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“Jewish” Dwarves: Tolkien and Anti-Semitic Stereotyping

From: Tolkien Studies
Volume 10, 2013
pp. 123-145 | 10.1353/tks.2013.0003

In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

In an article that appeared in Mythlore in 2010 and subsequently in a revised version on the Internet, Rebecca Brackmann claimed that (possibly unconscious) anti-Semitic stereotyping went into Tolkien’s depiction of Dwarves in the early stages of his legendarium and in The Hobbit. The Nazi treatment of Jews before and during the Second World War made Tolkien realize that such stereotyping could have horrifying consequences, causing him to drastically alter the image of Dwarves in the works he wrote after The Hobbit, notably The Lord of the Rings. But, according to Brackmann, this change merely served to turn negative into positive stereotyping without solving the underlying problem that thinking in stereotypes is wrong to begin with. In this essay I hope to show that a closer look at the evidence in both Tolkien’s Middle-earth writings and his letters suggests a different story, undermining Brackmann’s thesis and exonerating Tolkien from being a (closet) anti-Semite.

Tolkien’s Dwarves as Jews

In a BBC radio interview with Dennis Gueroult, recorded in 1964 and broadcast the next year, Tolkien connected his Dwarves with the Jewish people, stating: “The Dwarves of course are quite obviously—wouldn’t you say that in many ways they remind you of the Jews? Their words are Semitic obviously, constructed to be Semitic.” Also in 1964, Tolkien wrote to W.R. Matthews: “The language of the Dwarves . . . is Semitic in cast, leaning phonetically to Hebrew (as suits the Dwarvish character).” Indeed the dwarven tongue Khuzdul has a phonology and a triconsonantal root system that resemble Hebrew (and modern Ivrit for that matter)1 . From these triconsonantal roots words are formed by inserting vowels, doubling consonants or adding suffixes. Compare, for instance, Hebrew words and names such as melek, David, shalom and baruch with Dwarvish words and names like Gabilgathol, baruk and khazad,2 which are obviously similar in phonetic structure (the meanings of similar looking words in Dwarvish and Hebrew, however, are completely different; Baruk means “axes”, while baruch means “blessed”).

In the original BBC-interview, the text of which is given by Zak Cramer in Mallorn 44 (2006), Tolkien’s statement is longer. It turns out that Tolkien had added a remark about “a tremendous love of the artefact, and of course the immense warlike capacity of the Jews, which we tend to forget nowadays.” This was cut from the interview.

Given the work he put into creating this Semitic-like language, Tolkien’s comparison of Dwarves and Jews was obviously not made on the spur of the moment. In fact, he had made it years before, the first time in an unpublished letter of September 1947, quoted in The History of The Hobbit: “Now Dwarves have their secret language, but like Jews and Gypsies use the language of the country” (Rateliff 757). Eight years later, on December 8, 1955, he wrote to Naomi Mitchison: “I do think of the ‘Dwarves’ like Jews: at once native and alien in their habitations, speaking the languages of the country, but with an accent due to their native tongue” (Letters 229).

In his commentary to the first phase of the history of The Hobbit, John Rateliff elaborates on this, remarking that a motif “already present by the time this first chapter of The Hobbit was completed would be the partial identification of the Dwarves, in Tolkien’s mind, with the Jewish people” (79). He points to the existence of a diaspora, in which the dwarves settled “in scattered enclaves amongst other folk, yet still preserving their own culture.” The warlike nature of Tolkien’s Dwarves is associated with his reading of certain books of the Bible.3 Their craftsmanship resembles that of the medieval Jewish artisans of the Iberian peninsula, while their interest in gold is associated with banking—for centuries, moneylending was one of the few occupations open to Jews. But, Rateliff notes, “to his credit, Tolkien has been selective in his borrowings, omitting the pervasive anti-Semitism of the real Middle Ages” (80).

Norse dwarfs and Tolkien’s Dwarves

That some scholars, and Tolkien himself, have concluded that Dwarves resemble Jews may come as a surprise, as popular belief has it that Tolkien’s...



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