The tropes associated with fantasy races/cultures are, it must needs be remarked, somewhat tired. Despite the occasional kick up the backside that they receive, the general trend in fantasy seems to be repackaging of the same old ideas, rather than the creation of new ideas. Some of this repackaging is good, and some of it is not so good. In this series, we will have a look at some of the posterior pugilism and see what we can learn.
Diggy Diggy Hole
No matter what weird new paths it might be treading, and no matter whether we pluralize it as dwarves or dwarfs, the fantastical notion of the dwarf in modern media comes to us from Germanic mythology via Tolkien. Aside from being short in height (when compared to the average human), which is practically mandatory, a setting’s dwarfs will usually have certain traits including, but not limited to, the following:
- Stout build
- Love of beer
- Love of gold
- Industrial and mechanical aptitude
- Unreasonable and inflexible moral code
- Culture glorifying smiths and/or warriors
- Emphasis on some or all of the following in warfare: heavy infantry, military engineers, gunpowder, artillery
- Dislike of and historical rivalry with elves
- Hatred of some other evil/monstrous race/culture
- Living underground
- Beards (not necessarily restricted to men)
- Adherence to tradition
- Low fertility
- Exaggerated features, such as hairiness, big ears, and big noses
- Suspicious of magic, unless that magic is invested in an object
- Heavily accented (somewhere north of Nottingham, usually)
The more interesting recent attempts to breathe some life into the idea of the fantastical dwarf have usually revolved around subverting or deconstructing one or two of these ideas, or using them to interrogate contemporary themes. That is all laudable, but it comes with the problems of any trope-laden archetype: a preponderance of authorial shorthand to avoid doing any world-building, general staleness, and the potential to drag along unfortunate implications. The implications in this case being that the dwarf archetype, intentionally or not, can be open to interpretations that are anti-Semitic or insulting to persons of restricted growth. Let us have a look at some broad categories of fantastical dwarf, and see what we can learn.
Stubborn to a fault, preoccupied with ancestral feuds and gold, and covered in armour, Classic Dwarf is the creation of Tolkien, and all that trailed in his wake. The staple of fantasy books and RPG settings everywhere, Classic Dwarf is also the norm by which other forms of define themselves, either by mimicry or rebellion. These dwarves tend to have some sort of sense of honour, but are nevertheless bound by tradition or ancestral grudges, sometimes to the point of self-destruction (as exemplified by Warhammer’s Dwarfs(tm) ).
The enduring popularity of this trope is something of a mystery to me, but if I had to bet, I would identify two features which would make for compelling writing. Firstly, there is something endlessly compelling in the notion of stoic endurance, especially endurance for the sake of a lofty ideal. As a reader, I might be infuriated by Djorn Hammersmite’s inability to forgive and move on from a crime which did not, ultimately, affect him, but his absolute and unwavering commitment to a principle is, in its own way, admirable. It is why we, the audience, side with Ned Stark over Littlefinger. Yes, Lord Stark did the stupid thing, but he was trying to do the right thing. He saw himself subservient to ideals of duty and justice, and he trusted in them (again, foolishly). Littlefinger has no principles, other than himself, and his ruthlessness is entirely justified in many ways, but we loathe him because we know he esteems nothing and no-one above himself. Classic Dwarf is a dwarf of ideals and principles, and is best used in stories which show the tension and tragedy which result from them being tested by the vicissitudes of fate.
Dwarf Noir is Classic Dwarf’s grittier, edgier cousin, escaping from the confines of Classic Dwarf, usually by being defined by something other than its rivalry with other civilizations. Eberron’s dwarves, for example, are stout warriors, but also canny and gregarious merchants.* Dragon Age took this further and considered what the societal repercussions of a shrinking birth-rate and widespread infertility are, a lamentably rare example of a non-human society actually having a very different way of being that is neither an informed attribute, nor ultimately resting entirely upon an arbitrary decision of the author. We might well recoil from Orzammar’s attitude towards gender and/or relationships, but that attitude is not easy to dismiss when the various cultural and physical realities of their society are considered. After all, most humans recoil from murder and cannibalism, until bellies start rumbling.
Dwarf Noir is a product of a narrative approach as much as anything, in that trying to put a darker and edgier spin on dwarf tropes might not cut it. Rather, interrogating the tropes themselves and asking what the consequences of them might be for individuals and societies, or what must have happened to cause the tropes to become reality, is what typifies this category of dwarf.
*It occurs to me that the Mror dwarves’ mercantile savviness might have arisen out of the natural consequences of having a large class of craftsmen but few people to buy the wares, but I do not know how explicitly this link was explored.
The Space Dwarf is, perhaps by necessity, removed somewhat from Classic Dwarf and often has more in common with Dwarf Noir, in that the tropes invoked tend to be narrower and deeper in focus. Star Trek’s Ferengi, for example, do not show the same level of commitment to ideals of craftsmanship or honourable combat as Dwarf Classic, but Ferengi workmanship is clearly valued given how much wealth flows into Ferengi coffers. Likewise, although individually Ferengi might be more Littlefinger than Stark, they do have a slavish, even uneconomical attitude towards their traditions.
The Dvar of Age of Wonders: Planetfall and the dwarves of Deep Rock Galactic also dabble in a certain amount of science-fantasy, in that they consider, even if only slightly, what might happen when dwarven industry takes a hidebound people into space, going boldly where no dwarf has gone before, something rarely considered in other works, especially since the infamous Squatting of the Games Workshop IP of the same name.
The Space Dwarf serves as a useful device for removing the dwarf from his comfort zone in a subterranean smithy, even if only briefly, and in addition to the novelty of a science-fantasy setting, could be a useful vehicle for some narrative futurism. Dwarves like to live underground, after all. What would society be like if surface-dwelling were impossible, and the only options were in the lightless earth or the vast expanse of space?
The final kind of dwarf (for today’s purposes: this is no ULTIMATE DWARF contest) is the Deconstructed Dwarf, the dwarf who exists almost explicitly as a way to deconstruct dwarf-related tropes, or to use dwarf-related tropes to deconstruct something else. The most pertinent example is probably Sergeant Cheery Littlebottom, who through the popular fantasy trope of male and female dwarves being indistinguishable to the outsider, is used by Pratchett to interrogate gender, culture, and identity – and a certain amount of overlap – in the Discworld series.
Bhelen Aeducan and Pyral Harrowmont (Dragon Age) are likewise deconstructions: the former is a subversion of the “honourable dwarf” trope, in that he is a treacherous and ruthless political animal who has no compunction in transgressing against social taboos, only using them as tools, in order to get what he wants. In a further subversion, if he does get the throne, he is implied to be a capable ruler, undertaking the drastic reforms needed to stop Orzammar from vanishing altogether.
Aeducan is the foil to Harrowmont. Harrowmont is principled, honourable, level-headed, and utterly committed to maintaining Orzammar’s traditions even if it means the deaths of countless innocent people, pointless internal power struggles, and ultimately the collapse of civilization. In this way, he acts as a deconstruction of the Classic Dwarf, because although he is prepared to make any sacrifice for his principles, it is shown to be, at best, a doomed enterprise.
Thus, caught between the treacherous pragmatist on the one hand, and the stubborn traditionalist on the other, many players feel obliged to support Aeducan – the Littlefinger – in this power struggle for the good of the dwarves and Ferelden at large, despite loathing him for his unapologetic treachery; and those same players regret not being able to support Harrowmont – the Ned Stark – but feel obliged to because his refusal to consider that any of his traditions may not be worth keeping could doom all sapient life. Characters like these hold up the mirror, not only to the tropes, but to real life, and force us to confront deeply uncomfortable questions about who we are, the things for which we stand, and how we – and those who govern us – realize our principles.
Short and sweet
Cultural and racial tropes in fantasy come with a great deal of baggage, and it is incumbent upon writers and world-builders to be aware of them, for a variety of reasons, but not least for the story-telling and world-building opportunities that they offer. When next you sit down with a head full of beards, horned helmets, and Scottish accents, perhaps take the opportunity to pause for a moment, before committing pen to paper, and think about what you are saying, and how that compares with what you want to say. Dwarves already have a lot of work to do in those caverns. Perhaps it is time to broaden their horizons.
What do you think? Are there any other kinds of dwarf out there? Any good examples that I missed? And which fantastic folks would you like me to discuss next time? Let me know in the comments below.
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