Like elves, my introduction to dwarfs was through popular culture; particularly Disney’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs and The Hobbit cartoon. The dwarf was my favorite character to play in the Sega video game, Golden Axe—that axe of his was lethal, and his ramming move was so cool. Dwarfs (or dwarves; a spelling made most popular by J.R.R. Tolkien) are the stuff of Norse and Germanic mythology, and have been a key ingredient in high fantasy since Tolkien made them popular in his Middle-earth world.
The classic archetype of dwarves in fantasy is the stocky, long-bearded beings who live in the mountains, smithing and mining; usually keeping to themselves. With the Dragonlance and Forgotten Realms novels, the dwarf archetype continues with very little creativity. German writer Markus Heitz tried to give dwarves an interesting spin in his Dwarves series, but nothing entirely unique. But, I have heard of an out-of-print book by Gordon R. Dickson, called The Earth Lords, which is set in the frontier of late 19TH century Canada, where dwarves enslave humans under the earth, and are plotting to eradicate mankind. This is a stand alone book that sounds like it may be worth reading, just to see what kind of story unfolds with such a concept.
I will name three dwarfs that have stood out to me in fantasy fiction—yet one is really not a dwarf at all. First is Gimli from the Lord of the Rings trilogy. To me, Gimli is not the greatest of characters; however, his relationship with the elf, Legolas, is quite memorable. The dwarves and the elves in Middle-earth have an ancient feud with one another, but Gimli takes a big step to be the first of his kind to befriend an elf—even giving reverence to Lady Galadriel—making him a good character, in the sense of casting aside old prejudices.
Second is Jugar from The Annals of Drakis trilogy by Tracy Hickman. When reading the series, I could not get enough of Jugar. I loved him; even to the end. He was witty, funny, mysterious, and was the igniter and extinguisher of the entire trilogy. I thought Hickman did a superb job in having the reader believe that Jugar was one way, when really he was a whole other person. You have to read the series in order to know what I’m talking about; but, Jugar is a character I continue to think about, even long after reading the books.
Last is Tyrion from A Song of Ice and Fire by George R.R. Martin. Tyrion is not a dwarf, but is a man that was born with dwarfism; like many people in real life. I join the rest of the fans of the series in saying that Tyrion is definitely one of my favorite characters in the books. He is a man that has to hold his own, and keep his wits about him in a world where men and women look down on him, not just in the literal sense, but figuratively as well. He is surely not a saint, but has his moments of being likeable. I think Martin did a fantastic job in putting Tyrion Lannister in his series, shattering the “dwarf” stereotype. I can’t think of the books being anything without him.
In conclusion, dwarves have certainly been overused in the fantasy genre; and are often not fleshed out very much, with the exception of the characters mentioned above. Like I have mentioned regarding other “ingredients” that I have posted about in the fantasy genre, dwarves need to be given a unique overhaul; keeping true to their essence, but going deeper than what has been presented to us thus far.