“They are prominent in Germanic and Scandinavian legend and generally dwelt in rocks and caves and recesses of the earth. They were guardians of mineral wealth and precious stones and very skillful at their work. They were not unfriendly to man, but could on occasions, be vindictive and mischievous.” [Rockwood, Camilla, ed. 2009. Brewer’s Dictionary of Phrase & Fable, 18th Edition. Chambers Harrap Publishers Ltd. Dwarf]
In the popular mind, the term ‘Dwarves’ tends to bring to mind a short, bearded man with a Scottish accent wielding a battle-axe, namely actor John Rhys-Davies’ portrayal of the dwarf Gimli in Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings movie trilogy not malignant, black-skinned creatures to which sunlight is deadly. “In the world were also DWARFS – ugly creatures, but masterly craftsmen, who lived under the earth[.]” [Hamilton, Edith. 1942. Mythology. Little, Brown and Company, Boston. 460-461]
As elves and fairies at one time were nearly indistinguishable so too were the dwarves even when compared to trolls. Dwarves just as elves and even trolls were born with the mythic world, wandered into folktales, were adapted into fairytales, and then reinvented by the authors of fantasy fiction. “The two most popular beings to be included in HEROIC FANTASY as either COMPANIONS to or enemies of humans are dwarfs and ELVES, yet the origins of these two groups of beings are confusing. In Nordic mythology the Alfar (elves) comprise one of the four main groups of dwarfs, but in Celtic mythology the elves are a part of the land of FAERIE, distinct from the dwarfs, who are creatures of the Earth.” [Clute, John & Grant, John. 1997. The Encyclopedia of Fantasy. St Martin’s Press, New York. Dwarfs. Dwarfs]
The confusion between the elves and the dwarves also includes mention of another fantasy race or at least the seed which would lead to the inception of one of the more infamous of the fantasy races, the dark elves. “[I]n the North of Midgard, there were dwarfs; they lived in Nidavellir (Dark Home) in caves and potholes, while somewhere below was Svartalfheim(Land of the Dark Elves). No valid distinction though can be drawn between the dwarfs and dark elves; they appear to have been interchangeable.” [Crossley-Holland, Kevin. 2015. The Norse Myths. The Folio Society Ltd., London. xxv]
The current guise of dwarves are that of short, under or at 4 ft. tall, men with long bushy beards, barrel chests possessed of metalworking skills and knowledge of the underground as well as a penchant for swinging axes, hammers, and picks. “They are small, but solidly built and strong, almost always bearing beards and wielding axes.” [Clute & Grant. Dwarfs]
Inevitably one question tends to crop up repeatedly when discussing dwarves concerning the etymology of the word itself or more specifically about the plural noun form of ‘dwarves’ as opposed to ‘dwarfs’. The word ‘Dwarf’ and its unusual plural ‘Dwarves’ are well known but so is its proper plural ‘Dwarfs’, so where did these two different plural forms come from? Well, the second ‘Dwarfs’ is the proper plural form before the early 20th century but the plural noun form of ‘Dwarves’ began to be used more frequently as time wound on.
The work with the most influence in this regard is J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit (1937) where the unusual noun form was corrected in certain editions by the editor to the then more common ‘Dwarfs’ but by the time it was to exert its influence over the creator of Dungeons & Dragons, Gary Gygax, the unusual noun form was left in place. In Appendix N of the Advanced Dungeons & Dragons Game Master’s Guide (1979) Tolkien’s work is listed as “Inspirational Reading”. Thusly Tolkien and Gary Gygax helped to propagate the newer plural form of ‘Dwarves’ which is now considered by most to be the proper form when discussing the fantasy race.
However, long before that question of English noun form, or even before English came to be, the concept of diminutive but supernaturally powerful creatures associated with the elemental earth was already an old idea.
Dwarves as did the elves began existence conjoined to other ideas taking a somewhat alien proto-form deep in the past as far back as the ancient Greeks. In the colorful myths of ancient Greece creatures called the Dactyls or Daktyloi served as their precursors. “[T]he Daktyloi, or “little fingers,” [are] the ten sons of the Great Mother Rhea. They emerged when, in Rhea’s birth pangs delivering Zeus, she dug her fingers into the earth. The Daktyloi are dwarf craftsmen, gifted and generative, evoking the wisdom and creativity of unconscious impulses that consciousness tends to overlook.” [Ronnberg, Amy ed., 2010. The Book of Symbols: Reflections on Archetypal Images. Cologne, Germany. TASCHEN. 384]
The Dactyls/Daktyloi resemble at least in part the core points of the modern dwarf: supernatural birth of the race, short stature, and great skill at working metals and stone. “DACTYLS, the discoverers of iron and the art of working it. Their home was usually said to be Mount Ida in Crete. They were considered to have magical powers.” [Hamilton. 481] But aside from the possible (and quite probable) influence of the Greek Dactyls, modern dwarves began as a part of the Norse creation myth. They were one of the most ancient races in existence aside from the giants and the gods themselves.
In whatever form that dwarves seem to take they are always perceived as beings created directly by the actions of the gods. They are always an ancient race closely associated with said divinities and are always in some way associated with the alchemical element of earth. It is primarily from the Norse myths that the current concept of dwarves is drawn and it is in these myths that we can see these elements at work. “[A]ccording to the Eddas, the dwarfs sprang into being close on the heels of the gods and they took shape from the same primordial stuff as the planet’s rocks, mountains, and seas. The tale of the origin of dwarfs is one and the same as the dawning of the earth.” [Constable, George ed. 1985. The Enchanted World: Dwarfs. Time-Life Books. Alexandria, Virginia. 9-10]
The story of the Norse dwarves is much grimmer than miraculous unlike the Dactyloi from whom they inherit a few of their defining traits. After the slaying of Ymir by the gods: “Within the soil, life quickened and began to squirm: the dwarfs. As maggots spring from decaying flesh, say the Eddas, so the dwarfs took form within the vast landscape of Ymir’s corpse. Children of the earth, they were at first as featureless as earthworms.” [Constable. 11]
The appearance of said featureless worms, the proto-dwarves, from dead flesh was a widely held belief in antiquity that maggots spontaneously erupted from rotten meat in a process known as ‘Spontaneous Generation’, an idea supported by Aristotle. It was these worms that were observed by the gods and for whatever reason the gods decided to remake them. “They [the Norse creator gods Odin, Vili, and Ve] transformed the dwarves […] who had been small maggotlike creatures born from the flesh of the first giant, Ymir, into intelligent humanoids.” [Wilkinson, Philip & Philip, Neil. 2007. Eyewitness Companions: Mythology. DK Publishing. NY, NY. 115]
Of course, the Norse gods didn’t stop there. “From Ymir’s skull they made the dome of the sky, placing a dwarf to support it at each of the four corners and to hold it high above the earth.” [Davidson, H.R. Ellis. 1964. Gods and Myths of Northern Europe. Penguin Books. England. 27] Dwarves were definitely portrayed as having great physical strength as well as being initially gifted with great and magical skills. “[T]he dwarfs, creatures with strange names, who bred in the earth like maggots, and dwelt in hills and rocks. These were skilled craftsmen, and it was they who wrought the great treasures of the gods.” [Davidson. 28]
Contrary to the popular depictions of dwarves nowadays, in myth the shade of their skin was a reflection of their earthy nature. “To the dwarfs they gave human shape, but their hue was the blackness of earth in which they had being.” [Mackenzie, Donald A. 1912. Teutonic Myth and Legend. Kessinger Publishing (Reprint). 13]
Their slight stature was apparently proportional to their original worm-forms though they were still somewhat associated with the concept of elves. “In the Northern “Story of Creation” these elves, or black dwarfs, are, it is evident, intentionally belittled.” [Mackenzie. xxxvi] They also, like the worms they were, continued to live beneath the earth and were also associated in certain terms with trolls even as the gods set a king to rule over them. “Over them the gods set Modsognir, who is Mimer, to be king. In the mounds of the earth dwell one tribe of these earth-black elves, within rocks another, and a third have their habitation inside high and precipitous mountains. Besides these are the Trolls[.]” [Mackenzie. 13]
Basically at this point, what separated the dwarves and elves from one another was that the ‘light elves’ lived in Alfheim and the ‘dark elves’ what would later become the dwarves, lived deep in the earth. At first there was no real distinction between them as two separate races. Often dwarves were also included in the same breath as trolls and indeed they shared the same lethal allergy to the sun. “Because they lived in caves, or underground, the dwarfs and giants also had in common a mortal terror of sunlight; it turned them into stone.” [Crossley-Holland. 243]
Perhaps it was the dwarves’ connection to the earth that precipitated their divine transmutation into their humanoid form by the gods and the gods’ need for their skills which were inherent due to this supernatural association marked most prominently by the color of their skin. Here is where they become the murderous craftsmen of the gods who live deep in the black earth that are so common to the northern myths. These squat subterranean creatures wielded enough supernatural power and a deep enough wisdom of the earth to necessitate their consultation and employment by the gods. “They were as old as the rocks they inhabited, and from that ancient bond with the earth had come mundane wisdom and an intimacy with earthly mysteries.” [Constable. 9]
Dwarves were the masters of the earthly as the gods were masters of the heavens. “Living in the realm of dark rock and flickering volcanic flame, moving through underground passageways as easily as fish course the water and birds ride the wind, they were guardians and master manipulators of the earth’s mineral riches.” [Constable. 14]
Granted the Norse gods were suited perfectly as clients of such oddly-talented creatures. “The Scandinavian pantheon was devoted to war and luxury, and naturally looked to the dwarfs for arms and adornment.” [Constable. 14] Of course, it is often implied that the gods looked down upon their craftsmen as lowly creatures not much different from the worms that they were shaped from save for the occasional requirement of their earthly abilities. So the dwarves began to use cunning and deception much as mortals when confronted with the supernatural in such tales. In addition to this, they also mastered the magical-arts which were to become one of their many crafts. “As a number of myths make clear, dwarfs and giants were repositories of knowledge and magic songs and on occasion revealed their wisdom to the gods.” [Crossley-Holland. 242]
There are multiple stories of the dwarves proving their skills often forging masterpieces for the gods in particular Mjöllnir, Thor’s hammer. “With his dwarf-wrought hammer, Thor kept the frost giants at bay, although they were ceaselessly restive.” [Constable. 22] Dwarves were now the craftsmen of legend; they were wizards and the makers of great weapons and miraculous items. “It is no surprise that dwarfs, capable of breathing life into cold metal, were masters of incantations and the runic alphabet, used in the ancient Norse world for mystic inscriptions.” [Constable. 25]
The hammer of Thor was perhaps their most famous work but by no means their only work for the gods in fact it was the third. “The third treasure was the great hammer Mjollnir, which would hit anything at which it was thrown and return to the thrower’s hand. Because of the interference of the fly, however, which was Loki in disguise, it was a little short in the handle.” [Davidson. 43]
The skills of dwarves and the resultant products of said skills played greater and greater parts in the Norse myths. They were so skilled as to be able to nearly undo the mischief sowed by the god Loki himself, of course hired by Loki to save his own skin. “One day in a fit of mischief Loki cut off Sif’s golden hair, and Thor would have killed him if he had not found two cunning dwarfs to make new tresses of real gold for Sif, which would grow like natural hair. They also made Freyr’s wonderful ship and Odin’s great spear Gungnir. […][T]hey succeeded in forging a marvelous boar with bristles of gold, which could run faster than any steed and light up the darkest night. They also forged the great gold ring, Draupnir, from which eight other rings dropped every ninth night.” [Davidson. 42]
Another key myth which concerns the dwarves is The Mead of Inspiration which not only reveals a specific aspect of their magical prowess but also a central element of their emerging inherit racial personality. The titular mead was a powerful concoction that gave wisdom and poetic inspiration to any who imbibed of it. A pair of villainous dwarves had brewed it from the blood of a god.
“When two companies of gods [the Aesir and the Vanir] met to make peace, they took a vessel and spat into it, and from the contents they created the wise Kvasir, who was able to answer all questions. Kvasir however was killed by two dwarfs, who let his blood run into three huge vessels, and mixed it with honey to make a rich mead. Whoever drank of this received the gift of inspiration, and could compose poetry and utter words of wisdom. The malicious dwarfs, however, went too far when they killed a giant called Gilling, and his wife as well. The giant’s son, Suttung, took vengeance on them by putting them on a rock and leaving them there to drown. To save their lives they were forced to give him the mead, and it is for this reason that poetry is called ‘Kvasir’s blood’ or ‘ship of the dwarfs’.” [Davidson. 40]
Dwarves drawn from the Nordic myths began to spread across Europe the diminutive race branching off into many different types. “Their names varied from land to land and region to region. The British Isles had their goblins, knackers and leprechauns, Germany its Erdleute and Stillevolk, and Scandinavia its trolls and bergfolk and huldrefolk. But their kinship to the earth, their matchless skills and their stunted stature were universal.” [Constable. 8]
It is here that dwarves figure more as adversaries and dangerous fairies to be treated with caution and apprehension than the hard-fighting miner-warriors of popular fantasy as they seeped into the folktales of Europe. The entire race bore the guilt of the crime of the pair who had brewed the blood-mead and were now famous as having a penchant for hording and guarding the treasures of the deep earth. “The ugly, misshapen dwarfs […] represent greed; they do nothing that is not in their own interests. Mastersmiths and magicians, quick to show malice, they lust after fair women, after power and, above all, after gold.” [Crossley-Holland. Xxxviii]
Eventually dwarves found themselves thrust into the fairytales of northern Europe and Great Britain often as the antagonists or later on, providing magical assistance to the hero. “As the sagas devolved into FOLKTALES dwarfs were regularly depicted as scheming and cunning, and in this form they found their way into FAIRYTALES[.]” [Clute & Grant. Dwarfs] Dwarves were the villains or monsters in such well-traveled fairytales as Rumpelstiltskin and The Yellow Dwarf or benevolent in such tales as Snow White and the Seven Dwarves.
Dwarves became a force of nature, of the earth but as fleeting as the wind and nearly invisible but always lurking at the edges of normal reality. “Within the earth itself, a tapping sound that came from a region untunneled by mortal miners might betray the activity of a mining party of dwarfs.” [Constable.9] They were everywhere especially their traditional haunts where their voices could be heard floating upon the air. “[I]n Scandinavia, echoes cast back from stony mountainsides were known in the Norse language as dvergamal – “voice of the dwarf.” Dwarfs, perhaps amusing themselves, were said to cause the echo by mimicking any sound heard in their domain. But they melted into the rocks long before a human intruder could draw near enough to spot them.” [Constable. 9] At this point they had almost merged completely with fairies as just another kind of fairy-folk.
In fact many types of creatures that had spawned directly from the dwarves that are still considered a part of fairy-kind. “Sometimes they are described as drawing their power from the Earth. In this sense they may be synonymous with gnomes, and to a lesser extent with kobolds (→GOBLINS) and leprechauns. All these strands emphasize the diminutive and mischievous aspects, but dwarfs are also warlike.” [Clute & Grant. Dwarfs]
In fairy tales dwarves had twisted into villains though they weren’t much better in myth. But they had gotten closer to the modern idea of the little race. “In Teutonic myths, the dwarfs are small man-like beings, versed in the lore of mineral and skillful as forgers of weapons and treasures for the gods. In Wagner’s Nibelungen Ring they are crafty and cunning and dwell in the bowels of the earth.” [Martin. Dwarf.]
It is the image of a demented villain with a tiny twisted body and a fiendish mind and an ancient soul filled with arcane power that Richard Wagner drew upon when he delved into Teutonic myth for his master-symphony, known as Wagner’s Ring Cycle or the Ring of the Nibelung. “The dwarfs, or nibelungs, are black uncouth pigmies, hating the good, hating the gods; they are crafty and cunning, and dwell in the bowels of the earth.” [Martin. 307]
In that story it is the Nibelung Alberich that forges the ring of power from “Rhinegold” stolen from the Rhine Maidens (3 water-nymphs invented by Wagner for his story) that causes the whole fiasco which propels the entire epic to its ultimate conclusion. Wagner drew from the traditional figure of the dwarf. “The traditional dwarf-figure is drawn from NORDIC FANTASY, particularly the Volsunga Saga and Nibelungenlied[.]” [Clute & Grant. Dwarfs]
As dwarves survived in Wagner’s compositions from the 19th-century and into the twentieth they were to be reworked by J.R.R Tolkien yet again into something resembling almost wholly, the modern concept of the dwarven fantasy race. “Modern treatments of dwarfs can be traced to J.R.R. TOLKIEN, who drew upon both Nordic myth and some of the mischievous aspects in the works of E.A. WYKE-SMITH to depict his dwarves (as he spelled it) in The Hobbit (1937); these have all the aspects of traditional dwarfs, including squabbling belligerence, but are essentially good.” [Clute & Grant. Dwarfs]
Tolkien however, took away their evil dispositions and tempered their mystical powers. As with his versions of the elves and trolls, a patron god creates the dwarves. “In a great hall under the mountains of Middle-earth Aulë, the Smith of the Valar, fashioned the Seven Fathers of Dwarves during the Ages of Darkness[.]” [Day, David. 1979. A Tolkien Bestiary. Mitchell Beazley Publishers Limited. 69]
Tolkien also solidified the physical attributes that now describe the race while discarding the grotesqueness that had been a part of them of old. “[.]Aulë made Dwarves stout and strong, unaffected by cold and fire, and sturdier than the races that followed. Aulë knew of the great evil of Melkor, so he made the Dwarves stubborn, indomitable, and persistent in labour and hardship. They were brave in battle and their pride and will could not be broken.” [Day. 69]
He also handily described their now familiar skills at the same time diminishing their magical abilities reducing their skillset to hard labor and earth-craft. “The Dwarves were deep-delving miners, masons, metal-workers and the most wondrous stone-carvers. [T]hey were made strong, long-bearded and tough, but not tall, being four to five feet in height. As their toil was long, they were each granted a life of about two and half centuries, for they were mortal[.]” [Day. 69]
It is from Tolkien that Gary Gygax took his inspiration and with only some slight modifications chiseled the image that dwarves now take in fantasy RPGs the world over. “Dwarves are typically deep tan to light brown of skin, with ruddy cheeks and bright eyes (almost never blue). Their hair is brown, black or gray. They favor earth tones with small bits of bright color in their clothing. Although only 4 or so feet tall, they weigh no less than 150 pounds due to their stocky muscular build. They live for no less than 350 years on the average.” [Gygax, Gary. 1978. Advanced D&D Monster Manual. TSR Games. Dwarves.]
It is at this point that dwarves have solidified into short, human-like creatures that dwell deep in the earth or in mountain caves that wield the knowledge of the earth from whence they reap its treasures (namely gold and gems) and possess the skills of miners and craftsmen. They also tend to be a bit war-like and are a stout and stubborn folk. A few of their number may still wield the powers of old and forge a magic weapon here and there. Dwarven magic where it does exist often is associated with or draws its inspirations from the Nordic runes. Of course, this brings us to what is in some ways a somewhat pedantic and in others kind of important question about the dwarven race as a whole, what of the dwarven women?
Universally it seems that dwarves had been a race solely of males, a race that is comprised of a very limited and fixed number of individuals as with the Dactyls, or a race that may rely on its members creating new members as they themselves were created, by carving them from the living rock of the underground. It was not until Tolkien that the question was tackled in a world that operated on the laws of nature (mostly), as in such a world the question of how the dwarves would reproduce would naturally be raised. According to Tolkien dwarves had “very few women-folk.” [J.R.R. Tolkien. The Lord of the Rings (1991 ed.). HarperCollins Publishers. Appendix A. 1050 – footnote]
In fact, the only dwarf-woman named in Tolkien’s work was Dís the daughter of Thráin II. “It was said by Gimli that there are few dwarf-women, probably no more than a third of the whole people. They seldom walk abroad except at great need. They are in voice and appearance, and in garb if they must go on a journey, so like to the dwarf-men that the eyes and ears of other peoples cannot tell them apart. This has given rise to the foolish opinion among Men that there are no dwarf-women, and that the Dwarves ‘grow out of stone’.” [Tolkien. 1053] This has also led to the beard or no beard argument which frankly is dependent on the setting/world and the whims of its creator(s).
The scarcity and temperament of the dwarf-women (at least in Tolkien) seems to direct the fate of the dwarves in the same direction as that of those two races that they share so many generative similarities with, the elves and trolls. In the cycles of myth they are destined to fade from the mortal world as the dying vestiges of a long-disappeared elder age. “It is known that they dwindled further, but whether they still live within secret caverns of the World or have now gone […] cannot be learned.” [Day.75] Though in the many varied worlds of roleplaying they battle on with pick, hammer, and ax.