Many a fanfiction has been written about the abusive father of Legolas. So proliferous, in fact, is this image that it must, surely, have a basis in canon, mustn't it? Oddly enough, it doesn't. Evil!Thranduil, as he has become known, is actually solely the product of fanon.
What proof is there that Evil!Thranduil is fanon? Tolkien, after all, provides scant information in regards to the Elvenking. Can a claim really be made that there is a correct canon version of Thranduil? Such a claim can, indeed, not only be made, it can be proven.
The first piece of evidence is the nature of Wood-elves, in general. Of this, Tolkien says, "The feasting people were Wood-elves, of course. These are not wicked folk. If they have a fault it is distrust of strangers. Though their magic was strong, even in those days they were wary. They differed from the High Elves of the West, and were more dangerous and less wise. For most of them (together with their scattered relations in the hills and mountains) were descended from the ancient tribes that never went to Faerie in the West. .... Still elves they were and remain, and that is Good People." (Chapter VIII – Flies and Spiders)
Still, it could be argued that the "good" nature of his people does not prove the "good" nature of their king. Thranduil could, after all, have been a tyrannical ruler of "Good People" that were simply too frightened to depose him. Yet, Tolkien provides evidence to the dispute such an assumption. In Chapter 17 – The Clouds Burst, Tolkien tells us that, in the midst of a seemingly loosing battle against an army of orcs, "the elf-lords were at bay about their king…." Were Thranduil feared and disliked by his people, what reason would the elf-lords have to place themselves between the king and the orcs? Would it not have been the perfect opportunity to be rid of the tyrant?
It is possible, though, that a king can be respected, even loved, by his people, yet treat his children badly, is it not? This is true. Tolkien provides no direct evidence to dispute the possibility that Thranduil was a good king, but a bad father. He does, however, say of elves in general that, "They had few children, but these were very dear to them. Their families, or houses, were held together by love and deep feeling for kinship in mind and body." (The Histories of Middle-Earth, Vol. X – The Laws and Customs of the Eldar)
Still that does not prove that Thranduil was not the exception to the rule. Yet if he were, then it must be concluded that Bilbo Baggins approved of the despicable treatment of children. What evidence is there to support an assumption such as this? Bilbo's own behavior in The Hobbit offers all the proof that is needed.
After the capture of the Dwarves in Chapter VIII – Flies and Spiders, Bilbo spent several weeks "wandering about the Elvenking's palace" and knew the Elvenking "well by sight." Moreover, the hobbit had been invisible (by the aid of his magic ring), providing him ample opportunity to observe Thranduil at unawares. (Chapter IX – Barrels Out of Bonds) Yet, so impressed was he by Thranduil that, in Chapter 17 – The Clouds Burst, as the battle turned in favor of the orcs, he chose to take "his stand on Ravenhill among the elves – partly because there was more chance of escape from that point, and partly (with the more Tookish part of his mind) because if he was going to be in a last desperate stand, he preferred, on the whole, to defend the Elvenking."
Perhaps the hobbit was simply a bad judge of character? After all, Tolkien describes the Elvenking as greedy, and that's hardly a good character trait, right? It is true that in Chapter VIII – Flies and Spiders, Tolkien says, "If the elf-king has 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. His people neither minded nor worked metals or jewels, nor did they bother much with trade or tilling the earth. All this was well known to every dwarf, though Thorin's family had had nothing to do with the old quarrel I have spoken of."
This statement, however, is not the clear evidence of Thranduil's greed that it appears to be. The last line of the quote indicates that this is what was said about the Elvenking among the Dwarves. That does not mean that the description accurate, or that it was said about the Elvenking among other races. Afterall, in Chapter XV - The Gathering of the Cloud", the Dwarves sang, "Under the Mountain dark and tall, The king has come unto his hall! His foe is dead, the Worm of Dread, And ever so his foes shall fall." This song alludes to the Dwarves' involvement in the death of the Worm of Dread (Smaug, the Dragon), though, in truth they weren't even aware of Smaug's death by the hand of Bard the Bowman, until Raven told them of it three days after the event. Based on this example of Dwarvish propaganda, it clearly cannot be assumed that all that said by the Dwarves can be considered 100% truth.
Feasibly, it was not an intentional slander on the part of the Dwarves. It must be remembered that there was a there was a long history of tension between Elves and Dwarves. The Dwarven perspective provided in Chapter VIII – Flies and Spiders states that, "In ancient days they [the Elves] had had wars with some of the dwarves, whom they accused of stealing their treasures. It is only fair to say that the dwarves gave a different accounts, 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 five them their pay." As Thranduil had been the Elvenking for millennia before the birth of any of Thorin's company, it would have been logical for the Dwarves to associate any tale of an Elvenking with Thranduil.
Likely, the account had nothing at all to do with him. Taking into consideration that the use of "ancient" when speaking of "the ancient tribes that never went to Faerie in the West" referred to First Age events, it can be extrapolated that the use of "ancient days" refers to the First Age, as well. Therefore, it sounds like the Dwarvish version of the tale of Thingol and the Dwarves of Nogrod, wherein Thingol bargained with the Dwarves to reshape the Nauglamir. They coveted the necklace for their own and, when it was finished, refused to give it up to the Elvenking. Thingol took it from them and bade them depart at once, upon which the dwarves murdered Thingol and fled with the Nauglamir. The only two dwarves to survive to reach Nogrod told their people that the Elvenking had murdered their kinsman rather than pay them for their work. (The Silmarillion, Chapter 22 – Of the Ruin of Doriath.)
Still, whether the statement about Thranduil is myth, propaganda, or truth, it is what Tolkien wrote of the Elvenking. But what does it actually reveal about the character of the Elvenking? It says that Thranduil had a weakness for treasure, not that he was greedy. Indeed, were he greedy, the Elvenking would have hoarded all the treasure that found its way into his realm, yet Thranduil did not. When the Company stumbles across the King's feast, Bilbo noted of the Elves that, "Green and white gems glinted on their collars and their belts." (Chapter VIII – Flies and Spiders) Thus, Tolkien reveals that Thranduil shared the wealth of his realm with his people.
Yet, upon hearing the news of the death of the dragon, Thranduil marched an army to the Lonely Mountain to gain a share of the treasure. Would this not provide evidence his greed? Indeed, it could be argued that it does. Yet, it must be remembered that the Elvenking believed at that point that the treasure was without an owner, making it first come-first serve, as the saying goes.
Even then, the want of gold did not rule Thranduil's heart. According to Chapter XIV – Fire and Water, "the king, when he received the prayers of Bard, had pity" and readily turned his march toward Laketown. By the shore, Thranduil provided "many skilled elves" to assist in the "raising of huts by the shore against the oncoming of winter" and "a great store of goods". He, then, led his forces on to the Lonely Mountain.
At this point, however, Thranduil no longer sought to gain treasure for himself. The Elves marched in support of Bard and the Lakemen. This is illustrated in the demands issued by Bard. The banner-bearer declared to Thorin that, "At the least, he shall deliver on –twelfth portion of the treasure unto Bard, as the dragon-slayer, and as the heir of Girion." At no time during the siege is a demand made that some portion of the treasure also be delivered to Thranduil, despite his "succoring the people of the Lake in their need, though they had no claim but friendship on him." (Chapter 15 – The Gathering of the Clouds)
Not only did Thranduil not demand a share of the gold, he was the only leader amongst the four leaders (Bard, Dain, Thorin, and Thranduil) present in the Battle of Five Armies that did not consider the gold worth fighting over. In Chapter XVII – The Clouds Burst, when the Dwarves of Dain advanced along the eastern bank in defiance of Bard's refusal to let them pass, Bard's response was, "Let us set on them now from both sides before they are fully rested." But Thranduil, again, proved that his heart was not ruled by gold when he replied, "Long will I tarry, ere I begin this war for gold. The dwarves cannot pass us, unless we will, nor do anything that we cannot mark. Let us hope still for something will bring reconciliation. Our advantage in numbers will be enough, if in the end it must come to unhappy blows."
After the battle is won and Bard's share of the treasure delivered, Thranduil still did not demand payment. The Elvenking received only the emeralds of Girion from Bard, in thanks for his assistance, and a silver and pearl necklace from Bilbo, in payment for the wine and bread he'd stolen from Thranduil's store. Yet, even here, Thranduil did not respond by greedily snatching-up the offered prize, but inquired, "In what way have I earned such a gift, O Hobbit?" (Chapter XVIII – The Return Journey)
So Thranduil did not suffer from avarice, still he was unjust in his treatment of the Dwarves, was he not? It could, indeed, be argued that his treatment of the dwarves was harsh, but it was not unjustified. Thranduil had ample reason to be wary of the sudden and unexplained presence of Dwarves in his realm. The foremost reason was the previously discussed murder of the Sindarin king, Thingol. Of noble Sindarin birth, Thranduil would have heard the tale, if not witnessed the actually event.
Yet, not only was the ruin of Doriath ancient history, but "Thorin's family had had nothing to do with the old quarrel". (Chapter VIII – Flies and Spiders) Still, the Dwarves' harsh treatment was not without cause. The Company had left the path, despite warning from both Beorn and Gandalf that they must not do so for any reason. Thus, they entered without leave into the Elvenking's realm "wandering vagabond dwarves" that, in the eyes of the Wood-elves, were "sneaking through the woods and molesting our people." Three times did the dwarves "pursue and trouble" Thranduil's people, as well as stirring up the spiders with their "riot and clamour", further endangering the welfare of the Wood-elves. Yet, when the king justly sought an explanation for Dwarves' actions, the Dwarves would "not even pretend politeness" to the king. "Thorin would only say that he was starving" and Balin was quarrelsome and insulting. Tolkien makes it clear he felt Thranduil's anger was well earned when he states that Balin's replies "of course made the king angrier than ever." (Chapter IX – Barrels Out of Bonds)
Contrast this with the Dwarves' behavior in the presence of Beorn in Chapter VII – Queer Lodgings. There, each Dwarf politely offered his name and his service (until Beorn put a stop to it), and in several cases even bowed and waved their hoods. This can be explained, though, by the need of the Dwarves to gain assistance from Beorn. Yet the same cannot be said about the orcs.
Still, when questioned by the Great Goblin, in Chapter VI - Over Hill and Under Hill, Thorin's "polite nothing" was more polite than his words to Thranduil. The Dwarf went so far as to offer an excuse for his presence in the realm of the Great Goblin, saying, "We are on a journey to visit our relatives, our nephews and nieces, and first, second, and third cousins, and the other descendents of our grandfathers, who live on the East side of these truly hospitable mountains." Yet, he granted the Elvenking no such courtesy. It was the Dwarves refusal to give any sort of account of their actions that provoked Thranduil's anger.
Seemingly, whatever the their opinion of the Elvenking, they did not fear his anger, as they did the Great Goblin's or Beorn's. Yet, if it was not fear that prevented the Dwarves from speaking, what was it? It was the greed of their Dwarvish hearts, for "they all thought their own shares in the treasure (which they quite regarded as theirs, in spite of their plight and the still unconquered dragon, would suffer seriously in the Wood-elves claimed part of it." (Chapter IX – Barrels Out of Bond) But had they shared their true purpose, Tolkien makes it clear that Thranduil was more likely to have scoffed and sent them on their way, than demand an up front share of the treasure, as the wise king "did not believe in dwarves fighting and killing dragons like Smaug." (Chapter XIV – Fire and Water)
Nor can it be claimed that the Dwarves, though treated harshly, were treated cruelly. When brought before the Elvenking, Thranduil "told his men to unbind them, for they were ragged and weary." (Chapter IX – Barrels Out of Bond) Tolkien also states that the dwarves were given "food and drink, plenty of both, if not very fine; for Wood-elves were not goblins, and were reasonably well-behaved even to the worst enemies, when they captured them." (Chapter VIII – Flies and Spiders) Indeed, Bilbo said of the chief guard that, "he wasn't a bad fellow, and quite decent to the prisoners." (Chapter IX – Barrels Out of Bond) The cruelest part of the Dwarves' treatment was their imprisonment, which any of them could have ended for all at any time simply by offering Thranduil a reasonable account of themselves.
In light of the evidence provided primarily within the pages of The Hobbit, it is clear that the Thranduil of canon is Good!Thranduil. He was protective of his people. He showed kindness and pity, succoring other races in their need. He put lives before the want of gold. His elf-lords, Bilbo, Gandalf, and the men of the Lake all thought well of him. Few of these would apply to the fanon creation, Evil!Thranduil.
All references are from The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien, except where otherwise noted.
Comments, questions, corrections welcome!