Dwarfs, Gender, and the Death of the Author

Alright everyone, today we’re talking about a topic that’s near and dear to my own heart – dwarves!  Or dwarfs.  You know the ones – short, bearded, hot-tempered, love gold, live in mines/caves, inseparable from their axes, and good at making things.  Yeah, in fantasy works that include dwarfs (fuck you Tolkien, I’m not using your spelling), they’re virtually all the same.  There’s lots of ways that other fantasy races have been portrayed, but dwarfs seem to have been stuck in the same rut since Tolkien, and even then, he only made a few small changes to the traditional Nordic perception.

Tolkien standardized a lot of things in the fantasy genre, especially after Dungeons and Dragons used his works as a template for the basic races.  But we still see many more varied portrayals of elves, dragons, etc. than we do of dwarfs.  I have to admit a bias here; dwarfs are my favorite species to play in D&D, and the dwarfish species of the Discworld occupies a large portion of my heart, and the friendship between Legolas and Gimli is one of my favorite aspects of Lord of the Rings.  I think I spend an inordinate amount of time thinking about dwarfs.  Maybe it’s because I, too am short and hot-tempered and love gold, or maybe I just have a thing for beards.

But one of the most fascinating aspects of portrayals of dwarfs in fiction is gender.  I make no secret of my feminism, so when I see “dwarf = male”, I want to know why that is.  It’s especially notable because dwarf women are hardly ever mentioned, much less seen to take part in stories.  It can be assumed that they must exist (unless dwarfs reproduce asexually, which I can’t say I’ve ever seen, but would be very interesting), but they’re irrelevant to the point of being superfluous.  Granted, that’s the role women of all species play in some fantasy adventure settings, but why do some authors feel it’s more acceptable with dwarfs?  Are they saying “Okay, our token women are all humans and elves, so we don’t need female dwarfs”?  I hope not.

At any rate, it’s interesting to me to see how the portrayals of dwarfs have changed (and not changed) throughout history, starting with the old Norse sagas.  Here, they were usually old men with long beards and I can’t recall any instances in which female dwarfs are mentioned at this point.  In the Prose Edda and Poetic Edda, they are metalsmiths, they drink mead, they make magic rings – sound familiar?  Yeah, some things really haven’t changed.  It is interesting to note, though, that early on in Norse mythology, there’s no actual mention that dwarfs are short.  Later on, they get characterized as “small and ugly”.  If only for the sake of the recent Hobbit movies, I’m glad the ugly thing didn’t stick.  Hellooooo Richard Armitage.

From there, we can basically jump straight to the dwarfs of Tolkien’s works.  Yes, there were other portrayals of dwarfs in between the two.  Disney’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs actually premiered the same year as The Hobbit was published, 1937.  But the others weren’t nearly as culturally significant and they didn’t have as much of a lasting impact on the folklore relating to dwarfs.  Most people don’t remember Tolkien’s first work that mentioned dwarfs, The Book of Lost Tales, and those dwarfs are straight-up evil.  But by the time he wrote The Hobbit, he apparently softened up on dwarfs to some extent.  I say “to some extent”, because he added in the rather nasty innovation of giving them a lot of Jewish stereotypes.  He made them greedy and warlike and shrewd in trade, and his basis for their use of language (remember, Tolkien was a linguist first and an author second, so this would be important to him), was Hebrew.  In The Hobbit, the dwarfs seek to reclaim their ancestral homeland from which they’ve been exiled, which might sound a little familiar to you.  And yes, Tolkien was the first one to spell it “dwarves”.  That’s all I’m saying on that topic.

A lot of problems with the sexes of the dwarfs come from Tolkien.  He wrote that only about a third of dwarfs are female, and that the females are indistinguishable from the males (at least to non-dwarfs).  This is… particularly gross when you remember that he equated them with Jewish people.  I don’t recall that he ever mentioned any female dwarf characters, but hey, if they’re so indistinguishable from the males, I don’t see why any of the dwarf company in The Hobbit couldn’t have been female (I know why – fanboy tears, that’s why).

Dungeons and Dragons did little to change this idea of dwarfs.  I should note that in the official game rules, female dwarfs don’t grow bears and can even be *gasp* attractive (I can only assume that this is when viewed by humans).  But in my personal experience, players tend to play them more like Tolkien dwarfs in that respect anyway.  It’s nice that Dungeons and Dragons allows you to deviate heavily from its own source material, so I guess I find it amusing that this is one aspect where players instead play it much closer to the source material.  One of my first characters was a female dwarf fighter, and although I only got to play one solo session with her, so it didn’t come up much, she was  always treated by others as a male dwarf, because hey, she had a pretty magnificent beard, and those wacky humans thought beard = male.  I should note that this was right around the time when I started reading Discworld, and I discovered the wonderfulness that is Cheery Littlebottom (seen below in one of my favorite pieces of fanart, in all her glory).


Which brings me to the modern subversions of this standard portrayal.  Of course, this isn’t so much in mainstream media, but in fandoms.  The Discworld dwarfs have undergone an amazing upheaval in the last decade or two.  Starting with Cheery, dwarfs (which had previously been very clearly Tolkien dwarfs, being exclusively seen as male) have started “coming out” as openly female and there’s been a massive cultural revolution, culminating when *spoiler alert* in the most recent book, Raising Steam, the Low King Rhys Rhysson reveals herself to be female and, in fact, the Low Queen (which had been previously alluded to in The Fifth Elephant and Unseen Academicals). *end spoiler*  It’s all handled very well, and serves as a decent metaphor for LGBTQ experiences with coming out, public backlash, varying degrees of acceptance, etc.  I like the idea of taking a traditionally negative metaphor based on stereotypes of Jewish people and turning it into a positive one based on the actual experiences of LGBTQ people.  I know people will complain about “social justice ruining their favorite things” but well… too bad?  If you can’t continue to enjoy a work because other people interpret it differently than you, maybe you should reevaluate your priorities.

What I love is seeing how modern fans of older works deal with these discrepancies between what’s written and what they believe.  One of the most wonderful things about fiction is that you can do whatever you want with it.  There’s a reason there’s so much fanfiction out there, and why headcanon tumblrs are so popular.  I’m a firm believer in the Death of the Author hypothesis, where as soon as a writer sends their work out into the world, it is no longer theirs, and imposing that one strict viewpoint on it is too limiting, and misses the point of creation.  The word of the author outside of canon can be interpreted however one wishes, including outright dismissal.

A few days ago, I saw two posts by the same author floating around tumblr that inspired me to want to write all of this.  They’re so good that I’m now officially incorporating them into my own idea of D&D dwarfs.  Hell, it makes me want to run a dwarf-centric campaign, which is something I’ve never done before.  The author incorporates this inherent sexism into why dwarfs stop correcting humans as to their gender, and why they’re so stingy with trade agreements, and really it’s just wonderful and please read them (it will literally take you two minutes to actually read, but you might spend an hour thinking about it).

I guess my point is that interpretation is more up to the reader than the author, and since that’s the case, we might all have an obligation to explore interpretations outside of what the author literally intended.  Racebending and genderbending, headcanons like these, alternate universes, they’re all so important because it allows the reader/viewer to become closer with a work of fiction.  It’s unfortunate, but I don’t see mainstream media production getting any better at minority representation or gender equality any time soon, so for now, as fans, we all need to be able to find ourselves in works that might otherwise exclude us.  And because goddamnit, I’m going to play a female dwarf if I want to.

13 comments for “Dwarfs, Gender, and the Death of the Author

  1. May 16, 2014 at 12:43 pm

    “It can be assumed that they must exist (unless dwarfs reproduce asexually, which I can’t say I’ve ever seen, but would be very interesting)” — On the TV show Once Upon a Time, they somewhat imply that they may reproduce asexually and that female Dwarves actually do not exist:


    “Dwarves are born from eggs, though how they come into existence is not known as there is no such thing as a female dwarf, and all dwarves that hatch from eggs are male in gender.”

    • May 17, 2014 at 2:57 am

      That’s really cool! Once Upon A Time has been on my list of shows to check out for a long time, so it might have just gotten bumped up the priority list, hahaha.

      • May 17, 2014 at 11:24 am

        I really enjoyed the Grumpy the Dwarf centric episode in season 1 a lot… 😉 They don’t explicitly say that female dwarves don’t exist (or male fairies) but it seems obvious that 100% of Dwarves seen are male (and 100% of Fairies shown are female). In this episode there is a love story between a dwarf and a fairy lol.

        They show the dwarf-eggs, though, which is why I think they seem to reproduce in some way that doesn’t necessarily involve any females.

  2. July 25, 2014 at 4:36 pm

    The reason I spell it “dwarves” and even kinda want to retrofit the singular to “dwarve” or “dwarv” is, of course, the polysemic and unfortunate relationship to real-life dwarfism.
    Your criticism of Tolkien is spot on but at the same time he was a big influence on the early edition demis. Here in Sweden where I’m writing this comment, we still speak ye olde not-so-thought-through language and we have the same word for Tolkien dwarves, germanic “duergar” & real-life humans with dwarfism.
    The other day I was showing 5e to my GF and I was using the old Swedish words for the various demis (“alv” for “elf” and so on) but when we came to the dwarf, I found my self spontaneously saying “och det där är en dwarve” = “and that is a dwarf” instead of “och det där är en dvärg” which would be the same old overloaded word.

    (And of course, please don’t misread this as me trying to make out real-life dwarvism as something wholly bad or unspeakable, because I don’t think that. It’s more that I really want the D&D demis separated from real-world phenomena. Just as I don’t want them portrayed as Jewish or Scottish, either.)

    • July 25, 2014 at 6:08 pm

      That’s definitely a really good point. I read an article about Game of Thrones once that was clearly written by someone who had never read/watched any of the series, who had assumed that Tyrion Lannister was a D&D/LOTR-style dwarf instead of a human with dwarfism.

  3. July 26, 2014 at 2:10 pm

    I’ve never read or watched it either. I saw Peter Dinklage (who I remember from The Station Agent) on The Daily Show so I knew that Tyrion was played by him.

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