Dwarves have been a staple of mythic fantasies since the ancient Norse sagas. In those most ancient of stories they were blacksmiths and miners, and in fact were responsible for forging many of the weapons of the gods, including the fabled hammer of Thor, Mjolnir. A shrewd race, they were proud, stubborn and did not take lightly to being cheated. The dwarves persisted throughout the Norse mythology and as Northern Europe converted to Christianity, the dwarves remained and became part of the fairy stories. They were again miners and workers, and seemed to pop up in many stories; most memorable was the story of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.
Tolkien was no stranger to these characters, and while one dwarf, Gimli, was a member of the Fellowship of the Ring, they featured more heavily in The Hobbit. The Lord of the Rings is more concerned with the affairs of humans, elves, and Hobbits in the Great War of the Ring. In contrast, The Hobbit, comes across as a children’s fairy tale and is more focused on “the little people”: the exploits of Bilbo Baggins and the dwarves.
Tolkien’s dwarves are a proud and noble culture with a deep and rich heritage. They are very honorable, and will stay with a journey or quest or even project until the very end. As Gimli himself sums up their loyalty and honor best in the book when he says, “Faithless is he who says farewell as the road darkens.”
Actor John Rhys-Davies who played Gimli said of his character,
“Suspicious, paranoid, quick to quarrel, yet he shows unquestionable loyalty…and his protectivness….is endearing. Above all, there is his fearlessness in the face of overwhelming odds, so that even when confronted with certain death, he will always turn and fight.”
Gimli will fight to the death any one who dares to besmirch the lady Galadriel, and despite their early animosity he becomes great friends with theEelf Prince Legolas, even to the point that they are willing to die with each other. Gimli was even granted permission from Galadriel to sail with Legolas to Valinor and was the only dwarf to be given such an honor. Ironically, during The Hobbit, Gimli’s father Gloin, his uncles Oin, Thorin and several of his cousins would be imprisoned by Thranduril, King of Mirkwood, Legolas’ father. This was one of the many reasons Legolas and Gimli did not get along at first, and what makes their friendship so powerful in the end.
Some further animosity towards the elves comes from a deep seated resentment against them since the very dawn of Middle-earth. Aulë, one of the Valar had wished to create beings that he could share his own lore and skills with, such as forging steel. However he was impatient and would not wait for the designs of Illuvatar to be fulfilled and as such fashioned the dwarves as they were. Illuvatar wished to hear his explanation for what he had done. As Aulë, ever impatient, was about to smite the dwarves, Illuvatar told him to stop as he saw the dwarves cowering in fear. He had already accepted Aulë’s explanation and it was more than satisfactory. They would be Illuvatar’s children as well, but they would have to wait in sleep until the coming of the races of Elves and Men.
In The Silmarillion it says,
“Since they were to come in the days of the power of Melkor, Aulë made the Dwarves strong to endure. Therefore they are stone-hard, stubborn, fast in friendship and in enmity, and they suffer toil and hunger and hurt of body more hardily that all the other speaking people’s and they live long, far beyond the span of Men, yet not forever.”
Neil Finn’s “Song of the Lonely Mountain” from the Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey captures this spirit perfectly:
“Some folk we never forget/ Some kind we never forgive/Haven’t seen the end of it yet/We’ll fight as long as we live/ All eyes on the hidden door/ To the lonely mountains borne/ We’ll ride on the gathering storm/ Until we get our long forgotten Gold.”
Because of their stubbornness, the dwarves are difficult to corrupt. This was discovered by Sauron when he tried to use the Power of the One Ring to bend the will of the seven dwarven rings to his will. Their natural love for treasure and well-crafted things could be inflamed to greed, but they could not be controlled by the rings. We learn in the Tale of Durin’s folk from the Appendix of Return of the King, that goes into some of the back story of the dwarves that,
“…They were made from their beginning of a kind to resist most steadfast any domination. Though they could be slain or broken, they could not be reduced to shadows enslaved to another will; and for the same reason their lives were not affected by any Ring, to live either longer or shorter because of it. All the more did Sauron hate the possessors and desire to deposes them.”
Along with their pride and stubbornness, dwarves are prone to be impatient, a trait perhaps similar to that of their maker, Aulë. They are also, like the dwarfs of Norse myths, prone to avarice, and can be blinded by this trait. This was the case in the Mines of Moria. They dwarves were all too eager to try to recover a precious metal called “Mithril” that is hard as dragon scales. Bilbo owns a coat made of such metal, and Gandalf says it is worth more than the entire Shire. However, like mad scientist, eager to prove their experiments, the dwarves dug too deeply in the mines, never once stopping to ask not if they can do this, but if they should. In the end they awoke a horrifying monster called the Balrog of Morgoth, a creature that killed every dwarf living in Moria.
In spite their short stature, dwarves tend to think of themselves as larger than life and make many boasts about themselves. It should be noted many of the actors who play dwarves in both The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings are quite tall. John Rhys-Davies stands at about 6’1” and Richard Armitage who plays Thorin in The hobbit is 6’2. Armitage relates that,
“I started wondering, how do I play somebody short? Then I immediately thought, well, I need to do the opposite: I need to play somebody who believes they’re tall, who believes they belong in a towering race.’ The Dwarves have huge underground kingdoms, so as far as they’re concerned, they are six-foot-two.”
Further, the dwarves that come to see Bilbo at his house on their unexpected party are a people on a mission. In essence they are a people displaced from their homeland and they want to get it back. They are not just treasure hunters, but freedom fighters. While the dragon may have their treasure, and the fabled Arkenstone, he more importantly has their home beneath the Misty Mountains. Since the Dwarves are stubborn and hard willed and do not forgive easily, this is a crime that must be dealt with.
Corey Olson notes that,
“As a result, the dwarves quest takes on a tone of much greater moral seriousness. The dragon is not just a very dangerous guardian of the treasure. He is an evil creature, and his domination of this land is a great evil that needs to be remedied. As Balin (one of the dwarves) stands next to Bilbo under the “grey and silent cliffs” of the mountainside, he shares with the hobbit his own recollections, which contrast poignantly with their present surroundings….. Smaug has not only murdered hundreds of people but strangled the life of an entire region.”
While they may sing a silly ditty after dinner about breaking all of Bilbo’s stuff, if for no other reason then to get on the nerves of the up-tight Hobbit, when they sing their song of the Misty Mountain, it is something else entirely. This song describes their true intent, and their purpose. This is not the dwarves from Disney’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs singing “High-Ho” (a film Tolkien hated), but something much richer and far more meaningful. Appropriately when we hear it in the trailers for The Hobbit movie it has a sound like an American spiritual: a song born out of great sadness and pain and resonating with a deep longing. Tolkien describes the song like this,
“And suddenly first one and then another began to sing as they played, deep-throated singing of the dwarves in the deep places of their ancient homes… As they sang the Hobbit felt the love of beautiful things made by hands and by cunning and by magic moving through him, a fierce and jealous love, the desire of the hearts of the dwarves…He shuddered… He got up trembling.”
It is perhaps hearing this song, which wakens something up inside Bilbo that causes him to agree to go with these characters that he has never met. The Dwarves are named Fili, Kili, Bifur, Bofur, Bombur, Dwalin, Balin, Oin, Gloin,Nori, Ori, Dori and their leader, Thorin Oakenshield. Because of this great number of dwarves, some have pointed out that a lot of them aren’t as well-developed as others. Some were even thinking that in order to do the movie director Peter Jackson may cut the number down to something manageable.
However, one look at the trailers and all propmotional materials from the movie and it was plain to see that all 13 dwarves are present and accounted for. Among them, the one that is perhaps the most well-defined and developed, is Thorin. Tolkien refers to him as a great dwarf with proud bearing. Even his name a lone sounds like something strong and mighty, as the root of his name was derived from the Norse deity “Thor”.
Oakenshield is derived from the Oak tree, which is known for being among the strongest and sturdiest of the trees. The wood of the oak tree has the strongest density, and was favored in the northern climates for building homes. The Vikings even constructed their ships of this wood , and the oak itself was seen as a symbol of Thor. It is a tree whose roots run deep and strong. When a great storm comes they do not bend or break, but are simply uprooted.
This something that describes Thorin perfectly. He is strong, sturdy, and will not bend or break for anything. His roots run deep and strong, and though he may be uprooted he is not shattered. This title of “Oakenshield”, according to Tolkien’s wealth of back-story, came from a battle in his youth. During a battle against Orcs, Thorin used a giant ( for him) oak branch as a club and a shield to defend himself.
Thorin has another title. “King Under the Mountain”, a title he inherited when his father was killed. His quest is not just about reclaiming treasure, or gaining back their home lands, but taking back his rightful throne. He had been 24 years of age when Smaug took their home beneath Mount Erebor thereby disposing the king. Thorin was among the remnant of dwarfs to survive that nightmarish encounter.
Their song describes that day in haunting detail,
“The pines were roaring on the heights,
The wind was moaning in the night,
The fire was red, it flaming spread,
The trees like torches blazed with light.
The bells were ringing in the dale,
And men looked up with faces pale.
The dragon’s ire, more fierce than fire,
Laid low their towers and houses frail.
The mountain smoked beneath the moon.
The dwarves, they heard the tramp of doom.
They fled the hall to dying fall….
This is the kind of image that would stay with any one, especially a dwarf like Thorin. His quest is a personal matter, one steeped in honor and vengeance against the dragon who took everything from his people. We learn that overtime,
“The years lengthened. The embers of the heart of Thorin grew hot again, as he brooded on the wrongs of his house and the vengeance upon the dragon he had inherited. He thought of weapons and armies and alliances, as his great hammer rang in his forge; but the armies were dispersed and the alliances broken and the axes of his people few, and a great anger without hope burned him as he smote the red iron on the anvil.”
Then, seemingly by chance, he came in contact with Gandalf. He only knew him by sight and reputation as Gandalf had appeared to him in dreams and tales of the wizard spread throughout Middle-earth. He knows how powerful the wizard is and that perhaps he could be a powerful ally in gaining back the dwarves home and the Arkenstone. Since Gandalf wishes to have the dragon removed from the picture in regards to Sauron, he agrees to help them.
Because Thorin is the king, and because this quest is a great personal matter to him, he is the most serious of the dwarves. Thorin comes across as grim, liking the dark of the Hobbit hole during their song, as it was, in his words, dark for dark business. While the other twelve sing their song threatening to break Bilbo’s things, Thorin takes no part in this, but withdraws to a separate room to speak with Gandalf. When he gives a speech to the company, it is in a very regal manner.
For a dwarf of such great importance as Thorin, he is not impressed with Gandalf’s choice in having Bilbo Baggins join them. This is perhaps most telling in the simple fact that the other twelve dwarves are in some way related to Thorin. This is a matter of family as the sins of Smaug were against their family and must be avenged by family. He may want the help of a wizard, but to Thorin, the Hobbit comes across as “baggage”. Bilbo seems as soft as the mud of the Shire and Thorin suspects that Gandalf may have other purposes in mind.
Gandalf tells him,
“You are quite right… If I had no other purpose, I would not be helping you at all. Great as your affairs may seem to you, they are only a small strand in the great web. I am concerned with many strands.”
Because of the importance of his quest, he is all too quick to dismiss Bilbo as a problem when he goes missing. However, after their “baggage” saves them from some giant spiders and the episode when they escape from the dungeons of Mirkwood due to Bilbo’s help he comes to respect the little Hobbit. His trust and respect have to be earned, not given, and it’s only by proving oneself to him that it can be given. This respect is proven when Thorin gives to Bilbo the coat of Mithril as part of his shares in the spoils of their conquest. The Hobbit proved to be brave and useful and therefore earned not only Thorin’s trust and loyalty, but such an esteemed gift.
However, greed over takes Thorin all too easily and his pride is easily wounded. When the King of Dale comes to Thorin demanding a share of the wealth of treasure to rebuild the kingdom of Dale, as Bard the Bowman one of the men, was the one to slay Smaug, thereby granting him a right to the treasure, Thorin refuses. The treasure is their’s as their rightful inheritance. He is ready to starve himself, the other dwarves and Bilbo in the mountain to keep it.
It takes the resourcefulness of Bilbo to try to forestall a coming battle as Bilbo sneaks the Arkenstone out of the treasure chamber and gives it to the king of Dale to use as a bargaining chip. Gandalf watches all this and is impressed. The hope is that not only that the Hobbit’s actions prevent a war, but perhaps that this can help Thorin grow as a leader.
Scholar Devin Brown notes that,
“Thorin… has needed the example of Bilbo’s goodness to prompt his return to the path of wisdom and who needs the opportunity to take the final step in his redemption… in Thorin’s confession and restoration we see another way that Bilbo’s adventure has not been just for his sole benefit….In The Hobbit, Thorin’s soul is in peril…”
While noble, Thorin is far to consumed by his own pride, anger, pain, and later his greed. If Thorin is to truly be a king, he must put aside these traits and embrace humility, peace and generosity. He must learn to give as much as take. After all, Smaug the Dragon was full of pride and greed and took things only for himself, even if he didn’t need them. Thorin may be The Oakensheild, but he still needs to learn to be like the branches of a mighty oak tree and bend and sway with the wind, otherwise he could surely be uprooted from his place.
Brown, Devin. The Christian World of the Hobbit Abingdon Books 2012
Brawn, David. The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers: Creatures Houghton Mifflin Harcourt 2002
Colbert, David. The Magical Worlds of Lord of the Rings Berkley Books. 2002.
Day, David. A Guide to Tolkien’s World: A Bestiary. Metro Books Edition 2010
( Film) Jackson, Peter ( Dir.) The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring 2001 New Line Cinema
(Film)Jackson, Peter. ( Dir.) The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers.2002 New Line Cinema
(Film) Jackson, Peter. (Dir.) The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King. 2003 New Line Cinema.
Olson, Corey. Pg. 197. Exploring JRR Tolkien’s The Hobbit. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt 2012
Sibley, Brian The Lord of the Rings Official Movie Guide Houghton Mifflin Harcourt 2001
Sibley Brian The Hobbit Official Movie Guide Houghton Mifflin Harcourt 2012
Tolkien, JRR. The Hobbit 1937, 1966, 1981, 2001. Del-Ray MTi.
Tolkien JRR. The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Rings 1955, 1965, 2001 Del-Ray MTi.
Tolkien, JRR The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers 1955, 1965, 2001 Del-Ray MTi.
Tolkien, JRR The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King 1955, 1965, 2001 Del-Ray MTi.
Tolkien, JRR: The Silmarillion. 1977, 1999 Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
Tolkien, JRR: “The Quest for Erebor” Unfinished Tales 1981. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
Tolkien, JRR. The Letters of JRR Tolkien .Edited by Humphrey Carpenter. 1981. Allan and Unwin
This blog is not authorized, endorsed, approved or prepared by any persons involved in the creation or ownership of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. The views and opinions expressed in this blog are strictly those of the author and do not in any way reflect the views or ownership of the JRR Tolkien Estate, the Saul Zaentz Company, Houghton Mifflin Books, Warner Brothers Studios, AOL-Time-Warner Inc., New Line Cinema, Peter Jackson or any other persons or parties involved in the creation or ownership of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings films and books.
Poster of Thorin and the dwarves from The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey.