Friday, 6 May 2011

Anti-dwarf prejudice - justified?

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When the Fellowship encounter the elves of Lothlorien, Eomer's horsemen and the doormen at Edoras it is clear that there is a pretty general prejudice against dwarves among the other free peoples of Middle Earth.

Is this justified?

Well, yes it is!

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The reason is that the dwarves are proud and pride is a sin.

Dwarvish pride comes out as a hypersensitivity to personal insults, such that at any moment (whether among friends or foes) a dwarf may feel himself slighted and reach for his axe.

When combined with the great courage and strength of dwarves (the best of all infantry soldiers among the free peoples - with the exception of Numenoreans), this makes dwarves dangerous people to have around.

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Of course, in Gimli we have the best of dwarves - that much is made clear: Gimli is an exception.

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Gimli's companions seem to accept the general view that dwarves are trouble, and argue along the lines of 'yes we know about dwarves - but, Gimli was specially chosen by Elrond, he is a member of the Fellowship, he is different  from the general run of dwarves - and we will vouch for his behaviour'

(Which is code for: 'don't worry, we will keep him under control...').

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Yet even Gimli is bad enough! - very nearly provoking suicidal fights with Lothlorien elves and the Riders of Rohan - fights which would have been fatal to the battle against Sauron.

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So, we conclude that the prejudice against dwarves as such is reasonable, dwarves usually are trouble; but the best people (Galadriel, Eomer, the guards at Edoras) are (rightly, on the whole) able to evaluate the evidence, trust their instincts, and make an exception in the case of Gimli.

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5 comments:

Anonymous said...

Comment from John Wetherell

The dwarves dwell in the earth. Earthly concerns are intrinsically of a darkened nature compared with the concerns of celestial beings such as the elves. This only reflects the experience of humanity: being alive on the earth is not a bed of roses. Dwarves are a distillation of this feeling. Philosophically, there is an error in any point of view that presumes to detach itself from the earthly one sufficient to uphold a 'prejudice' against the creatures of the earth. It isn't an honourable position for a man to adopt, as its a denial of his own earthly nature.

Actually my own understanding of the situation on Middle Earth was that the natural enmity was felt to be principally between elves and dwarves, not between men and dwarves. And maybe anti-dwarvism is OK for an elf, who is not of this earth in any case.

I always had a soft spot for Dr Cornelius in Narnia. He was the 'cross-breed': half dwarf, half man. The idea seemed to be that his dwarfish heritage gave him true Narnian wisdom. Creepy notion though. There might be a whole novel to be written, about the conception of Dr Cornelius!

Troels said...

I would agree with John Wetherell that the basic conflict is between Elves and Dwarves, stemming back to unfortunate incident with the Nauglamir.

The Rohirrim are basically xenophobic rather than prejudiced against specific peoples: in essence they have closed their country to anyone who doesn't speak Rohirric, except only for the people of Gondor (and even from Gondor it is my impression that it is only the warriors that they wish to see in Rohan). They are prejudiced against Dwarves, yes, but also against Elves (‘Then it is true, as Éomer reported, that you are in league with the Sorceress of the Golden Wood?’ said Wormtongue. ‘It is not to be wondered at: webs of deceit were ever woven in Dwimordene.’), against Dunlendings and against others — Théoden's ready acceptance of the Hobbits is an exception, I think, rather than the rule.

Tolkien describes the Elves as representing the artistic side of human nature and their magic is Art with no motive for power (this, of course, is not entirely true of e.g. the Rings of Power). Very well, the Dwarves then seem to represent the craftsman side of human nature, and while I would protest that they did not, as a race, desire ‘tyrannous re-forming of Creation’, I will agree that they do desire to reshape Creation to suit their own ends better, and to gain a measure of control, of power, over Creation.

I don't think that Dwarves were particularly prone to pride, nor do I believe that Tolkien is showing the animosity of Dwarves and Elves as justified in any way: as I understand it, the point of the friendship between Gimli and Legolas is precisely to show that it is not justified, having become a matter of inherited, unbased prejudice.

Overall I think Tolkien is working against prejudice (with the sad exception of the Orcs, where I think Auden was correct in criticising the portrayal of the Orcs in The Lord of the Rings — though I believe that this is also at least partly explained by the transitionary nature of the book, as I have argued in my blog) in his work — among the good examples is also his descriptions of the Kin-strife in Gondor.

bgc said...

@Troels

I accept your correction wrt to the Rohirrim.

But I stand by my point about the dwarves having a particular problem with pride, possessiveness, readiness to think the worst of others and to take offense.

This seems to be a basic racial characteristic; their particular weakness (as elves, men, ents and hobbits have their particular weaknesses).

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Also I would also contest any idea that Tolkien was against 'prejudice' - unless that word is taken in a very general sense such that it is automatically regarded as evil to be prejudiced.

The idea that 'prejudice' is necessarily evil is less than 50 years old, is contradicted by the mass of human experience in history and in most of the modern world - and is both incoherent and indeed itself wicked.

By modern usage of the word 'prejudice' and by modern standards of behaviour, Tolkien was very prejudiced indeed and rightly so - because he was an extremely wise man.

I read Tolkien (inter alia) because he is wiser than anyone around today, and not to critique him by what-passes-for morality nowadays.

When there is an apparent dissonance between the morality of Tolkien's world and ours, then I try to understand why we are wrong and he is right.

Of course Tolkien, although better than us, is not a Saint - but I mistrust my ability to discern where he is truly at fault, and where it is my own problem.

Troels said...

I would agree that Dwarves are more given to possessiveness and greed than are the other races, but I do not think that they are portrayed as being any quicker to take offence nor more ready to think the worse of others. If that was to apply to any race (besides Orcs, of course), it would be certain nations of humans — the Shire Hobbits, for instance, automatically thinks the worse of anyone who isn't one of their own: even to the point of distinctly distrusting a hobbit from another part of the Shire. Compared to this, the Dwarves have always been far more open to contact with people outside their own kingdoms and settlements.

The Dwarves are made to resist domination and to be unmoved by the terrors that Melkor might hurl at them, and so ‘they are stone-hard, stubborn, fast in friendship and in enmity, and they suffer toil and danger and hurt of body more hardily than all other speaking peoples’ and I think it is probably also this that makes them so secretive about their inner societies. But this speaks not about being quicker — as I read Tolkien's descriptions, the Dwarves are slower to any emotional reaction, but also slower to forgive. You say that Gimli is exceptional, and I agree: I think, however, that part of this is the exceptional speed by which he makes friends with Legolas, the exceptional speed with which he comes to love Galadriel and the speed by which he takes offence at Éomer's unwitting remarks about Galadriel.

As for pride, the paramount examples of pride that Tolkien treats us to (besides Melkor and his minions) are among Elves and Men: Fëanor, Thingol, Ar-Pharazôn, Boromir and Denethor to name a few. While this does't mean that there is no pride among Dwarves, I can't recall anything that suggests that they should be particularly prone to this sin.


On the matter of prejudice, I think Tolkien presents a rather complex picture. He certainly does suggest that you inherit certain qualities based on your blood-line and/or your people: the Dwarves are more stubborn, the Rohirrim are good with horses, etc. etc. and I am unsure whether this qualifies as prejudice. Leaving aside the Orcs (which is in any case too complex a question for a comment in a blog), I would say Tolkien in general portrays a situation in which the only case in which such a prejudice can be applied in the virtuous / sinful question is the Elves: ‘Still elves they were and remain, and that is Good People.’ as he says in The Hobbit. And even then, this is not absolute: Fëanor's sins are so great that he will never be released from Mandos while Arda endures.

In general I think Tolkien goes out of his way to show the invalidity of, shall we call it negative stereotyping? The Dunlendings are carefully described as being misled by Saruman, the Southrons as being misled by Sauron and a few evil chieftains, the Rohirric negaive stereotyping of Elves (which is worse than their view of Dwarves) is broken. Within The Lord of the Rings the only moral stereotypes that I can think of as being sustained are ‘Elves are good’ and ‘Orcs are evil’ (and even these are at least qualified slightly — see for instance Shippey's discussions of Orcs as an image of evil).

So, yes, I agree that Tolkien does do racial stereotyping, but I also do think that he carefully goes out of his way to reject good / evil stereotyping.

George Goerlich said...

I still have trouble understanding the exception of Gollum. I felt as Sam, prejudiced against him the entire time. I did not find Gandalf's words consoling "for good or evil" - why chance the evil when that seems to be his intent? His badness somehow led to good results, seemingly by pure chance in the end. He did briefly have some hope of becoming good, but it certainly seemed he should have been dispatched as an enemy many times. Worm-tongue too - why would Aragorn not have him held accountable for his crimes? It seems some greater wisdom is at work. Given the chance, I could not have made the right choices and still can't grasp how the right choices were made.