Tuesday, March 9, 2021

The Comitatus in The Hobbit vs. TLOTR

While The Fellowship of the Ring contains a classic portrayal of the comitatus (in which a king/lord/ring giver has a group of warriors who swear fealty to him and to whom he gives gifts of treasure and such in return for their service and the feats they perform), I recently rewatched both the Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit trilogies and found something surprising.

I'll emphasize that I'm talking about the movies specifically, not the books. And it is beyond easy to say that The Lord of the Rings is a far superior movie trilogy to The Hobbit. But let's move on to our topic. I found while watching An Unexpected Journey that I seemed to be seeing a better representation of the comitatus than in The Fellowship of the Ring. Why would that be? 

I would be remiss not to give brief mention to the fact that I've watched TLOTR much more than The Hobbit, so sometimes there is the simple fact of familiarity: you can "get the feels" less when you've watched something many, many times versus only a couple of times. Practically, also, the audience gets to spend more time with Thorin's company than with the fellowship of the Ring. Thorin's company comes together at the beginning of the movie. They also stay together through the second movie and most of the third (though I'm primarily concerned here with the first movie). The fellowship, by contrast, doesn't form until midway through the movie. And then they break apart at the end. So you do literally have more time to observe Thorin's company. (For the sake of clarity, I'll say company to refer to The Hobbit and fellowship to refer to TLOTR.)

Then there is the question of quest. While we understand that the fellowship is setting out to destroy the Ring together and that Frodo is the ring bearer, as far as the fellowship is concerned Gandalf is more their leader than Frodo is. Aragorn and Boromir sort of vie for second in command, if you will. They have all sworn to protect Frodo on his quest, but Frodo has nothing to promise them in return and has only the hope that they will indeed lead and protect him as they promise. 

By contrast, Thorin is undoubtedly the leader of his company. By blood, he is the king of his people and his quest is to reclaim his throne and his city for his people. In return for the loyalty of his company, he promises them each a share of the treasure. This sounds, in its simplest form, more like the ring giver of the comitatus than Frodo the ring bearer does. 

And we see that loyalty at play, most particularly in the way that Balin describes his admiration of Thorin in battle and in Bilbo's personal journey towards becoming part of the company. Bilbo is afraid of this adventure in a more real world way than any of the fear that we see in The Lord of the Rings. The characters there are afraid of what is happening and afraid of failure and evil and hurt and loss and death. But Bilbo is afraid like we would be to suddenly be in a place where such things are commonplace--and that specific type of fear is emphasized very much in the movie. We see his speechless, shocked fear when he almost falls off the mountain's edge. But then at the end, we see Bilbo as the only one of the company who steps out against an unbeatable foe to protect Thorin. His loyalty overcomes his fear. He has found a leader he wants to follow. 

Both groups have a great musical score or theme. But as a viewer, I feel like the company's theme goes through more of a journey than does the fellowship's. We hear the fellowship's theme as we see the group coming up through a rocky mountain path after departing from Rivendell. It's a great moment, and I'm not denying that--but the theme is already fully formed and powerful. We're excited just because we see the fellowship. Compare Thorin's company. First we hear theme sing a somber song in Bag End; they sing of distant lands, gold, and death. We hear the theme repeated throughout, but most significantly and most strongly at that final moment when the dwarves are inspired by Bilbo's bold, brave loyalty and rush out to protect Thorin in an impossible situation. The theme comes to mean not just the group but also the personal choices they make to serve their leader even at the expense of their own safety. 

So as far as the feels go, Thorin's company gives me more of the feeling of the comitatus than does the fellowship. Like I said, The Lord of the Rings is undoubtedly the better trilogy, but the portrayal of the comitatus is one of the things that The Hobbit does quite excellently. 

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