Archetypology 101: Fact, Fiction, & Fallacies
Episode 6 - Kings under the mountainby Aeon
October 18, 2001, revised October 21, 2001
Archetypology 101: Fact, Fiction, & Fallacies
Episode 6 - Kings under the mountainby Aeon
October 18, 2001, revised October 21, 2001
We dig dig dig dig dig dig dig from early morn till night
The word "dwarf" is derived from some etymological sequence involving an Indo-European word (possibly "dhwergh" or "dhuer" or "dreugh") and the term used in the Norse poem Hrafnagaldr, (Dvergar, or, alternately, Duergar). From there, it's just a short hop to words like the Old High German Twerg, which gave way to the Old English Dweorg, which led to the Middle English Dwerg or Dwerf, and on to the Modern English Dwarf. Defined, it usually means one of three things: something of below normal size (when compared to other things of the same class--a dwarf star is still gigantic); a person of abnormally small stature (as with the medical definition of dwarfism); or a small, legendary creature, usually misshapen and ugly and often skilled as a miner or artificer. The latter is, of course, the one that most concerns us as students of archetypology.
If investigating the archetypology of dwarves was like choosing a fine wine, then 1937 would be the finest vintage you could ask for. Two pieces of fantasy fiction were released that year which would forever after set the dwarven archetype in stone (pun intended)--Tolkien's The Hobbit, and Walt Disney's Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. And when you compare them side by side, Sleepy, Dopey, Happy, Sneezy, Grumpy, Doc, and Bashful are really no different from Dwalin, Balin, Fili, Kili, Dori, Nori and Ori, except for the fact that the latter 7 are also joined by Oin, Gloin, Bifur, Bofur and Bombur (and a certain Hobbit, of course).
1937, then, is the watershed year for all things dwarven; everything to do with dwarves must necessarily be divided into things that led to 1937, and the aftermath of all those dwarves in that one tiny little space of time. What led us to Tolkien and Disney's dwarves, and where have they come since then? And through it all, why do we care?
Disney's "Heigh Ho" song is, on one level, just a silly little ditty, but the words carry with them questions that have to be answered. What are the dwarves doing digging in the ground all the time? If, as the song implies, the goal is to "get rich quick," then why are the dwarves living in a hovel, seven men in a single bedroom, when they could be living in luxury? By the same token, why are Tolkien's dwarves so eager to get back their keep in the mountain; is it because of all the treasure that lies therein, or is there something else going on?
And is it truly living to work in a mine all day? Thousands of dead miners would dispute that assessment if they could, having passed away from some combination of natural gas explosion, tunnel collapse or "black lung." Off to work, home from work, heigh-ho, on and on, like little clockwork digging machines, too busy to even wash their hands or make their beds. Those that aren't mining are apparently sharpening their axes, or counting their gold, or throwing back a mug of ale. Because while elves compose songs and tend to forests and cast spells and flit through the world, all dwarves apparently do is work, drink and sleep. They are their careers, be that warrior or miner or something in-between, and because of that they are truly one-dimensional. Ironically enough, that is precisely what makes them so truly fascinating.
Pick on someone (twice) your own size--The Role-Playing Dwarf
Oh, I see, runnin' away, eh?
Dungeons & Dragons 3rd Edition cheerfully advises us that "(t)he phrase 'dwarven fighter' is almost a redundant term." And you thought role-playing had nothing to do with racism? Here, in black and white (with blue headlines), an entire race of beings is saddled with the stereotype that they are all angry little drunks who like to kill, and the world is supposed to just sit back and accept this without a second thought? Can such a thing happen? And what the heck happened to mining, smithing and weaponcrafting? Weren't those things once associated with dwarves too?
In this case, it's not even Dungeons & Dragons which is the chief villain here; just about every single RPG on the market over the past few decades has featured angry little dwarves merrily chopping apart goblins and orcs by the dozen. And this is to say nothing of the wargaming industry, the kingpin of the entire dwarf conspiracy there being Warhammer, which features thousands and thousands of dwarves merrily doing what it is they do best --killing-- with not only axes and swords but guns, cannons and lasers, depending on how lenient you're being with the miniatures that night.
All that killing requires a tool, of course, and for the dwarf that tool is almost always an axe. In some cases, it's a modified mining pickaxe, but it's usually a double-bladed battle axe; not at all a practical weapon for the enclosed spaces of a mining tunnel, but the perfect weapon for a bloodthirsty little berserker. Show me a dwarf and I'll show you something that slices, dices, purees and juliennes. Just set it, forget it, and get the hell out of the way.
Of course, it's all too obvious why dwarves have shed their roots as miners, and turned into killers. How many role-playing sessions do you know that involve toiling under the earth in dank mine shafts, mindlessly digging away at the rock in search of precious gems and gold? Well, maybe if you're a sadistic Dungeon Master who likes sending his players' characters off to the salt mines every now and then, but for most of the world, mining is dull. Those dwarves over there, yeah, they do the mining. Back home. But for the role-playing dwarf, mining and digging just isn't the stuff of legend and adventure, and as such, it's pushed aside and forgotten. But that axe is interesting, and, well, there are these orcs that need some killing over here, and since you're not doing anything...
Of course, our role-playing dwarf hasn't quite dropped all of the baggage that went along with mining, because he still dearly loves his gold. Terry Pratchett's Discworld novels love to play on this stereotype, featuring taverns filled with dwarves all chanting "Gold gold gold gold" ad infinitum. And of course, even though most adventuring dwarves will spend most of their adult lives above ground, our dwarf is always blessed with heightened senses of some sort, usually consisting of infravision/nightvision/darkvision of some sort and the innate ability to detect things like secret doors, sloping passages and the like.
Another thing that's stuck with the role-playing dwarf right from the start is his size--usually about 4 1/2 feet tall. Tolkien never (to my knowledge) explicitly states how tall his dwarves are, but we know that they're shorter than men, and taller than hobbits, and hobbits are typically between 2-4 feet tall. On occasion, dwarves are smaller, often as small as 3 feet or so (the Arcanum PC Game says they're as small as 30 inches, which is 2 1/2 feet), and sometimes (as in the new Lord of the Rings movie) they're depicted as being taller than some short humans. All of this, of course, is well in line with the official medical definition of dwarfism, which is to say, an adult height of 4'10" or shorter [going down to about as small as the smallest man on earth--Gul Mohammad, who stands (or stood, at least) 22 1/2 inches high (just under 2 feet)].
I'll be the first to admit that a range of 3 feet is a pretty broad one to deal with, but when we consider that role-playing elves vary in height from about an inch to 7 feet or more, I think we can cut the dwarves some slack.
And of course, there's that darn beard. All dwarves have beards, including the women. None of this is ever explicitly stated in Tolkien or the original source material, but it's accepted as fact in just about every role-playing game world around (one notable exception being the Athasian dwarves of TSR's Dark Sun campaign setting, who would have suffocated in the heat if they wore long beards). And it's not just all dwarf men who have beards; little dwarves are "beardlings," and up until 3rd Edition Dungeons & Dragons, even female dwarves have beards, provoking all sorts of interesting questions about dwarf mating habits when you can't tell the men from the women.
More about the beard will be said later, because I personally think it's the key factor in understanding the dwarves. But to get to that point, we need to take a look at how that beard got there. And that means taking a trip back in time, back before Tolkien, but after Middle Earth. And if you think that's confusing, just wait.
May the ring's lord exist as its slave,
Before Tolkien and Disney, dwarves were crafty, foul, evil, thieving, deceitful little bastards. And that was their good side. Which is quite surprising to many people who are nowadays confronted with the notion that the dwarves are the most lawful and the most good of all the fantasy races. This flip-flop is most notable in Dungeons & Dragons, where it seems the dwarves have traded lots with the halflings. Whereas now dwarves are noble warriors and halflings are thieving wanderers, the original dwarves were the thieves (including Tolkien's), and Tolkien's hobbits were quite the little warriors. Consider how Merry and Pippin kick some major ass upon returning to the Shire at the end of Return of the King. Then, for contrast, look not to Gimli but to the original twelve dwarves presented in The Hobbit; they stumble and bumble throughout, are repeatedly saved by Bilbo's warrior-like actions (he gets the magic sword, not them), and when they manage to secure their treasure it's only the threat of a common enemy that keeps them from attacking the humans to keep their gold to themselves. Hardly noble deeds.
Tolkien realized that no race is composed of all good people; Boromir's actions, and Gollum's continual flip-flopping, are evidence that Tolkien realized that anyone had in them the capacity for good and evil, generosity and selfishness, especially when greater powers were at work. Yes, Gimli was a noble, good-hearted warrior of a dwarf. But then, he didn't have something silly like an alignment or a character class to live up to; he acted as the times required, and that wound up making him a hero. In much the same way, dwarves before Tolkien were also victims of their surroundings, and for the most part this wound up making them out to be villains.
But when we start looking at environment and history, it gets a little "chicken or egg" trying to sort it all out, even at the very beginning. This is because what we've got is a gumbo composed of shady history, contradictory mythology and plain old fiction, all jumbled up together. See if you can follow: Tolkien gets his inspiration for the dwarves, and the story of the One Ring, from (among other places) Wagner's Der Ring des Nibelungen, which in turn was inspired in part by the German epic The Nibelungenlied and the Norse Saga of the Volsungs, which were stories about Nordic myths from over 1000 years ago, myths that Tolkien fictionally surmises might have originated with the events that take place during Lord of the Rings, which takes place in a strange land called "Middle Earth" which is allegedly a precursor to our own Europe several thousand years before recorded history.
So basically, Tolkien's Ring story is based on a Ring story which is based on a Ring story that was based on Ring stories that were based on Tolkien's Ring story. Ergo, Tolkien's story is based on Tolkien's story. The Ring as a symbol makes a scary kind of sense when you look at it that way, don't it? But I digress. The point of all of this is that it's hard to pick a starting point when one myth allegedly creates the other, which in turn is used as the basis for the first one. But for the moment, and the sake of argument, we'll start with Wagner.
Realizing that one opera was not boring enough, Richard Wagner chose to create a mega-opera that would consist of four individual operas. The four individual parts are called Das Rheingold (The Rhinegold), Die Walkure (The Valkyrie), Siegfried (Siegfried), and Gotterdammerung (Twilight of the Gods). The entire piece is known as Der Ring des Nibelungen (The Ring of the Nibelungs), or more simply (and appropriately, considering the Tolkien connections), the Ring Cycle. And because no one should have to sit through the whole thing, I'll attempt to sum it all up here in one horribly oversimplified paragraph:
A dwarf named Alberich (alternately spelled Albericht) denounces love and steals some gold from a river, which he forges into a golden ring and a magic helmet. Wotan, a god, steals the ring from Alberich to give to his son Siegmund, but Alberich curses the ring as it's taken from him. As a result of this curse, and a dalliance by Siegmund, a demigod named Siegfried (not the one with the white tigers and the friend named Roy) is born and saved by a Valkyrie named Brunhilde. Angered, Wotan puts her into an endless sleep, and the evil dwarves rally around Siegfried in an attempt to get back the gold that was taken from them. Siegfried opts to keep the ring and helmet so he can raise Brunhilde from her eternal sleep, but he fails and is killed. Brunhilde, awakened, decides to kill herself along with him, Romeo and Juliet style. In death, she not only manages to destroy the realm of the gods, but to rip the ring off of Siegfried's finger as she jumps into the funeral pyre. The river floods its banks, conveniently reclaiming the golden ring that was wrongfully taken from it not so long ago. Everyone cries, everyone dies, and the cycle is complete. The end.
Aren't you happy I just saved you four days?
Considering that Wagner himself played it loose and fast with the mythological accuracy here, we can ignore most of the details. The key point for our discussion of dwarves is, of course, the dwarf in question--Alberich. Alberich is one of the Nibelungs (alternately, Nibelungen), which is nothing more than the name of a particular group of dwarves who lived in Norway. And here, he's both villain and victim, steadfastly denouncing love and companionship in exchange for a lump of gold.
Ah, gold. Precious gold. Dwarves would do anything for gold. And being the magical creatures they were (yes, to begin with, they were on par with elves in that respect), the dwarves were often called on to forge things out of gold and other precious metals, including some things you wouldn't normally dream of making out of gold. Gold being a soft, malleable metal, it doesn't hold up to abuse well, and so it wouldn't seem to make sense that someone would attempt to make weapons out of it. But indeed, they managed to pull it off--in addition to the Ring that's causing all this trouble, various dwarves also managed to make: a golden head of hair; another golden ring named Draupnir that could spawn eight other rings every few days; a living golden boar named Gullinbrusti; a golden spear named Gungnir for Odin; and even a golden hammer named Mjolnir for Thor. Even if we interpret the "golden" prefix a bit loosely here and acknowledge that the weapons, at least, were made of stronger materials, we have to allow that these were all certainly magical items of immense power.
In this sense, the Nordic dwarves were in some way connected mythologically to the Cyclopes (correctly pronounced "Key-kloh-pez", since the Greek "C" is a hard "C") of earlier Greek mythology. Three of them, named Brontes, Steropes, and Arges, forged Zeus' thunderbolts, while many others lived in Mt. Aetna with the Greek god Hephaestus, forging countless magical items for heroes and demigods in both Greek and Roman myths (Aeneas' armor, for example). Some rather interesting parallels can be drawn here if we dally for a moment; for example, Hephaestus himself was rather dwarf-like in appearance and action, being not only the God of fire and forging (and thus a skilled smith) who lived in a mountain, but also being a rather short, twisted, hunchbacked sort of God since he managed to break both of his legs. Apollo, a rather elven-like God who carried a bow, skipped across the sky and was associated with trees and the sun, did not get along with Hephaestus' Cyclopes, since one of them killed his son Asclepius. There's also a strange undercurrent of asexuality or sexual dysfunction with Hephaestus as well; he's married for a while to the goddess of love, Aphrodite, but she continually cheats on him with other gods and mortals because he cannot satisfy her; in the end, this rather dwarf-like god winds up without a female in his life.
Of course, one god does not an entire race of dwarves make, but the Cyclopes themselves are a pretty good match. If we ignore the size for a second (or simply take Tolkien's theory of diminishing size to a different degree), what we have are a race of strong, stubborn, emotionless individuals who were fond of forging, but in later days (as in Homer's Odyssey) gave up the art of smithing and wandered the world, living in caves and fighting all who crossed them. In one sense, this is a way of bringing the Cyclopes down closer to the level of humans; in their original form, they preceded even the Gods, but now we find them mortal, much like the Nordic dwarves.
This shift from sky-dwelling godlike beings forging lightning bolts, to darkling creatures dwelling in the underworld, is also found in Nordic and Germanic myth, in the legends of the Ljosalfar (light elves) and Dopkalfar (dark elves). The Ljosalfar were associated with lighting and archery and the sky, and the Dopkalfar lived beneath the ground on a more physical, earthly realm. And if all that sounds vaguely familiar, you're not alone; in much of Russia, Germany and other parts of Europe, the mythology of the Dopkalfar (the Karliki in Russia) and dwarves in general became tied to the belief that they are akin to fallen angels, from the Judeo-Christian mythos. It's not too hard to see the airy, happy little elves flitting through the clouds as angels, and the broken, battered dwarves living in the bowels of the earth as devils or fallen angels. Even Hephaestus broke his legs only when he was pushed out of the clouds by Zeus... much like Lucifer.
As an aside, all of these legends likely come from a common source; the origins of Scandinavian mythology can be traced back as far as 1600 BCE, and the origins of the Judeo-Christian belief system go back not much farther than that (Abraham, for example, is believed to have lived in the Early Bronze Age, sometime around 2100-2000 BCE). But exactly where and when is not a path we're going to walk down now; suffice to say that the dwarves didn't have an illustrious start.
In the Norse mythos, for example, the world is created when a dead ice giant named Ymer is propped up over the void. His blood becomes the sea, his flesh the land, and from within his corpse crawl maggots and worms, feeding on the rotting flesh. As the flesh became earth, the maggots became dwarves, burrowing through the ground, and four of them, named Northri, Suthri, Ostri and Vestri (North, South, East and West) were chosen to hold up the four corners of the sky. So once again, we not only see dwarves coming from a giant, but four of them are held up in the same light as the Greek Atlas, another giant who bore the heavens on his shoulders (yes, Atlas holds up the heavens, not the earth). And getting back to the Judeo-Christian belief system for a moment, you also get four angels associated with the four corners of the world; Uriel (associated with the North, and the element of Earth), Michael (Fire, South), Raphael (Air, East) and Gabriel (Water, West). Which is a whole lot more interesting when you start comparing dwarves with angels and elements; for example, Northri means "below", which lines up nicely with the element of Earth, and Suthri means "brilliant," which is a good description of the element of Fire.
The Norse give all sorts of cool names to their dwarves. There's Alfrigg, Berling, Dvalin and Grerr who forged the golden Brisings' Necklace for the goddess Freya in exchange for sexual favors (more on that later), and Brokk and Sindri, who forged the aforementioned Draupnir, Gullinbrusti and Mjolnir. But the dwarves weren't all blacksmiths, either: there was Galar, who killed the wisest man in the world (Kvasir) and mixed his blood with honey to make the Mead of Poetry; Dvalin and the Sons of Ilvadi, who created Skidbladnir (a magical folding ship); and of course the dwarves who made the silken rope Gleipnir from "the sound of a cat walking, a maiden's beard, the roots of a mountain, a bear's dreams, a fish's breath and a bird's spittle" with which Fenris wolf was bound (which sounds more like an alchemist's potion than blacksmithing to me). The point being that dwarves are hardly the non-magical beings they're oft made out to be; in fact, a good many of the names associated with dwarf-like beings include blatant references to magical craft, not the least of which is Gandalfr, which means "Magical Alf." Quite obviously, this is where Tolkien got Gandalf from, though here, Gandalfr is neither elf nor wizard, but (being one of the Svartalfar), dwarven (there's some degree of confusion between Svartalfar and Dopkalfar, and which truly represent dwarves; it's not worth getting into here, since they share a lot in common.)
Nordic dwarves lived in several otherworldly realms, including Svartalfheim and Nidavellir which lie below Midgard (which loosely translated means "Middle Earth", by the way). But as the myth of the dwarf made its way across Europe and into the British Isles with the Gaelic and Norman peoples, dwarves spread out and became a bit more mortal, and more easily accessible. Their appearance stayed much the same--small, hunched and crippled, but strong, dark-skinned and bearded--but, like many faeries, they were accused of much more than just mining and blacksmithing. Dwarves were blamed for everything from stealing farming equipment and spoiling crops to abducting children and virgins. Rumpelstiltskin was a dwarf, for instance, and his claim to fame was trickery, deceit, and attempting to steal a first born child from a young lady in exchange for spinning gold out of straw.
Also confusing the issue slightly is the fact that dwarves weren't always called dwarves. In northern England, they hearkened back to their Norse origins and were called Duergars. Further south, they harassed miners and were known as Knockers (because of the noises they made in digging around the mine). Southern Germany had Wichtlein, short, long-bearded old men who haunted the mines there. Elsewhere in Germany and Central Europe, they were often associated with Coblynau (from which we get the terms Kobold and Goblin), who were also dwarfish creatures who hung out in mines and under mountains. Even North America inherited its own form of dwarves, with the little old men of the Catskill Mountains who stole Rip Van Winkle away for half his life.
Interestingly, the Coblynau moniker is also at times associated with the term Gnome, and indeed, for all practical intents and purposes dwarves and gnomes are the same creatures in most myths. In Russian "dwarf" and "gnome" are synonymous, and while gnomes are sometimes referred to as "dwarf-like faeries," almost as often you'll find dwarves referred to as a type of gnome. Their name has Greek and Latin origins (coined by Paracelcus, from the term "gnosis" meaning knowledge), but their activities and influences are decidedly Nordic: they were about 3-4 feet tall, lived below the earth, hoarded and guarded gold, gems and other treasure, and often lived in mines, harassing and/or aiding miners. While true that in Medieval alchemy they were one of the four categories of elemental spirits (being associated with earth), in most myths it's impossible to tell them apart from mere description.
The most notable similarity between dwarves and gnomes in many legends is the one that has not made its way down to the modern role-playing dwarf--that of sunlight turning them into stone. The origin of this myth likely comes from the Norse Alvissmalum, in which a dwarf named Alvis decides he wants to marry Thor's daughter. Thor can't openly refuse, but he doesn't want a dwarven son-in-law, so he tells Alvis that the dwarf can marry her only if Alvis can answer a few questions. Since Alvis was a wise dwarf, he agreed... but he didn't think that Thor's questions would take all night. Before he knew it, the sun had risen, and Alvis was turned to stone. Despite the fact that it's pretty clever, the whole sequence can really be chalked up as being inconsequential, because there are many myths and legends about creatures being harmed when exposed to the sun, from trolls and gnomes to demons and vampires; it's not unique to dwarves.
Indeed, as myths boiled and bubbled their way down through the ages, different creatures inevitably got mixed up with one another. Even elves and dwarves, clearly distinct in later Nordic mythology, were confused with one another by the time they arrived in the British Isles. The most notable evidence of the confusion is the legend of Santa Claus, which begins with Santa as Odin, an old, white-bearded wise man who rode through the skies on an 8-legged horse named Sleipnir with his spear and armor, forged by dwarves. By the time we get to the early Middle Ages, Odin has been Westernized and mixed up with legends about Saint Nicholas and the Dutch Sinterklaas, where he's still a wise, bearded man who rides through the skies on a magical horse. This time, however, he's accompanied by Black Jacks, little dark-skinned men who reward good children with presents they've made, and punish the bad ones by abducting them and beating them with sticks. Somewhere in the translation across the Atlantic, as Sinterklaas became Santa Claus, the punishing, scary little Black Jacks turned into happy little elves, but as the imagery continues to show, those are not elves at the North Pole. They're short, squat little craftsmen and artificers, and even if they don't beat children any more, it's pretty clear that they're dwarves, not elves.
But hold on here... if the original dwarves were mostly little nasties who skulked around in caves and forged magical items, and some of the more modern dwarves are happy little toy makers, then where on earth did we get Gimli hewing apart enemies by the dozen, or the notion of thousands of angry little warriors rushing forth into battle? Is there any precedent for such a thing anywhere on Earth? Indeed, there is.
"When they're ready to go into battle, their eyes turn red. Then they keep coming. They can never be stopped."
There weren't any humans, just pieces of them, scattering the room. Ahira staggered out into the night, spitting out a warm gobbet of flesh.
Important Note: This segment of the article has been rewritten to address some information which has been called into question about Mr. Tolkien's alleged journey to Nepal. Evidently, Tolkien himself said in his Letters: "I am very untravelled, though I know Wales, and have often been in Scotland (never north of the Tay) and know something of France, Belgium and Ireland". This would seem to indicate that he never travelled to Nepal, and that the widespread stories of his journies there are probably half myth, half urban legend. In the absence of any hard evidence to the contrary, I am content to stand corrected; it's not the first time, and it won't be the last. Thanks to those of you who pointed this out in the forum and elsewhere; as I've stated before, your comments and corrections are the most useful portion of this series, as they allow us all to get at the true heart of the matter. If nothing else, this can serve as a lesson to us all about the power of rumor, and the importance of precise language.
There are those who allege that J.R.R. Tolkien spent a good deal of time in Nepal during the creation of The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings, and some Tolkien scholars even go so far as to claim that the characters and places that found their way into his classic novels were based in part on the peoples and places of that country (in addition to Tolkien's own home). This is probably just urban legend, but regardless of that fact it's interesting to see how somewhat fanciful features of Tolkien's novels can be found in the real world. For example, take our hobbits trudging their way up the side of a snowy mountain in their bare feet--a characteristic shared by the Sherpas of Nepal, short, tough little Nepalese men who oft wander around the Himalayan mountains in bare feet, regardless of the weather. In much the same way, it's easy to see similarities between the Gurkhas of Nepal and Tolkien's dwarves.
Gorkha is the correct spelling, but Gurkha is the name that's become synonymous with some of the scariest warriors in the world today. Like most Nepalese, they are a short, thick, stocky people, averaging around 5' in height, with dark hair, dark skin and strong muscles. The land they inhabit is rough and mountainous, with land so scarce that everything is built to be as efficient as possible. It should come as no surprise, then, that the Gurkha as a people are very direct and efficient in their speech patterns. They are fearless in battle, noble and loyal unto death, and they all share a scary fascination with large, bladed weapons. The word that best describes how they appear to their enemies is "terrifying."
Their modern renown as warriors begins in the late 18th Century, around about the time that, on the other side of the planet, a group of small English colonies were busily declaring their independence from England. Back then, the king of Gorkha, Prithivi Narayan Shah, had just successfully united Nepal into a single country along with his Gorkhaharu warriors, composed of Rai, Magar, Limbu, Gurung and Sunwar tribesmen. They enjoyed a few decades of peace when Britain, still stinging from their colonial losses, sent 30,000 troops into Nepal to take on 12,000 Gorkhas, arrogantly assuming that it would be a piece of cake. The British were fought to a standstill, and skirmishes and border disputes continued until November of 1814, when British India openly declared war on Nepal.
The war went just as badly as the previous military action had, three early expeditions of British troops soundly defeated by numerically inferior Gurkha divisions. In one instance, 3500 British troops were held off at Kalanga by only 600 Gurkhas, the fort only falling when the British gave up attempts to storm it and began bombing it. In the end, the Gurkhas lost 520 men at the fort, but their actions there so impressed the British that they erected a monument at the site, which reads "They fought in their conflict like men and, in the intervals of actual conflict, showed us a liberal courtesy." Between the bombardment of Kalanga and February of 1815, the Gurkha used their skill at arms and fear tactics, combined with knowledge of the terrain, to not only win battles but to cause numerous British soldiers to desert.
True respect and friendship began to blossom even amidst the fighting, when a British Lieutenant named Frederick Young was captured when his troops ran away upon seeing the Gurkhas approach. Young was held for about a year, during which time he and his captors developed a rapport. It should come as no surprise, then, that after the war, not only did the peace treaty contained stipulations allowing for Gurkha soldiers to join the British army, but Young himself was the first to recruit a division of some 3,000 Gurkha soldiers.
Since then, the Gurkhas have served with a peculiar combination of honor and ferocity. In 1857, the Gurkhas helped put down a mutiny in India, holding a key British position for three months despite losing 327 out of about 500 men during the long struggle. More than 100,000 Gurkhas served in World War I, fighting to the last man in Flanders and winning fame at Gallipoli when they were the only Allied division to reach and hold their target. In World War II, some 112,000 served in North Africa, Italy, Greece, Singapore and Burma, where, according to Colonel David Horsford, "when the Gurkhas ran out of hand grenades, they spent 20 minutes throwing stones at the Japanese troops." During the Brunei Revolt, a group of Gurkhas with kukri knives unsheathed caused an angry mob to dissipate in fear without a drop of blood spilled. And in the Falkland Islands campaign of 1982, hundreds of Argentinean troops surrendered when they heard Gurkhas were headed their way.
Half of the reason the Gurkha are so feared is their weapon of choice--the Kukri knife, an 18-inch long weapon with a curved blade that has been called the finest and deadliest knife in the world. Designed for use in melee combat, its edge is kept razor sharp and its point needle thin, and it is never used for any domestic chores (smaller knives of a similar design being used instead). Though typically armed with rifles, pistols, submachineguns and grenades, a Gurkha rushing into battle is more likely to throw down his gun and pull out his Kukri, rushing into the fray and swinging the blade upwards in a bone-crushing blow that has been known to decapitate or disembowel opponents in a single swipe.
But of course, the Kukri is useless without a Gurkha wielding it, and it is the spirit and dedication to military service that makes them so deadly. Gurkha must go through a highly difficult selection process to serve in the military, only a few hundred out of over 60,000 applicants being chosen in a single year. Those who succeed in proving their capabilities via physical mental and medical tests (including 10-mile hikes and running up mountains with 100 pounds of rocks in their backpacks) will go on to great renown; many who fail will commit suicide, rather than bring disgrace on themselves and their families. After all, for many applicants, serving in the military is hereditary, their fathers and grandfathers having been Gurkhas before them.
Even without drawing a direct correlation between the British army's Gurkhas and dwarves, it's easy to see where Tolkien might have gotten his inspiration from. The short, sturdy, fearless little soldiers rushing into battle swinging their blades is a stunning image, and one that deserves translation into fiction. There's little difference between Gimli the dwarf cutting down 42 orcs in a single battle, and a Gurkha soldier rushing onto the field of battle ready to decapitate dozens of opponents. And if you're still not convinced, I'd ask you to take a look at the battle cry of the dwarves, as explained by Tolkien in Appendix F of The Lord of the Rings:
That at least was not secret, and had been heard on many a field since the world was young. Baruk Khazud! Khazud ai-menu! "Axes of the Dwarves! The Dwarves are upon you!"
Aside from the linguistic comparison to the Gurkha motto, "Kaphar hunnu bhanda marnu ramro," which translates as "It is better to die than to be a coward," there's the more important comparison to the Gurkha battle cry. "Ayo Gurkhali!" they shout as they rush into battle, knives whirling. "Ayo Gurkhali! The Ghurkas are upon you!"
One final note for those who are wondering; yes, the Gurkha still serve the British army, and that means that they will be taking part in the war against terrorism currently happening in Afghanistan. "I would love to go to Afghanistan to fight," one Gurkha soldier said. "(T)he Taliban are bad people, so the fight would be very just. I would even ask to go first."
When their numbers dwindled from 50 to eight,
Whether you choose to be interested in the Gurkha-dwarf comparison or not, it's evident that the warrior dwarf was almost certainly an invention of Tolkien. However, as alluded to earlier (and as anyone who's read The Hobbit will realize), Tolkien's real warrior-dwarves did not truly make an appearance until The Fellowship of the Ring, published some 17 years later. This doesn't at all diminish the importance of The Hobbit in exploring the development of dwarves; in fact, if anything it demonstrates why it's such a crucial piece of fiction in such a crucial year.
Part of the reason The Hobbit is so important is what it doesn't say about dwarves. For example, there's the thing with dwarven names. It's a generally accepted fact that dwarves are very protective about their names. In some gaming systems, dwarves won't reveal their true names to anyone, and in other systems they can even have their name taken away from them if they manage to dishonor their clan. Part of the reason for this is that Tolkien gave the dwarves in The Hobbit dumb names. In a letter to E.G. Shelby in 1937, Tolkien himself declared that he didn't approve of the novel, in part because of what he saw as a rabble of "Eddaic-named dwarves out of Voluspa." His son Christopher Tolkien would later explain that what he meant was that his father hadn't given any thought to what their names meant, and had merely tacked on names ripped from the Norse Eddas and Voluspa (Nordic poems). As a means of patching this up, he came up with the concept that the dwarves had two different names--that which they used among outsiders, and that which they used among their own kind. A public name, and a secret name, and a growing obsession in role-playing games with the importance and secrecy of dwarven names. Just try asking Magnus the dwarf (in the PC game Arcanum) about his name and his clan and watch how defensive he gets.
Another interesting thing about The Hobbit is the number of misconceptions which made their way into public consciousness as "fact." For example, there's the whole "dwarves hate elves" thing, which is ridiculous when you consider that the dwarves and the elves were basically members of the same race in many myths. Many role-playing games and fantasy novels get it more correct because they base their elven-dwarven relationships off of Legolas and Gimli in Lord of the Rings (Flint Fireforge and Tanis Half-Elven in the Dragonlance Chronicles, for instance), which is to say, a sort of grudging acceptance bordering on friendship while acknowledging differences in opinion. But the outright hatred evident in many RPGs and novels is simply wrong; simply because the Wood Elves tried to capture the dwarves in The Hobbit is no evidence that all elves hated all dwarves. And there's no such racism evident in Lord of the Rings (except against Orcs, of course); any mistrust is shared among all strangers to one's land.
Another common misconception is the alleged dwarf aversion to water. It's been accepted as a given by most role-playing game systems that dwarves don't like water, and by others that dwarves can't swim at all. In fact, many fantasy novels of the 1980s and 90s made a big deal about the fact that dwarves are bulkier and heavier than normal humans, and as such they are incapable of swimming or floating. In short (pun intended), dwarves sink like stones and drown. If you ask for the source of this little tidbit, many will point you in the direction of The Hobbit, but if you take the time to read the passages that are being referred to, you'll see that the assumption is based on an incorrect reading.
In Chapter VIII, "Flies and Spiders," Bilbo and the dwarves come across a wide stream, and there's some debate as to how they'll cross it before they notice a boat on the other side. After some throwing of ropes, they manage to snag the boat, and a few at a time they manage to get across. As the last bunch are leaving the boat, however, they are startled by a deer, and Bombur falls into the water and nearly drowns. The others manage to pull him out in time, but it's a close call. However, the reason Bombur nearly drowns isn't that he sinks like a stone; he falls into the water at the edge of the stream, only a few feet deep. And it isn't the fact that he can't swim; this issue isn't even raised. The reason he nearly drowns is that this isn't an ordinary river. Earlier, in Chapter VII, "Queer Lodgings," Bilbo and the dwarves are all warned about a stream that they should "neither drink of, nor bathe in" because it "carries enchantment and a great drowsiness and forgetfulness." And indeed, when Bombur is pulled from the water, he's not coughing up water; he's asleep. Certainly, he would have drowned if he hadn't been rescued, but so would Bilbo, or any other member of any other race.
The second reason cited for the alleged dwarven hydrophobia is the one I alluded to above with the mention of the Wood Elves. In Chapter IX, "Barrels Out of Bond," Bilbo concocts a rescue plan in which the dwarves will crawl into empty barrels and float downstream to the next village. "We shall be bruised and battered to pieces, and drowned too, for certain!" the dwarves mutter. Again, so would anyone; this has naught to do with a dwarven propensity for sinking, and everything to do with the fact that it was a dangerous plan. Note that drowning is mentioned third, after bruising and battering. The dwarves understood the dangers involved, and were no more concerned about drowning than anyone would have been.
It didn't help matters any that Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs also portrayed a group of dwarves with an apparent dislike of water. In a notable scene in which they sing "Bluddle-Uddle-Um-Dum," the dwarfs are convinced by Snow White that they need to wash up before dinner, and all of them are gradually and somewhat reluctantly convinced to wash their hands and faces with soap and water. It's a silly scene, but in a cartoon in which one of the two main dwarven songs is about not wanting to wash up, it's no wonder the concept stood out so predominantly.
In fact, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs did a lot of things wrong, despite the fact that it was such a wonder to behold. As with any Disney movie, a lot was toned down or left by the wayside because it was a children's cartoon, but in ignoring or changing the original source material (the Grimm's Fairy Tale of the same name), quite a bit got lost in the translation.
The basics of the story remained the same: wicked queen, lovely princess, reluctant huntsman, seven dwarfs, poison apple, happy ending. But on many levels, the original is little more than a combination of Goldilocks and the Three Bears and Sleeping Beauty, with the young girl entering the strange shack in the woods and winding up asleep until a handsome prince rescues her. And of course, several features of the Grimm's Fairy Tale are notably different from the cartoon. First of all, the original seven dwarfs have no names or distinct personalities; they're just dwarfs, window dressing for the main story about a prince and a princess and an evil queen. Snow White dies not once, but three times, tricked again and again by the hag disguise. The evil queen is punished in some versions by having to dance in red hot shoes until she dies (instead of a fall off a cliff). And in some versions (as is true with many Grimm's Fairy Tales), the young virginal princess gives up more than just her cooking and cleaning skills to the dwarves, if you know what I mean (more on that a bit later).
Tolkien openly scoffed at the portrayal of dwarves in Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. In Appendix F of Lord of the Rings, he specifically addresses the movie without ever mentioning it by name when he goes into detail about the plural of Dwarf being "Dwarves" and not "Dwarfs":
"But we no longer speak of a dwarf as often as we do a man, or
even of a goose, and memories have not been fresh enough among Men to keep
ahold of a special plural for a race now abandoned to folk-tales, where at
least a shadow of truth is preserved, or at last to nonsense-stories in
which they have become mere figures of fun. But in the Third Age something
of their old character and power is still glimpsed, if already a little
dimmed: these are the descendants of the Naugrim of the Elder Days, in whose
hearts still burns the ancient fire of Aule the Smith, and the embers
smoulder of their long grudge against the Elves; and in whose hands still
lives the skill in works of stone that none have surpassed. (P) It is to
mark this that I have ventured to use the form Dwarves, and so removed them
a little, perhaps, from the sillier tales of these latter days."
Tolkien's motivation for passing off the portrayal of dwarves in the film as childish and silly allegedly runs deeper than a mere pluralization, however. There are those who like to say that Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs being released in the same year as The Hobbit was no coincidence. Others allege that J.R.R. Tolkien himself, once a good friend of Walt Disney, showed his friend a draft of a story about an evil queen and seven dwarves who lived in Gondor (who would become Queen Beruthiel and her nine cats). This in itself is hardly questionable, since it's no secret that Tolkien drew on earlier mythic material for his ideas; retelling the story of Snow White in his own terms would have been right in line with what he was trying to do in constructing a coherent mythology.
But here's the rub: allegedly, Mr. Disney "misplaced" this story draft, which contained (among other things) a concept that the Grimm's Fairy Tale did not; namely, that the seven dwarfs each had a name and an individual personality. This fact, that the dwarfs should have personalities, was oft cited as the distinctive feature of Disney's Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, decided upon by Mr. Disney as early as August of 1934. This is to say nothing of the fact that the final portrayal of the seven dwarves seems to be quite similar to Tolkien's dwarves: stout, sturdy little guys with axes, as opposed to the early Disney sketches which showed the dwarfs as elderly hunchbacks.
Did Walt Disney steal Tolkien's idea for dwarves? Would this explain why Gimli is such a serious character, as opposed to the bumbling dwarves of The Hobbit? Is this why Tolkien attacked the concept of "Dwarfs" as a plural for Dwarf? Who's to say? It's said that Tolkien openly attacked Disney in 1937 (after the release of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs), saying "for all whose works I have a heartfelt loathing" about Disney studios. It's also said that shortly thereafter, Tolkien wrote Disney (a man who had been his friend) out of his will. The grumblings and mumblings continue to this day, when as recently as 1998 rumors that Miramax (a Disney subsidiary) was financing the new Lord of the Rings movie met with "difficulties" due to a Tolkien stance that he didn't want Disney involved in any Ring-based movie projects (New Line Cinema arrived on the scene shortly thereafter to save the day). I think most of it is hogwash; you can't blame either Disney or Tolkien, nor any of the dwarves for any of this nonsense.
Which means we have to blame Snow White.
Step right up and see the bearded lady
"Angel, huh? She's a female, and all females is poison. They're full of wicked wiles."
There's a reason Grumpy was grumpy, and that's because there was a woman in the house. In the original myths, there were no female dwarves at all; there didn't need to be. I mean, we're talking about a mythos that starts off with Auohumla the Ur-cow licking ice off of the ice giant Ymir's body while he suckles on her udders. I think we can overlook a small thing like the fact that all the dwarves are male, especially when you consider the fact that they were all magical beings created from maggots (an obvious, if undersized, phallic symbol). Dwarves were decidedly an all boy's club, but when the males in your society are writing the myths you can pretty much get away with anything.
This is blindingly obvious when you take a look at the Norse goddess Freyja. She was sort of an amalgam of the Greek goddesses Athena (goddess of war) and Aphrodite (goddess of love), and she explored both facets of her personality as fully as possible. She's best known for her exploits in "The Necklace of the Brislings," when while travelling around one day she came across a glacier within which lived four dwarves. While poking around, she saw a beautiful gold necklace, and being a goddess (and thus exempt from hubris), she decided that she had to have it, and offered the dwarves a huge pile of gold and silver. Being dwarves, you'd expect them to accept it, but believe it or not, these dwarves turned her down, saying that they had enough gold. What they didn't have was a woman. You can guess what happens next; suffice to say that Freyja spent four nights at the house, each night in a different bed, and when she left the house had four very happy dwarves and one less necklace.
The notion that dwarves are sexual beings isn't really something that gets discussed much, although it was definitely something that Wagner touched on in the Ring Cycle when dealing with Alberich. The dwarf, after all, renounces love in exchange for the Rhinegold, and this is the event which causes all the chaos which follows. Without sexual love, Wagner believed, people (and dwarves, and gods) inevitably turned to antisocial behavior and political games, lust for sex turning into lust for power. And even in renouncing sexual love for power, Alberich can't go forever without... you know, because later on he bribes a woman to have sex with him, and fathers a son named Hagen. This, and the deal with Freyja, make a lot of sense when you realize that there were no dwarven women; if you want to have sex, you have to pay for it or steal it. There's a reason prostitution is the oldest profession, after all.
Even much of J.R.R. Tolkien's early writing about dwarves deals with this lack of females and its consequences; in "The Nauglafring," for instance, he presents a group of evil, magical dwarves without female companions of any sort. In writing Lord of the Rings, however, Tolkien desired to make his dwarves more mortal, and he knew that if he was going to create a self-propagating race he needed to have females, even if their father, Durin, was said to have "walked alone" while his brethren had mates. And so it was that dwarven women got beards:
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.
The notion of bearded dwarven women has been the cause of much amusement over the years in role-playing circles. For the most part, the concept has been completely ignored because of the general public conception that facial hair on women is unappealing. Many RPGs mentioned dwarven females, but left it at that, never trying to picture them (although truth be told, if they did, how would we know?) In some extreme cases, dwarven females are pushed entirely out of the picture, as with the PC game Arcanum, the excuse there being partly Gimli's story, and partly the supposition that dwarven females carry children for a long period of time, and thus require seclusion and bed rest.
Either or both of these stories is fairly easy to accept (at least, moreso than assuming that there are no dwarven females at all), but the notion that dwarven females look like males because they have beards raises another issue.
Why do all dwarves have beards?
Of course, the first images that pop into your head when you ask that question are of the exceptions to the rule. Dopey, for instance, from Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, is beardless (and also, interestingly, mute), and as mentioned previously, there are the hairless dwarves of the Dark Sun campaign setting. But pushing those aside, you've still got to explain why 99.999 percent of a race has a beard.
Attitudes towards beards (and facial hair in general) have varied wildly over the years and around the world. In ancient Egypt, China and the Middle East, the beard was regularly worn among leaders, but the Romans insisted that their leaders regularly shave. The Judeo-Christian belief system has also had wildly differing attitudes towards beards; Medieval Christians were advised to shave, even though Jewish tribal patriarchs were bearded. Al Gore grows a beard and the media goes wild; evil Spock has a beard, and we know we're in trouble. And of course, the chief god of a mythos almost always has a beard, whether he's Yahweh, Odin or Zeus. But what does it all mean?
Well, primarily, a beard is a sign of maturity. Youthful males don't have facial hair, and for cultures which insist that their citizens wear clothing, a beard is probably the most obvious visual sign that a boy is going through puberty and becoming a man. With maturity, of course, come the things we expect that older males will also have, such as wisdom gained from more time spent learning about the world, and greater strength and physical prowess, and, of course, virility. The male who wears a beard is obviously sexually mature, and as such he's an obvious target for females looking to propagate the species.
This, of course, is a problem for our dwarves, who originally don't have females to couple with, but the symbol remains the same, especially when you consider the fact that dwarves were renowned for carrying off human females (in addition to buying the sexual favors of their goddesses). The beard on these early dwarves represented sexual maturity and potency, and it's not a great leap to compare these small, bearded creatures to the Satyrs of Greek mythology. Both were short, misshapen nature spirits, both wore beards, both were reputed to be sexually voracious, both loved drinking to excess, and both were exclusively male. Both were also associated with the underworld in one way or another; the dwarves, because they lived there, and Satyrs, because Christianity turned them into devils.
The concept of the bearded, cloven-hooved devil is almost certainly lifted from the Greek conception of the God Pan, who was a Satyr God. He represented drunken debauchery, dalliances in the forest with nymphs while cavorting to wild music, and in general all sorts of chaotic tendencies that a lawful, organized religion couldn't tolerate. As a goat, he also represented everything goats symbolize: male fertility, the elemental energies of earth and mountains, and a bit of that "old black magic." And of course, since he's associated with the devil, we can't forget his place in the Tarot deck, where he's card number 15, and symbolizes people who strive for material gain instead of spiritual gain.
Gold, gold, gold, gold.
But that's only part of it. Beards, after all, aren't always seen as symbols of raw, unbridled sexuality. Take, for example, the Islamic rules about beards, and how to groom them. In this case, the beard is kept for a variety of reasons by a variety of sects, but it almost always boils down to the fact that growing the beard is Wajib (i.e., mandatory) because shaving it involves altering the creation of Allah. In other words, Allah put it there, and there it'll stay; so says the Qur'an. But there's even more to it than that; for some, shaving the beard is seen as going against not only nature (and thus, by extension, against the will of Allah), but against precedent. My ancestors had beards, and thus I should have one as well; this, too, seems to apply to our dwarven folk and their attitudes towards beards.
Regardless, there can be little doubt that a lot of what's going on in that thick dwarven skull has got to be redirected sexual energy. When it's difficult (at best) or impossible to find a dwarven woman, all that pent up energy has to go somewhere. Is it any wonder that we find dwarves swinging big hammers and axes around all the time, or standing in front of anvils banging on pieces of metal all day long?
From Fireforge to firearms
Flint spat. Reaching up, he swung his battle-axe from its holder on his back and planted his feet firmly on the path, rocking back and forth until he felt himself balanced. "Very well," he announced. "Come on."
Neither Weis and Hickman's Flint Fireforge nor Tolkien's Gimli flaunted any magical powers; they were all about bringing out the axe and kicking some ass. This has generally been the case with most fantasy fiction and role-playing games throughout the 20th Century. It's taken as given, but one has to wonder at what point dwarves went from magical creatures to nonmagical creatures. At first glance, it seems it's almost entirely the fault of role-playing games, which tended to oversimplify and strip various races of much of what made them truly interesting, all in the name of game balance. After all, if you've got a magical elf who uses a bow, you have to have a non-magical dwarf who uses melee weapons. Yin and yang, black and white. The other issue to consider is that the dwarf was really only stripped of those things that didn't play well in a gaming session; while the elven mage can cast spells in the middle of combat, the dwarf isn't exactly going to whip out a hammer and anvil and craft Mjolnir. Mining, forging magical items, and even the whole bit about stealing human females were left by the wayside because the bloodthirsty little savage fighter was so much more interesting and easy to play.
Of course, when those old school skills do get remembered, they're often modernized along with the tools our dwarf is using for war; for example, Warhammer dwarves use guns and cannon. Take a jump to the left, and a step to the right and you've got yourself a non-magical dwarf at the forge, and suddenly he's churning out not arrows and swords but bullets and rifles. The PC game Arcanum takes this to a new level by presenting the dwarf Technologists as some of the primary movers and shakers of their steampunk world's technology, from trains to firearms. Technology is dirty and greasy and noisy and made of metal and fire and smoke, and that is, after all, where the dwarf is at home. Witness Master, the dwarf half of Master-Blaster in the film Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome, running Barter Town's electricity from his labyrinthine workshop below the city, or the dwarves in Terry Pratchett's The Truth, going to war not with axes and swords but with lead plates and a printing press.
And it's in looking at how the dwarf has become associated with technology, perhaps, that we can understand exactly what the dwarf is about, and why he's considered a non-magical being. From the very start, the dwarf could create magical items, but he never really got to use them himself: a dwarf makes a magical ring, and it's stolen; he makes a magical hammer, and he gives it away for someone else to use. In the same way, dwarves were obviously capable of sexual activity, but in the absence of females they were incapable of propagating their own species. In other words, dwarves are beset by all sorts of repression. They have incredible potential, but they're merely tools for other, bigger people to use. Whenever they try to express themselves or gain some advantage, they're either bought off or slapped back into their place. Little wonder that when you give them an axe and a reason, they tend to go berserk. Reason optional.
In their modern propensity for violence, it's easy to see ourselves, and our modern condition. Since Tolkien wrote The Hobbit, the world has become more and more industrialized and computerized. Things move faster and faster, society's cogs spinning so quickly that you have to stay right in step or you'll get knocked to the curb before you know it. We've all felt belittled by our increasingly insignificant roles in society; at the dawn of the industrial age, it was because we were reduced to lever-pullers and machine operators. Nowadays, we cram ourselves into small cubicles, smaller than prison cells, and churn out magical streams of data that others will take credit for. We are dwarves, ladies and gentlemen, bearded or unbearded. We are the little people, capable of such immense power but all too often squashed beneath the heel of the big guy. We are, like James Michael Finnegan of Joel Rosenburg's The Sleeping Dragon, intelligent beings who feel crippled by the limitations others place on us, and we all, at one time or another, wish that we could leap up from our chairs to transform into Ahira Bandylegs, dwarven warrior. I know I do. So hand me my battle axe, and get out of the way.
I feel a berserk coming on.
Next time: wizards