Of Dwarves and Jews

“Daddy Grognard” recently posted a nice dwarf figure and added an intriguing excerpt from a letter by Tolkien mentioning that he thought of dwarves as being more like Jews than tiny Vikings or Scots.

I’ve seen some mention else where that the dwarvish language in Tolkien is very Semitic, despite their Scandinavian personal names (and the dwarves apparently don’t use their true names among outsiders anyway…), and also that dwarvish architecture, being huge and monolithic and with massive columns seems Assyrian or Semitic too.

Could the “model” for the dwarves be Jewish or Semitic? (as the model for the Rohirrim, say, was the Anglo-Saxons?) This puts quite a different, and offensive, spin on dwarvish tropes of beards, large noses, famous craftsmanship, secretiveness about their women, ancestral grudges, and love of battle and gold, doesn’t it?

Might the dwarf-elf enmity be a sign of elvish antisemitism?

Well, there is this quote from an interview, and this academic paper on Dwarves in The Hobbit and LOTR. The paper is actually very good, although the author does stretch things a little. The thesis is that the dwarves of The Hobbit are very different from the the dwarves of LOTR, and that to some extent JRRT was “correcting” his unconsciously antisemitic depiction of dwarves. Very interesting reading.

Published in: Uncategorized on June 25, 2010 at 10:20 am  Comments (14)  
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  1. Weird.
    I always saw tolkien’s elves as jews.
    For many reasons:
    1) They are a wandering people without a nation, and seek a promised land of sorts
    2) Human religion/culture in tolkien is derived from elven culture (in the same way christianity was born from judaism?)
    3) Elves seem to have in middle earth’s history the same role jewish patriarchs have in the bible.
    4) Elven language has an alphabet and a writing system very similar to hebrew

    In addition some traditions call elves and fairies in general “philistine” or “pharisees” (because they do not recognize christ as The saviour deity, just like jews).
    Wikipedia (if you can trust it as a source) says that in some early christian Irish texts jews are referred to as the “Tuatha de”.

    • Yeah, those are all good points. I wonder if someone has earned a Ph.D. comparing the Silmarillion etc. to Bible stories.

  2. Since Tolkien was a somewhat observant Catholic, the Jewish narrative and mythos would be familiar to him – and so I tend to believe that there really is some references to Jews in his works – whether consciously or unconsciously.

    That being said, I always felt that the culture in Middle-Earth most resembling the Jews were… the Dunedain.

    Like the Jews, the Dunedain once had a “United Kingdom” that eventually split into two competing Kingdoms, a northern and southern (Arnor and Gondor = Israel and Judah).

    Like the northern Kingdom of Israel that was destroyed by the Assyrians in 722 BCE, Arnor was also destroyed. The wandering Dunedain or Rangers are akin to “The Lost Tribes of Israel” that some believe were scattered to all the nations.

    Gondor, like Judah, became the “steward” of the faith and the culture, a place-holder until “The Return of the (Northern) King” which is basically the Messiah mythos.

    Anyway, my two shekels.

    • I’m no Tolkien scholar but I would basically agree, and add that there is probably no 1:1 correspondence between any real world population/nation/ethnicity and the various Middle Earth peoples. I would venture a guess that they are all pastiches of various influences, conscious or not, from Tolkien’s vast, vast, studies. We know he consciously modeled the Rohirrim on Anglo-Saxons, and the Orcs on certain Medieval images of Huns & Mongols, but even there a detailed comparison leaves a lot of differences.

      The “D&D”/World of Warcraft/Warhammer trope that dwarves are Scottish must have started somewhere, though; I wonder where.

      The Norse image I get, given the dwarves’ names in The Hobbit and Norse/Germanic myths generally featuring dwarfs.

      • I agree. Tolkien is quoted as saying that he hates allusions (I’m paraphrasing) that is, he did not want his readers to read too much into his world and interpret it as ours. But of course Tolkien borrowed and was influenced by reality, and I think the two biggest literary influences on him was Northern European mythology (namely Scandinavian and Celtic), on the one hand, and the Judeo-Christian narrative on the other hand (especially when you compare Sauron to Satan in the Fall of Lucifer mythos).

        Lord of the Rings, in my book, is a fine blending of both.

        • Sauron isnt like lucifer Morgoth his master is more like the lucifer counter part.

  3. Well, I think that while Tolkien himself is quoted as portraying the dwarves as someway semitic, I think that the “antisemitic portrayal of dwarves” is somewhat off mark as analysis.
    Dwarves (and many similar fairy creatures) have been portrayed as craven and greedy (better yet as the epitome of human greediness) well before antisemitism as we know it tagged jews as such.
    It’s like someone saying: dwarves are greedy and craven, antisemitism portrays semites as greedy and craven and thus dwarves are an attack on semitic people.

    Regarding the scottish portrayal of dwarves I’d say that it is only natural: in the end dwarves are a norse/celtic mythological creature.
    Would you expect a satyr to be anything but greek?

    Best regards

    • good point – i’m jewish and i don’t buy the “tolkien is anti-semitic because of the dwarves” argument either. the overlap might be in the fact that dwarves are essentially jewel-sellers and merchants (and historically, so are Jews) – and the stereotype of merchants in general are greed, craven, etc.

    • Yes, I agree. Dwarves were greedy and craven in the legends of people with no knowledge of, or existing prejudice against, Jews! But of course through the lens of history, it is easy to see how these negative traits, applied to two different groups, become associated by those who come later.

      I think the paper is pretty careful not to come right out and say he was antisemitic, and generally speaking any argument that Tolkien was a racist of any stripe seems plain wrong. I suspect Tolkien didn’t decide Dwarves are Jewish so they are greedy and craven, it was more like here’s this constellation of traits that dwarves have, and some others that are attributed to Jews by casual antisemitism, and there is some overlap, but not necessarily a causal relationship.

      • I think its worth mentioning that in the time that Tolkien lived and wrote (not so long ago, anti-semitism was quite a common and universal thing.

        I mean, this was the time of the Holocaust. The Germans were genociding Jews, and most of the other nations had closed off their borders to the many desperate Jewish refugees.

        So I wouldn’t be surprised if there are faint anti-semitic “traces” in his work that perhaps were internalized as a youth, from the Church or society itself. Now I haven’t seen any evidence of that about Tolkien, but again I wouldn’t be surprised if it were true.

        It wouldn’t change my mind about my view that he was a great man and humanitarian. He wasn’t anti-Semitic. But he lived in a world that was – and in many ways, still is. Its hard not to let that influence you in subtle ways, no matter what kind of racism or prejudice we are talking about.

        Its similar to your grandpappy who says words like “colored people” instead of blacks, or who distrusts Mexicans because they speak Spanish. Its not outright hatred but emblematic of a deeper societal issue in our species.

        But I’m digressing from Tolkien so I should probably step off my soapbox right now.

        The bottom-line is that whatever Tolkien believed — he stepped up to the plate when it counted – read his quote about Aryans and Jews when the Nazis approached him.

    • well mister tumnus was more like an englishman.:)

  4. I’m surprised that the linked essay doesn’t mention Wagner at all, especially considering it spends a lot of time on Mim the Petty-Dwarf. The character of Mime, the dwarf in Wagner’s opera Siegfried was observed by Mahler to “ridicule the Jews … with all their characteristic traits.” Tolkien can’t have missed that.

    By the way, the AD&D 2nd edition Complete Dwarf handbook had a character kit called the Ghetto Fighter, although the description leaves unclear whether a “ghetto” should be understood in the medieval sense as a segregated district of dwarves or (following modern American usage) just as a slum.

    Finally – the problem of Jesus and all the Old Testament heroes being quite obviously Jewish was resolved for many 19th and 20th century Christian anti-semites by positing that the Diaspora Jews were descended from a different people (e.g. Khazars) than the ancient Hebrews. Thus Tolkien could have easily called back to the Old Testament in characterizing the Dunedain while simultaneously drawing on much less heroic stereotypes of European Jews for the Dwarves.

    • Excellent point!!

  5. The “Tolkien as an antisemite” argument is as persistent as it is annoying and baseless. Everyone talks about the Dwarf comparison but ignores other relevant quotes, such as:

    “I do not regard the (probable) absence of all Jewish blood as necessarily honourable; and I have many Jewish friends, and should regret giving any colour to the notion that I subscribed to the wholly pernicious and unscientific race-doctrine.”


    “But if I am to understand that you are enquiring whether I am of Jewish origin, I can only reply that I regret that I appear to have no ancestors of that gifted people.”

    There are quite a few other quotations I could drop to show that he was in fact opposed to all forms of racist and segregation, but that would belabor the point.

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