"Dwarves Are Not Heroes": Antisemitism and the Dwarves in J.R.R. Tolkien's Writing

By Brackmann, Rebecca | Mythlore, Spring-Summer 2010 | Go to article overview

"Dwarves Are Not Heroes": Antisemitism and the Dwarves in J.R.R. Tolkien's Writing


Brackmann, Rebecca, Mythlore


J.R.R. TOLKIEN HIMSELF COMMENTED IN HIS LETTERS AND INTERVIEWS on the similarity his invented race of Dwarves had, in his view, with the Jews: "I do think of the 'Dwarves' like Jews: at once native and alien in their habitations" and "[t]he Dwarves of course are quite obviously--couldn't you say that in many ways they remind you of the Jews? Their words are Semitic, obviously, constructed to be Semitic [...]" (Letters 229; Interview). In this article, I explore this similarity between Dwarves and Jews (or, more accurately, cultural assumptions about "Jewishness") in Tolkien's depiction of the Dwarves in his 1937 book The Hobbit, and how that portrayal shifts in his later work. I argue that "Dwarvishness" in The Hobbit involved several traits, recognizably drawn from antisemitic stereotypes, that, according to the narrator, exclude the Dwarves from the heroic ethos that is the hallmark of the book's value system. Tolkien's later recognition of this, perhaps, caused him to sharply alter his presentation of Dwarves in The Lord of the Rings, published in 1954-55, and to continue this revision in his later unpublished works.

Before discussing Tolkien's works, I should explain what I mean by antisemitism (1) and antisemitic beliefs for the purposes of this article. I do not limit the meaning of antisemitism to overt violence or discrimination against practitioners of Judaism or Jewish converts to Christianity. Rather, by antisemitism I chiefly mean the underlying assumption that makes such violence and discrimination possible--the claim that there is something about Jews, biologically and psychologically, that marks them as fundamentally different from the Christian cultures that have been dominant in Europe since the Middle Ages. This kind of thinking is necessary for persecution to happen, as it allows the persecutors to believe in "Jews" as a stable category of identity that persisted regardless of religious conviction, in a way that became more about a supposed racial identity than a religious one (Maccoby 1-4). Indeed, the category of "Jews" provided a way for the Christian culture to reject those qualities from which it wanted to separate itself, so that the constructed category of "the Jew" became a figure "of Christian self-definition" (Lampert 111). Perhaps the best-known example of this sort of thinking came about in Spain during the Inquisition, where any evidence of Jewish descent could make a person suspect, no matter how remote the ancestor or how devoutly Catholic the accused was. By the modern period, several negative traits had been assigned to "Jewish" identity by the mainstream Christian culture in Europe and the United States, and the assumption that those traits are naturally linked, that they "go together" to form a real, biological Jewishness and to rationalize the Jews' marginal status, is what I mean by antisemitism in this article. Antisemitism is therefore a set of beliefs, not just an action. (2)

In Tolkien's early writings the Dwarves were often evil, but not especially "like Jews" as they became in the later 1930s. Early on, Tolkien's Dwarves closely mimicked the dwarfs of Scandinavian legends, where they are frequently wicked characters. During the episode of the Nauglafring in the early material in The Book of Lost Tales 2, all the Dwarves combine to ambush Thingol (called here Tinwelint), including those from Belegost, and they even ally themselves with Orcs for the surprise assault (a clear sign of their evil) (Book of Lost Tales 2 [BLT2] 232). In fact, the whole race of Dwarves in this text "love[s] gold and silver more dearly than aught else on Earth" and, spurred to ambush and murder by their greed, "have been severed in feud for ever since those days with the Elves, and drawn more nigh in friendship to the kin of Melko" (BLT2 231; 232). In the later Silmarillion version, however, this changes; the Dwarves of Nogrod carry on their war with Doriath (after they have already slain Thingol) alone, and "the Dwarves of Belegost sought to dissuade them from their purpose" (280). …

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