Scandinavia was one of the last regions in Europe to adopt Christianity, and even then it was a slow process. It was a top-down conversion, with kings and lords embracing the new ways first (often for politically advantageous reasons), and while their subjects might nominally do the same, they frequently did not do so in practice. The old ways endured, but they were altered. Saints were mixed up with old gods or heroes, priests changed the dates of holidays to work with existing pagan festivals, and so on. A lot of compromise and practicality was involved, as well as the occasional burning-at-the-stake.
The same process applies to mythical creatures as well. Spirits and monsters didn’t tie directly into the religion, so it was a little easier to hang onto them than the old gods, especially if a Christian rationale could be created. For example, supernatural spirits who were once probably elves or landvaettir were explained away as the descendants of children of Adam and Eve, who an embarrassed Eve hid from god after forgetting to bathe them. Evidently God was feeling a bit dickish that day, and he turned the children invisible. The hidden people were created. This probably included dwarves, though we don’t have a specific Christian rationale for their origins. Regardless, the pagan Scandinavians might have once imagined dwarves as human-sized earth spirits, with ghostly pale skin and a tendency to explode in sunlight, but that concept evolved.
For starters, they shrank. I’ve mentioned in previous articles that sometimes, as belief in a mythical being fades, they are increasingly represented as being physically smaller. Dwarves were no different, although academics debate to this day whether or not the pagan dwarves were also supposed to be short. If they had once been human sized, that changed. Later medieval sagas and stories mention dwarves quite frequently, but in this altered state. They even got increasingly mixed together with trolls, who were undergoing a similar process. In Sweden, trolls and dwarves became almost identical, being shorter than humans, living under the earth, forging wonders, turning to stone if exposed to sunlight, etc.
Still, dwarves as a concept retained some consistent features. They were now regarded as smaller than humans, often much smaller. Humans could physically overpower them with ease. In the Prose Edda Snorri Sturluson mentioned offhand that dwarves were supposed to be quite ugly, in contrast to elves, who were supposed to be quite beautiful. That got exaggerated further, with dwarves frequently described as being ancient creatures, wrinkled and malformed. This is actually where the stereotype that all dwarves have prodigious facial hair began to develop, with a long white beard indicating a dwarf’s great age.
By this point, dwarves were no longer just native to Scandinavia. The Norse had spread their beliefs about as they traded, pillaged, and colonized, and once they went home or assimilated into the local population, those beliefs fused with the pre-existing traditions of the natives. In Western Europe, notably the British Isles and Normandy, dwarves got blended into the local fairy lore. For example, the concept of a fairy otherworld that obeys its own laws of time and space got woven into things, such as in the British legend of King Herla, who meets a dwarf king that takes him to his beautiful underground palace for a wedding, yet when Herla leaves he discovers hundreds of years have passed. In the chivalric literature of the Middle Ages the fairy maiden (often dressed in white and mounted on a pale horse) and her dwarf servant (often riding a donkey or walking) was a recurring motif. The dwarf’s ugliness was played up to contrast the fairy maiden’s beauty, with the dwarf sometimes having a hunched back, clubbed foot, or other deformity. In these sorts of stories dwarves are sometimes difficult to distinguish from lesser fairies and goblins.
Dwarves really flourished in the legends of central Europe, in what is today Germany, Switzerland, and the Netherlands. I’ve talked a lot about the Norse on their own in these articles, but they were a Germanic people, and even before the Viking Age they had a lot of cultural similarities with their southern neighbors. The ancient Germanic tribes worshipped very similar (if not identical) gods and spirits, and the spread of Scandinavian beliefs to the lands that became Germany was pretty easy, since they were right next door. In truth, it can be quite difficult to tell which stories have roots in Scandinavia and which were homegrown. It’s easier to just lump them all into a broad Germanic/Teutonic tradition.
Many of the stories are variants on older Norse stories. For example, the Germans have The Nibelungenlied , which is a later version of the Völsung Saga. Both stories recount the adventures of the hero Sigurd/Siegfried, and his fosterage by the dwarf Regin. Dwarves also show up in several stories of the German hero Dietrich von Bern, a legendary version of Theodoric the Great. He needs the help of a dwarf guide to lead him through a fantastical version of the Alps, populated by giants and dragons, to the city of the ice fairies. More notable is his confrontation with the dwarf king Laurin, possibly the only dwarf in myth and legend who is actually good at physical combat, though this is only because he is laden with a magical belt that doubles his strength and magic armor that cannot be pierced. Once Dietrich steals the belt, Laurin is helpless against the human-sized warrior. A lot of these elements show up later in the folk and fairytales collected by the Brothers Grimm, such as the story of William of Scherfenberg, who is given a belt of strength by a dwarf king who needs a human champion. Both examples probably draw from Norse myth, where the god Thor needed a belt that doubled his strength to wield the dwarf-wrought hammer, Mjölnir. It’s this German tradition that most influenced our modern perception of dwarves, and it’s no coincidence that the most famous fairytale about dwarves is German: “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs,” another one of the Grimms’.
There are a few interesting avenues to explore with these later medieval dwarves. One is the concept of the dwarven underworld. In Norse cosmology there are a couple of underworlds mentioned as being home to dwarves (or black/dark elves, which was synonymous) but they get almost no description. In general, they seemed to imagine dwarves living inside of rocks or under hills, without much description of opulence. Yet the later medieval traditions were quite different. For example, in the story of Laurin, he leads Dietrich von Bern into his underground realm in the Alps, where everything sparkles with the light of thousands of encrusted jewels, while birds sing and dwarves feast and drink. The story of King Herla includes a similar underground palace full of beauty and wonder. The fairy otherland was also sometimes supposed to be found inside hollow hills, and as dwarves and fairies got conflated, the underworld of the dwarves took on similar attributes. Going into the dwarf realms might take you out of sync with mortal time, or you might discover an entire secondary world, with is own sun and rolling meadows, beneath the earth.
There’s a lot you could do with this as a writer. Modern writer have depicted as dwarves just living under the earth in elaborate, mine-like dwellings, but if you wanted to go really magical, you could create an entire subterranean world that mimics our own, with its own sun, stars, and fantastical ecosystem. The 1965 children’s novel Elidor, for example, uses a utopian kingdom of the dwarves to contrast against human society, where the underworld has a permanently overcast sky and the dwarves live in cities covered with domes of crystal. If you also wanted to have a fairy otherworld in your setting, how might you distinguish it from a dwarf underworld? Making them very thematically different gives you lots of options. The fairies might have a world of eternal spring, but the dwarves might live in a world of eternal twilight, where the fields are covered with grass blades like steel wires, and the trees bloom with edible gems instead of fruit. You’re pretty free to go nuts with what might be down there.
King Laurin also provides an interesting example of how a more developed civilization of dwarves might fit in with humanity. It’s a recurring theme in both the old sagas and the later heroic legends that dwarves are weaker than and often abused by humans. Yet Laurin shows how a dwarf, through his cunning and skill, can overcome that weakness. Even though he is ultimately defeated and humiliated by humans, it’s interesting to imagine armies of dwarves who compensate for their physical frailties and disfigurements by means of magical items. Belts of strength, caps of invisibility, swords that can cut through stone like it’s clay, or unbreakable armor were all attributed to dwarves in this period. Of course, there are also a number of stories of dwarves calling on humans for aid to make up for their shortcomings, with the vengeful and cruel dwarves of Norse myth somewhat forgotten. There’s plenty of potential drama here in the interplay of the weak and the powerful, and their ways of addressing the imbalance.
On the flip side of things, the portrayal of almost all dwarves as elderly suggests a dying, ancient race. Last week I suggested the idea of dwarves being knowledgeable about things beyond craftsmanship. In the later Middle Ages the famous German-Swiss alchemist Paracelsus created the concept of gnomes, earth spirits clearly based on dwarves (though with some unique features I’ll save for a future gnomes article). It’d be interesting if the ancient knowledge of dwarves was that of alchemy, which has a lot of potential uses beyond just making fancy swords. Besides, there’s something very poignant about the idea of the elderly dwarves being all that’s left, the last keepers of centuries’ worth of learning.
There’s also the concept of how the dwarves are related to elves, trolls, and other mythical beings they got blended with. I’ll get more into this next week, but both fairies and trolls crop up in the heroic legends. You could have the trolls and fairies be related to dwarves, perhaps with each one inhabiting a mystical otherworld connected to the others, just as they are connect to ours. Fairies come in all shapes and sizes, dwarves could just be the smaller ones, the laborers, the leprechauns and goblins. You could also have a setting where dwarves are just a small type of troll. There might be further degrees of separation—maybe the goblins and whatnot are sort of half between dwarves and fairies/elves.
There’s a distinct difference in flavor between the dwarves of Norse myth, and the dwarves of later Teutonic legend. You could mix and match elements from both of them, have both exist at once, have one evolve from the other, or just use all these weird beliefs to make some broader non-fictional point. What we haven’t talked about yet, though, are what the common people thought of dwarves. We don’t really have any records of that sort of thing with the Norsemen, but while the lords and ladies of Germanic courts told stories about dwarf kings getting bested by knights, or incredible underground dwarf cities, the peasants and serfs of the time were developing their own traditions. We’ll get into their belief systems next week.