine (depending on who you ask) to search for deeper meaning in the Middle-earth trilogies. Because under all the action sequences, and the shimmer of the elves, lies Tolkien’s beliefs as a Catholic. Like most Christian writers, he never planned for his values to come out in his books, but they just sprouted under his fingertips and took root in Middle-earth.
If the first chunk of The Hobbit trilogy bore a theme of finding the courage to take part in a greater adventure (sort of a metaphor for the Christian life, in a sense – abandoning what is known for the unknown, which will ultimately transform Bilbo into a hero), this go-around focuses on two important things: the nature of greed and looking beneath a façade of beauty.
Of all the “besetting sins” Tolkien’s characters are saddled with (the Elves must deal with pride, the Hobbits must deal with gluttony, Men struggle with the desire for power, etc), “greed” is the one Dwarves find hardest to resist. The reason Sauron’s rings of power didn’t corrupt them is because the dwarves were much too obsessive about the jewels under the earth to care about powerful rings. Even Saruman remarks that “the dwarves dug too greedily and too deep,” and awakened the Balrog in the center of the earth, as punishment for their greed. In the forward of the first Hobbit film, we saw where Thorin’s grandfather started out a good and kind dwarf, but as he accumulated more and more treasure, and also the Arkenstone, he became selfish, greedy, and cruel (offering the Elven King Thranduil treasure, only to take it away from him).
The closer Thorin goes to the Lonely Mountain in this continuation of the tale, the more he changes from the dwarf in the first installment into the dwarf he will be at the end of the story – a dwarf undermined through his greed. The last film left off with Thorin praising Bilbo for saving his life, and confessing that all his former beliefs about the hobbit were wrong. Yet, once he reaches the Lonely Mountain, Thorin no longer cares whether Bilbo lives or dies. The creeping sin of greed is wrapping hideous fingers around his heart, shifting his focus onto himself and away from others. He has always struggled with pride and arrogance, but greed will be his downfall.
Greed is reflected also in the dragon Smaug, who has no use for treasure but still hordes it and seeks vengeance on any who try and remove him from his mountain throne of gold. Though a creature born of darkness, able to sense the increasing power of the Ring, Smaug is further corrupted through his 60 year sleep under a mountain of gold. And he knows the power of the Arkenstone, and what it will do to Thorin if he should take it. Smaug, in all his hideous charm, is wiser than Thorin, yet utterly at ease in his evil.
Finally, we have Thranduil, who has a besetting sin of greed of a different kind. Yes, he desires certain treasures under the mountain enough to offer his allegiance for them, but ultimately his greater greed is a desire to remain untouched by the evil spreading through Middle-earth. To preserve his kingdom at great cost to those around it. Thranduil is a glorious creature – handsome, wise, cunning, and swift, but underneath the “shimmer” of beauty lies a twisted heart becoming as grotesque as his dragon-fire war wounds. The calm, radiant Elf we see is not the true Elf within. He has abandoned his love for humanity. He is proud, and cold, and dishonest, and cruel.
That is, in part, what makes Tolkien’s works so incredible in that the characters, though honorable and memorable, are not invincible or without sin. No race is superior in morality to another. Each struggles with their own besetting sins, and the members of that race differ in their honor. Lest we think too highly of the Elves, we have Thranduil to remind us that external beauty is nothing to internal rot. Lest we be too hard on Thorin, we have a reminder that we also are not immune to the sin of greed or selfishness. And lest we seek to praise Bilbo too highly, we are reminded that he too is embracing his own form of greed. He possesses a great weapon and a great secret that not once, but twice now he has chosen not to share with Gandalf. Bilbo, for all his innocent heroism, carries with him the One Ring – the not-so innocent ornament that is making itself increasingly obvious that it is not to be trusted, but that he will hold on to regardless, with terrible and for some members of the Fellowship, lethal consequences.
Les we ever think too highly of ourselves, or dismiss evil too readily, we have Tolkien to remind us that no one is above sin.