Dwarves (or, formerly, “dwarfs”) have a long, venerable, but perhaps checkered history in fantasy literature (largely imitators of or wholesale borrowers from Tolkien) and, earlier, fairy tales—and, still earlier, the Germanic and perhaps Norse myths. This has all been well-documented elsewhere, though my recollections are all muddled and perhaps don’t go back far enough, so I won’t try to repeat this history here. Instead, today I’m going to talk about dwarves in my fantasy series-in-preparation, the Shine Cycle, and how I’m planning on turning this trope slightly (or perhaps a little more than slightly) on its head.
Dwarves—at least when they were not just another name for the same kind of creature as “elves”, “brownies”, or the like, as in some fairy tales—have always been miners or otherwise associated with mountains and the deep places of the earth. In Tolkien, and in most myths, tales, or stories where this is addressed, they mine for iron, silver, gold, gems, or (in Middle Earth) mithril, to amass wealth for themselves; greed, and in particular greed for material wealth (in short, gold), is their besetting sin, their typical vice as a race.
In the Shine Cycle, I’m keeping the notion of dwarves as great miners and (as in Tolkien, if not the rest of the sources) builders, delving deep and building great cities under the earth (and above it as required). But what I’m changing is their motivation for these actions. Instead of greed for gold, the dwarves of the Shine Cycle prize knowledge above all (or at least nearly all) else.
Now, while gems and precious metals are “rivalrous” goods, and hoarding them tends to (at least in the minds of misers) be profitable, knowledge is not. In fact, knowledge generally increases when shared. Because of this, the desire for knowledge that is part of the dwarven culture is not a personal greed, wherein each individual seeks to accumulate all knowledge for himself and deny it to others; instead, they aim to bring knowledge into their culture and share it with others, to increase the store of knowledge available to all and make it possible to discover more truly new knowledge. To keep knowledge to oneself is very frowned-upon, though some dwarven communities permit keeping some of their knowledge within their own community for strategic advantage.
Given this motivation, dwarves specialize in mining and build their cities underground for four main reasons: First, they’re good at it, to a level few other individuals, let alone communities, can match. Second, a great deal of knowledge is buried over the course of years, centuries, or millennia—though this is less relevant in the main world of the Shine Cycle, which at the end of its chronicled history is less than three centuries old, so the scope of archeology is limited. Third, they can trade the metals, gems, and other commodities their mining gathers for the knowledge that they find valuable. And fourth, they are most comfortable living in solid stone buildings (and those are least likely to catch fire and burn libraries down!), and it’s far cheaper to carve durable library-cities out of rock than to mine or import the rock and build above-ground. And underground they can expand more easily. They also specialize in smithcraft and related engineering, because (again) they’re very good at it, experimenting with it is a good way to increase their technical knowledge, and they can trade their (lesser) creations for knowledge or necessities.
Dwarves tend not to grow any taller than four feet; this, combined with their stocky but flexible build, may be part of why they are such great miners. In battle most serve as heavy infantry, bearing axes and hammers and clad in thick armor. And from their great experience in mining, they are not unaccustomed to the use of explosives and occasionally employ those in war. So far, on these points, I echo the standard trope. But here’s where I diverge: dwarves are as a rule quite flexible; their infantry use large shields more for the protection of the lines behind them than for their own defense, because in any melee they are deft enough to avoid most attacks, especially from the front. (The second purpose of the shields is to help them hold their ground against a charging superior force.) Further, the truly elite dwarven soldiers are not infantry, but rather archers, using repeating crossbows of a model that only dwarven smiths can make (one of their few closely guarded secrets)—and which are, for any dwarven archer who has proved his worth, enhanced with the Power to expand their magazine even further, increase the number of shots between windings still farther, and even allow the power behind those enhancements (which is recharged by the energy of winding the strings back) to be released at need in the form of an (admittedly somewhat feeble) lightning bolt.
There’s another interesting feature of dwarven society worth mentioning. Among the dwarves, there is a strong culture of “everything in its right place.” After using a tool, for example, it’s expected that a worker will put it back where it belongs, not just where it came from, even if putting it back where it really belongs will take as much effort as the job the tool was used in (because there’s something else in that place that has to be rearranged). Long practice has developed standard layouts for toolboxes and the like, and most tools are made with handles that feel very distinctive, so that any journeyman can find, or put away, tools in the dark if it comes to that. But this principle is absorbed by dwarves from their childhood, and so applies not only to masons, miners, and smiths, but throughout the entire society. The great public libraries are one of the only places where this principle varies: while most dwarves will instinctively reshelve their own books, the libraries employ pages to carry out this task for patrons other than dwarves, and for when shelving one book properly requires shifting hundreds of other books to make room on the shelf—though curiously-designed book-ends that can expand or shrink as needed are used to make the need for that task as rare as possible.
What do you think?