Jewish Influence in Tolkien’s Dwarf Culture

Hobbits, Dwarves, and Elves, oh my! The release of the Hobbit trilogy has again sparked fascination with the works of Tolkien and his world of Middle Earth. Despite the title of the films and the book it was based on, it is Dwarves who hold the species-spotlight, rather than Hobbits (or Elves.)

Tolkien drew from many sources when crafting his fantasy universe, and many rightly point to Norse influences in Tolkien’s Dwarves. However, Tolkien also drew from the Jewish experience in Europe, a fact he states outright in one of his letters. This is easily revealed in many aspects of Dwarvish culture; Tolkien crafted Khuzdul to sound Semitic in its use of phenomes, thus paralleling it to Hebrew, and drafted the Dwarves to be a more secretive people, who keep their own language, culture, and customs secret from outsiders, similar to the way Jews in the Diaspora would  act in unfriendly Gentile environments. Moreover, Dwarvish roles in Middle Earth society parallels that of Jews in the Diaspora, in that they were “the outsider within,” a foreign entity never fully integrated nor tolerated by the other denizens and races of the land, a deliberate decision by Tolkien himself.

Tolkien, of course, paralleled the destruction of the Israelite First and Second Temples in the Sack of Moria, as well as the expulsion of Dwarves from Erebor by Smaug the Terrible. The exile of the Dwarves, a once proud nation now fallen, reduced to tinkers and toymakers, wandering exiles who “never forgave, and never forgot,” and always planned to return to their lost homeland, very obviously parallel the forced exile and diaspora of the Jewish people. In fact, some friends of mine joked that Gandalf was the Jesus-like figure of the Hobbit, and the stereotypically English Bilbo Baggins, the titular hobbit, was a stand-in for Lord Balfour, thereby prompting them to jokingly nickname the film “Zionism, the movie.” (Of course, that there is no conception of Palestinians, or far worse, that Smaug the Terrible is somehow parallel to Palestinians in such an analogy, points to a problem consistently talked about in regards to Tolkien’s works in general: that his fantasy is so very white, and so Christian, that there is no good representation for ethnic minorities, people of colour, or other faiths – save in purely evil hordes, like orcs and the Sauron-serving Haradrim and Easterners.)

However, that the Dwarves are meant to be the Jews of Middle-Earth leads to some troubling conclusions. For example, the Dwarvish love of gold and wealth, so extreme that it causes their ruin, both in Moria and Erebor, as well as prompting tragedy and killing of the king of Doriath, has uncomfortable similarities to stereotypes about Jewish greed and the conception of Jews as shady moneygrubbers, an ancient, damaging stereotype that persists to this day. Indeed, as outright stated in the Silmarillion, gold is conceived as their main weakness, such that the 7 rings of power bequeathed to them by Sauron functioned by inciting greater greed, which led to great evil, at profit to Sauron. And in the Hobbit, Dwarvish greed not only brings the Dragon, but after its defeat is very nearly the cause of war between the Dwarves of Erebor, the Elves of the Greenwood, and the Men of the LakeTown. In other words, the Dwarves cause their own misfortune (at least in part), and applying that conclusion to Gentile oppression of Jews throughout the millennia is troubling, to say the least.

Even the creation of the Dwarves leads to troubling conclusion. Most people know of the appellation “The Chosen People” for the Jews, though less well known is the Biblical injuctions calling the Israelites “the elder” and “firstborn”, a reference to the selling of the Birthright by Esau to Jacob, as well as Isaac’s status as the eldest (and only) child of Abraham by his wife Sarah (and not his concubine, Hagar, who begat Ishmael.) However, the Firstborn of Middle-Earth are the Eldar, the Elves. In the Silmarillion and the Book of Lost Tales, in which the early mythos of Middle Earth is laid out, Tolkien refers to the Elves as such before they are even created.

And yet, the Dwarves came first. Aule, a craftsman god, similar to the Roman Vulcan, in anticipation of the coming of Elves and Men, created a race similar in likeness. However, his creation was imperfect, and was corrected by Illuvatar, the Supreme One God of Tolkien’s universe. Illuvatar then commanded that the Dwarves be put to sleep, to re-awaken only after the coming of the Elves, than stating that “often strife shall arise between thine and mine, the children of my adoption and the children of my choice.” In Tolkien’s world, the Dwarves are the firstborn by technicality, but the Elves are the true Firstborn, and the Chosen People of Illuvatar, likely representing, or inspired by, the Christian appropriation of the term “Chosen People,” which is typical of Christian replacement theology.

And we do see tension between Elves and Dwarves, much more than between Elves and Men, throughout the Silmarillion, and Lord of the Rings, despite the fact that more Men aided Morgoth and Sauron than did Dwarves. (Though it must be said that the antipathy between the two races was exaggerated in the Hobbit films, and is actually hardly present in the original novel.) This tension is only finally resolved in the Lord of the Rings, by Gimli, son of Gloin. Gimli does not show the greed so prevalent among his race. The only boon he asks of Galadriel is a strand of her hair (she gives him three.) His friendship with Legolas, an Elf, is so true that when Legolas departs to Valinor, he takes Gimli with him, a boon not granted to any other Dwarf or Man. Tolkien wrote this friendship to refute both Gentile anti-Semitism and “Jewish exclusivity,” but due to the context of the entire narrative of the Dwarvish race and its parallel to the Jewish people, it also reads as what happens when a Jew transcends his Jewishness and ascends to the level of a Christian. Considering the history of Christian persecution of Jews, this is not a comforting resolution to the problem of the Dwarves or the Jews as “the outsider within.”

This isn’t to say that Tolkien was an anti-Semite. If anything, he was quite the opposite, having essentially told the Nazis to go stuff it when he was approached by them for a possible German translation. When they asked about his racial origins, he not only schooled them on the proper definition of Aryan (hint: it doesn’t actually mean Teutonic), but in regards to possible Jewish ancestry, replied “I regret that I appear to have no ancestors of that gifted people.”  These are not the words of a racist anti-Semite.

However, Tolkien is a product of his times and culture. As a white, Christian man living where he did, (namely anywhere in the continent of Europe) anti-Semitic tales, canards, and superstitions were rife, and were deeply embedded in various European cultures, including his own. Indeed, I have my doubts that there is a single European country, culture, or locale that does NOT have anti-Semitic folktales present somewhere in their cultural fabric. As such, that these problematic elements appear in his works – either openly or in sub-text – is less a criticism of the author, and more an acknowledgement that even a good man like Tolkien was not able to critically examine all his cultural biases, and indeed, may not have even been aware they existed.

About The Author

Lana likes ice cream, puppies, and social justice-ing all over your media. She is often found sewing cosplays or re-enacting medieval things. To lure out the Lana from her dimly-lit computer-y abode, small fluffy objects, chocolate, and pictures of turtles eating things are recommended bait.
  • http://unitedfederationofcharles.blogspot.com/ C.T. Phipps

    Nice essay and I agree with most of it.