dwarf astilbe



A dwarf is a creature from Germanic mythologies, fairy tales, fantasy fiction, and role-playing games. It usually has magical talents, often involving metallurgy.

The original concept of dwarves is very difficult to determine. The sources closest to the original Germanic mythology come from Norse Mythology, but even these are scarce and varied. Sources have gradually given dwarves more comical and superstitious roles. Dwarves were certainly humanoid, but sources differ over their height, their lifestyles, and their similarity to elves. Considering early sources, and considering the dwarves' nature, original dwarves seem fully human height. They had strong associations with death: paled skin; dark hair; connections with the earth; their role in mythology. They followed animistic traditions, showing similarities to such concepts of the dead. They were similar to others from the 'Vættir' family, such as elves.

As their mythology evolved, the most notable changes have had them become more comical and more mysterious. They adopted the modern image of short height and ugliness. Their associations with the underground became more predominant. Dwarves were magical creatures with huge skill at metallurgy, taking fame for making great artifacts of legend. Late Norse concepts of dwarves became quite different from the early ones. The Legendary saga shows the new trend. The remnants of the original dwarf formed later fairy tales and folklore (see German folklore, and Dutch folklore). They had become unseen magical creatures like fairies; users of charms, curses, and deceit.

Modern fantasy and literature have formed an intriguing web of concepts, from that of the original dwarf, to the dwarf of later Norse mythology, the dwarf of folk-tales, and of other mythology. The typical modern dwarf has distinctive features such as short stature, excessive hair, and skill at mining and metallurgy. However, modern literature draws from a wide range, and dwarves vary in fidelity to historical notions. Many fantasists devise new powers or images for dwarves. Modern dwarves have no strict definition.

The conception of dwarves as short is probably the most tenacious, and the term 'dwarf' can now describe short humans, regardless of its mythical origins. The universal modern description of a dwarf is something short, usually associated with magic, fantasy, and fairy tales.


The plural form dwarfs has been traced to the 17th century. The alternative plural dwarves has been recorded in the early 18th century, but was not generally accepted until used by philologist J. R. R. Tolkien in his fantasy novel The Hobbit. Neither spelling represents the regular phonetic development of the Old English plural dweorgas, namely dwarrows; rather, they descend from a new plural formed in Middle English from the singular stem. Similarly, the old inherited plural dwarrows acquired a singular dwarrow. Although dwarrow has passed from the language, both dwarfs and dwarves are in current use. Many grammarians prefer dwarfs; many fantasists prefer dwarves. The form dwarfs is generally used for real people affected by dwarfism; the form dwarves is used for the mythical people described by Tolkien and others.

Dwarves of Germanic Paganism

Early Dwarves

Sources for the earliest concepts of dwarves are essentially non-existent. Norse dwarves (dvergar) are the earliest source for our understanding of original dwarves. However, the concept of Dvergar mutates rapidly, even during our records of Norse Mythology. This makes it hard to draw a uniform concept of early dwarves, and questionable whether there actually was one.

For most of Norse mythology, the skin color of Dvergar was 'pale' (fölr), like a corpse. The hair color is 'black' (svartr). The Norse depiction of the deathly complexion of Dvergar resembles the modern depiction of vampires, with early dwarves fatally susceptible to sunlight. Dvergar are skilled craftsmen, and most of their magic involves labour, craftsmanship, and metallurgy. They are a family of Vættir, or nature spirits. From the later information on dwarves, from similar mythical creatures, and from the nature of Germanic mythology and its roots, we can get a good idea of early dwarves. Elves are a race with very close associations to dwarves. 'Alf' often appears as part of dwarf names (eg.: Álfr, Gandálfr, and Vindálfr), and dark elves have deep parallels with dwarves. Elves are often described as humans elevated after death, and descriptions of them often have them passing through physical objects. Other Norse creatures and Vættir have similar connotations of death. Trolls are deathly creatures who rise from beneath the earth and often require to be put back to rest. Nisse have the same labourer image as dwarves, and they lived in burial mounds. Death is a recurring motif in Norse Mythology, and ancestor worship is a prevalent practice in animistic religions. 'Dvergr' is very similar to 'draugr' (a spirit of the dead in Norse Mythology). Norse mythology has images such as the dwarves growing from maggots from Ymir's flesh and the inevitable murder that comes from a dwarf weapon. All of this suggests dwarves were a form of spirits of the dead.

Dwarves seem to be associated with age and wisdom. They are consistently pictured with beards, and have great knowledge, particularly of craftsmanship (a major occupation in Norse society). The connection between the elderly and death helps strengthen the link between dwarves and spirits of the dead.

It's worth noting that nothing points to early dwarves' short height. Short dwarves only appeared around the 13th century, in sources such as the legendary saga, and it became a trend for mythical creatures (see: fairies; elves; gnomes) to be small, such that they gained a mischievous and comical nature. Given the dwarf's association with dead humans, it seems unlikely for them to have been anything but human height, and any shortness they have would be a characteristic of old age. With the oldest sources depicting dwarves as human height (see Norse dwarves), early dwarves most likely were.

Late Norse Dwarves

Norse Dwarves vary throughout our sources of them. The differences between early and late Norse Dwarves are surprisingly large; outside influences, such as the onset of Christianity, acted as a catalyst for these changes.

Late Norse Dwarves (around the 13th to 15th centuries) became more comical. Various old concepts were exaggerated, and dwarves became stunted, small, and ugly. Along with being physically deformed, they became excellent craftsmen, whose ability is partially god-like (they can create humans); this has parallels with stunted and ugly craftsmen and wise people (witch and oracles) from other mythologies. Dvergar are famous for having created Skíðblaðnir, Gungnir, Draupnir, Mjolnir, etc.

These dwarves of later Norse Mythology have left a heavy influence on modern fantasy. Concepts such as dwarven short height, ugly features, and exceptional craftsmanship are commonplace in modern literature.

Dwarves in later mythology and folklore

Later dwarves took on a more comical nature. They adopted the modern image of short height and ugliness. Their associations with the underground strengthened. Dwarves were magical creatures with huge skill at metallurgy, taking fame for making great artifacts of legend. Late Norse concepts of dwarves were becoming quite different from the early ones. The Legendary saga shows the new trend. The remnants of the original dwarf formed later fairy tales and folklore (see English folklore, German folklore, and Dutch folklore). They had become unseen magical creatures like fairies; users of charms, curses, and deceit. This trend is partly explained by their smaller place in common beliefs: God and Christianity were the main focuses of worship.

Dwarf concepts also appeared in creatures such as Trolls (association with death and the earth), and Nisse.

Dwarves in folklore, fairy tales, and romances

Dwarves are generally described as being about 3 to 4 feet tall, big-headed, and bearded. Nidavellir is the land of the dwarves in Norse mythology. Some dwarves of mythology and fairy tales include: Rumpelstiltskin, the dwarves from Snow White, Dvalin, Lit, Fjalar and Galar, Alvis, Eitri, Brokkr, Hreidmar, Alfrik, Berling, Grer, Fafnir, Otr, Regin (rarely given as Mimir), Andvari (or Alberich).

Though most dwarves in the Arthurian romances of Chrétien de Troyes seem to be short humans, there is a reference to a kingdom or kingdoms of dwarves (suggesting a non-human race) in "Erec and Enide." The following passage is from Carleton W. Carroll's translation.

"The lord of the dwarves came next, Bilis, king of the Antipodes. The man of whom I'm speaking was indeed a dwarf and full brother of Bliant. Bilis was the smallest of all the dwarves, and Bliant his brother the largest of all the knights in the kingdom by half a foot or a full hands'-breadth. To display his power and authority Bilis brought in his company two kings who were dwarves, who held their land by his consent, Gribalo and Glodoalan, people looked at them with wonder. When they arrived at court, they were very cordially welcomed; at court all three were honoured and served like kings, for they were very noble men."

More ambiguous are the dwarfs found in attendance on ladies in romances. Although these might be humans afflicted with dwarfism, who were often kept as curiosities by courts and nobles of the era, the ladies are often of uncertain origin themselves; many enchantresses were in original stories fairies, and their attendants might likewise be nonhuman.

Folktales featuring dwarves include: The Adventures of Billy McDaniel, Aid & Punishment, Bottile Hill, Chamois-Hunter, The Cobbler and the Dwarfs, Curiosity Punished, Dwarf in Search of Lodging, Dwarf-Husband, Dwarf's Banquet, Dwarves Borrowing Bread, Dwarf's Feast, Dwarves on the Tree, Dwarves Stealing Corn, Dwarf-Sword Tirfing, The Field of Ragwort, Fir Cones, Freddy and his Fiddle, Friendly Dwarves, Gertrude and Rosy, The Girl Who Picked Strawberries, The Hazel-nut Child, The Hill-Man at the Dance, History of Dwarf Long Nose, Journey of Dwarves Over the Mountain, Knurremurre, Laird O' Co', Little Mukra, Loki & the Dwarf, Lost Bell, Nihancan & Dwarf's Arrow, Nutcracker Dwarf, Rejected Gift, Snow-White and Rose-Red, Rumpelstiltskin, The Silver Bell, Sir Thynnè, The Skipper and the Dwarfs, Smith Riechert, Snow White, The Story of Maia, Thorston & the Dwarf, The Three Little Men in the Wood, Thumbkin, Timimoto, Wonderful Little Pouch, The Yellow Dwarf

Places connected with dwarves include:

  • The Dwarves' Cavern (in Hasel, Germany) was supposedly once home to many dwarves. This legend gives the cavern its name.
  • Harz Mountains (in Germany): On the north and south sides of the Harz mountains, and in areas of the Hohenstein region, there once lived many thousands of dwarves according to local tradition. In the clefts of the cliffs, the dwarf caves still exist.
  • In Northumbria, dwarves are often called Duergar or Dwergar. The most famous example of these Northumbrian dwarves are the The Dwarves of Simonside (see ), which cause the deaths of hikers. The word 'Duergar is similar to the Norse word Dvergar, meaning dwarves.
  • Tyre (in Lebanon): In ancient Jewish scriptures, dwarves were numerous in the towers of the fortresses of Tyre.

Other mythological beings characterised by shortness

Other creatures followed the same process of becoming short and mysterious. These include:

The Chamorro people of Guam believe in tales of taotaomonas, duendes and other spirits. Duende (mythology), according to the "Chamorro-English Dictionary" by Donald Topping, Pedro Ogo and Bernadita Dungca, is a goblin, elf, ghost or spook in the form of a dwarf, a mischievous spirit which hides or takes small kids. Taotaomona are spirits of the ancient Chamorro that act as guardians to banyan trees.

Dwarves in modern fantasy fiction

Modern fantasy and literature have formed an intriguing web of concepts, from that of the original dwarf, to the dwarf of later Norse mythology, the dwarf of folk-tales, and of other mythology. The typical modern dwarf has distinctive features, such as short stature, excessive hair, and skill at mining and metallurgy. After Tolkien, the standard dwarf has become similar to those of later Norse Mythology. It has none of the associations with death and the afterlife, and the late association with shortness has stuck. It continues the image of old-age (through appearance), if not explicitly. Other characteristics of dwarves include long (but mortal) life, antipathy to elves and distrust to other races. Many but not all are portrayed as having Scottish accents. However, many fantasists devise new powers or images for dwarves, and modern dwarves have no strict definition. The Elder Scrolls series explicitly shows the similarity between elves and dwarves, with the latter a sub-race of the former. In Runescape, the dwarves have an advanced economy, with a major trading culture and great wealth. The dwarves of the Artemis Fowl series act as a sort of earthworm: they tunnel through soil and loose rocks and get nutrition thereby, and they excrete the earth as fast as they eat it.

Raymond E. Feist, the bestselling fantasy and science fiction author of The Riftwar Saga, shows the similarities between dwarves and humans. Though their appearances are relatively rare, the dwarves are especially gifted in warfare. They have a hearty appetite for ale and feasting as with Tolkien's depictions.

Tolkien's dwarves

Traditionally, the plural of dwarf was "dwarfs", especially when referring to actual humans with dwarfism, but ever since J. R. R. Tolkien used dwarves in his fantasy novel The Hobbit, the subsequent The Lord of the Rings (often published in three volumes), and the posthumously published The Silmarillion, the plural forms "dwarfs" has been replaced by "dwarves". (When discussing Tolkien's universe, though, only the latter should be used.) Tolkien, who was fond of low philological jests, also suggested two other plural forms, dwarrows and dwerrows; but he never used them in his writings, apart from the name 'Dwarrowdelf', the Western name for Khazad-dûm or Moria, which was, inside his fiction, a calque of the Westron name Phurunargian. His Dwarves' name for themselves was Khazâd, singular probably Khuzd. 'Dwarrows' is the Middle English plural of 'Dwerg' or 'Dwerf' ('Dwarf'), and derives from the Old English 'Dweorgas', plural of 'Dweorh' or 'Dweorg'.

The Dwarves were created by Aulë, one of the Valar, when he grew impatient waiting for the coming of Children of Ilúvatar. Ilúvatar gave them life after rebuking Aulë for what he had done and seeing that he was both humble and repentant.

Dwarves in Tolkien are long-lived, living nearly four times the age of man (about 250 years), but are not prolific breeders, having children rarely and spaced far apart, and having few women among them. Dwarvish children are cherished by their parents, and are defended at all costs from their traditional enemies, such as Orcs. A longstanding enmity between normal Dwarves and Elves is also a staple of the racial conception.

Tolkien's immense popularity led to numerous imitators, and rewrites and reworkings of his plots were extremely common, as a bit of reading through the advertisements in the back of paperback fantasy books printed in around 1960–1980 will show. The Dwarves from the book The Hobbit became the fathers to hordes of dwarves that would follow, with their surly, somewhat suspicious demeanour passing to an entire race. Still, re-envisionings and creative reuses of the concept exist.

Female dwarves

A long standing source of interest (and humour) comes from the allusion of Tolkien to female dwarves having beards, like in Nordic Mythology, which was borrowed by other writers. Essentially, Tolkien developed a rational explanation for why female Dwarves are never encountered in the story, by elaborating that female Dwarves never travel abroad, and look so much like Dwarf men that visitors to Dwarf cities cannot immediately spot them. In addition to being rare creatures they are perhaps not often featured in many fantasy milieu for this reason. A more cynical, and perhaps more realistic, suspicion is that female dwarves (unlike, say, female humans or elves) lack sex appeal and consequently are of little interest to fantasy fans.

Tolkien writes his Dwarf-women are "in voice and appearance, and in garb if they must go on a journey, so like to dwarf-men that the eyes and ears of the other peoples cannot tell them apart." This, he writes, leads to the belief that dwarves grow out of stone. In The Chronicles of Narnia, in fact, C. S. Lewis, who was a friend of Tolkien, describes his Dwarfs [sic] as doing just this, and it is possible that Tolkien was ribbing Lewis in making this point. Interestingly, though, Lewis' all-male Dwarfs are capable of mixing with humans to make half-Dwarfs, such as Doctor Cornelius, the tutor of Prince Caspian (In the 2008 adaption of Prince Caspian, female dwarfs are shown as archer along with the males, though these female dwarfs are shown to be beardless.). (In later writings, Tolkien directly states that his female Dwarves have beards "from the beginning of their lives", as do the males.)

In the MMORPG RuneScape, female dwarves are as present in the game as the females of other races. Also another notable MMORPG, the once popular Dark Age of Camelot featured female dwarves as a selectable race.

In Dungeons & Dragons the status of beards on dwarven women varies by setting and editions: In Greyhawk, dwarven women grow beards but generally shave; in Forgotten Realms they grow sideburns but not beards or mustaches in AD&D, but full beards in 3rd edition; and in Eberron they do not grow beards at all. However in 4th edition no female dwarves have beards, and in fact have been changed to look "sexier" than their previous incarnations.

In the Discworld novels, Terry Pratchett notes that bearded dwarven females pose a major problem for their race, and states that the point of dwarven courtships is to 'tactfully find out which sex the other one is'. This creates the unique situation where females are treated equally, but the idea of acting 'distinctly' feminine is sometimes considered unconventional.

Arcanum: Of Steamworks & Magick Obscura features only male dwarves, and asking one about dwarven women is taboo, tantamount to insulting him. The game's manual hints that the reason for this is that the birth of a female dwarf is a rare event, with dwarven men outnumbering the women 2-to-1, and dwarven women are pregnant with their children for up to ten years, during which time their health is greatly at risk. Dwarven culture, therefore, requires that female dwarves spend almost all of their lives concealed from the outside world, for their own safety.

In the RPG Castle Falkenstein, all dwarves are male. They marry with women from other Faerie races, such as Naiads or Selkies; their daughters are all members of their mother's race, and their sons are all dwarves. Given that the Naiads and Selkies are all female, this would appear to suggest that this is simply a marked example of sexual dimorphism.

In a notable departure from convention, dwarven females in the Korea-produced Lineage II MMORPG are very comely, young-looking women (almost girls, actually), a shocking contrast to the grizzled, old look of male dwarves. Female dwarves, however, are taller than males, and look more like young human girls, with larger heads and stomachs.

In the Warhammer world, dwarfs are depicted as having female members of the race. Female members are rarely seen, however, as most dwarven warriors are male. From what evidence can be gathered, female dwarfs of the Warhammer kind look like female equivalents of their male counterparts, possessing long, platted hair instead of beards.

In the Warcraft universe, female dwarves do exist, but do not possess facial hair. Dwarves in general speak Scottish English.

Modern fantasy with major roles for Dwarves


Video and Role-Playing games

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