Why Do Dwarves Have Scottish Accents?

Eric Grundhauser of Atlas Obscura ponders why we associate certain (English) accents with fantasy creatures such as dwarves, elves, and trolls:

As radio and film adaptations of Tolkien’s works were released in later decades, you can see the slow evolution of the dwarven accent from the low British of 1977’s cartoon version of The Hobbit, to the more stylized accents of the pair of dwarves in 1985’s Legend, to the Welsh-by-way-of-Scotland grumblings of John Rhys Davies’ Gimli from Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings films, right into the aggressive rolled R’s of Hearthstone’s dwarven Innkeeper.

“What you get is a sense of Celticness,” says Dominic Watt, Senior Lecturer in Forensic Speech Science at the University of York. Watt explains that many of the virtues associated with the stereotypical fantasy dwarf are also associated with the Scottish accent. “Scottish accents tend to be evaluated pretty positively,” he says. “Shrewdness, honesty, straight-forward speaking. Those are the sorts of ideas that the accent tends to evoke.” Watt also says that there are similar cultural stereotypes surrounding the drinking habits of dwarves and Scots.

He goes on to discuss the “culturally sophisticated” high-born accent of Tolkienesque elves, West Country hobbits, and Cockney orcs and trolls—which came about almost by accident:

Maybe the fantasy accent that can be most directly tied to Tolkien’s text is the working-class Cockney accent so often given to orcs and other sentient brutes in modern fantasy. Here we can look directly at the depiction of the trio of trolls in The Hobbit, which are written in a strangely modern dialect—a technique Tolkien rarely used, and later regretted. “In particular, he regretted making their language so recognizably modern. They wouldn’t say words like ‘blimey,’ for instance,” says Olsen.

In the later Lord of the Rings books, Tolkien’s orcs would speak in harsh, but basically correct common parlance, but in the larger view of the fantasy genre, the damage was done.

When you read a novel featuring elves, dwarves, or other fantastic races, what sort of accent do you hear in your head?

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A Field Guide to Mythological Humanoids

In order to avoid having loads and loads of races in the Into the Wonder series, I’ve devised the following system to evaluate and categorize the entities found in various world mythologies. Mind you, this system won’t work in every fictional universe, so caveat lector!

Contrasted with a run-of-the-mill, plain vanilla human…

  • Does this humanoid display vast magical powers?
    It’s probably a fae (sídhe, elf, jinni, nunnehi, etc.)
    Is it unusually good-looking?
    Definitely a fae!
  • Is this humanoid secretive and crafty?
    It’s probably a dwarf (dvergr, dactyl, etc.).
    Does it live underground?
    Definitely a dwarf!
  • Is this humanoid unusually short?
    It’s probably one of the little people (brownie, kobold, yunwi tsunsdi, etc.).
    Does it try to play tricks on you?
    Could be a little person if the tricks aren’t too mean.
    Does it try to clean your house or do your chores?
    Definitely a little person!
  • Is this humanoid unusually tall?
    It’s probably a giant (slant-eye, stonecoat, ispolini, etc.).
    No other distinctive features like powerful magic or a taste for human flesh?
    Definitely a giant!
  • Does this humanoid want to eat you?
    It’s probably an ogre (Laestrygonian, zimwi, water cannibal, etc.).
    But it’s no bigger than an ordinary human!
    Doesn’t matter, it’s probably an ogre!
  • Does this humanoid want to scare you?
    It’s probably a bogeyman (boggart, hey-hey man, nalusa falaya, etc.).
    There’s no such thing as a bogeyman.
    Tell that to him!
  • Is this humanoid just plain weird?
    It’s probably a troll (jaettertroll, fomor, stallos, etc).
    But I thought trolls were…
    You thought wrong. Trolls are just plain weird.

Five Dwarfish Races from Around the World

Properly speaking, dwarves are a feature of Norse mythology. They are a race of subterranean smiths and craftsmen noted for their arcane knowledge and especially their skill in fashioning powerful magical items.

But these aren’t the only wise and secretive earth-spirits in world mythology, although they are probably the most frequently encountered in fantasy fiction. Here is a list of five fantastic races that combine (in various proportions) affinities for (1) the underground world, including associations with mining, metals, and precious stones and (2) secret skills or knowledge—craftsmanship, magic, the healing arts, etc.—which they may or may not share with mortals.

Dvergar

Alberich the dwarf and the Nibelungs

Alberich the dwarf and the Nibelungs

Let’s proceed roughly from the north and west to the south and east. We begin, therefore, with the dwarves of Scandinavia and their cousins in other Germanic cultures. The dwarves of northern England’s Simonside Hills, for example, are of this sort. These dwarves formed the basis for J. R. R. Tolkien’s depiction of dwarves. In fact, the dwarves in The Hobbit all have names drawn from Norse mythology. They are also seen in characters such as Alberich the dwarf in the Middle High German Nibelungenlied. As already stated, these dwarves are renowned metalworkers and blacksmiths. In Norse mythology, they fashioned many of the magical items used by gods and heroes, including Thor’s magic hammer Mjölnir and the chain that bound the great wolf Fenrir. In some later legends, they are also accomplished healers. They can, however, be highly distrusting of outsiders. They also have a reputation for being greedy.

Dvergar are ill-tempered, greedy, miserly, and grudging. They are known to curse objects they are forced to make or that are stolen from them. They almost never willingly teach their magical knowledge. At the same time, they can be surprisingly friendly and loyal to those who treat them kindly. Contrary to popular misconceptions, dvergar are not particularly illustrious warriors—although their strength and overall hardiness suggest they would generally be able to hold their own in a fight.

Like trolls, Norse dwarves are sometimes depicted as turning to stone if exposed to direct sunlight.

Karliki

Wrocław Krasnal, photo by Wikimedia user Puchatech K.

Wrocław Krasnal, photo by Wikimedia user Puchatech K. / GFDL

Karliki (singular, karlik) are fiendish dwarves from eastern Europe, inhabitants of the lowest recesses of the underground world. In Polish, the appropriate terms are krasnal, karzeł, or karzełek, although they are sometimes called Skarbnik, “the Treasurer.” These beings are very similar to dvergar, living in mines and guarding hoards of metals, gems, and crystals. Apparently they are even more prone to malicious behavior than their Nordic cousins. According to Slavic Christian folk beliefs, these beings are, in fact demonic. One source relates, “When Satan and all his hosts were expelled from heaven, says a popular legenda, some of the exiled spirits fell into the lowest recesses of the underground world, where they remain in the shape of Karliki or dwarfs” (see Ralston, The Songs of the Russian People, 106–107).

Karliki can be helpful toward miners, willing to lead them to rich veins of ore and protect them from danger. To those who offend them, however, they can be deadly, sending tunnels crashing down upon them or pushing them into dark chasms.

Dactyls

dactylThe daktyloi or dactyls are the dwarves of Greece and the Aegean. They are renowned smiths and healing magicians. In some legends, they taught metalworking, mathematics, and the alphabet to humans. The sisters of the dactyls are called hekaterides (singular, hekateris).

  • Cretan dactyls are especially adept at healing magic, but they are also known for working in copper and iron.
  • Idean  (or Phrygian) dactyls may be the oldest tribe of dwarves in the Mediterranean region. They are rustic creatures from around Mount Ida in Phrygia and perhaps have their origin in earlier Hittite or Pelasgian earth-spirits. They claim to have invented the art of metalworking and even to have discovered iron.
  • Kabeiroi are an offshoot of the Idean tribe that settled at Lemnos, Samothrace, and Thebes. They are divine craftsmen said to be descended from the god Hephaestus. They have an association with the sea and sailors that is quite unusual for dwarfkind. In some accounts, they are raucous wine-drinkers.
  • Rhodian dactyls are dangerous underworld smiths and magicians sometimes called telkhines.

Khnumu

Bes (Egyptian dwarf-god), photo by Wikimedia user Archeologo / GFDL

Bes, photo by Wikimedia user Archeologo / GFDL

Dwarves have an esteemed place in Egyptian mythology. Mundane dwarfs or little people apparently suffered little or no prejudice in ancient Egypt. Some gods, most notably Bes, were depicted as dwarfs. These gods were originally protectors of households.

In addition to Bes, there were the khnumu (singular, khnum), subterranean earth-spirits who were helpers of the god Ptah, the creator of the world. Their name means “the modellers.” They are represented with muscular bodies, bent legs, long arms, large broad heads, and intelligent faces. Some wear long mustaches; others have bushy beards. By some accounts, they have the power to reconstruct the decaying bodies of the dead. Other accounts say they were the ones who first taught humans the magical arts. 

In later times, khnumu might be called pataikoi (singular, pataikos), “little Ptahs” in Greek. Phoenicians carved images of pataikoi on the prows of their ships. The Greek historian Herodotus compared them to the seafaring kabeiroi.

A similar figure occurs on early Babylonian seal cylinders, where it is given the Sumerian name “the god Nugidda” or “the dwarf.” This figure is sometimes depicted dancing before the goddess Ishtar. It is a matter of speculation whether this Mesopotamian dwarf-figure was the inspiration for the Egyptians and Phoenicians or whether it was the other way around.

Yakshas

Yaksha, photo by Wikimedia user Shakti / GFDL

Yaksha, photo by Wikimedia user Shakti / GFDL

Yakshas hail from India. They are found in Hindu, Jain, and Buddhist literature. They are a broad class of nature-spirits and caretakers of treasures hidden in the earth and in tree-roots. Their king is Kubera, the god of wealth and protector of the world. He is often depicted as a fat man holding a money-bag and adorned with jewels.

Yakshas function as stewards of the earth and of the wealth buried beneath it. Depending on the story, yakshas may be either benign nature-spirits associated with woods and mountains or foreboding monsters that ambush travelers.

Male yakshas are portrayed either as warriors or as stout, dwarf-like beings. Female yakshas, called yakshis or yakshinis, are often depicted as young, beautiful, and voluptuous.

Like the Egyptian dwarf-god Bes, yakshas are often protector figures. In Thai Buddhism, yakshas often feature in architecture as guardians of temples. These fearsome yakshas are depicted as green-skinned with bulging eyes and fangs. In Thai folklore, yakshas often figure alongside ogres and giants.

In Jainism, yakshas are often propitiated to bring fertility, health, and prosperity.

Dwarves: Cantankerous Norse Craftsmen

Freyja_in_the_Cave_of_the_Dwarfs_by_H._L._MThe best known dwarves are the dvergar of Norse myth, although cognate beings are found in all Germanic cultures. Norse dwarves are associated with rocks, earth, metalworking, and mining. They are subterranean and nocturnal beings. The are sometimes depicted as having pale, chalky skin. At other times, they are said to be blue-skinned, suggestive of a dead body. Death and decay seem to be prominent themes in dwarf-lore. It is even said that they made from the maggots in the body of Ymir, the world-giant.

Dwarves are master craftsmen. In Norse mythology, they fashioned many of the magical items used by gods and heroes, including Thor’s magic hammer Mjölnir and the chain that bound the great wolf Fenrir. They are also ill-tempered, greedy, miserly, and grudging. They are known to curse objects they are forced to make or that are stolen from them. They almost never willingly teach their magical knowledge. They can be highly distrusting of outsiders.

At the same time, these beings can be surprisingly friendly and loyal to those who treat them kindly. Contrary to popular misconceptions, dwarves are not particularly illustrious warriors in the original mythology.

Dwarves are by nature subterranean and nocturnal creatures. According to some accounts, sunlight even has an adverse effect on them. One legend has it that the god Thor entered into a riddle contest with Alvíss, a dwarf, which lasted until dawn. Exposed to direct sunlight, the dwarf was promptly turned to stone.

It is not at all certain that dwarves were originally conceived as being any shorter than humans. This detail only arises in the 1200s and later, and usually adds a note of humor to their depiction. Another later development is that, in later legends, dwarves are sometimes depicted as accomplished healers as well as smiths and craftsmen.

The Simonside Dwarves

The Fairytale Traveler gives us the run-down on the dwarves of England’s Simonside Hills. There have been legends—strongly influenced by Norse mythology, apparently—of nocturnal, not-very-nice dwarves in this northern part of England since at least the thirteenth century, and some believe they played a role in Tolkien’s depiction of the wicked dwarves of the Iron Hills.

The Darkling Diet?

I’ll admit, this article about goblins, trolls, and vitamin D deficiency has got me thinking. I really like it when fantasy fiction interacts with modern scientific knowledge, like when Harry Dresden comments about the law of conservation of energy and how it can effect the spell he is trying to cast. I even wrote a scene into Children of Pride that discusses the implications of the square-cube law to size-shifting faeries. I’m also kind of a fan of Food Network, so what follows might have been predicted.

In short, I’m wondering what sunlight-avoiding humanoids might eat on a regular basis.

Now, “sunlight-avoiding humanoids” (let’s call them “heliophobes”) is a pretty big, broad category. Many cultures have legends about creatures that live underground, only come out at night, or are in some way harmed by exposure to direct sunlight. For my purposes, I’ll eliminate vampires from consideration, as we all know what they’re having for dinner!

Let me, then, consider one small slice of the heliophobe population: the dwarves and trolls of Norse mythology. Both of these classes of beings are averse to sunlight. Various legends claim that both of them are turned to stone by the sun’s rays. Whether this is permanent or temporary—or whether this affects all members of these classes or only an unlucky few—are interesting questions, but not entirely relevant.

By narrowing my focus, maybe I can make some educated guesses about what the well-fed Scandinavian heliophobe is having for dinner. I expect it will be (1) some variation of a traditional Viking or later Scandinavian cuisine that is (2) altered where possible to provide increased consumption of foods rich in vitamin D.

So, what might a health-conscious Scandinavian denizen of the dark be eating? Here are a few suggestions.

1. Fish, and lots of it. Freshwater salmon would be readily accessible through night-time fishing expeditions in mountain streams and lakes, and it is a vitamin D goldmine with over twice the recommended daily dose in a 100g (~3.5-ounce) serving—assuming dwarves and trolls have the same nutritional needs as humans. Typically, raw fish contains more vitamin D than cooked, and fatty cuts more than lean cuts. I would imagine that salmon appears on the average troll’s menu nearly as often as chicken appears on the menu for North Americans.

Other freshwater fish would also be available, but most of the other oily fishes that are such a great source of vitamin D are ocean-going species like herring, mackerel, and tuna. I’m not sure trolls or dwarves are the deep-sea fishing types, but who knows? And of course, there may be underground lakes and streams in which light-averse creatures might fish. Gollum seemed to do all right in that regard.

Furthermore, our heliophobes are not likely to let any protein go to waste. Whatever is not consumed immediately would likely be preserved via drying, smoking, or pickling in salt water. Dried “stockfish” (the ancestor of lutefisk) is rock-hard, but can be pounded to break up the fibers and then served with butter. Pickled herring might be a delicacy if these heliophobes have access to the sea.

UPDATE: Wild-caught salmon, sardines, and herring are also an excellent source of DHA, the fatty acid that is a crucial component of the retina’s photoreceptors. They thus contribute to improved night vision.

2. Other proteins. It isn’t difficult to imagine trolls as nocturnal hunters, and some stories even describe them keeping livestock the way humans do. A health-conscious heliophobe will likely consider wild boar an especially valuable quarry. A 100g (3.5) ounce serving of pork ribs contains about 16% of the daily recommended value of vitamin D, although other cuts vary considerably. There is hardly any vitamin D in ham, for example. If pork isn’t their thing, beef liver is about half as rich in vitamin D as pork ribs. Venison of all types (red deer, elk, etc.) would also be a likely protein, though not a significant vitamin D source.

Trolls and dwarves might prepare sausages made with pork, beef liver, or other proteins mixed with herbs and spices. If they have access to grains (see below), they might bake their meat into meat pies or even serve it on an open-faced sandwich. The most common preparation for meat among the Vikings, however, was simply to boil it in a pot.

If folklore is to be believed, at least some of these creatures supplement their protein needs with human captives and/or each other.

3. Dairy products. If heliophobes either raise their own cattle or raid the cattle of their human neighbors, the milk may be more precious to them than the meat. A quarter-liter (~1 cup) of grass-fed cow’s milk contains nearly 40% of the daily recommended amount of vitamin D. I haven’t been able to track down the vitamin D content of reindeer milk, but it is definitely worth considering for inhabitants of northern Scandinavia!

Milk might be consumed raw, but would more likely be processed in various ways, creating other dairy foods that would last longer. Scandinavian heliophobes would certainly use butter as their primary cooking fat. Curds and cheese would likely be prominent in their diet. They might drink buttermilk or whey (which can also be used as a preservative to pickle meats). They might even let the whey ferment until it becomes blaand, a beverage similar to wine in alcohol content. Finally, they might enjoy a bit of skyr, similar to strained yoghurt, as a treat. 

4. Mushrooms and such. This one should really go without saying, as it is probably the food most famous for growing without sunlight. Some species, such as the white bottom and the shiitake, are excellent sources of vitamin D. Scandinavian heliophobes might also gather other cave-dwelling organisms like cave-dwelling snails, salamanders, and insects.

5. Cereals. Like the Inuit and other human populations from the far north, cereals are not likely to form a significant part of a heliophobe’s diet. Unless we assume dwarves and trolls maintain above-ground farms, such items will have to be acquired through trade with others. This would also include products made from cereals such as ale made from barley.

6. Fruits and vegetables. Once again, we probably have to assume trade with others to account for many fruits and vegetables in a dwarfish or trollish diet. But there is no reason these beings couldn’t forage for wild plants at night. Wild apples and berries of many sorts could be found in abundance and dried for storage. Wild leeks, onions, and radishes might be prized as seasonings for otherwise bland foods. Wild cabbage, carrots, or turnips would likely be common fare.

UPDATE: Fennel and bilberries both contribute to enhanced night vision.

7. Other ingredients. Trade with non-heliophobic populations would likely be necessary for items beyond those mentioned above. Eggs, another good source of vitamin D, would be high on this list (unless we assume trolls and dwarves keep their own livestock). Unless these heliophobes have access to the sea, oysters would also be a desirable commodity.

UPDATE: Not only are they high in vitamin D, oysters and other shellfish are high in zinc, which works in concert with vitamin A to enhance night vision. (Dark chocolate is also high in zinc, though obviously not part of a traditional Norse diet.)

Dwarves and trolls would also likely trade for herbs and spices with which to season their food: garlic, dill, coriander, poppyseed, horseradish, etc., and even more exotic (from a Viking point of view) ingredients such as ginger, cinnamon, and bay leaves.

I can imagine a number of dietary scenarios for the heliophobes of Scandinavian folklore based on such factors as (1) the severity of their sunlight-aversion, (2) their access to seafaring technology, (3) the nature of their relations with non-heliophobes. One could definitely conceive of these creatures as malnourished, at best barely surviving in a food-poor environment. With the right set of circumstances, however, they might eat very well indeed in their underground domains.