In Praise of Dwarves

GimliI loved the Lord of the Rings’ movies. They did a great job with Gandalf, nailed the hobbits, and did well with Boromir. Strider was fantastic. Legolas was a bit over the top, but ok, I can accept that. The elves were not fae enough for me and some of them were jarring (especially Agent Smith as Elrond!). But I could live with all of that. What disappointed me was Gimli. John Rhys Davies was an obvious choice for the part, but it didn’t work, and it was wasn’t John’s fault, it was the writing. Gimli was made into comic relief, up to and including a dwarf-tossing joke. And that was just wrong, because Tolkien was the one who did dwarves right.

King of Gold MountainBefore Tolkien, dwarves were comedy relief. They were either short little ridiculous tricksters like Rumpelstiltskin, or singing miners like the Seven Dwarves. They were almost all short and ugly, and obviously designed to be made fun of. The dwarves of The Hobbit (1936) were an improvement on these. They were still bumbling and humorous but they were also sturdy, proud, and honorable, if greedy.

The dwarves of C.S. Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia (1949-1954) were largely a return to the traditional depiction. They were pragmatic, grumpy, and cautious. Some were evil, like Ginnabrik, who served the White Witch. The side of Aslan had the Seven brothers of Shuddering Woods (an obvious reference to the dwarves from Snow White), and various other dwarves. Cornelius was the half-dwarf mentor of Prince Caspian. Trumpkin (played by Peter Dinklage in the movie) fought on the side of Caspian as well, and ended up as his regent. Nikabrik was another dwarf on the side of Caspian. Like Tolkien’s dwarves, they could be proud, stubborn, and honorable.

The Lord of the Rings (1954-1955) featured Gimli, a many-faceted dwarf character who served as the model for D&D’s dwarves. Gimli overcame his prejudices against elves and not only came to admire and trust his elf companion, Legolas, but also the lady Galadriel. In the movies, Gimli was used largely for comic relief. In the books, Gimli outdid Legolas in their contest to see who could slay more Orcs (Gimli killed 42, beating Legolas by 1) and won the elf’s respect as well.

“Forty-two, Master Legolas!” he cried. “Alas! My axe is notched: the forty-second had an iron collar on his neck. How is it with you?”

“You have passed my score by one,” answered Legolas. “But I do not grudge you the game, so glad am I to see you on your legs!”

Ralph Bakshi's GimliIn the movie, at the same moment, Legolas behaves like a petulant child who must outdo a competitor. As flawed as Ralph Bakshi’s LOTR (1978) was, it did Gimli more justice than Peter Jackson’s.

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About lostdelights

An old gamer flying his freak flag, I've been playing table-top role-playing games since 1978. I've been building my own system (Journeyman) since 1981.
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