Encyclopedia of Fantasy (1997)

The two most popular beings to be included in Heroic Fantasy as either Companions to or enemies of humans are dwarfs and Elves, yet the origins of these two groups of beings are confusing. In Nordic mythology the Alfar (elves) comprise one of the four main groups of dwarfs, but in Celtic mythology the elves are part of the land of Faerie, distinct from the dwarfs, who are creatures of the Earth. In most Genre Fantasy the dwarfs are craftsmen and inventors. They are often associated with Mines, and may be portrayed as greedy and covetous, particularly of gold. They are small, but solidly built and strong, almost always bearing beards and wielding axes. Sometimes they are described as drawing their power from the Earth. In this sense they may be synonymous with gnomes, and to a lesser extent with kobolds (see Goblins) and leprechauns. All these strands emphasize the diminutive and mischievous aspects, but dwarfs are also warlike. It is possible the notion originated in Nordic perceptions of the Asian races that invaded Europe in the 4th and 5th centuries AD, particularly the Huns – Attila, for example, was apparently only just over 4ft tall.

The traditional dwarf-figure is drawn from Nordic Fantasy, particularly the Volsunga Saga and Nibelungenlied (see Sagas). Here the dwarfs were closely associated with the Aesir. The most famous was Alberich (or Andvari), who guarded the treasure of the Nibelungs. Dwarfs are also depicted as being among the powers of Evil who lurk beneath the roots of the World-Tree Yggdrasil. As the sagas devolved into Folktales dwarfs were regularly depicted as scheming and cunning, and in this form they found their way into Fairytales, of which "The Yellow Dwarf" (in Les contes de fées coll 1698) by Madame d'Aulnoy is one of the earliest. Here the dwarf becomes betrothed to the princess All-Fair against her wishes, but is determined to marry her at all costs; the tragic ending is in keeping with current attitudes towards dwarf villainy. This image was utilized by the German Romantics (see Romanticism), especially J K Musäus and Ludwig Tieck, and translated into popular fairytales by the Grimm Brothers, who depicted evil dwarfs in "Snow White and Rose Red" and the helpful but cunning gnome in "Rumpelstiltskin". Interestingly, the dwarfs in "Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs" are friendly and intensely loyal to the young princess (see Snow White). The goblins in The Princess and the Goblin (1872) by George MacDonald are akin to dwarfs, and that image pervaded most Victorian Children's Fantasy. A lighter-hearted image was given to the dwarflike beings, the Munchkins, in L Frank Baum's The Wonderful Wizard of Oz (1900).

Modern treatments of dwarfs can be traced to J R R Tolkien, who drew upon both Nordic myth and some of the mischievous aspects in the works of E A Wyke-Smith to depict his dwarves (as he spelled it) in The Hobbit (1937); these have all the aspects of traditional dwarfs, including squabbling belligerence, but are essentially good. The influence of Tolkien's works, especially The Lord of the Rings (1954-1955), on modern Genre Fantasy has meant that dwarfs have now become stock characters in most Heroic Fantasy (notably the works of Terry Brooks, Neil Hancock, Guy Gavriel Kay and, tongue-in-cheek, Terry Pratchett). Something of this same image is perpetuated in Terry Gilliam's Time Bandits (1981). The evil nature of diminutive folk (not necessarily of supernatural origin), however, continues to be a trope, as in Daphne Du Maurier's "Don't Look Now" (1971) and William Hjortsberg's Alp (1969): in both cases dwarfs are the source of violent death. [MA]

This entry is taken from the Encyclopedia of Fantasy (1997) edited by John Clute and John Grant. It is provided as a reference and resource for users of the SF Encyclopedia, but apart from possible small corrections has not been updated.