Updated Sat, Dec 07, 2013 by gunky
Often as not, anytime you find an Elf in a game or a work of fantasy fiction, you will also find a Dwarf. They are the very embodiment of "little man syndrome," where undersized individuals feel the need to compensate for their lack of height by acting tougher and more aggressive than their normal-sized counterparts. A common depiction of a Dwarf would be a plate-armor-clad, thickly-bearded, squat figure wielding a giant maul or double-sided battleaxe with an absurdly over-sized head or blade that would make it terribly impractical for actual combat.
The plural of "dwarf" is either "dwarfs" or "dwarves," depending on the context. JRR Tolkien tried using "dwarves" when he wrote the Hobbit, and his editor corrected it in the first published edition. "Dwarves" is also used in Dungeons & Dragons (Gary Gygax did a lot of borrowing from Tolkien) and in World of Warcraft (Blizzard did a lot of borrowing from Gygax). Technically, both versions of the word are correct, but "Dwarves" is used most often in fantasy settings because of Tolkien's little mistake.
"Erm... which one of you is the one that slept with Thor's daughter? Because it gave me an idea..."
Tolkien stole his Dwarves right out of Norse mythology, from the Poetic Edda and Prose Edda, where they were scrumpy little craftsmen living under mountains and antagonizing the gods when they weren't making them stuff. Tolkien's Dwarves also share their Germanic and Norse ancestors' abiding lust for precious metals and gems. He even went so far as to borrow their names - Thorin and company, and also Gandalf, all owe their names to the Catalogue of Dwarves found in the Poetic Edda.
Interestingly, Tolkien also based much of Dwarven culture on historical Jewish culture. The language he invented for them, Khuzdul, was "constructed to be Semitic." Tolkien himself has often compared his Dwarves to the historical Jewish people in a sympathetic way - they have been ousted from their homeland and forced to live among alien cultures; they are renowned craftsmen of beautiful things; they have a secretive culture that few outsiders really know anything about.
So, in a nutshell, Dwarves are Jewish Vikings. They have Norse names and a Semitic-influenced culture. The question that begs to be asked, then, is... why do practically all Dwarf characters in movies and video games sound like Scotsmen? The "Dwarf accent" has been around since before John Rhys-Davies's masterful performance, and it's never been appropriate for the species. No part of their background has anything to do with Scotland. Given their folklore heritage, a Scandinavian accent would make much more sense. Or, given Tolkien's construction of the Khuzdul language from Semitic roots, even Yiddish would be more appropriate. But Dwarves voiced on film or in games seem to snarl and growl their threats in a Scottish brogue, or with a rural English accent that is equally inappropriate.
Dwarves are often described as "dour," but are seldom ever portrayed that way. More frequently, they are depicted as constantly unreasonably angry, and occasionally psychotic. Even when a Dwarf is supposedly "happy," it's an angry kind of happy - mirth derived from another's pain and expressed with a loud, braying laughter. They are typically brusque and violent, and often the very definition of low-brow.
Perhaps some of that temper comes from all the drinking. Dwarves are often shown to be prodigious drinkers, rivaling most college students in 80s frat movies. Ale seems to be the preferred drink, probably because it is a more earthy drink than mead, less high-culture than wine and more medieval-y than malt liquor.
Dwarves often take themselves way too seriously, while the other races do not. That makes them the race of choice for players who generally do not take themselves or their games too seriously. If you want to have fun with a game, play it as a dwarf. If you want to RP a lot of boring drama about being forlorn, play as an Elf. Dwarves ain't got time to brood.
They are the opposite of Elves in almost every way. They are short, stocky and homely instead of tall, lithe and graceful and don't usually give a damn about magic or poetry or trees. Dwarves may sing songs from time to time - they are quite musical in the Hobbit - but Dwarf music is as different from Elf music as their bodies are from each other. Elves will sing merry melodies about butterflies and clouds, Dwarves will sing deep dirges about ancient battles and lost homes. They are usually the butt of short jokes - unless a Hobbit, Halfling or Gnome happens to be around. And then, Dwarves are the one making the short jokes, and laughing the loudest at them.
In addition to being the comic relief, Dwarves are usually natural tanks. A Dwarf without full plate armor and a door-sized shield is like a hermit crab without a shell - he can probably survive okay, but he is simply diminished without it.
It's the same with their beards. A Dwarf without a beard looks naked. In some settings - Lord of the Rings, for example - even lady Dwarves have beards. If lady Dwarves are present at all, because sometimes (again, Lord of the Rings) they are not involved in the main events of the story. All the other races are generally depicted as clean-shaven - with the odd mustachioed or Will Riker-bearded human as the rare exception - but Dwarves wear their beards proudly. As they damn well should.
Got a pet peeve about Dwarves? Let us know in our comments!