Dwarves in Faerie Lore

Faeries podcast - free - Dwarves in faerie (fairy) lore In this week’s Faerie Magick podcast, Fiona discusses dwarves.

Faerie / fairy podcasts - Dwarves in faerie loreRoots: Dwarves are mentioned around the world in a variety of cultures and societies.  In Western culture, most folkore traditions seem to be rooted in Germany, Switzerland and England.

Classic examples: Leprechauns, Snow White & the Seven Dwarves, and the ladies’ attendants in King Arthur’s court.  The latter are sometimes associated with ghosts, and the distinctions aren’t clear.

Appearance: Generally male, and human-like but diminutive, ranging from six inches tall to the more usual two to three feet tall.  The men look old and wise and often have long gray beards, but they aren’t “old” since dwarves are immortal.

Dwarves generally own some magical item of clothing such as a cap, a ring, a cloak or cape, or a belt.  It usually gives them invisibility, which is a form of glamoury.

Most (but not all) dwarves are also shape-shifters.  (That’s different from glamoury, which is largely an illusion.)  They usually turn into a creature with wings.  Light or benevolent dwarves turn into butterflies; dark, mischievous or malicious dwarves are supposed to turn into screech owls.

There may be some connection between dwarves’ transformation and the Badb or Mhorrighan stories of Ireland, in which she appears as a crow.

When dwarves shape-shift, they can readily turn back into their usual form.  However, if a wizard casts a shape-shifting spell on them, the dwarf must be very clever to outwit the wizard (and his spell) or wait for the wizard to reverse it.

Dwarves are able to shape-shift the world immediately around them, too.  That may be a form of glamoury, but it’s usually described as a physical change, such as a castle that suddenly appears as a quaint cottage.  This may relate to Cinderella’s carriage that was shape-shifted from a pumpkin.

Dwarves and vampires:  Both dwarves and vampires can transform into flying creatures.  Both dwarves and vampires have problems with sunlight.  Some dwarves have been identified with ghosts, or as beings that were once human or human-like.

Some dwarves turn to stone if sunlight touches them.  They’re okay with the light, but the rays of the sun are an issue.  So, they live in caves, caverns, underground palaces, and dark forests that don’t allow direct sunlight through.

Dwarves and treasures: Dwarves are usually associated with some kind of work or career.  That work usually — but not always — involves working with metal.  (Example: The seven dwarves were miners. Rumpelstiltskin — or Rumpelstilzchen — spun straw into gold.)

Dwarves may protect a treasure in their caverns, castles or forests.  That treasure often includes (metal) coins, such as the leprechaun’s pot of gold.

Dwarves may also craft magical metal objects.  Though the objects can work magic (or magick), they may also carry a curse if the object is misused… or used by someone not authorized to handle it.

Categories of dwarves: In many cultures, dwarves are divided into three categories, depending on how benevolent, mischievous or malicious they are.  White dwarves are good, brown dwarves are pranksters or unreliable, and black dwarves are evil.  (Literature is inconsistent in explaining those color notes, as the dwarves aren’t colored that way and their clothing may not match the colors, either.)

In Ireland, the three groups aren’t quite so dark or dangerous.  There, an example is the leprechaun, cluricaune, and the fir darrig (or fir dhearga – literally, the red man, but that form of the word “red” is usually associated with red light, not red hair).

The fir darrig/dhearga is usually about 2 1/2 feet tall, wears a red, conical cap and generally looks like a garden gnome figure.

The best references for information about dwarves include The Hobbit, the Lord of the Rings trilogy, and Andrew Lang’s fairy tale books.

Click here to listen to Dwarves in Faerie Lore (MP3)

Music: The Moods of Man, written & orchestrated by James Underberg

4 thoughts on “Dwarves in Faerie Lore”

  1. found your site on del.icio.us today and really liked it.. i bookmarked it and will be back to check it out some more later

  2. This is from way,way back, but what you said about Lord of the Rings interested me. I wonder how Tolkien learned so much about fairies and hobbits and dwarves, etc? Did he interact with them in real life? Did they communicate with him through his dreams? Maybe he just used what stories had already been passed down or written and based his stories on them.

    1. K’Sennia, that’s a good point. I know that Tolkien was concerned about the effects of the Industrial Age, especially on culture and the environment. Other than that, I haven’t researched his background that much.

      Plus that, in his era and location, I’m not sure seeing (or even interacting with) faeries would be that remarkable. Through the early-to-mid 20th century, many people in the UK and Ireland believed in faeries… and some, trying not to offend the full-sized (or larger) faeries by talking about them, referred to them as “the little people,” so maybe the faeries wouldn’t catch on.

      So, there may be some insights about Tolkien in contemporary interviews, etc. But, it could be that faeries weren’t considered remarkable at that time, so there won’t be any reference to them as a context for his stories, one way or the other.

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