Smiths and Short People: The Origin of Dwarves

So, I talked about elves a few weeks back. What about dwarves? Come on now, do you really think I would forget our short, beer-guzzling, bearded, Germano-Scottish (seriously, why do they always sound Scottish?) metal smiths friends? They’re as much a staple of modern fantasy literature as elves, and with good reason, too, because they played as large a part in Tolkien’s mythos as the elves did. The rivalry, even animosity, between dwarves and elves is epic in Middle Earth, and has moved into other works more recently, although it sometimes is little more than simple mockery while drinking. Why is it like that, and where did they come from?

Tolkien never really considered the elves to be traditional elves, and really, they weren’t. They were a race that he created and named “elves.” In a letter to Milton Waldman (which can be found in the front of some editions of The Silmarillion, he even says that he calls them elves “misleadingly.” The concept of Tolkien’s dwarves as, well, dwarves, is similar. Yes, they’re dwarves because they’re short, but where do they come from? No, I don’t mean where underground, or are they made of rock, or are there female dwarves, but where in our psyche do they originate?

Svartalfar and dokkalfar

Originally, there was nothing in the description of what we know as dwarves being short. In fact, they weren’t even called dwarves. They were either dark elves or black elves. The term dókkalfar, meaning “black elves” is the rarer of the two, and indicates that they were associated with the night, darkness, and dangerous intent. It doesn’t indicate whether it was their skin that was black, or their hair, but they were definitely the more dangerous of the two kinds of elves, the other being the lósalfar, or “light elves.”

The second term, svartalfar, means “dark elves.” Like dókkalfar, they stand in contrast with the light elves, but it doesn’t necessarily mean that they are evil. It was the dark elves who forged Thor’s hammer Mjölnir and Freyr’s magic ship that could carry all the gods yet be folded into a pocket. They were masters of smithing, and yet they were also dangerous in that you didn’t want to cross them or try to cheat them.

Two dwarves from a 19th century edition of the Poetic Edda. (courtesy of Wikipedia.)

Two dwarves from a 19th century edition of the Poetic Edda. (courtesy of Wikipedia.)

It was also a pair of dark elves who found a cursed treasure and turned against each other. One of the brothers, Fafnir, turned himself into a dragon, and his brother Regin got Sigúrd to try to kill the dragon and steal the gold. Once Fafnir was dead, Sigúrd learned that Regin was planning to betray him and killed him first. Yes, the famous Fafnir the dragon, partial inspiration for Tolkien’s Smaug, was actually a dwarf.

The Shrinking of the Dwerrow

Another term that has been used for dwarves, and in fact the term that eventually became the word dwarf, dvergar. Also seen as “dwarrow” or “dwarrow”, it doesn’t so much indicate their height, but rather that they live underground. Where Man is the race that lives above the surface of the earth, the Dvergar live below it, and so are the masters of the earth. It makes sense then, that they would be seen as master smiths and craftsmen, so where did the idea that they were short come from? It’s possible that it’s a result of artists portraying them in humorous ways, like how garden gnomes look like fat little Santas with pointy hats, and shortness was seen as a distinct mark of something to be mocked. Tyrion Lannister would certainly understand that sentiment.

That said, the dvergar aren’t human, and they never were. Human dwarves are people with congenital issues that make then naturally shorter. Fantasy dwarves, the svartalfar and dvergar, are races separate from humans, and whether they were originally seen as shorter, taller, or the same height as us is really dependent on how we view the masters of the earth below our feet.

The Children of Aüle

John Rhys Davies as Gimli, son of Gloin, from Peter Jackson's adaptation of J.R.R. Tolkien's "Lord of the Rings."

John Rhys Davies as Gimli, son of Gloin, from Peter Jackson’s adaptation of J.R.R. Tolkien’s “Lord of the Rings.”

When Tolkien first created his elves and dwarves, the dwarves were distinctly evil enemies, even going so far as to hire orcish mercenaries against the elves. This can be found in the earliest stories recorded in The Book of Lost Tales, and it should be noted that, even if it is considered part of the canon, these are stories told from the perspective of the elves. That said, it’s a good example of the way that perception of the dwarves has changed. Even Tolkien changed his own perception of them as he wrote.

In the final version that we have in The Silmarillion, compiled by his son and editing partner Christopher Tolkien, the dwarves were created by Aüle, the Valar (a kind of god subordinate to the creator, Ilúvatar). Aüle had become impatient for the birth of the Children of Ilúvatar (elves and humans), and so he crafted seven figures of his own race. Ilúvatar called him out on it, and when Aüle moved to destroy his creation, the dwarves shrank from him, indicating that they were truly alive. In response, Ilúvatar allowed the dwarves to live, so long as they were put to sleep until the elves and humans came to being. As a result, they ended up a sort of adopted race among the Children of Ilúvatar.

This story shows how in depth Tolkien went to make the race something new that had not been seen before. This is not the svartalfar of Germano-Nordic myth. Tolkienian dwarves are…well, just that. Tolkienian. They’re a modern fantasy race that has become something everyone knows and identifies as being a part of traditional fantasy, and they’re not even a hundred years old.

To Gygax and Beyond

A dwarf from Dungeons and Dragons 3.5

A dwarf from Dungeons and Dragons 3.5

Although the modern fantasy dwarves were first conceived in the trenches of WWI, they are still the descendents of the earlier mythic races of svartalves, dvergar, and other underground inhabitants. Even so, there are other fantasy races that are descendents of them. When Gary Gigax created Dungeons and Dragons, he took Tolkien’s races and gave a new spin to them. Dwarves became an almost generic beered-up, bearded up, angry-short-man with an axe, and yet, it gave room for other writers to work.

Blizzard, in their Warcraft series and online game World of Warcraft, have created as extensive a history for their dwarves as Tolkien did, having them be created by the Titans, who made a proto-race known as Troggs, whom players have to fight in the early levels of the MMO. Not only that, but there are even larger, stronger, and almost titanic proto-dwarves who live in the center of the earth.

Games Workshop’s battle game series Warhammer, particularly the science fiction game Warhammer 40K has what I think is a really interesting take on dwarves. Space dwarves. Yes, dwarves in space. They’ve taken fantasy races, including elves, the undead, orcs, and dwarves, and sent them off into space, 40,000 years into the future.

It leaves me to wonder how another writer might take the dwarven trope and turn it into their own work. It could be something new that hasn’t been seen, or an examination of what is already there. Either way, the stories that can be told are yours. Dwarves are no longer relegated to being a people in diaspora, as Tolkien wrote them; they have entered the modern mythology that encompasses all that is fantasy, and even science fiction.

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One thought on “Smiths and Short People: The Origin of Dwarves

  1. I wonder if Tolkien’s original stance on dwarves, is directly related to his experiences in the trenches? It seems probable that a dislike for living underground would give birth to a less than likeable race who live underground.
    His softening stance towards the dwarves, could be related to Tolkien coming to terms with his wartime experiences. Please note this is pure conjecture on my part.

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