A Toast to the Dwarves!

Dwarves have always been my favorite fantasy race. This naturally made the Hobbit my favourite from Tolkien’s writings. My only real disappointment with Peter Jackson’s superb conversion of the Lord of the Rings series has always been Gimli. Despite being played by veteran character-actor John Rhys Davies, Gimli often comes off as existing purely for comic relief in the movies, the Jar Jar of the series. This portrayal did not mesh at all with my view of Gimli as a stoic, serious minded warrior whose quiet endurance and fierce loyalty were often overlooked but always needed. Honestly, I find it hard to describe how much I disliked the whole “Nobody tosses a Dwarf!” and other bits. It was like coming home to read a page of your favorite book and finding that someone had drawn some crude, juvenile comic on the back cover. Still, it is a minor gripe in an otherwise excellent series.

I like Dwarves because they are stoic, determined, and deeply passionate. They are not handsome and expressive like the elves, but rather rely on their creations to speak for them. They are stubborn and unrelenting, taking the long view. Their greatest strengths are also their greatest weaknesses, with determination. long memory, and passion often turning to dark, isolated obsession  It is my view that fantasy races are best used in an archetypal fashion, a building block that provides a point of departure for the reader, familiar or strange as suits the needs of the tale being told. Here a few of the themes that I enjoy with a side of Dwarves.

  • Dwarves represent our desire to build something that is greater than ourselves. Moria, The Deep Roads, That crazy throne room you want to build in Dwarf Fortress before you get over-run by zombie dire tigers or kea men. The lowly building something lasting and wondrous. It is a good theme.
  • Expertise and Perfectionism. Most Dwarves in traditional fantasy are renowned for their mastery of metalwork, stonework, gemcraft, and so on. Often they seem a little too obsessed with their crafts and get into trouble. In a society which pushes expertise, this is eminently relate-able.
  • Isolationism and Decline. The Dwarves don’t trust outsiders, who seek to steal their secrets and their riches. They have much to teach the world, and also much to learn that could help stave off their decline. I wonder what their version of the TSA is like.
  • History and Memory. In Fantasy its Dwarves who remember, not elephants (hmmm, that sounded better in my head. I do these posts in one shot with very little editing as you can tell…). Be it grudges or the greatness of their ancestors, Dwarves value tradition and history in a way that makes the rest of us cringe or envy them.

The Hobbit movie will bring Dwarves to the big screen in spectacular fashion. With thirteen Dwarves in the cast we will see more than a little variety of personalities and I hope some of the added scenes incorporate Dwarven hostory and culture. Aside from Tolkien, Dwarves have enjoyed something of a comeback in modern Fantasy. Here are a few of my favourite iterations of Dwarves in the modern day.

  • Dwarf Fortress: DF is a mad, mad game. It is an epic simulation, entirely free-to-play, created and maintained by two brothers who live off donations from the game’s mighty following. The graphics and the UI are about the only things about this beast of a game that is unimpressive. Everything else is masterfully detailed and constantly, obsessively updated from world generation to the wonderful, brilliant narrative that is created as your Dwarves recreate important scenes from history (including their lives, in game!) in their arts, from the mundane to the tragic and triumphant. It is not a game that players play to win and often your most brilliant plans are the key to your inevitable downfall. (Mods, like Meph’s Masterwork additions add even more depth to this game, and the community is just awesome)
  • Dragon Age: The Dwarves in Dragon age are the last remnants of a truly impressive empire. They built a huge civilization based around the Deep Roads, a transportation system that is the origin of much of the dungeon delving in DA. They are a culture in vicious decline, divided between decadent nobles and desperate commoners with a proud history and a nearly non-existent future. Dragon Age two added a little twist to this with the surface Dwarf Verric, who integrates into human culture. He is the unreliable narrator of the story, a savvy, cynical operator who bucks the Dwarven stereotypes without rejecting their culture.
  • The Dwarves Series by Marcus Heitz: This German Author expands on Tolkien’s Dwarves and adds some modern elements. Dwarves are front and centre in the narrative, with the history of the five clans of Dwarves (more, lost clans are added later) informing the plot and action. While some of the writing (or is it the translation?) is stilted, the series is quite entertaining, especially the first two books.
  • Steampunk Dwarves: Dwarves have always been the builders of the Fantasy mythos. With the addition of industrialist elements to Fantasy, we see this race on the forefront. Foremen of factories in coal-blackened cities or builders of steam-golems and might train networks, the steampunk era promises to be an interesting one for Dwarves.
  • The Ryria Revelations: Michael J Sullivan takes the standard Dwarven tropes and progresses them a little bit. Instead of a civilization in decline they are broken and bitter, prevented from integrating or rebuilding by prejudice and yet always in demand for certain skills.

In Bloodlust, Dwarves have been absorbed by the grinding colonial imperialism of the Domains of the Chosen. They still have a stronger connection to their past than many of the other races, mostly due to the common idea that Dwarves keep better records and build to last. But other than this they have integrated into the Domains better than any other race: Being part of a Great, Growing Empire again probably feels good, after all and the ordered culture of the Domains would seem to appeal to some aspects of the Dwarven Character…

Dwarves are a well-worn trope, and I love them. I fully expect the dark corners of the internet to come alive with the grumbles and vomitous excretions decrying that Tolkien is dated and Dwarves are cliche and how we need more gritty books about assassins with dark, shadowy figures in cloaks on the covers (not that there’s anything wrong with that). But I am still looking forward to parking my cynicism for a few hours and watching the Hobbit bring Tolkien’s version of this old, awesome fantasy trope to life on the big screen. Hopefully I can get the lads together for this one, and hoist a mug in real life as well…

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4 comments on “A Toast to the Dwarves!

  1. judaidan says:

    I heartily second your toast to dwarves (although Elves have always been my favorite fantasy race, I believe I would place dwarves a close second). I listened to the commentaries for the LOTR movies and discovered that a lot of the Gimli’s hammy lines were actually adlibbed by John Rhys-Davies. (This was also the case for Rhys-Davies’ portrayal of Treebeard). Jackson indulged the actor on this because it liked the results. I have no doubt that the dwarf frenzie that’s already been brewing will intensify. My sons are especially fascinated with dwarves. Gimli was my eldest obsession (on a fanboy OCD level- no exageration) and now my 7 year old is hooked. I bought him a Hobbit movie magazine and we’re 3/4’s the way through The Hobbit. He can identify all the thirteen dwarves and he’s obsessed with Thorin Oakenshield. He’s also told me that when he grows up he’s going to have a beard! My oldest spent hours playing Dragon Age and also favored the dwarves. Lately I’ve thought a lot about why dwarves have made such an impression on my sons (for why not hobbits, elves or even wizards? Why favour Gimli over Strider?) and I think it’s, as you say, due to their stoicism, diligence and also their earnestness. They’re fairly straight forward characters. Plus their physicality is appealing, being small but (almost comically) broad and hyper masculine. In any case, I love how they’ve ignited my children’s imaginations. I say bring on the dwarf fever!

  2. grimkrieg says:

    Interesting 🙂 I approve.

    Does he know Thorin’s eventual fate yet? That one hit me hard when I was a kid.

    Dwarves are unlikely heroes. They seem to be the beta-males of middle earth for the most part. They may have beards but aren’t very coordinated or confident. They often lose out to alphas like Aragorn, Bard, and Beorn and even pretty-boys like Legolas. I think people like you and I might identify with Gimli and his like because we too have our secret obsessions with things that other people might not think are worth that much time…

    It is easy to identify with the Dwarves, because what makes them special is that that they Endure, they Build, and they Remember.

    Also, minecraft…

    • judaidan says:

      Ah, Minecraft! I never made that connection with their dwarf obsession. I think you may be onto something there…
      No, my youngest doesn’t know about Thorin’s fate. It’s worried me a bit but I suspect (knowing him) it’ll make him even more obsessed. It is a good death after all.

  3. grimkrieg says:

    Fun trivia: Dwarf Fortress is supposedly one of the games that inspired Notch to make Minecraft.

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