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Tolkien's Dwarves

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The works of JRR Tolkien describe the fictional world of Middle Earth. This is inhabited by a number of different types of 'speaking peoples' - those creatures gifted with intelligence. While there are many evil creatures who can speak, the main ones on the side of Good are Men (humans similar to us), Elves, Hobbits and Dwarves. 

The Dwarves are a hardy race, small and stocky, being generally about five feet high (1.5m). They are very strong and can endure great hardship without much ill effects, although this doesn't stop them grumbling about it. Dwarf men have big beards.

Dwarf women don't come into the stories at all. The men don't like to talk about them much, but it appears that they are rare - most Dwarves born are male. The women are treasured and rarely come out of their homes. On the other hand, they look so similar to the men that non-Dwarves can't tell them from the Dwarf men. This strongly implies that they must have beards too. Only one Dwarf woman is named in all of Tolkien's work, and even then only in an appendix: Dís is the sister of Thorin Oakenshield and mother of Fili and Kili.

Dwarves are generally considered grim folk. They can be jolly and like to eat, drink and sing songs, but they are easily offended and never forget a grievance. They are very loyal to their friends, going to any length to help them. Dwarves live a lot longer than Men, generally about 250 years. They are very good at working metal and stone, and as a result tend to do a lot of mining. Dwarves are happiest when they are living underground.

In battle, Dwarves like to use axes rather than swords or spears.

The Creation of the Dwarves

Most races and cultures have a Creation Myth. The legend about the creation of the Dwarves is told in The Silmarillion.

The Creator of the Universe, Illúvatar, planned a world with both mortal Men and immortal Elves. He revealed this plan to his servants, the Valar, powerful angelic creatures who worked together to create the sea, the land, and the animals and plants that lived there. One of the most powerful of the Valar was known as Aulë (pronounced 'ow-lay') although the Dwarves call him Mahal. Aulë was given the task of creating Middle Earth itself, as he was good with materials like rock, metal and water. He did his job well, but remembering the plan for intelligent people, he didn't want to wait for them to be made at the appointed time, so he decided to make his own people. He made the Dwarves, and he made them strong and steadfast because he knew there would be hardship in the newly created world.

Aulë's first Dwarves didn't function properly - they operated like robots. They could move around and follow commands but they didn't have any free will. Illúvatar the Creator told Aulë that this was because only he could create free will, turning animated matter into thinking, feeling creatures. As a favour to Aulë, because the Vala had meant no harm in creating the new creatures, Illúvatar gave them life and turned them into proper people - the first true Dwarves were born. But the time was not right for intelligent creatures; Illúvatar wouldn't allow them to live in Middle Earth until his own creation, the Elves, had awoken. So Aulë put his Dwarves to sleep in various places around Middle Earth, and they slept until the appointed time, when they awoke as if newborn.


According to Dwarf legend, there were seven of these 'Founding Fathers', although the legend says nothing of any founding mothers - presumably they were there too. The first to awake was Durin, and he was considered the most important of all the Dwarves. He lived a long time, and in that time he founded the city of Khazad-dûm under the three highest peaks of the Misty Mountains.

Durin lived so long that he became known as 'Durin the Deathless', but he did eventually die. Nevertheless, the Dwarves believe that he was re-incarnated - five times in their history a dwarf was born so like the original Durin that he was considered to be the reincarnated spirit of Durin the Deathless and was also given the name Durin.

The dwarves descended from Durin were known as the 'Longbeards' and all the dwarves we meet in The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings are of this tribe.

Dwarf Cities

The Dwarves had a few great cities. In the First Age, they built the cities of Belegost and Nogrod in the Blue Mountains. They also helped to build the Halls of the Elvenking Elu Thingol who ruled the guarded kingdom of Doriath. These Halls were underground and the only entrance was via a bridge across a fast-flowing river1. All of these were destroyed and sunk beneath the sea in the upheaval of the war between the Valar and Morgoth at the end of the First Age.

The first, and mightiest Dwarf city, however was Khazad-dûm beneath the Misty Mountains. It was the only place in the world where a special metal called mithril could be mined. Mithril was as strong as steel, shone like silver and was light so that mithril armour would not weigh the wearer down. In the Second Age, the Elves set up a kingdom called Eregion, Land of Holly, just to the west of the Dwarf city and there was much cooperation between the Elves and Dwarves. Unfortunately, Sauron waged war on the Elves and the land of Eregion was laid waste. The survivors fled northward, led by Elrond, and settled in the valley of Rivendell.

About half way through the Third Age, a thousand years before the events of The Hobbit, the dwarves of Khazad-dûm dug too deep and uncovered a monster who had been sleeping there for millennia. It killed their king, Durin VI, so they called it Durin's Bane. The monster drove the dwarves out of Khazad-dûm and the city became an evil place, known by the Elvish name Moria, the Black Pit. It was only a thousand years later that the monster was identified as a balrog, one of the fire spirits used by Morgoth to wreak destruction on the land.

The dwarves fleeing from Moria set up the last great Dwarf city, Erebor, the Kingdom under the Lonely Mountain. They lived there for about 800 years before the dragon Smaug came and destroyed the city.

Why Elves Hate Dwarves

Throughout the stories there is evidence of dislike between Elves and Dwarves. Elves like to be above ground and Dwarves are happier under it. Elves love trees while Dwarves love axes. But there were a few different types of Elves. Galadriel and Elrond were of a type called the Noldor, referred to in The Hobbit as the 'Deep Elves', and these were famous for their love of stone, of building and of working with materials to make things. The Noldor were High Elves who had lived across the sea in Valinor, the land of the Valar. There they met Aulë and they learnt many skills from him. The Noldor were thus particularly friendly with the Dwarves, and it was Noldorin elves who set up the kingdom of Eregion right next to the biggest Dwarf city in the world. That was certainly a case of Elves and Dwarves getting along together.

Dwarves of the Blue Mountains cities also fought alongside the Elves in one of the battles against Morgoth in the First Age. It is said that they wounded and drove back the dragon Glaurung, preventing much death and destruction.

One explanation of the bad will between Dwarves and Elves is told in The Silmarillion. The Sindar were 'almost' High Elves. They lived in Beleriand, the land that once lay to the west of the Blue Mountains. They were ruled by the High Elf Elu Thingol and his wife, Melian the Maia. Under their guidance, the Sindar became the most sophisticated elves in Middle Earth, at least until the Noldor arrived from Valinor. Thingol commissioned some dwarves from the city of Nogrod to make him a beautiful necklace and in it set the Silmaril, the shining jewel which had been the cause of so much trouble and wars. The dwarves did this in a room deep in Thingol's Halls of Menegroth. They were so overcome by the beauty of what they had made that they refused to give it over to him. Thingol became all haughty and overbearing, insulting the dwarves, so they killed him and made a run for it with the necklace. They were quickly pursued by elves, who killed most of them. Two dwarves made it back to Nogrod where they told the story that the King had decided to kill them all to get out of paying for the work. The dwarves were incensed - they sent a battalion of dwarves to Menegroth and there was a battle in which many elves and dwarves were killed. Neither side ever really forgave the other.

It's never explained in The Hobbit why the Elvenking disliked the dwarves so much. But in some of Tolkien's unpublished writings it is said that he was a Sindarin elf, in which case he was probably in Doriath when the dwarves killed the High King, Elu Thingol, and destroyed the kingdom. That would explain a lot.

Dwarf Language

The Dwarves are a secretive race. They don't say much about themselves. While they have their own language, they only speak it among themselves when there are only Dwarves present. In normal day-to-day situations, they use the common speech that everyone uses, even among themselves. As a result, very few words of Dwarvish are known to outsiders.

  • Khazad - Dwarves
  • Khuzdul - the Dwarvish language
  • Baruk Khazâd! Khazâd aimênu! - Axes of the Dwarves! The Dwarves are upon you! - Gimli's battle cry
  • Fundinul - son of Fundin
  • Uzbad - lord
  • Khazad-dûm - the Mansion of the Dwarves
  • Khazad-dûmu - of Khazad-dûm

There are a few place names for which the Dwarvish name is known, because Gimli tells them to the Company of the Ring. They are mainly around Moria:

  • Khazad-dûm - Moria
  • Barazinbar - the Redhorn mountain, tallest of the three mountains above Moria, known in Elvish as Caradhras
  • Zirakzigil - the Silvertine mountain
  • Bundushâthur - the Cloudyhead mountain
  • Azanulbizar - the Dimrill Dale, the valley to the east of the gates of Moria
  • Kheled-zâram - the Mirrormere, the lake in the Dimrill Dale
  • Kibil-nâla - the Silverlode river that flows from the Mirrormere
  • Gabilgathol - a Dwarf city of the First Age, known in Elvish as Belegost
  • Tumunzahar - a Dwarf city of the First Age, known in Elvish as Nogrod

Other names associated with the Dwarves are Elvish, or in the common tongue, Tolkien's equivalent of English: Erebor, for example, is Elvish and means 'Lonely Mountain'. The everyday names of the dwarves such as Thorin, Gimli etc, are in the common tongue. Every dwarf also had a name in Dwarvish which they never revealed to a non-Dwarf.

We normally associate the Elves with a rounded, flowing script called the Tengwar, while the Dwarves used angular runes. In The Hobbit, Tolkien used English runes for the maps, but in The Lord of the Rings he created a separate runic alphabet for the Dwarves to use, which he called the Cirth. In fact in the stories, both the Tengwar and the Cirth runes were invented by Elves - the Tengwar by the Elves of Valinor and the runes by the Elves of Middle Earth. The Dwarves adopted the runes because they were suited to carving in stone2, but we know that at least one dwarf, Ori, used the Tengwar for writing in books.

Dwarf Rings

Sauron the Dark Lord had the ability to take on different shapes - to gain the confidence of the Elves of the Second Age, he took the form of a good-looking man and approached the elves of Eregion calling himself Annatar, Lord of Gifts. He worked with them, learning from them and also teaching them much. Together the elves and Sauron forged magic rings - the elves made three rings for themselves, and Sauron made another 17. Nine of these were for Men, seven for Dwarves and he kept one for himself. His plan was to bind all the rings to his one Ruling Ring - his plan failed in that the elves figured out what he was doing and stopped using their rings, so they were never enslaved.

The nine rings were given to nine important men who gradually came under Sauron's power. They became immortal but totally enslaved to his will. These were the Nazgûl, the Ringwraiths.

Sauron gave rings to seven important dwarves. Dwarves are so independent-minded that they never submitted to Sauron's will, but the rings inflamed their greed. While this wasn't what Sauron had intended, it served him well, because greedy people are less likely to cooperate with each other. We're not given any details in the books, but he sent orcs and dragons to pick them off one by one. The rings were either retrieved or destroyed by dragon-fire. The last of these rings was the one owned by Thorin's father, Thrain. He was captured by Sauron (known at the time as the Necromancer) and the ring was taken from him.

Mîm the Petty-Dwarf

While the Silmarillion does not have much to say about the Dwarves, there is one who is significant in one of the stories: Mîm the Petty-Dwarf, who comes into the story of Túrin Turambar. It is a story of betrayal.

The Petty-Dwarves were a group who had been banished from the cities of the East. Long before the sun first rose, they wandered west and crossed the Blue Mountains into Beleriand. They found caves on the River Narog and dug them out making them bigger. In later years the Elf-King Finrod Felagund discovered these caves and founded the hidden city of Nargothrond there. The Petty Dwarves resented this, although it appears that they had already abandoned the caves at this stage. The Petty Dwarves had never been very successful and gradually died out until there were only three left: Mîm and his two sons, Khîm and Ibun. They lived at Amon Rûdh in the south of Beleriand, in a secret house in caves under the hill. Mîm's fate was sealed when he encountered Túrin.

Túrin was the unluckiest man alive; his family had been cursed by Morgoth, the greatest and the most evil of the Valar. Despite being tall, dark, handsome and a master swordsman, bad luck followed him and death surrounded him wherever he went. Various people he met during his life were killed, either by him directly or by events caused by him. He accidentally killed his best friend, Beleg. When he became an important leader in the city of Nargothrond, he persuaded the rulers to abandon their policy of secrecy, and the city was then attacked and destroyed by a dragon, Glaurung. The elf-maiden that he loved was dragged away by orcs but he failed to rescue her. Early in his career, Túrin took up with a band of outlaws. They came upon Mîm and his sons, who ran away. They managed to catch Mîm, but shot an arrow at Khîm, who was killed. Mîm agreed to let them live in his secret house as the price for his own freedom. Túrin stayed there with his band of outlaws for a whole year.

Near the end of the year, Mîm and his son were out collecting roots for food when a band of orcs took them captive. Once again the dwarf bought his freedom, this time by betraying Túrin, leading the orcs to the hidden house under the mountain. Túrin's friends were all killed in the attack, but he was taken prisoner and later succeeded in escaping, going on to other exploits which will not be described here.

After the destruction of Nargothrond by the dragon, it was left abandoned. Mîm went there and reclaimed it as the last surviving Petty-Dwarf (we're not told what had happened to his second son Ibun). But his misdeeds caught up on him - Húrin, the father of Túrin, found him there and, knowing that it was the dwarf who had betrayed his son, he slew him.

The Dwarves of 'The Hobbit'

Along with Gandalf and Bilbo, dwarves are the main characters in The Hobbit. There are 13 of them, with funny names, normally given in this order:

Balin, Dwalin, Fili, Kili, Dori, Nori, Ori, Oin, Gloin, Bifur, Bofur, Bombur and Thorin Oakenshield.

Tolkien didn't make up most of these names; he took them from a 13th-Century Icelandic poem, Völuspá of the Elder Edda, changing the spelling slightly to make them more English. The original list gave 37 different dwarfs3, and among them were:

Dvalinn, Fíli, Kíli, Nóri, Óri, Óinn, Bífurr, Bofurr, Bomburr, and Þorinn4, as well as Dáinn, Náinn, Fundinn, Þrór, Þróinn and Gandalfr

Not only do most of Bilbo's companions appear here, but you'll also find other dwarves that are mentioned in the books, such as Dain, the King of the Iron Hills. It may come as a surprise that the name Gandalf was originally that of an Icelandic dwarf.

It's hard to write a story about 13 characters and make them all distinctive. Most of the dwarves in The Hobbit were just generic Dwarves. For example, the only thing we're told about Ori is that he wore a grey hood and played the flute. Only Balin, Fili, Kili, Bombur and Thorin himself really stood out from the rest:

  • Thorin Oakenshield is the heir to the Kingdom under the Lonely Mountain. He was a child when the dragon came and he fled from the mountain with his father Thrain and grandfather Thror. He gets his nickname from an orc-battle: having lost his shield, he grabbed an oak-branch and used it instead. Thorin worked as a miner for 170 years, and now feels it is time to claim his throne. He achieves his aim but greed gets the better of him when others arrive looking for a share of the treasure. He dies in the Battle of the Five Armies.
  • Balin is the oldest of the dwarves on the expedition; he remembers the Lonely Mountain well from before the arrival of the dragon. He is kind and watches out for Bilbo. A few years after the adventure is over, he comes to the Shire to visit Bilbo.
  • Bombur is a very overweight dwarf, and is slow and clumsy. He thinks about food all the time. He falls into the enchanted river in Mirkwood and is sent into a magic sleep. His fellow dwarves then have to carry him for days, with much grumbling. Bombur survives to receive his share of the Erebor treasure, and more than 70 years later we are told he is still going strong and now so fat that he needs two young dwarves to carry him around.
  • Fili and Kili - these are the youngest of the dwarves. Although Thorin calls Fili the youngest at one point, the dates given in The Lord of the Rings show that Kili was actually younger. They were nephews of Thorin and were particularly friendly to Bilbo. Being the youngest they are also particular favourites of the children reading the book. It comes as a great shock that they die defending their uncle in the battle at the end of the book.

In The Lord of the Rings, we meet Gloin again briefly, and we learn that Balin, Ori and Oin went on an expedition to re-claim the abandoned city of Khazad-dûm. Subsequent events reveal that they all died horrible deaths there.


Gimli is the son of Gloin. He is already about 140 years old by the time of The Lord of the Rings, but that isn't considered old for a dwarf. He accompanies the Company of the Ring on their journey to Mordor. When the Company splits up at Rauros, he and Legolas the elf follow Aragorn's lead and stay with him through all his travels until the end of the story. Gimli and Legolas develop a great friendship and go everywhere together. The contrast between the totally competent elf and the bumbling dwarf provides much comic relief in the book.

During the Battle of Helm's Deep, Gimli retreats into the caves behind the fortress and is astounded at their natural beauty, with gem-encrusted walls, translucent sheets of marble and so on. In one of the appendices, we hear that after peace has been restored, he brings a team of dwarves there from Erebor and sets to work improving the caves, opening up new galleries and so on. He earns the title of 'Lord of the Glittering Caves'. After Aragorn's death, Legolas is said to have built a boat and sailed west, leaving Middle Earth. Gimli went with him.

1In later years, this was also the model for the Halls of Thranduil, the Elvenking of The Hobbit, in Mirkwood.2The lack of horizontal lines also make them suited to carving on wood.3Although Tolkien uses the spelling 'Dwarves' for his people, the normal English plural is 'dwarfs' as in 'Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs'.4The symbol Þ is an Icelandic 'Th'.

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