Mighty Axes and Beer-Soaked Beards: The Portrayal of Dwarves in Fantasy

by on Aug 7, 2012 in Nonfiction | 20 comments

By Jim C. Hines

I’ve read and loved countless books over my lifetime, but few have been as important or influential as the one sitting on my desk as I write this article: the Dungeons and Dragons Players Handbook. (The 3.5 edition, for those of you who must know.) I’ve been playing this game for close to thirty years, but it’s only recently that this book helped to crystalize something that had been bugging me about the fantasy genre.

From Chapter Two: Races—“[T]he promise of power and profit brings together people of all the common races: “humans, dwarves, elves, gnomes, half-elves, half-orcs, and halflings.”

Um… call me crazy, but I thought dwarfs—little people—were human.

Dungeons & Dragons 3.5

It’s such a common trope in fantasy that many of us—most of us—never even question it. I’ve played dwarven fighters and paladins and barbarians. The dwarf Darnak was one of my favorite characters in my goblin novels. I wrote a short story about a dwarven bard who carried a granite battle flute.

They were good characters, and good stories. But I cringe now, thinking about what it must be like to be a person with dwarfism, to pick up a fantasy novel and read yet another tale about beer-swilling, axe-swinging, gold-loving warriors with magnificent beards. (The women too, ha-ha, isn’t that hilarious?)

Authors don’t have the greatest track record when it comes to writing “the other.” We create magical negroes and noble savages and countless other stereotypes and clichés. But I’m hard-pressed to think of another example where almost universally, even in the twenty-first century, we write about a group of people with the explicit assumption that they aren’t even human. Where we accept that assumption with so little critical discussion.

“But wait,” you might argue. “Nobody’s trying to offend anyone. But are we supposed to just eliminate such a huge part of our genre for the sake of political correctness?” Or maybe you’ll point out that “Just last month a group of little people were threating to organize a ‘Hundred Midget March’ to protest the casting of full-size actors to play the dwarves in Snow White and the Huntsman, so they obviously don’t object to how they’re being portrayed!”

I don’t claim to read minds, nor would I assume any group shares a single homogenous opinion on any given issue. But how many roles does Hollywood actually offer for smaller actors? Fantasy dwarves. Munchkins. Oompa-Loompas. And now even those roles are going to full-size actors? I can’t help but wonder about supply and demand, and the relative dearth of roles for little people, let alone roles that treat them as human beings rather than tropes or spectacles.

I keep coming back to the question of visibility. As a five foot eight white man, I have an unending stream of stories that present people who look like me in a wide range of roles. Which is great for me, but what about the rest of us? What about the parents of a child with dwarfism who look around, trying to find stories that portray someone like their child as a well-rounded, heroic, human character?

It’s not that such stories don’t exist. Willow comes to mind. While the movie portrayed little people as a separate race (Nelwyns), at least it was a race with variety. A race of people, not clichés and flat stereotypes. It’s one of the few stories I can think of where a little person (Warwick Davis) is the hero of the story, and a well-rounded, engaging hero at that.

George R. R. Martin created the character of Tyrion Lannister for his series A Song of Ice and Fire, the basis for HBO’s A Game of Thrones. Tyrion was born with dwarfism, and his mother died giving birth to him. He is a fully human character, complex and conflicted, with a full range of motivations and desires.

Tyrion Lannister

While other characters may mock and persecute Tyrion for his “deformity,” neither the author nor the story itself question his humanity. Indeed, in the HBO special, Tyrion’s character has become something of a fan favorite.

Peter Dinklage, who plays Tyrion Lannister, sums things up thusly: “I don’t gravitate towards fantasy. I do have a deeper appreciation for it because of Game of Thrones, but I never really was attracted to fantasy because of how most writers depict people my size.” (I recommend reading the full piece at http://www.themarysue.com/peter-dinklage-fantasy/.)

It’s not that fantasy never acknowledges the existence of little people or treats them as human—and I would love to hear suggestions in the comments—but such portrayals are rare and horribly overshadowed by the fantasy clichés. By Gimli with beer dripping down his beard, or joking about dwarf-tossing. And so many of us as readers and authors accept these portrayals without ever questioning or thinking about them.

As a writer who has committed some of those unthinking portrayals, I believe that needs to change.


More from Jim C. Hines:

Jim C. HinesJim C. Hines’ latest book is Libriomancer, a modern-day fantasy about a magic-wielding librarian, a hamadryad, a secret society founded by Johannes Gutenberg, a flaming spider, and an enchanted convertible. He’s also the author of the Princess series of fairy tale retellings as well as the humorous Goblin Quest trilogy. His short fiction has appeared in more than 40 magazines and anthologies. In his free time, he practices Sanchin-Ryu karate, fights a losing battle against housework entropy, and attempts ridiculous cover poses on the internet. Online, he can be found at http://www.jimchines.com.

This is Jim’s second appearance in Apex Magazine. His essay in issue 32 titled “Writing About Rape“ stands as our most popular nonfiction feature to date.

20 Comments

  1. Interesting article and very important points made, thank you!

    Something else that’s related – the portrayal of dwarves in Tolkien’s works was partially based on… medieval European stereotypes about Jews. (Here’s an interesting blog post which also links to a research paper.) So at least some of the dehumanization comes from that… There are commonalities in the most unexpected places – ’Jews have beards, even the women’ is a stereotype I’ve come across IRL here in Eastern Europe… yes, there are people who think this is funny.

    But I’m not saying that all of the dehumanization stems from the ethnic-minority connection, I’m not trying to derail the discussion. I just thought this would be interesting to note.

    • This letter written by Tolkien to his German publishers (who asked him whether he had Jewish ancestry) in 1938 suggests he did not have any anti-semitic tendencies.

      A few key sentences – “But if I am to understand that you are enquiring whether I am of Jewish origin, I can only reply that I regret that I appear to have no ancestors of that gifted people.” and “I … regard my German name with pride … however… if impertinent and irrelevant inquiries of this sort are to become the rule in matters of literature, then the time is not far distant when a German name will no longer be a source of pride.”

      http://www.lettersofnote.com/2012/03/i-have-no-ancestors-of-that-gifted.html

  2. A lot to think about there. I think you’re right and it is something that may need to change. What confounds things even more, going back to your D&D 3.5 reference, is that the fantasy race known as Dwarves isn’t even that small as these things go. There’s a good chance Tordek stands just as tall as you do.

  3. Prezzey – that’s interesting. I’m currently neck-deep in new-book freakout, but I’m bookmarking that blog post for further reading. Thanks!

  4. I always assumed the dwarves in fantasy were patterned off the creatures of Germanic folklore/mythology (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dwarf_(Germanic_mythology)), who lived in mountains and mined, rather than actual little people, a kind of fairy folk, like the original elves and whatnot. I know the elves of the ‘original’ stories were only a few inches tall (and thereby not to be confused with short people, or indeed with people at all), and would be interested in knowing if Dwarves had a similar progression from miniature to how they’re portrayed now.

    Of course, be that as it may, it does beg the question of whether the portrayal of dwarves in fantasy needs an update.

    I’ve never heard the Jew stereotype (I’m not a huge Tolkein scholar). I find it a rather disturbing one.

    • Strider – And I’m not saying I have an answer for that question … but I do think it’s a question we should be asking and thinking about.

  5. I think the way GRRM dealt with it is important and valuable. I am using real “little people” in my epic fantasy. But I have very close friends who are dwarfs. I know them well and we have discussed many of their issues. I have seen it from the inside. They don’t mind magical “dwarves.” In fact, they actually liked that positive image and the heroism and wished more people accepted them in similar fashion. Now, I don’t pretend my friends speak for all dwarves but I can say that they had a good sense of humor and they learned to win people over with their kindness, charm and enthusiasm for life. I think that you make some valid points but I don’t necessarily think that makes writing “magical dwarves” of fantasy tradition wrong, because I think they are entirely different. They are an entire race, not little humans of our race. They have an entirely different culture, not our culture seen from a different height level. And, if written well, I really think there’s a clear distinction. Do they deal with some of the same issues? yes. But in some ways that actually makes them able to speak into normal sized people’s lives about issues they might otherwise not realize or think about and get them thinking and maybe even caring more. I’ve see the LOTR films have that impact already. It’s one of the ways our speculative genres can speak into real life that stories set too close to home often cannot. I do think writers should be sensitive in portrayals, but I don’t think throwing the baby out with the bath water is required.

  6. It seems a bit odd to mention Willow as a human portrayal but not hobbits.

    I’m not sure how many of the features of the dwarves from Scandinavian/Germanic mythology can be directly attributed to stereotypes of Jews, though it seems the two became (rather unfortunately) identified later on in French/German/Italian fairy tales. “Rumpelstiltskin”, for instance, features a small, bearded money-changer with an unpronounceable name who plans to commit blood libel (see “Granny Rumple” by Jane Yolen).

  7. I wish to mention Tad Williams. He always did a great job I think with little people… Memory, Sorrow and Thorn, War of Flowers, Shadowmarch… you can find many, many well-rounded short/little characters in those works, who are never just helpful secondary characters, but heroes of their own stories.

  8. IMO, you started with a problematic premise:

    ”Um… call me crazy, but I thought dwarfs—little people—were human.”

    Growing up I had a classmate with dwarfism. She was very clear that she was NOT a dwarf—a make-believe creature—she was a _human being_. She was a little person and she had dwarfism. She wasn’t a dwarf.

    I’ve only met three little people, but they immediately corrected people who referred to them as dwarves.

    Maybe they were unusual, or maybe the preferences of those with dwarfism has changed. I don’t know.

    But with their preferences in mind, I find it far more problematic to see human beings with dwarfism referred to as dwarves than to see small, specifically non-human magical beings referred to that way.

    • Agreed. Using a noun to describe a minority is generally dehumanising; using “[adjective] people”/”people with [noun]” is far better. You can immediately see this if you compare the sentences “There were a lot of black people at the concert” with “there were a lot of blacks at the concert.” Not sure why one would be mentioning it at all, but excusing that, the second is obviously ew.

  9. Tolkien’s “dwarfs” are specifically not human. The silmarillion explains their origins and they are in no way intended to be humans with dwarfism. They are intended to be a mythical race.

  10. Fabulous article, Jim! As somebody who actually IS a dwarf — I don’t have acondroplagia, but I am legally a “Dwarf” at 4’6″ in height — I’ve thought about the stereotypes with dwarves in SF/fantasy for years. Then again, I like to think outside the box with all character-types, in my own writing. And yeah, it’s difficult; we’ve had so many decades of “this is what a dwarf’s like” thrown at us, so sitting back and trying to ponder the subject I automatically come up with the stereotype first, that I want to quash.

    Unfortunately, people don’t distinguish between “Tolkien-esque dwarf,” and “dwarf as in person with dwarfism,” for some reason. Yeah, Tolkien specifically made his dwarves non-human; they’re made of stone for crying out loud. Buuut, people just don’t distinguish between the things. I actually run into folks in World of Warcraft who associate “midgets” with gnomes, and who can’t tell the difference between gnomes and dwarves. In writing, I’ve occasionally seen that too. Lumping little peoples together seems to be a thing in a lot of fantasy writing, and it’s too bad because gnomes, pixies, dwarves, elves — originally in lore they were little people — brownies, etc are all very different critters and all have very special histories and ways. So I applaud anyone who gets that, and who tries to do something about it.

  11. Your problem here is that you’re conflating two separate things that have the same name.

    No, high-fantasy dwarves are not the same as humans of small stature. To claim that one is a portrayal of the other is as fatuous as claiming that the thing your toes grow out of is a precise unit of measure.

    • Catchersrule is right, people don’t make the distinction between fantasy Dwarves, elves etc and people with Dwarfism. I think this is because people with Dwarfism so often play the parts of all these different character roles. The shared label of ‘Dwarf/Dwarves’ certainly doesn’t help clarify either:)

      So while Johnathon is right to point out that Fantasy Dwarves are not Human Dwarfs, he is wrong to dismiss Jim’s observation about the dehumanizing effect of the relentless mythical and often derogatory representations of people with Dwarfism in the arts.

      The reality is, that there is a far greater association between characters like Tolkien’s Dwarves and people with Dwarfism than there is with people’s feet and the unit of measurement.

      Having Dwarfism, people often make some bizarre assumptions about my life. These are not isolated to me, most other Little People complain about the same thing. These stereotypes, myths and traditions have a very real impact on our lives. for example kids sometime sing ‘Hi Ho’ as I walk past them in the street.

      Carys and McKinley are totally right when it comes to the term “Dwarf”; don’t label/define someone as ‘their height’. A tip for language surrounding and Disability other minority groups is to just avoid Adjectival Nouns.

  12. I know the difference between dwarves and dwarfs. I’m basing my fantasy novel on a dwarven main character, the Tolkien type. I see the difference between a short human and the fantasy dwarf. They are 2 totally different things, I’ve never even considered them to be the same.

  13. Correct me if I am wrong, but as I remember it the beer and tossing jokes were a later addition in the films, not in Tolkien’s books.

    I found it an extremely annoying modification.

  14. First things first, you need to consider the proper usage of “Dwarves” vs “Dwarfs” and the history of the word and myths.
    Dwarf is derived from Dvergr, who in the original Old Norse myths weren’t short (or bearded, beer swilling, gold loving, etc. but those are common attributes of Old Norse), and clearly were not human, along with Alfar (Elves) and Jotnar (Giants). The etymology of Dvergar (plural of Dvergr) is highly debated still, but not one plausible meaning refers to being short. This is the result of the Christianization of Scandinavia, where Dwarves and Elves were seen as lesser races, and were thus reimagined by the Christians rewriting Norse myths as being literally small (prior to Tolkien, the idea of tall and graceful elves weren’t truly commonplace). This is why in many folktales, Trolls (horrendous Jotnar) are portrayed in defiance to Christians, capable of smelling a Christian person and acting outwardly aggressive to them.
    In effect, to call a little person a dwarf could be taken as insulting, as the word “dwarf” only means small in reference to someone being lesser. Otherwise, it’s actually a major misnomer that’s simply been accepted over the past few centuries due to the corruption by the Christian scholars of the time.
    In truth, Dwarves – the Dvergar – should NOT be small. The only traits they exhibited in contrast to humans and the other inhuman beings of Norse myths was their legendary craftsmanship and living within mountains and hills.
    The beer, the beards and all the rest simply stem from the popularization of dwarves in contemporary fantasy since the 70s, where their cultures were largely influenced by the Norse, making dwarves in most settings effectively short vikings.

    Consider that Dwarves, Dwarven, Dwarvish, etc. all refer to the mythological and fantasy concepts, whereas Dwarfs, Dwarfish, etc. all refer to the real human little people (which again is still a misnomer that could easily convey offense.)

  15. In my story, my dwarfs are going to be sorta like the concept for them in The Elder Scrolls universe. They’re a type of elf, and as tall as the others. Halflings (yeah, putting some of those in), however, are shorter. I have a side character who works with a con artist storyteller and pretends to be a child, using her size to her advantage. She isn’t as strong or fast as the other characters, but she’s smart and quick witted.

  16. Let me stop you after that first part, Dwarves arn’t anymore human than orcs are. What, you ASSUME that the pink skin and rounded ears automatically means human? That’s kind of racist you know. The entire notion that dwarves are related to people described as dwarves in our world is a stretch at best, and even if they were, methinks being portrayed as dragon slaying beasts with hearts of gold and camaraderie isn’t insulting in anyway.

    Tl:dr, you are not a “little person” so don’t be offended on their behalf. Stop starting every description with , ” as a white male.” It’s racist, and sad. Dwarves in fantasy share no DNA with mankind, stop being racist. And finally, fuck you for tricking me into thinking this was going to be an article about dwarves when it’s just another sad middle aged white man being offended on others behalf, I feel sorry for anyone that had to sit through a campaign with you.

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