The dwarven race is surely one of the most iconic races in epic fantasy literature. Either we discuss the quests of the dwarven company, guided by the brave Thorin Oakenshield in Tolkien’s The Hobbit, or we read about the adventures of the Dwarven king Bruenor Battlehammer in the novels of R.A. Salvatore, the fantasy landscape would not be the same without the long-bearded, stout dwarves.
“Yet he was ever a Dwarf, with a stiff neck.” – The Hobbit
The dwarven race was further formed and expanded by the father of epic fantasy, J.R.R.Tolkien. In Tolkien’s cosmotheory, dwarves were not created by the supreme god lluvatar. ‘’They were created by the lesser god (Vala) Aulë in secret, intended to be his children to whom he could teach his crafts. Ilúvatar, however, knew of their creation, despite Aulë’s efforts. When confronted by Ilúvatar, Aulë confessed his deed and raised his hammer to destroy his creations. However, Ilúvatar, seeing that they had been made not out of malice or wickedness, stayed Aulë’s hand and sanctified the dwarves ’’ We can see that Tolkien kept the same characteristics as with the Nordic counterparts, describing them as short, stocky and flawless in crafts. He further enriched them by adding their characteristic pride, martial expertise, stubbornness and of course their long, well-maintained beards. Tolkien created a concrete backstory for the dwarven race, adding cultural and historical elements (like the runic alphabet, personality traits, customs), thus establishing them in the fantasy genre as a major protagonist alongside the (equally well developed) elves and hobbits.
“Masters of stone and iron, dauntless in the face of adversity.” – D&D Players Handbook 4th Edition.
It was the tabletop role-playing game Dungeons and Dragons, however, which brought them to mainstream attention. Created back in 1974, Dungeons and Dragons included in its first edition the dwarf as a playable class, further putting the race in the hearts of gamers up until today. Axe yielding, loud and stubborn, dwarves became a staple of fantasy role-playing games splitting the fanbase into the biggest argument of all: which race is better? dwarves or elves? That being said, Dungeons and Dragons were heavily influenced by the Tolkien incarnation of the dwarves, adding little to the already established culture. There were some
minor additions and changes (different sources of origin, different traits, and culture details) to fit them in the different narrative but no one can deny that Professor Tolkien’s cosmos provides the base for every fantasy book or game even for today. As we saw above, the dwarves share most of their cultural and personality traits in most of their reincarnations. However, this article is not going to focus on these positive aspects. We are going to delve deep (deeper than the deepest dwarven mines) in their psychology to dig out the darkest side they hide. Despite their longevity, dwarves are mortal creatures, susceptible to desire, greed, lust and dark callings. We are going to focus on the two great sources we have (Tolkien and D&D mythos) to unravel the mystery surrounding the dark side of the dwarves.
A grim beginning.
The first appearance of dwarves in Tolkien’s work was not a flattering one. In the unfinished work, The book of lost tales, the dwarves are depicted as evil, malicious beings only caring for wealth and power, even allying themselves with orcs with no hesitation, in order to achieve their goals. In this early stage work, we can see some traits that are going to continue throughout Tolkien’s works. However, when he decided to create the cultural history of dwarves he had to change this origin story, attributing it to Petty dwarves, outcasts of the dwarven society who had no honor and susceptible to their darkest desires. In reality, Tolkien’s original conception was that all dwarves were greedy, treacherous and unable to create works of beauty without aid. This was so different from their characteristics that evolved in later stories that he felt obliged to describe the dwarves in these earlier stories as a separate race, the Petty-dwarves.
What shines is gold. And it is mine.
Even though Tolkien tried to redeem the name of the dwarves, he decided to keep some ugly personality traits to the race. Most of them are described throughout all of his works as greedy, gold-hungry, extremely proud, stubborn and sometimes officious… This explains the stories of kingdoms hidden beneath mountains, beautiful kingdoms of utmost beauty, filled with every kind of gems and valuable metals which ultimately fell prey to more powerful beings like dragons. An indicative story of their craving for riches is the story of the lesser-known 7 rings of the dwarven kings. When Sauron, the dark overlord of Middle Earth, gave the 7 rings to the dwarven kings, he realized that they were almost incorruptible by his magic (maybe because of their headstrong nature). Nonetheless, Sauron realized that, even though he could not control them, the magic of the rings could amplify the deepest desires of their hearts. This leads the dwarf kings to stop at nothing from amassing mountains of precious metals and gems, digging deeper into the mountains until the sounds of their pickaxes would abruptly stop. The shining kingdom of Khazad-Dum (Moria as it is better known) had fallen prey to the lesser god Balrog when they awoke him from his slumber in the depths of the Misty mountains. In addition, almost all of the dwarven kingdoms were plagued by dragons after the sinister gift of Sauron. Each kingdom, driven by the will of its king for an increase of wealth, quickly built up a great store of treasure, and each was subsequently destroyed by a dragon with the rings either being destroyed or lost in these catastrophes.
It is easier to move a mountain than change a dwarf’s opinion.
One of the most characteristic traits of the dwarves (and an endless source of annoyance) is their stubbornness and their authoritative nature. No one can change the mind of a dwarf: unyielding to the end. A traditional dwarven story says that they were made out of steel which never bends. These, of course, have their own positive sides. However, they are perceived as negative traits by almost all the non-dwarven races. How can we explain a characteristic of a whole race though? The answer is a little bit more complicated and we should focus on two other features: adherence to tradition and isolationism. In both the worlds of Dungeons & Dragons and Tolkien’s, dwarves are described as loyal to the
traditional law which was passed down from generation to generation. These customs are talking about the great values of pride and courage: never hesitate and never second guess your choices. Furthermore, these customs dictate the dwarves to rarely trust anyone who lives under the sun: only your own kin can be trusted. This explains the disbelief and mistrust of the dwarven kind against any other race, especially the elves. The same also explains the extreme isolationism of the dwarves. They live hidden within their mountains rarely going out for adventures (even in the world of Dungeons & Dragons) keeping their trading activities to the minimum only to sell some of their creations and acquire food supplies since they cannot grow their own (due to the lack of sunshine under the mountains). The aforementioned features have to lead the dwarven race to an extreme mistrust of anyone who is not kin (or who does not have a beard) combined with an extreme overestimation of their own judgment, leading to the lovable but irritating stubbornness which characterizes most of them.
“A long grudge that might last more than a dragon’s life” – Adventures in Middle Earth Players Handbook.
Dwarves were gifted with longevity. In Middle Earth dwarves live up to 250 years while in D&D they live up to 600 years depending on the edition. This longevity grants them a perspective of the world that shorter-lived races such as humans lack. After all, dwarves can outlive most of the races (with the only exception of the elves). Many dwarves have different views on justice and they are extremely slow to forget wrongs they have suffered. A wrong done to one dwarf is a wrong done to the entire clan or even race, so what begins with a dwarf’s hunt for vengeance can become a full-blown war. The quest of the dwarven company and Thorin Oakenshield fully demonstrates the aforementioned. The Desolation of
Smaug and the destruction of Erebor happened 150 to 200 years prior to the events in the novel the Hobbit. For 200 years, all the dwarves and most of all Thorin were planning on how to exact revenge on the great wyrm. On the other hand, the dwarven race was wronged (or this is how they perceived it) plenty of times from the elves in the times of the past. In both cosmologies, the elves cannot be trusted by a dwarf. Either it would be the fact that the elven race never helped the dwarf refugees in the destruction of Erebor or the times where dwarves were denied help from the elves in the D&D history, those past events have solidly fortified the opinion of the dwarves. Plenty of attempts have been done (mainly from the elven side) to reconcile. However, they all met a wall of indifference from the dwarven race which if decides to hate, rarely changes its mind.
Dungeons and Dragons finishing touches.
The above paragraphs describe the dwarven incarnations in both Tolkien’s and D&D works. However, as we saw in the introduction, most of them originate from the Middle Earth version. Moreover, D&D did not simply copy the dwarf but added some very intriguing details to their nature. These are not universal traits but they can be seen in most of them. The first one would be the need of the dwarves to prove their worth, to prove that they are the best of every other race. We might have gotten a glimpse of it the movie adaptation of the Lord of the Rings from the antiques of Gimly son of Gloin, however, in general, Tolkien’s
dwarves do not feel the need to prove anything to anyone. This cannot be said for the D&D counterparts. They live to compete and to prove (mainly to these ‘’longear’’ elves) that they can be better in every aspect (except maybe archery). Even in the very rare occasions where a friendship forms between the two races, the dwarf will still try to prove their superiority as with the dwarven king Bruenor Battlehammer and his elf friend Drizzt do’Urden. ‘’ Bruenor Battlehammer walked up the back of his dead foe, disregarding the fact that the heavy monster lay on top of his elven friend. In spite of the discomfort, the long still fiery red bear came as a welcome sight to Drizzt. ’
Last but not least, a lesser-known trait of the dwarves added in the D&D context is their compulsive nature. Longbeards are depicted as perfectionists. The positive side is that due to this perfectionism, they manage to create all these brilliant structures and weapons which bejewel the Forgotten Realms. On the other hand, though, dwarves can spend countless hours cleaning their shields, armors, and axes (a lot of times in that specific order) before a quest or even battle. It is common for dwarves to be always late because they spent most of their morning grooming and adorning their long beards. This habit of being late might be among the very few similarities of dwarves and elves, alongside the common hatred of orcs.
A grim ending
Middle Earth’s and Forgotten Realms (or any other D&D setting ) histories span for thousands of years. They focus on different time periods and they always give the player the sense that they will never end, continuously moving forward in the future. However, like all the races, the dwarves are doomed eventually to fade away at the time for the dominion of Men has come. The only supposed survivor of both these worlds in the far future would be the Human race. Even though humans do not have great lifespans, their adaptable and versatile nature would allow them to survive and spread while the rest would cease from existing. The
Tolkien dwarves are described as already having genetic problems. ‘’They have odd reproductive biology that results in a 2:1 ratio of men to women. Those women who marry and reproduce—and not all of them do—seem to have small families. The dwarves have trouble sustaining a replacement birth rate even in peacetime. It is said that the dwarf population began to dwindle because most male dwarves did not desire wives, or could not find one that they desired. It does not help that Dwarf women are less than a third of the population. The main reason they do not desire wives is again their compulsion and greed.
Too focused on creating breathtaking underground complexes, crafting beautiful gems or consumed in centuries-long wars, dwarven kind’s future is to go extinct and give way to the age of Men.