(this article is adapted from a book chapter I wrote called ‘As we draw near mountains’: Nature and Beauty in the Hearts of Dwarves)
Although I’m more of a hobbit in personality and physique, I have a great love for Tolkien’s dwarves. Tolkien had a well-documented love affair with Norse mythology and there’s a lot of Viking flavour in this race that I particularly enjoy.
Dwarves are known throughout Middle-earth for their craft skills, their extreme fondness for precious metals, and their mines built deep underground. Being carved from stone by their maker Aulë, the dwarves express this connection to their natural environment through active, practical engagement with the earth, and much of their cultural legacy is entrenched in the treasures which they extract from their environment. Aulë made them “stone-hard” (S 39) – able to withstand the ravages inflicted on Middle-earth by Melkor.
They’re not well-thought of in-canon. The antagonistic relationship between dwarves and elves is established early in The Hobbit (which was the first of Tolkien’s stories that I read) when it is pointed out that dwarves often get annoyed with elves because they “tease them and laugh at them, and most of all at their beards”. It’s not until later that we hear all about the near-biblical blood feud between the two races that started over a squabble with a necklace.
Half the characters we meet in The Hobbit openly state that they have have no great love of dwarves because of the cultural assumption that dwarves are untrustworthy.
Tolkien also explicitly states in narration that dwarves, in general, are “pretty bad lots” (H 196). So from the beginning, we readers are told that dwarves aren’t well-loved.
Despite this, I still love the dwarves.
In The Hobbit, they’re established as musicians, helpful guests (in their own way), and graceful speakers (at least in Thorin’s case).
Fili and Kili died defending Thorin in the Battle of the Five Armies. Balin walked with Bilbo into the dragon’s den and comforted him when Bilbo accidentally gave himself and Lake-town away. Whenever Bilbo pointed out that the dwarves were being dicks, they begged his pardon. In The Lord of the Rings, Gimli shows off his poetic soul that softens Galadriel’s heart so much that she gives him the gift she denied Fëanor back in Valinor.
I would never argue that dwarves are perfect. They’re like any other race in Middle-Earth; neither blameless nor faultless. Dwarves have not done themselves any favours by secreting themselves into the mountains and coveting the treasures of other races. They can, and frequently do, have an unhealthy relationship with the gold and gems they mine from the earth.
That being said, if people will look beyond the occasional follies of this race to the philosophical justifications behind their love of rock and stone, I am confident they will find something admirable (even desirable) in how dwarves see the natural world.
But why do dwarves need defending?
First: the big one. Several scholars, as well as Tolkien himself, draw comparisons between dwarves in Middle-Earth and real-world Jews.
An argument could be made that the narratives are steeped in anti-Semitic stereotypes, while another argument could be made that this draws the dwarves into an unnecessary allegory (something Tolkien would have railed against).
I’m not going to comment on whether the dwarves in Middle-Earth are anti-Semitic because I’m not Jewish. It’s not up to me to make that call.
Instead, let’s move onto another frequent comment made by almost every other race in Tolkien’s oeuvre: that dwarves are greedy, grasping and ungracious.
Dwarves are often portrayed as being particularly susceptible to greed. This is seen by Tolkien scholars and the other characters in the stories as at best a personality flaw, and at worst a crippling illness. The most obvious narrative example of gold-sickness can be found in The Hobbit, when Thorin Oakenshield attempts to cast Bilbo off the gates of Erebor in a fit of madness.
Yes, that’s a bad choice. But Thorin’s madness is structured in the narrative to directly follow his over-exposure to Smaug’s hoard — a hoard “upon which a dragon has long brooded” (H 241) – and there seems to be a causality between the two: “Long hours in the past days Thorin had spent in the treasury, and the lust of it was heavy on him. Though he had hunted chiefly for the Arkenstone, yet he had an eye for many another wonderful thing that was lying there” (H 241). His assault on Bilbo is a culmination of that mental illness.
Importantly, dwarves are not the only race that get jealous and weird when it comes to shiny rocks.
One of the first descriptions of the elf-king Thranduil in The Hobbit emphasises his love of treasure and his jealousy of others who have more than him: “If the elf-king had a weakness it was for treasure, especially for silver and white gems; and though his hoard was rich, he was ever eager for more, since he had not yet as great a treasure as other elf-lords of old” (H155). Later, this description of Thranduil is juxtaposed and softened by his generous treatment of the Lake-town refugees.
The Silmarillion details the long and sordid history around the elvish obsession with the Silmarils – the beautiful Jewels of Fëanor, crafted from the Trees of Valinor. Fëanor started a generations-long war over those jewels, dooming his descendants and everyone on the periphery of that family. Yes, Thorin dangled Bilbo over Erebor’s ramparts, but at least he didn’t get his nephews to pledge a blood feud against everyone who even looked at the Arkenstone without permission.
There are also examples of greed and envy in one of Tolkien’s most idealised races: the hobbits. Bilbo’s spoon-stealing relatives the Sackville-Bagginses are portrayed throughout the narratives as jealous of Bilbo and covetous of his possessions: “On their side they never admitted that the returned Baggins was genuine, and they were not on friendly terms with Bilbo after. They really had wanted to live in his nice hobbit-hole so very much” (H 274).
Their son, Lotho, is also credited with allowing Saruman enough trade power to eventually take over the Shire in The Return of the King. Cool and reasonable.
Although many other characters are considered greedy and needlessly concerned with treasure and material possessions in the Tolkien stories, it is the dwarves who are consistently described as almost irredeemably greedy and grasping, and these descriptions often refer to the entire race rather than a select few.
That’s not cool.
Similarly, dwarves are also scorned for the way they interact with the environment.
This partly seems to stem from the fact that they were created separately from Middle-Earth and therefore do not have the same kinship with it that elves appear to have.
There’s a lot of history that leads to this conclusion, but in simple terms: the elves were sung into being by the main deity in Middle-earth, Eru Ilúvatar, before the world began. They were created as his first children, to enjoy Eru’s unspoiled creation and live a joyous, immortal life.
Aulë, a second-tier god and the master of crafts (think a combo of Hades and Hephaestus), created the dwarves after another god, Melkor, rebelled against Eru. Aulë built the dwarves to be strong and durable, “stone-hard, stubborn, fast in friendship and in enmity, and they suffer toil and hunger and hurt of body more hardily than all other speaking peoples” (S 39).
Yavanna, Aulë’s spouse, worries that they will not love the growing things that she was in charge of making for Middle-Earth, because her husband made them in his image instead of the image that Eru had given them. Aulë tries to alleviate Yavanna’s concerns, but Yavanna continues to believe that the dwarves will disrespect trees and plants because they were not designed to appreciate them as elves were.
The fact that dwarves are craftsmen – and craftsmen need tools and supplies – and minors of the earth did not help Aulë’s case.
It’s not hard to read pro-environment themes in Tolkien’s work. Tolkien himself was quoted as being horrified by the “ravages of an industrial society”, and even got rid of his car because he didn’t like what the internal combustion engine had done to the environment (J. R. R. Tolkien: A Biography, location 3916). It is very easy, when dealing with Tolkien’s work, to make the thematic connection between growing things and goodness.
Unfortunately, eco-critical discussions of Middle-Earth often sideline dwarves because they do not engage with the natural environment in a way that is typically considered ‘good’.
There is a clear theme in Tolkien scholarship of glorifying and idealising the Elvish and Hobbit relationship with nature — to the detriment of those races in Middle-earth who have carved a different path. Matthew Dickerson and Jonathan Evans’ Ents, Elves and Eriador: The Environmental Vision of Tolkien limits their discussion of interactions with the natural world to three main methods: agriculture (practiced by Hobbits), horticulture (practiced by Elves and Entwives), and feraculture (practiced by Ents). Dwarves are only really mentioned in Dickerson and Evans’ work as a negative point of contrast; a way to highlight the goodness of elves, in particular, by comparing their love of trees with dwarves’ love of treasure.
By limiting the definition of ‘nature’ to growing things, Tolkien scholars and ecocritics create a situation where it is almost impossible to analyse how Dwarves interact with the natural world in a positive manner. As a result, most scholars ignore Dwarves entirely when discussing Tolkien and the natural world.
Interestingly, the most positive discussions of Dwarves and mining are found not among Tolkien scholars or literary theorists, but in the geology discipline. Danièle Barberis, a Natural Resources Lawyer specializing in mineral law and policy, writes a comparative analysis of the portrayal of Dwarves in Tolkien’s work and the real-world miners in the ‘Fourth Age’ (or contemporary times).
She aptly points out that the Dwarves in Middle-earth create homes and cities in their mines: “each large mine was more than simply a workplace. They were underground settlements, ‘the great city of the dwarrowdelf’. So the dwarves didn’t need badges or passwords for access – they were home already” (64).
The relationship, then, between Dwarves and the mines they build is less about profit (although that is a significant concern) and more about the construction of a place where Dwarves can feel safe and secure while they develop their crafts and seek their riches.
Barberis also points out the largely ignored Dwarvish desire to preserve natural beauty for future generations: “It can be said that although modern Men as well as the Dwarves have a com- mon concern for the good of future generations, Men look toward this issue from a purely practical standpoint (roughly, fear of depletion) while Dwarves had a higher ideal (beauty) in mind.” (61)
As craftsmen, the dwarves seem to enjoy the natural world as it provides raw material for their works. There is also a sense of place and connection with the natural environment demonstrated when the dwarves consistently choose to surround themselves with rock and stone. They create elaborate cities beneath the surface, and these cities demonstrate the pride dwarves take in their craft and the feats of engineering required to construct them. In The Hobbit, the narration describes Erebor’s beautiful architecture as a link to dwarvish pride and skill: “[i]t was a passage made by dwarves, at the height of their wealth and skill: straight as a ruler, smooth-floored and smooth-sided, going with a gentle never-varying slope direct” (H 259).
The aesthetics of dwarvish architecture may not align with the elegance of the elves or the simplicity of the hobbits, but there is something admirable in the skill and execution of the dwarvish architects; especially when compared to the ugly, ill-thought-out structures of other earth-dwelling creatures like goblins and orcs (H 67).
During The Lord of the Rings trilogy, Gimli frequently makes note of the natural rock formations around him, and often judges the durability and beauty of an area by how it is formed: “There is good rock here. This country has tough bones […] Give me a year and a hundred of my kin and I would make this a place that armies would break upon like water” (LotR 555).
Similarly, during The Return of the King, Gimli notes that Minas Tirith appears to have had some good stonemasons working on its construction, but that he can see areas of improvement and would be happy to render his assistance in this endeavour (LotR 906). These moments show the dwarvish relationship with rock and stone as one of mutual benefit; dwarves approach the natural world with a desire to improve and make use of it, while noting that a good natural foundation is the best basis for their labours.
When Dwarves come across a particularly beautiful natural structure, such as the Glittering Caves at Helm’s Deep, they are compelled to preserve it. During The Two Towers, when Legolas jokingly tells Gimli to keep the Glittering Caves a secret to protect them from the ravages of his race, Gimli replies indignantly:
Although dwarves are not known for their poetry and prose, it must be said that the natural beauty of geology is one of the few things which can inspire a dwarf towards rhetoric.
It is important to note that, in the above passage, Gimli does not rule out dwarvish interference with the Caves – in fact, he makes a point of explaining how a group of dwarves could go about carving and mining the Caves to enhance the natural beauty which is already there. Here, the relationship dwarves have with the natural world is made particu- larly clear. While no dwarf would dare to sully the Caves with unnecessary mining, they would be remiss if they did not cultivate and develop the Caves to showcase the best rock. Dwarves immerse themselves in natural beauty by identifying ways how it can be improved, and then going about the necessary improvements using their skills as craftsmen; building on the natural aesthetic, but putting a part of themselves into the stone.
It must also be said, because it is not said often enough, that there is a clear narrative separation between the dwarvish love of stone and craft and the practices of evil characters such as Saruman and the orcs.
While the Dwarves are most often associated with mining and stonemasonry, the use of industrial practices is not typical of their race; they use neither big machinery nor mass-production when working their crafts. Although Aulë notes in The Silmarillion that “they will have need of wood” (S42), referring to smelting practices which require intense heat, they are very rarely referenced in the narratives as clearing trees or unnecessarily burning them. This is a sharp contrast to the practices of Saruman during The Lord of the Rings, when he begins cutting down the trees of Fangorn forest “to feed the fires of Orthanc. There is always smoke rising from Isengard these days” (LotR495).
The dynastic nature of dwarvish mining constructs the mine as a legacy to be cultivated and maintained so that the family may continue to prosper. The dwarves seem to have compensated for their long-lived mortality by valuing the artefacts created by their forefathers: “Memory is not what the heart desires. That is only a mirror, be it clear as Kheled-zâram […] Elves may see things otherwise […] Not so for Dwarves” (LotR 399).
Gimli, upon receiving his gift from the Lady Galadriel of three strands of her hair, plans to treasure it to the end of his days and beyond: “And if ever I return to the smithies of my home, it shall be set in imperishable crystal to be an heirloom of my house, and a pledge of good will between the Mountain and the Wood until the end of days” (LotR 396). This is the highest honour he can give, hoping he will live long enough to enjoy and preserve it for future generations, so they also can get to appreciate it after his demise.
In Tolkien’s works, dwarves are generally portrayed as engaging with the geology of Middle-earth as craftsmen; imagining and appropriating the materials around them, crafting new and beautiful objects from the stone and gems they liberate from the earth, and protecting and admiring those rock and stone formations which are considered particularly aesthetically pleasing.
While dwarves rarely come up in the discussions of ecocritical themes in Tolkien’s work, I would argue that the ecocritical concerns gleaned by critics can apply to the dwarvish relationship with nature – just not in the traditional manner.
For example, the dwarvish approach to the natural world could be considered a geological appropriation of the agricultural lifestyle favoured by hobbits. Dickerson and Evans describe the hobbits’ use of agriculture as the cultivation of the natural environment for food and useful materials. While they write that “[o]ne possible criticism of Tolkien is that these images are purely romantic, giving an idealized and unrealistic vision of a pastoral landscape” (73), the fact remains that the idealisation of the hobbit lifestyle is a key factor in its continued presence in ecocritical scholarship.
The instrumental value that hobbits find in their plants and trees is similar in many ways to the instrumental value dwarves find in geology. Hobbits also enjoy decorative plants, as demonstrated in Bilbo’s apparent love of flowers in The Hobbit, and the use of flower names for their daughters. This indicates a relationship with the natural world which is based on reciprocity. Hobbits till the earth and tend their gardens, and in return they obtain food and pleasant views for their leisure time. Dwarves approach mines, rock and precious met- als in a similar way: they either use the natural resources available to them, or cultivate them for their aesthetic quality.
They occupy the hazy philosophical gap between preservationism and exploitation; between nostalgia and progress. They are not depicted as enjoying the building of machines and engines, but they are not particularly appreciative of untouched, unassisted natural formations either. The dwarves are portrayed more frequently than other races as connecting with the natural world through their bare hands. They are, at heart, creatures of tradition and heredity, and rarely learn to use new skills or tools unless they are addressing a gap in knowledge which needs to be filled.
Basically, I think the dwarvish ideal of beauty celebrates practicality along with aesthetics, and that this creates an alternative relationship with the natural world which is based on mutual benefit. And I think that’s really cool.
PS – I love writing and I love eating! If you want to help with the latter (and ONLY if you want) you can maybe buy me a coffee? 🙂