Uncle Bob or Cousin Bofur?

For those unfamiliar with the details of Tolkien’s Middle Earth, the dwarves (at first glance) appear to be short, plump, grumpy men with big noses and long beards – much like my uncle Bob come to think of it, but I digress.

Sure, they are stocky, quite a bit shorter and have long beards that can be tucked into their belts.  But they still have a human form, unlike some of the talking beings of Tolkien’s world, such a dragons or ents for example.

So the question posted here today is… “What really makes a dwarf a dwarf?”

Could we for instance, sitting at a table in the Prancing Pony, mistake a stocky chubby strong-armed man with a long white beard (aka uncle Bob) for a dwarf ? I guess we could, but might quickly identify his true form when we took a closer look and talked to him for a bit, taking into account the following characteristics that perhaps might not all be that obvious at first.


There are no sources to suggest dwarves have a radically different anatomy to that of men.  No extra ribs, toes, or the likes.  They also reproduce in the manner of men (just as elves, hobbits or even orcs would), so have the required “equipment” for reproducing children.  The proportions of dwarves are quite different to those of average men though.  Their nose, ears, feet and hands are much more prominent than with average men.  On average 50% bigger (though in some cases double the size – especially true for noses and ears) which is the reason the actors of the Hobbit movies were wearing so many prosthetics. Adding to the fact that their torso, legs and arms are on average 25% broader, yet 25% shorter than your average man, this gives us our typical dwarf look.   The big question of course is… “Why, do they look the way they do?”.  Well, we have the Vala Mahal (Aüle) – the creator of the dwarves – to thank for that.  His impatience lead him to a guess as to what the children of Iluvatar would look like.  Not a bad guess I would say, after all he could have given them fur, claws and a camel hump.

Seriously though, if you look at the dwarves in The Hobbit movies their centre-point is very low compared to that of men, mainly due to their weight/muscle vs. height ratio, hence they walk very grounded.  Something I believe they’ve done exceptionally well in The Hobbit Movies (Compliments to Terry Notary , movement coach).


Image from The Hobbit – behind the scenes.


Their ability to withstand force, stress or even evil without being distorted or damaged is likely one of the key elements of being a dwarf. Mahal (Aulë) made the dwarves at a time when the World outside Aman still lay under the dominion of Melkor, and so he made them sturdy and hard to survive the dangers and hardships of that time.


The dwarves were made strong and unyielding (see sturdiness), and make light of heavy burdens which makes them stronger than most men or elves.  Working in the mines and forging will surely give you greater upper body strength as well than you would have by playing the tambourine all day, so most dwarves would undoubtedly posses greater physical strength than most men or elves.  The fact that Mahal (Aüle) made them unyielding to the powers of Melkor, not willing to endure the domination of others, means they have a great mental strength to resist domination, yet at the same time the same mental strength is worthless in matters of material greed.


Dwarves have great endurance, especially in the ability to resist heat and cold.

So, to what extent could dwarves resist heat?

“Azaghal and his people were the only ones able to withstand the fire and heat from Glaurung’s breath.”

Able to withstand dragon fire… if you consider the fact that dragon fire consumed four of the seven rings of power of the dwarves, that’s quite a feat, as gold melts at temperatures round 900°C (1600°F).

In comparison men would get third degree burns with ambient air temperatures that are a fraction of that.

Of course, Professor Tolkien is not stating that the dwarves are right in the line of fire (literally), though they might very well be, yet still, an amazing feat.  Which makes one think….  the Burned Dwarves*1, (after the battle of Azanulbizar) must have burned for a very long time before their ashes gradually started to disperse by the wind in the valley.  There was a great felling of trees in the valley, which remained bare ever after, and the reek of the burning was seen in Lórien”  [The Return of the King, LoTR Appendix A, Annals of the Kings and Rulers: Durin’s Folk]

In the real world there are animals that would rival the dwarves when it comes to being heat-resistance.

The tail end of the Pompei worm (Living in the most hellish, deepest and darkest places on Earth) can resist a water temperate as high as 80 degrees centigrade, making the Pompeii worm the most heat-tolerant complex animal known to science.


Photo: National Science Foundation (University of Delaware College of Marine Studies)

Strangely enough we see that, though dwarves are able to withstand extreme temperatures, they seem to be the first to moan about a morning chill:   ‘My very bones are chilled,’ said Gimli, flapping his arms and stamping his feet. Day had come at last. – (J.R.R. Tolkien, “The White Rider”, The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers).   My guess here is that dwarves enjoy a good moan every now and then, though their bodies would in fact have little problem with either cold or heat.


The Naugrim were made “stone-hard, stubborn, fast in friendship and enemity, and they suffered toil and hunger and hurt of body more hardily than other speaking peoples.” The Silmarillion.

Yet at the same time when Thorin’s company and Bilbo continue their trek through Mirkwood the dwarves seem as hungry as our Hobbit (who is used to six meals a day).   “That night they ate their very last scraps and crumbs of food; and next morning when they woke the first thing they noticed was that they were still gnawingly hungry” – The Hobbit

So, what does this tell us really? Dwarves are able to survive with little food for a longer time than most speaking races, yet they complain about hunger just as much as any of us would.  Very similar to their reaction to cold or heat in fact.

Though we have no evidence that the same applies for pain, one could argue that hunger is a sort of pain, so we can assume that a dwarf with a stubbed toe might indeed whine about it, though in fact their bodies would have little discomfort.


Sickness was almost unknown to the Dwarves, as they were immune to human diseases. Corpulence, however, could effect them. In prosperous circumstances, many grew fat by the age of 200 and became physically inept.*3

“Sickness was almost unknown to Dwarves” might just be a reference to the “Dragon-Sickness”. Dragon sickness, being more than an illness, was in fact a disease – as J.R.R. Tolkien described it in the Hobbit: The old Master had come to a bad end. Bard had given him much gold for the help of the Lake-people, but being of the kind that easily catches such disease he fell under the dragon-sickness, and took most of the gold and fled with it, and died of starvation in the Waste, deserted by his companions. The Last Stage, The Hobbit

It is a disease one catches. Likely spread by the Dragon through the gold itself. Dwarves were known to be especially susceptible to dragon-sickness. Gold has been the foundation of empires throughout history and its lure seems no less great in Middle Earth. Yet Dragon-sickness goes beyond a furious greed for gold, it seemingly makes you lose all reason as you slowly become obsessed by an ever-growing unquenchable lust for gold. To the point you would even forfeit your own life for the sake of spending your last minutes with it.  Though one must take into account that its affects are not alike for all, and some are more susceptible to it than others. Bilbo for instance is a prime example of one not effected by Dragon-sickness.


One colourful fact about the dwarves is evident when you read the first chapter of The Hobbit. Apart from their colourful hoods they also have delightfully colourful beards. Examples are the yellow beard of Fili and the blue beard of Dwalin.

Now, I have often wondered is their hair really yellow and blue, or is it blond and black (with a bluish shine), perhaps grey (steel-blue is after all a shade of grey and blue is a name often given to grey fur animals, esp. cats – so there are a few arguments)

I believe the main reason for these rather odd hair-colours is the same reason why you’ll only find these hair-colours mentioned in The Hobbit, not in TLoR nor The Silmarillion.  The Hobbit was after all a children’s book, so the use of colourful characters is a logical one (even if their hair colour was blond in truth, it is far more amusing for a child to imagine “yellow hair”).  Dwalin though is not the only dwarf to ever be described as having a blue beard in Professor Tolkien’s works though, there is also one Fangluin Bluebeard, mentioned in ‘The Nauglafring’ in BoLT 2.


 “Dwalin” by Toni Foti (Fantasy Flight Games and Middle Earth Enterprises)


If we hear the dwarves in the Jackson film adaptations they not seldom have a rather deep voice.

Is this something that was added or was it indeed the case?

After all one could assume that the smaller you are the more high pitched your voice will sound.

There is however little doubt most dwarves would have a deeper voice than most men.

Their fast-growing thick beards indicate that their bodies are filled with testosterone, also noticeable with greater muscle mass and their competitive (and at times somewhat aggressive) spirit.  One other obvious result of a testosterone filled body is a deeper voice. We know dwarven women (and to a lesser extent even children) had a beard, hence: “…Dwarven women were alike in manner, voice and appearance to their menfolk”.  Hence I believe it is safe to say that all physically adult dwarves in general had a deep voice (deeper than men, elves and hobbits).


The life-expectancy of dwarves, and their manner of aging, is radically different from men or hobbits.

Dwarves not seldom reaching 250 years (if not struck down in battle), yet only physically reach “old age” about ten years before their passing.  More details on the age of dwarves can be found here.


In Professor Tolkien’s works dwarves generally speak in a well spoken dignified manner.  However, is this the case for most dwarves?  Hard to say really, as about 85 % of all lines in Tolkien’s works spoken by dwarves are either spoken by Gimli or Thorin Oakenshield (who both come from a Royal line) and are known for their ability to speak in such a manner.

So, let’s look at the other 15% shall we, hopefully that will tell us if this well spoken dignified manner of speaking is common or just reserved for a select few important dwarves.

Some examples:


A little beer would suit me better, if it is all the same to you, my good sir,”

-“Well, it is the first time that even a mouse has crept along carefully and quietly under my very nose and not been spotted,” said Balin, “and I take off my hood to you.” Which he did.

-“Good-bye and good luck, wherever you fare!” said Balin at last. “If ever you visit us again, when our halls are made fair once more, then the feast shall indeed be splendid!”


– “Give me another length of rope and another hook,” said Fili

– “Get in now,” said Fili 

Neither of the above Fili examples very polite I would say (no “please”, but then again they were in a hurry).


“And mince-pies and cheese,” said Bofur. (no “please here as well, in fact rather rude).

There are many more examples in Tolkien’s works but I tried to pick those that jumped out clearly. As you can see both very polite and rather rude is all part of the dwarven manner of speech. In the end, like with men, hobbits, or elves, it all depends on personal character and upbringing.

Meaning that not all dwarves are very well spoken, yet when introducing themselves, or when making their farewells, dwarves generally attempt to be very polite and well spoken.


Another difference between other races and dwarves can be seen in some of the weapons they use.

Indeed many of those are the same (swords, shields and bows), some of them are usually seen with dwarves (axes), yet not exclusively.  There are however weapons which apparently are only seen with dwarves.  The clearest example being the war-mattock. The War Mattock is a heavy broad bladed pole-weapon often confused with a pickaxe.*2  – “In battle they wielded heavy two-handed mattocks; but each of them had also a short broad sword at his side and a round shield slung at his back.” 

bofur and war-mattock

Bofur and his war-mattock from The Hobbit movies


Concerning attire, there seems to be, at first glance, a difference between the dwarves of old, those mentioned in The Hobbit and those mentioned in Lord of the Rings.  Something perhaps to be expected as fashion changes frequently.

It is clear that at the time of The Hobbit hoods were all the fashion, as it seems no longer common at the time of the Lord of the Rings to sport such colourful hoods when in a travelling company (as there is no mention of colourful hoods worn by any of the dwarves in Lord of the Rings).

It might be as well that colourful hoods were more common with travelling companies, yet that seems unlikely.  When we glance at the brief mentions of attire of the dwarves of old (Azaghâl, Durin, etc..) it concerns their attire for war (chainmail, helms, armour and war-masks) and unfortunately no mention at all of their common attire. Is the attire of dwarves all that different from that of men? Apart from the fact that they have a passion for hoods and belts – used in some cases to tuck their beards in – (though both may have been a passing fashion trend) I see little difference.  Would dwarves make their own attire, or would they be inclined to buy their clothes from men as they would with much of their food?  I’m inclined to believe they would make their own attire and likely would have one or two tailors in a large mining settlement.  Clothes after all are apt to shred easily in the mines, especially with hardy dwarves working long hours.  Their stitching would therefore likely be double, and even more likely triple stitched.  Dwarves have a passion for crafting, for all things made by their hands, clothes would be no different. For that reason it is difficult to see that they would pay non-dwarves to make clothes for them.


Triple stitching on leather boots.


In nature, the typical Dwarf is stubborn and secretive. Though once you befriend them they are loyal and good friends. They are also a proud and stern race. They do not suffer grievance or insult, and their enmity is long-lasting. They are said to be quick to learn new skills.

It is known Dwarves are greedy by nature, protective of their own and see the accruement of wealth as a priority in their lives.

The seven rings of the dwarves did not dominate them as Mahal (Aulë) made them strong and unyielding to domination by others, yet it enflamed their greed even more, as the rings sought to tempt their bearers according to their own nature (in the case of dwarves greed and the accruement of wealth).


Perhaps not something usually associated with dwarves, yet magic is clearly not unknown to them.  The dwarves of Thorin’s Company laid many spells on their buried treasure (“Then they brought up their ponies, and carried away the pots of gold, and buried them very secretly not far from the track by the river, putting a great many spells over them, just in case they ever had the chance to come back and recover them“.).

Now is this actual magic, or merely a superstitious belief of bringing bad luck to those that steal your treasure?  Considering it’s not the only form of magic the dwarves have experience with, I would say this is an actual form of magic, not mere superstition.

The other form of magic I’m referring to are the magical toys of the dwarves. J.R.R. Tolkien unfortunately never tells us much of the toys made or sold in Dale and Erebor. There are three references to magical toys in Tolkien’s books.

In the Hobbit Thorin Oakenshield recounts the story of his family’s history: “…Altogether those were good days for us, and the poorest of us had money to spend and to lend, and leisure to make beautiful things just for the.fun of it, not to speak of the most marvellous and magical toys, the like of which is not to be found in the world now-a-days.” In The Lord of the Rings these magical toys are mentioned twice, firstly right before Gandalf begins his fireworks display:

“On this occasion the presents were unusually good. The hobbit-children were so excited that for a while they almost forgot about eating. There were toys the like of which they had never seen before, all beautiful and some obviously magical. Many of them had indeed been ordered a year before, and had come all the way from the Mountain and from Dale, and were of real dwarf-make.”

The second instance magical toys are mentioned happens in the middle of Bilbo’s farewell speech: …Noises of trumpets and horns, pipes and flutes, and other musical instruments. There were, as has been said, many young hobbits present. Hundreds of musical crackers had been pulled. Most of them bore the mark DALE on them; which did not convey much to most of the hobbits, but they all agreed they were marvellous crackers. They contained instruments, small, but of perfect make and enchanting tones. Indeed, in one corner some of the young Tooks and Brandybucks, supposing Uncle Bilbo to have finished (since he had plainly said all that was necessary), now got up an impromptu orchestra, and began a merry dance-tune. Master Everard Took and Miss Melilot Brandybuck got on a table and with bells in their hands began to dance the Springle-ring: a pretty dance, but rather vigorous.

The crackers mentioned are likely paper crackers which pop when you pull them, at which a (magical) toy falls out. The “other musical instruments” may have been small bells, like the ones Everard and Melilot used.

Based on the above quotes it would seem the magical toys were indeed made by the Dwarves, either in their entirety or merely the enchanted components.  In what way were they magical though, and how did they make them magical? That remains a mystery unfortunately.

Yet there should be no doubt that dwarven toy makers knew very well the art of enchanting their creations, which makes you wonder why they would not use some form of magic on their tools or weapons.  Perhaps the dwarven magic was a rather limited form, meant for entertainment mainly, instead of bestowing great powers on tools and weapons.

Yet it could be argued that the Axe of Durin, a famed heirloom of the Longbeards, could perhaps have possessed some form of magical powers. Note though that various Old Norse stories mention weapons that talk, sing or bestow great powers on those that wield them.  Seeing Tolkien regularly used Old Norse stories as an inspiration for the dwarves, it would at least not surprise me if the Axe of Durin would posses such magic.


LoTRO: A Dwarf Runekeeper, wielding a magical rune-stone.


Probably the aspect most renowned of the dwarvish character are their master skills in the working of metal and stone, derived from Mahal (Aulë) their maker, the Vala whose province these things were. In ancient times, they were said to have preferred working with copper and iron, though in later days they wrought gold and silver, and from the second age onward the mithril they found in the Mines of Khazad-dûm.

In closing, I hope that next time you’re sitting at a table in the Prancing Pony you won’t mistake my stocky chubby strong-armed uncle with a long white beard (aka Bob) for a dwarf.



 * 1 – By custom, the Dwarves would lay their dead in tombs of stone, but so many were slain in the battle of Azanulbizar that their people broke tradition and instead burned their bodies on flaming pyres. From that day the phrase ‘burned Dwarf’ became a title of honour, used of those who had fallen avenging Thrór in the Battle of Azanulbizar. [TheReturn of the King, LoTR Appendix A, Annals of the Kings and Rulers: Durin’s Folk]

*2 – An axe cuts vertically with the blade vertical but an adze or mattock cuts horizontally with a horizontal blade which is ideally used for digging, carving and chopping. The are two main styles of mattocks: the pick mattock (pick and mattock) and cutter mattock (axe and mattock).

*3 – J.R.R. Tolkien, Christopher Tolkien (ed.), The Peoples of Middle-earth, “The Making of Appendix A”: (iv) “Durin’s Folk”   Years later, it was reported by Glóin that Bombur was “so fat that he could not move himself from his couch to his chair at table, and it took six young dwarves to lift him.”

About The Dwarrow Scholar

The Dwarrow Scholar first experienced the brilliance of Tolkien when he received a copy of The Hobbit from his uncle as a kid, reading it feverishly again and again. Some years on, when he got his very own walk-man (aye forget about tiny phones, this thing was a brick and played cassette tapes) he made his own little audiotape of The Hobbit, so he could listen to it on his bike on his way to school. Between reenacting the Battle of Five armies with 4 of his school friends (still feel sorry for the kid that had to be the Orc) and before the days of the internet, you would find Roy frequently in libraries trying to find all he could about Tolkien and his beloved dwarves. When Roy isn’t delving into Neo-Khuzdul or searching for lost dwarvish treasures on the net he’s enjoying time with his wife and son, re-reading his tormented Tolkien paperbacks, watching a good movie, learning new languages or playing a game of LoTRO or other dwarf related games.
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5 Responses to Uncle Bob or Cousin Bofur?

  1. saraleee says:

    Reblogged this on Saraleee and commented:
    I really like this analysis of dwarvishness. In particular, it answers the question I had about DOS — when Thorin and the crew were in Erebor, and Thorin taunts Smaug into breathing the fire that re-lights the forges, how did the dwarves escape getting burnt to a crisp just by standing behind the pillars? Surely the flames — or even the hot air — would have been enough to cause damage. But if dwarves are highly heat-resistant, that would explain how they made it through.


  2. RavensJewel says:

    Nice summary! I think it is not just testosterone that gives dwarf women deep voices. (Too much of that and they wouldn’t be able to have children!) The pitch of a voice, high or low, is partly a function of the thickness of the vocal cords, with thin vocal cords vibrating faster and producing a higher pitched sound. Dwarven vocal cords would be, as you said, about 25% thicker, proportionally, thus producing a lower pitch, like the strings on a guitar or violin. So dwarf women might be singing tenor to their mens’ bass and baritone 😃


  3. Is there any basis in Tolkien for Jackson’s idea of Dain Ironfoot riding a battle pig?


    • To my knowledge there is no word of dwarves ever riding anything else then ponies (or a horse) in Tolkien’s works. Dain came on foot in fact, with some five-hundred of his warriors.“Dain had come. He had hurried on through the night, and so had come upon them sooner than they had expected.”. Also, in an end note to Dwarves and Men (in HoME) it is written:
      “No Dwarf would ever mount a horse willingly, nor did any ever harbour animals, not even dogs.”. Recall perhaps the unwillingness by Gimli to ride a horse in LoTR.
      Yet in The Hobbit we do see dwarves riding ponies and not a word is mentioned about it being an inconvenience. In Chapter 2 Roast Mutton is mentioned: “They were on ponies, and each pony was slung about with all kinds of baggages, packages, parcels, and paraphernalia.” They are mentioned as beasts of burden, handy to ride on when having many packs, nothing more. And it seems clear that is exactly what the dwarves thought of them. Dáin Ironfoot riding on a large boar into battle and having boar tusks embedded in his beard seem clear movie additions.


  4. fantasywind says:

    I think that ‘dragon-sickness’ is something far from ordinary disease.
    “But also he did not reckon with the power that gold has upon which a dragon has long brooded, nor with dwarvish hearts.” I think it is partly mundane, psychological effect, partly ‘magical’ effect that attacks those already susceptible to avaricious tendencies. It might be that it’s an imprint of malevolent will of a dragon, a ‘curse’ of sorts, that can be broken simply by an act of generosity, sharing with others (after all king Dain became ”fabulously rich” and remained reasonable, friendly towards Men and Elves and shared treasure justly) OR just something entirely.

    As for ‘magical’ abilities of dwarves well here we know nothing for sure but some of the great objects made by dwarves appear to have magical properties: Narsil/Anduril is supposed to shine with the light of sun and moon (and when broken ”it’s light extinguished”), it was a work of Telchar of Nogrod, then there is also the dragon-helm of Dor-lómin with ”runes of victory” on it and marvellous property of protection, the ”runic inscriptions” and ”spells of prohibition and exclusion in khuzdul” on eastern destroyed gates of Moria, dwarven songs tell of ”mighty spells”, ”runes of power upon the door”, various kinds of dwarf-gates that are either governed by words, open at special times or for special persons or have special keys and locks, are nearly indestructible and invisible when closed, besides they could make armor made of silver with ”power of triple steel” (might refer to mithril though it’s unlikely since those were made in Erebor long after fall of Moria) and in First Age their ”hauberks of the Dwarves were so fashioned that they rusted not but shone ever as if they were new-burnished”.

    In some ways their works might be ‘technological’, they are certainly more advanced than hobbit or mannish smithies (though elven-smiths of Noldor kind may be on parr with them though in Silm is said that in “in the tempering of steel alone of all the crafts the Dwarves were never outmatched even by the Noldor….”), though “not even anvils and furnaces of the dwarves” would harm the One Ring, the dwarves are also great miners and engineers, building towers and fortifications, and shaping envronment on large scale making terrraces on the mountain sides, building good roads, making waterways and fountains (so they might have known something about hydraulic engineering hehehe, who knows maybe they could provide running water to their cities in some sort of aqueducts, there’s no lack of water underground, and maybe even hydraulic mining, there is curious passage that might be simply a simile or indication of something deeper: “The widest was more than seven feet across, and it was long before Pippin could summon enough courage to leap over the dreadful gap. The noise of churning water came up from far below, as if some great mill-wheel was turning in the depths.” in such way they could have powered various machinery, well if ancient Rome could why not the dwarves?) There is reference to dwarves digging coal so it’s interesting to note, maybe dwarves had huge blasting furnaces, there is also reference in Unfinished Tales that in their forges dwarves used masks or visors “It (dragon helm) had a visor (after the manner of those that the Dwarves used in their forges for the shielding of their eyes)” the fact is that: “…the Naugrim withstood fire more hardily than either Elves or Men..” but their eyes might have been more vulnerable.


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