The latest nerdrage over the depiction of Dwarves in The Hobbit has really hit home to me something I often suspected about fanboys but never really paid much attention to: they don’t actually know much at all about the text they love. They’re much more interested in their personal, often (usually?) quite fantastic misinterpretations of it than they are in the text itself. Thus we have the following misunderstandings about the Dwarves in The Hobbit:

  • They were based on nordic myth
  • They all had voluminous beards tucked into their belts (1)
  • They were just tinkers and blacksmiths, with no special skills (1)
  • They didn’t carry any special weapons or armour at the start of the adventure (1)
  • They were “just” on a quest for treasure (1)
  • Tolkien described them well, and attempts to represent them in the way Jackson has are a betrayal of Tolkien’s original description
  • Thorin wasn’t a warrior
  • Thorin Oakenshield should have a shield
  • All Dwarves should be fat
  • They would look better if they were represented as they are in the book

None of these are true, and the ideas I’ve marked with a (1) are direct results of imbibing too much D&D, specifically OSR D&D that envisages all adventurers as starting at 1st level as vulnerable meat on a hook, with no special weapons or armour. The actual facts from The Hobbit are:

  • The Dwarves are based on mediaeval images of Jews (as best we can tell) and would not suit “nordic” dwarves, who are generally evil, mischievous and untrustworthy[1]
  • Tolkien mostly doesn’t describe the Dwarves’ beards, but in fact only one had a beard tucked into his belt (Dwalin) and the rest were barely mentioned at all; at one point he mentions 4 Dwarves tucking their hands into their belts and explicitly avoids mentioning, e.g. “alongside their beards.” For Tolkien, beards were a fixture on Dwarves but were given no special attention at all
  • In the text Thorin states that the Dwarves were at times even reduced to smithing or mining, but he doesn’t suggest that this was their profession – he suggests that they hated this work and did it when they had to
  • Tolkien doesn’t mention the Dwarves’ equipment beyond their hoods at any point up until the Troll encounter. We go through five chapters (or is it 3?) with these adventurers without ever finding out what they’re carrying or wearing. However we do know that they had several pack horses (“one of” the ponies was lost in a river before they meet the trolls, but was carrying mostly food). Why should we then assume they were lightly armed and armoured?
  • Thorin makes clear from the start that he hopes to kill Smaug and regain his kingdom
  • Tolkien’s descriptions of the main characters in this story were “a dwarf” along with a description of their hood colour, belt colour, and sometimes their hair colour or a detail about their eyes or physique. Most of the Dwarves get no description except “a dwarf with a [colour] hood.”
  • Thorin is introduced as THE Thorin Oakenshield, clearly acts like a leader (he doesn’t do dishes or speak to closely with Bilbo, only Gandalf) and is later established (in other books) to have distinguished himself at a major Orc battle. He is an experienced warrior and leader. This is not a first level fighter by any stretch of the imagination.
  • Thorin is named “Oakenshield” after his shield broke and he used a piece of oak to defend himself. He is explicitly not named “Oakenshield” because of the shield that broke
  • Tolkien only singles out one of the Dwarves for any kind of physical description (Bofur, I think) and says he is fat and heavy. The physique of the rest of the dwarves is not mentioned at all at any point. In fact, I don’t think even their height is mentioned explicitly in the book
  • Tolkien basically doesn’t describe the Dwarves at all. There is not enough information about any of the Dwarves in the book to motivate a casting decision – Jackson was basically completely on his own and unable to use the source material when choosing how to depict the Dwarves

You would think that people who really care about these books would know some of these things before criticizing Jackson’s efforts, but they don’t seem to. Instead the fanboys just complain as if Jackson’s sole responsibility on this earth was to delve into their mind and design his Dwarves exactly according to their wierd personal amalgam of The Hobbit/D&D/some movie they saw 30 years ago and liked. But they cloak the whole thing in “respect for the original work.” But in order to show this respect, it would really help if they actually paid attention to the original text.

And while I’m at it, if this book is so good, how come none of the main characters actually warrant any kind of physical description? That’s pretty shoddy writing, in my view.

fn1: This is a pretty fucking basic thing to have to get right if you are going to valorize Tolkien’s “imaginarium” or whatever it’s being called this month. Nordic dwarves are dodgy vicious magical monsters; the dwarves in The Hobbit are not. Can you reconcile these two facts? No? Then you should be paying more attention to the sources Tolkien used to establish his stories.

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