Monday, January 7, 2013

Speculative Fiction Tropes: Dwarves

It's the first Monday of the month year, which means it's time for another entry in the speculative fiction tropes series. This month, you have my axe. We're talking about Dwarves.

New banner. You like?

The myriad realms of fantasy that authors have populated over the decades have introduced readers to all sorts of otherworldly beings and creatures. But dwarves, much like their elvish rivals, have become something of a cliche calling card for the genre, from lighthearted fairy tales like Snow White to sprawling Tolkien-esque epics.

While many of their charms and quirks can vary wildly from story to story and author to author, it's usually pretty easy to recognize a dwarf when you see one, as these short, beard-sporting, pickaxe-wielding mountain folk often steal the show.

Their boiler plate status in the genre isn't the only thing dwarves have in common with elves. They also share similar roots in Germanic folklore. Many of the traits we identify with typical depictions of dwarves in fiction are lifted straight from the dvergar of Norse mythology, who were skilled miners and metal-workers. These Norse dwarves lived underground, and were said to have forged the magical weapons of the Æsir and the Vanir, including Thor's famous hammer, Mjölnir.

It was from these old tales that J.R.R. Tolkien drew inspiration when crafting the races of Middle-earth. His dwarves clearly wear this lineage on their sleeves, forging great halls beneath mountains, where they mine for precious metals and horde the spoils of their efforts. He also infused his dwarven race with cultural markers influenced by the reading of modern and medieval texts regarding the Jewish peoples, chiefly their diasporic history and the struggle to reclaim their ancestral home. He even created a dwarven language that is largely analogous to the Semitic languages of our world, especially Hebrew. Makes you wonder why they all have Scottish accents in the movies, eh?

I'll try not to go on and on, but then what would an entry on dwarves be without ad nauseum reference to Tolkien? As I've pointed out again and again in this series, it was his work that forged a great deal of the perennial tropes at play in epic fantasy. When he passed away, the authors he influenced were not content leaving the ideas he left behind unexplored.

Beginning with the colorful cast of The Hobbit and continuing in The Lord of the Rings, J.R.R. Tolkien's dwarves set the mold. If there is any one archetypal dwarf toward which all others in the genre strive, his name would have to be Gimli, son of Glóin.

I've done a bit of my own toiling in fantasy, but I've tried to stay away from most of the typical tropes of the genre, especially fantasy races like elves and dwarves. As such, I have no Gimli spawn to my name thus far. I'd certainly never rule anything out though. One of the fun parts about fictional archetypes is the opportunity they provide to play around in a genre you love, twisting and turning well worn cliches into something exciting and new.

In the mean time, most of my interaction with the dwarvish folk happens in video games these days. As a medium, games have always been more forgiving of genre cliches, and many RPGs lovingly embrace the cheesy paradigms of their tabletop roots. And that's just fine with me. As tiring as it can be to read the same characters over and over again in books, booting up a video game and driving an axe into an orc or two will never get old.

Recommended Reading:
The Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien
Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn by Tad Williams
Discworld by Terry Pratchett

Recommended Viewing:
The Hobbit
The Lord of the Rings
Snow White and the Huntsman

Recommended Gaming:
Dragon Age: Origins
The Elder Scrolls series
Dwarf Fortress


24 comments:

  1. I'm a sucker for dwarves. I confess, I was waiting for a mention of my all time favorite dwarf: Bruenor Battlehammer. He is, for me, the dwarf of all dwarves. Perhaps because I love his rough exterior but in reality it turns out he's just a pussy cat with his "kids" at heart and just wants his homeland back.

    After Bruenor, Gimli rocks!

    I imagine it must be difficult to stay away from them when you wrote your fantasy pieces.

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    1. I thought someone might bring Bruenor up! I must admit, I've yet to read through the Icewind Dale trilogy, though I swear I'll get around to it one of these days.

      The temptation to delve into tropes like these when I write fantasy is definitely there, especially when I think how I might play around with them and turn them on their heads, but thus far the stories in my head are better told in a dwarfless world.

      Thanks for reading, Elsie!

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  2. I've always been rather fond of Terry Brooks' dwarves. They get claustrophobic underground and are masters of stealth and woodlore. Awesome!

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    1. Terry Brooks is great, and I almost put the Shannara series in my recommended reading list on this one. I agree, his dwarves are awesome. Thanks for stopping by, Louise!

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  3. Great banner!
    I loved Gimli in the LOTR movies (didn't read Tolkien, tried and failed miserably), and always enjoy a dwarf with a sharp sense of honor, a heavy axe and no regard for manners. :D

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    1. Why, that's practically ALL of the dwarves, Vero. Well, I guess some prefer hammers or swords. ;)

      Thanks for the reading, as always!

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  4. What would the world be like without Tolkien? I have to say I was bothered by the dwarves in The Hobbit movie. Three of them looked human and the others were too cartoonish. I would have preferred for them to be more like the dwarves in LOTR.

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    1. I agree, Tonja, the dwarves in The Hobbit were very "manish" this time around. It seems as though Jackson tried to take a deliberate step away from the Gimli mold to enforce the diversity of the large cast.

      Thanks for stopping by!

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  5. Love the banner! I feel like Dwarves are one of the most misunderstood populations within the SF realm. Tolkien weaves a wonderful story about the true heart of Dwarves in The Hobbit. I'm waiting to see the movie in the comfort of my own home.

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    1. I enjoyed The Hobbit movie, though Jackson definitely tries to play with the archetypal image of the dwarves a little. On one hand, it's good that they all look and act different instead of being carbon copies of each other, but some of them also look a lot less "dwarfish," as mentioned upthread.

      Thanks for the comment, M.R.!

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  6. Never wanted to play a Dwarf in D&D, but they did make great fighters.

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    1. They're great for "Leeroy Jenkins" style death charges!

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  7. Loved the LOTR trilogy (movies). I like the relationship between Legolas and Gimli and to me it seemed a healthy competitiveness. I'd like to know more about the elves, comparatively, the drow.

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    1. The entwined character arcs of Legolas and Gimli is one of the coolest parts of Lord of the Rings, especially as you come to understand the prejudices at work between dwarves and elves in Tolkien's world.

      You'd like to know more about the elves, you say? Why you're in luck! I did a tropes entry on them, as well. ;)

      As for the drow, they come straight out of Norse Mythology along with the greater elves and dwarves (there is a creature called a Drow in English folklore, but they bare little resemblance to the DnD race). They're based on the svartalfar (black elves) and dokkalfar (dark elves). Speaking of which, I didn't mention it in the article, but the svartalfar are also linked somewhat with the dwarves in Norse mythology, to the point where they serve almost identical roles in some tales.

      I'm rambling now, so I'll shut up! Thanks for reading, Diane.

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  8. Very interesting post. No wonder dwarves carry around pickaxes and the like! yes, I like to make up my own creatures, that way I have free reign with the personalities and qualities of my beings. Loved seeing the dwarves and other critters in The Hobbit film!
    Catherine Stine’s Idea City

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    1. That's the way to do it, in my opinion, as much as I love exploring these tropes. Thanks for stopping by!

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  9. Love these posts. I always learn something. ^_^
    I hate that I haven't seen the Hobbit yet. I'm tempted to wait until it comes out because the movie is longer than my attention span and I don't want to miss anything. Terrible I know. Lol!

    (Like the banner! *thumbs up*)

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    1. Glad you're getting something out of them, Krystal! I think The Hobbit is worth seeing in theaters, but I'm kind of a movie junkie. I love the big screen.

      Thanks for reading.

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  10. I'm a fantasy movie and book fan, and love LoTR. I'll have to check out the other two. Interesting post.

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    1. Thanks, Ciara! I hope you enjoy them.

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  11. Gimli is simply the BEST! I love me some dwarves, too. So much can be done with them. I'm bummed out--I have been working too much to get my butt to the movies to see the Hobbit (bad Randi, I know!) and I'm dying to see it. The dwarves were always my favorite part!!!

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    1. Get your butt in that theater, Randicop!

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  12. I kept dwarves out of my fantasy series too. Just couldn't think about anything else to do with them.

    Elves I do have, but they're a bit different.

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  13. Some excellent reference material on dwarf characters here! I must confess, our family Dungeons and Dragons game recently had a guest traveller with us -- Travis the Dwarf. Now we were narrow-minded and assumed Travis would go into each battle axe-flinging and shouting war cries, but were surprised to find he hides under the nearest bush until the trouble (he usually starts) is over. Seems dwarves can be overestimated as well as underestimated... or maybe that's just Travis.

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Thanks for reading!