What’s the history of the adjective “dwarven”?

A simple Google seach will show that many people use “dwarven” as an adjective meaning “of or related to dwarves”. People can say things like “very dwarven”. But not many dictionaries list this adjective, and the ones I found that do don’t explain its etymology.

Some people might think of “The Lord of the Rings” (published 1954) but LOTRproject indicates that dwarven actually does not appear in The Silmarillion, The Hobbit, or The Lord of the Rings. [Edit: apparently, when I first wrote this question, I missed the fact that dwarven does occur in some of Tolkien’s other writings that were published later on!]

These works do contain elven, although as far as I can tell, Tolkien uses elven only in compound words, not as an adjective (so it might be more accurate for me to say it contains “elven-“). So my current theory is that Tolkien’s elven- was reinterpreted by later authors as an adjective, and then dwarven (adj) was formed by analogy with this.

Could anyone tell me when this happened? What are the earliest cases we know of where dwarven is used as an adjective?


I tried to research this with Google Ngrams and Google Books. My results:

  • A case-insensitive Ngram for “dwarven, dwarvish, dwarfish” shows “dwarven” as having 0% use until 1976. This doesn’t prove it wasn’t used earlier since Google hasn’t indexed everything and the Ngram database can have errors. Nonetheless, it suggests that “dwarven” was not used much soon after the Lord of the Rings was published.

  • On Google Books, the first examples of attributive “dwarven” that I found are from 1979, 1980 and 1981.

    • 1979: The Middle-earth Quiz Book, by Suzanne Buchholz, p. 144 “The rings caused their Dwarven bearers to lust after gold and other precious materials.”

    • 1980: The following blog post, a reproduction of “Fantasy Genetics: Humanoid Races In Review“, by Gregory G. H. Rihn, December 1980. It uses “dwarven” as a non-hyphenated attributive word in various phrases. There are no predicative uses of “dwarven”, and it is never modified by an adjective-only word like “more” or “very”, so technically it could be either a noun or an adjective in this article. Also, it uses the compound word “dwarvenkind”, which if compared to “mankind” suggests “dwarven” is a noun rather than an adjective. Still, I’d say it is an example of the usage I’m interested in.

    • 1981: 2 examples from books, Trek to Kraggen-Cor by Dennis L. McKiernan and Fantasy Role Playing Games: Dungeons, Dragons, and Adventures in Fantasy Gaming by John Eric Holmes

So far, it looks to me like Dungeons and Dragons-related writing might have been an important influence, but I don’t know if it can be said to be the source of dwarven (adj) or if some authors of fantasy literature had already derived it before D&D.

Wikipedia says Dungeons and Dragons was “first published in 1974” so it fits timeline-wise with the Ngram Viewer for it to be the originator of dwarven (adj.).

The earlier plural noun “dwarven”: not what I’m interested in

I did find 2 results on Google Books for “dwarven” from before Tolkien, but both of them are unrelated to the adjective I am interested in: they seem to be (pseudo-archaic) plurals of the noun “dwarf”.

  • 1861: The cloister and the hearth, by Charles Reade

    The duke hath need of him; sore need; we are clean out o’ dwarven; and tiger-cats, which may not be, whiles earth them yielded.

  • 1911: The poetical works of Heinrich Heine : now first completely rendered into English verse, in accordance with the original forms, translated by John Payne

    And when men depart, the lordship / Will devolve upon the dwarven, / On the weeny witsome people, / In the mountain’s womb… (“Atta Troll”, vol. 2 p. 108)

    This also seems to be a plural noun, as the original is “Nach dem Untergang der Menschen / Kommt die Herrschaft an die Zwerge [plural noun], / An die winzig klugen Leutchen, / Die im Schoß der Berge hausen.”

    There dwarven drum and fiddle / and horns and trumpets blow. (p. 166, “From the Harz Tour: The Ilse”, vol. 1 p. 166)

    (Again, looking at the original indicates that “dwarven” should be interpreted as a noun and “drum” and “fiddle” as verbs: “Die Zwerge [plural noun] trompeten und pauken / Und fiedeln und blasen das Horn.”)

Summary and my ideas of possible other places to look (or not)

To reiterate, I’m interested in the earliest uses of “dwarven” as an adjective. The earliest example I found using Google Books is from 1979 (Buchholz); tchrist’s answer provides an even earlier example from 1976 ( Greyhawk).

I doubt there will be examples from before Tolkien, so I would say the relevant time period is 1954-1976.

Fiction with dwarfs that I know of from this era: Three Hearts and Three Lions (which seems to use the plural “dwarfs”, so it probably doesn’t have “dwarven”) and the Narnia books (which also use “dwarfs”).

War games rules: I have checked PDFs of the following fantasy rule-sets, and they don’t seem to contain “dwarven”:

  • the original edition of Dungeons and Dragons (which does have “dwarves”), 1974
  • the Chainmail fantasy supplement, 1971
  • Len Patt’s Tolkien-based fantasy precursor to the Chainmail/D&D rules in the NEWA magazine The Courier, 1970
  • the WRG 4th edition “ancient” fantasy rules (which do have “dwarves”), 1973

“Dwarven” also doesn’t seem to appear in the texts associated with the following LOTR-based boardgames: 1970 Conquest of the Ring, 1973 Quest of the Magic Ring, 1974 Battle at Helms Deep (Richard Jordison)

I did find some hints to a few possible future avenues of research, but I haven’t been able to pursue them currently.

Typically one would note here Tony Bath’s article “Campaigning with the aid of Fantasy Fiction” in Slingshot #9 (Jan 1967), in which he mentions that a Colin Rowbotham had drawn up a rules for a Tolkien-based wargame “to include all these odd creatures”. If Tony Bath was aware of Mr. Rowbotham’s efforts at this time, then the rules themselves must have been conceived no later than 1966. I’m not aware that they were published anywhere. Over the next several years, fantasy games were revisited now and again.

(posted Wed Oct 24, 2007 11:22 pm by increment in Early Fantasy Games? –  Tome of Treasures Forum)

In addition to the article mentioned here, another article from Slingshot, the official journal of the Society of Ancients, seems like it might be relevant. I haven’t been able to access either of them, so I would appreciate it if anyone who is able to check them would tell me if they do or don’t use the word “dwarven”:

  • “Campaigning with the Aid of Fantasy Fiction” by Tony Bath in Slingshot #9, pp. 10-13 (Jan 1967)
  • “From Khazad-Dum to Cormallen” by D J Walker-Smith in Slingshot #47, pp. 24-27


Greyhawk, the first separately published D&D supplement from 1976 by Gygax and Kuntz, mentions “Dwarven Hammer” on page 15.

The word dwarven was in the Zeitgeist at that time and place: it was definitely a “Gary-word”, as I recall; Gary liked to “rescue” old words that had fallen into disuse, like dweomer. He wasn’t averse to making up his own refurbished words based on older models, either, much like Tolkien with mathom and all the rest.

I haven’t looked much earlier yet. It doesn’t seem to be the fantasy “supplement” for Chainmail for example.

It was a century ago at the close of the First World War that JRR Tolkien first put to pen his conception of the Dwarves in a collection of writings which his son Christopher would much later publish as The Book of Lost Tales, Volume II in 1984. This tome would eventually become the second volume in the dodecalogue of Christopher’s magnum opus, The History of Middle Earth.

In the commentary on page 247 CJRT writes:

The account of the Dwarves in this tale is of exceptional interest in other respects. […] but this is the first description of the Dwarves in my father’s writings – already with the spelling that he maintained against the unceasing opposition of proof-readers – and they are eminently recognisable in their dour and hidden natures, […]

The two places that Tolkien père uses the word from the book are in The Nauglafring. This is the original tale of what he would later name the Nauglamir, the golden necklace wrought of cursed gold by the Dwarves for Lúthien’s father that would someday bear the Silmaril that Beren wrested from Morgoth’s crown.

The word appears twice, once under the dwarven spelling and once under the dwarfen one.

The first sentence appears on page 227:

A golden crown they made for Tinwelint, who yet had worn nought but a wreath of scarlet leaves, and a help too most glorious they fashioned; and a sword of dwarven steel brought from afar was hilted with bright gold and damascened in gold and silver with strange figurings wherein was pictured clear the wolf-hunt of Karkaras Knife-fang, father of wolves.

The second sentence begins at the bottom of page 237 and continues on through the middle of the following page:

Now little doth the tale tell of wounds and blows of that affray, save that Beren got many hurts therein, and many of his shrewdest blows did little harm to Naugladur by reason of the [?skill] and magic of his dwarfen mail; and it is said that three hours they found and Beren’s arms grew weary, but not those of Naugladur accustomed to wield his might hammer at the forge, and it is more than like that otherwise would the issue have been but for the curse of Mîm; for marking how Beren grew faint Naugladur pressed him ever more nearly, and the arrogance that was of that grievous spell came into his heart, and he thought: “I will slay this Elf, and his folk will flee in fear before me,” and grasping his sword he dealt a might blow and cried: “Take hear thy bane, O stripling of the woods,” and in that moment his foot found a jagged stone and he stumbled forward, but Beren slipped aside from that blow and catching at his beard his hand found the carcanet of gold, and therewith he swung Naugladur suddenly off his feed upon his face: and Naugladur’s sword was shaken from his grasp, but Beren seized it and slew him therewith, for he said: “I will not sully my bright blade with thy dark blood, for there is no need.”

(Understand that these writings are deliberately written in that extremely archaic style Tolkien used in his earliest unpublished works, and do not represent anything he ever saw fit to publish in his own lifetime.)

The other instance of the word in the early writings appears in the second canto of The Lay of the Children of Húrin, which was written in the summer of 1918.
This lay is in the alliterative four-beat verse characteristic of Old English and Old Norse poetry, with its two beats to either side of the caesura.

On page 48 of The Lays of Beleriand posthumously published in 1985 we read:

There he slept or swooned,          as sunk in oblivion
by drugs of darkness          deadly blended;
he heard not their whisipers;          no hope stirred him
nor the deep despair          of his dreams fathomed;
to awake his wit          no words availed.
No blade would bite          on the bonds he wore,
thought Flinding felt          for the forgéd knife
of dwarfen steel,          his dagger prizéd,
that at waist he wore          awake or sleeping,
whose edge would eat          through iron noiseless
as a clod of clay          is cleft by the share.
It was wrought by wrights          in the realms of the East,
in black Belegost,          by the bearded Dwarves
of troth unmindful;          it betrayed him now
from its sheath slipping          as o’er shaggy slades
and roughhewn rocks          their road they wended.

Although Gary Gygax cannot have read the word dwarven/dwarfen in Tolkien’s unpublished writings when he and Rob Kuntz wrote the D&D Greyhawk supplement, the publication of The Silmarillion the year following was met with great excitement by the still very small gaming community there in little Lake Geneva at the time.

So taken was everyone there by Tolkien that there was never any question of spelling dwarves as dwarfs, for there was some awareness even then of the battles Tolkien had waged with his publisher’s copyeditors over elvish over elfish, Dwarves over Dwarfs. We all felt that the ‑v‑ versions were somehow more “authentic” of the genre we were immersing ourselves in.

Source : Link , Question Author : herisson , Answer Author : tchrist

Leave a Comment