Once a Dwarf – always a Dwarf? From the Nauglath to the Heirs of Durin
Part I: The roots of Tolkien’s dwarves.
by Anjy Roemelt
When Tolkien’s mythology first became movie-material the dwarves were sadly underrepresented. At the Council of Elrond some were present who were never named (just like several elves, to be fair), one with a gorgeous white beard who entered Rivendell with Gimli could only be Gloín, and then there was Gimli. In the book the enmity, or rather antagonism, between dwarves and elves is mentioned more or less casually. Much more emphasis is put upon the friendship between Gimli and Legolas and how exceptional it is. Apart from that, Gimli appears to be strangely distant from the other members of the Fellowship. He represents his race the same way it is described throughout the novel: strange, aloof, different. We catch glimpses of a different culture, kept secret from the other “free races” of Middle-Earth when he reveals some ancient dwarvish names to his companions, and especially when Galadriel does this. The meeting with Galadriel, and Gimli’s adoration for her, seems even stranger than the representation of dwarves so far. Gimli is struck by the beauty and loveliness of the Elf as if these were things totally unbeknownst to the dwarves. The parting scene at Parth- Galen has a touch of healing, resurrection, and redemption about it. The people that walked in darkness have seen a great light (Isaiah 9:2). We will see later why this connection is utterly plausible.
Film-Gimli adds an element of humour to the story, something book-Gimli never intended to do, and neither did Tolkien, I’m sure. When Gimli is pulled up on the ledge in Moria by his beard – much to his chagrin – or refuses to be “tossed”, or when he plays a drinking game with Legolas after the victory at Helm’s Deep, we deal with Peter Jackson’s dwarves much more than with Tolkien’s. So, I will dwell only briefly on this aspect for it really doesn’t concern the Naugrim/Nauglath, the dwarves Tolkien had in mind. These elements in the film serve the dwarvish representation in so far as they underline their strangeness. “Little hairy women”, dwarves aren’t tossed – ah, we are learning something about a different culture here. So we are, in fact, but we remain on the outside laughing at what we don’t understand or what seems funny from our point of view. Not much different from “civilized” folks gaping at the exotic customs of some “crude natives” on a tourist attraction.
When Tolkien created the dwarves they were by no means what we see now in The Hobbit: An Unexpected journey. At first, they weren’t even necessarily counted among the “good guys”, so Tolkien saw the need to specify in the appendices to The Lord of the Rings that the dwarves “were never evil by nature”.
The dwarves were not made by Iluvatar but by the Vala Aule who was impatient to see the latter themes of Iluvatar’s music unfold, and thought of adding something of his own talent. Unlike Melkor (the disobedient Vala who started Evil in the world), who tried to change the theme itself, Aule only took what was already created – stone, for example – and gave it a living form. And very unlike Melkor he repented when Iluvatar – inevitably – found out, and prepared to destroy his creatures. When the newly created dwarves, mostly called the “seven fathers” afterwards, shied away from his hammer and wept for fear, Aule realized that they had life of their own. Until then they had only moved when he willed them to, like puppets, for only Iluvatar can give independent life and free will – to move, for instance. So, Iluvatar’s acceptance was already given even before Aule repented and the dwarves’ existence condoned. Still, they are strange not only in appearance but in origin. Something which is not made by Iluvatar can be understood as not made by God in our-world’s terms. A strange conception. Thus the scene with Galadriel mentioned above is called to mind. The people whose origin lies outside the source of beauty and bliss, which the elves represent, are called home, enabled to receive the same blessing the “real” children of Iluvatar possess. They are adopted into every right and maybe always had been but never knew before.
There is a line in History of Middle-Earth (the Book of Lost Tales Part II) that tells about the dwarves’ origin. “The Nauglath are a strange race and none know surely whence they be, and they serve not Melko nor Manwe and reck not for Elf or Man, and some say that they have not heard of Iluvatar, or hearing disbelieve.” The dwarves, take it or leave it, are a heathen people.
It takes time for them to be “baptized”. The story of the Nauglamir (or Nauglafring in earlier writings) displays their doubtful character. The elvenking Thingol/Tinwelint orders a beautiful necklace of dwarvish making, sometimes with a Silmaril, sometimes without. The dwarves make it and afterwards are either betrayed by Thingol or don’t want to surrender it – anyway they make away with it and much bloodshed takes place. The enmity between dwarves and elves dates back to these events which are linked with the story of the Silmarils in The Silmarillion and also with the tale of Turin thereat, and in The Children of Hurin. The dwarves are described as craftsmen of surpassing excellency, but also reluctant to part with their treasures, and certainly less noble than the elves (although at least some blame stays with Thingol even in The Silmarillion).
The only dwarf who is mentioned by name and features in a tale is Mîm, the petty dwarf, and he is rather a doubtful character. The origin of the petty-dwarves isn’t explained, only that they are the last of their race. Thus they seem to be different from “real” dwarves, but if there is an explanation for this difference I haven’t found it yet in Tolkien’s writings. Mîm and two of his kin meet with Turin and his band, are taken for enemies, and shot at. Mîm is captured and talks his captors out of killing him by promising them food and lodging and, maybe, bounty in his home. He leads them there and discovers that an arrow sent at the three of them has hit his mark and killed his son Kîm. Turin is deeply sorry for that. Mîm and his surviving son Ibun play host to Turin and his men, but here is no talk about a developing friendship. When Mîm is captured again by orcs (in The Children of Hurin he seeks them on purpose, out of hatred for Beleg the elf, who was Turin’s companion and friend) he betrays Turin and his men, and leads the orcs to his house. Despite whatever flaws Turin has in that story, he’s the hero in the Mîm-episode, and Mîm, for all his grief over his son, is perceived as a miserable traitor.
Amid all these fragments of stories, writings, tales and slips of paper, The Hobbit appears, like something fallen from a different planet. The dwarves who appear on Bilbo’s threshold one fine evening in April are very different from the creators of the Nauglamir, or Mîm and his sons. They are garden-gnomes, or very close relatives. Their beards are coloured, as are their hoods. They are easily discouraged, bear grudges, and are mostly interested in trades, business and, of course, gold. All in all – as Tolkien almost apologetically states when the hidden door to the Mountain is finally found – they are no heroes.
They seem strange enough with all the colourful appearance mentioned above, but there is nothing of the ancient race we glimpse in Gimli. They are mainly connected with the gold of Erebor, a real treasure hunt, and they are the treasure-hunters, while Gandalf, Bilbo, the lake-men, and the elves of Mirkwood seem much more noble and, in some way, stranger than they are. Actually, the dwarves in The Hobbit are a lot more human than ever before or after dwarves of Tolkien’s making were allowed to be. In this aspect, Peter Jackson is very close to the book. His dwarves are more human than the elves. The scene in Rivendell, the comparison between lunch-with-Elrond and lunch-with-Bombur is almost hilarious – for everyone but the elven harpist who will miss his instrument the following day.
In this case the book The Hobbit is far less connected with the whole bulk of Tolkien’s writing than is the movie. In creating his dwarves, Peter Jackson drew not only upon The Hobbit but also upon The Silmarillion, The Unfinished Tales (“The Quest of Erebor”), and The Lord of the Rings. Elements of all these books are present in the thirteen dwarves displayed in the film as the Company of Thorin Oakenshield.
How these connect with the Nauglath of old shall be the subject of a second part of this essay soon to come.